Object Lessons was an experiment in a parasitic publishing model with Façadomy as the parasite and The Architects Newspaper as the host in 2018. In this series a diverse range of designers and artists were asked to reflect on an object (material or otherwise) that has made an impact on their practice. Through personal anecdotes, the series highlights the myriad ways in which the built environment informs  identity. The series featured contributions by Nancy Davidson, Gaetano Pesce, Ekene Ijeoma and TAKK.

Illustration by Rad Mora
Artist Ekene Ijeoma reflects on the charged life of the American Flag

The United States Flag Code states, “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” Sometimes it’s flown in different positions and orientations. It can be flown half-staff on days such as Memorial Day and September 11 and flown upside down “as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.”

I’ve been thinking about American symbols and how they respond (or don’t respond) to the state of America and The American Dream. How can the flag respond to the quality of life in America? How can it represent America’s aspirations and realizations? What would happen to the flag as things got better or worse? How would seeing this change our perceptions and actions?

The flag is a fixed object of the past which needs to become more fluid and in conversation with our present. Often the flag doesn’t reflect the changes in the lives of Americans. Within the few weeks that I mused on this, Stephon Clark became the 79th unarmed black American killed by police since 2015, and Saheed Vassell the 80th. Should there be upside-down flags in their backyards and across Sacramento and New York City? In this age of big data and social media, it has become more difficult to filter out fake news and tune into our realities. Online hashtags are the “keepalives,” but in real life, it is out of sight, out of mind. We need more objects and experiences that embody America’s truths to be integrated into our daily lives and city streets/the fabric of our cities. It’s time to repurpose some of these flag codes to create more nationwide visibility, solidarity, and accountability for issues like police brutality or, furthermore, reimagine American symbols like the flag.

Video still from Breathless, Nancy Davidson 1999
Nancy Davidson considers the amorphous object that shaped her career

Like architecture, the history of sculpture is heavily weighted by permanence, monumentality, and memorial. In the early ’90s, I was reading [Mikhail] Bakhtin and thinking about the grotesque and the carnivalesque— intrigued with the humor and chaos of these spaces and the place of the viewer. I wanted to work larger and manage the weight of sculpture myself. In a eureka moment I sent for a weather balloon. The moment I blew it up, I immediately knew it was the perfect material: ephemeral, erotic, funny, absurd, and huge. A body with flesh and very importantly a body of parts… bulbous parts that all bodies have. The bulging “flesh” subverts common stereotypes: “Big is beautiful” riffs on minimalism’s “less is more.” The inflation nozzles are ambiguous, phallic yet receptive in function.

My roots of influence begin with the art of the ’60s’ attitude toward new materials, and the exhilaration of something-out-of-nothing propels me forward. My work reaches for the regenerative pleasure of touch, the fragility of creation, and the spectacle of the body as form. Inflatables evoke both human anatomy and the human condition: the struggle with gravity, the flimsy materials, the delicate stasis between inflation and contraction.

Man Pointing (1947) by Alberto Giacometti
Gaetano Pesce on using a Giacometti sculpture for a coat rack

Many years ago I was in Venice during the winter. At that time I was acquainted with Peggy Guggenheim, who invited me, along with Francesca, the mother of my children, for an evening at her house-museum. The Venetian winter is extremely cold and wet, so we arrived to the event with heavy coats.

A butler opened the door asking for our coats and hung them on a thin Giacometti sculpture that was in the entrance. I thought that the sculpture would have bent under the weight of the coats, but it actually resisted. That evening my suspicion that art has always been functional and practical, as well as being the bearer of meanings, was confirmed: The Giacometti statue was exhibited as a piece of art during the museum’s open hours, and in the evening, when that place became a private home, it was transformed into a coat rack.

Untilled Liegender Frauenakt (2012) by Pierre Huyghe 
TAKK Architecture contemplates the roles of legends and fables in design

Traditionally, legends, fables, and fairy tales have been one of the main ways of generating and transmitting human knowledge. They help articulate the social and material reality of life. Constantly updating, these tales are an open, flexible structure through which new hybrid visions, existing between nature and culture, can be reinscribed within our societies. Breaking away from narrow binary regimes of modernity like male/female or true/false, legends propose alternative models for organizing our reality.

Often existing outside of official contexts like sciences or law, mythic models of creation and dissemination allow for new roles in the decision-making process. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, nonhuman animals, plants, seeds, rocks, bacteria, even unicorns, assume protagonism in the popular sphere.
Tales are lasting examples of everyday practices that incorporate the less official—alternative, marginal, or even bizarre discourses that are always taking place behind the public tribunal. Through myths, we can work in line with an ecologically connected world to rethink scenarios that could effectively incorporate the subjectivity of otherness into a more collective whole.

When inserted into a contemporary ethical and political framework, these mythologies can be recontextualized as valuable tools for learning and observation in architecture. Much like the work of artist Pierre Huyghe, anonymity, intentional ambiguity, and hidden codes of legend are far from banal or irrelevant—they carve out space for new starting points and meanings.