Monday, April 16, 2012


The manchester store in Penang populated three floors with crowded rows of products - cloth, curtains, clothing, complete with accessories and sundries. It was all a rather daunting clutter; but there had been a promise to buy the grandchildren a 'little something' from this trip back to beautiful Penang. The mixed cultures in Georgetown offered a wonderful variety of choices, especially in clothing and food. The Indian community seemed to manage mainly money exchanges and fabric - including clothing. Gold and food was handled predominantly by the Chinese community, but there were other more mixed uses too that involved the many cultures that thrive in the framework of the original British settlement. The Malay community seemed to form the Government bodies. The British left in 1957.

The idea was that we might be able to select a tee shirt with a printed something on it to tell of Penang. So we thumbed and fumbled through the racks. There was little that attracted the eye. Were we too fussy? There was an abundance of choice but, once size had been selected, the graphics on offer were either too cliche or too crass - too sentimental or too dainty - with the tee shirt base colours being either too rudely bright or too pastel. We discovered a dark green olive tee shirt that looked an attractive hue for an eleven-year old. On removing it from the rack, it revealed a not unattractive graphic in bold, blobby colours with the words 'Angry Birds' under it in cheeky, grafiti-styled lettering. What did all of this mean? We were bamboozled, so we asked the attendant. She told us that she really had little idea about the meaning of 'Angry Birds,' but said that the tee shirts sold well and were popular with the children. Well, this seemed a good enough recommendation, so we purchased what was very likely the only tee shirt acceptable to us. It was dutifully carried down three floors to the cash register staff by the attendant who thanked us and left us to pay for this purchase. The process reminded us of other older eras that managed sales with a relaxed, formal ease when both time and manpower were plentiful - before the days of time management and functional analyses: time and motion studies. The system looked remarkably extravagant to our eyes that were more tuned to strategies that were shaped to maximise efficiency. The tee shirt was processed, wrapped and paid for. A hand written receipt was passed over to document this tiny transaction. When opened by the grandchild, the tee shirt proved to be a winner. It was put on immediately, displayed with pride and not taken off for some days.

Angry Birds turned out to be a computer game that the children had on their ipods. Watching the game being played explained the graphics and clarified the references. Each Angry Bird had its own unique character and characteristics. One by one, they were placed into a slingshot and fired at their adversaries, be these caged birds, cats or some other invention. It was so basic that one wondered what all the fuss was about. Touch the screen near the slingshot, move the finger back as though stretching the rubber band - and the graphic did just this - adjust the angle for the planned trajectory, and then remove the finger to release the bird. If all went well, the cat or other adversary in the line of fire would explode on contact with a direct hit, or respond similarly as the surrounding structural elements collapsed on top of the 'baddies.' Then another bird jumped into the sling for the next shot. The aim was to eradicate all baddies. Scores were accumulated for every element and baddie demolished or blown up. After all birds had been used, or when all cats or the baddies had been exterminated, a banner would appear on the screen declaring the achieved total score in a bewildering roll count of numbers, a little like the roll of the wheels in a poker machine This dramatic presentation was highlighted by stars that burst out like fireworks as larger stars were stamped onto the screen to declare which level of three possible outcomes had been achieved. Level one was the lowest and most rudimentary of outcomes, seemingly requiring little skill or guile. One had to discover subtle and more shrewd approaches and strategies in order to reach the higher levels. The whole game was accompanied with dramatic music, thumping and banging to suit the various stages of the game in the same way that 'Who wants to be a Millionaire' uses background sound to emphasize the trauma, drama and wonder of the occasion. If one did not eradicate all cats and baddies, the large banner would flash onto the screen with a sigh of despair, declaring for everyone to hear that you had failed. All of this only offered the player the challenge to get the baddies or to achieve a higher level in the game which turned out to be a set of thirty different games. With three levels per game, this particular set offered the player ninety game opportunities. The other matter that drove one on to succeed was that the next game could only be accessed once at least a level one had been achieved on the game before it. The whole Angry Bird game was an intricate maze of challenges that stimulated more and more effort until all ninety levels had been achieved. Then there were other sets to be tackled. The children knew all about the particular details, tasks, rules and characters. The bright yellow stars that accumulated under the graphic marker for each game made everything obvious. The voids disclared that more effort was needed, while all achievement was praised with copious stars, both bold and bursting. Basically this was a war game with praise and encouragement being given for destruction and extermination.

It was some weeks later while searching the App Market for an app to allow me to use the tablet for writing documents like this one, that I stumbled upon an Angry Birds Space app. It was in fact recommended by the editor as one of the best free aps for the week. Free! Gosh, I might as well download it and explore this Angry Bird phenomenon myself. When children are around it is just impossible to get the ipod out of their hands for longer than half a minute; and during this half minute, the little fingers are still poking around larger digits that they see as moving too slowly. Now there was a chance to experience the game at my own pace without any distraction. It is important to think about things, not only because of the hidden structure of the games, but also to review what the games were doing to the player. So Space Birds was downloaded. It only took about thirty seconds and the games could start. It turned out to be an 'olympic' occasion.

