Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
. . .
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers
. . .
This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers
Talking Heads, “(Nothing but) Flowers”
Naked album, 1988
It looks like it’s about trees rather than about architecture, and about gardens and forests instead of a city. Buildings and trees change places: trees are in the foreground, colourful and detailed, and buildings are in the background as discreet contours.
Each tree or plant is considered a unique being and is represented as such. Groups of trees and plants are not organized according to any formal school of landscape design. They are organic, as found; each group is an unrepeatable fragment of a larger continuum of Nature. Trees are the main protagonists in the space of the New Naive.
Trees are selected based on their physical characteristics. The trees depicted are young, with slender forms. They are of ordinary, unremarkable species, the kind found in suburban tree nurseries, at wasteland sites and on high-rise balconies. They provoke sympathy with their fragility and simple beauty, and they look as if they need care; they are the innocents among trees.
Chairs, small furniture and sometimes everyday objects, bikes, garden tools or kitchenware are also represented as personalized and unique participants of this space. The little garden habitat provided by trees is populated in this manner. The chair-characters are small, often zoomorphic and grouped in the space playfully, as it were, avoiding orderly or hierarchical configurations. Through this allegorical scene of everyday life, human presence is conveyed, in a soft focus.
The loose constellation of greenery, furniture and other things is lifted out of a familiar domestic setting and placed against a bright, abstract background (a reflective surface or a shadowless white). This simple gesture carries out a more complex operation, through which the space of everyday life (community space, domestic space) is, after a long absence, brought back under the lens of theoretical and aesthetic architectural inquiry. In the New Naive’s airy mise-en-scène, everyday routines – such as reading, talking with a friend or relaxing under the trees – are performed as aesthetic rituals.
“Like Humans Do”
Though often absent from the image, the New Naive’s human character introduces a particular cultural ethos: an air of restraint, a simple manner of life. Everything that used to “make homes so different, so appealing”, modern consumerism and pop culture, has departed. The implied individuals don’t “share space” with artworks, or with any other objects that would promote their social status, political orientation or sexual identity. The living space appears calm, tensionless and freed from any aesthetic pluralism, from parallel narratives and jump cuts. There are no external agendas or other will: culturally, the New Naive is a homogeneous territory.
Liberation from Architecture
Architecture has a weak expression, providing no more than a subtle backdrop in this theatre of the everyday. Though at first it may seem abstract or minimalist, the design process is more focused: the usual interest in the strong outward appearance of an architectural object is tempered, and attention is instead deflected away from the object toward the foreground, the enclosed space, the light, the action. The roles are reversed; architecture steps down and sets landscape and interior free from their traditional subordinate roles. In this seemingly benign transformation, a quiet revolution takes place: New Naive architects declare the suspension of the profession, design without obligation to architecture as it is usually known.
It looks like the New Naive architect also searched for ways to unlearn his skills. For example, he tried to move against the drawing rhetoric he had been taught, replacing his usual technical repertoire with a new authority derived from the drawing of children. The childish, naive-looking manner in which the space is depicted seems to suggest that leaving behind formal jargons of architecture can enable a more essential understanding of space to emerge: a space of sensation, of bodily experience, a “space before the analytical distancing that language entails”.1 This would allow qualities of randomness, spontaneous creativity and balance with Nature, a return to both the design of space and its inhabitation. All it takes to change architecture is changing its language, and this, in turn, will change space and life itself.
Clearly, what is at stake are, on the one hand, human relationships: the multiple, often indeterminate groupings in contemporary society, including family and neighbourhood. On the other hand, there are the relationships between people and nature. Both domains are seen as threatened and nearly dissolved in present-day society and the present-day city. The New Naive proposes that both could be restored to their vital, even native, modes in an environment freed from the normative influences of architectural and urban space. A new kind of architecture – one attuned to the body, the senses and a delicate childlike quality lurking in contemporary urbanity – could contribute to the vision of a close-knit urban society living with nature.
This agenda is being formed through several distinct architectural strategies.
Plan as Natural Order
A plan is a “horizontal world” composed fact-by-fact, with careful attention. An apparent intellectual structure organizing the plan, such as universality or hierarchy, is withheld in favour of less controllable principles, such as juxtaposition, simultaneity and proximity. The rhetoric of the plan avoids the usual syntax; the plan doesn’t say much about the program. Space is conceived as “organic”, elastic. Sometimes it is compressed to the utmost, into a kind of a cellular structure, and at other times structure is irregular and open: things can just happen amidst the forest of trees and columns. In this procedure, naivety and the nature metaphor go hand in hand. The effort to conceal the presence of design intelligence here – to “look undesigned” – serves as a promise of an architecture based on the natural order.
