Nostalgia and Technology, by Rachel Allen – August 1993

Nostalgia and Technology
Re: Shin Takamatsu at Sfmoma


To talk about technology without anticipating the future is as difficult as talking about the future without involving technology. Since Frankenstein was published in 1816, science and technology have been the central themes of both figurative and literary futuristic fiction, organizing entire genres. Because of technology’s crucial role in imaginary futures, technoimagery can signify the future all by itself. Historical anticipation continues to accompany technology outside explicitly fictional contexts. Technology’s role of designating the future in fiction determines the values and standards in everyday evaluations of contemporary of technology. The models of history at work in futurism order any attempt to engage technology in general.


Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Contemporary media coverage of technology is of immanent revolutions, brave new worlds, and endless possibilities. The April 12, 1993, Time cover story on “The Electronic Superhighway” exemplifies this incessant anticipation, with phrases like “Coming Soon”, “bringing a revolution”, and “Take a Trip into the Future.” Propelling such narratives of expectation is a kind of Darwinism, which presumes that technology is evolutionary, a species developing according to its own internal rule of the survival of the fittest. Technology’s progress typifies progress itself. The value of that progress may be disputed, but the trajectory of development and increasing complexity remains uncontested. This progress is similar to the one outlined by Benjamin above, with the same characteristics and requiring the same caveats.

A progress-oriented history of technology requires the parallel delineation of a history-minus-technology, ahead of which technology is located, establishing its claim to progress. Of the two histories, technology is always evolving faster and more efficiently. Invariably, the question is whether or not we, located in the non-technological history, are prepared for technology, as if we are behind it, late, running to keep up. Time asks, “Is America ready?”

Nostalgia is ordinarily defined as yearning for the past. Techno-futurisms are nostalgic when they provide an opportunity to yearn for the present, as if it is already over. Stories of technological progress incorporate fatalism even when endorsements, because the progress they describe is presumed to be inevitable. From the future, one looks back at the present with a sense of loss. Melancholic regret coincides with the relief and thrill of abdicated responsibility. Sadness for a present so promptly abandoned can only be suspicious.

Kirin Plaza Osaka 1985-87. View of exterior at night


The Shin Takamatsu show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a full-scale, interactive 3D modeling of many stories about technology, regret and anticipation. The show’s techno-imagery saturated with both futurism and its associated nostalgia uses Japan as a particularly laden stage for the enactment of these issues. The function of representations of Japan for American audiences demands careful attention and delineation.

Images which are abbreviations for Japan when they appear in a U.S. context, such as dragons, Zen gardens, shoji screens, and lanterns, are judiciously distributed throughout the show. These icons appear in explanatory texts in and around the exhibition, in formal references in the installation itself, and in the museum’s publicity materials. An article in the SFMOMA newsletter reads:

For Westerners in particular, the notion of Japanese architecture often evokes visions of a contemplative garden or spare tatamimat room that suggests a realm ruled by austere Zen aesthetics.

Yes, but, for Americans in particular, Japan just as often evokes Godzilla movies, Ultraman, and factory robots in newscasts about Detroit’s competition. In fact, Takamatsu’s design-with its mirrored surfaces, bolts and rivets made for as well as from photography and animation-recalls not just science, but science fiction,  including the movies, stories, and newscasts. While the show’s representations of Japan as craft-oriented and spiritual are not necessarily nostalgic, the iconographic logic of the SFMOMA show relies on juxtaposing this heavily edited craft-Japan with a glimmering, animated sci-fi-Japan.

The techno-Zen garden installation designed by Takamatsu in the rotunda, the museum’s central exhibition space, exemplifies this operation of conceptual adjacency between two iconic Japans. The floor is covered with rocks, but the rocks are painted bright gold. Soft white fabric hangs from arched partitions subdividing the room, but the fabric is synthetic. The pairing recurs in moments of easy opposition that display the terms in disingenuous conflict, with built-in resolution. The effect is enabled by gentle, cheerful irony, ultimately re-establishing these two extensively edited versions of Japan as mutually exclusive and leaving them intact.

Syntax. Side elevation


Each of the four corners of the rotunda is dedicated to an individual project: Kirin Plaza Osaka; Kunibiki Messe; Syntax; and Origin I, II, III. Each corner includes drawings, models, and a video monitor showing an animated loop of the project. The adjacency between past and future, craftsmanship and technology that organizes the installation’s iconography also operates in its techniques of representation.

The intricate drawings which are Takamatsu’s most circulated cultural product showcase the marriage of techno and tradition: elaborate metallic, mechanistic details are drawn in graphite on rough rag paper with Beaux-Arts rendering techniques, white poche section cuts and dramatic interior shadows. The centerpiece of each display is the television screen, mounted on a podium in the corner statuary alcove. While the rendering techniques of the drawings attract admiration, it’s clear that even these gorgeous drawings cannot compete with television in vying for the museum-goer’s attention.

