Posted on

Mark’s House

Two Islands, Mark’s House, Flint, 2013

“Mark’s House,” by the firm Two Islands, is the winning entry in the Flint, Michigan Flat Lot Competition. The architects’ submission included seductive renderings of the proposed design: a mirrored, floating abstraction of a Tudor house. Then the project was built and, sadly, the reality was far from the glossy beauty portrayed in the initial representation. Many have discussed the unfortunate results on blogs and other websites, and some local residents have expressed their disapproval (see here and here, for example). This prompts the question of who is to blame: the designers, for proposing something unrealizable, especially considering budgetary constraints? The competition judges or organizers, for selecting an unrealizable project or setting the budget so low in the first place? Additionally, what does this mean to the residents of Flint, who encounter this object in their daily lives?

And yet the image above presents photographic “evidence” of a successful execution of Mark’s House, an image of a built reality that approximates the effect shown in competition renderings. This image, however, is a heavily doctored photograph of the built project. It is fiction posing as fact, designed to bolster the project by showing a satisfying realization of the design intent. The most interesting aspect of this image is that it represents a reversal in the typical chronology of a project, in which rendering precedes photography. Instead of the rendering serving as only as a predictive visualization, the rendering assumes authority over the photograph. The rendering becomes the prototype not just for the project itself, but for the photographic image of the built work. If the built realization of such a project falls as far short as Mark’s House does, post-production may be used to actually re-render the project, allowing a more favorable comparison between initial rendering and documentary photograph.

These representations of Mark’s House indicate the priority of the image in architecture today. Which audience for the project is larger: the residents and visitors of Flint, Michigan, or the networked crowd of the blogosphere? Clearly it is the second group; their consumption is therefore prioritized. The potential success of this photograph-turned-rendering is only plausible because most viewers of this image will never encounter the built project. This image was factitiously created. It was designed to fool, to hide the truth of the crinkled aluminum foil. It is not the little white lie told by many images manipulated using Photoshop. It is instead a full blown fiction intended to hide the ugly truth that these temporary pavilion competitions often yield less than satisfactory results.

Not only does this image attempt to mask the failure of this project’s construction, it also represents a failure of rendering itself. Problematically, the photorealistic rendering provides an image that is both too believable and too ideal for reality to ever satisfy. While a concept diagram suggests what a project might be, the rendering promises an exact representation of what the built project will look like. How can anything we build live up to the rainbow-filled world of floating buildings made of seamless, shimmering mirrored surfaces? Of course the realized project falls short of the rendered promise. In the case of such extreme dissonance, re-rendering is the only way to bridge the gap between illustration and reality. This project can only end up as a representational snake eating its own tail.

Gabrielle Patawaran

Posted on

Reading of Proposal for a Museum

“Proposal for a Museum”

What type of “reading” is appropriate for this type of image, encountered on the website Archive of Affinities, nearly devoid of context? Cursory formal analysis yields minimal results: a tower made of casually stacked, differently skinned blocks, each covered by a green roof. But the image is too flippant to be taken straightforwardly. It seems to be a jab at “greenwashing,” a joke about the amount of work required for a form to appear to be informal. It’s just a stack of extrusions with texture maps, after all. Only an architect would appreciate it, either for its form or for the joke.

But not just any architect. A certain sensibility is immediately evident, and this sensibility is squarely at odds with whatever meaning we can gather from the project’s few contextual cues. “Proposal for a Museum” appears aesthetically similar to the will-against-the-world sensibility of Pier Vittorio Aureli’s (possibility of an) absolute architecture, but to understand what that’s all about we need the context behind so-called “absolute architecture.” So how are we to understand a project that appears to align itself with that same sensibility, but with neither author nor political context in sight?

“Proposal for a Museum” is not strictly authorless, of course, but it is encountered as an almost free floating image on Tumblr, that quasi-anonymous machine for de-contextualizing images. In that light, the project is best understood as an essay in defamiliarization. “Proposal for a Museum” exposes the incompatibility between two contemporary situations: the status of images in the digital world and the rigor of architectural form. To understand why this might be important, we might consult Claire Bishop on how artists have failed to thematize the digital: “While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?” Not many, she says. And she’s not alone in her characterization of the problem at the core of our experience of the digital; the editors at Things Magazine address this problem more precisely, in terms of content: “What’s most interesting—and perhaps troubling—is the way in which the subject matter (the actual ‘content’) is changing in response to the means of presentation.”

We can identify at least three different types of changes in content. First, there are plenty of projects that are “made for the internet” (that is, projects conceptualized around alluring, stand-alone images). These projects have occasioned countless impassioned attempts by architects and critics to distance themselves from digital “vomit” (in the case of Sam Jacob writing on Dezeen) and what ultimately amounts to the same thing, “overly iconic buildings made for magazines” (according to Jacques Herzog). This suggests the second change in content brought about by the digital: projects that are made to not look good on the internet, and are therefore meant to demand an authentic first-person experience or deeper engagement of some kind. In a certain way these architects implicitly thematize the digital, albeit negatively.

