Issue 12 Introduction
THE POTENTIAL OF THE TERRITORY BEYOND. Issue statement by Iker Gil, editor in chief of MAS Context, and John Szot, guest editor of this issue.
Aberration. That was the title chosen for this issue after much discussion between us. “Pathology” and “appropriation” were some of the other working titles that we bounced back and forth but we felt were too wide or too pointed, not capturing exactly what we were interested in exploring. Aberration was open enough to allow multiple interpretations but, at the same time, specific enough to target the qualities we sought: highly provocative projects and ideas that challenge orthodoxy in order to enhance our understanding of the built environment. We were not exactly sure how that would translate into the specific outcomes from the invited contributions or what we were expecting in the call for submissions. But that was really the position in which we wanted to be, precise about the idea but open to the result.
This conversation started over half a year ago, before the MAS Context team even started to work on the Speed issue. Initiated by the mutual interest in each other’s work, we decided to collaborate in an issue, not just by contributing specific projects or an essay but actually shaping the topic and content of the issue together. And that was a first time. Since the start of MAS Context almost three years ago, there has been a close collaboration with the authors (over 130 by now) in each one of the issues. In the last few months, MAS Context has incorporated another way of continuing that collaboration, inviting authors and readers to guest curate five posts from already published issues in the “In Context” section. It has provided a successful way of framing the work done under new topics, cross-referencing articles, issues and contributors. This has been the first time that a guest editor was brought in for an issue of MAS Context, and it has been an enriching experience.
The creative process is idealistic, and much of what we prize in the work of our designers and artists comes from the way in which their visions stand in stark contrast to our understanding of the world. However, there are moments in life where the ambitions of idealistic thinking block access to the profound reality lurking within the quotidian. The thirteen contributions featured in this issue each abandon idealistic convention in pursuit of ideas that embrace the irreverence of material reality. In the process, they often cross disciplines and blur platforms to bring clarity and precision to thoughts that are without precedent. Writer and architect Paul Shepheard begins the issue, introducing us to his vision for a moral standard that reconciles the opposition between idealism and corporeality. From there, we delve into a series of ruminations and proposals that bridge the fields of architecture, design, politics, and literature. Individually, they illustrate conditions of future cities, create icons from mundane elements, propose new relationships between space and material, and reconfigure the relationship between architecture and the society it keeps. Collectively, they brave new territory as they transcend the limitations of idealistic thinking and demonstrate that, when the conventions of a discipline are pushed aside and the imagination is not restricted by practical obligations, there is a rich path full of potential worth exploring. Or, as in the words of Spanish painter Goya mentioned by Emilio López-Galiacho in his contribution, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
Iker Gil is an architect, urban designer, and director of MAS Studio. In addition, he is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the School of Architecture at UIC. He is the recipient of the 2010 Emerging Visions Award from the Chicago Architectural Club.
www.mas-studio.com | @MASContext
John Szot is an award-winning designer working in the New York metropolitan area. He runs John Szot Studio where he focuses mainly on researching the relationship between new technology and what makes the built environment meaningful.
www.johnszot.com | @johnszot
The Only Possible World
Essay by architect and writer Paul Shepheard
‘Utopia’ is the word invented by Thomas More five hundred years ago at the start of the modern age to describe the ideal society. It’s composed of Latin parts that, taken together, mean ‘no place’ or ‘nowhere.’ We now use the word utopia to mean an impossible dream of perfection.
“How To Like Everything” is part of a project to recast the actual world, the world we already live in, as utopia – to make the impossible possible.
In his 1759 satire ‘Candide,’ Voltaire lampoons the philosopher Dr. Pangloss for the positive spin he peddles. Pan-gloss means explain-everything. To every fresh disaster that befalls his innocent young friend Candide, he reasons that ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.’
Dr. Pangloss is a parody of the German philosopher Leibnitz, who was one of the three great seventeenth-century rationalists, with Descartes and Spinoza. They all shared the same difficulty: they had to reconcile reason with the Creation. It is of consequence for us that the Age of Reason was constructed before Darwin, and that we have had to adapt it to our needs — and a mass of confusion has flowed from the patching up that’s ensued. But in those days it was too dangerous to publicly describe a world that had not been made by God. For Descartes, the division between mind and matter could be reconciled by divine dispensation. For Spinoza, nature itself was synonymous with divinity. And Leibnitz said that everything that existed did so independently of everything else, but in a set of relations chosen by God: this world is the best of all possible worlds because God selected it out of the infinite choices He had. How much plainer would reason be if it kicked divinity out! For example, this is the best of all possible worlds because it exists in the present. There is, actually, in the second it takes you to read this sentence, no other way for it to be. This is the only possible world.
I want to make a distinction between the real world and the actual world. The real world is the matrix that frames our lives. It is not one world; it is whatever we imagine it, whatever we agree, by custom or force, to say it is. Money, politics, technology and faith are what frame it. War and injustice are its life and death matters. At any one time on the globe, there are many such worlds. They change slowly as the generations devolve and empires rise and fall. They are complex, but understandable.
The actual world is the thing itself. Unlike the real, it is simple but incomprehensible. It is the spinning planet and everything on it as it is now, in the present, in this split second. It is not the same thing as it was ten minutes ago, or ten years ago, or ten million years ago.
That turbulence is what the real worlds are trying to arrest with their histories and their plans, but in the actual world, there is no past and no future, only the present. All we know of it is in the present. All we know of the past we know because it is here with us now, in living memories or in the material record, whether books, pictures and buildings, or fossils and sediments. The Parthenon, the greatest building in the world, is of the past, but stands here in the present, in ruins, on its sacred hill. The perfection it had is gone, now only described in the chronicles, but we know about it because those chronicles too are with us in the present. And the future? What we know of the future, all the plans we lay, all the projections we make, are here with us too, hatching in the present.
The present matters to How To Like Everything because the idea of everything, with its preposterous inclusiveness, is only manageable in that way. Here and now is everything: but the next instant will produce its own new catalog. When I carried this suggestion into a seminar at the academy in Amsterdam, they all objected. The serial instants of the incoming present — next, click, next, click, next — are too short to carry any information. There must be some duration for ‘everything’ to show itself — and how long is that? A camera can freeze a galloping horse at a thousandth of a second. A blink of the eye is one twentieth. Both so short you don’t notice them. So how long is the present in which everything shows itself?
Try this. Why are hit singles three minutes long? Is it the short attention span of contemporary youth? Or is that the length of time it takes to perceive something new? Think of yourself looking at something for the first time, how long did it take to sink in? Is that it? Is the present three minutes long? Maybe it’s three days. Or the Jesuit’s seven years! Give me a boy for seven years and I will show you the man. Or perhaps it is your whole life, because the riposte to the assertion of ‘no past, no future, only present’ is the duration of a human life, with all its accumulated memories. It is the overlapping of generational memories that produces a consensus, inside the tribe, about the nature of the world.
I guess this is post modernism. Modernists don’t need names, they don’t need personalities, they need the truth. Post modernism, by contrast, is a quagmire of cross-reference and attribution. Its materialism needs the bodies, so it’s person-dependent. The Hell’s Angels were originally fighter pilots, returned from the war in Germany all hopped up with the adrenalin of fighting and killing and unable to settle back into ordinary life. You could start post modernism with them. You go on with the Beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, with their experimental howling, and continue with Debord and COBRA and the Situationists and The Society of the Spectacle and abstract expressionism and pop art and student protest, and then on with Foucault and Deleuze, hammers in hands and the sparks flying, and with Derrida and Lyotard who encapsulated the impulse and put it into slogans that everyone could understand. Deconstruction! The post modern sublime!
What have these people done? Their intention may have been to slow the supertanker of the Western modern project in its progress, to tug it to a stop, but what if the new project itself is just another description of change, another bloody metaphorical boat? The success of the post modern is not to recast change but to reframe the understanding of it, in order that we may ask, what is civilisation? It may not be for progress. It may not be for defending the perimeter. It may not even be for equality.
A recent flowering of the sequence outlined above is the idea of the end-of-history, in which the utilitarian drive to eliminate the obstacles to the good life is seen to be at last complete. We have our global economy, we have eliminated distance electronically, now we just have to get on with it. History was an invention Europe used to explain itself to itself, and now it’s over. We no longer live in the time of history and revolution, but in the space of each other. Ecology, for example, is a spatial awareness — might that be the actual world? Not a historical, time-based awareness — is that the real world?
The humanists substitute human for god. The end of history substitutes space for time. But the utopia that is How to Like Everything needs an end to dialectics. It requires opposites to be brought together, mixed up and emulsified. The actual world is not an alternative to the real world; it is the raw material of it. So where is that utopia of the possible — and when is it? One explanation of the present moment, in which the actual world can be glimpsed, is Einstein’s theory of relativity. His word ‘spacetime’ was made to frame the nature of existence. Space is where and time is when, but the two are inseparable; hence ‘spacetime.’ The two questions ‘where?’ and ‘when?’ could likewise be written together, as ‘wherewhen?’ It is the question to which the answer is ‘herenow.’
And here’s a complication. If space and time were time and space instead, ‘timespace,’ and the question was not where and when but when and where, ‘whenwhere,’ the answer here and now, ‘herenow,’ would be now and here, which comes together as ‘nowhere.’ Nowhere! And so, back to utopia. The only possible world.
Paul Shepheard is a writer living in London, England. He is qualified as an architect but since the publication of What is Architecture? by the MIT Press in 1994 has gradually shifted the emphasis of his activities to writing and lecturing.
www.paulshepheard.com | @paulshepheard
Architecture Without Idealism (Of A Sort)
Essay and project by John Szot, designer and founder of John Szot Studio
This proposal for a housing block tower in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo by John Szot Studio seeks to harness the intrepid spirit behind the city’s idiosyncratic character by bringing the spatial diversity and eccentricity exhibited at the urban scale to bear directly on the housing units within the building. The project is the second part of the three-part series “Architecture and the Unspeakable” exploring the design potential of pathological phenomena in the built environment.
The urban context of Tokyo is a unique phenomenon, being the combined product of a technophilic culture, a high population density, and the deep-rooted sense of neighborly obligation that pervades Japanese society. It is likely that one might even be the basis of the others, but either way it is clear that these conditions form a tense matrix of checks and balances that shapes the city in extraordinary ways. In some instances, it has resulted in fantastic flourishes of improvisational engineering and spaces of astonishing intimacy and eccentricity that defy the most unusual design rationale.
Tokyo’s sprawling and rambunctious quality comes from the municipality’s laissez-faire position with regards to urban planning. Much of the development in the periphery of the city is left entirely to local direction, which in Tokyo’s case naturally trends towards low-rise mixed-use at an unusually high density. Left to their own devices, each neighborhood organizes itself according to social contract, which proves to be self-policing and supports eccentric circumstances with remarkable flexibility.
In the city’s central wards, zoning laws guide development, but there are few limits placed on floor area (if any). The laws primarily concern themselves with regulating quality of space through restrictions on land use. The result is similar to the outlying areas, in that one finds a dazzling degree of spatial variety in the street-scape, but also in the skyline, as market pressures drive the construction of taller buildings. In areas where market shifts increased demand for space, there are many instances of incremental additions that have contorted the architectural profile of the buildings they augment, producing a secondary layer of variation in an already overwhelming field of formal diversity.
