IRREVERENT ARCHITECTURE DEBATE TURNCOATS LAUNCHES IN NYC Cheeky UK Import Shakes Up New York’s Design Dialog Turncoats is a series of punchy debates that aims to turn the typical architectural discussion format on its head. Founded on the premise that mainstream architectural discourse is often so boringly well-mannered as to be “like watching dog owners compliment each other’s pooches,” Turncoats aims to ditch the platitudes and archi-jargon for a punchy, playful and provocative exchange of ideas that allows people to speak more freely and take more risks. Conceived in London and operating now in multiple cities, Turncoats New York launches with a bang on 13 June, addressing the topic Buildings Don’t Matter. Buildings Don’t Matter? Great architects don't make buildings, they make brands. From Aravena to Zaha, the power of images transcends the impact of built reality. Even the most globe-trotting paid critic will visit a fraction of the new buildings which form architecture's cultural zeitgeist. Renderings are our barometer of taste, Instagram is our King Maker. What: Turncoats New York Inaugural Debate When: Tuesday, 13 June, 7:00-8:30pm Where: Cooper Union, Frederick P. Rose Auditorium 41 Cooper Square, NYC Who: Anne Quito, Design Reporter, Quartz.com, Moderator; James Biber, Founder, Biber Architects; Matt Shaw, Senior Editor, The Architect’s Newspaper; Iben Falconer, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Columbia University GSAPP; Jesse Seegers, Associate Editor, Digital Projects, Columbia University GSAPP; and Hugh Scott Moncrieff, Student/Junior Architect, The Cooper Union for Advancement of Science and Art. Robin Cloud, Comedian/Opening Act Sponsored by The Architect’s Newspaper More About Turncoats Architecture debates are rubbish. We've all been there: a panel of similar people with similar views taking it in turns to talk at length about their similar work - too polite, too deferential, too dull. At best they are lukewarm love-ins, critically impotent, elitist and stuffy. Turncoats is a shot in the arm. Framed by theatrically provocative opening gambits, a series of free debates will rugby tackle six fundamental issues facing contemporary practice with a playful and combative format designed to ferment open and critical discussion, turning conventional consensus on its head. Each debate is framed around a theme encapsulated in a polemical opening statement, meant not to express the views of the debate hosts but purely to spark conversation. Turncoats is about creating an atmosphere where critical issues are confronted in a way that is permissive, effective and fun. It is an experiment in how the profession debates key issues, bringing together leading figures from the field and beyond, who are often asked to argue a viewpoint they don’t hold. To create an off-the-record atmosphere where anything goes, the event is not recorded, and attendees are asked to seal their phones away in specially provided envelopes upon arrival. The evening begins with an opening act, comedian Robin Cloud, to help loosen the crowd and create a buoyant atmosphere. Further signaling that Turncoats is about playful provocation, every debate kicks off with the panel taking a communal shot of vodka with the lights off (a proverbial “shot in the dark”). Each speaker then has 3-5 minutes to state their opening argument before the moderator facilitates the debate. Once the speakers have had a chance to bat their ideas around, the audience is encouraged to provoke further discussion. The debate ends with each speaker playing devil’s advocate by presenting a 2-minute closing argument for the opposition. Turncoats was conceived in London by Architecture Foundation deputy director Phineas Harper, former director of Studio Weave Maria Smith and Robert Mull, former dean of the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design.