The third type of project, exemplified by “Proposal for a Museum,” is about the incommensurability between “vomit” and “architecture.” On the one hand it takes part in the incessant production of cheap, disposable images, the new digital vernacular. On the other, it is the essence of aesthetic judgment, deftly placing itself within architecture culture. The utopian promise of the internet has been to bridge the gap between high and low, instant and deliberate. With “Proposal for a Museum” this promise—this myth—has been made into architecture.

Matthew Allen

Posted on

Objects and Subjects

John Hejduk, “Object/Subject”

Architecture, as a way of thinking, requires something outside of itself. It requires something to think about. The point is simple enough, though it seems that, because of the incessant pressure towards the production of a tangible, built object, architects have become more likely to lose sight of architecture’s fundamental capability to evaluate subjects. This suggests not only a deficiency in the culture of contemporary architectural practice, but also a deficiency in the forms of media we utilize.

A brief consideration of two iconic modernists can provide insightful case studies on the act of looking outward through architecture. A recurring trope in Le Corbusier’s writing was his near fanaticism for so-called “objects of an arresting novelty” that emerged early in the 20th century, such as cars and airplanes. His enormous collection of images and subsequent deployment of those images in the pages of progressive journals were seamlessly integrated with his architectural production. A similar fascination can be located in his search for three-dimensionality in the flatness of the painted canvas. Alternatively, Mies van der Rohe’s prolonged engagement with certain philosophical doctrines and his ethic of ceaseless drawing contributed more than any particular building experience to the development of his architectural language. These provided the underlying subject of his life’s work, of which the repetitiveness of his later buildings can be seen as the mature embodiment. Mies saw the “building art” as a way of articulating our various forms of life.

Perhaps the most pertinent contemporary heir to this tradition today is Rem Koolhaas. However in Koolhaas’s case, the evident desire for collecting and analyzing outsider or grotesque urban phenomena informs not just a spatial sensibility, but the inevitable bifurcation of an entire practice, OMA/AMO. It is highly relevant that, in this situation, objects and subjects are split in two; where OMA builds objects, AMO investigates subjects. Where Koolhaas himself embodies a posture of apparent integration or synthesis, his decision to structure one of the most influential practices of the last several decades as a divided endeavor has had an enormous impact on the profession as a whole. The notion of practice today would benefit from a significant shift in meaning, embracing the act of investigation as its reason for being. However, passing this threshold can only take shape if a fundamental change occurs in the objects we make and the subjects they serve.

Daniel Martinez

Posted on

On Crate Digging

Crate digging with Otis Jackson Jr. (a.k.a. Madlib)

“Crate diggers” are a peculiar species of modern consumer, endlessly and omnivorously searching for the obscure, the unusual, and the overlooked. They exhibit incredible patience, a keen eye, and an absence of expectation in their compulsive pursuit of forgotten vinyl treasures. It would be impractical and unrealistic to seek out a single desired LP when rifling through dozens of unorganized, overstuffed crates of vinyl. Instead, the crate digger–typically a DJ or producer–exhaustively browses each crate, driven only by the desire for novel sound, the possibility of finding a record never before sampled.

The habits of these fanatical browsers prefigure the way certain new web applications now frame our relation to cultural material. The microblogging platform Tumblr and social wish-board Pinterest provide a seemingly endless stream of content, allowing users to redefine the cultural referents that express their uniqueness on the fly. In these growing online communities, images of architecture have become collectibles to be displayed and archived as signifiers of an individual’s taste and identity.

Unlike the crate digger’s collection, these stockpiles of images and ideas require no physical or financial commitment. Entire periods of architectural history might be adopted and discarded as hastily as a viral video. Many have observed that this cultural flatland gives everything equal weight, but even a million feathers can be a burden. The fuller the flatland, the more difficult it can be to act upon it inventively.

Hip-hop producer Otis Jackson Jr. (a.k.a. Madlib), perhaps the quintessential crate digger, has made a career splicing together obscure samples from his (allegedly) two-ton collection of vinyl. Could his cut-and-paste musical aesthetic–the outcome of his crate digging–prefigure a transformation in method among the next generation of architects, those reared under the regime of the like button? One might rightly wonder if they will be more or less adept at dealing with the weight of architectural history, now flattened and dispersed on thousands of blogs and digital walls.

