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.
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