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The New Cubism: Alex Grünenfelder on Cube Living in Vancouver

Alex Grünenfelder’s Cube Living. credit: Emily Jackson, Metro News

After making a sale, Alex Grünenfelder assembles the packaging for the space he is selling. credit: David Beers

Last month, Alex Grünenfelder’s Cube Living had a short run at Vancouver Chinatown’s 221 Gallery almost simultaneous with Vancouver Council taking the last brakes off the neighbourhood’s rapid redevelopment and gentrification (Mickleburgh 2013, Bula 2013). Grünenfelder’s part design intervention and part spoof was a much needed tonic; a sardonic exploration of densification of Vancouver’s urban spaces combined with both growing lack of affordability, on one hand, and signs of a bursting of the local real estate bubble, on the other hand. There is a queasy volatility packed into Grünenfelder’s Cubes. The spaces created by those assembled cardboard boxes continue to pose questions about this city, and smaller globalizing urban centres more generally, as most populations cope with the negative sides of what Grünenfelder’s terms “neoliberal market logic” (Wong 2013).

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: I first heard about Cube Living through an announcement and then went to the website. I read part of the text on the site some of which comprises the ‘fine print’ on the box itself. But it is when I encountered the physicality of the assembled boxes in the exhibit that I realized the utter adaptability of the ‘cubes’. The first time I looked at them, I thought of moving boxes for a growing population that will not be able to afford to buy and could well be insecure and perpetually moving within the Lower Mainland for much of their lives. Then I looked at the boxes again and thought of sea level rise and how plastic versions of the boxes might float to create rafts. Then later, I thought of how lovely it would be to frame a flattened box to turn it into a piece of art. Lately, the boxes when assembled strike me as a potential metric to determine precisely the volume involved in a particular residential sale. What attracted you to the cube metaphor and did you want the concept and the boxes themselves to be both so multi-purpose and ambiguous?

Alex Grünenfelder: The boxes are actually just an ancillary container of the real product which is the volume of space they contain. In order to dispel any potential ambiguity about this I sell only the contained space and not the boxes themselves. As manufacturer I maintain ownership of the containers and provide them to buyers on loan and free of charge. Similarly, when you buy a Strata condo unit you’re buying ownership of the space inside the unit’s containing walls. (Everything outside the bounds of that spatial unit — including the walls themselves — is owned collectively by the strata corporation. That’s the nature of Strata ownership. Under the Strata Act the architecture is necessary in order to define and identify the space which can be owned.)

But that in itself doesn’t explain why the sales units of Cube Living are cubic in form. The form and scale of the Cubes was primarily a pragmatic design decision based on the objectives of the project: Architect Mark Ashby and I started Cube Living (Phase 1) in early 2008 as a critical response to a Vancouver real estate development industry that increasingly appeared to be using architecture as a mere packaging container for spatial consumer commodities. It was clear that the real estate market was operating primarily as an exchange for speculative spatial commodities. The primary factor driving real estate prices was their value as speculative investment vehicles rather than their use as living spaces. This was evident in the planning, financing, design and marketing of the condo tower developments. But the real estate industry was still using the rhetoric of building and selling “homes”, and as designers we felt that there was a socially-corrosive duplicity in this messaging. I think that when people conflate the need for housing with the desire for investment vehicles this leads to a dysfunctional urban culture and politics.

As a thought experiment, we asked ourselves what would be the most practical way to produce a tradeable spatial commodity and what would be the most honest way to market it. In design parlance this was our “design problem”. From that point of view, the cubic foot is an obvious format. The square foot is the standard unit of measurement for urban real estate in North America, so the cubic foot is the logical standard unit for a spatial commodity—people understand its relationship to real estate property right away. A cubic foot is also happens to be a scale that relates well to the human body; it permits a degree of physical interaction that would be impossible with a larger unit like a cubic meter, while still retaining a clear relationship to the built environment. So the 12” cube format was the virtually inevitable result of the design process: it was the simplest formal solution to the design problem we’d identified.