Michael Abrahamson

Posted on

BIG Joke

Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), People’s Building, Shanghai, 2004

With what framework can one evaluate the projects of Bjarke Ingels Group? They seem too casual, too whimsical for serious criticism. Their design process puts such great emphasis on the authorship of each project that the final products cannot be judged based on their forms alone. Instead, the forms are inextricably paired with their design narratives. An evaluative framework therefore has to be built around the connection between the narratives and the buildings, as well as the between the buildings and their cultural contexts.

Such a framework already exists: the joke. Jokes are specific machines in which the resolution of a narrative (called the punchline) has a reflexive function. In one performative action, the punchline produces a humorous effect and the justification for the telling of the narrative in the first place. As with all jokes, BIG’s projects can be evaluated by the strength of their punchlines.

In a typical BIG project, concepts are generalized and instrumentalized to produce a linear narrative. A causal system is set up: generic masses are manipulated into sculptural forms through the invocation of sun angles, view corridors, or other such performance criteria. As the audience, we presume that the result justifies the process.

In most BIG projects, however, this justification is suspect. Their projects are typically of the “shaggy-dog” type, in which the narrative plays on the audience’s preconception of a standard joke. The audience’s expectation of a meaningful resolution keeps them listening while the narrative is drawn out for a much longer time than they anticipated. Instead of producing any humorous effect, the joke ends in a pointless, unrelated, or unsatisfactory form. The joke is on the audience for listening in the first place. Whether this effect is intentional or not on the part of BIG is irrelevant. The “shaggy-dog” technique keeps the audience wanting more in the hopes that one story will eventually be funny.

At their best, however, BIG are funny. They are able to generate forms that both justify their narratives and transcend them, becoming more than the sums of their parts. The People’s Building for the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai is a prime example. The form of the tower is derived from a seemingly logical step-by-step process of overcoming constraints. View corridors from a major street to the river must be maintained, the boardwalk must run uninterrupted, etc. But the resultant form is not just the product of these design constraints. It is also the Chinese character for people, the character personified and used as the mascot for the Expo. The seemingly straightforward resolution of pragmatic site issues into a signifying product makes this particular form a successful punchline. With the People’s Building, BIG’s narrative approach to design doesn’t result in yet another complex but inert form; it produces a humorous and culturally resonant punchline. The work is a joke.

It takes a lot of effort to be funny. At least somebody is trying.

Mark Talbot

Posted on

Interiors I (Nutcracker)

Nutcracker, John Chamberlain, 1960

Most of the way down the chronologically ordered spiral of Choices, the John Chamberlain retrospective now on view at the Guggenheim, you might find yourself leaning against the white balustrade of the ramp in front of a sculpture like Nutcracker—an early, seemingly modest piece that pulls you out of your museum drift before you know what has stopped you.

Nutcracker is a mid-sized accumulation of faded polychromatic car parts that is characteristic of Chamberlain’s best work. Linear strips of doorframes act against some force pushing outward from the deep interior of the piece, binding the folded metal sheets that enclose this void into a taut, listing, compact form. An intuitive formal balance is achieved through the simultaneous effects of tension and compression made possible by the presence of a space within. The piece embodies the aesthetic dream of arrested motion.

As is so often the case, the most famous work, the first mature work, the kind of work that Nutcracker here stands in for, really is the best work. It is the work that carries the force of a moment in which some transformation in the artist’s own practice is inextricably bound with the transformation of a broader culture, and cause and effect become impossible to establish. Nutcracker is complete in itself as an aesthetic thought, and yet carries with it a whole range of narratives and associations drawn from the cultures it mingles with: the epic of the American automobile, say, or the latent apocalypse of the Cold War. The critical potential of abstraction. The reconstitution of mass culture as art. This work contains the world, without needing to explain or even acknowledge it.

Chamberlain’s work has challenged sculpture in several ways: through color, through material and process, through form and space. The work is at its best when it is at the edge of the medium (or where the medium once was), when the color approaches painting, when the material approaches refuse, when the form approaches architecture. This is the productive function of a disciplinary limit—of choosing a medium—retrogressive as the idea may sometimes seem today. Limits do not impede, they beg you to break them, and tease you ever closer.

Unlike Richard Serra, whose best works are linear surfaces that alter the sites that contain them, Chamberlain’s best works are site-less, drawing force from their interiors. Like Nutcracker, they are understood in the round, and the crumpled metal sheets are gathered around one another in such a way that they bulge and break and enclose a void, a deep black recess into which you can never quite see, an interior form that cannot be mapped or fully comprehended.