The New Primitives
Among links between the New Naive and other currents of artistic naivety – for instance, at the beginning of twentieth century in the works of Henri Rousseau, Paul Gauguin and the Fauves – is their shared fascination with the primitive. Surely, the primitive is never a quest for the lost past or mythical origins, but rather an intervention in a specific social, psychological and cultural context. Like in any accomplished naive genre, proponents of the New Naive present this case lightly, turning it into a piece of fiction: they talk about nests and caves, and build tree houses and primitive huts. Naives, of course, know no shame – and therein lies their power. For avant-garde art, “primitive” essentially meant “pre-modern” – the (exotic) world standing in conflict with forces of colonial modernization – but in this case, the interest in the primitive has an entirely opposite character. It suggests a future, post-modern and post-urban condition in which the city dweller begins to seek a place of escape, away from the city and “the obsessive homogeneity of the modern dwelling”.2 That idealized locus is no longer in a distant “land of exotic otherness” as it was for the avant-garde but, surprisingly, is found in ordinary, even banal, places: in suburban houses, shops, town halls. It is the attraction of “the other and the outside” revealed among “us”, in the “here and now”.
To construct such a space of fresh aesthetic and cultural sensibility from an ordinary, banal one, the New Naive, in keeping with its character, applies a strategy of erasure. Buildings often appear like white erasures, Baldessari-style cut-outs placed within images – white ideograms, at once abstract and iconic. Caught by a flat, white object floating in the image space, the eye tries to extrude it, to put it on the ground or “redraw” the missing part of the image. Additional visual techniques used in the construction of the image bring naive art to mind once again: the treatment of composition as a two-dimensional collage, illumination without cast shadows, scale and perspective manipulation. Miniscule furniture or thin, small building elements, for example, are crucial to effect of familiarity and pleasantness that the space as a whole achieves. Looking inside, into the white interior, the erasure of elements, details and textures produces a similar effect. In even light, white surfaces collapse together, and space loses depth. Failing to cast shadows, the objects and human figures appearing in images lack context and seem to be pasted to the image surface. The action of looking turns into an unconscious attempt to reconstruct spatial relations.
The resulting image is not strange, and not even new. To the contrary, through subtle manipulation of ordinary, recognizable relations (colour, scale, proportion, etc.), the New Naive succeeds in transforming precisely the familiar image into an object of fascination.
Save for, perhaps, its associations of lightness and simplicity, and for a distant relation to early modern architecture, the use of white is not symbolic; in fact it seems that the opposite is the case. Here, white can be understood as an absence of meaning, an erasure in both physical and semantic space.
It should be admitted: architecture can be unbearable. It can be polluted; it can overstimulate the senses and the mind with the static of countless distracting references and narratives written into building elements, material surfaces and architectural relations. Against that visual and semantic noise, erasure is used as a counter-principle, creating a unifying quality of “silence” that is of the kind found, for instance, in a white-paper model. White is thus much more than a colour: it is the main design strategy, a (metaphorical) operation of turning a building into paper. It is the way of thinking, the logic of architecture.
In this approach, naivety is indispensable. The strategic withholding of knowledge (an apparent naive ignorance) nonetheless wields a critical edge. With systematic brilliance, the proponents of the New Naive “don’t understand” architecture, precisely in order to open up a space for “wonder” about what it might be. Not only architectural axioms, but also every architectural concept and object are brought into question: what is their necessity or redundancy, their essence? What remains after erasure are a few irreducible facts, concepts and forms – the beginning of a new language.
House and City
In a quintessentially modern house (think of the Villa Savoye, for example) everything “seems to be disposed in a way that continuously throws the subject toward the periphery of the house”, toward the view. “The look is directed to the exterior in such a deliberate manner as to suggest the reading of these houses as frames for a view”3 or in fact a series of overlapping frames. The relationship of modern dwellings to the city in which they are found is almost always that of “lookouts dominating a world in order”,4 as Le Corbusier himself wrote. In this sense modern architecture had reinvented a window frame as a problem of urbanism.
