March 26, 2009

The Alphaomega apartment stands as a response to the limitations imposed by a landlord on a tenant in a rented apartment and as a mediation on hyper-urbanity in ‘the noughties’

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The Alphaomega apartment is Bird Studio’s first interior design job. The client is the designer and as a result the space is as much a testing ground for an emerging house style as it is a home. The apartment operates on two basic levels: as a response to the limitations imposed by a landlord on a tenant in a rented apartment and as a meditation on hyper-urbanity in ‘the noughties’.

The apartment is on the third floor, mid-town Melbourne CBD, Little Collins Street. Matthew Bird rents the apartment and he has devised a way to radically change the interior without making structural change. Consequently, the interior interventions are essentially temporary installations, cleverly made from inexpensive materials.

This means the designs are more akin to the smoke and mirrors strategies deployed by set designers who build the most intricate and permanent-seeming of spaces from the lightest and cheapest materials possible. The motivation for taking this design route is primarily economic: the unaffordable housing market has outpriced young home buyers. Bird has acknowledged the inevitability of a certain period of urban nomadism and has designed an environment in response to his current living context.

There are precedents to this approach in Melbourne, namely the work of lighting designer and installation artist Ben Cobham of Bluebottle who collaborated with architect Peter Ryan to create a demountable modular home from cardboard panels, erected in a space gifted by the local council. The Impossible Home project reflected upon the fact that buying a home near the Bluebottle office was prohibitively expensive and simply establishing a dwelling in ‘public space’ was illegal. Cobham ended up building and living in the house, with his girlfriend and child, but only once it was contextualised as an art piece.

The Alphaomega project starts from a similar premise, but where Impossible House was strictly functionalist (cheap materials, simple austere assembly) the Studio Bird design is inspired by extensive research into dystopian imagery in architecture, the visual arts and cinema.

The name Alphaomega is quite simply the conflation of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. The bedroom is designed as a nest (the Alpha space) and the living room as a cyber-Gothic mausoleum (the Omega space).

Brunelleschi, the great Florentine architect of the Renaissance period, is credited with creating the first linear perspective drawing and he delivered a range of innovative construction and special effects solutions to the Catholic Church of the time. There is frequent reference to Brunelleschi and other great figures of the early and late Renaissance throughout the imagery and iconography of the Alphaomega apartment. For Studio Bird, which is developing an interdisciplinary practice, delivering graphic, interior, fashion and architecture services, this link to Brunelleschi is understandable.

The current generation of designers has experienced the introduction of a radical alteration, at the hands of the IT revolution, to the architectural drafting process. It has had the effect of bringing a large and diverse range of disciplines onto the same design platform. Digital design software shifted architects out of classicism and into the mainstream of media production tools – they are swimming amongst the ebb and flow of fashion. Studio Bird is keenly aware of the historical shift that computer design tools have brought to the profession.

The Alpha space has two major components: a large lighting installation, with varied lengths of woollen tendrils hanging down towards the bed, and a series of digital images stretched onto canvas that detail a number of natural and scientific interventions in the conception and birthing process. The idea of birth as a digital-robotically enhanced experience is emphasised in the canvas works.

The Omega space contains a similar, much larger and darker installation to the bedroom nest. Several dozen black diverter hoses dangle down, in search of unknowable connections. The sculptural piece describes a world that over fulfils on perceived ‘wants’ and pushes out, as a consequence, what we essentially need: intimate, healthy spaces.

The largest wall in the Omega space is covered by an intricately designed digital mural, printed on stretched vinyl. It’s a highly layered set of images, again from the Renaissance period; the background consists of a repetition of the dome of Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica extruded into an egg form using three-dimensional modelling software; the middle layer, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (pre-restoration); and the foreground a patterned veil of crucifixes and eggs.

One of the many research documents compiled to determine the forms of the Alphaomega apartment contains this quote from the great 20th century historian and philosopher Michel Foucault,“Perhaps our life is still governed by a certain number of oppositions that remain firm, that our institutions and practices have not yet dared to break down. These are oppositions that we regard as simple givens: for example, between private space and public space, between family space and social space, between cultural space and useful space, between the space of leisure and that of work…”

The Alphaomega apartment indicates that we have reached a time where these dichotomies have finally been broken down. And in the nature of Gothic fictions the vampire can only be doing its transformative work at our invitation: mobile phones, computers and our internet connections constantly flatten the difference between social and work time, cultural and useful space, the place of leisure and the place of work. Few architects dare take a negative view in contemporary urbanism in their design outcomes. Studio Bird has bravely delivered a dystopian urban experience and only a stone’s throw from the Paris end of Little Collins Street.

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