It is valuable to rigorously track the techniques of these computer animations, their points of view, formal patterns, and editing devices. A close reading of their presumptions and preoccupations reveals some of architects’ presumptions and preoccupations about buildings, animation as a medium, and architectural representations in general. For example, the animation loop devoted to Origin I, II, III opens with a parti diagram. Rotating and sweeping three-dimensional blocks appear and link together to build a diagram of the project. The familiar linear series of additive stages of schematic development are not transformed by this medium. The animation works like an on-screen flip-book of the traditional sequence of diagrams.

All of the animations follow consistent points of view, unwaveringly focused on the modeled building. The unbroken gaze of this point of view is particularly striking in an animation, in which there is no camera. Predictably enough, the completed building as an object is the protagonist of each animation. The medium is used exclusively to display this object, using a finite series of devices.

Occasionally, the building is approached from a distance from the air, as if by an airplane, an object whole and complete against a fish-eyed horizon. The view point slowly circles the building as it moves closer. The point of view changes according to a series of very particular types of movement: rotate, approach, sweep. These characteristic commands are pursued individually for short sequences, which end with either a locked still, or fade into the next sequence.

The stills correspond to familiar, traditional architectural views, such as a site plan, a three-quarter view, or a full frontal elevation. Similar moments are established in the interior: a view down a hallway or out a window. This cycle of approach, freeze, fade organizes every one of the animations in the show, but in the Kirin Plaza Osaka animation, this still frame as on-screen drawing is explicit. An image of a graphite drawing of a site plan expands into the modeled images of the building in the city. By constructing and displaying a recognizable formal link, these moments create a historical place for animation in the context of other mediums of architectural representation.


Such devices are not intrinsic to the medium, the programs or the equipment. Conventions that pass as determined by a given medium are fore grounded as conventions when they remain in place despite a change in context. This is not to say that conventions should remain in their apparently original medium, or that honesty is the best policy. It is simply to note that technical conventions are not structurally inherent to their medium, but circulate with other, more intricate, motivations and boundaries.

The techniques used in the animations can also be found outside this medium. Alongside the animations, at the show’s entrance there is a “high definition three-dimensional video depicting buildings by Shin Takamatsu every half hour.” In the video, a camera reproduces the consistent, slow speed of the animation’s moving point-of view, and its commands of approach, rotate, and pan. At first, the video seems influenced by the animations; one begins to say retroactively influenced, according to the presumption that video technology precedes computer animation historically. Instead the adjacency of the two mediums discloses a technique as a technique when it is located in both.

Syntax, Kyoto, 1988-90. View of exterior at night


The question begged by virtual space is, what if it’s just as good or better than the actual kind? If enough (or simply the right) people are persuaded, traditional architecture will disappear.

Mike Sorkin, U Scenes from the Electronic City”


“Take hold of those metal knobs on the arms of the chair whispered Lenina. “Otherwise you won’t get any of the feely effects ...”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


metaphasia: an inability to perceive metaphor

Douglas Coupland, Generation X


At the video station, each visitor wears 3D glasses of folded cardboard and earphones. The silliness of these devices points out their more basic function, which is simply to distinguish this video from everyday TV watching. The glasses and earphones are badges saying this video is special, just as the television monitors worn by the show are badges saying this architecture is special.

This apparatus of differentiation relies for its success, in part, on the media blitz recently enjoyed by technologies for the human body. The vocabulary of fascination with such interactive gear is surprisingly literal considering the long-standing suspicion that the relationship between viewers or readers and representation has always been interactive. The audience member’s body becomes a place to articulate anxiety about the fragile separation between audience and fiction, and the ongoing intimacy between people and characters. Frankenstein is a story about the intimacy between people and their productions. The central pair of Victor Frankenstein and his monster are creator and created engaging in an extended chase of mutual interdependence, identification and destruction. These two are only the most discussed among a dizzying array of slippery analogical relationships between biographical characters (Mary Shelley, her parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron) and fictional ones (Victor Frankenstein; Robert Walton, the book’s narrator-scribe; the monster; and a myriad of minor characters) which occur both in the novel and in associated critical and biographical writings. The same scary closeness between biography and fiction in Frankenstein and that between user and screen underlies the rhetoric of virtual reality.

In the Takamatsu show, as in Frankenstein, technology is used as a tool of production, in the form of CAD programs, animations and the televisions on which they’re shown. It is also the organizing vocabulary of the designs, providing the terms with which it can be described as controversial or futuristic. The tools themselves seem to delineate the boundaries of production, creating its limits and options. A medium’s apparently irreducible qualities, such as the animation program’s list of commands, absorb those qualities of the animations unclaimed by any person. Similarly, the techno-imagery absorbs faiths in and desires for technology as progress, and disperses those throughout the buildings and discussions of them. The exhibition uses technology to represent and propel us toward the future, leaving architecture, and architects, free to disclaim any such ambition. We, however, respond viscerally to representations in ways that are disarming even when the connections are not flagrantly diagrammed by tools.

Rachel Allen has studied architecture at Princeton and SCI-Arc and is currently working in San Francisco.

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