ALUMNI PROFILE: Forms of MediaProfile
by Nicholas Zembashi, AADipl 2018
29 March 2019
London, United Kingdom
This Spring, the AA Gallery will host an exhibition by Amnesty International to showcase their investigation into the impact of conflict on civilians in Raqqa, Syria – the most destroyed city in the world. Related to the theme of this exhibition, AA Conversations is publishing a series of interviews with alumni who have challenged or dealt with the topics of urgency and conflict through their student work or in their current practice.
Recent AA graduate Nicholas Zembashi investigates concepts of citizenship and the nature of our digital world. His work lies between architecture, media and politics, and uses speculation and allegory to form essays in space – stimulated in the digital and physical environment. His most recent work investigates how identity is bound by a landscape of media and how classification in machine learning reveals discriminatory biases inherent in human interactions. Nicholas has worked in architecture practices in Cyprus and the UK, and is currently employed at Forensic Architecture.
[caption id="attachment_7846" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, FACTory of the World , The Telescape, London, 2017[/caption]
How do you think studying at the AA has influenced your work/career?
It’s hard to express the breadth of influence an education at the AA has. One becomes so enmeshed in a kind of culture of thinking and practising, that isolating a single cluster of nodes to represent its impact will always fall short of the task. From the network of brilliant colleagues and tutors, to the opportunities that arise in fields beyond conventional practise, there is a lot to appreciate. If I had to pick a single word, it would have to be exposure.
At its very core this exposure comes in the form of a ‘pedagogy’ that, for me, is a medium through which thinking about space is fundamentally challenged. Architecture is a mediating tool. In any form of communication there is something in the middle. Be it a language, a sound, an image, or a building, there is always an architecture in the way. And in this minefield of maximum exposure, where communication is bound by such architectures, there is conflict.
The labyrinthine oddity of Bedford’s Square’s domesticity-as-university facilitates a unique conceptual stage. On it, my ideas could perform against those of all its members in an agonistic spirit. In this way I learnt to value the ‘brief’ as a design project as much as its objects of design themselves. My journey was not merely concerned with how to design space, but rather an appropriation of spatial tools to develop methodologies that communicate ideas. The AA’s stage churned out the props and minds for me to react to, and eventually incorporate in the construction of my own architectural mise-en-scène. In other words, it fuelled the building of my worlds to be experienced as essays-in-form.
"I wanted to be able to walk around in my mind" said architectural historian Joseph Rykwert, when asked to recount the reason he’d wanted to become an architect. This resonates with how I view the school as an enabler of debate: Allowing me to invite and be invited for a walk around the minds of everyone I am exposed to. It is an ever-changing whirlpool of colliding essays-in-form, that I hope to keep coming back to for the rest of my career.
[caption id="attachment_7935" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, The Theatre of Power – Insidious Colossus Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2015[/caption]
What role does urgency/conflict play in shaping your practice?
I find urgency in topics that impulsively frustrate me. Hence, there is always inherent conflict in the content, form and format of my work. For example, it was my dislike for nationalism that drove me to spend a year confronting a case where the military was assigned the role of urban re-developer. Particularly in its content, ‘Insidious Colossus’ (2015) , deals with Sri Lanka’s reconstruction after its civil war. The narrative follows the construction of a 200m tall colossus in the capital Colombo. There the building becomes a proxy for interrogating the editing of collective memory by the ministry of defence. Can a building drive the very perpetrators of violence to melt down their military hardware for a monument that will destroy their armed forces corps by corps?
Political and media theory had always been the backbone of my thesis, whether it’s designing through objects, such as a silk scarf to subvert architectures of wealth and power, or increasingly expanding my interests in film as a world-building tool.
[caption id="attachment_7845" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, The Insidious Wonderland, Insidious Colossus, London & Sri Lanka, 2014[/caption]
‘The Telescape’ (2017) was a play on both the form and format of a film-essay. Notions of post-truth and the construction of facts and fictions are exposed through the bizarre and conflicting narratives of televisual media. The world that manifests is framed by baroque exuberance, with footage as its material and the screen as its apparatus. Conflicting pieces of information are woven into coherent landscapes of truthiness, always experienced at a distance.
