by Manu SharmaAug 16, 2023
The idea of ruins in decay and glory carries a symbolic, ambiguous anthology of sacred beauty, a piece of architectural memory that explores the 'could and would haves,' weaving in the story of the structure, its site, its architectural authors, as well as the situational history and collective memory of a built afterlife. These buildings reveal stories of power, of loss, of human prowess and growing civilisations, of encounters with natural catastrophes or serve as relics of political wars, of visions and apprehensions of a utopian future.
If you are familiar with the works of English artist, visionary architect, and architectural theorist Joseph Michael Gandy, you are also well-versed with his hectic, perspective-led paintings reflecting his fascination with the sublime of Roman ruins. An abiding interest in the value of ruins has existed for ages. Infamous German architect Albert Speer’s theory of ruin value (Ruinenwerttheorie) argued that monuments of the Third Reich must be built keeping in mind their aesthetic value for the present, as well as their extension a thousand years after, to adopt this concept of designing a building such that when it grows old and collapses with time, it leaves behind aesthetically pleasing remnants. His theory (albeit fascist and narcissistic, owing to his alliance with Hitler, and truly so) along with most heritage monuments across the world (for instance, those preserved in Greece, Italy, India, Mexico, or Egypt) also seem to follow this apotheosis, inheriting unbeknownst, the largely European 18th century romanticism of ancient ruins.
A revival, adaptive reuse, or completion of these buildings of power, essay a cultural discourse for architects, who can view the development of these ruins as a portal into the symbolic past, an education for the present and a blueprint for the future, where these structures could become a palpable part of the built landscape.
Well-known Dutch artist duo DRIFT, founded by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, has envisioned 'speculative architecture' by means of luminescent drones, imagining how heritage cultural ruins and unfinished landmarks such as the Gladiatorial icon of the Roman Colosseum and Gaudi’s unfinished magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia in Spain, would look like restored or finished in the present, or in the foreseeable future. Spectral, haunting, life-sized imaginings are achieved through illuminated drones, via technology developed over (more than) two years by the Amsterdam-based artists. The goal is to simply assist architects from the world over, to bring their future projects to reality "in a mesmerising yet sustainable way," envisioning what their life-size structures would look like built, inching a bit closer to the juicy enquiry, of 'what if.'
Visualising the improbable
"What would the Sagrada Familia look like if it was finished? Imagine a full circle Colosseum... (We have) been working to improve (our) drone software to create real-life, life-size renders to visualise the improbable,” the Dutch artists relay, attesting to the ruin value of monumental architecture, threading the past with the present and the future, with light.
Speaking to STIR about their project, Nauta elaborates —"When the Notre Dame was burned, we started to think of rebuilding it with light. To show the world how old, gone architectural masterpieces might have looked in the past. For us, it made sense in this fast-paced world, to shine a light on these works of genius. These human achievements deserve all the attention they can get, built over generations with forgotten crafts. They teach us the patience we desperately need to rediscover as a society. To finish them with light emphasises the potential positive power of our hi-tech developments in relation to the slow but beautiful building methods of the past.”
"I came up with the idea after brainstorming with my friend Bjarke Ingels from BIG years ago, when we were first experimenting with our drones for our artwork Franchise Freedom, on how to visualise upcoming architectural projects. I am now the co-owner of the companies called Drone Stories and Nova Sky Stories, where we design drone performances and exhibit in prominent places around the world,” he continues.
Known worldwide for their dreamy kinetic art pieces and perspective-led light installations, DRIFT works together with a multi-disciplinary team of 64 on aerial sculptures, enthralling installations, and performances as visual spectacles. According to them, all individual artworks have the ability to transform spaces. The confined parameters of a museum or a gallery do not always do justice to a body of work—rather, it often comes to its potential in the public sphere, or through such architecture of extolled scales.
In 2017, they created their first performative art installation named Franchise Freedom, a drone show that premiered at Art Basel Miami 2017, followed by performances held all over the world. Besides this, DRIFT has also produced many more drone shows, with which the world is quite well versed. In collaboration with the company Drone Stories and Nova Skystories, DRIFT has used their drone technology since 2020, “to reimagine the future of architecture,” the artists share.
As a precursor to their latest project, Franchise Freedom is a flying sculpture with drones performing the flight patterns of starlings. Nauta and Gordijn explored “the concept of freedom” by looking in depth at bird murmuration patterns, studying the group versus the individual. This behaviour was then imitated in their work, consisting of a flying swarm of hundreds of illuminated drones, controlled by machine learning systems and artificial intelligence. “The essence of the work is to establish a moment of emotional connection between the audience, the environment, the music and the drones,” shares DRIFT.
Using the sky as a canvas to draft the idea of a building
Nauta also believes that exalted, Goliathan buildings such as the Colosseum can change the landscape of a city dramatically, intentionally, or otherwise. “We can help visualise the impact of how a new structure can enrich a cityscape or imagine how a society in the past might have reflected on it. It can help to show a local community how their city will look or help celebrate the moment a structure goes up and show the finished end goal. We have started a company next to our art practice to help creatives to explore these ideas. Don’t hesitate to reach out as we have the largest hi-tech drone fleet in the world at our disposal,” he relays.
DRIFT also invites contributions and ideas from architects around the world, to further develop and experiment with these life-size renderings of imaginary architecture, even if it is not an existing ruin, but an idea of a building for the near future. “To use the sky as a canvas to draft the idea of the building. We would love to let these ideas come to life,” Nauta says.
Nauta highlights some challenges faced while devising the drone software and formulating speculative architecture —"The most difficult part? There are so many, it is like choosing your favourite movie. I do struggle with timing a lot. There is a lot of technology that needs to be developed in this area. The value of good art for me is the ability to develop new ways of expressing oneself as Rembrand did in the past by developing his own paint. We are constantly developing new tech to do just that, in this case, with our trusted partners, to express and explore ever more complicated ideas. It's hard to talk about projects at the right time. Just before the tech has been developed and not too early that people won’t be able to believe it is possible.”