Category Archives: Architecture

What’s With All The Fake Authenticity?

There is something oddly ironic about taking a picture with an 8-megapixel smartphone and then using software to make it look like it was taken 40 years ago with my dad’s Kodak Instamatic 100 camera. These faux-vintage photos are all the rage at the moment and part of a larger trend of what might be called Inauthentic Authenticity.

What’s doubly ironic about these photos, created with Hipstamatic or Instagram apps, is they appear to be actual analog photos, faded, contrasty, scratched, and worn around the edges; they look like physical photos but don’t actually exist in the physical world. They’re still digital photos being viewed in a digital space.

And if you’ll indulge me in a triple irony: these nostalgic-inducing, faux-vintage photos are most popular with a generation of young people who have never even known photos that look like this so it isn’t even their own nostalgia they’re inducing. Now I’m dripping in irony.

Stores like J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, et al., sell fake antiques that seem strangely anachronistic in the 21st century. Following their advice on how to decorate your apartment would make it look more like a movie set than a place to live. Products include rusted, pre-dented toolboxes and new-but-old-looking children’s record players ($170). There are even library card catalog drawers for sale. Again with the irony, marketed to young people who have never even seen an actual card catalog, let alone ever used one. What’s next, the hoop skirt?

I was in the mall the other day and wandered into Buckle, the “on-trend fashion clothing” store. It looked like a second-hand thrift store. Pre-scuffed boots and faded, torn, and otherwise destructed clothes made to look like they were within a thread of disintegrating. These new, patched, pre-torn jeans have the look that says, “Oh these? Yeah, I wore them out while backpacking through Europe last summer,” but were really bought last Tuesday at the mall. One no longer has to be authentic as long as one looks authentic. It’s like buying your own street cred.

In the interest of full disclosure: I bought this retro-looking telephone at Crate & Barrel a few years ago. Yes, it was so charmingly nostalgic. And I confess that I have pre-washed jeans. But this current clothing aesthetic, the affectation of dressing from head to toe in carefully crafted pre-worn rags, begs the comparison to what we in the 80s called “poseurs.” They were the wannabes who copied the look and dress of punkers and heavy metal fans in order to gain acceptance but who didn’t share the philosophy of those groups. Today’s pejorative term would be “hipsters.” To quote Douglas Haddow on the blog Adbusters, “(these are) a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.”

My thesis of this article is that this fake authenticity trend contributes nothing to furthering new design aesthetics. Two good examples of borrowing designs from the past but updating those designs for the present are the MINI Cooper and the FIAT 500. Both cars took their inspiration from the original designs, keeping their spirit, but reinterpreted them with a modern sensibility. They didn’t just manufacture new-but-old-looking MINI Coopers and FIATS, which might have had a certain charm but would never have caught on in popularity like a modern take on the original. These new cars seem fresh and vibrant, not cartoonish copies of the past.

Fake old photos, fake antiques, fake old clothing. This fake authenticity is nothing new. I remember learning in an architectural history class in college about Victorian “follies,” or what was known as the cult of ruins. In the 19th century it became fashionable for wealthy landowners, inspired by their grand tours of Europe, to build ruins of ancient Greek temples or Gothic abbeys on their property. These moss-covered faux-ruined structures were considered objects of reflection meant to elicit deep emotions. They symbolized their owners’ sophistication and knowledge of other cultures.

Many cultural movements throughout history have been reactions to larger cultural shifts that propel societies ahead faster than many wish them to go. Romanticism grew out of a rejection of The Enlightenment; the Arts & Crafts Movement a revolt against the Industrial Revolution; the Beat Generation and Hippie counterculture a protest of post-war societal conformity. I wouldn’t call fake authenticity a new cultural movement — it might be symptomatic of  Post Post-Modernism, which itself is a reaction to a previous movement — but it may be a reaction to the precipitous changes brought about by the rise of new technology (personal computer/smartphone/internet).  Or it may not. Those more qualified than I will eventually decide.

Meanwhile, I’m off to Starbucks for an inauthentically authentic European espresso bar experience.

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Filed under Architecture, Brand Identity, Creativity

Guest Post: Architect to the Pharaoh

Beginning this year I will be featuring guest bloggers from time to time. I hope you will find their articles as interesting as I do.

Imhotep, Architect, Physician, High Priest, and Vizier to King Djoser

GROWING UP I REMEMBER my love of books; I was fascinated with history and the natural world. Like most boys my age, I loved dinosaurs. I must have positively worn out the pages of grandmother’s encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge on dinosaurs and deep-sea diving. When you’re ten-years-old, that sort of thing was über cool. That was until the day I discovered on a shelf in a library at Western University a book about ancient Egypt. It was a life-changing event. I spent hours pouring over the real-life exploits of Howard Carter and his discovery of the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen (c. 1922).

Carnarvon: “Can you see anything?”
Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things.”

