By Kaye Alexander
Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies.
By Robert Sumrell & Kazys Varnelis. Actar, 2007. 176pp. €22
Blue Monday is the first book by Robert Sumrell and Kazys Varnelis, who together form the New York-based Architecture Urban Design Collaborative (AUDC) – a practice that ‘undertakes speculative research to reveal the contemporary condition’. They call the book their ‘gift to architecture, a challenge to a field that urgently needs to refresh itself’; and indeed it is just the irritant to get under any designer’s skin.
The book is a series of short stories with seemingly disparate themes, but linked by a narrative logic that becomes evident as you read. The first deals with SOM’s One Wilshire, a 39-storey building in downtown Los Angeles, whose history shows how architecture and real life can grow out of sync. In being reappropriated from office block to communications hub all the initial intentions of the architecture – its form and programme – have been hijacked. Today One Wilshire hosts a mass of IT systems and hardware, the overlooked by-product of a networked society. It’s a humbling demonstration of how the context of architecture has changed while architects were looking the other way.
A study of the ambient mass music system Muzak develops this notion of the ‘unobserved’, in exploring the conditioning of workers through sound from 1934 onwards. ‘Muzak made Modernism palatable sonically,’ say the authors. Masking the background noise that comes with large floorplates, it’s ‘the hidden element in every Ezra Stoller photograph of a Modernist office interior’. In the 1980s Muzak evolved into what its programmers call ‘audio architecture’, clearly indicating their ambition to construct and control environments.
For its finale, the book examines Quartzsite – a fluctuating but permanent community created by temporary motorhome residents in the Arizona desert, which at certain times of the year becomes the 15th-largest city in the USA. It’s the culmination of population mobility, transience and very little planning.
Taking a term from social scientists, Sumrell and Varnelis speak of ‘swarm intelligence’ – a human version of the behaviour often seen in ant colonies and the like. What began as a mineral show for devotees is now a phenomenon: ‘Quartzsite is like the Bilbao effect, except there are no buildings.’
Ostensibly, as the authors admit, these three stories don’t ‘add up’ – but what makes them cohere is that, in different ways, they all deal with something that is not usually acknowledged. As Columbia University professor of architecture Reinhold Martin puts it in his foreword: ‘They will not tell you how to design a building or lay out a city. But they will help you understand what cities and buildings are.’
Throughout the book, Sumrell and Varnelis keep your mind prised open with their engaging mixture of anecdote, anthropology and investigative journalism. It’s only on reflection that you grasp the stories’ implications – that their ‘absurd realities’ are in fact quite normal.