This is the province of architecture—the disjunction between interior and exterior, the obscured presence of something within that makes itself known on the outside. But Chamberlain’s works are decidedly not architecture. The sheets that enclose these interiors are monolithic. The pieces do not address the scale of human inhabitation, or the force of gravity as it acts on larger structures. There are no Gehry technologies here, ensuring the structurally sound or spatially accurate relationship of the parts to the whole. In fact, if you loiter on the ramps long enough, you might be fortunate enough to witness a distracted tourist knock a piece banging onto the unforgiving floor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s continuous room. And yet, by approaching the limit of sculpture, by enclosing space and thereby pushing up against something other than themselves—architecture—the best of these sculptures can be understood to contain architectural problems of informality, assemblage, surface, and fold, and to therefore prefigure projects that have carried through architectural form and discourse for almost a half-century.

An introductory assignment: draw a section through Nutcracker, and then explain why Nutcracker never required a section drawing.

Emmett Zeifman

Posted on

A Brief Theory of the Architectural B-side

Cluedo Board Game Patent #586817, Plan, Anthony E. Pratt, 1947

An architectural B-side is, clearly, not an architectural hit. While an architectural B-side is surely architectural, its placement within the discipline may not be quite familiar or easily classified.  Such difficulty in categorization puts an architectural B-side on the disciplinary sidelines. It is precisely this peripheral positioning that affords the architectural B-side the ability to re-examine, re-digest, re-think and ultimately re-define the limits of the discipline. Neither entirely within nor outside of the discipline, an architectural B-side may at first glance appear to be a useless work of architecture that is better suited for history’s trash can. However, the discipline of architecture is already overflowing with useless ‘work.’ To inspect works that have not typically been included under the designation of architecture culture, and to consider them under that designation, might be our most disciplinary task.

One such delightful architectural B-side is Anthony Ernest Pratt’s 1947 patent specification drawing for the board game Cluedo. As a black and white diagrammatic floor plan, is Pratt’s patent specification drawing for Cludeo not a variation on the architectural problem of the nine-square grid? Developed during WW II, Pratt’s legible labyrinth deploys architectural concepts of the interior, sequence, narrative, program, and the house to produce a morbid, deductive whodunit game structured around the event of murder.  Within the plan, each programmatic figure is isolated from others by a gridded circulation path. Thus the introverted plan produces a center that is “free” or “open,” with a single staircase that descends to the basement. Yet, from gun room to conservatory, every programmatic figure plugs into the perimeter such that each room is ostensibly connected. This looped corridor at the perimeter of the plan unites all of the programmatic figures into a single, contained space, allowing a murderer to commit a crime in one space and move undetected to another. Rather than a machine for living, Pratt’s plan is a machine for killing.

Like their counterparts in film and music, architectural B-sides may simply be cult classics that exercise a  deliberate obstinacy toward commercial or disciplinary success.  Architectural B-sides may exploit elements of fantasy, violence, sex, and darkness, conveying idiosyncrasies or perversions. Discarded visions, failures, accidents, outtakes, mishaps, glitches, curiosities, oddities, anomalies, and ultimately follies – architectural B-sides are the collective skeletons of architecture’s closet. With respect to Pratt’s Cluedo floor plan, perhaps Bernard Tschumi’s advertisement is true: “To really appreciate architecture you may even need to commit a murder.” And maybe, at this moment, with the hits having been played out, in order to really appreciate architecture we actually need to perversely love architecture.

Andrew Kovacs

Posted on

Stranger Than Fiction

L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 (still taken at 1:34:24)

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées

An empty space can feel foreboding, unsettling. When a plaza, a space typically of the people, is found empty, it can produce a sense of anxiety. This anxiety has been identified as a form of agoraphobia, a condition exclusive to modern urban dwellers.

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura (1960), public space is the backdrop to scenes where characters undergo moments of great psychological anxiety. In the shot above, the two characters in the car, Claudia and Sandro, are on a mission to find Anna, Sandro’s lover, who earlier in the film goes missing during a yacht trip off the coast of Sicily. Their investigation leads them to Noto, a small town that is apparently deserted. Claudia walks to the edge of the sun-drenched plaza and looks down on another cluster of buildings. “There’s another [town] there,” Sandro says. “That’s not a town. That’s a cemetery. My God, how dreary. Let’s go,” Claudia replies. The air is thick, stagnant, the sun blazing. An ominous weight hangs over the scene, foreshadowing the hopelessness of their search and their doomed relationship. Sandro mistakes a city of the dead for a city of the living, recalling Aldo Rossi’s Cemetery of San Cataldo, the ossuary of which is described by Eugene J. Johnson as “an abandoned or incomplete house, with empty windows, unroofed.”

The final scene of the film is shot in the hidden recesses of a dark alleyway, the camera slowly creeping around the side of the building that at first appears uninhabited. We, as audience, have become voyeurs, protected by the darkness, observing the lovers who are blind to our presence. Noto, meaning “known” in Italian, is a town that represents only the unknown. Their trip there does not enlighten Claudia and Sandro, it only generates more confusion and uncertainty. But, as Anthony Vidler argues in the article “Transparency and Utopia,” it is in the slippage between transparency and obscurity that “the sublime as an instrument of fear retains its hold, in that ambiguity that stages the presence of death in life, dark space in bright space.” Antonioni purposefully sets the bright plaza as the perspectival focal point of the composition, in contrast with the dark foreground of decrepit buildings. The scene culminates in a view of the church across the plaza, standing solidly as a symbolic monument to religious domination.

