Monday, January 28, 2013

Pollock-Lego-Computer Virus (28 January - 3 February)

on this date in Design…

Jackson Pollock, American abstract expressionist painter, birthday 28 January 1912
Lego, Danish construction toy, patented 28 January 1958
Computer Virus, first written by Richard Skrenta, 30 January 1982

It can be argued that Jackson Pollock’s rhythmic, almost ritualistic drip painting style can be linked to Native American sand painting from the Southwest.  As a child, he accompanied his father on government surveying expeditions where he would have been first introduced to the art.  Later, after moving to New York with his brother, Pollock became involved in the expressionist movement and eventually it’s most famous and successful. 
After completing a commission for Peggy Guggenheim in 1943, Pollock’s groundbreaking style was introduced to the art community and then developed further at the East Hampton home he shared with wife Lee Krasner.  Krasner was an enormously talented expressionist herself but was overshadowed by her husband’s work.  With the canvas lying on the floor, Pollock would use stiffened brushes, sticks and even basting syringes to pile paint.  It was an immediate means of creating art and added a new dimension to the experience as it could be viewed from all directions.  This would come in handy years later as the thickly coated canvases will shift much as antique window glass.  This requires the pieces to be routinely rotated.  As groundbreaking as Pollock’s new style was, he abruptly halted all drip painting after the 1949 Life magazine article was printed in pursuit of new expressions but sadly never found equal success.   

"Leg godt” means to “play well” in Danish and to carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen it meant to make the highest quality toys so children can fully express their imaginations.  To this day, Lego brand toys and their trademark LEGO brick continue to inspire future architects and engineers (or really any kids who like to play). 
In 1958, thanks to injection molded plastic, Christiansen’s son lead the company to patent the original brick based on an improvement to an existing British patent.  Lego’s brick easily snapped together securely while still separating without much effort.  Today, these original bricks are still compatible with those manufactured today leading the way for generations of fans to pass down their highly prized collections.  That is, those that haven’t fallen victim to vacuum cleaners, mouths of curious pets or the notorious Lego gnomes who steel the single most essential piece from your construction set in the middle of the night. 

In high school, Richard Skrenta was a notorious prankster.  So much so that his friends began to refuse to barrow computer games and disks because he would alter them to display onscreen joking messages.  But in 1982, while on winter break in the ninth grade, Skrenta harmlessly created the first large-scale, self-spreading personal computer virus called “Elk Cloner”…and it was for the Apple II.  That’s right; the first computer virus was designed for Macs, not Microsoft platforms.  The truly harmless program would copy itself onto a computer’s hard drive and subsequently copy itself onto any disk inserted.  This simple code is nothing like the multi-dimensional complicated programs that plague computers worldwide today. 
However, Skrenta’s joke ushered in an awareness of the potential for terrorist and thieves to inflict damage thereby creating the entire industry of malware protection.  Later, Skrenta ventured into less malicious ventures including helping to launch Netscape, creating the online news source Topix and more recently, the search engine Blekko which is set out to rival Google without all the spam.    


Pollock-Krasner House & Study Center, East Hampton, New York 
Jackson Pollock website
Pollock work at MoMA, New York City, USA
Krasner work at MoMA, New York City, USA
Pollock work at the Tate, London, UK 
Krasner work at the Tate, London, UK
Pollock movie trailer

Lego website
Legoland parks website
Felix Baumgartner's skydive from space in Legos

The Elk Cloner Poem
The Skrentablog
Blekko search engine

Monday, January 21, 2013

Manet-Tschumi-Lightbulb (21-27 January)

on this date in Design…

Edouard Manet, French impressionist painter, birthday 23 January 1832
Bernard Tschumi, Swiss-born French deconstructivist architect, birthday 26 January 1965
Lightbulb, patent granted to Thomas Edison, 27 January 1880

Of all the brilliance that emerged from France in the latter part of the 19th century during the impressionism movement, perhaps the most influential to modern art would be Edouard Manet.  The manipulation and engagement of the viewer with his paintings was revolutionary.  This action figuratively “broke through the fourth wall” and forced the viewer to participate with the scene in front of him/her.  One of Manet’s first pieces to challenge the modern convention was Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe.  Here he took classic poses in a pastoral setting from the works of masters of Raphael and Titian and inserted the common university student and shockingly nude and nearly nude prostitutes.  Today, similarly the work of Kehinde Wiley is heavily influenced by this juxtaposition by placing contemporary figures in classic heroic poses.  
Manet’s next step to shock and engage was with his version of Olympia who defiantly stares strait back out of the canvas.  His Olympia is not a goddess but another prostitute welcoming her next client, presumably the viewer.  Needless to say, this painting made Parisian society even more uncomfortable.   
Manet expanded on this with Un Bar aux Folies Bergère where in the reflection behind the barmaid you see the customer not visible in the front.  This leads one to assume it is a reflection of the viewer and the forlorn look in her eyes a testament to her dissatisfaction with her occupation as she hides her cleavage by a corsage; out of the ordinary for the bar maids at the Folies.  This mix of playing with the viewer and social commentary are familiar themes today but in Manet’s time, never before had such challenges been posed. 


When Bernard Tschumi won the commission for the design of Parc de la Villette in Paris, France yet again sat on the forefront of a revolutionary movement in design.  This time, it was deconstructivism and the Swiss-born Tschumi was the movement’s most preeminent practitioners.  The site was over 150 acres of slaughterhouses established by Napoléon III and thereby had an unpleasant history.  The desire to remove that image was a perfect setting for the deconstructivist theories whereby the shape of a building is not permanently fixed to the current activity currently housed within.  Rather, the activity within constantly forces the reevaluation of the shape of the building.  Therefore, it is a living structure and the history of neither the building nor the historical context has no bearing on it.  A testament to the success of the theory is that several of the follies have been renovated and repurposed to restaurants and visitor centers, et cetera.  These programmatic pieces were not in the original plan but as the needs of the park evolve there is no need to build new structures or compromise Tschumi’s original concept for the follies to be reference points on a grid.   With the success of the la Villette he gained a foothold in the global architectural landscape which has led to such commissions as the architecture school at F.I.U and the controversial Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece.  Critics argue that this complete disregard for the historic context for which Greece is renowned, this new museum is harming the building itself and the surrounding contextual context of the city.  It is hard to disagree with the critics but it is sure that in a few years’ time it will revered for its forward thinking as the Pompidou Center. 

As with most of Edison’s inventions, he did not originate the idea, merely improve upon an existing idea and beat his competitors to the patent office.  In the case of the lightbulb, Edison purchased the rights to an earlier version and then began experimenting with materials and amperage.  In October of 1879 he was able to improve the vacuum tube, carbon filament and lower electrical current to develop a bulb which lasted for an astonishing (for that time) 13 ½ hours.  After applying for the patent, he demonstrated his achievement at his Menlo Park laboratory by lighting it up on New Year’s Eve. 
Two years later, Edison created a market for his lightbulb when he switched on the power at the Pearl Street Power Station in lower Manhattan.  This was the first investor funded commercially successful electrical grid.  These achievements made his work more economically practical to bring to the mass market thereby increasing his notoriety.  And it is for his business acumen in addition to his innovations that Thomas Edison name is more prolific than Tesla, Westinghouse and others of equal creative caliber.