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Against Smoothness

Michael Bay, still from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2011

This is not ‘Michael Bay Finally Made An Art Movie, Part Two.’ But once again, the technical virtuosity of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon leaves us with something to talk about. Setting aside the broader history of architecture and animation, Dark of the Moon embodies an emerging position in digital architecture: it is a manifesto against smoothness.

Transformers are the pure id of industrial design. Every time their over-articulated bodies explode out of their sleek camouflage, they reveal the growing complexity lying behind the refined surfaces that the Jonathan Ives and Chris Bangles of the world produce. And as they tear through Chicago—home of late Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill—these descendants of Archigram and other sixties techno-utopians expose the miles of ducts, cables, and fire-proofed steel that are buried behind the shadow-boxed glass spandrels, white ceiling panels, and marble clad columns of pristine corporate headquarters (after all, the ceilings of skyscrapers are as thick as the walls of cathedrals). In the case of both the Transformers themselves, and the terrestrial havoc they wreak, these eruptions of the interior fragment the smooth, industrially-produced exterior surface to such a degree that any qualities of simplicity or material transcendence are eradicated—the objects of our minimalist desires replaced by dense, aggregated, and differentiated new forms.

Dark of the Moon reaches its pinnacle of productive destruction when Driller—a tentacled Decepticon that burrows and chews through anything that stands in its path—attacks a green glass office tower containing Shia Lebouf and his team of models/commandos (each frame of the sequence took 288 hours and a farm of computers to render). In the kind of ripe-for-interpretation scene of architectural annihilation that Michael Bay relishes (from the meteor impacts of Armageddon to a Humvee plowing through a Cuban village in Bad Boys II), this creature, itself made of a seemingly infinite number of pieces, reduces the smooth extrusion of the tower to a maelstrom of glass and steel. Chewed through, and then falling over, the building becomes something like a sharp-edged cousin to Greg Lynn’s pre-digital project for the Sears Tower, which proposed taking that bundle of nine square extrusions, multiplying them, and laying them down in sinuous piles along the Chicago River. This ‘digitized’ assault on Chicago—the city that epitomizes the reductive impulses of mid-century modernism—suggests that if the Decepticons and Autobots were put on earth to do anything, it is to ensure that no smooth surface goes unblemished and no clean line remains unbroken.

Like the Transformers emerging from their late model, aerodynamic disguises, Dark of the Moon enacts the redirection of digital efforts in architecture from the pursuit of smoothness and surface continuity to the production of articulation and texture. What this film seems to say, as LeBouef and the gang slide across the glass facade of the overturning office building, inside becoming outside, is that perhaps the smooth planes of a mass-produced modernism offer nothing left to hold on to.

Emmett Zeifman