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celestial vault

The only outdoor work in the Netherlands of American artist James Turrell, 'Celestial Vault' ('Hemels Gewelf', 1996) is a unique observatory inviting you to see the sky as a dome of Dutch light and color. It is also a kind of early scale model of Turrell's major work in progress, Roden Crater.

Commissioned by Stroom, Turrel created a small, grass-sloped crater in the dunes of The Hague (Kijkduin). In the center is a stone bench where two people can lie down with their head tilted slightly backwards. From this position, the rim of the crater frames the sky and the sky appears like a giant dome.

James Turrell - Celestial Vault

Unfortunately, at the moment the work looks rather shabby from vandalism and neglect. (A sign still claims "persistent drought" as the cause of the bad condition of the grass. Even as another sign cautions visitors to treat the artwork with respect.)

But its idea, so simple, still works. First, it makes the act of observing, which we seldom do exclusively, into an activity. 'Celestial Vault' provides a vantage point (the center of the crater), a posture (lying down on the bench) and a frame (the rim of the crater), all of which contribute to making the observer see more consciously, and more susceptibly.

Second, it makes us see the sky as we would naively depict it, as a dome or vault that covers the earth with us in the middle. A source of inspiration for Turrell, Belgian astronomer Marcel Minnaert described this phenomenon in 'The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air' (1937).

When you are outside and look up at the sky, you do not get the impression of a limitless space above you, nor that of a hemisphere hovering above you and the earth. It looks more like a vault whose height above you is much less than the distance between you and the horizon. It is an impression, no more, but to most people a very convincing one; its explanation is psychological and not physical.

A page from Turrell's copy of the book, covered in notes, appears here. And for Dutch speakers, the full text of Minnaert's classic is online: 'De Natuurkunde van 't Vrije Veld. Deel I: Licht en kleur in het landschap'.


The closing day of the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam offered a fascinating trip around the metropolises of a globalized world, from the politics of garbage and a unique local system of recycling in Cairo ('Garbage Dreams') to Japanese deliberations about preserving the Metabolist curiosity of the 'Nagakin Capsule Tower' in Tokyo.

Another global city, Istanbul, served as the troubled protagonist in 'Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits', also the opening film of this year's AFFR. Looking at the disruptive and chaotic forces of globalization through the prism of a city, this documentary shows how Istanbul is fast reaching the limits of its sprawling growth fueled by global capital and local neoliberal policies.

Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits

As the word ecumenopolis (from Greek, literally 'a city world') indicates, the modern global city indeed threatens to devour everything in its path of unbridled growth, with dire consequences for social and ecological conditions. In Istanbul, as the filmmakers put it, the result is "a megashantytown of 15 million struggling with [a] mesh of life-threatening problems".

Apart from the obvious problem of Istanbul's lack of coherent public transportation (it has only one subway line), and hence an infrastructure choking on cars, the wider problem 'Ekümenopolis' addresses is the general lack of urban or any sort of planning in a city in the throes of megalomaniac urban development schemes - with all their usual disregard for the people living there. In one scene, the contrast between the TV commercial of luxury apartments with swimming pools ("Everyone will be able to live like this") and the people living in tents on the bulldozed rubble of their former houses is downright cynical. And as the film shows, many neighborhoods in Istanbul are undergoing the same treatment.

The huge gap between the rich and the poor in Istanbul is reflected more and more in the urban landscape, and at the same time feeds on the spatial segregation. While the rich isolate themselves in gated communities, residences and plazas; new poverty cycles born in social housing communities on the perifery of the city designed as human depots continue to push millions to desperation and hopelessness.

A sharp and suitably enraged piece of activist filmmaking, 'Ekümenopolis' may yet influence the public debate on the future of Istanbul, and should certainly serve as a cautionary tale for urban planners and municipal politicians around the world.

