For Universal Knowledge to QR Chaos: Knotty Buildings
How do we recognize things? The always erudite and amusing Alice Rawsthorn, who vies with Michael
Bierut as being the most insightful writer about design working today, recently
noted the move from the Universal Product Code (UPC) to the QR (Quick Response)
codes now showing up everywhere. Whereas
“everything about the those black-and-white lines [on the UPC] screams order,
precision and efficiency, she points out, the QRs “look like uncontrollable
explosions of toxic bacterial spores.” Not something that I associate with the seduction of commerce.
As Rawsthorne goes on to point out however, “…the chaos is
illusory. The exact size and location of
each QR square and the spaces between them are chosen with the same specificity
as the components of the bar code.” She
ends by saying that each era gets the symbol it deserves, so surely we must
value “idiosyncrasy and spontaneity,” at least in appearance.
What is interesting to me is the fact that order now appears
in a manner that is unintelligible. I
always imagined that, if I had enough information, I would somehow be able to
figure out the UPC. The rhythms of those
lines seemed like a Morse code, and the numbers below them surely referred to a
giant book somewhere in which you could look it all up. That illusion was in itself already a far cry from the numbers and labels on the products, which were themselves, let us not
forget, an abstraction of the actual things, graphic pointers that became
necessary when we started packaging and marketing mass produced goods.
More and more, things disappear. We are left with signs and screens, on which
icons float. The QR code, to which we hold up that little black screen of our smartphone, is an obscure portal into a
world of information. Our objects and signs
are just placeholders, scrims, or frames for that knowledge.
Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Image credit: Preston Scott Cohen.
What about buildings? Certainly the current trend is towards the same sort of visual
complexity and even unintelligibility as is the visual reality of the QR
code. After a period of retro-modernism
that coincided with the reign of the UPC, we are now twisting, turning,
folding, and otherwise obfuscating form with abandon. At least, that is the case in the
avant-garde, where folded plates, swerves, and blobs have become
commonplace. Such shape-shifting is also
showing up in more generic structures, however. In Asia, just about every self-respecting skyscraper curves, and some
seem to defy gravity. Here, the Freedom
Tower, nearing completion in New York, promises at least some deflections to
the norms of orthogonal modernism.
When such shapes have justifications, they are usually
responses to wind conditions or other peculiarities of loads that are as
abstract as the references on bar or QR codes. It is not just shape that is becoming more chaotic, however. Buildings are hiding their contents, and
interiors are becoming filled with odd objects. Even in as banal a place as the shopping mall, many stores are trading
in their open fronts for closed facades that only give you a hint of what is
for sale inside. Offices these days dot
their open expanses that have been denuded of the still nicely modernist grid
of cubicles with pods, retreats, and other places of seclusion where you can do
whatever it is that cannot stand the scrutiny of your fellow workers in safe
and unseen isolation.
At the building’s core we are finding more and more
intersections of floors and spaces that do not stack up in piles that display
the sequence of plates. Instead, knots
are appearing, like in the OMA-designed Seattle Public Library, or, with
greater complexity, in the manner of Preston Scott Cohen’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art. I predict that, as we mix and match functions, delight in
computer-assisted design, and answer to the complexities of modern life, we
will see many more such knotty hearts to answer the tortured facades of our
I also predict that, if the structures that are on the
drawings boards in universities and at the studios of many of our most
inventive architects reach the mainstream, our built environment will need some
equivalent of a QR reader just to decipher what a building is. That could be good news for critics: a whole new line of work could open up. In
reality, however, it is just another manner in which architecture is disappearing,
and signs are taking over. Wayfinding will
make sense of all.