Character Approved's Architecture Expert: Chad Smith

characterapproved.jpgIf it seems like the posting frequency has gone down a tad the last few months, that's because it has!  I am also writing for USA Network's Character Approved Blog, which assembles experts in various cultural fields to talk about what we think is positively impacting the cultural landscape.  I am the architecture expert.  I mean, who else would they pick?  Joke.  I was honored to be asked.

Visit often.  I'll twitter a link when the articles I've written go live there.

Play With The City

All, playing one big game.  What if this was your relationship to everyone in the city?

Concrete Mushrooms: Transforming Paranoia

concrete-mushrooms-final-1034.jpgAlbania in the 20th Century produced 750,000 concrete bunkers, to defend the tiny country against the onslaught of the invasive Capitalist villains of the West. But ha ha we never invaded!  Leaving behind a bunker for almost everyone everywhere in this tiny country.  Who doesn't want one of those?  Except no one knows what to do with them, and no one really owns them, and they're everywhere.

Fortunately the concrete mushrooms are solid concrete and steel, making them so durable that it is not feasible to demolish them.  Or alter them except to build them out.  It is this territory that two Albanian graduate students at Politecnico di Milano are exploring in their blog and developing documentary Concrete Mushrooms.  The potential of this project comes to life in the trailer for the documentary, which includes several Albanians talking about how they have reused one of the mushrooms littering the landscape.  We'll be keeping tabs on this one.

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The City In Film: Ghostbusters

GB001 - Columbia by nycscout.jpgScouting NY does a very welcome and in-depth analysis of New York City, then and now, as seen through the classic lens of Ghostbusters.

One of the pleasures of this film is that it is shot in locations I am familiar with: Columbia University, the Upper West Side, and Tribeca.  Having seen their past captured as the sets of a 1980's film makes being in them in the present that much more thrilling.  Scouting NY's two-part dissection is a bit more precise though.

I would like to take this opportunity to request NYC then-and-now analyses of the following films: The Wiz, Klute, and The Warriors.

Video Life Of Small Urban Spaces

One of my favorite, formative books, The Social Life Of Small Urban Spaces, was of course a transcription of many written, photographic, and filmed records of how people actually use public space.  So you imagine my excitement when I saw that some of the video is now on youtube.

24 Hour Guggenheim


Last night at 6pm, the Guggenheim began its 24-Hour Program on the Concept of Time. Presenters included architects, artists, philosophers, writers, anthropologists, etc. Like any academic conference, lucidity and brevity comingled with pointless meandering. I suppose temporal musings may demand the non-specific thought processes that I saw last night and this morning. Below are highlights from the conference--at least the way I remembered and experienced the moments.

Continue reading and more pictures by roving New York City correspondent Saharat Surattanont.

Finding New York City For Film


Speaking of documenting New York City, a new weblog called Scouting NY documents the travels of a film location scout. He is dedicated to the art of actually looking at New York City, while everyone else rushes on the sidewalk to get on with their business. His business is looking, and by what is on his site so far, he appears to have some great observations.

Via Curbed!

007 Data Center


No this is not a movie set. It probably will be, though. Or perhaps it was designed after seeing You Only Live Twice? At any rate this data center 30m under Stockholm, designed by Albert France-Lanord Architects, is futuristic as seen from the classic Bond era. It's also an interesting problem for an architect: given an existing enclosure, one that really can only be changed by dynamite, what would you do? Well, design a kick-butt movie set, that's what.

Exploded by Arch Daily.

Star Trek Gets Architecture


Architecture enthusiasts who saw Quantum of Solace this weekend, or those (like us!) who watched the HD trailer to the next Star Trek movie frame-by-frame, saw the unmistakable criss-cross trusses of Fay Jones's iconic 1980 Thorncrown Chapel in one second of the planet Vulcan. What that that big podium or what Spock is doing in front of it, we have no idea. We love the inclusion of spectacular buildings in splodey science fiction. It gives a palpable material reality to the stories, both because we know these spaces in real life, and they have the grain and character of well-designed buildings. A computer generated set by a professional computer modeler just does not create the same effect.

Perhaps we should start designing our buildings with more of this cinematic flavor in mind? How it appears on film, yes. But also deep consideration of what kind of production values you are looking for. What kind of film would this building work well in? Buildings are always turned into sets long after they are built. Is it possible to develop a specific architecture that is ready for films of a specific type during the Schematic Design Phase?

