»My work is a negotiation between top down and bottom up processes. The top down is some kind of explicit master plan, an overall vision, and the bottom up is a negotiated set of rules, a logical process that plays out.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
In his work, New York based architect and researcher Farzin Lotfi-Jam asks how architecture begins to intersect and move through different disciplines and fields of knowledge. At present, he is building an app in response to the sharing economy, prior to that he curated an exhibition about smart cities, and before that designed a custom VR headset with a kinetic interface. As an interviewer, faced with the interdisciplinary diversity of his work, and reflecting on its many visual forms, I was faced with two dilemmas: firstly, how to best conduct an interview that adequately represents his broad interests; and secondly, how to understand the personal decisions that have led to his present way of being.
Thinking about how important digital images are to Farzin’s work, I made a personalized set of memory cards collected from Farzin’s online identity: work samples, personal and institutional websites, social media accounts, and correspondence he had sent in group emails. Into this collection, I also inserted a set of seemingly random images. To this end, the interview structure was adapted to the logic of Memory, a game that we sat down to play for an hour. The rules were easy, if I correctly picked a pair of cards, I would ask a question about the image on the pair, otherwise if Farzin picked correctly, he would say something about the image.
The sprawling dialog below is an attempt to embrace the inconsistency of life, by constantly seeking links between professional and personal developments.
JE: This is a project of yours called Hairy Balls and I recognized that you did a lot of research on »hairy things«. What is this project about and what is your relationship to hairiness?
FLJ: During the last two decades or so, there has been a widespread adoption of digital methods within architecture, changing the nature of design and production. That said, this recent computational, or digital moment in architecture arises from a history of systems theory, complexity and permutational processes within the discipline in the postwar period. Today, algorithms from other fields are borrowed, spatialized, and their capacities tested as architectures. What’s at stake is the question of form’s relationship to meaning. Is form hermetic, contingent, or open and permeable?
In this project, I developed a suite of custom software to conduct a series of experiments using some of these borrowed algorithms. These algorithms are generally used for their capacities to organize systems. I wanted to experiment with the translation of their organizational capacities into a form-generating algorithm. It’s not just translating algorithms from systems logic into form, and it’s not just making form into system, it’s discovering what circulates between the two.
»I kept doing work that looked like my hair and people kept accusing me of this and so I’ve gone on the front foot.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
The question that drove this experiment was: What’s hairy about the balls? Do they work as purely aesthetic objects; do they work as metaphors for complexities; do they solve problems in and of themselves; are they representations of a multi-directional approach to problem solving; or are they just aesthetic artifacts of a process?
So my relationship to hairiness is turning things into both an aesthetic and organizational process. I kept doing work that looked like my hair and people kept accusing me of this and so I’ve gone on the front foot.
»You can be serious about your work, but not take yourself too seriously.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
It is called Hairy Balls because there’s some childish, playful humor in there. This is a deliberate conscious choice. Sometimes this programming and algorithmic culture can have a lot of mystical shamanism attached to it. The audience is led to believe in the indisputable truth and impenetrable smartness of the algorithm. I want to wholeheartedly dispute this. Algorithms are generally dumb. You can be serious about your work, but not take yourself too seriously. That’s my relationship to hairiness.
Who Is That?
FLJ: This is clearly a wonderful photograph of me. It’s just hairiness with all personality tattooed out. It’s an old photograph a friend of mine took at a party where I was dressed up silly. And it somehow became my biographical photograph.
If You Could Build a House Out of Any Material…
»It might get really hot and you slip through a hole in the floor.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
JE: If you could build a house out of any material you want, like pastry, foam, ice and it wouldn’t naturally rot or melt but stay in shape, what material would that be?
FLJ: Shape memory alloy. It’s a material that has a dormant state, and through heating and cooling, or by applying an electric charge you can set, distort, and return it to this dormant state. It’s has a memory. For example, you can take a wire of this stuff, stretch it into a straight line and heat it to set its initial state. Once it has cooled, you twist it as much as you want, and all you have to do is heat it and it will physically return back to a straight line. I like this because you can take a strong metallic material and you can get it to wiggle. Although it might totally suck as a material to sleep on, or to build an entire house out of.
JE: Because it would bounce all the time?
FLJ: Yeah. Or it might get really hot and you slip through a hole in the floor. The building would transform at different scales in response to different heat sources: a daily cycle of slowly moving, large transformations, caused by an orbiting sun; and rapid small transformations, from the body heat of its meandering inhabitants, multiplied many times over. The occupants would in turn respond to this transforming building. It all becomes a tensely negotiated truce between building, environment and human. I’d be pretty happy with that.