Metaphorically I like the cube form because it embodies the reductive form-follows-function methods and aesthetics of the International Style and Bauhaus which came to shape much of modernist art, design, architecture and planning. If Le Corbusier’s architecture was a machine for living, then Cube is a machine for spatial commodification. This reflects architectural design in Vancouver today, which is primarily an engineering calculus that aims to maximize saleable space and profit on a given area of land. That sounds very cynical, but I did find a way to avert the morbidity of this scenario, as I’ll explain later.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: But as a “thought experiment” in the context of a kind of hyper-speculation (or at least a particular high-water mark for speculation in Vancouver’s cycles of speculation), isn’t it a bit paradoxical that this version of Cube Living, a product that can also be used as a moving box, is exhibited as there are finally signs of “a cooling of the market” or what others might speculate as the implosion of “The Bubble”? For me there is something fetish-like about the aesthetic of those (moving) boxes.

Alex Grünenfelder: I don’t see a paradox. We are all inescapably caught up in the vagaries of the real estate market, regardless of whether it’s waxing or waning. Both situations can be equally destabilizing, and in either case Cube Living offers a viable solution.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Isn’t it a bit ironic that you are stating that “real estate density is theoretically unlimited, resulting in the potential for infinite capital gain” at a time of a softening market in Vancouver? If a person were to over-invest in real estate in Vancouver this year, they could end up having very little to show for their money aside from some flattened moving boxes.

Alex Grünenfelder: I don’t think it’s ironic. If we’re committed to the ideology that urban space can only be created through a neoliberal free market driven by economic growth (which is an ideology that Canadians seem unusually committed to), then Cube Living is a very realistic model for addressing our slackening market condition. When a market is exhausted you can’t just go home and let the economy lie fallow—that would result in disaster. So, you need to create new markets. Over the past 150 years Vancouver has grown through successive waves of real estate market innovation. The most dramatic innovation of recent decades was the BC Strata Act of the 1960s. This allowed the subdivision of existing property lots into many smaller units which could then be sold off at lower prices while dramatically increasing the aggregate value of the original lot. Through decreasing the unit price and reducing the cost of financing while simultaneously increasing land values, it effectively created a whole new real estate market. We’re now at a point where this Strata property innovation has been exhausted. Strata units are too expensive and resource-intensive to build, too cumbersome to buy and sell, and too complicated to finance. As a result they don’t represent a very liquid investment. The unit costs and the overhead costs of trading are so enormous that buyers and sellers must be highly motivated in order to participate in the market. Cube Living solves these problems by taking urban densification a step further than the Strata model. Due to their extreme density, the Cube unit price is so low that affordability and market access become non-issues. Almost anybody can afford to buy Cubes, so this opens an enormous new market potential. Furthermore, the costs of trading your Cubes are very low — unlike conventional real estate, there is almost zero overhead cost in the sales and ownership transfer process — so that makes Cube property incredibly liquid. This is exactly what you need if your goal is to reinvigorate a stagnating market.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: That argument strikes me as similar to the one for investing in art and rationales for investing in art over more conventional investments such as real estate. I wonder if there is not an undercurrent represented in the aesthetic of the boxes themselves that is a reflection of chronic homelessness, for one demographic (the extremely poor), and a new kind of down-sized and nomadic household of the privileged such as described in Graham Hill’s March 9, 2013 essay in the New York Times, “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” For both strata owners, and less privileged demographics and classes who rent, the roles of homes, households, indeed neighbourhoods, have become secondary to work, speculation (for those people with money to invest), consumption, and migration. In this world, public space becomes compressed and often arid. But everybody needs a box for all sorts of reasons from storage to moving to shelter. Were you conscious of codifying a new aesthetic of precarity and provisional occupation that are largely results of this heightened level of real estate speculation?

Alex Grünenfelder: Yes. Cube Living offers its owners a highly transient relationship with space. Cube Living’s space is very easy and convenient to liquidate at any moment, so owners suffer minimal commitment obligation and enjoy maximum opportunity. That might sound a bit machiavellian, but on the contrary: Because the owner’s relationship with Cube Living is so highly voluntary from moment to moment this requires a continuous reaffirmation and allows for a more sincere engagement.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Being a connoisseur of boxes, your cube, and its flattened form, is lovely. Did you intend to create such a pleasing object?

