A Conversation with Jeffrey Roberts, the Architect Using Pink Floyd to Troll Trump Tower

A Conversation with Jeffrey Roberts, the Architect Using Pink Floyd to Troll Trump Tower
Photo courtesy of New World Design Ltd

Last winter, the Internet was aflame with reports of a Chicago design firm’s proposal to eclipse the Trump Tower logo with oversized gold-hued pig balloons for one full day. Taking inspiration from the villainous pigs haunting the storyline and cover art to Pink Floyd’s 1977 concept album Animals, the New World Design architects sought to provide Chicagoans “visual relief” from the gargantuan sign screaming the 45th president’s ubiquitous surname. The blueprints to the plan re-emerged last week when it was revealed that Roger Waters himself had formally endorsed the Flying Pigs on Parade project, going so far as to permit use of the official Pink Floyd pig prop design in live performances, an image to which Waters holds the copyright.

We caught up with Jeffrey Roberts, one of the architects behind the project, to discuss the Commander-in-Chief’s aesthetic inclinations, Pink Floyd’s lesser known concept album, how the two are confronting each other in Chicago, and how you can help fund the project.

It’s rather unusual for a piece of architecture to be designed with the aim of defying another piece of architecture. What was it in particular that made Trump Tower end up the target of a New World Design project?

Trump Tower was built back in the late 90s, and it was actually a nice building in Chicago that contributed to the skyline. When it was completed I couldn’t believe that Trump didn’t put some kind of massive sign on it and thought “well okay, this is great” and I think the whole city breathed a sigh of relief. Then in 2014, they start slapping these enormous letters on the side of the building, which there was a number of things written about in the in at the time. Blair Kamin, a respected architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, made some comments and Trump attacked him and then a bunch of derogatory things toward the city were said by Mr. Trump.

The sign is 20 feet high. It’s massive. And it’s positioned in the city as such that it’s right in your face. It’s not at the top of the building like a badge like many corporations do, it’s right in the middle of the face of the building at about the 15th floor. From the Michigan Avenue Bridge where you’re greeted by the bend of the river you’re forced to kind stare it in the face. It’s the same at Randolph & Wabash where I catch the train every night, so I get a look at it every night.

So this had been on our minds and we had been making fun of it in the office for a long time and then the election happened and that was just more bizarre than any of us could have ever imagined. And most of us aren’t Democrats or Republicans, we’re independents. But this is so ridiculous that we felt we’d use our design skills to respond. So we had a charrette, which is sort of a brainstorming exercise for architects, and we got out our trace and markers and everything.

A note from Roger:The resistance begins today.

Posted by Roger Waters on Friday, January 20, 2017

Roger Waters caused a bit of a stir a year ago following a Mexico City performance when he deployed some pretty extreme political imagery in opposition to then-candidate Trump. Did that give you a sense kinship with Waters politically?

When we created this we never looked at it as a direct attack on Donald Trump so much as just the things that are happening, much of which, of course, he happens to be driving. It’s an attack on the divisiveness, the illogical approach to so many things, and really just the ridiculous nature of all of this. We find that most of those we’ve dealt with and many who reach out to us tend not to belong to the strongly left-leaning category, but rather just simply people looking for balance and inclusion and rationality. This has never been a direct attack, it’s just our way of speaking about what we’re observing in the world right now.

When did Pink Floyd’s Animals album come into play?

I’ve listened to a lot of Pink Floyd over the years and my associate had recently listened to the Animals album, the artwork of which is really awesome and iconic and he said, “you know, look at what Pink Floyd did with that iconic pig floating above the Battersea Power Station. What if we, rather than creating some fixed thing, just float something?” We started from the pig and had this whole discussion where it turned out there were a lot of things that bound it together conceptually. We reread Animal Farm and thought, “oh, this has a tremendous amount of relevancy.” And of, course, Animals was Pink Floyd’s interpretation of Animal Farm, speaking to political corruption and problems in Great Britain at the time. So you had the written representation, you have a musical representation, and we added a few things into the mix and it becomes the visual representation.

Pink Floyd Animals Album Cover

There were a lot of things that were picked up along the way that just made sense. Mr. Trump has referred to his gold leaf interiors as “comfortable modernism.” This is something we read in a magazine several months ago that left us scratching our head. So we made the pigs gold. There’s four of them, one for each year the world will have to endure this presidency. Also, the pigs are pointed in an eastward direction, toward Washington, D.C. There was too the “Miss Piggy” Miss Universe comment that comes into play. Every move we made was based on that sort of rationale. And it really comes in direct contrast to stuff that happened in the campaign and is now happening in the administration. It’s just chaotic, it makes no sense. So our piece speaks to political corruption through the whole basis of the Animal Farm story, but it’s also founded in direct rationale and things that have meaning and legitimacy and standing against the confusion that we’re confronted with.

It’s inherent for bands and recording artists to couch the meaning of a work in lyrical allegory for the purpose of instilling certain moods and ideas in the listener. Do you approach architecture from a similar angle?

I think that good architecture does have a basis in rational thinking and methodology. The top-tier stuff, that is, as opposed to stuff that’s just thrown out there because it looks fun. I think music is the same way. Responding to an emotion, a place, an event, any number of things that human beings experience—that’s what becomes music.