Tokyo’s areas of high density and improvisational expansion make for unique architectural circumstances. However, the ad-hoc quality of the city fabric makes it clear that this is more a cultural phenomenon than an architectural one, considering architecture’s idealistic basis. It is also clear that, despite the apparent chaos, Tokyo’s approach to city planning works for its citizens, demonstrating that Tokyo’s residents foster a remarkable degree of intimacy with their surroundings. Together, the functional chaos and the tolerance for intimacy leads to a subjugated position for architecture and its inflexible idealism. Studying Tokyo’s skyline provides ample support of this conclusion, stocked as it is with buildings whose architectural profiles have been compromised through unregulated addition or have drowned in the din of irregular patterns of development. This raises the following question: how might architecture reassert itself under such conditions?
Although provocative, there is a latent banality to this question that defaults to architecture’s proactive legacy. There are certainly answers, but it is hard to envision one that would not compromise the fundamental cultural position present in Tokyo’s cacophonous beauty. This proposal for a housing block tower in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo does not attempt to answer this question. Instead, it poses another: can the richness of Tokyo’s organic and eccentric quality become an architectural precedent in support of this unique context?
This proposal seeks to harness the intrepid spirit behind the city’s idiosyncratic character by bringing the spatial diversity and eccentricity exhibited at the urban scale to bear directly on the housing units within the building. To do so authentically, it was necessary to identify a method for freely organizing the building without prejudice and within the time frame and scope of an architectural proposal. Our approach quickly gravitated towards computer-aided design techniques that employ emergent systems of spatial organization, because these techniques produce results that are not predictable in their entirety (hence the label ‘emergent’). In most applications, an emergent system is guided by a specific performative goal or formulated to support a conceptual position via an extended metaphor. As an alternative to these practical goals, this proposal uses the same computer intelligence to replicate a scenario of improvised conditions by allowing the system to operate with a very loose set of criteria that bordered on stochastic. In this case, the system arbitrarily partitioned and programmed space and randomly assigned materials to the panels that comprise the facade. This generated a legitimate ‘landscape’ of program and experiential conditions that are, in some instances, ill-matched and require local, small-scale solutions to reconcile their oppositions. The result is a collection of interior spaces rich with the kind of eccentricities that force existing paradigms of urban domesticity into new configurations and create intimate bonds between occupant and domicile.
In addition to providing a high degree of spatial variety, the living units vary in size and are assembled by the same system that partitioned the spaces within each. This additional layer of randomization was intended to create a diverse community of tenants of varying economic status living in close proximity — a situation that, although rarely instituted in today’s urban areas, provides the basis for the world’s most interesting and vital communities.
John Szot is an award-winning designer working in the New York metropolitan area. He runs John Szot Studio where he focuses mainly on researching the relationship between new technology and what makes the built environment meaningful.
www.johnszot.com | @johnszot
Game of Ornaments
Vladimir Belogolovsky interviews Jürgen Mayer H., founder and principal of the cross-disciplinary studio J. Mayer H. Architects
In architecture, it is possible to follow particularly formed traditions and use widely known methods of design and construction and still create something new. Yet I think it is much more rewarding to try to define your own personal vision, to strive to find an individual hand and voice.
German architect Jürgen Mayer H. literally invented his own method of creating architectural compositions, one based on ornaments. We see them in our everyday lives, in the data protection patterns found within secure confidential mail envelopes or on checks and receipts in places hiding sensitive information.
Jürgen Mayer founded his company J. Mayer H. Architects in 1996 in Berlin. His projects have shown in numerous well-known museums and festivals including the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco, Netherlands Architecture Institute, Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, and the Venice Biennale. Designed by his bureau of 15 architects, projects are scattered around the world and include office, university, and residential complexes in Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Poland and Spain.
Projects of Jürgen Mayer and especially his interiors recall the work of Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler (1896-1965), who strived to create unifying spatial systems in which walls, floor, ceiling, furniture, as well as art pieces and other decorative objects would form a particular continuous and even “endless” space of the total harmony and interconnection.
A recent project, Metropol Parasol, was constructed over Plaza de la Encarnacion in the heart of Seville, Spain. A recreational complex, it’s reminiscent of a group of giant mushrooms, where in their shade lies a park, a concert arena and, inside of their “legs” and “hats,” are bars and restaurants, all interconnected by panoramic terraces that allow beautiful perspectives of the historical city center.
I caught up with Jürgen for breakfast at a stylish café in Park Slope, Brooklyn on the same day the architect lectured at Yale University. Of course, I could not refuse the pleasure of showing Jürgen a receipt, from my purchase in a furniture store, with a pattern that roughly evoked Chinese characters. The architect responded with curiosity and even asked if he could keep it. I tucked away the “rare” receipt as we began to talk.
VB: Your work is related to your obsession with data protection patterns. How did this fascination begin and why do you find it so interesting?
JMH: It all began around 1995 when I did the “Housewarming” exhibition in Chicago. It was an installation with temperature-sensitive materials. There were surfaces painted with a thermochromic carbon-based pigment that fades as the temperature rises and brightens as it cools. The idea was about making visible what is typically not visible and exposing private information to the public. While working on this exhibit, I discovered that data protection patterns could be used as metaphor in architecture in such border situations that deal with something private behind and public in front, or neutral versus personalized. I used this special paper for creating the gallery guest book, so when people wrote on this ink-sensitive paper, they could not see what they were writing, but when you touch it the pattern disappears and it reveals the writing. This special paper is developed by NASA.
VB: Protection or security patterns are meant to conceal information. Are the patterns used in your projects also intended to conceal something?
JMH: We use these patterns in all possible scales and explore them in a variety of projects – from art installations to urban complexes. These patterns envelop and contain spaces and highlight ambivalent border situations between inside and outside.
VB: Could you describe the process of translating these patterns into architecture?
JMH: Every time, the process varies. Sometimes we may get inspired by a fragment of a particular pattern and it may be very directly used as an element in our project. We often play with patterns and develop them into different spatial possibilities. For us, patterns are metaphors that inspire us to do something that is not always visible at first.
VB: Would you ever use the same pattern twice?
JMH: We do have some favorite patterns and yes, we have done this. Patterns come in all kinds of variations: numbers, letters, graphics, cross hatchings, company logos, camouflage patterns… Data protection patterns have become our main source of inspiration. We are interested in surfaces and their material and sculptural potential. The more we work with these patterns, the more elaborate and generous we become.
VB: You are an expert on security patterns, right?
JMH: I did research on this topic and it seems that these patterns sometimes hide their own history. But the oldest such security pattern I came across was developed in 1913 in a printing house in Berlin based on Hebrew characters. My assumption is that the need for security patterns came with the invention of carbon paper. While writing invoice originals and receipts at the same time, certain information has to be blocked out. Therefore you need these strategic patterns to obscure sensitive data.
VB: How does your work address a particular site or context?
JMH: The main context is our body of work developed in the last fourteen years. The other context is the site. We look around to find something interesting and specific that could be abstracted and explored. Scale is a very important concept to me. I often change the scale of various elements found on site. Such practice introduces an interesting and strange quality and makes people look twice to see something in unrecognizable forms. So in a way, I see my projects as certain lenses through which surrounding context is looked to see something new with a fresh eye. Design process is messy and intuitive. There is no one strategy. Sometimes the context leads and other times ideas come from outside sources, such as patterns.
VB: In your interiors, you tend to blur distinctions between floor, walls, and ceiling, as well as between architecture, art, and the viewer, producing continuous, endless spaces. Could you talk about the intention of these spaces?
JMH: We don’t distinguish different disciplines. We have interest in nature, technology, communication, and how the human body relates to space. Also, working with different clients leads to different discourses and feedback that also produces a certain context that makes our work different from project to project. In terms of the continuation of surfaces, we are interested in developing all inclusive environments and in speculation of what space could be rather than what it is in itself. The architecture of Frederick Kiesler is a big inspiration. What I try to achieve in my work is to use it as a medium to create spaces that go beyond programmatic needs and leave open areas for potential invention of program. The intention is to allow and to invent potential for what we cannot even predict or know. I want architecture itself to lead us to potential discoveries. And already after our spaces are created, it is the people who could discover certain potential of which even the architect himself might be unaware.
VB: Another of your preoccupations is the use of thermosensitive materials that are often incorporated into your gallery installations. Why is this act of documenting traces of body presence important?
JMH: To me, this has to do with dealing with issues such as private versus public and highlighting our understanding of everyday life. Today this concept goes beyond gallery space. We have our private conversations on mobile phones, but we can always be traced and surveyed. The relation of what is private and public, what is exposed and concealed, is changing with new technology and new social forms. In my exhibitions I make people more conscience of these conditions.
VB: Let’s talk about your education. You studied at the University of Stuttgart, then went to Cooper Union here in New York, went back to Stuttgart to graduate and finally, did your Master’s at Princeton. What roles did these different schools play in your architectural discoveries?
JMH: I had a very solid engineering-based education in Germany, which was aimed at producing good practicing architects. But I knew something was missing because I didn’t have a clear idea about how to develop my own thought or an architectural language. Cooper Union was very painful for me in the beginning because, instead of dealing with a real site or a program, I could be given text of Noah’s Ark from the Bible and be asked to develop a project. This was very strange and confusing. But then I understood that nothing could be taken directly. You have to argue about everything and prove why it works for you and relate everything to your own ideas. Basically, they force you to think about why you want to do architecture. So in Germany I learned how and here I learned why. At Princeton it was also very conceptual. Architecture was used as a critique and discourse to make commentaries on contemporary life and culture.
VB: Is it important for you to develop a distinct style?
JMH: It is more important to develop an attitude and a particular thinking. And if thinking is different and distinct, then the visual language of architecture should be different.
VB: One of the terms describing your architecture is an elastic space. How else would you define it?
JMH: Architecture is a catalyst which is not a background to an everyday life, but something that provokes you to rethink spatial conditions. I always ask myself, how do we live? How do we occupy our spaces? I am looking for architecture that would foresee changes, or better yet, allow inventive social changes to take place.
After the interview, I sent Jürgen a color copy of the receipt with the pattern that attracted his interest. I have no doubt that very soon somewhere in Shanghai or Tbilisi there will appear a building whose forms will evoke the pattern on my receipt. Impatiently, I am waiting for that moment to come.
Jürgen Mayer H. is the founder and principal of the cross-disciplinary studio J. MAYER H. Architects. His work has been published and exhibited worldwide and is part of numerous collections including MoMA New York and SF MoMA.
Vladimir Belogolovsky is the founder of the Intercontinental Curatorial Project with a focus on organizing, curating, and designing architectural exhibitions worldwide. Trained as an architect at Cooper Union, he has published several books as well as over 150 articles appearing in American, European, and Russian publications.
Essay by Ethel Baraona Pohl from dpr-barcelona. Photographs by Antonio Rull
Current worldwide movements related with occupying public space are leading architects to re-think the relationship between our practice and public space. Reinhold Martin  says that is also important to note that urbanistic — and to a lesser extent, architectural — considerations have played a key role in the physical occupation of prominent sites in cities and towns.
We have referred recently to the Metropol Parasol as a megastructure , due to its large scale and the philosophy behind the project. The idea of relating Jürgen Mayer’s project with those years of avant-garde architecture is reinforced by the fact that you never know if an Utopic project will really work or not, and part of its value lies in the immanent presence of a poetic approach. A few months ago, we wrote about the project:
“Having visited the city of Seville and experiencing the space of Plaza de la Encarnación, my immediate reaction was that we must strive to see the present objectively from the perspective of the future, resisting the urge to look to the past from the viewpoint of the present. The forces of retrospection indicated by Gilles Ivain  already exist, and always will, but so does our ability to imagine and define the future.”