Alex Grünenfelder: Real estate clearly benefits from a fetish value and I would like Cube Living’s spatial property to function similarly. I hope the container is aesthetically pleasing in its minimalism and unity of form and function, but ultimately any fetish value should be conferred onto the actual product itself: the contained space.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Why did you choose the white coating and that lettering? Is there a suggestion that in gentrification, people end up with only pretty boxes and insecurity as art?

Alex Grünenfelder: There are several reasons for the particular design of the containers. The Cube Living product is challenging, unconventional and unfamiliar to many buyers. So I wanted the project materials to be as simple as possible and avoid any extraneous elements that might cause distraction or confusion. To be as objective and transparent as possible, I opted for a minimalist surface design treatment. I wanted to de-emphasize the container because its primary function is simply to make the space perceptible, identifiable and saleable.

My hypothesis was that urban real estate is approaching the condition of an undifferentiated market commodity. However, it is a very expensive commodity and it needs to be saleable in a consumer market, so real estate requires branding in order to identify it and create the perception of value. (This is why a real estate development’s marketing budget is usually at least double or triple the architectural design budget.) I recognized that this Cube Living product would similarly require a certain degree of branding to identify it within the market and generate value. (But I wanted the branding to remain as minimal as possible.) So it made sense to partner with the 221A Artist Run Centre in creating a unique 221A space. 221A space is more valuable than generic space. This value premium isn’t purely symbolic, it’s actually based on function. For one thing, 221A space is in limited supply, whereas generic space is by definition virtually unlimited. Secondly, space that is part of the 221A Centre benefits from the infrastructure that the Centre provides. For example, one of the things that 221A does is to produce exhibitions, and accordingly we’re planning several exhibitions that will be held within the Cube 221A units. So, the owners of the units can derive value from this infrastructure. It’s a productive space.

As for the white colour of the boxes, this is intended to mirror the palette of 20th century functionalist modern architecture. It also embodies the so-called “white cube” of the archetypal modern art gallery which theoretically ought to function as a completely neutral vessel framing the autonomous art objects that it contains.

Cube Living’s corporate colour is green because Vancouver is now in an era of “Green Capital” (as proclaimed by city hall) and Cube exemplifies this. Cube is indisputably the most environmentally sustainable spatial property development in the city. It consumes almost no resources and energy its construction and maintenance. And its units are fully biodegradable.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: How many ‘buyers’ (as in art and space buyers) do you suspect will keep the box flattened and even frame it further collapsing space and commodifying it as art?

Alex Grünenfelder: Flattening the container is actually prohibited by the Cube Living sales contract. Maintenance of the container form is necessary in order to preserve the 1 cubic foot spatial property. If the container is flattened then the space is destroyed and ownership is forfeit. At that point the buyer is contractually required to either destroy what remains of the container or return it to the manufacturer.

Cube Living 221A does function as art in several ways. It has diegetic, performative and discursive dimensions. It also deliberately conflates the real estate market and the art market. On the one hand it can be read as a spatial sculpture because its material form is pure volume and it strikes up a physical relationship to the human body and the surrounding environment. It is also an inherently relational and social artwork because the spatial object is created directly at the point and time of purchase through a contractual agreement between the institution, the manufacturer and the buyer. Only at that moment does the object come into existence. This legal and social performance must be repeated for every unit produced. Furthermore, the buyer is subsequently obligated to maintain the form and condition of the container, so they must continue to perform their relationship with the manufacturer until the space is sold or destroyed. So, you can see that flattening the container actually leaves the owner with nothing.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Is it really possible to completely flatten the container once it’s been constructed into a box? Some space is still there, at least rhetorically. And what inspired you to set the rules? As an artist? As a real estate agent operating in a highly manipulated market? ‘Rules’ in art production, even reiterating real estate and speculation as art production, strike me as an anathema to the current spirit of the times. But perhaps not. And just as the new rules around federally insured mortgages are reshaping housing in Canada, how are your rules for this project transforming the modes of engagement around works such as these that are heavy in content and conceptual conversation but minimal in materiality (except for abstract space and air)?

