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ADS12: Melee

Tutors: Benjamin Reynolds & Valle Medina

Extending our past explorations, in 2020/21 ADS12 will again be concerned with our ‘sensibilities to discern within the massive changes’ brought about by the perpetual flow of digital information. Recently, it has become increasingly obvious that a prerequisite of contemporary citizenship lies in the ability to perceive and react to inordinate amounts of information – reactions that are rapidly shifting our shared traditions. Our opinions are formed in an online, global, forum in which all and every opinion can be heard simultaneously, creating a melee of beliefs. This year in ‘Melee’, ADS12 will explore what it means to encounter everything at once.

The Communion of Strangers 

A number of things must take place to create a mass communion of strangers. The first thing that needs to happen is an encounter. Indeed, the social life of an individual cannot take place without encountering a stranger and, very quickly after they meet, a swirling mass of histories, values, mannerisms and beliefs entangle. These entanglements are ‘melees’ – a term that was coined, from the French meaning ‘mixture’, in the twelfth–century to describe a certain type of battlefield encounter, a confused, messy free-for-all fought at close quarters.

The encounter between Disney artists and a growing deer over nine months (from youth to adulthood) to learn how to draw it. Source: Collier's Magazine.
The encounter between Disney artists and a growing deer over nine months (from youth to adulthood) to learn how to draw it. Source: Collier's Magazine.

One of the intentions of chivalry was to avoid melees by encoding courteous behaviour between combatants, such as never striking a defenceless opponent, and developing rules for encounters, such as battles must only take place on tournament grounds. Similarly, martial arts follow a set of specific guidelines that are not only intended for self-defense, but also for the physical, mental and spiritual development of those who practise it. None of which applies in a melee. 

Rating an Island 

As the quantity of information has grown, one strategy has emerged to navigate these treacherous info-tributaries – subjecting information to ratings. We can now give a rating to a peninsular, a dog breed, an island. What if the weather was terrible when you visited the island? What if there was a freak storm? What if, like on the Yemeni island of Dajjaall, a mythical evil figure is believed to reside there? What rating would you give it?

Understandably, there is a growing suspicion around perfect ratings. Manufacturers buy 5-star reviews for their competitors so that their products look suspiciously perfect. What can be said about public opinion if positivity can be purchased? And that perfection is suspicious?

Rating an island. Even landscapes are subject to the 5-star metric system. Source: Google
Rating an island. Even landscapes are subject to the 5-star metric system. Source: Google

Another thing that must occur in the mass communion of strangers is that it must be framed by a context – in the form of a space or, more frequently, a platform. The sites of opinion-forming no longer mimic traditional forum spaces. In late 2016, on Club Penguin – a Disney social–media site where kids gather to design their own igloos and have care-free snowball fights – the penguins declared "not my president," "no wall," "I'm with her," and "penguins of color matter," as they voiced their displeasure for their political situation.

And raves, those precious stages that early on, were lived out in the most marginal of spaces like warehouses, are now frequently held in the countryside. The rave as a communal jouissance borne of the warehouse “nave” gives way to the idyllic greenery of the countryside, a space more marginal still.

Left: A
Left: A "Penguin Club" protest. Source: Walt Disney Company. Right: Rave flyer. Source: Unknown.

Aspirational Opulence v Planned Austerity

What happens if we consider the melee as a material? For Le Corbusier the construction site was a “battleground” that was mal foutu (messed up) because of the difficulties in conveying the subtle differences between poor construction (bad) and the primitive (good) to contractors. It took Le Corbusier’s devising of his theory of the “aesthetic of the accident” in order to bridge this gulf between “crudity and finesse". 

At first glance, two possible reactions to the melee emerge. One is the maximalist approach that finds value in every single object, or subject, within the whole. This is the opulent strategy that celebrates quantities from which sense emerges. Take, for example, Monte Testaccio, an ancient site in the middle of Rome made of 50 million crushed olive oil jugs, which, because of its enormity, is perceived as a natural object like a “hill”. The sheer number of objects when collected together, result in the transcendence of artificial objects to a natural setting.

By contrast there is the other position, that of reducing the (material) melee via a process of abstraction that results in deliberate austerity for the sake of clarity, or stability. Could it be that minimalism would never exist, if it were not for a bustling urban life and all it entails?