But just two weeks before, the Metropol Parasol became the urban scenario of the massive protest related with the so-called movement #spanishrevolution or Movimiento 15M  and, as Francisco González de Canales wrote , “Jürgen Mayer’s ‘mushrooms’ were converted, as if by magic, into the city’s public space par excellence — a space within which the political exists as a public expression of the plurality of the people within it.” So that requested objectivity, guided by the forces of retrospection, suddenly appeared and we just felt that the future was here in less than two weeks.
At this point, it’s interesting to rethink our perception of the project and the time we supposed was needed to understand it. The feeling of appropriation that suddenly emerged on the same people who had criticized the project drives us directly to think on the concept of aberration, defined as “The act of wandering; deviation […] The producing of an unintended effect.” . Even if Mayer’s aim wasn’t focused in creating a public space of political demands, the concept of ‘agora’ [which exists in the origin of each project dedicated to public space] has reached its peak here. The scale of the project and its central location at Plaza de la Encarnación, which was once the intersection between the cardus and decumanus of the Roman city, are main facts that explain why people chose this site for the demonstrations.
In Vladimir Belogolovsky’s interview, Jürgen Mayer explains that the patterns he uses on his designs are at the same time envelopes and containers of spaces and are used to highlight ambivalent border situations between inside and outside. Can we perceive these characteristics on the Metropol Parasol? Maybe the answer is yes. The spatial possibilities that we can see on ‘the mushrooms’ are so diverse that the message behind the project talks about flexibility. That is why the appropriation of it by the local people for the protest emerged spontaneously, like if the project had been built especially for that purpose. It relates directly to Mayer’s words to Belogolovsky, “What I try to achieve in my work is to use it as a medium to create spaces that go beyond programmatic needs.”
Reaching this point, we want to stop, think and be critical, when the economic crisis and political problems currently beleaguering Spain have made this project the focus of intense controversy. Within the present climate of deep economic recession, the project [which the variations in its budget have made it seem all but impossible a few years ago] became the urban stage for people who were protesting exactly against the kind of expenses it represents: the misuse of economic resources by politicians and bankers. Therefore, can we say that the Metropol Parasol became real architecture by the appropriation of the people?
Before May 2011, people criticized the project as a manifestation or personification of Mayer’s own ideals and focused on it as “pure formalism”. But Alexander D’Hooghe pointed out in his article “A Theory of the New Monumentality”  that formalism has been deeply misunderstood, when thinking that it refers to the celebration of shapes without meaning, and he adds, “In fact, formalism implies the exact opposite. It implies that a form contains its own content [...] for it contains itself an idea, and organizational monad, a basic scheme of thought.”
We can read in the same article that if the crisis is not new, neither is the project it calls up. Thinking in these terms, we can easily define the Metropol Parasol as a “project of the crisis,” as it represents all the issues that people are complaining about now, but at the same time, while appropriated by citizens, it represents a ‘center of resistance’: a sort of physical manifestation of social indignation and reaction.
. Occupy: What Architecture Can Do, Reinhold Martin. Design Observer. November 2011. http://places.designobserver.com/feature/occupy-what-architecture-can-do/31128/ [visited November 9, 2011]
. Waffle Urbanism. Ethel Baraona Pohl, Domus 947. May 2011
. Formulary for a New Urbanism, Gilles Ivain. Internationale Situationiste #1. June 1958
. http://sevilla.tomalaplaza.net/tag/acampasevilla/ [visited November 8, 2011]
. Magic Mushrooms
. http://thinkexist.com/dictionary/meaning/aberration/ [visited November 8, 2011]
. “A Theory of the New Monumentality”, Alexander D’Hooghe. Volume 9. December 2006
Ethel Baraona Pohl is an architect who develops her professional work linked to a number of technical publications in the architectural field. Her work shows a clear innovative way to bring the contents to the public transcending the boundaries between time and space.
www.dpr-barcelona.com | @dpr_barcelona | @ethel_baraona
Boom Bust Rubble Dust
Essay by Tom Keeley, artist, printmaker, writer and co-author of the fanzine project GO
Sheffield, as you may or may not know, is a city in the north of England. It’s a city that’s had its name stamped all over the world on knives and forks, at your house and mine. It’s a city whose songs and bleeps and wit have been top of the pops. It’s a different kind of city; a city of hills with terraced houses that tumble down the valleys; a city with the ever-present nothing of the moors lingering just over the next Peak; a city that I called home for nearly seven years; a city that’s home to the Tinsley Cooling Towers.
I went to Sheffield to study. To learn, to leave home, to grow up. I couldn’t have picked anywhere better. It’s a funny kind of place, not necessarily lovable at first sight. This city doesn’t have the showy skyscrapers, conventionally beautiful buildings and international icons that you see elsewhere. It’s much more subtle than that, a cult city. I don’t know, maybe it’s just shy? You have to wait for the city to open up to you. But open up it does, and that’s when it hits you. You’re in love.
At first glance the city might seem to be all desolate ring roads, big box retail warehouses and black-bricked steelworks. It might seem like there’s nothing to see here, that you should stay in your homes, but it’s got some personality, there is a very different proposition at play: a city that exists over the hills, independent and refusing to conform.
Sheffield is a city with history. It’s been places and done things and has the scars to show it. It’s tried big ideas before, be they political or physical. They haven’t all worked, but the city carries on, works it’s way through. This is a city that doesn’t have the tourist brochure glossy photos and mini break friendly sights. This isn’t somewhere to visit, it’s somewhere to live. To absorb and to appreciate.
In the last 15 years or so, many cities in the North of England have been tarted up beyond recognition. They now sit preening and swinging their shopping bags before grabbing a cappuccino to go. Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, they’re all at it. Glamming it up on the weekend, drinking champagne and pretending you’re in Monte Carlo rather than Pontefract. This consumption, this airbrushing and botox-ing of the built environment, never fully made it over the Pennines.
But despite this difference, the virtues you don’t get elsewhere, Sheffield was changing, or at least trying to. Those in charge had ideas of their own, that Sheffield should be a city of distinctiveness, a city of European significance. This might seem like a good idea, but their idea of distinctive turned out to be new pavements and benches, with a shiny new branch of H&M thrown in for good measure. They didn’t seem to realise that for all the reasons mentioned above, Sheffield already was a distinctive city; they just needed to open their eyes and build on what was already there.
As a reaction to this, a friend and I started a fanzine – Go – to voice our concerns with the direction things were headed. It was a call to arms to try and play a role in the future of Sheffield, and a mouthpiece against the bland, instantly decaying regeneration that was going on in much of the city. It seemed like an appropriate format, lo-fi and scruffy, like the city around us, and it was something tangible, something to hold and keep; you could never treasure a blog like that. It also seemed like an appropriate time to do it. The old Sheffield might have been disappearing, but the shiny new future certainly wasn’t set in stone. It was this limbo, this in-between of the before and after, that was really exciting. It felt like anything was possible.
Over the course of eleven issues and four years, we extolled our love, frustration and pride in the city, as well as coming up with new ideas for what the city could be. One of these involved a couple of abandoned cooling towers on the edge of the city, next to a big shopping centre called Meadowhall and the M1 motorway.
The cooling towers were one of the only things you’d see of Sheffield if you drove from the south of England to the north. The remnants of a long-gone power station that fuelled the steelworks of the valley beyond, left standing because they were too close to the motorway to safely bring down.
The city proper hides behind the rolling hills, but as you drive, the valley suddenly opens up. You’re thrust across a double decker motorway viaduct. Industry and Meadowhall on one side, the towers on the other. It’s incredibly dramatic, exhilarating even, whizzing across the tarmac and past these elegant and simple structures acting as guardians and gateways to the North.
You could see these towers from everywhere in Sheffield, peeking out across the skyline over garden walls from the hills miles away. Looming out of the valley when you suddenly went round a corner, they silently stood in the distance doing their thing. Always there. Always watching.
It started, as with many great ideas, in the pub. Sitting and thinking ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if the towers were used for something else’ transformed into ‘a new artwork for the city’. Something positive. Something that showed Sheffield had changed from (but not forgotten) its industrial past. Something that built on this past, and framed it in a way that looked to the future. We couldn’t think of a more fitting symbol of the city’s rebirth.
We already thought the towers were beautiful, but it seemed somehow necessary that they should be transformed in a way to show the outside world that Sheffield had changed. We wanted a world-class artwork, something thoughtful, challenging and beautiful. Something that broadcast this other, aberrant Sheffield for all to see.
We started campaigning. We launched an international design competition. We blagged our way into national publications with our 20 Euro prize money. We held an exhibition of the best ideas, and got talking to bigwigs and local politicians. People started to notice, but at the same time still nothing really seemed to be happening.
Then came the TV cameras. Channel 4 (a national British TV channel) was producing a new programme, documenting the journey of six possible art projects across the UK. Anyone could nominate a site. It could be your front garden, your local park, your Nan’s house, anywhere. You just had to prove why your site in particular deserved it more than anywhere else.
We got everyone we knew, and everyone they knew, and then more still, to nominate the towers as a potential site. We were visited by curators and producers and various art world types. It seemed possible, like it actually might happen for the first time.
After galvanising the support and goodwill of the city, against all odds, we managed to win. Time (you might think) for a celebration, but the owners of the towers immediately announced their intent to knock them down. Thus our fight to save them truly began. And continued for another two and a half years. It turns out fighting a multinational power company (called Eon – if you’re with them it’s time to change) from a room in an old factory in Sheffield was more difficult than we’d anticipated.
We tried everything from listing them as industrial monuments to trying to find a rich benefactor to buy them. We visited examples of places where industrial architecture had been transformed with new purpose. We visited the Ruhr Valley in Germany to see old gasometers and coking plants that had been reborn as awe-inspiring cultural centres and art spaces. There the authorities had the vision to wait and think about re-use before knocking their industrial structures down, inviting artists to occupy the space as a creative stop gap before the next stage.
This rollercoaster carried on for some time. One minute we were nearly there, we had money, we had an artist, we had the real possibility of a temporary intervention into the towers, a six-month requiem before their final demise, a fitting send off for a local landmark. Sadly this wasn’t to be. Eon and the Sheffield City Council had other ideas. The decision had been made. The towers were to go. End of story.
We’d been arguing and suggesting and presenting alternatives for God knows how long, but nothing we’d done had managed to change their opinion. Instead, a new biomass power station would be built on the site (although nothing would be built on the footprint of the towers themselves), and a new ‘artwork’ would be built elsewhere on the site. It was a crushing disappointment, especially when it felt like we’d been so close to doing something amazing.
We decided to change tack a little. Rather than just keep shouting until they came down, we were going to do something positive on our own. We decided to produce all of the memorabilia that you’d normally find for a civic icon — tea-towels, plates, mugs, postcards, jigsaws — and sell them in our own shop. If the towers couldn’t physically stay, we figured at least they could live on in people’s front rooms, on their mantelpieces. It was to be a limited-time offer. Knock down prices, everything must go. The shop was meant to be open for two weeks. Everything sold out in four hours.