Alex Grünenfelder: The rules simply make explicit the conditions that are necessary for the existence of the spatial object. They’re largely a pragmatic means for clarity in communication and interaction. The contract tells everyone exactly what the object is. It also provides a framework for a relationship between the institution, the manufacturer and the buyer. Many market processes do seem to thrive in obscurity but I hope clarity in communication and relationships aren’t anathema to the spirit our times!

Gordon Brent Ingram: The facade of the 221A Gallery for your exhibition was wonderfully ambiguous. The Jackie Wong article in The Tyee described a neighbour who thought that the gallery had become another real estate show room. And then she was reassured that you were only selling the box, the potential space, as art — which that person found less of a threat. But sometimes art economies can be part of displacement of less economically secure groups. What was your intent with that front window?

Alex Grünenfelder: My intent was to provoke curiosity and draw passersby into the sales centre. I also wanted the storefront to enter into a visual dialogue with the many real estate sales centres that besprinkle our city.

Personally I find the sale of spatial property in cubic foot units to pose a higher potential threat than the sale of condos. The development of real estate as a commodity subject to global speculation can often displace local populations, excluding them from their native neighbourhoods. As the developer and manufacturer of Cube Living I wanted to design a spatial property that would minimize or eliminate this danger. I’ve tried to mitigate the threat by ensuring that Cube Living 221A is generative, creating new space rather than consuming existing space. Because the 221A spatial units are defined only in relation to the walls of their container—and not in relation to any particular city Parcel Identifier or geographic location—they can happily coexist within most other urban spaces and territories. They have a friendly and collaborative relationship with their surrounding territories, rather than agonistically displacing other spaces and demanding the exclusion of other environments.

Gordon Brent Ingram: With the sardonic fine print on the boxes, were you making a comment on unscrupulous clauses sellers and landlords often insert into purchases agreements and leases? Your comments were clear and reduced the transaction to a pure and disposable commodity. But normally, buyers and renters tolerate the fine print (that often goes unread) is because they think that they are buying the trappings and security of home. Cube Living takes the home out of the transaction which is more honest. But the print on those boxes can distract from the truth that people tolerate those kinds of caveats, the fine print that allows them to own or be tenants, because they are just desperate to find places to live.

Alex Grünenfelder: I think the increasing proliferation of unreadable contracts throughout daily life has a corrosive effect on civil society and social relations—and they’re by no means limited to the domain of real estate; even updating a mundane software widget requires acquiescing to reams of incomprehensible terms and conditions. This renders people blind to the actual nature of the relations they’re engaged in. So, I’ve tried my best to keep the Cube Living ownership agreement as clear and as simple as possible while still fulfilling its necessary function which is essential in creating the object.

Gordon Brent Ingram: What recent movements and works influenced Cube Living? The movement that came to mind for me, in looking at the exhibition and then interacting with a possible cube purchase as performance, was Arte Povera which sometimes spoke to political and urban crisis and poverty, from Italy in the 1970s, as well as some of the early Fluxus performances.

Alex Grünenfelder: The most significant influence on this project has simply been my experience living as a designer in Vancouver over the past 12 years. The particular methods employed in the development of the project draw from the rigorous, rationalistic design ideologies of Le Corbusier and Müller-Brockmann as well as the conceptual practices of Malevich, Duchamp, Klein, Weiner, Graham and Matta-Clark. The thought of Wittgenstein, Harvey and Lefebvre was also instrumental. (Kind of embarrassing that they’re all men, but I’m sure that’s probably reflected in the nature of the project.) But the greatest single inspiration has been from observing how real estate developers are able to create new properties out of thin air.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Can you cite a specific work…For example, you mentioned Lawrence Weiner who has such a long history of diverse work that a particular work would be good to mention.

