Nic Clear is the Course Director of Bartlett School of Architecture. He runs “Unit 15”, a postgraduate design unit, which uses film, animation and motion graphics to generate, develop and represent ‘uncertain’ architectural spaces and narratives. 200% met with Clear during the Alpha-Ville festival – an international festival of Digital Arts and Culture hosted by The Whitechapel Gallery – and discussed with him the danger of the majority of contemporary architects operating in the highest stratum, why he perceives that the future represented by architects is not realistic, whether London is a visionary city, and his belief that a maintenance of property prices is the reason why London made the Olympic bid.
200%: Could you explain what “Unit 15” exactly does?
Nic Clear: One of the main interests of the design unit that I run is to look at the possible futures of architecture and the way people occupy urban cities.
I’m very sceptical of visions presented to people by the architectural profession. They [the architectural profession] give us a series of fully rendered, computer generated images of lovely sleek, slick cities made of these complex doubly curved surfaces filled with people drinking cappuccinos – for me, it doesn’t ring true as it only illustrates one kind of stratum.
I come from a background that also looks at the political and cultural diversity – so with any kind of city that has this ‘polish’ you can usually guarantee that there is an existence of another side.
We [Unit 15} are looking at alternatives, that the future might not be as rose tinted as it is often presented to people; it is this that, in my view, engenders a lot of the interest, on which students pick up.
200%: The English novelist J.G. Ballard has been a big influence in your architectural teaching and on how you think of the future, hasn’t he?
Nic Clear: Yes, he has. It is strange that someone like Ballard, who sets up in some cases extraordinary unlikely scenarios, that they actually ring more true to the kind of propositions and proposals that we read about in the architectural press. There is a strong element of a Ballardian influence in the way in which I think of the future. When we assume the things that can go wrong, and the future isn’t going to be as shining, that doesn’t necessarily present a problem because, actually, one of the enduring aspect of the way in which people occupy space is that they attempt to make the best of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Even though the work that the Unit might present is a seemingly dystopian future, there is actually an incredible level of optimism and joy that lies behind that as well.
200%: Could you give an example of that?
Nic Clear: One of my students [Ben Olszyna-Marzys] did a project called “London after the Rain”. It took Max Ernst’s painting “Europe after the Rain” and it presented London as a fragmented, urban landscape with part ruins, part Arcadian landscape – it was an incredible beautiful piece. In the final shot there is a pen to Canary Wharf that blows up in the future and, personally, I almost prefer any future than the one given to us by Canary Wharf. I think a world dominated by that kind of corporate understanding of the world is something of which I would not want to be part. This, actually, is the kind of vision that is perpetuated by mainstream architecture.
200%: Do you believe what architects represent as the future isn’t realistic?
Nic Clear: It will be very much contained. We’re seeing much more the fragmentation of urban culture into very sort specific ‘tribal’ areas: the rise of gated communities and areas that are massively secured and massively policed, with other areas almost written off as "no-go” areas. This is something incredibly dangerous and it’s in these kind of highest stratum in which, I believe, the majority of contemporary architects are operating – this is something that we, as an architectural profession, need to question, i.e. is our motive only to service a very small portion of society?
200%: You’re passionate about using film in your architectural teaching. Why is that?
Nic Clear: Film is a medium that can communicate ideas to a much wider variety of people. When you show the majority of people a set of architectural drawings they have absolutely no understanding as to what they’re about: whereas with the emersion of cinema and television, people can take on quickly very abstract complex ideas through the moving image. I think, more and more, the architecture profession has to use these new means of representing work.
Another reason why I started using films in my architectural teaching is because I’m such a science fiction fan of how they represent the future i.e. what I think is really effective about sci-fi films is that the future isn’t all clean and shiny; there is grit, there is dirt, there is a kind of sense that people moving past things.
200%: Do you use, for example, “Blade Runner” in your architectural teaching?
Nic Clear: Yes, I show them the making of “Blade Runner”, “Dangerous Days” the three-and-half hour documentary. I show that to all my students as it was the last film that used “in-camera” special effects. When I try to explain to students how to use something like “after effects” and how to do it in-camera, there is a brilliant sequence in the making of [“Dangerous Days”] where they actually show how the matte photography was done and how they used miniatures with false perspectives. I believe that, when you show students how it is done manually, then the moment they move into digital software they understand what it is that they are trying to do. The understanding of doing something in an analogue way helps you to then understand how to use digital tools, to be able to do that without the same kind of laborious processes.
200%: The theme of this year’s Alpha-Ville festival is “Visionary Cities”. Do you think that London is a visionary city?
Nic Clear: I belief it was. I moved to London in 1982 to go to college. At the time, London was really exciting, and in a way, it is still kind of exciting as it is big, and big is exciting. London, though, is too expensive to be really visionary. It is a place where so many people are so pre-occupied with how to pay the rent – when you’re only pre-occupied by that then you can’t take risks. The London art world, since the early ‘90s, I think, has become one of the most banal places to make art because it’s all about the galleries, all about selling, and art as a commodity. The interesting spaces are places where people are making art because it is a kind of interesting idea. They don’t really care whether Charles Saatchi is going to walk through the door and get his check book out.
I remember I went with a friend to a gallery in Berlin and we turned up and it was closed. There was a sign on the door saying: “Key is under the mat”. So we took out the key, let ourselves in and there was an installation with four projectors – I was thinking “no one in London would do this”. In Berlin there is sense where the whole atmosphere is much more laid-back, much more relaxed. I don’t experience that here [in London].
200% Do you think that the London Olympics are going to be an opportunity for the City to present itself to the world as a visionary city?
Nic Clear: I remember when we were bidding for the London Olympics: I said at that time, the only reason we were going for the Olympics was to maintain property prices as there has to be massive infrastructural spend: it would maintain the whole kind of level of property values, which has been kind of borne out. There is some individually kind of interesting bits of architecture, but I don’t consider it particularly visionary. The whole kind of legacy thing is actually bit of a sham to me – it’s just PR.