JE: Good choice.
FLJ: And then I would cover it in chocolate.
JE: And everything would melt.
FLJ: And you just lick your way out.
»Consuming Cute« Or What Does »post-cute« Mean?
FLJ: This is from a project called Consuming Cute. Can you tell what this is?
JE: The Taj Mahal.
FLJ: You cheated though!
JE: No, I mean that’s obvious.
FLJ: For a while now, I’ve been working on a series of projects looking at UNESCO’s World Heritage List (WHL). The projects have experimented with different forms of preservation, and investigated how value is produced and perpetuated by an institution like UNESCO.
This project, Consuming Cute, takes a little departure from those projects. It’s interested in how images of the WHL sites circulate through social media, and what this says about the sites, and in turn about social media. For this project, I’ve taken sites out of the UNESCO evaluation system, one that is based on notions of universal value, and saturated with myths about our collective world heritage, and inserted them into the world of instagram, social media, selfies and likes, which is itself another value generating system, with its own specific genres, codes, conventions, and influential protagonists.
»I was interested in how images of the UNESCO sites circulate through social media, which ones generate greater traction – more likes and regrams – and whether there was a logic to this that I could manipulate.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
As you can probably guess, the type of UNESCO image that generates the most likes isn’t even exclusively a photo of the site, it’s a selfie of the author at the site. So the question became, what would a UNESCO site look like if it were distorted by the codes of instagram, if it came under the stewardship of digital culture. In working towards a logic, and looking at what’s hot on instagram, I noticed that the only hashtag in the top 5 most popular hashtags on instagram with any aesthetic claim was #cute.
This was great, because I’ve been interested in cuteness for a while, and in trying to understand what I perceive as a widespread deployment of cuteness in all forms of cultural production and consumer culture—we all know that babies and cats are cute, but why are cars cute, phones cute, subway ads for mattresses by Casper or health insurance by Oscar (sorry New York references) cute, or why is so much of recent architecture so cute? These threads came together: UNESCO, circulation, value, and a pervasive contemporary aesthetic.
»[…] we all know that babies and cats are cute, but why are cars cute, phones cute, subway ads for mattresses by Casper or health insurance by Oscar (sorry New York references) cute, or why is so much of recent architecture so cute?«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
It was about understanding and redeploying this aesthetic on the WHL sites. Cuteness has clearly been understood and put into operation by consumer brands, so it made sense to launch a line of consumer products.
If you go to www.consumingcute.com you can order this line of luxury products. They are online. You can buy them. It is a strange project because the digital design predated the physical objects. The images, which were produced to look like product shots, ready to go viral on social media, have produced a desire. People have actually tried to buy them, and so now I have to figure out how to make them.
JE: How big is one of these? For example, the Taj Mahal?
FLJ: This is part of what you buy as the first customer, the research and development phase to take it from an image into a physical form.
JE: Do you have already a material in mind? It looks like a pillow.
FLJ: Yeah it is fluffy. In the online store there are images of the Parthenon and the Statue of Liberty and so on. They all have some kind of digital materiality, but I think what made them most successful is when they were between multiple materials. It could almost be cushiony, but it could also be liquorishy, like a candy. So I’m trying to find multiple meanings in it. Some of the objects are cute, some are post-cute, and some of them are like the cute went out…
JE: What is post-cute?
FLJ: You know when you have just grown out of your cute face but you are still trying to be cute. Some of them are exhausted of being cute. They’ve been deflated, literally. It started off as this investigation into cuteness and making things cute and seeing if cute things could also be repulsive at the same time, if cute things could also be enticing to eat at the same time. It was trying to register cuteness on multiple axes, to chart its limits.
»So the cute is this strange power relation that’s set up between you and the object. The object is in need of your nurturing and you, who take care of the object, desire to dominate it.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
JE: Do you think cuteness is a contemporary fetish?
FLJ: Sianne Ngai, in her analysis of cute as a minor aesthetic category, defines it as “revolving around the desire for an ever more intimate, ever more sensuous relation to objects already regarded as familiar and unthreatening, cuteness is not just an aestheticization but an eroticization of powerlessness, evoking tenderness for ‘small things’ but also, sometimes, a desire to belittle or diminish them further.”
So the cute is this strange power relation that’s set up between you and the object. The object is in need of your nurturing and you, who take care of the object, desire to dominate it. It’s a tough thing to resist the pulling power of cuteness. I thought I had to deal with it once it started creeping into contemporary architecture, after other artistic practices, like in the work of Mike Kelley for example.
JE: I was thinking of the automobile industry and the remake of the VW Beetle and that seemed to be just about cuteness.