Alex Grünenfelder: I mentioned Weiner because his work really opened my eyes to the potential of a purely text-based art and I admire his rigorous language-based process. But Weiner explicitly stated that “my own art never gives directions, only states the work as an accomplished fact. […] The work need not to be built”. A good example is his artwork “Placed up on the horizon (casting shadows)”. (That phrase itself actually constitutes the entire artwork.)

Weiner’s work employs declaration as a medium of art. But his declarations remain abstract. They are not performed or delivered in time from one agent to another, they are only received asynchronously on the page, or on a wall, by an anonymous audience. The conditions they describe can never actually be realized because the declarations are incomplete and concern universals that aren’t subject to verification. This seems directly in line with Joseph Kosuth’s 1969 claim that artworks are “artistic propositions”, and that they function similarly to analytic propositions: their validity (and value) is based purely on their internal logic and not their correspondence to any real-world conditions or empirical state of affairs. This is very different from the way language is employed in Cube Living.

Cube Living 221A is based on a series of declarations that are performed by the institution (221A), the manufacturer (myself) and the buyer through a contractual agreement. These declarations produce the spatial object as a social, legal, and physical reality. The sales centre functions as a social and physical staging for the casting and enactment of these roles and the ensuing performance of the declarations.

In Cube Living the declaration is an essential part of the work, but the declaration isn’t sufficient (unlike in the work of Weiner or Sol LeWitt). To establish the existence of the spatial object, the declarations must have the force to bring about action on the part of the interlocutors and create an enduring relationship between them. —Hence, the use of a contractual format. In the case of Cube Living the work must be built. The declarations aren’t important in themselves. What I’m interested in is the power of a declarative process to establish relationships, perceptions, properties, objects, environments and realities.

Earlier (on the phone) you mentioned Warhol’s Brillo boxes. That might provide another point of contrast. The Brillo boxes are pure surface, pure exteriority—the question of their contents doesn’t even really arise for consideration. The Brillo boxes aren’t actually packaging anything; they’re non-functional objects for their own sake. (Many of them actually aren’t even boxes—they’re plywood sculptures.) Cube Living on the other hand is pure interiority. The surface—the container—isn’t even properly part of the object. The Cube Living box is simply functional packaging that is necessary in order to define and protect the spatial object it contains.

These art references may be a little dated. I should explain that I’ve been in a cryogenic sleep since 1969 to avoid a root canal and I just woke up a couple months ago.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: In my mind, Matta-Clark’s works tended to invert and reconstruct aspects of inhabited space, whereas as Cube Living reduces and abstracts. Is there an essence in Cube Living that could guide us in reconstructing urban space as another symbolic material similar to Lego pieces?

Alex Grünenfelder: I was thinking in particular of Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project which deals with residual properties in Queens that were artifacts resulting from inefficiencies in the municipal property administration process. Cube Living could be used as a lens to examine the symbolic processes that constitute urban spatial property.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Where does so-called ‘Vancouverism’ fit into the Cube Living equation?

Alex Grünenfelder: Cube Living Phase 1 was a direct response to then-Mayor Sam Sullivan’s EcoDensity initiative of the mid-2000s. Sullivan claimed that increased urban densification would benefit the environment by reducing car travel and also promote housing affordability by saturating the real estate market with new condos. (Apparently UBC Professor Patrick Condon has said that Vancouver was the first city in North America to unapologetically accept increased density as an official city policy.) As was fairly obvious at the time, neither of those predictions would pan out. Homes got more expensive than ever and many people are now faced with a reverse commute to the suburbs because high real estate prices drove offices away from downtown. However, Vancouver’s planning policy remains unchanged and council seems to have doubled down on the density panacea through repeated and controversial high-density land rezonings that favour wealthy developers and extremely expensive developments while neglecting the measures that many other cities have successfully employed to mitigate land speculation. Cube Living was an attempt to take this densification ideology to it logical extreme, while also clarifying and solving some of the problems evident in its implementation.