Update: For a different perspective on Istanbul, see the recent documentary/fiction hybrid 'Men on the Bridge' ('Köprüdekiler', 2009). While 'Ekümenopolis' has mostly a planner's bird's eye view, and discusses for instance the city's plans for a third bridge over the Bosphorus, 'Men on the Bridge' takes a much more up close view of three men whose lives, dreams and daily struggles intersect on the first Bosphorus bridge.

the rise of the hug on tv

Adam Curtis is best known for his distinct brand of documentaries made for the BBC, which combine a sleuth's history of ideas and relentless deconstruction of political ideology with a great talent for unearthing forgotten gems from the BBC archives. 'The Century of the Self' (2002, 4 parts), 'The Power of Nightmares' (2004, 3 parts) and the recent 'All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace' (2011, 3 parts) are all highly recommended if you want to understand today's society and politics.

But Curtis also keeps a blog that's well worth checking out, where he regularly posts stories, part research and part mini-documentaries in text and illustrated with more material from the BBC archives.

In two of his recent posts, for example, he addresses an important and rather worrying idea, and presents some fascinating pieces of TV history along the way. Its premise is the observation that:

The guiding idea at the heart of today's political system is freedom of choice. The belief that if you apply the ideals of the free market to all sorts of areas in society, people will be liberated from the dead hand of government. The wants and desires of individuals then become the primary motor of society.

But this has led to a very peculiar paradox. In politics today we have no choice at all. Quite simply There Is No Alternative.

'The Curse of TINA' (i.e. There Is No Alternative) then recounts the rise of the modern think tank and "how in a very strange way they have made thinking impossible". 'The Curse of TINA Part Two' goes on to examine television history itself, and specifically the changing conventions around showing emotions on TV. Where once hugging and crying were considered private emotions, and rather embarrassing when caught on camera, from the 1970s onwards, they started to be considered 'authentic'.

As Curtis shows, this new model of authenticity - of expressing feelings and being 'in touch' with them - quickly became just as prescriptive as the former culture of not showing any emotions in public.

...not only has it become a rigid convention - as rigid as anything in Victorian times - but because it teaches that we should concentrate on our own inner feelings, it also stops us from looking outside ourselves and thinking imaginatively about the society and the world around us.

I want to suggest that the Hug has become a part of the modern problem of not being able to imagine any alternative to the world of today. The Hug is no longer liberating, it is restraining.

Of course, in the 1990s with the advent of reality TV "the floodgates of hugs and tears" really opened and hysterical emotions became the main ingredient of virtually all television programming. Curtis' point, however, is not so much the decline of television (he works for the BBC after all), as to show the escapist tendencies of our affluent Western society with its religious belief in psychotherapy...

Maybe it was a lotus-eating moment, a dream allowed at a moment of incredible prosperity in the west. But as you watch everyone hug and cry on television you do get a sense of how much it was a society looking inward - and that was blind to the giant, dynamic forces of history outside. Or maybe they were hugging because they actively didn't want to see what was happening outside?

avoid news

An interesting essay that's been making the rounds recently - ironically after being published in a Dutch newspaper - is 'Avoid News' (PDF) by Rolf Dobelli. Subtitled 'Towards a Healthy News Diet', this polemic article gives 15 reasons why consuming news is bad for you. In a nutshell:

...news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long, deep magazine articles (which requires thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-colored candies for the mind.

To be sure, much of Dobelli's subsequent argument is not new, and can in fact be summed up as a combination of a couple of recent influential books. Besides Nassim Taleb, whose work on black swans, randomness and risk ("Our risk machinery is designed to run away from tigers; it is not designed for the information-laden modern world.") provides the basis for several of the arguments, two other sources need to be mentioned.

First, Nick Davies' 'Flat Earth News' (2008) showed how the quality of journalism suffers dangerously from commercial pressures and PR tactics. And second, Nicholas Carr's 'The Shallows' (2011), building on his earlier article 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' (2008), warned about the chronic distraction effects of the internet and its interactive delivery of - mostly - endlessly linkdumped and retweeted trivialities.

And yes, as most news junkies will affirm, in online news the worst qualities of journalism and the internet combine to form a debilitating echo chamber of sugary factoids. Fortunately Dobelli ends his essay with some tips on what to do instead, after you've gone cold turkey on news.

Read magazines and books which explain the world - Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don't shy away from presenting the complexities of life - or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three.

Of course articles and books representing the world's complexity are hard to find too, especially when it comes to analyses of current affairs. Ultimately, the oldfashioned advice about a varied diet applies to intellectual consumption as well - just make sure it gives you ample sustenance.