Freeze frame from io9.

Star Wars: A New Heap


Our favorite Death Star artist John Powers has posted a fascinating essay about Star Wars, Minimalism, and Modernism called Star Wars: A New Heap over at triplecanopy. This goes beyond his wonderful visual associations (like the original Star Wars text crawl and Robert Smithson's Heap of Language from 1966) and does research into the origins of the aesthetics of Star Wars, placing them squarely in the contemporary art of the late 1960s, including hard connections like the creative team from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddessy, who were in turn tightly connected to Minimalist and Modern Art.

Tropolism Films: Bodega Down Bronx


Today is a screening of the new film Bodega Down Bronx. From the Center for Urban Pedagogy's announcement: "This past year, students from New Settlement's Bronx Helpers and CUP teaching artist Jonathan Bogarin investigated bodegas in the Bronx. The group interviewed bodegueros, visited their suppliers, and met with congressional representatives, health professionals, and alternative Bronx food establishments. They made a documentary to pass along what they learned." Watch the trailer here.

The screening is at 5:30 at CUNY Law School Auditorium, 65-21 Main Street, Flushing, Queens, NY.

Tropolism TV: Ultimate Skyscraper


The National Geographic Channel is featuring One Bryant Park on its Man Made series. The episode airs Thursday, November 6, at 9PM ET/PT. It's a great mini-documentary on the building, and gives some great insights into how large-scale sustainable building is happening these days. What's particularly great is how articulate and passionate Richard Cook is about this way of building.

Tropolism Film Series: Summer 2007


[Editors note: For our inaugural Film Series, Summer 2007, we invited architect/cinephile Saharat Surattanont. Our only terms: the films must be interesting to architects, but have a common theme that is atypical of architectural film series. Enjoy.]

We often overlook the mundane in film.

Architecture film series tend to follow two basic trends: A monumental urban vision that reinforces “larger than life” characters or an “over stimulated” reality that symbolizes a confused and schizophrenic existence.

This film series examines non-contiguous spaces--inhabited by “dysfunctional” characters. Our protagonists never rise above their surroundings nor are they fully dwarfed by them. A more integrated and symbiotic relation develops between them and their world.

No grand conclusions can be drawn from these films. Mostly, time just passes. In the end, we’ve seen a fractured reality--reframed by those that are often ignored, dismissed or marginalized. All we can finally say is that we’ve shared their world and are reminded to acknowledge the spaces (and people) that are too often overlooked.

Click Continue Reading for the complete film list...

Tropolism Films: Subdivided


Director Dean Terry emailed us recently to announce his new film, Subdivided, exploring how suburban design resists the formation of communities. We haven't seen the film yet (premier is January 3 on Dallas PBS television station KERA, 8pm), but the premise is intriguing to us. The only mark against is the featuring of not one but three New Urbanists as featured interviews in the film. Weren't there any regular urban planners and designers available? Whatever the case we look forward to seeing the film.

On Smithson's Hotel Palenque


Greg Allen posts a gorgeous piece about Robert Smithson's lecture/slideshow/fictional narrative Hotel Palenque. He includes a link to a filmed recording of the 1972 event at the University of Utah, and impressions of what it is to see this piece through the lens of a filmmaker.

Tropolism Films: A Scanner Darkly and The Lake House


Filmed space typically serves as a backdrop to a character driven narrative. Yet every now and then it becomes a pivotal element that lures us into its grasps---sometimes in the most unlikely of scenarios--and if Keanu is our guide, sit back, drink the Kool-Aid, and slice the Velveeta.

(Some times, we just have to yield and submit. As much as I hate to admit it: there’s just something about a Keanu Reeves movie. His two recent films, A Scanner Darkly and The Lake House proudly exhibit his mastery of an incessant naiveté and bewilderment.)

See the rest of the review by clicking Continue Reading…

John Powers: Sci-Fi Wahabi


When we were wee students in graduate school, we found a prepoderance of fellow students who should have been at Sci-Arc who did nothing but designs that triggered our deepest childhood fantasy of landscapes like the surface of the Death Star in Episode IV: A New Hope. They were unable to describe their work as a pure exercise in facile form-making; instead tortuous and unsatisfying descriptions ensued. Tortuous and unsatisfying jury comments were a result. (Of course, this was Tschumi's Columbia University, the jury comments didn't regularly border on the profound anyway). But a part of me always hoped they would just leave architecture and create their planetscapes anyway, and we would all play and live with them anyway.