FLJ: Yes, exactly. There are two forms of cuteness: there is the Japanese cute, Kawaii, but the thing you mentioned is more the Western style of cuteness. Have you noticed how cute advertising for digital startups are? Things no longer have company names like XYZ. Now, Caspar is a mattress service, Oskar is a medical service. They are all innocuous, inoffensive first names which then have a friendly and childish personality attached to them. They can be loaded up in a way that tries to say this isn’t a brand. It’s a friendly service. This isn’t Coca Cola or Apple, that’s about lifestyle, and identity. This is an unthreatening figure that wants to befriend you.
What Is Your Favorite Fruit?
JE: What is your favorite fruit?
FLJ: My favorite fruit to eat is cherries. To look at, I would say, eggplant because it looks pretty weird. I like that you sometimes get really fat ones or really skinny ones. I like that the eggplant is so dry and porous. It’s such a meaty vegetable, but you probably don’t want to drink it.
JE: On the other hand people drink kale smoothies, but I think an eggplant smoothie will taste like nothing, if you blend it raw.
Where Is This All Going To?
»I remember somebody who told me that if you’re not having a personal crisis every three or four years, and upending your life, and moving to a new city, then you’re not living consciously.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
JE: Where is this all going? Do you have any aims? Do you want to be a »B« or are you satisfied with being an »A«? It could also be about moving either in time or space?
FLJ: Personally, I grapple with this because I have moved around. I was born in Tehran, Iran. My family moved to Melbourne, Australia, when I was six. I lived for a year in Berlin, Germany, while I was studying architecture. Then I was back to Australia for a while. I moved to New York, USA, in 2011 and then went to Michigan for a while for teaching. I remember somebody who told me that if you’re not having a personal crisis every three or four years, and upending your life, and moving to a new city, then you’re not living consciously.
JE: A quite heavy statement.
FLJ: From a disciplinary perspective the things that I’m working on I wouldn’t say it is A to B. For me it is »A« to »B« to »C« to »D« to »2« to »star« to »symbol« to »©« to »♥« to all these different fields. I’ve always been interested in how architecture starts to intersect with different fields of knowledge and other disciplines. You can see this a little by looking at my recent projects.
»Speaking personally, and professionally, I have general goals and general places where I want to be, but the rest is very tactical, and is responsive to opportunities and problems.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
Concerning this image »moving to a point« I’m interested in negotiating top down and bottom up processes. The top down is some kind of explicit master plan, an overall vision, and the bottom up is a negotiated set of rules, a logical process that plays out. Speaking personally, and professionally, I have general goals and general places where I want to be, but the rest is very tactical, and is responsive to opportunities and problems. I don’t do many things in a linear fashion.
JE: Would you consider yourself an architect or researcher in the field of architecture?
FLJ: I don’t see any difference.
Do You Have A Tattoo?
FLJ: This looks like a tattoo of the Parthenon. I’m a bit obsessed with the Parthenon, as a site of cultural conflict and infatuation, and I’ve done several projects about it. It was one of the earliest sites to achieve UNESCO designation, supporting all these modern myths about classical Greek perfection. But it’s also a tattoo! It’s the ultimate monument, or a supreme cultural asset, depending on your view. I think tattoos are a great way for people without personalities to pretend to have one.
JE: Do you have a tattoo?
FLJ: No. I have lots of friends that have great tattoos.
JE: I have to admit I like this tattoo, it’s a weird one.
FLJ: You can’t get a photograph of the Parthenon like the one this tattoo is based on anymore. I wonder why they didn’t get a tattoo of the site as it is now, it’s much more exciting with all these cranes, scaffolding, and construction.
FLJ: So, this is the singer Cher and she is stretched horizontally. It is – and you did this beautifully with your MS Paint skills – a radiating, yellow, and squished Cher. I suspect the reason why you put this in the Memory is because I’m working on a project called Cher.
This is a project I’m working on with Caitlin Blanchfield, Glen Cummings, Jaffer Kolb, and Leah Meisterlin. We are a collaboration of architects, designers, planers, and historians. We started the project Cher in December 2015 for the Oslo Architecture Triennale. It was a response to an open call to come up with a one-year architecture intervention for the city of Copenhagen. The call asked us to respond to the history of co-housing in the city specifically, and digital home sharing platforms, generally. We made an app called Cher that responds to, and accelerates the logics already embedded in Airbnb.
