UTOPIA REDUX

Daniel Meridor’s montages place us somewhere between hope and despair. Paused in time, we cannot be sure whether events are moving from a troubled world towards a more harmonious, serene one or the other way around. Or, whether he is depicting a world in which progress and decay, as well as technology and nature, coexist in a fragile, uncertain balance. Is this latter case the world of the present? We can hope it is, but despair at the thought that perhaps our civilization—now embracing the globe— cannot maintain its delicate balance.

Meridor’s generation—a younger one—has no faith in grand architectural plans to make a better world and especially not a best of all possible worlds. Yet a certain idealism remains. For some it takes the form of environmental consciousness and sometimes grand plans for healing the damage done to the planet by humankind—or, for more modest, ecologically sustainable designs. For others it takes the form of technological innovation using computers, the internet, and other electronic wonders. For only a relative few, however, does their idealism take the forms of isolated buildings that are the focus of the present generation of innovators—radical ‘new forms’ fail to inspire as they once did. The idealistic architects of Meridor’s generation are more critical and reflective than any in recent memory, which leads them to an emphasis on process rather than product, and into either direct engagement with communities in need or into teaching careers, which are not altogether unrelated activities.

Still, at the end of the day, architecture must concern itself with the design of spaces for people to live in. Important as criticism and reflectivity may be, they are not in themselves enough. Rather, they need to inform action, or they become academic. It is easy to see Meridor’s montages as social critiques—the detritus of industrial civilization encroaching on nature—or, as harbingers of technological salvation—the windmills as alternate, non-polluting sources of energy. However, they become much more interesting, and fruitful, if we see them as architectural proposals, that is, as designs for the present and perhaps, for a better future.

First of all, thinking about process, we have not seen much use of photomontage as a design tool since the work of the Russian Constructivists. the Bauhaus and, somewhat more recently, Archigram. It has the immediate advantage of employing the familiar and, by selection and rearrangement, transforming it into the new. At the very least, this enables us to see new potential in the existing and obviates the need to begin—in the usual utopian sense—from scratch. As a design technique, its weakness is that, in actuality, it is clearly easier, if not always better, to begin from a tabula rasa than to somehow work with what is already in place. On the other hand, if we think of a design drawing heuristically, as a guide and not an instruction, even the most descriptive drawing can be seen as only one example of what a particular way of thinking would produce in reality. Other examples remain to be invented in response to particular conditions and by different architects. The design drawing seen this way indicates a process, a way of thinking, and not a product.

So, for example, the piles of debris in Meridor’s montages indicate the importance of stochastic domains, governed by chance and probability, within well understood—or at least in presumably well understood—natural and designed landscapes. Another example: the floating technological objects indicate the need for the ubiquitous intervention of elements of unknown purpose, encouraging discovery, change, and the invention of new and experimental modes of living. Another: the treehouse invokes the times when, as children, many of us loved to climb trees. It was not an aggressive act, an attempt to conquer the tree or to control it, but rather a cooperation with a chosen tree, an acceptance of its offering of a ladder for us to reach new heights. In doing so, we did not destroy the tree, but fulfilled one aspect of its presence within the world we both inhabit. Is there a more poetic—or finally practical—idea of our creative interaction with nature?

The whole design of the montage and the landscape it envisions is governed by a complex visual sensibility, evoking—even celebrating—a tolerance for clear differences uncompromised by coexistence with one another. The mission of architecture, these designs suggest, cannot dispense with the aesthetic, for it is inseparable from the ethical, the way we choose to live with all other things. And it extends far beyond property lines and the enclosure walls of buildings. This is almost, well, utopian.

LW

Daniel Meridor is an architect who has worked closely with Bedouins in Israel, helping to negotiate the Bedouins’ nomadic ways of living with contemporary Israeli society. He is currently studying in the Graduate School of Architecture of The Cooper Union, in New York City.


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