The great aesthetic challenge of the 21st century is fundamentally a practical one: how best to arrange increasingly crowded space.
Handy, then, this series of Sunday matinees at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, grouped together as Something from Nothing: Films on Design and Architecture. The series is intended as a moving-picture companion piece to YBCA's TechnoCRAFT exhibit, which "explores how the boundary between the role of the designer and the consumer is disappearing." The series draws a through-line all the way from film archivist Dennis Nyback's Refrigerator Fetish: Vintage Industrial Design Films to the documentary Handmade Nation, about the DIY crafting movement, while touching on the work of a few world-famous architects along the way. If this seems like a difficult line to draw, perhaps that is why it has become necessary to do so.
Architecture is a very privileged medium, says the subject of Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect, "No matter how pretentious or unpretentious it is, it is always used." This from a guy who did some of his best work by exploring the mass psychology of walls, of inclusion and exclusion. Koolhaas is right, of course, and his rule even applies to Southern California architect John Lautner, who once made a thing called the Chemosphere in the Hollywood Hills, and who is said by one observer, in Infinite Space: The Architecture of John Lautner, to have concrete for a muse. Yes, even buildings like the Chemosphere actually do get used (and not for the unorthodox clinical experiments its nickname might imply).
Sometimes architecture is even used for socially conscious purposes -- as in the poverty-ravaged areas of Alabama explored by Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, or the working-class Boston enclave brought up to enviro-code in The Greening of Southie. But sometimes the spaces that most need filling are all in your head. To wit: wow+flutter, a tweaky hodgepodge of short subjects in which spatial elements are investigated, recreated, pixellated, annotated, conjugated and occasionally desecrated. Not all of these are narratives so much as motion-graphic experiments or art-installation mock-ups. As such, they range from brilliant to boring, but the range itself is instructive.
It is strangely comforting to think that while the big ideas of architecture still get parsed by seersuckered WASPs twirling brandy snifters and pontificating on "significant structures" somewhere in Europe, a whole generation of fresh-faced, taper-jeaned hipsters will be taking up handicraft, and making fun and functional knick knacks for their families and friends much closer to home. Or, if that doesn't work, turning virtual reality into something better.
Something from Nothing: Films on Design & Architecture runs from July 11 through September 5, 2010, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit ybca.org.