[caption id="attachment_7937" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, FACTory of the World , The Telescape’, London, 2017[/caption]
Drawing from such topics, my practice culminates in ‘Terra Media’ (2018). The understanding of space as a mediator takes centre stage. Identity and sovereignty are debated between the narrators of two cities: on the one hand, a near-ineffable utopia that strives to be edgeless and on the other spaces praising strongly defined edges. Meanwhile, by training a machine-learning classifier, I explore the ontological pitfalls in reading meaning into the edges of the city. Evidently exposing the all-encompassing bounding box of culture and within it a constant dynamic re-alignment of the edges we use to discriminate between the shifting objects that are foundational to society’s formation.
[caption id="attachment_7844" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, The Edgeless City, Terra Media, London, 2018[/caption]
All in all, I see conflict vital to any practice, since conflicting minds always miscommunicate in their attempt to traverse the space between them and reach a common understanding.
What role does the architect play in solving urgent problems?
I think there is an issue with the phrase ‘problem-solving’, as it alludes to too much of a symmetrical response that fails to encompass the nuanced challenges of specific contexts, communities and scales.
Jeremy Till quotes planning theorist John Forester in ‘Architecture Depends’ (2009) to urge us to “replace the normative metaphor of design as the search for a solution with the idea of design as sense-making.” Hence, not just as a matter of instrumental problem-solving but as “a matter of altering, respecting, acknowledging, and shaping people’s lived worlds”. To shape lived worlds is to manipulate the aesthetics of experience.
Much like Eduardo Viveiro de Castro’s analysis of Amazonian shamans, the role of an architect as ‘cosmopolitical diplomat’ could be cast in a similar light. As ‘conductors of perspective’ they traverse the communication between the incommunicable, becoming mediators between worlds in constant dispute.
Consequently, architects as spatial magicians affect the realm of aesthetics on an experiential level, since this constitutes a manipulation of the very senses through which reality is filtered.
Sometimes a proposal is at best a methodology, designed to alter perceptions. This grants an agency that should not be underestimated, as it can often go beyond what a building as an aesthetic tool can do.
[caption id="attachment_7847" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, The Event Scarf, Pomp + Power, Istanbul, Turkey, 2014[/caption]
What topics do you consider to be of vital importance and urgency in contemporary architectural practice?
The daunting precipice of topics we face drops into an abyss of hyper-objects such as late capitalism, global environmental crisis, a destructive anthropocene etc. Such spheres of urgency are often hard to grasp but not impossible to respond to. Like the fabled blind men around the elephant, we perceive their impact in the form of localised conflict zones, the ongoing refugee crisis, financial exclusions, mass urban gentrifications, the squeezing out of public space, malicious uses of AI technologies and so on. To start comparing what is ‘more vital’ is not an appropriate approach. What we need is methodologies that can bridge between the local to impact the global.
The vitality of a topic – whether it’s designing benches as part of a street-scale commons or creating a piece to criticise inter-planetary travels to Mars – should stem from the varied interests of individual practices, dealing in specific contexts and with certain communities. The subsequent impact of a piece of work is then bound to the success in its respective context, especially in how briefs on local levels can transcend and emanate more universal messages. In general, anything, that is challenging, instead of facilitating a status quo, and creates a space for positive debate and agency, is vital.
[caption id="attachment_7938" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, The Event Scarf, Pomp + Power, Istanbul, Turkey, 2014[/caption]
What advice would you give to current students?
Congruent with my belief in architecture as a mediator of ideas, the tools with which we communicate those ideas are seminal. I encourage any student to learn as many tools as possible since the limits in ‘how’ we can have a discussion about space should always be challenged – whether we hand-draw, digitally render, or use VR, programming or code.
Most importantly, focus on consolidating as much of one’s personal interests into a design practice as possible. That is, focus on building your own briefs, not only in the design studio but in as many complementary courses as possible. After all, the AA provides the platform for doing precisely that.
Also, don’t overlook mental health. In the high-stress pressure-cookers of architectural education, it is crucial to open up about it and never ignore it.
Finally, I cannot conclude without overstating the role my History and Theory tutors played in my studies, for providing the ground on which to cement one’s intellectual cornerstone. Even if you have an aversion to this type of learning, don’t discount the power of writing.
[caption id="attachment_7936" align="alignnone" width="360"] Nicholas Zembashi, The Edgeless City, Terra Media, London, 2018[/caption]
For more information:
See Nicholas' work on Projects Review 2018
Discover Forensic Architecture’s work
Read Diploma 12: Material World brief
Read the full set of profiles by visiting our Alumni Portfolio