Airbnb allows people to a rent or reserve a room by the day, Cher allows people to list objects by the minute. We tried to imagine what the next mutation of digital sharing models, and sharing platforms would be, aware that capitalism tends to constantly subdivide space and time. We predicted that the next iteration would be, rather than renting your room for a day, you would be able to rent objects by the minute. Given that digital platforms have undisputedly transformed cities, and the social behaviors of their inhabitants, the idea was to tactically operate in this future trajectory. We thought it pertinent that architects, designers, and planers be part of shaping this next mutation in digital sharing platforms, and not just commercial entities.
»We tried to imagine what the next mutation of digital sharing models, and sharing platforms would be, aware that capitalism tends to constantly subdivide space and time.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
I like how you have drawn that yellow line around Cher on the card, because one of the unique features of the app is that you take a photograph of something and you draw a line around the object and that’s what you ›cher‹. So this process of drawing a line, the object-making process, is where users start to think about the space around them, the city around them, as a constellation of objects.
JE: It is like marking territory.
FLJ: Exactly, it’s marking a territory, but the line you have drawn on this card, isn’t just around Cher the singer, your line is radiating. So your line is perhaps not just about Cher the singer, but also about an event. If instead you drew your line around the outline of the figure, what you would be sharing is the person. If you drew the negative of this line so it was the backdrop behind the figure, with some kind of negative of the human body in the foreground, you would be sharing…
JE: …the wall.
FLJ: Or an activity that happens in front of the wall, asking someone to interact with you. This process of how you draw the line allows you to classify something as an object or a condition, as an atmosphere or as a potential social activity.
JE: So it is a critical and maybe slightly ironic perspective on the sharing culture that will work as a proper app?
»Irony and parody are useful tools, but sometimes sincerity is more effective.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
FLJ: We developed this app as a critical public project, and one that is sincere. That is really important, we are a not-for-profit and the app is online and functional. It is critical through engagement. The process of app building was a yearlong conversation between different members of the Copenhagen community; it is critiquing and attempting to transform a platform by producing and working within it. It’s messy. The project is instantly compromised because it is grappling with reality.
Irony and parody are useful tools, but sometimes sincerity is more effective. As a public project it was important for us that people use it, that we make a constituency.
Who Are Those Girls?
JE: Who are those girls and why are they appearing on your website?
FLJ: This is an animation of Destiny’s Child dancing. It appears on my website as the loading icon, and it was a placeholder animation that Pedro Gonçalves of studio v-a, who developed the website, put in just as a joke during the development phase. I liked it, so it stayed.
What Do You See?
FLJ: I see a colorful goat vagina.
This Is an Exploding Bus.
FLJ: This is a bus on fire. It was made for the exhibition Control Syntax Rio that I curated with Mark Wasiuta, and designed with Mark and Sharif Anous. It is on right now – you should go and see it – in Rotterdam at the Het Nieuwe Instituut. It will be running until January 2017.
The exhibition examines the Smart City operations in Rio de Janeiro. The city is monitored by the Centro de Operações Rio (COR), which was installed in 2010 with the help of IBM. Via a network of cameras and information sensors, COR gauges optimal traffic patterns, determines landslide risk zones, predicts weather disruptions, and maps disease paths.
The exhibition shows Rio as it is structured by COR’s control syntax. COR looks for, anticipates, and manages incidents that interrupt the flow of vehicular traffic. These incidents are accessed on a grading scale of severity, from event, to emergency, to crisis. The severity of grading will determine the type of response from the city. We built a 40-meter model that is both an actual journey through streets in Rio, and a path through the decision-making matrix of COR. Live feeds from a network of security cameras transmit footage of this model to an array of monitors on the wall.
»All of the moments in the city that we were looking at were dynamic events unfolding in time, and we had to find ways to model and capture them.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
The model is at the awkward scale of 1:125, a scale-figure of a person is about 13 millimeters high at 1:125, and a tree is between 20 to 30 millimeters high. Really tiny. Each tree was 3D printed at a resolution of 25 microns, or 0.05 millimeters. That’s an insane level of detail for something so small.
This image, the bus on fire, is one of eight incidents in that model. It was interesting to develop ways to, in a sense, freeze time. All of the moments in the city that we were looking at were dynamic events unfolding in time, and we had to find ways to model and capture them.
»How do you solidify smoke? How do you 3D print smoke? I could do a whole project only about that.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
We simulated the events through dynamic processes on the computer and then had to figure out how to 3D print these ephemeral effects as solid physical things.
How do you solidify smoke? How do you 3D print smoke?
I could do a whole project only about that. Throw into that research into systems of control and pervasive surveillance, with new techniques of governance, and the emergence of a still unknown urbanism coming out of the smart city movement, that signals a direction for the development of the 21st century city, all of which is then communicated to visitors through exploding buildings, buses on fire, or landslides. That’s just tantalizing to grapple with. In a sense, the research that you do produces a context or a brief for the design project.
