Animate Form

BRASILIA has been haunting me for some time. It just keeps coming up everywhere: a millennial chic building project. Case in point: Matt Groening’s new animated series, Futurama, takes the capital city as its model. Iara Lee is filming her new movie there and Paul Gold-berger has dubbed it the retro icon. Until its fin-de-sicle renaissance, Brasilia was viewed as failure 367 in Corbusian-style urbanism, a Plan Voisin inspiration that should have remained a visionary design. As selective memory looks back to Brasilia, the soul numbing apartment blocks are carefully avoided in favor of the soaring civic monuments sculpted from concrete.

It is strange how pop culture has a way of blending two seemingly opposites into a whole. I found myself reading an article in the New Yorker on the modernist utopia Brasilia and thinking about the new Greg Lynn book, Animate Form.

The meeting of the skate-ramp gestures of Brasilia and the gycerine soap formalism of Greg Lynn’s projects (as published in his new monograph) is a bringing together of future concepts for form. While neither architect would relish a formalist name-tag, what was the future of mid-century and what proports to be the new future of architecture are both exercises in form that stem from a Cubist/Surrealist attempt to capture motion and time in buildings. Think three-dimensional Nude Descending a Staircase or a computer generated Brancusi.

For architect Oscar Neimeyer and planner Lucio Costa, the site of Brasilia was a tabula rasa ready to take a life’s collection of architectural shapes and gestures. Built in 1960, it is a modernist symbol of the ambition of, then president, Juscelino Kubitschek, for Brazil’s development. Like Le Corbuiser, Costa and Neimeyer were infatuated by the forms of modern transportation. The city was designed to be seen by automobile. David Underwood writes in the International Dictionary of Architecture:

Costa’s Brasilia plan, appropriately, describes the body of a huge aircraft: the long and straight government axis is the fuselage, its cockpit is the brain center in the governmental complex of the Praca dos Tres Poderes (Plaza of the Three Powers). The great arcing axis that intersects the fuselage describes the wind. It is on this curving "domestic" axis that we find the residential districts of the bureaucrats whose idealistically projected rational behaviors were to determine the future direction of this new urban machine.

Neimeyer and Costa’s obsession with velocity (the automobile/the airplane) is the mid-century mirror of Greg Lynn’s wholesale belief in the use of computerized forces and vectors. Both derive inspiration from the most advanced technology at hand. In the credits for Animate Form, Lynn thanks animation supplier and supporters Silicon Graphics, Alias Corporation and Wavefront Systems.

The broad strokes with which each architect paints the interior space of his buildings offers more similarities between Neimeyer and Lynn. At Brasilia, the multitudes of governmental buildings are fancy concrete façades wrapped around simple steel and glass office buildings. Lynn, as seen especially at the Yokahama Port Terminal, transforms the façade wrapper in to a three-dimensional shell. Seemingly organic animated forms morph from the ground plane, to the roof, and back down again. Despite the utter complexity of the models, the hand drawn section is as flat as the roof on an International style building. The pancake floors meet the project’s gently undulating skin in an undefined manner that even the most rollout of architects would not leave unresolved.

Lynn is seduced by the jargon of "mythical forces" (his term), vertices, particle flows, and splines. The architecture, despite its colored forms and colorful language, is ultimately normative. The short text (40 pages in a book of 200) that argues for an animate architecture is undermined by the images that fill the other 160. The CD ROM that comes with Animate Form offers few actual animations studies for buildings. Most of the video clips on the CD ROM are fly-by or rotating views in which the architecture is static and the viewpoint of the observer is animate.

The problem with staying au-currant is that the technology will slip by as you try to document it. Lynn’s work already is begining to feel as alien and dated as Brasilia. His use of shaping the building envelope by means of natural site forces seems selective and lacking in non-vector forces: urban, aesthetic or cultural, at each site. A phase portrait used at the Port Authority Gateway Competition creates a sterile representation of a rich urban hub.

Animate Form, as a text describing the present future, proposes a tech-head utopia. The body of work may find a retro niche sometime ahead, but the autonomous forms, shrouded in computer-rendered possibilities, are not representations of the future of architecture, but documents of our millennial obsession with what it may be.