Fictions are fabricated in the shadows, in the interstice between light and dark. We can look to Antonioni not only for how he captures space, but how he films the relationship between bodies in space. The intrigue of the narrative occurs in the undefined space between public and private, and in what is left unspoken. What appears as reality on the surface is actually a facade masking a terror beyond.

Leticia Wouk Almino

Posted on

Architecture Will Make You Go Blind

Fleshlights, A Study

Section. Sex-tion.
Sex can be projected onto nearly anything, even (maybe especially) architecture. And this is not simply a product of perpetually having our minds in the gutter; often the innuendo is less than subtle. Towers, solid-void relationships, the earlier works of Gage/Clemenceau Architects (to name but a few of many culprits) all provoke thoughts of genitalia and deviant sex acts with little to no effort.

Projecting architecture onto sex, on the other hand, is a more trying task. In the heat of the moment, architecture is the last thing that most people would think of. That said, some of us just can’t help it.

Most of us would be content to accept the Fleshlight for what it is: an oddly proportioned flashlight whose bulb and battery chassis have been replaced by a silicone vagina; sex toys, after all, are not primarily intended to provoke critical thought. However, after mining a catalogue of over 48 internal textures, one cannot help but recognize the Fleshlight’s overt use of architectural innuendo. Poche. Enfilade. Though these architectural tropes are not immediately recognizable, they are made abundantly clear in section.

Out of context, one might mistake the Fleshlight’s section for a plan of a baroque palais. Reminiscent of architectural poche, the Fleshlight is made up of a series of shaped chambers that are seemingly carved from the thickness of the device’s silicone sleeve. Like an enfilade suite, the opening of each chamber is aligned with that of the next. Running along a single axis these chambers create a formal procession from end to end.

Stop. Just Stop.
As architects, we continually do this. We confuse architecture and sex: we think that architecture, like sex, can be projected onto anything. This is most certainly a product of perpetually having our minds in the gutter (the more serious architectural one, unfortunately). Suffering from a nearsighted masturbatory compulsion we have a great deal of trouble realizing that serious architectural dialogue does not belong everywhere; we see architecture in everything and feel compelled to take note of it in the most long winded of ways. And it is to our detriment that we do this. In our preoccupation to over-think and over-theorize we overwhelm the subject matter with issues that it was never intended to get involved in. As a result the subject’s most remarkable features are often left overlooked.

This is not to oppose serious architectural dialogue – it is a necessary form of tribal interaction; it is only to remind ourselves that we do not need to take everything so seriously. Sometimes it would behoove us to enjoy things on their own terms, not ours. Otherwise, we may just ruin the mood.

Alfie Koetter

Posted on

Milstein Hall as ‘Miracle Box’

O.M.A, Milstein Hall (photograph by Philippe Ruault, 2012)

While Rem Koolhaas, in the essay “Junkspace,” compares contemporary architects’ understanding of the significance of modernism to “reading a footnote under a microscope hoping it [will] turn into a novel,” he has built a career out of assembling and recombining canonical Modernist tropes with the dirty realism of the built world. In many of Koolhaas’s projects we find the formal diagrams of Mies van der Rohe recapitulated through the diagrams of Le Corbusier: the Miesian plinth and long-span pavilion liberate and connect floating boxes ‘supported’ by Le Corbusier’s five points for a new architecture. This bricolage of high modernism contains a form of nostalgia for past moments where architecture was constituted by scenarios and situations that create and afford individual or collective social desires. One thinks of constructivism, Soviet social condensers, collective housing, informal urbanism, etc. as examples of this architectural tendency. For Koolhaas, the complexities and contradictions inherent in life will always exceed the limited scope and vision of form as conceived by the architect.

In the case of Milstein Hall, the recently completed O.M.A. project for Cornell University’s Department of Architecture, a reappearance of Mies’s long-span pavilion is propped up by a massive concrete hemisphere and wedged between two existing, double-loaded corridor, academic buildings. What at first appears to be a sophisticated approach to manipulating a difficult context, the built work is at once a clever ‘confrontation with the existing’ (as Oswald Mathias Ungers would call for) and a radical separation from the neo-classical campus ground. Unlike the ceremonial dignity and spatial purity of Mies’s Crown Hall at I.I.T. (a clear inspiration for Milstein Hall), which is set in dialogue with the campus through a series of contrapuntal, dynamic relationships and removed from the ground by only a few hovering steps, Milstein Hall actualizes its interstitial location with the minimum formal gesture to the maximum programmatic effect. While the programmatic connectivity and renewed collaboration between divergent constituencies are principal effects of this diagram, the latent comparison to Mies’s masterpiece begs the question: if Crown Hall’s column-free, universal, and expansive interior space is understood to be the spatial result of the structural diagram of the long-span pavilion, how is this diagram re-originated and transformed at Milstein Hall?