JE:I asked myself, what actually is the value of a 3D printed architectural model? Experiencing something digitally on the screen allows for limitless possibilities, for example.
FLJ: A lot of the work that I do is image based, or is about virtual reality, and I kind of make the argument that you don’t necessarily need the building. You don’t always need to construct a building to explore architectural ideas, to investigate different concepts, situations, and histories; or to have an impact on an audience, or a context. Do you need the building or do you just need the image of the building to circulate, proliferate, and disseminate? I don’t think it’s one or the other, I think it’s great to design both the physical object, and its digital image, and test the potentials and limits of each.
Did You Have A Pet?
FLJ: I had a chicken and I had a rabbit. The chicken flew over the fence.
JE: What was its name?
FLJ: I was six years old and I can’t remember the name, but I made a book about it with illustrations. It was like »My chicken died, I cried, I cried«.
Why Does This VR Headset Look Like This?
JE: Where did the idea for this futuristic and dystopian design of this VR headset you used for your project Some World Games come from?
FLJ: This is a custom VR headset. One of seven we made for an installation at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City for the Closed Worlds exhibition. This is a fragment of the entire installation. If you can imagine, this headset is connected to a wire that goes up, and that is connected to a motorized track. Visitors would come in, and put on these headsets, and then they are getting caught in this constantly moving elliptical loop. The virtual reality experience that you are having through the headset is a virtual model of the same gallery that you are in, just without other people.
We built this architectural interface to sync up a virtual world, and a moving virtual body, with a physical counterpart. It’s an exhibition display system that is interactive, and user-driven, but also subjugating. Physically you are constrained, tethered to an assembly line; virtually you have access to the exhibition material in a way unavailable to visitors only in the physical space. So you have to give up a little, to get a lot.
»Maybe it looks aggressive, but we worked really hard to make the actual experience incredibly comfortable.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
And why does it look like this? The decision to make it look like this was to try to displace the headset design as far as possible away from anything we knew about VR headsets as a consumer object. We proposed something that was about public engagement, not simply private entertainment. We enticed visitors with a strange object and asked them to put themselves in a vulnerable position. They had to choose to connect to a totalizing system and put their bodies on display. But when they did that, everything else was very comfortable, the inside of the headset was padded, this detail, the magnetic ball joint, allowed you to have really smooth orbital motion. So maybe it looks aggressive, but we worked really hard to make the actual experience incredibly comfortable.
JE: So it isn’t about a SM torture gadget at all?
FLJ: What is this? Snails?
JE: No. It’s baby turtles.
FLJ: It looks like snails these baby turtles. Ah, now I see. It’s baby turtles mimicking Ninja Turtles. What is it: »Heroes in a halfshell?« – I remember the song (starts singing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song). People were saying that Ninja Turtles will last forever, and Simpsons wouldn’t even have more than one season. How wrong they were. Did you have a question around this?
JE: Did you know there are turtles living in the nearby lake called »Bärensee«?
FLJ: No. I’ve seen frogs.
JE: Actually the question related to this image was about collaboration. The Ninja Turtles are only strong because they are a group. I recognized you are collaborating a lot, and I wanted to ask what do you gain from collaborations?
»It’s often hard working with other people, but worthwhile. It’s productive friction.«Farzin Lotfi-Jam
FLJ: That’s indeed turtle power… I think part of it is finding the space for experimentation and research. That space, for a period of time it happened for me in practice, working in offices with interesting people on building projects, then for a long time it was in academia, it still is sometimes. But regardless of environment, the space for research and experimentation is often a space that is produced, or negotiated between people. Collaborations are really important for me because they produce the best work, and lead you to new things. That said, a lot of my best collaborations are also incredibly exhausting. It’s often hard working with other people, but worthwhile. It’s productive friction. Maybe there’s some novelty in figuring out how to work with different brilliant people that you like and respect, and who think and work differently?
FLJ: You should ask this question. I have the feeling you have had a reason for picking this image.
JE: I think this image represents pretty good the part of being at Solitude that isn’t about work, research or artistic exchange but a representation of what people do in their free time, and I found it interesting that this comes down to such a profound obsession like soccer.
FLJ: This is an annotated aerial photograph of a field ten minutes walk away from here. As you know, fellows are homely creatures, and once embedded at Solitude will rarely wander far. It was quite a challenge to motivate fellows to walk 10 minutes, even for something they really wanted. That’s why this image was made. I find if you do a little bit of work when you create an event, if it looks like you respected the event enough to make an effort to communicate with a bit of photoshop sizzle, that always entices more participation.