The Tinsley Cooling Towers were demolished in the early hours of Sunday 24 August 2008. Hundreds of people made their way to the site to watch them fall. After all the hope attached to them, their end was quick. With a bang and crash these parts of the jigsaw that made up the city’s history fell to the ground in a matter of seconds. It was an abrupt and violent end to their story. Boom, bust, rubble, dust.
The current vision for the future of Sheffield now seems to be in flux. Since the demolition, the credit crunch and economic bubble has burst, and work on towering penthouses and regeneration led by consumption has ground to a halt. No more shopping centres. No more mixed-use developments. Gaps in the city have reappeared, like ghosts of the plans that never quite made it. This state of limbo continues to this day.
This might just be one story from one town in the north of England, but it’s really about more than that. It’s about who decides what goes on in our neighbourhoods, our hometowns. It’s about whether multinational businesses should make the decisions about our landmarks, or whether it should be the people who have grown up with them who choose. It’s about whether our cities should become one-of-a-kind clone towns or whether they should have personality and embrace their differences. I know what I think, and maybe, in the next battle, Sheffield, or anywhere, might win.
Tom Keeley is an artist, writer and co-author of the fanzine project Go. His practice investigates and celebrates the built environment with an emphasis on what makes places special and distinctive.
www.mrtomkeeley.co.uk | @_tomkeeley
Essay by architect and educator Lebbeus Woods followed by an interview with him by John Szot
Lebbeus Woods needs little introduction. Mr. Woods’ work has been a major force in shaping contemporary architecture at both the formal and conceptual levels, and his compelling images of his proposals are unrivaled in their complexity and rich detail. In 2010, Mr. Woods composed a short essay probing “the ineffable” and its relationship to architecture for his blog. Inspired by this entry, John Szot followed up with Mr. Woods via email – his blog entry and the ensuing correspondence are collected here to offer a contemporary window into his work, which seeks to radically reconfigure the relationship between architecture and the society it keeps.
TERRIBLE BEAUTY 2: the ineffable
When was the last time you heard the word ‘ineffable’ in a discussion about architecture? Never? Well, I’m not surprised. Ineffable means ‘unspeakable’—that which cannot be said—so I can understand why people do not speak of it. And yet, the ineffable is an important concept and even more so a momentous and profoundly disturbing experience when we encounter it, which most of us will, at one time or another, in the unfolding of our lives.
The ineffable is sometimes called ‘the beauty beyond expression,’ having to do with the apprehension of the divine, or with some essence of existence hidden from us in normal situations. The ineffable is revealed only when the curtain of normalcy around us is pulled away and we are confronted with a very different world than we imagined we inhabit. This is often a frightening experience, even terrifying because we’re not sure what to do next, or what to think. A car accident, a tornado, the loss of someone we love and need—traumatic experiences that shake us out of our accustomed, taken-for-granted reality and we are left to struggle for understanding. Only thrill-seekers who enjoy the adrenalin-rush of fear seek out such experiences. The rest of us try to keep things as they are, paying the price of boredom, if necessary, to keep ourselves in the comfort range of the familiar. The ineffable is well out of our comfort range.
For this reason, the ineffable is not a topic, let alone a goal, of architectural design. We can say that in fact design is the enemy of and a defense against the ineffable. As soon as we design, we start to control, to set up the defining boundaries and limits and we squeeze out the ineffable, which is something that emerges when systems fail, when the limits are transgressed, and when things fall apart. We like to set up things so we feel we are in control. Our environment is designed to reassure us that everything is OK. That is what politicians do, telling us “Everything is OK, don’t worry about Iraq, it’s going to be OK—don’t worry about pollution, we are going to take care of it.” Architects are a big part of this game of reassurance. We design endless variations of the normal and the familiar, sometimes dressing it up to look different, but inside—when we inhabit it—we find that we can behave and think normally. Our perception of the world is not affected or changed.
I grow weary when I hear the optimistic talk of architects proclaiming, like salespersons, that architecture will make living easier, more pleasurable, safer, more secure. Our habits—the optimistic talk being one of them—only serve to reassure us that everything is OK, even if it is not. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable; we don’t want to have to move in a way that we are not habitually used to moving. But it is only when we are shaken out of our habits that we are able to change and to grow. What if to make things better, to enable people to cope creatively with the traumas of change, we have to make things more difficult, more risky, less secure? How often have architects dared to do that?
A strong sense of the ineffable is seen in the photograph of a group of people obviously in distress. The photograph itself is not a self-conscious artwork, concerned with the limits of photography and the like, but a work of journalism, showing us a piece of a particular event.
What they are looking at is a moment of the destruction of the city where they live, Sarajevo in Bosnia in 1992. They are looking at the places where they have lived that have just been destroyed, by artillery and mortar fire. They are looking at their friends and neighbors shot dead by snipers, lying in the streets. Their sense of reality, their sense of the normality of life has been shattered. Intentional violence has destroyed the familiar for them, what they relied on, how they identified themselves, who they were, what they did every day. Theirs are the faces of the ineffable.
A wounded woman is being rescued in a street under attack. There is an urgent sense of panic, of terror. In such moments, the ineffable fully breaks out and it is unspeakable. The photograph only makes us aware of its existence, being second-hand. You had to be there as Paul Lowe, a very courageous photographer, whom I met there in ’93, was—to know the ineffable’s full dimensions. “Is this the end? What is life worth, if everything that matters is destroyed?” Blind instinct takes over, and we are far beyond the realm of the habitual and any forms of comfort.
War is an extreme of destructive violence, but so are the ‘natural’ disasters. In New Orleans, the violence of Katrina’s extreme wind and flood destroyed people’s worlds as effectively as war. Normal rooms are absurdly rearranged, becoming parodies of the everyday. Compared with a wholesale destruction of buildings the damage seems small, but the fabric of the everyday is more subtle and fragile than we think. The sofa is still there, but no one can any longer sit or lie on it. The ‘sanctity of the home’ has been violated, and it matters little that it was by accident and not by intention. Some terrible event has occurred and the ineffable has broken through into reality, leaving us with the dread that our existence is really very tenuous and not at all assured.
Painful ironies abound. The new buildings tipped-over by an earthquake in Taiwan fell because architects and engineers left the ground floors as open as possible for shopping malls, weakening them in disregard for the threat from powerful lateral earth forces active in a seismic zone. Who is to blame here—nature, or the architects and engineers? From the viewpoint of the inhabitants caught in this catastrophe, it hardly matters. The ineffable cannot be designed, but design can unintentionally invite it in.
The list goes on. The ‘urban clearance’ of German and Japanese cities designed during World War II by British and American war planners unleashed hell on earth, and also an entire world of ineffability where ‘the shock of the new’ was at once a sound of doom and the prelude to the construction of a post-war world. People affected simply had to ‘adjust’ and ‘adapt.’ Is it necessary to bomb cities flat in order to build them anew? Obviously not. But some form of destruction of the old is necessary, and that produces for many the trauma of change. Is, then, the ineffable also the inevitable?
Before answering, I’ll extend my list of sources of the ineffable by one more: the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Until then, America had prided itself on its major cities never having been violently attacked by a foreign enemy. We had never suffered the sort of destruction experienced by Europeans and Asians in World War II, save for some home-grown exceptions like the Civil War (called by historians the first modern war, in part because cities became targets) and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But now, major American cities were attacked, and our whole idea of reality was twisted. The destruction was limited, but the fact that it was caused by foreigners, using American airliners as weapons, qualified the attack as a national calamity. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Loss of so many lives, loss of physical symbols of American power, loss of the sense of invulnerability, loss of innocence, however misplaced it had been, loss of America’s privileged place in the world. A profound sense of loss is the main effect of our experience of the ineffable.
Coming back to the faces photographed in Sarajevo, we might be able to see that they don’t belong to some people somewhere else. They are our faces. These faces portray unspeakable loss, as do the photos of the collapsing towers, and their ruins.
But there is also something else.
Loss is inevitable in the story of each person. Losing your wallet, losing your job, losing your home, your family, your city—the degree of loss escalates from the inconvenient to the inconceivable, and with it the experience of the ineffable. Loss, however, is necessary in order for us to change, not only in our habits, but also in our understandings and beliefs. As long as we cling comfortably to what we are and know, we cannot learn, or create. If design is to be a creative act, it must take on the most difficult situations in our lives. It must offer more than comfort and reassurance. It must confront the unspeakable—the ineffable—and become a means by which we can transcend it. This means that we—as individuals and as architects—must, as the Existentialist poet Nikos Kazantzakis once put it, “build the affirmative structure of our lives over an abyss of nothingness.” A heroic—probably too heroic—task, it is true. Except for those who have no choice.
Article first published on July 24, 2010 at http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com. Reproduced with permission by the author.
JS:Looking back at your major building proposals — for Sarajevo, Berlin, Havana, San Francisco, and New York City — in each case there is an intense form of tension stemming from conflict, be it natural disaster, political turmoil, or otherwise. These conditions set the stage for radical intervention by identifying the ineffable as a pre-existing condition. However, in ‘Terrible Beauty 2,’ you seem to advocate pursuing the ineffable as a legitimate, independent architectural enterprise. Does this mark a shift in the trajectory of your work?
LW: First, it should be noted that I advocate confronting the ineffable when life challenges us with it. I believe that in our era of rapid and often violent changes, architects have a responsibility to face the historically unprecedented problems confronting people everywhere today. Not only that, but they have been entrusted with the social agency for doing so, by virtue of their education, special knowledge and skills, and being legally empower to assume design stewardship over the human environment. If architects don’t take on this job, who will? Politicians? Engineers? Builders? Commercial corporations? They need to help, certainly, but I have always believed that architects, with their commitment to the total situation, should be the leaders in the reconstruction of human landscapes transformed by violence and dominated by the ineffable, and therefore, must take the initiative. That’s what leaders do, not waiting for someone else to do so and then calling them in.
JS: In your essay, you establish a strong case for engaging the ineffable despite the difficulties it may present. Although you have a compelling moral argument for doing so, you also note that the intrinsic nature of the ineffable conflicts with expectations placed on the architect. Would you care to elaborate further on the difference between the values that embrace the ineffable and those that guide the way we approach building design, or is it merely about control?
LW: No, it’s not about control; it’s about the strength and validity of ideas. I base my way of thinking on the presumption that really good architects will have the best ideas for reconstruction, better than other specialists, again, because of their comprehensive understanding of environments and their abilities to give this understanding concrete form. Of course, they don’t do this in isolation, but working with others. That’s what I meant in a recent manifesto of education  when I declared that “the era of the collaborative genius must begin.” The architect must be the collaborative genius who has the best ideas about how to structure the work process involving others, leading to the designs for reconstruction.
I don’t want to spend the time or space here on elaborating why so few architects have acted decisively as leaders in the continual reconstruction of cities — damaged or not  — up to now. Rather, I am convinced that we must concentrate our energy on changing architect’s attitudes now and into the future, beginning in the schools of architecture.
JS:Many of the other creative disciplines have for decades explored the kind of trauma and anxiety associated with the ineffable. Some might argue that media, with a deep virtual dimension (like film), are effective (and safe) surrogates for the ineffable experience. What is your position?
LW: Films are fine media for what Freud called ‘sublimating’ dreadful feelings, so their energy can be transformed into something useful, positive, even creative. But the re-channeling of emotional energy often only relieves and diffuses personal suffering, unless it is actively put to creative use. Vicarious experiences and voyeurism can lead to passivity and the acceptance of unacceptable norms far more easily and often than inspiring creative actions for changing them.