The artist John Powers is not a former fellow student, but he could have been. Our favorite scapes are Sci-Fi Wahabi #1, pictured above, and the delusional Sol Le Witt-like Voluntaries #23a. They ignite our imagination the way toys did long ago, and architectural models did not-so-long-ago. Our invitation is for him to create something larger and perhaps walkable. Something we can be inside, and explore with our bodies.

Via Future Feeder, of course.

Tropolism Films: Sketches of Frank Gehry


Los Angeles Correspondant John Southern reports on the LA premiere of "Sketches of Frank Gehry".

There comes a time in an architect’s career when self-preservation (in an archival sense) begins to seep into the sub-conscious like water under a dam. Building great works of architecture can only provide one with the fleeting feelings of monumentality in as long as they are left standing. Film, however, is easily reproducible and thus may well exist for eternity. All you need to complete the equation is a friend with a movie camera and a penchant for probing questions and its “Lights! Camera! Action!”.

The last phrase invariably came to mind on Monday evening when I attended the LA Premiere of “Sketches of Frank Gehry” directed by his good friend, Sydney Pollack. The film was shown at an event entitled “Reel Talk” hosted by Vanity Fair and Tiffany’s at the Directors Guild Of America building- a piece of architecture so banal that it almost does injustice to the artists it seeks to unite.

Click Continue Reading for more screening shots and review...

Tropolism Films: The Gamble House


Some buildings acquire so much affection, they show up in films again and again. Here a lovely bungalow for a mad scientist; there a lovely bungalow floating in, er, outer space.

We are equally enamored of sites like, which is currently tracking the appearance of the Gamble House in films, such as Back To The Future and Zathura. That's the power of love.

Reasons To Love BLDGBLOG, #1


There are so many reasons to love BLDGBLOG. The omnivorous appetite. The appetite for the surreal. The appetite for the mineral. However, this entry, regarding A View To A Kill and its architectural fantasy, has made us true, die-hard fans. We have a thing for reading into things televised, you know.

Tropolism TV: Battlestar Galactica


Continuing our theme of airplane disaster fantasy, we now turn to the space version: the new reimaginedBattlestar Galactica on the sci-fi channel. Like Lost, the show takes place almost entirely in a place free of architecture. Lost is on an island (filmed in hawaii) or on the interior of an airplane, or a few flashbacks to before-the-plane-crashed-time. Galactica takes place almost entirely in the interior of ships, or their exterior, with an occasional planetside jaunt (eerily like Vancouver).

The show has many innovations, but my primary concern is how the show's environments tells its story. Check them out after the jump...

Tropolism TV: Lost


One of our favorite televised spaces is the interior of an airplane. The camera transforms the insipid interior of a first-class cabin into something magnificent.

The other thing we like to watch, as a welcome respite to a day spent drafting or battling contractors, is verdant paradises in High-Definition television.

In short, we love watching either the ideal machined interior, or pretty green tropical leaves.

The television show Lost, which begins its new season tonight, is a delight because it delivers both experiences. In fact, its narrative depends on the back-and-forth between weird super-paradise and airplane interior. And, it is transmitted in HDTV.

Read on...

Tropolism TV: The Ultimate Fighter


When the SpikeTV first aired The Ultimate Fighter in the spring, our first thought was what an awful house. The show had two primary sets. Home base, where all the fighters lived, was an ugly (yes, Tropolism means all beauty is relative, no need to remind me), sprawling, cheaply designed, and poorly built house, complete with pink stucco and awful leather sofas. Lucky for our readers that the research department was unable to find any pictures of this house online. The second location was the training gym, used also for the fight challenges.

What was amazing about this show is that the sets weren't a tawdry backdrop to a tawdry set of complaining actor-wanna-bees. It was a boring backdrop to a set of people who want to Ultimate Fight for a living. They inhabit the locations as a single thing: as a two-part facility for training. House is for sleeping and eating, gym is for punching and kicking. No set design required. In this sense, the show is more of a documentary than more familiar reality TV shows: it's just about fighting, and is shot on locations that only utilize what the fighters need to fight.


The space of the fight, the Octagon, is what spawned this feature, which is why I've devoted the inaugural column to it. A measurable portion of most people's time is spent watching television. Tropolism means realizing that watching TV is a way of adding to your mental catalog of spaces, many of which you will never enter. Like the Octagon. Click the link below to bring it on!