While the studio space of Milstein Hall is not column free, the hybrid Vierendeel truss system does create a similar flexibility and openness to that of Crown Hall. Unlike the tripartite division of Crown Hall into an exalted center zone with two adjacent side aisles, Milstein’s studio floor feels more unified and less restricted by any overriding organization. The spacing of the studio desks form a relentless modernist grid, creating a secondary horizon line within the section of the space. While Mies sat only in the center of Crown Hall (supposedly with a cigar ashtray at his feet), the architecture faculty at Milstein float amongst the students, as no one space takes priority as a symbolic gathering zone. Regardless, the more potent effect might be the subtle reorientation of the architecture school towards the gorge at the rear of the building. The full-height glass envelope foregrounds and frames this monumental void, recalling the artifice of Mies’ Farnsworth house taken to a crescendo. The hybridization of Crown Hall and Farnsworth in Milstein creates a re-connection to the natural setting of Ithaca and, in so doing, re-frames the campus setting as simultaneously urban and bucolic.

Alexander Maymind

Posted on


Le Corbusier, Electronic Calculation Center for Olivetti

Perhaps more than any other transformation exerted by the computer, the immediate coordination of orthographic projections (plan, section, elevation, axonometric, etc.) has had the greatest effect on architecture. Building Information Modeling is, in fact, so good at correlating projected views with each other that the automatic production of drawings is by now hardly a novelty at all.

However in the perfect coordination of these various means by which architects inscribe their ideas, architecture loses some of the space in which it once operated. The simple difference between the plan and the elevation of Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta, as drawn in his Four Books on Architecture, was enough to incite generations of British Palladians to iterate their own versions of the stair. Given that our software makes thinking in any other mode than three dimensions almost impossible, one avenue for productive critique may be to challenge the immediacy of the correlation between plan, section, elevation, etc.

If Mannerism was a response to the high degree of perfection reached in the Renaissance, this argument might be a suggestion born of the same impulse. Without disregarding or degrading the ordnances of perfect coordination, architecture has the capacity for dissonance. In other words, although they might be drawn from the same object, the plan and section might appear radically different from one another, and from the object itself. The term “estrangement” can be used to designate such differences. And these differences are always relative: a plan itself cannot be described in this way, it can only be “estranged” from its sections, elevations, or otherwise.

One of the best examples of this trope would be Le Corbusier’s bizarre project for the Electronic Calculation Center for Olivetti. The strangely arterial shapes of the plan become flat, conic, or sinuous in section, and the model is quite different from either. The project is all the more relevant for its function, a building to house early computers. Moreover, the building was planned near Turin, the city of Giorgio de Chirico, whose paintings in and of that city portray the quintessential affect of estrangement. The Oeuvre Complete quotes Le Corbusier saying of his Olivetti project, “Vast construction for 4000 employees using these immense calculating machines…miraculous and able to answer the questions that modern science suggests. Here the ‘simple man’ (like myself) feels like a poor little man. But he feels that at both ends of this adventure, there is the implacable human presence: the person who asks the question and the one who receives the answer.” Quite rightly, Le Corbusier splits the one who asks from the one receives the answer. An architecture of estrangement would suggest that we’d do best to keep the two separate, for now.

Jonah Rowen

Posted on

Architecture Untreated

Philipp Schaerer, Bildbau No. 1, 2007

Architecture is crazy. Not wild or awesome or amazing crazy, but I’m-afraid-to-introduce-you-to-my-mother, you’re-suffering-from-a-diagnosable-disorder crazy. As a discipline architecture has committed itself to engaging all-at-once with three-dimensional reality and two-dimensional abstraction (in varying proportions depending on who you ask). As a result, it has had to simultaneously address two modes of representation that often find themselves at odds with one another. Caught between the second and third dimensions, architecture has carried on a schizophrenic existence that straddles two distinct personae: one obsessed with perspective, volume, and realism; the other with flatness, abstraction, and potential fiction.

Generally it would be socially unacceptable to leave such a condition untreated: antipsychotics would be administered and therapy sessions would follow. And while those personalities that have been classified as disruptive would be suppressed, a sedated life of reduced pleasure, limited sexual appetite, and increased apathy would surely follow.

