Curating has become a ubiquitous cultural buzzword over the past couple years, ascribing thematic connections to just about anything that can be assembled. But Sunday night, when a crowd gathered at the Old School on Mott Street for the latest Moonlighter Presents installment, the evening took a refreshingly unthematic tone. A visual artist, an artist / urban planner, and an architect took to the podium to share thoughts on unrelated subjects of personal interest: hoodies (as in the sweatshirt), graphs and “unsolicited architecture.” Anthony Graves, Neil Freeman and Bjarke Ingles each spoke in a digestible 20 minute précis that whetted the audience’s appetite and invited listeners to form independent connections.
The disparity in topics gave presenters an equal footing on which to share the fruits of their research. Anthony Graves lead the audience through a history of the hoodie — that ever prevalent urban fashion typology popularized by hip-hop, American Apparel and Champion – as a symbol of disguise. Graves began with the hood’s inception in the church, where it warmed monks and conferred ecclesiastical power, and then moved through its use by the Klu Klux Klan, warehouse workers, women’s fashion and protest movements. Graves made clear that the significance of hoodie’s history goes beyond the object itself to comment on a form’s ability to adapt new meanings over its lifetime. As an urban phenomenon, the hood can claim a fascinating history as a means of concealing or cloaking the voice of dissent or rebellion in anonymity. And the process is reciprocal, just as the hoodie gives its wearer the ability to take on a voice or identity, a changing urban context mutates the meaning of the hood.
Neil Freeman, whose art-as-urban-planning / urban-planning-as-art has appeared on Urban Omnibus in the past, introduced the audience to graph theory, a science that springs from an 18th century urban quandary well known in mathematics. In what was Konigsburg, Prussia (now known as Kaliningrad), a band of paraders wished to march the city without crossing any of its seven bridges more than once, a feat Leonard Euler proved impossible by employing a system of nodes and vertices, or what came to be known as graph theory. From there, Freeman moved on to look at a city with many more bridges — I’m sure we can all guess which — and then extrapolated nodes and edges to larger geographies. On a U.S. map he explained chromatic graph theory, a system of coloring areas enclosed by edges (like states) without the same color touching. Explicating graph theory through maps, a well known visual reference, Freeman made the math easier to comprehend and provided another frame to look at cities and geography– as graphs of movement and boundaries.
Next up: a robust Dane with commanding stage presence. Bjarke Ingels was the evening’s headliner – the huge attention given to his firm’s recent plans for a Copenhagen power plant / ski slope and a West Side residential building was a likely reason for the room’s exceeded capacity. [click here to watch a podcast of Ingels' Architectural League lecture -ed.] Deploying the humorous spirit found in his designs, Ingels presented BIG’s less successful projects, calling it unsolicited architecture. Unsolicited architecture refers to work conceived independently of a competition or commission, work that challenges the tradition of architects being called upon to respond to problems instead of posing questions. For Bjarke Ingels, that just won’t stand. One proposal, which would create a new five-pointed super harbor island between Denmark and Germany, consolidating European shipping and the Danish urban population, was scored with the Star Wars theme song and scrolling text, “not so long ago, far far away a group of architects decided to use their collective creativity and competence. Not on small decorative details but big questions.” The big questions that BIG asks assume architecture and urbanism are inextricable. They integrate urban design and infrastructure into large-scale buildings that reframe public engagement with energy and with urban space. Eco-architecture and green building have gained popularity lately, and the reality of a world fraught with climate change will only increase the urgency of building sustainably. Sustainable design seems split into two camps – those who want to meet standards and just get things built, and those with grand, if impractical, eco-topian visions that will never come to fruition. Bjarke Ingels is one of few architects to find the middle ground. What he presented Sunday night was well thought-out and responsive to its urban context, with sufficient silliness to actually be innovative and entertaining.
So, hoodies, coloring graphs and architecture that keeps it fresh, what is the connection? The beauty of the Moonlighter Presents series is that we are open to make our own. Sure, the brief segments don’t crescendo to a deeper understanding on a predetermined theme, but they do create a platform to explore an unexpected nugget of knowledge. Like the fabric of a city, the arbitrary proximity of distinct themes plays out differently for each person. Unpacking a sartorial trend, breaking down the theories behind graphic representation and building big, all inform an informal understanding of what makes a city.
Caitlin Blanchfield is a freelance writer and Urban Omnibus project associate residing in New York City.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.