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"Ornament is crime" is crime: In London, the debate over architectural ornamentation settled over beer and shot of vodka
There are six clear reasons why Turncoats, a new architectural debating format, is continuing to ruffle more than just a few feathers in Hoxton, East London. 1) It is free. 2) You are given a bottle of craft beer upon entry. 3) A musical comedy act featuring a game of "Hitler or Ham" introduces the evening. 4) The audience must do a shot of vodka before the debate. 5) An intellectual debate on whether ornament is crime proceeds and 6) everyone cheers at the end and goes home smiling. All very well, but what was the result of all this? As tempting as it is to go into detail over the "Hitler or ham" debacle, the real issue in Hoxton Hall on the 27th January was the debate on whether the statement "ornament is crime" is a crime itself. In order to solve this, three panels were put in place with two arguing for and against and the other an independent adjudicator dubbed "Switzerland." And so Adam Nathaniel Furman, architect, furniture designer and founder of the Postmodern Society, stepped forward with the first of what would be four prewritten arguments. Here, he compared ornament to wearing clothes, inferring that dressing our buildings is no different. Further still, ornament evokes a sense of freedom, liberality and identity. "If form was really so pure, we should all walk round naked!" Furman exclaimed. We dress up to represent our ideals and what we stand for and architecture should do the same he concluded. To counter this, Studio Weave co-founder Jane Hall retorted that ornament hides a building's true identity and distracts us from the faults and failings of reality within the built environment. A window decoration, for example, guides our gaze from the cracks in the pavement and potholes in the street. Money is hence more willingly spent on splendor rather than maintenance of our everyday basic needs when the opposite should enforced. Now, the debate was in full swing, and up stepped fashion satirist Bertie Brandes who wasted no time in slating those against decoration. “Minimalists are basic b*****s to the highest degree.” Interestingly, Brandes pointed out that ornament is literally a crime in rented accommodation whereby nailing a picture in to the wall can break the tenancy agreement. From this we can take solace in the fact that implementing decoration is indeed part of the great struggle against the "facist" orthodoxy. “Why should we let architectural class dictate the aesthetic of our cities?” Brandes questioned, suggesting that ornament can help aesthetically democratise our built environment. Finally, Rory Hyde, curator of Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism at the V&A Museum in London, came forward. Like Brandes, he was quick to make an equally sweeping statement: “Ornament is just s**t smearing” he said. Hyde went on to say how Donald Trump's home/palace is rather heavily decorated, posing the question (albeit not so seriously) that to endorse ornament essentially means that one also endorses his policies. However, Hyde later went on to say that the the thing about real palaces is that they do have power and indeed are the pinnacle of ornamentation. With real monarchial palaces, you are always born into them and hence ornamentation is inherently classist. After some light-hearted exchanges, somehow moderated by Charles Holland (co-founder of Ordinary Architecture), the debate eventually boiled down to fascism versus democracy. AN also weighed in on the debate, posing the following dilemma: “In which of the two scenarios is the most powerful ornamental statement made? Scenario One, a street full of flamboyant, heavily decorated structures juxtaposed by one minimalist building, or Scenario Two, a street full of minimalist structures, all uniform in style juxtaposed by one flamboyant, heavily decorated building?” Furman was quick to respond. “I like this idea, in a sense you think of it being similar school uniforms as we dress our buildings. On school days, we all have to look the same, but on the weekends we get to wear what we want.” Hence, freedom only becomes liberating when one is oppressed or when one has the knowledge that one will be oppressed in the future (like on Monday, once the weekend is over). As the evening progressed, the case for ornamentation became stronger. Ornament can be useful for way-finding, it was said using the example that taxi drivers use ornamentation on buildings to guide them around London. Hyde pointed out that while Aravena despises ornamentation, he lets the occupants of his buildings dictate their own ornamental style. Decoration from the user symbolizes pride of place and lets the place become their own. Hyde continued, noting that on the flip side of this, how much choice or freedom do we really have to make it our own? Most look to IKEA to furnish their dwellings. To be truly democratic or liberated would be to make the furniture ourself. Furman essentially closed the lid on the debate. “We pretend that modernism is the pioneer of neutrality, looking at everyone as equal. It may do this, but in doing so just perpetuates a power struggle within this society. Instead, let’s celebrate our differences.” At the end of the evening, with many of the audience drunk on well-presented architectural arguments on ornament (and slightly tipsy from the alcohol) the statement “ornament is not crime” got the biggest cheer. Democracy had triumphed and we were all architecturally liberated.