As far as architecture is concerned, it would be best to leave this disorder untreated: there is too much to lose. Some of the greatest moments in architecture lie in the unexpected dissonances that reverberate between buildings and their representations. These schizophrenic ruptures are most pronounced when the inherent qualities of architecture’s dueling personalities are embraced and left uncompromised. More specifically, architecture is most powerful when the limits and consequent potentials of two-dimensional representation are acknowledged. One thinks of Mies’s collages or Archizoom’s plans of No-Stop City, pieces that exceed the possibilities of literal representation and embody a quality of composition that allows them to stand on their own as easily as they stand as complements to their respective projects.

Flipping through magazines and scrolling through blogs, however, one is confronted with the distinct and unsettling possibility that architecture’s two-dimensional persona has been deemed aberrant. Even more troubling is that architecture seems to be taking its meds and is now integrating itself all too harmoniously into the real world. Qualities of flatness and abstraction in architectural representation have been subdued in favor of the completely underwhelming reality of high-gloss, lens-flared, and didactic rendering. Gone is the schism between reality and representation. What is left is a completely synchronized (albeit muted) personality, obsessed with perspective, lighting effects, and hyper-realism, and thoroughly opposed to misinterpretation, productive or otherwise.

There are glimmers of hope every now and then. In Philipp Schaerer’s Bildbauten series, architecture seems to have accepted its antisocial tendencies and ‘forgotten’ its medication for a couple days. As an exercise in architectural fantasy, the Bildbauten series exists solely in two-dimensions. Though these images are photorealistic in terms of light and materiality, Schaerer makes no attempt to engage perspective. Instead, he accepts the flatness of the medium, a flatness that hums in juxtaposition to the otherwise hyper-real qualities of the renderings. An obsession with the real is still very much present in Schaerer’s work; however, it does not come at the expense of the flat surface. Both are allowed to exist simultaneously, each speaking at once in support of and opposition to the other.

It is refreshing to see architecture arguing with itself, and to be reminded of its schizophrenia. It confirms the suspicion that it should have never gone on meds in the first place.

Alfie Koetter

Posted on

Appearing Adaptable

Kenzo Tange’s metabolist icon, the Yamanashi Press and Broadcasting Building, stands tall in the low-lying valley town of Kofu, Japan. Unlike many metabolist projects that have struggled to adapt to changing twenty-first century environments, Yamanashi has aged well.  Built in 1967, the project underwent an extensive addition to accommodate the need for more space in the 1970s.  Tange’s system of sixteen cylindrical cores accepted the additional building mass so seamlessly (as originally planned) that one is hard pressed to find a single surgical scar on the project today.  Such a success makes Yamanashi a clear poster-child for the original “adaptable” tenets of the metabolist movement—out-shining the likes of Kisho Kurokawa’s famous Nakagin Capsule Tower, which today is under constant threat of being razed despite calls to enact the architect’s original metabolist system of capsule replacement.

However, the secret to Yamanashi’s success may not be the carefully considered metabolist system, which anticipated these additions, but a less fundamental aspect of the architecture that simply lets us know that change is okay. Tange’s building lifts the burden of pristine architectural preservation by appearing adaptable, rather than just being adaptable.  Unlike, the smooth surface of Nakagin’s “washing machine” capsules, which allow for only self-similar growth (only more washing machines can be added to this mix), Yamanashi has a decidedly toothy grain that welcomes any and all future architectural barnacles. The pseudo-tectonic motifs that dot the surface of the building in the form of concrete nubs (protruding concrete “beams”), as well as the actual roughness of the concrete finish, advertise a desire to accept growth in many forms. As if a sculptor working in clay, Tange scores his own building with these scratches and blemishes, anticipating a future where other similarly disturbed chunks of clay will be slapped on with a little slip in between. As a result of this intentionally “rough” craftsmanship, the secondary form of unanticipated growth that Yamanashi has acquired hangs very comfortably on the building’s exterior.  The array of oversized TV antennae and digital tickers that peppers the building’s facade seems completely at home amongst the concrete footholds of its host.

Of course, Kurokawa’s building, on the other hand, may be a victim of its own popularity.  As Nakagin and other buildings like it gain iconic status, society becomes anxious when talks of change arise. Discussions of renovation turn to talks of preservation, halting the very processes originally designed to increase longevity.  It’s clear from Yamanashi and Nakagin that ‘actual’ adaptability can only take us so far, and that we should allow ‘apparent’ adaptability to remind us that architecture isn’t sacred but meant to be added to, disrupted, and disturbed.