The tendency of the artificial to become natural again. Monte Testaccio is an ancient site made of 50 million crushed olive oil jugs. Source: Archeologica Multimediale Testaccio Aventino
The tendency of the artificial to become natural again. Monte Testaccio is an ancient site made of 50 million crushed olive oil jugs. Source: Archeologica Multimediale Testaccio Aventino

First Person Singular 

In the case of a crowd, how does the individual position themselves as a member? With every mass, there are centres and margins and the collective – the singular entity of which the melee is composed. Here the legend of the Lone Ranger – a figure whose identity is synonymous with solitude, and whose membership to the melee is defined by a desired marginality – is illustrative. The image of vast nature accompanies the Lone Ranger, opening out to the barren plains of Texas that facilitate his solitude. Indeed, nature is the place where the Lone Ranger acquires freedom.

The Phalanx / The Wall

Nature, like the melee, has always implied the unknown. However, even the unpredictable swarm of the battlefield melee evolved into the phalanx, a rectangular gridded mass of soldiers advancing in unison. And after nature, came the rhythmic and total parcelisation of land, subdivided with walls and dwellings. In the quest to tame the melee, it could be said that the phalanx—and in the case of nature, the parcel—resulting in a particular kind of consciousness. In the case of the soldier in the melee, they’re indistinguishable from any other soldier. Yet within the phalanx, the soldier has a position within a structure and they are able to join their own objectives to that of the collective. Likewise, the parcelisation of land becomes the metric by which ownership becomes measurable.

Parceling the unknown. Left: Out-of-state dealers bought and marked off ten-acre tracts for mail-order sale near Elko, Nevada. Right: Oasis-dwellers near Timimoun, Algeria erect fences made of palm fronds to protect their gardens from the shifting sand. Sources: National Geographic
Parceling the unknown. Left: Out-of-state dealers bought and marked off ten-acre tracts for mail-order sale near Elko, Nevada. Right: Oasis-dwellers near Timimoun, Algeria erect fences made of palm fronds to protect their gardens from the shifting sand

Plenitudes

In “Melee” we will develop architectural projects as plenitudes – consisting of a minimum of 2000 “acts”, such as species, subjects, objects, or processes, etc. We will explore the strategies an architect can deploy in response to the magnitudes of content that challenger their perceptions and understandings. We will include cultural interpretations on the idea of plenitude, and ask how are particular places and cultures might deal with violent pluralisms?

On site, we will explore what materials and tactics can be employed to relate each of the “acts” to address our contemporary situation from where. We will explore how the relations between each “act” can be consolidated. And wow are they might be bound together within an architecture that capable of framing multiple scenarios?

High Holdings 

In 2020/21, “Melee” will again be hosted within High Holdings – an online environment for the generation and distribution of architectural discourse. High Holdings is situated within the cascade of major revelations in knowledge, which are being forged through the raw power of processing colossal amounts of information. High Holdings addresses the unfolding depictions of the world that may appear unrecognisable, but which are truly products of terrestrial occupation. By prioritising the sovereignty of the architectural idea, High Holdings continues to explore the growing distance between information and perception, complexity and understanding, contribution and participation. Previously in “CHRONOCOPIA” (2018/19), we explored how to characterise time within the architectural project in order to perceive the speed of the present. In “Sight/Seeing” (2019/20), we put the conspicuity of the Image on trial.

Tutors

The work of Valle Medina and Benjamin Reynolds (Pa.LaC.E) can be understood as 'conceits' borrowed from the metaphysical poets, as drawn-out and as turns of images. Their works comprise numerous discrete décors that access ideas – together they create a 'sense', or vector. Their works play out through exhaustive 'idea surveys' that stem from their interest in large acts of human endeavour – encyclopaedic projects, expeditions, taxonomies, etc –  which also 'reinforce the naturalisation' of their work within the ceaselessly shifting contexts in which they operate.

Benjamin Reynolds received a diploma with honours from the Architectural Association, London.

Valle Medina is a graduate from the Laboratory for Applied Virtuality at ETH Zürich D-ARCH (summa cum laude).