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Legibilia vs. Distopia

April 9, 2010

I try not to do many re-posts (because this isn’t that kind of blog), but this caught my eye. I have a soft spot lately for those gaudy post-war illustrated cutaways, having spent much of my childhood drawing innumerable mountain lairs, island kingdoms, and castle floorplans (I blame some of this on roleplaying games). There’s something appealing about the ease of those drawings; more will-made-real than architectural rendering, they follow a certain linear logic (well, I need to be able to get out of the BatCave in my BatCopter without being seen – of course we’d have smoke tubes!). They aren’t so much artifacts of a design process as drawing a pre-existing reality (albeit one created in a comic book), not unlike the results of trying to create an accurate spacial diagram of an action movie.

Which brings me to the current fashion of ultra-legibility – more of the Bjarke Ingels variety than OMA – Rem always seems to have a lot more going on than what he says is going on. I think it’s no coincidence that Ingels has published his own comic book. Has “green” become the new superpowered Fortress of Solitude? (well of course it’s carbon neutral – we’ll have wind turbines all over it. And we’ll harvest energy from the elevators!).

There’s an appeal to legibility that engages the inner ten-year-old very directly. Buildings are no longer ponderous, complicated objects with lots of boring bits, they’re toy-sized models that come with scale action figures and only show the fun bits (Barbie’s Dream House never had a mechanical room, or an attic crawlspace). They show the design as a priori, after all of the other iterations have been tucked away. There’s also a bit of the comic-book showmanship, the gee-wow-whiz-bang-we-can-have-whatever-we-dream-of. In the case of eco-architecture, its a rather maximalist approach – perhaps this explains some of its current popularity. Green isn’t about whole grains and biking (at least not very far, and not in ugly clothes), its about converted caves, and secret lairs.

I’m hesitant to criticize the representational style, because I’m drawn to the same exuberant images myself. I do think ultra-legibility stands in contrast to the architectural inheritors of the more distopian (and more accurate?) 1960’s science fiction writers like Phillip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein: vertical farms, nanotechnology, train stations that harvest travellers’ energy. Perhaps the most sincere revenge our generation can have on the baby boomers is to take all of the popular culture of their childhoods and realize it in full scale, invisible planes, algae farms and all.

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