Daniel Markiewicz

Posted on

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

Posted on


Brown & Guenther, Jackie Robinson Apartments (photograph by Emmett Zeifman, 2011)

Amidst the vast quantities of anonymous and unremarkable modernist architecture—especially large-scale housing—that are distributed throughout the twentieth-century city, there appear occasional exceptions, aberrations, and mutations that, despite the obscurity of their origins, offer important lessons on the potentials of architectural and urban form. These works of what we might call the modernist vernacular do not come equipped with the already evolved discourses of works by acknowledged masters, and they are therefore not so easily understood to constitute meaningful precedent in precise, architectural, terms. Symbolized by Minoru Yamasaki’s demolished Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, they were largely discredited as the straw men in the argument for post-modernism. Yet as Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown developed a theory, or at least rhetoric, from the exceptions of other dismissed vernaculars and typologies—the subdivision, the strip mall, the casino—we can imagine the possibility of developing a framework that supports the discussion of specific modernist buildings without remarkable authors or histories. This is not to resort to cheap anthropology. It instead means to discuss, and learn, from these buildings on formal terms, as we discuss the formal characteristics of both authored buildings and author-less cities. Modernist development, in redefining the figure-ground relationship of the city, begs us to confront the object, rather than the figure, the single structure, rather than the urban accumulation, even when that object is not the work of an acknowledged master.

One such modernist exception is the massive housing complex known as the Jackie Robinson Apartments, located near the eastern edge of Prospect Park, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Standing on the polygonal site once occupied by Ebbets Field, the development and the poverty it houses are emblematic of the ills associated with post-war urban redevelopment—it appeared in Super Size Me, and has been the subject of lamenting features in the Times and elsewhere. But the easy narrative and irony offered by its name, location, and socio-economic condition matter less, in architectural terms, than its form. Designed by the firm Brown & Guenther and completed in 1962, the basis of the project is the familiar slab tower, in beige brick and concrete. However, here those basic units are not dispersed in the rows, grids, radial patterns, and other typical site plans of modernist housing developments found in cities throughout the world; they are simply agglomerated into one continuous mass. The realtor tells us that these are seven addresses—a distinction no doubt borne out by the distribution of elevator cores and fire rated walls. In fact, the Jackie Robinson Apartments are something else altogether, an unexpected apparition of mirrored, rotated, intersected, and butt-jointed building blocks rising out of the mixed bag of architecture that populates the eastern edge of Prospect Park.

Perhaps the same constraining site dimensions that led to the demise of the too small Ebbets Field spurred the mashing together of these slabs. Whatever the case, whether the experiment was conscious or not, the complex poses an alternative to the expected object-field relationship of modernist developments. Here the object is of such a vertical scale and horizontal organization as to land somewhere between the tower in the park and the neoclassical palace. It is both isolated in space and encloses space; with its inboard corners, well-defined courts, and wings stretched to the limits of the site, the project has the unrealized capacity to establish some of those qualities of defined urban space that modernist urban development is accused of destroying. It is a mutation, which, like the best of such singularities, contains a whole host of formal trajectories. In its moment it was an evolutionary dead end, a one-off. Yet today we can find in this remarkable complex an unexpected and potentially productive synthesis of scales and archetypes that suggests new possibilities for the construction of high-density housing.

Emmett Zeifman

Posted on


John Carl Warnecke, AT&T Long Lines Building

At least since Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky’s “Transparency” essays, for which a conspicuously unmentioned precedent can be found in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, architects have understood that transparency does not necessarily equal transparency. The familiar argument suggests that so-called “phenomenal transparency” — a strange title, if only because it has little to do with phenomena and is far closer to what might now be deemed “conceptual” instead — is a more difficult effect to achieve than “literal transparency.” Neither a simple material property nor an expression of the interior on the exterior, this type of “transparency” is actually opaque. And if architects have figured out how to create transparency with transparent materials, the effects of transparency with opaque materials, and the effects of opacity with transparent materials (such as Gropius’s Bauhaus, Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, and Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion, respectively), could the effects of opacity be exploited toward architectural substance?

The seductively mute building on New York City’s Church Street between Thomas and Worth by the architect John Carl Warnecke seems to do just that. The building has no windows and gives no clues as to what is inside. The entry on Thomas Street is simply an incision into the clumped vertical stacks which comprise the building’s massing. Its only indication of scale is the relentless rectangular tiling of pink granite slabs on the exterior, whose absolute uniformity belies any sense of scale they might otherwise provide. To those unusual factors, add the alleged abnormally tall floor-to-floor heights, and one begins to suspect that this building was actually conceived to exceed the human scale. It sits in the city inertly, awaiting its Cartesian separation from its surroundings. Le Corbusier’s criticism, “the skyscrapers of New York are too small!” simply cannot be leveled against this particular skyscraper. And where contemporary modes of digital production have dissimulated scale from the creation of architectural models, this building does the same as a material, built object. The “Long Lines Building,” as it was originally called, suggests that opacity might imply a far more visceral, and indeed even conceptual, opaqueness.

Jonah Rowen