Game one was clicked, a screen with space-styled things moving slowly across it appeared, along with the slingshot and the cats in some structure surrounded by a circles. Aim, fire. The birdie  went spinning around into infinity, completely missing the cat. Oh, I see - gravity. One has to allow for the distortions to the trajectory caused by planets. Clever. So with this trial and error learning curve, one kept going until the cats were exploded. There were many fails and loud sighs, but when one achieved an outcome, stars appeared to grade the outcome in tune with the triumphant fanfare. There was no better praise than having three stars pounded down to complete the set and the level three outcome. Then on to the next game - and so on. It was all very clever. Each game offered a new challenge to be decyphered, and this had to be resolved on each of the three different levels that explored different possibilities and methods. The process intoxicated one, drew one in and on, so that there was only me and my tablet. The rest of the universe was excluded as I explored the tricks in this Angry Birds Space. The designers must have had fun in creating this entertainment for it involved complex logic and mathematics. Of course, some games and levels were easier than others. It appeared as though the programming of these games included variations to allow for immediate success or possible repeated failures until a certain effort had been made. One became cynical when certain combinations gave outcomes that varied from time to time. Still, it was all very intriguing. It also engaged the player in a self-centred delight, so much so that I have to record that I finally, after much perseverance on some games, achieved level three on two sets of thirty games - a grand total of 180 games. Now with repeated failures and the required repetition, this probably meant that I had made, say, over one thousands attempts, with all the time this required. It was truly astonishing. One can see how young minds get sucked into timelessness and indulgence  - and why parents ban such things! I don't ever want to go through this experiment again.

The experience does raise some questions about our new technologies and architecture. Are they changing us? Is the nexus between machine programme and man making us more and more introverted and self-interested? Is it emphasizing our singular self-importance? Is it making our architecure into a game - e.g. how clever can one be, with the stars appearing metaphorically in ones own eyes when the most extreme distortions have been successfully interralated to become a building programme? Do we need to take steps to counter this isolating and self-important-making technology? I recall students becoming extremely impressed with their own very sketchy and unresolved work when carried out on computer drawing programmes that allow many and varied complex images to be created from the most rudimentary arrangement of lines. 3D vistas galore only made the maker more than self-satisfied with his/her own searching efforts, so that what would once have been indecypherable scrible becomes a set of images that are handed in as a final design - which leaves the student considering him/herself as being close too genius.

Now this is student work. If architectural practices manage the results of machine manipulations in a similar manner - even only with a small percentage of likeness - one has to be concerned. Here the rough sketch created by the computer ironically relies on the computational skills of the computer to be turned into a building in the real world. It is so self-referential that it carries all of the problems of inbreeding. There is nothing objective left to test the outcones, especially when the maker, too, is being so impressed with the outcomes of his/her key pressing. One has to wonder if it is this circumstance that is giving rise to the extreme personal confidence with such randomly distorted forms and images that are being transformed into real buildings for real people with real functional requirements. Do we need Angry Birds to begin demolition - even demolition of egos - so that true critiques can reveal new challenges that can touch us rather than startle and amaze or puzzle? Is it the Hirst effect where exaggerated difference is glorified as genius for all of us to gaze at in anxious and humiliated, shy wonder, always fearing to ask the question or express any doubt because of the sheer gaul being displayed? While this observational query might be somewhat speculative, what is clear in architectural offices today is the way computers have taken over as the primary thought process. Before anything is started, computing issues are attended to. In the documentation, these same matters arise, leaving the finer issues in design and detailing muddied, if not by technique or process, then by the necessities of mathematical patterns. How many times does one see the command 'mirror and 'copy' being used to replicate similar situations without the required adjustments being completed for the new situation? And there are many other examples too. Can one ever recall time-consuming discussions in the office concerning which pen or pencil, or set square, should be used for a drawing? Can any discussions on how an eraser can be used be remembered?

Technology has transformed architectural practice and architecture - and ourselves. While it takes time to be able to use new systems unselfconsciously, as the electric guitar has shown, we do need to ensure that we are not being dragged off into a brave new world that distorts everything just because it is there. We have to be better than this and avoid the distracting tricks of new games. Raw human life and qualities do not alter. Architecture needs to be handled gently and guided carefully with a modest questioning and earnest seeking, and not be driven by self-centred diversions and pumped-up egos. History is one way in which we can gauge our efforts. It can help us remember - to recall, not only the possibilities of the past but those of the future as well; a future, one hopes, that can be assessed side by side with the past and not be mocked as less - for being so carelessly and indulgently frivolous. The core of tradition is remembrance. We forget at our own risk. Consider UR and compare.

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