“Vancouverism” on the other hand, doesn’t really have such an overt social or environmental mandate as the Ecodensity initiative. It’s more specifically about implementing a podium-tower building typology that preserves scenic view corridors while also facilitating mixed-use (commercial/residential/office) neighbourhoods. It’s about shaping urbanity as a lifestyle experience. Obviously that’s a more modest goal because it doesn’t seek to address any dramatic problems. But if we consider this Vancouverism plan for a moment, it will seem odd that visuality should be given such a paramount role in shaping the city, along with the implication that visual experience should play the central role in our interaction with the urban environment. We can see how this kind of thinking has resulted in a city of glass towers where the living spaces are designed to be little more than viewing platforms—platforms from which the owner can gaze endlessly away from the city. Like a camera obscura, these real estate properties capture, contain, package and sell the view of Vancouver’s surrounding geography. And conversely, this view is employed by marketers to package and sell the real estate properties themselves.

This became a part of my investigation in Cube Living 221A. I am interested in packaging as a site of production. Cube is partly an exploration of how packaging is increasingly important in constituting the products we consume, and how an ideology of packaging is shaping our entire environment and (through communications technology) all our social interactions.

Cube Living exhibition, Gallery 221A, Vancouver, February 2013 - Alex Grünenfelder

Gordon Brent Ingram: Do you think that Cube Living is perhaps the apogee of Vancouverism?

Alex Grünenfelder: No.

Gordon Brent Ingram: In evoking the cube, were you at all thinking of cubism of a century ago? Perhaps, you are beginning to describe the basis for a new nomadism that extends to a kind of architectural cubism; with the motion of 20th Century Cubism, under the shadow of World War I, replaced by today’s globalized insecurities and hyper-mobilities.

Alex Grünenfelder: I can see how Cubism’s destabilization of pictorial perspective might be analogous to the destabilization of economies and nations produced by the global movement of capital. Cube Living is a probe that explores possibilities for navigating our spatial economics, but I don’t think it bears any direct relation to Cubism.

Gordon Brent Ingram: In your comments on neoliberalism in Cube Living, what have been your most important influences and discussions?

Alex Grünenfelder: David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre. There was also a great symposium called Intangible Economies hosted by Fillip magazine in 2011.

Gordon Brent Ingram: Your cultural production in this project is quite varied: the flattened boxes, the assembled boxes, the exhibition space, the performative interactions in the space, and the website. How do you intend to document and build on the project? And did not you create a separate domain for the project? Do this suggest that you will have related projects, iterations, and additional ‘products’?

Alex Grünenfelder: It’s an ongoing investigation. Cube Living Phase 1 was largely a design fiction project manifested in the form of a sales presentation. Cube Living Phase 2 (221A) involved the creation of a saleable product and a sales centre environment. That allows for a more relational situation where there can be a direct interaction between myself, the 221A institution and the public. Roles are negotiated, agreements are made, territories are created. It sounds really dry when I put it that way and spatial politics can be a pretty depressing topic, but the sales centre was a really convivial environment—as a host I think I generally succeeded in giving visitors an enjoyable experience within the project. The relational and interactional aspect is definitely something I’d like to continue in the future. I also want to activate the current infrastructure and relationships that have been created.

articles cited

Frances Bula. 2013. Behind the changing face of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Globe and Mail (January 12, 2013).

Graham Hill. 2013. Living With Less. A Lot Less. New York Times (March 9, 2013).

Rod Mickleburgh. 2013. Buildings to soar over Chinatown after Vancouver eases height restrictions. Globe and Mail (February 24, 2013).

Jackie Wong. 2013. Buying Vancouver Space One Cubic Foot at a Time. With a wink, Cube Living promises hyper-dense real estate ownership for (20 February, 2013).

Alex Grünenfelder is an artist and designer based in Vancouver, Canada. Employing the media of graphics, text, architecture, sound, video and performance, he pursues a creative practice that combines the project development methods of design practice with the critical discourse and dialogical goals of the liberal arts. He is also a director and co-founder of the Vancouver Design Nerds Society, an organization that facilitates interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration between designers, artists and the public. His artwork explores the power of media to shape the perception of environments.