The more hopeful outcome of films and other virtual experiences is addressed by Aristotle in his Poetics, that explains his theory of Greek theater. In it, he states that the events and characters we see on the stage create models for our thoughts and actions in the world we actually inhabit. The aesthetical worlds of the theater have, in short, a moral and an ethical dimension in relation to the ineffable — they give us help in how to live our often-difficult lives. In the same way, the imaginary worlds of architectural design — and especially so-called ‘visionary’ architecture — offer us similar models for everyday living. We’re free to follow them or not, or to adapt them to our purposes.
JS:Today, one can easily see a connection between the network culture of social media and the heterarchical organizational strategies you described 20 years ago. However, it is debatable whether our buildings have risen to the challenges presented by this use of technology. Your work emphasizes the relationship between buildings and physical phenomena. Do you believe there is a connection between your concept of heterarchical space and the social dynamic of a ‘wired’ society, or does architecture’s preoccupation with the physical world make for an entirely different set of obligations and opportunities?
LW: My work definitely aims to explore the consequences of freedom and choice, often by technological means. In my Berlin Free-Zone project, the center of the city is regenerated not by traditionally hierarchical urban planning methods, but by spontaneous architecture without predetermined purpose and meaning, evolving through the unpredictable exchanges by electronic means of people living there.
Our buildings today are still designed according to outdated models, what Paul Rudolph called ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ types — a few extraordinary ‘masterpieces’ designed by star architects, set against an urban fabric of what Robert Venturi called “the ugly and the ordinary.” It is a hierarchical formula that has worked throughout human history, for example in Europe’s Middle Ages, when the Cathedral was a brilliant jewel set off against the dark and dense texture of a surrounding town built by and for its ordinary inhabitants. It is easy to understand why this model endures — it is familiar and safe — even though the society it supported has passed. What is needed today are new models that give form to the democratic society struggling to emerge from the older autocratic, oligarchic ones that have dominated history for so long. It is a very difficult struggle, because even the concepts of democracy inherited from the past are outmoded and must be reinvented for the present and coming age of technological revolution. The ‘wired society’ and its imperatives for architecture is a good place to begin.
. In a sense, all cities are ‘damaged,’ in that they are always both decaying and growing. The ineffable lurks everywhere in them, simply waiting to emerge in crises brought on by change.
Lebbeus Woods is an architect and educator based in New York City. After working for Eero Saarinen and Associates and going into private practice, Lebbeus Woods has concentrated on theory and experimental work since 1976.
John Szot is an award-winning designer working in the New York metropolitan area. He runs John Szot Studio where he focuses mainly on researching the relationship between new technology and what makes the built environment meaningful.
www.johnszot.com | @johnszot
Illustrations by Atelier Olschinsky
Atelier Olschinsky is a creative studio based in Vienna, Austria. Peter Olschinsky and Verena Weiss are operating in various fields such as graphic design, illustration, photography and art direction.
www.olschinsky.at | www.nevertheless.at
Projects by Emilio López-Galiacho
I like to think of “Dysfunctional Landmarks” and “Hotel Troya” as high resolution architectural machinima. These are works that talk about the promiscuity of genres and typologies, the closeness between the monumental and the monstrous, the anomalous attraction, scale as an aberration, representation as a trap and function as a nightmare. His gaze is not guilty, but distant and objective; strictly empirical. These images are not intended to denounce anything. They are cold, dispassionate, almost scientific records — no perspectives, only elevations — of that which lives hidden and concealed in the mind of the architect. Goya put it well: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
Emilio López-Galiacho is an architect, visual artist and composer. In 1992, he co-founded Arquimedia, a group focused on the relationship between New Media, Architecture and Communication. He is Deputy Publisher and Art Director of FronteraD digital magazine.
www.emiliogaliacho.com | www.fronterad.comm | @emiliogaliacho
Weak Networks and Movement Scales in Architecture
Essay by Michael Chen, principal of Normal Projects and a faculty member at Pratt Institute School of Architecture
“A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls…Viva la revolución.”
- Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted” The New Yorker, October 04, 2010
Many of the events of the past year in American and international politics have unfolded at the curious intersection of social media and urban public space, calling attention to the impact that such networks have had on the changing status and roles of public places in the city. Social media are altering the relationship between information and physical space, and have become important elements of the recent political uprisings that have taken hold. Naturally, amidst all of the euphoria surrounding the discussion of social media and networking as tools for revolution, opportunities for sarcasm abound as well. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s widely circulated October 04, 2010 piece in The New Yorker, which casts doubt on social media-based activism and its potential as an agent for political change. Gladwell’s argument, that social media promotes weak ties as opposed to strong ones, thus sponsoring low-risk activism when tremendous high personal risk and a clear decision-making hierarchy are necessary for genuine change, was certainly challenged with the flourishing of the Arab Spring a few months after it was published, as “high-risk” activism took place both online and in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, and continues to unfold throughout the region.
Only a few blocks away from where I write this, in Zuccotti Park, the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration and its many affiliated occupations worldwide (#occupy) are supported, at least in part, by social media and its capacity as a communication tool. And while Gladwell’s contention, that a strong hierarchical decision-making structure is the key ingredient that distinguishes successful activist movements from largely passive slacktivist ones, is debatable, labeling social media networks as fundamentally weak-link arrangements is fairly accurate. And it is precisely the weak links that are significant to the way these collective movements are challenging existing paradigms about networks and the City.
What are the architectural implications for a network to take hold within the city? At one level, this might seem to be a question about infrastructure, and the literal connective spaces and public works of the city. But the tendency to think of conventional infrastructures as networks is consistent with the corresponding urge to think of networks as static formations rather than dynamic multiplicities. Conventional notions of infrastructure are not adequate. Networks are fundamentally concerned with the flow of information. Their connections reflect intensity and are capable of transformation and reconfiguration and thus, their protocols distribute both agency and control in complex ways. The search for network space is also the search for new modes of territory and collectivity. It is clear that these new forms of political occupation have linked certain public spaces to one another along political and tactical lines. But more importantly, they are taking shape as new civic spatial practices that exhibit the resiliency and capacity for change that are features of intelligent networks. This is an aberrant or illicit infrastructure, not for its material expression as a shantytown, in the case of OWS, but rather for its spatial techniques and organizational complexity, and its capacity to channel information and tactics across multiple sites, alluding to a strategic command structure where none exists.
In contrast to many previous protest models, the #occupy movements and those similar are not orchestrated by identifiable organizations. In fact, they eschew hierarchy at every level. So rather than pre-existing networks and organizations manifesting themselves spatially, #occupy are developing in parallel with spatial practices and protocols for communication and decision-making that promote mingling and horizontal communication and that, in turn, take on network characteristics. The somewhat romantic notion of the emergent nonhierarchical organization here is of little use, as well. The political agenda of Occupy Wall Street is certainly becoming sharpened over the course of the occupation, just as its spatial logistics are refined, but these developments are the product of painstakingly slow and laborious consensus building rather than spontaneous and emergent phenomena. And while the organizational structure of the General Assembly and Working Groups that are the context for consensus building and decision making at OWS are certainly self-organizing, they are also designed to incorporate and interrelate a broad and heterogeneous range of inputs and individual agendas that are the actual material of the network.
Weak ties are essential for the network to express itself. What is significant is not that the participants in the occupations communicate using social media (everyone does), but the fact that the political thrust of the movement is formed through the processes of aggregating consensus on the one hand, and the strategic logistics of spatial occupation on the other. The planning of the occupation at Zuccotti Park itself is organized primarily around spaces for meeting and discussion, rather than event, and is thus constantly re-programmed. This is hash tag planning, a high-absorbency mode of urbanism, capable of acquiring mass from casual observers and dedicated demonstrators alike. And it is precisely the weak-tie relationships that contribute both population and momentum to the movement. Rather than the more familiar narrative of the casual observer swept up in the emergent event of political unrest, the population at Zuccotti Park and sites like it are built up through frequency of exposure, multiple intensities of affiliation, duration, and the ease with which other individuals and their interests and agendas are incorporated. By virtue of the fact that the occupation is geared toward the sharing of information over time and through discussion, individual protesters are engaged in a process of finding commonalities and are coalescing into multiple affinity groupings that serve to further connect them to the movement.
Bruno Latour has observed that these types of weak links belong to the family of “profile” data that forms a basis for how digital technologies, for one, are undermining the classical division between individuals and the larger society that contains them. Latour’s conception of actor-networks “where the parts are actually bigger than the whole…where a phenomenon can be said to be collective without being superior to individuals,”1 is a model for understanding networks that moves away from the more rehearsed metaphors of (a) the emergent phenomenon that is greater than the sum of its parts; or (b) the invisible hand of economics and other universal pressures; or (c) the overarching society and hierarchical organizational pressures — all conceptions of collectivity that are “superior” to the individuals they organize. As a model, the actor-network is a protocological one, paralleling the spread of standards on the web, rather than the explicit organization of individuals into greater collectives. It is the wealth of ambient information and casual connectivity — the weak links — that, once aggregated, begin to take on network behaviors inseparable from individual profiles.
In this sense, the #occupy movements not only employ social media, but adopt the characteristics of social media as well. The density of individual information-rich profiles, engaged in a process of finding linkages between them as a function of mingling, manifests as a series of network connections, what Latour refers to as the’ reversibility between actors and the networks that link them’. Individuals are not nodes contained within a greater network structure; nor are they, strictly speaking, always nodes connected by edges; instead, they are packed with attributes that are both nodal and connective in nature — edges without nodes. And the actor-network model is operative at a series of scales, each of which is important to the spatial logic, as well as the political instrumentality of the occupations.
At a local scale, the site of Zuccotti Park is programmed around two primary areas dedicated to sleeping and shelter, and to the General Assembly. Decisions are made through broad consensus via the General Assembly process and individual Working Groups. Broadly speaking, the Working Groups, which are tasked with more specific decision-making, generally fall into one of two categories: those that are largely political in nature, and those that concern the logistics of the occupation, from safety to cooking, and shelter to landscaping. Because the primary expression of the occupation involves holding territory rather than demonstration exclusively, managing the spatial logistics that concern duration and the ongoing viability of the Zuccotti Park encampment creates a space where disparate and otherwise uncoordinated political messages can be aggregated. Its longevity as an urban feature is essential. A critique of the occupation that emerged early on, that it communicated no singular or clear political message, has over the course of weeks become one aspect of its strength and appeal as a broadly open and democratic expression of concern and urgency, and a larger attempt to correlate a range of social ills to the political and economic imbalances in society. The spatial tactics not only prolong the occupation, but become enablers and vehicles for political content. The occupation is a spatial umbrella and the General Assembly and Working Group structure enables individual interests to gain traction and accumulate support.
Internal to the occupation itself, the General Assembly and consensus decision-making has spatial attributes, too. Perhaps most notable is the tactic adopted to circumvent the prohibition against using amplified sound without a permit. Participants famously employ an echo, repeating a speaker’s statements collectively, phrase by phrase, to transmit the message across a large space. This practice has the effect of both transmitting a message and compelling the participants to consider it carefully and register their response via hand gestures. The visual effect of hand gestures such as the ‘twinkle’ (the wiggling of fingers to communicate agreement in lieu of applause and cheering, which are discouraged) is to register agreement through the visual and auditory environment of the assembly space.