In a similar manner, New Naive houses are often conceived as viewing devices. Series of overlapping (white) screens frame and make a montage of views of both interior and exterior into what appears as a single, three-dimensional display of simultaneous images (for example, “grey rooftops”, “a green wall”, “a bedroom with a cat”, “a clear sky” and, ultimately, “whiteness” itself). Against an abstract white screen, a framed view often loses depth and transforms itself into an illusion of an image display, enhancing the perception of a house as a technological artifice. Through the seemingly “endless” layering of screens and frames, domestic life is directed as an elaborate spectacle of voyeurism and performance – of looking while simultaneously being aware of being watched. In contrast to modernist “lookouts” dominating the orderly world, these houses are inward-looking, and even slightly defensive; the subject of fascination is the interior. An occasionally revealed view of a city introduces a sense of detachment: when displayed against a dematerialized white surface, a regular, dense and chaotic cityscape, for example, turns into a fictive image of a historical artefact that looks as if it is losing its purpose. Through the fiction of the framed view, the New Naive creates a place of escape from the city. A house becomes a detached, futuristic lookout with a view of the city of the past.
The New Naive
Is Not Naive
Naivety was often misunderstood. Anything from Gustave Courbet’s Deer in the Forest to Andy Warhol’s Flowers was regularly being taken at face value. But the myth of innocence and ignorance is not relevant here; the artless and the artful, the naive and the worldly usually take each other’s guise. It is understood that the naive manner is not “sincere”, but rather stylistic and strategic.
As an artistic strategy, naivety emerged in the early twentieth century as one of the modern avant-garde movements. Interestingly, the pejorative sense of naive as “gullible” and “uninformed” appeared at precisely the same moment, eclipsing the prior affirmative connotations of “natural” and “unaffected”.5 Naivety begun to represent a counter-world to that of modern European civilization: the black, the primitive, the wild, etc. More than that, however, it began to include everything “exotic” beyond the geographical limit, the experience of life that lay outside definitions of modern normalcy and “the homogenizing control of (modern) knowledge”.6 A similar fascination with the vernacular, the spontaneous and the ordinary can be traced throughout modern architecture. Seen in this way, the function of naivety appears corrective, critiquing and balancing the dominant knowledge regimes of the modern era. An assumption can be made that, in a sense, the Modern and the Naive always went together. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, naivety has been used as a strategy of intervening in the history of modernism.
The ways in which the New Naive questions modern paradigms have already been hinted at in this text: its distrust for universal models, its reinvention of architectural language, its disinterest in the idea of a city as an intelligible spatial entity. They seem to suggest that architecture can continue to be a relevant reflection of society but in a radically reversed perspective: they propose that the house offers a means of reinventing a city, a family and a community as a way to reform society, and they see locality as an agent of shifting balance between urban space and nature, and promote everyday life as the critical cultural practice. This is small-scale modernism, if that is conceivable. In any case, they seem to know much more about the power of small things.
Moreover, it is a modernism for a complex world, one that is not just universally growing and progressing, but also ageing, stagnating and shrinking. In this context, the relevant knowledge of architecture concerns not only the problem of growth, but also that of erasing its traces.
In its indirect and unpretentious way, the New Naive is thus concerned with envisioning the future of the urban. It might be called modernist, or it might not; it doesn’t matter, really. Sure, they bow to the twentieth century, from l’esprit nouveau to the culture of congestion, but what they really want to talk about are some clean white spots and some small trees that they see springing up in the cracks of the global metropolis.
So, what will happen to cars and parking lots? And what about suburbs and malls? And what about towns and cities?, I hear you asking. They don’t know actually; nobody does. But if we give it some time, the world may turn out very differently. Like in the song, in the end there will be nothing but flowers.
1 Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996), 264.
2 Toyo Ito, “Theoretical and Sensorial Architecture: Sou Fujimoto’s Radical Experiments”, 2G (Barcelona), 50 (2009), 8.
3 Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, 283.
4 Ibid., 306.
5 Kelly Mark Cresap, “Warhol and the Art of Cultivated Postmodern Naivete”, Ph. D. dissertation (University of Virginia, 1998), 15; downloadable at www.lib.virginia.edu/etd/theses/cresap98.pdf.
6 Christopher Green, “The Exotic in the Banal: The Other Side of the Douanier’s Charm”, in Henri Rousseau (Riehen and Basel: Beyeler Museum AG, 2010), 17.