On Pink Floyd’s Animals concept album, the three central songs, which are “Dogs,” “Pigs (Three Different Ones),” and “Sheep,” then you have these two really short songs that bookend it. And those two songs are pretty interesting in contrast to the highly allegorical content in the middle. They’re two pieces that speak about love and reconciliation and things that are more outside the political realm. I think that made the piece richer.

In the same way that “Flying Pigs on Parade” is New World Design’s first explicitly politically charged piece, it’s also your first explicitly musically inspired piece. Is music to be a dominant source of inspiration in your work, even when its presence isn’t as conspicuous in the end result?

Absolutely. We are a nonconventional office. We’re a boutique office. We listen to albums of all sorts and music all day long every day. We play records, and we play them quite loud. It could be anything from Pink Floyd to Chick Corea. We’re into this whole range of music. I think it sets a mood. I think it’s indisputable that you can look at some buildings and structures and they can remind you of a jazz piece while others may look like a punk rock piece.

My associate has been in bands throughout his life. He’s a drummer. And I have so many peers who are architects who have a rich musical background. My wife is an architect and she has a background in piano and I think that it’s of that art set that we endear the most. We’re trained to be engineers as well, but the thing that really gets us jazzed is the art side of things, whether it’s the visual aspect or sculpting the built space or channeling it through music.

New World Design Flying Pigs on Parade - Pink Floyd - Trump
Photo courtesy of New World Design

The “Flying Pigs on Parade” concept first started generating buzz about a year ago and then seemed to disappear, until it resurfaced again last week. What happened?

When we released the scheme originally at the end of last year, we knew it could be done but we didn’t know how it was going to be done. After the press hubbub of that, we kind of went quiet for a while and went to work with our structural engineers and the fabricators and try to figure out how we were going to tether the pig balloons and triangulate them in a way that they won’t move in the wind. They have to be very stable. Turns out we’re going to use a barge surface and weld anchor points and use this rigging system to raise the whole thing and pull it back down. We had to look at the fabric types we were going to use for these things so that they were going to be very, very durable and, sad to say, they still could take a puncture. These things are being fabricated in Oxfordshire, England because this is where the copyright is and it’s where Roger Waters gets his. And then we did a soft press release last week, which garnered quite a lot of attention.

It was reported that Roger Waters, who holds the copyrights to Pink Floyd’s signature inflatable pigs, granted you permission to use it. Have you and he interacted personally?

We haven’t dealt with him personally yet but we’re working with his people. They reached out to us and said “we like what you’re doing” and sent us digital models of the pigs that we could integrate into our imagery. They introduced us to their fabricator and said, “take it and we’re behind you.”

Back in December, Sean Evans, Roger Waters’s visual director, reached out to us to say he saw what we were doing in the news and that he was going to show Roger and was certain he’d like it. Sure enough he did, and they got back to us with their digital representation and said, “here, you can use our pigs instead of the ones you created if you want to.” Of course we said yes. I asked what we need to do as far as copyright goes and Evans has said, so long as this goes forward, we’ll work it out. Now we’re focusing on getting this thing funded so we can have the firm fabricate them.

That has to be surreal.

Yes. I mean, this is Roger Waters! I’ve been listening to Roger Waters’s music since the 70s. I’m in my early 50s so I listened to this stuff in its original form on FM radio back in the day. So it’s definitely surreal to be collaborating with them in this way.

“I want to float four London bus-sized balloons off a barge in the river in the middle of the Summer.”

How has the city responded?

Before we did our first press release we shot this stuff out to the aldermen and the mayor’s office. The alderman’s office reached out to us and we had conversations with the necessary agencies and we kind of moved through the city format that we needed to. I’d say it’s going quite positively. But it’s also the kind of thing that leaves them scratching their heads. How often does the city get somebody approaching them saying, “I want to float four London bus-sized balloons off a barge in the river in the middle of the Summer.”

From the cost side, it’s expensive. There’s no way around it. We’re not taking any money for the work that we’re doing. Everything we put into it has been for free at this point. Our engineers have donated their time. We’ve had input by a number of people who’ve done this because they believe in it. But it costs money to rent barges and tugs; fabricate these things and ship them from the U.K.; put together the rigging systems; hire security and obtain city permits. So there are just things we have to pay for, there’s no way around it. But our intent all along has been that if we can collect enough money, we’ll take this to at least another city or two.

You guys have put together a GoFundMe page. How has the response been?

It’s actually going very well. We’re getting a consistent roll of donations and a lot of supportive emails that come with them. It’s awesome to see the community that I’m aligning with, just in terms of what I deem to be practical, saying “hey, this is pretty awesome.” We haven’t sourced any large donors at this point. We’re going to just let this go through social media and the GoFundMe page and see what we accumulate and maybe ultimately we will have to seek out some larger funding sources to get it over the top. But that’s where we are with it.

Top 5 favorite albums?

Oh, wow. That’s a tough one. For me, that varies between every six-month period. But five albums that I’ve had in heavy rotation over the course of this past year are:

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes

Neil Young – After the Gold Rush

Visit the Flying Pigs on Parade official page to stay updated on the project. You can donate by visiting their GoFundMe page.

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