The architectural elements of the Zuccotti Park encampment, including kitchen, library, medical center, media center, and solar-powered charging station, are some of the clearest examples of the physical infrastructure of the occupation. And while these elements have precedents in the form of shadow conferences that accompanied protests over the meetings of the G-8 and World Trade Organization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, their consolidation within a primary demonstration site is certainly a more recent, and arguably the most significant innovation. That infrastructure, working in tandem with assembly structures that bring together a wide range of economic and political viewpoints, has enabled the political agency of the movement to develop. Those earlier anti-globalization protest movements were themselves built on prior models of nonhierarchical political organization dating to the Spanish Civil War and early anarchist movements. And just as the protest movements of the early twenty-first century published standards for protest conduct, strategy, and body armor online, so, too, are the standards and guidelines published by the New York General Assembly for spatial and political organization disseminated globally without explicit hierarchical control.
Anonymous, the hacktivist collective most strongly associated with Wikileaks, were early endorsers of Occupy Wall Street2 and, subsequently, participants and partners in technology and tactics. The specifics of the cooperation and overlap between the two groups is undocumented, but some of network characteristics that made Wikileaks such a resilient and formidable actor in late 2010 further illustrate the potential of the weak-link networking potentials. On an organizational and infrastructural level, and outside of a core constituency, Wikileaks is more a weak-tie social network than an activist organization. It survives on $5 donations, casual readers, and is at some levels thoroughly distributed on the Internet. And it was precisely this weak net of casual affinity that was the vehicle for the radical propagation of the Wikileaks archive by way of the tens of thousands of mirror sites for wikileaks.org that began popping up after the primary site was taken down by its original service provider. The more aggressive the attempts to shut the network down, the more tenacious and persistent its replication online became, precisely because of the pervasive and broad reach of casual supporters.
In similar ways, Occupy Wall Street has taken on a networked urban manifestation through the replication of the original occupation in New York in cities worldwide. And within New York City itself, the extension of the occupation into additional sites such as Washington Square, Foley Square, and Union Square have been the occasion for the weak links and general affinity that New Yorkers feel toward the demonstration (more than 65% of New Yorkers support it in a recent poll3) to be converted into increased population mass at satellite demonstrations. The occasional extension of the demonstration to satellite ‘occupations’ has greatly increased participation and network activity, and created opportunities to incorporate conventional protest tactics and constituencies, as in the case of the participation of organized labor in the Foley Square demonstration, and to redeploy the General Assembly protocols of communication and coordination in larger and more prominent public spaces, as in the case of the demonstrations in Washington Square.
Online and on land, the term “occupy” is now understood to connote a particular practice and mode of nonviolent political protest. But it also encompasses a new and exciting heterogeneous mode of collectivity, one that exhibits the relative smoothness with which profile data is aggregated to form networks within social media contexts. The fact that such tactics for aggregating agency within the space of the city are developing is compelling evidence of the power and importance of those public realms. And even more intriguing is the current debate over different scenarios of permanence and legal compliance that the movement must explore as the pressures of population and the oncoming New York winter are beginning to manifest themselves. Those factors are forcing the movement to consider whether to erect more substantial structures that risk altering the political and spatial dynamics of the current site, or to seek out alternative territory, whether privately owned interior public spaces or permanent satellite sites in the parks and other public spaces. These are the types of pressures that are manifesting themselves throughout the movement at large. The lasting political and spatial impact of the occupation movements will not be known for some time, in part because the spatial and political manifestations of the occupation itself are in the midst of processes of transformation. Part of the success of the movement thus far has been in its ability to exploit and negotiate the political and spatial terrain of the urban environment. At the heart of the #occupy project is a search for alternative and more equitable economic and societal models. It is also showing us another City.
Michael Chen is a principal of Normal Projects, a multidisciplinary architecture and design firm based in New York and Los Angeles. He is currently on the faculty at Pratt Institute School of Architecture.
www.normalprojects.com | @michael_chen
Projects by Luis Urculo, architect and founder of Estudio Luis Urculo
As he states in his website, Luis Urculo, founder of Estudio Luis Urculo and guest designer of this issue’s cover, is “interested in the peripheral side to architecture, the processes, developments and approaches that can be manipulated, sampled and translated to other scales and adapted to the work as it takes shape, creating new scenarios / experiences / expectations not considered previously.” The projects that follow are a perfect reflection of the outcome of this approach to architecture.
BEFORE / NOW / LATER
10th ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE
35 projects 35 exhibitions 35 actions
Exhibition in three times.
We start with the standard panel, used ‘traditionally’ to display an architect’s work: name, chosen project, explanatory text, etc., and then we cross-breed it with a living, unrelated language; the language of demonstrations, in which resources are usually improvised to express aims, issues and attitudes in urban communication scenarios such as sheets hung on balconies, pennants on motorways, home-made propaganda, etc. They all act as a short-term base and an active vehicle for ideas throughout the city. Why not use them for architecture? We want to make it obvious what the authors wish to express through their work, manifesting, displaying and publicising it.
We will speak in the past tense; the exhibition was actually held a few months ago…
We decided to use demonstrators and banners as exhibition material and composition structures. A static demonstration was installed on 35 sites, one per project, scenarios where the exhibition was actually installed. Everything started and ended here. The photos/posters and the video are the record of that moment, tools that let us stretch, recompose and broaden those instants in order to bring architecture and its authors out of their ‘sheltered’ conventional dissemination space.
/domestic actions and their echoes
The materials produced by the teams were presented in a second chapter of anonymous actions, sampled from these standardised ‘cases’ in houses, public spaces, highways, shop interiors, etc., with voices guided by the manifestos and slogans sent in by the selected teams.
We thought that limiting ourselves to a single space, the so-called ‘official’ space for the exhibition, seemed to be a waste of a great opportunity. The specialized language that is normally used for its dissemination rarely reaches the population that has to live with these projects. That is why we chose to use the city itself as the backing material, communicating by means of large format posters that co-inhabited the space with advertisements for concerts, theatres and language courses.
The exhibition basically consisted of 35 posters that were displayed simultaneously in the exhibition hall and in the main capital cities.
Using a low-cost, high-impact system, we contracted local poster agencies, the other ‘Biennial ‘assemblers’, who were sent a complete set of the projects that plastered the streets of Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, etc., at the same time as the exhibition happened on in the main venue. This produced two scales of publicity: local and national; specialized and general-public.
This was a take-away exhibition. All the contents were available for visitors to choose, pick up and partially or totally recompose in spaces away from the source, such as their homes, institutions, etc. The boundaries of the physical space and the display of a unique exhibited object were erased. Everything was public and accessible.
The exhibition hall became a centre for the project’s reconstruction and autopsy. Visitors could peruse all the documentation provided by the participants and the results of the manifestos, and monitor this musical score of actions.
Concept/design/art direction: Luis Urculo
Production: Germán Díaz (Viuda de Ramírez)
Graphic production: Luis Urculo / Thisisgrey
Asa Nakano, Gabriel Alvarez Osorio, Barbara Yuste, Javier Somoza, Alfonso Herranz (photography), Dani Robert (graphics), Jorge L Conde (document photography)
Virginie Granger, Laure Boudès, Mylène Grolleau, Jimena Rodríguez Luque, Adalberto Gómez Chong, Ana Karen García Fajardo, Liliana Pérez Morales, Claire Hachet,Sandor Guba, Ismeni Espejel, Cristina Blanco, Raquel Fernandez Antoñanzas, Marina Lles, Victoria Vin, Teng Chong, Zuloark, Joaquín Jalvo, Anni Tomich, Espartaco Martínez, Elisa Fernández Ramos, Alicia Díaz.
FUTURE ON PAUSE
Homage to Madrid through 270 artistic projects that are currently ‘on pause’, drawing attention to the sometimes inconsistent and unclear nature of architecture and design.
The exhibition space was contained in a one-room box made of pinewood, which was surrounded by 1000 wooden folding chairs. No information was given on the exterior as to what guests would encounter inside. Instead, there was a light sign with and abstract figure.
Upon entry into the ‘box,’ visitors were confronted by a library of books with photos and information about projects on pause. Some of the projects were featured twice in the room, which contained a ‘cemetery’ of 500 books in total.
The books had a number of blank pages inside, intended to be filled in in the future. Some of them also stated the reason why the projects, which are both public and private, are on hold. The detailed information about each project was printed at the back of each volume.
Inside the room, a voice narrated the typology of the projects included, such as “…five hotel towers, three pubic schools, two housing blocks, a sport center….” etc. The sound is considered as a material, constant, and creates an invisible structure.
A heavy fog also lingered to effect visibility. A waiting room for projects, to explain the unclear future of this library of ideas, cannot be clear; it needs to be as foggy as their upcoming reality. Also, it adds a certain level of intimacy.
The floor was covered by a black and white print of a classic carpet. The ceiling was a stretched lycra surface screen that gave a constant light and endless space to the room.
The project was shown at the International Architectural Congress Construtec 2010.
Project: Luis Urculo & Luis Díaz Mauriño
Graphic Design: Luis Urculo
Sound design: André Castro
Production: Viuda de Ramirez
Photos: Jorge L Conde, Mauricio Freyre
RAMSES FOR STARCK
Artwork for Philippe Starck at Ramses Restaurant, Madrid.
The project is an extension of the graphic image and identity created for the space, the character and biography of which was exclusively invented as a living structure, an endless puzzle of life and information.
The space is organized on three levels, covered by a complex universe of coded notations, formulas, obscure messages, and drawings hiding sentences, a graphic constellation that builds the path of Ramses’ life full of outstanding experiences, such as receiving the Nobel Awards (just for the pleasure of knowing what it’s like to give a lecture to a Swedish audience) or getting sex surgery. Each piece of the project is part of a biographical jigsaw: a visit card, the menu, the walls of the restaurant…essential to reconstruct the life of Ramses. The space and graphic image becomes one, fragments of life.
A video project in 3 acts
1: AIC (size)
A guide takes us through the areas of the Intelligent Automotive Center. Her movements work as a tool to reveal the scale through domestic rituals like the distance measured by steps, direct explanations on the walls…
The simultaneous use of screens adds an understanding of spatial qualities such as depth, distance or light, explaining the building through a distant and abstract tour by a voyeur obsessed with the measure of things.
Filmed on a project by ACXT – Javier Pérez Uribarri.
Featuring Cristina Blanco.
2: PISCINA VIZCAYA (memory)
How can memories transform the space? What if its through the eye and perception of an 8-year old boy? Is space and scale linked to reality?
We worked with the interpretation of the project from a users point of view: the school children. A swimming pool is a building with scrubbers, waterproofing, wardrobes …. but it can also be a mountain that one day some men got filled with water.
Filmed on a project by ACXT – Javier Pérez Uribarri.
3: EPSILON (complexity)
A trailer can seduce, summarizing an experience without disclosing the contents, creating a desire.
Epsilon building is a mystery. Inside, the engines and bodies of Formula 1 cars competing in the World Race championships are developed. Spaces are as dramatic and spectacular as the wind tunnel that is inaccessible to the general public. Furnaces the size of a house. Machines that build other machines. Everything is in a complex and coded neatness. Even the building plans are hidden.
After touring the building for the first time, we decided to transmit the wonder and the strange
beauty that occurs when you find for the first time something unattainable, incomprehensible.
Filmed on a project by ACXT – Javier Pérez Uribarri.