My love for all things Egyptian has not diminished. In 2010, I traveled to London to visit the British Museum and view the Rosetta Stone. Prior to its discovery in 1799 by Napoleon’s scientist, Egyptian hieroglyphs remained undecipherable. The Rosetta Stone, an unassuming plain black basalt rock was inscribed in three languages: Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone held the key; for the first time, scholars could read the lost words of ancient Egypt.

Few Ideas in history leap from the brain fully formed. No invention, innovation or contrivance yet conceived by humankind ever occurred in a vacuum. All great ideas are evolution not revolution. A gradual progression of logical thought based on what came before. True innovation is putting the parts together. Consider, for example, our unknown primordial ancestor, that most clever fellow who first rubbed two sticks together to discover fire making. The bits and pieces were all there beforehand, sticks (fuel) and physics (friction), where the true innovation came was with the idea, utilizing the tools at hand in order to create something that is altogether different, greater than the sum of its parts.

Imhotep, (2667 BC – 2648 BC) was chief architect to the third dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Djoser (2630 – 2611 BC). Imhotep designed the world’s first known monumental stone building, the step pyramid at Sakkara and he is the first architect we know by name. Imhotep, whose name means: “He who comes in peace,” remained largely a mythological figure in the minds of most scholars until the discovery of a broken stone pedestal which established him as a real-life historical person.

The step pyramid of Sakkara remains today one of the most brilliant architectural wonders of the ancient world. Imhotep didn’t invent working in stone; he was, however, the first architect who ever attempted to work stone on such a monumental scale. The pyramid itself began as a simple mastaba. The word mastaba comes from the Arabic word for bench, a low rectangular structure with sloping sides and a flat roof. Prior to Imhotep, all Egyptian pharaohs were buried in mud-brick mastabas. The genius of Imhotep, the great leap, was his use of stone. This process began gradually, as Imhotep experimented with building techniques. As his skill increased, he became more confident, and he continued to update his design by stacking one course of stone on top of another like a wedding cake.  The resulting structure topped out at 64m high and was nothing short of revolutionary!

Judged on its engineering merits, ultimately, the step pyramid as a burial chamber complete with its hidden maze of underground tunnels to discourage grave robbers, failed  in its primary design: to protect the king’s mummy. The tomb was plundered and all archeologists found of Djoser was his mummified left foot. Imhotep’s revolution, however, left a lasting legacy as the step pyramid sparked a 200 year frenzy of pyramid building culminating with the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza (c. 2560 BC). As for Imhotep himself, his lost tomb remains one of Egypt’s last great undiscovered secrets.

© Steven Mc Allister 2012, all rights reserved.

Steven Mc Allister is a military historian, film critic and a sometime humorist. He enjoys cooking for friends, drinking beer and smoking a fine cigar. He resides in Michigan where he lives quietly with his three fat dogs. He is currently working on his third novel.

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Filed under Architecture, Creativity, Guest Posts

The Marston House and the Arts & Crafts Movement

On a recent trip to San Diego I had the opportunity of touring the historic Marston House. Built in 1905 for wealthy local merchant and philanthropist George Marston, this unique home is a prime example of architecture from the Arts & Crafts Movement. Our tour was led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable docent and lasted over an hour. It may have been because we arrived mid-week but my companions and I were the only participants of the tour so it really felt like a private showing.

I am a great lover of the Arts & Crafts Movement and have toured many Craftsman homes in California. I felt this home’s exterior lacked the beauty of similar turn-of-the-century Craftsman-style homes that tycoons had built for themselves at the time in Southern California. The Gamble House in Pasadena — an architectural masterpiece by Greene & Greene — is an example that comes to mind. The home’s interior, however, is a fine example of the genre and is filled with a large collection of Gustav Stickley furniture. 

I could detail at length all my observations of the house but of particular interest to me were the closets. More on this in a moment. Following is an excellent example of how technology and scientific advancement can drive design. The Germ Theory of Disease, which proposes that microorganisms are the cause of many diseases, may seem like an obvious idea today but was a new and highly controversial concept in the 19th century. Once accepted by the general public many steps were taken to increase hygienic practices in the home and much was written on the subject. It was also believed that a dust-free and well-ventilated home promoted good health. Ornately carved Victorian furniture and heavy tapestries and drapery that could trap dust were considered anathema to these ideals. Edward William Godwin (1833–1886), one of the originators of the movement, deplored “fluff and dust as two of the great enemies of life.”

So back to the closets. Mr. Marston subscribed to all these modern new ideas about hygiene and had all the closets in the Marston House built to have a two inch raised floor to prevent dust from entering the closet from the adjacent room. One would therefore step up into each closet. See photo, left. All the closets also have a window that can be opened onto an adjoining hallway or bedroom to facilitate the free flow of air in the closet. This concept of the free flow of air as promoting health was also manifested into the screened sleeping porch, a ubiquitous feature of many Craftsman homes of the time. The Marston House also features a sleeping porch.

This is an excellent tour worth attending for any architecture, Arts & Crafts or history buffs. The Marston House tour can be done in a few hours.

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Filed under Architecture, Exhibitions