Luis Urculo is an architect whose work is characterised by the unusual way to portray architecture, using it as a means, more than an end. The output can be illustrations, animations, installations, or interiors. He also works as a teacher with Jaime Hayón for Master of European Design Labs in Instituto Europeo di Design, Madrid.
www.luisurculo.com | @luisurculo
F*ck Your Tectonics
Profile and interview with NYC’S Formlessfinder by John Szot
Formlessfinder is a radical architectural practice based in New York City whose central ambition is to break through the conventions of formal idealism to reach new experiential territory in building design. John Szot caught up with Julian Rose and Garrett Ricciardi, the founders of Formlessfinder, after a busy summer shaping up some speculative work and wrapping their entry to the prestigious Museum of Modern Art’s Young Architects Program.
The Formlessfinder Manifesto
Form has always tended to operate as a mechanism of control in architecture. Whether through the ancient orders, Renaissance systems of proportion, or 19th century theories of tectonics, form has provided architecture’s symbolic value, its organization, and literally given shape to its materials and structures. This tendency is stronger than ever today, despite the illusion of freedom provided by digital technologies of design and manufacture and the new geometric possibilities they offer. No matter how sophisticated the modeling software or automated the assembly, a project’s form still exists as an underlying framework, static and rational, entirely circumscribing the processes of design and construction. Today – largely due to a near ubiquitous faith in digital technology and complex geometry – architecture lacks intelligent or innovative approaches to form.
The formless was articulated as a philosophical construct by Georges Bataille, a man with a famous antipathy for architecture. But Bataille’s hostility was due more to his myopic view of architecture than any fundamental incompatibility between his ideas and architectural practice. Bataille could only see architecture as form – it was always a metaphor or a symbol: a stand-in for the body, the state, or an institution. But in his Critical Dictionary, the same document that included his notoriously hostile “definition” of architecture, Bataille praised the formless qualities of space. And his notion of the formless was deeply physical, grounded in a discourse of base materiality. Ironically, then, there may be no better place for Bataille’s ideas to take root than architecture, provided it is no longer conflated with form.
Form suppresses material and tends to either idealize architectural materials or dematerialize architecture altogether. In response, we propose a fundamental shift from material (that which is sublimated or invested with symbolic power) to matter (that which simply is). This distinction between symbolic material and raw matter is particularly urgent given the increasing importance of sustainability in contemporary design. The very phrase “green design” already reveals that sustainability today is as often about symbolism or metaphor (if not branding) as about genuinely responsible consumption of resources. While not overtly “green,” our formless advocates a new creativity and freedom in the use of materials. We embrace the raw, the unprocessed, the unstable, the ephemeral and the degradable. Most of all, our formless seeks to exploit found conditions, to use what already exists. A material like bamboo may scream sustainable, but as often as not it is shipped halfway around the world to the construction site. We would rather build with the dust, dirt and gravel already there. One might look sustainable, but which is the more responsible use of resources in the long run?
Form also pushes architecture toward the image. In an age in which architecture is increasingly image-based, marketed with renderings, consumed as spectacle, and increasingly indistinguishable from a host of other media, our formless reasserts the primacy of physical and spatial experience. This is not the same experience that has driven the “experience economy” – the fun-house style atmosphere or affect, utterly reliant on a passive subject, offered by much of today’s spectacular architecture. Nor is it the solipsistic, abstract phenomenology of the sublime borrowed by architects from Minimalist and Post-Minimalist work in the visual arts.
We do, however, aspire to new forms of bodily and psychological interaction between architecture and subject. Our spaces are challenging, lacking clear boundaries or legible hierarchies, and so fundamentally demand interaction and engagement. Radically new space ultimately demands new forms of interaction, not only between architecture and subject, but among subjects, as well. Our formless thus offers not only new understandings of space and material, but of collectivity and social experience. At its core is a reimagining of architecture’s best attributes.
Load Test is a slab building predicated on the realization that anything can perform structurally. Here, piles of raw matter replace columns. The age-old drama between architecture and gravity is re-staged, but tectonic form is no longer the triumphant hero. Instead, the piles achieve an ambiguous equilibrium. Neither vertical nor horizontal, they deny the normal identification between human body and vertical structural elements.
JS: There is an existential opacity to your distinction between ‘materials’ and ‘matter’. It is clear that you feel the label ‘material,’ used in an architectural context, qualifies ‘matter’ in such a way that obscures your experiential agenda in addition to introducing other problems (i.e., non-sustainable practices). This suggests a kind of blindness in architects that comes from being conceptually invested in a building proposal. Is there room for conceptual meaning in formless buildings?
FF: I’m not sure if meaning is the word we would use, but it is absolutely possible for formless buildings to have conceptual dimensions. We would argue that you’ve made a huge leap from characterizing the choice of material over matter as a kind of blindness (which we would agree with) to implying that any conceptual investment in architecture necessitates this choice. Our preference for matter is not anti-conceptual, and in fact, our entire interest in the formless is in many ways conceptually motivated.
We see a fundamental distinction between the conceptual and the ideal. One of our most basic goals is to free architecture from the many strains of idealism that inevitably follow from notions of architectural form. Form itself, looking all the way back to Plato, has typically been more ideal than material. But for architects specifically, the drive to create form necessitates a suppression of matter. Almost as soon as you figure out what form you want your building to take, you have to start figuring out what stuff you want to make it out of and how you are going to force that stuff into that shape and get it to stay there. In architecture, matter can’t just be – it is always constrained, defined, circumscribed.
This is not to say that there aren’t architects whose practice is ostensibly based in materiality, even a kind of rough materiality. But one of our favorite Bataille quotes is “materialism can be seen as a senile idealism.” In other words, most attempts to celebrate materiality still end up sublimating or idealizing material. For example, materials became extremely important to several generations of architects who followed Frampton’s idea of “critical regionalism,” but in that case materials were ultimately important not so much in themselves, but because they symbolized place. Rather than a true materialism, it was a kind of pseudo-phenomenology bordering on mysticism.
Our interest in matter is in part about experience and immediacy, but we wouldn’t privilege what you call our experiential agenda over conceptual content (that would bring us back to an architecture of spectacle or affect, which we oppose). When matter is left alone, in a raw state, and no longer has to be constrained or resolved, a whole range of new processes and possibilities are opened up. We can design things that are unfixed, immeasurable: formless. So matter offers much more than a new kind of experience; it is a way of making and thinking about architecture.
JS: The call to eschew imagery is not a new one, but achieving such a goal is challenging,g to say the least. Working virtually, it’s as if architects have no other option. Formlessfinder has, through its statement, bound itself to this mission. What has been your studio’s response in support of this position? How has Formlessfinder addressed this conundrum?
FF: That’s a good question, but the way you pose it is perhaps a bit melodramatic. It’s not that we have any particular desire to be iconoclasts or that we think images are inherently evil. When we talk about turning away from images, what we’re really criticizing is the reduction of architecture to image. Images have always been the best way to market architecture, but today, buildings actually seem to be designed so that they can be experienced primarily as an image, or at best, a series of images. When this kind of built image becomes the primary output of architects, the richness of physical and spatial experience is flattened into spectacle. Not coincidentally, formally driven practices have a special affinity for the image, because the singularity of an image, its static quality, makes it the easiest place to fix form.
It’s not that architects can’t or shouldn’t make images, but that they should be more than imagemakers. As part of our working process, we do create two-dimensional outputs. But we think of these less as images, in the sense that they would be finished products in themselves, than as representational tools that help carry the design process forward. And we do not agree that working virtually forces architects into making images. It is true, unfortunately, that one of the main applications of virtual tools in architecture has been the production of more and more realistic and elaborate images. We understand, though, the virtual as encompassing not only the digital, but a wide range of other media, processes and materials. Our sense of the virtual does not oppose the physical or the material. We use techniques like video not to provide animated illustrations of our projects, but as another drawing tool, to work through problems of time and movement. Similarly, we use physics-simulation software not to generate renderings but to carry out material-based simulations that are ultimately in direct feedback with physical experiments and built projects.
JS: Although the US economy is slowly shaping up (or so we are led to believe), some say we are currently in a similar position to architects who turned to ‘paper practices’ in the 1970’s to maintain conceptual momentum in the absence of opportunities to build. Of course, images were paramount to that generation of designers. How has the domestic economic situation affected your practice? Have you felt the need to compromise your stance on the importance of imagery in response?
FF: We have not felt the need to compromise our stance on images, but we should probably try to explain further how we understand our goals for production. As we tried to explain in the previous answer, our critique of the dominance of images in contemporary architecture does not mean that finished buildings are the only product we are interested in. We call ourselves formlessfinder in part because we like the idea of our studio operating as a “finder” in the sense of an app or even a search engine: something that turns up all kinds of diverse outputs (buildings, pictures, videos, models, texts, products, data, software), a place where you’re never quite sure what you are going to encounter next.
It is true that the recession of the 1970s led to a series of largely image-based, theoretically-driven practices. But those “paper architectures” were not only theoretical or speculative, but linked to specific intellectual projects that were often in part about the dematerialization of architecture and also often very explicitly formal. (As Eisenman wrote in his famous “Cardboard Architecture” essay, even after he built some of his houses, he was thrilled by the fact that in photographs they were almost indistinguishable from paper models. He was trying to explain that the underlying formal moves he was exploring in those house designs were what interested him most.)
But the 1970s also produced the decorated shed. In Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi and Scott Brown were very explicit about the connection between their ideas and the tough economic times. The decorated shed was not only a theoretical critique of modernism, it was a recipe for building that made economic sense at the time: a realistic response to a needlessly expensive and self-indulgent high modernism. We’re not interested in signs and symbols, but in a sense, we’re offering something similar. The formless is cheap and it’s easy to build. In the last decade, we’ve seen that formal complexity can be one of the most staggeringly expensive effects to produce in architecture (think of monumental projects like the Bird’s Nest or any number of the digitally fueled fantasies proposed for the Middle East.) The formless also produces complexity, but in an analog way, often as a result of putting matter-of-fact materials through relatively simple processes. So while the formless is a theoretical project for us, we also see it as very tangible and real. In fact, if people are building anything these days, they should be building the formless.
JS: The LOAD TEST project is speculative and seems to be primarily concerned with the structural premise behind high-rise construction. Can you provide more background on the inspiration behind it? What are its aspirations in terms of program?
FF: Load Test began as an attempt to provide an alternative to traditional notions of tectonics. The basic insight behind the project is that anything can hold a building up. It doesn’t have to be a column, or even a recognizable architectural material. The project actually began with a conversation we had about one of Bataille’s texts, in which he describes the formless as something like a crushed spider. Bataille was always attacking architecture. For him, it was the antithesis of the formless; it could never be formless because it was always a representation of institutional power. But at a certain point, we realized that maybe Bataille’s limitation was that he thought architecture always had to look like architecture. In theory, even crushed spiders, if you piled up enough of them, could hold up a building. At a very basic level, the formless can still have an architectural use value. To return to our first answer, the project seeks to open up radical new possibilities by replacing typical architectural materials with raw matter. Instead of the column (a conventional structural element, which we expect to be made of concrete or steel) the building is held up by piles of rocks, sand, asphalt, earth.
But the project was also an attack on the convention of verticality. Tectonics traditionally dramatize architecture’s struggle with gravity. Vertical elements signal architecture’s ability to overcome gravity, and also encourage a kind of empathetic identification between our bodies, which are also vertically oriented and architectural structures. The analogy between the column and the human body goes back to classical Greek and Roman architecture, but even much more recent practitioners (particularly those involved in deconstruction, for example) have drawn extended analogies between their buildings and bodies. Instead, the pile offers an ambiguous equilibrium, neither vertical nor horizontal. It is a structure that doesn’t perform in a normal way, to which you can’t relate in a normal way.
We didn’t have a specific program in mind for this building. We are interested in program, but more in the specific contingencies and odd exceptions – the real messiness of use and occupation – that arise on a project-by-project basis. We don’t want general programmatic ideas to provide the starting points for our projects. We have had arguments with architects who have claimed that program-based architecture is, in a way, already formless, because it isn’t explicitly based on making form, but we usually don’t trust programmatic approaches. The ubiquitous program diagram tends to be a device for turning some of the most dynamic aspects of architecture into static formal arrangements, and supposedly radical programmatic moves – juxtapositions, layerings, reconfigurations – are often little more than rhetorical gestures, excuses for formal metaphors. As a result, at least in speculative projects, we’re more interested in building types than specific programs. In terms of dealing with conventions of form and construction, we have found this approach to be more productive for us. In Load Test, we were not concerned with the program of the high-rise as much as the type of the slab building or the domino diagram. The project was part of a series that investigated other building types, as well, for example the dome or the box.
JS: In LOAD TEST, you’re currently using software to develop the structural strategy for a building, but in a way that prioritizes material over form. This is the reverse of a typical engineer’s perspective that champions efficiency through careful material selection and member configuration. Can you give us more detail about this approach by describing the priorities behind it and the possible alternative efficiencies it offers?
FF: It is certainly true that you have to let go of normal assumptions about efficiency in order to understand a project like LOAD TEST, but we think that discarding these assumptions can be liberating. The usual assumption is that materials are expensive, so they should be minimized, and for many engineers and architects this assumption has developed into a kind of minimal aesthetic. But when you use materials that are cheap enough and available enough (perhaps even what is already there, on the site), you negate this logic. And when you bring a huge amount of raw material into a project, exciting new possibilities open up. For LOAD TEST, we did a series of studies looking at how piles could retain heat, or even generate it, depending on what they were made of.
Our PS1 proposal operated on a similar logic, where the matter we wanted to use – rubble and foam – was so cheap and easy to construct (and demolish, which is an important consideration for a temporary structure) that it overturned the traditional assumption of PS1 pavilions having to be lightweight canopies. Interestingly, some of the people who were most excited about the sheer amount of material we were bringing to the site were our engineers. Our mechanical engineer calculated that such a huge amount of rubble would have had a major thermal mass cooling effect, to the point that the inside of our project would have been significantly cooler than the ambient temperature. Part of the program for the pavilions is to provide a venue for a summer concert series, and our acoustical engineer realized that so much material offered possibilities for reflecting and absorbing sound that had never been explored with previous projects. And with so much ballast weight, wind loads (which are normally one of the major concerns for PS1 projects) were essentially a non-issue for our structural engineer.
In terms of the software we are developing, our ambition is to change the way engineering contributes to a project, to shift from fixing form, for example dictating exactly how big something should be or what structure it should be arranged in, to predicting how materials will behave under a fluid range of circumstances, allowing them to perform safely and efficiently while still retaining the flexibility to assume any number of configurations. Ultimately, we hope that our software could even move beyond outputting or analyzing data to actually provide input for responsive material systems. To give a very simple example, we’ve thought that for LOAD TEST, the loose piles could be redistributed in order to balance loads or prevent collapse. That is the kind of productive feedback loop between the material and the digital we are most interested in.
JS: The formless position you’ve described is radically ambitious in terms of its focus on the manifestation of meaning in architecture. It promises to provide a refreshing counterpoint to the form-based initiatives we see coalescing around digital technologies. However, these initiatives appear to have an advantage when it comes to the day-to-day considerations that arise during the design development process. Have these considerations come into focus in your work yet, and if so, how have they been met?
FF: Again, meaning is a word we mistrust, because it has such a strong association with semiotic approaches to architecture, and we see the inevitable deferral of semiotic reference as opposed to the immediacy we hope for form the formless. (A sign points to a meaning, and so in a sense asks you to look through it; the formless is thick, even opaque, something you experience and understand on its own terms).
But in comparing our position to that of most advocates of digital technology, we absolutely do not agree that they have the advantage. First, we should point out that even though we are very critical of the way digital technology is typically used by architects, we don’t have a problem with using digital technologies ourselves. It’s not like we wouldn’t use AutoCAD or Rhino when we need to; our position isn’t a reactionary one, so we are not turning away useful tools on principle. But most implementations of digital technology fail before they even begin, because they try to use technology to chase an idea. In these models, architecture is always catching up. As the field’s digital powers increase, architecture is approaching the organic, the emergent, the optimized, the parametric. But this approach is always asymptotic; there will always be at least an infinitesimal distance between architecture and idea, because this kind of thinking is always about having an idea first and using digital technology to implement that idea second. We would argue that as long as this is the order of operations, digital tools and processes can’t achieve their true generative potential.
JS: After the storm of publicity from the P.S.1 competition, what does Formlessfinder have on its agenda for 2012?
FF: We are currently at work on a few modest building projects, a mix of institutional and residential, which are giving us the opportunity to begin testing our ideas in actual construction situations, which is very exciting. It also looks like we’ve found a venue to construct a version of Bag Pile, and after all the work that went into developing that project, it will be extremely gratifying to see it realized.
At the same time, we’re working hard to continue developing and articulating our intellectual position. That is always important to us, because in many ways it is the real driving force behind our practice. We organized a symposium on the formless that was held at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in September 2011. We had participants from a range of fields – historians, architects, ecologists, engineers, artists – and it was fascinating to talk about what the formless could mean to them in their fields, how it might be productive, and also where notions of formless seemed to offer moments when diverse fields could overlap. We’re working with Storefront Books to develop the event into a publication and it should be out by spring of 2012, so stay tuned!
Formlessfinder is a laboratory for methodological experimentation oriented toward the introduction of moments of formlessness into architecture. It was created by Garrett Ricciardi and Julian Rose and exists as the nexus of their ongoing collaboration.
www.johnszot.com | @johnszot
Illustrations by the Freise Brothers
The Freise Brothers describe ‘Unseen Realities’ as “a visual story about a community of artists inhabiting an abandoned industrial landscape. Rather than redrawing and re-planning, they retro-fit. The renderings are meticulously crafted as a combination of traditional hand media with digital media to reflect the dual aesthetic of salvaged structures.”
In BLDGBLOG, Geoff Manaugh describes this series as “perhaps Andrew Wyeth meeting the U.S. interstate highway system in a world art-directed by Guillermo del Toro.” Certainly an interesting combination.
These hybrid illustrations combine multiple forms of media – ink, graphite, photography and marker – with computer graphics. Their representations of utopian worlds question our current conditions of suburban sprawl and urban master-planning.
The illustrations for ‘Transient’ come from a collaboration with Philippe Barrier Collective. Rich organic textures provide a contrast to the bleak urban backdrops, suggesting renewal through the implementation of a nomadic living pod and docking tower.
The Freise Brothers (Nathan & Adam Freise) are directors and producers of visual content. Using CG, video, and animation they create digital narratives, short films, and other productions that are highly influenced by their background in architecture and design.
Essay and photographs by Nick Axel
In Santiago, Chile, fantastical shapes and figures in bright colors juxtapose the lifeless blank walls that populate lower-class neighborhoods, creating a radical contextuality. Each piece of art can be seen as a landmark, working on a subconscious level by either recalling memory or framing their creation. Designer Nick Axel presents a selection of photographs of contemporary street art in the capital of Chile and elaborates on the role of this art in the built environment.
According to definition, a map represents something. By abstracting, a map communicates something that was incomprehensible prior to the act. As a form of communication, a map is binary; it must be made, and only afterwards can it be read. The graphic content of street maps typically emphasize certain things while de-emphasizing others, representing a spatial hierarchy that may or not be apparent. The consequence of this differs greatly depending on who is reading the map; it’s possibly of little value to one who lives in the milieu of those streets, but for anyone unfamiliar with the context, the map frames the way we comprehend and navigate the terrain. A sociopolitical relation is therefore deeply embedded within its form.
The form of a map is not its content. By giving us the knowledge of how to get from one place to another, the street map says little to nothing about the places themselves, or the spaces in between. Even when it does, by employing pictorial techniques, the medium proves to be impotent regarding the complex amalgamation of historical narratives and sensory environments that constitute the actual experience of the city. This primacy of space fundamentally shapes its perception, determining not only what is there to see but, how and why we see what it is. We can thus transfer the ideological propensity within the act of mapping onto the city itself as a historical form.
In his Psychogeographic Guide to Paris, Guy Debord used the map as a device to communicate the city as space that is experienced. As a map traditionally shows the city as one single entity represented by the continuity of its fabric, fragmenting this form identifies the presence of singular zones of spatial identities. Debord utilized familiar pictographic techniques to reveal the disjunction embedded between representation and content, which in unity forms the epistemological foundation of maps as a productive device for the communication of spatial knowledge.
This drawing revolutionizes the function and significance of what a map is: it does not actually show you how to get from one place to another, or where or what that is. It simply represents that something is. By effectively abandoning content for representation, it communicates not information, but an idea. This poses a problem, though, in that it is merely suggestive; the phenomenological distinction of each of these zones is only implied by the figure ground composition. To someone who does not already have an intimate relationship with the streets of Paris and its map, whether these areas are indeed distinct or not is completely irrelevant.
This map evokes a questioning of the potential means to communicate the content of space. In the context of Santiago, Chile, street art engenders a map of space by establishing the presence of an immanent cartographic device. While the art is abstract, it is not totalizing in the same way that traditional maps attempt to represent the whole of space. There are many different types of maps for many different things, some of which are not spatial at all. The street art in Santiago is unique in that it subversively reveals the conditions of space by offering an alternative way to navigate the streets.
The street art in Santiago, Chile, does not communicate information that can be learned in the way one reads a book of history to obtain the knowledge it is trying to give. It does not speak of the cities’ violent fascist history or its extreme economic and social disparity, as graffiti in many other South American cities do; in Santiago, that content has effective been subsumed and integrated within the artistic process and the form of communication it takes. The surfaces that create the artists’ canvas in Santiago were also the means with which class inequality was brought into and further reified in the 20th century. Fantastical shapes and figures in bright colors juxtapose the lifeless blank walls that populate lower-class neighborhoods, and as such, create a radically contextuality.
Each piece of art can be seen as a landmark. They are not landmarks as specific meeting points or places of interest. They are not architectural nor geographic landmarks. These landmarks work on a subconscious level by either recalling memory or framing their creation. They are effectively the “contours” of the dérive, fusing perception with experience into a symbol. By having no explicit content in and of itself, we furnish it with meaning; the art surreptitiously engenders an immanent relation between the body and the built environment. We can think of this art as the device that inscribes lines onto the map we each individually make as we inhabit the city. Its presence maps the opportunity to perceive local history, its architectural embodiment, its contemporary manifestation, and its future, differently.
Nick Axel is currently keeping himself occupied in Madrid, Spain, where he continues his engagement with the discipline of architecture through a variety of mediums in order to reveal latent opportunities for spatial praxis at the limits of the contemporary city.
www.nickaxel.net | @alucidwake