In Plain Sight, An Architectural Hit List
Essay by Max Kuo. Illustrations by Max Kuo, Olivia Heung, Annie Schneider, and LeeAnn Suen
In the essays Neo-“Classicism” and Modern Architecture I and II, Colin Rowe brings attention to the resurgence of neo-Palladian symmetry and centrality as a minor revolt against Modernism’s preference for peripheral composition. With this stunningly simple yet striking juxtaposition of compositional difference, Rowe debates the Modernist claims for an architecture whose forms are mechanized, universal, and beyond taste. This mid-century debate, with the help of other notable figures such as Venturi and Rossi, would usher in a new post-functionalist discourse in architecture. Such a seismic upheaval seems impossible today. In that time, a collective project was discernible and in plain sight, establishing a discursive center that one could faithfully support or, if in dissension, could define a critical counter-position against. However, at least since the new millennium, there has been a post-critical malaise and a disinterest in the architectural manifesto. Postmodern horizontality enables a panoply of friendly conversations in lieu of debates across entrenched positions.
If we are to begin a debate today, against whom would we argue? We must begin by searching out those protagonists hiding in plain sight within the friendly and agreeable multitude, camouflaged by the very many styles, partis, and ornamentations of today’s endless difference. Presented here are a hit list of eight topics, the double entendre of chart-topping popularity and murderous vendetta fully intended. Identifying these topics establishes mise en place, a preparation for future debate over architectural principles whose popularity and innocuousness might be the very symptoms of an entrenched set of unexamined ideologies that require antagonizing if not ultimate termination. This list proposes terms conjoined with their negative prefix such as (de)contextualism, (non)indexicality, (dis)integration; a sampler and taste test to seek out the more scintillating and productive architectural antagonisms that may emerge from the clutter of architecture’s present-day bazaar. An illustration accompanies each proposed antagonism in the form of a destabilized image. After the easy optimism of the past two decades, we are once again venturing into the wilderness of uncertainty. It is exciting to be on the hunt once again.
For some reason, context remains one of the primary demands made upon architecture. Even the most exuberant and iconoclast buildings of recent years rely on contextualism, however dubious: twisting for sight lines, surface undulation for sailboats, and structural weaving for indigenous basketry. No matter how determined these arguments get, they can never stabilize the relations between architecture and its site. The most cherished architecture never cops to context, transfiguring its site while also remaining removed from it; think temples. Inversely, the more architecture bends towards context, the stranger it gets; think Zaha. If in both diametrically opposed strategies architecture always produces exceptions, then the alibi of context is superfluous. As Aldo Rossi well understood, though architecture is generated by the collective sedimentation of cities, the persistence of architectural form ultimately estranges itself from its origin.
Diagrams in architecture attempt to clarify and streamline architecture for various reasons: sometimes to organize, sometimes to justify, sometimes to charm. However tempting it might be to substitute the diagrammatic punch line for the design itself, the diagram is never the architecture, it is only a part of the design act: a preliminary show of forces, a wiggle, and a lift. But as the strange paradox of Kahn’s designs for Philadelphia Center City demonstrate, the translation of traffic flows into stolid archiforms unveils the diagrams ultimate obsolescence. The generative logos no longer animate the building, which has become an inert consolidation of mass, generating its own subsequent relations and forces as it encounters the Other. Thank god for the whimsy of cities. In its engagement with architecture, it will never contain itself within an architect’s diagram.
In progressive architecture, indexicality is a technique that avoids the showy signifiers of traditional architectural styles and revivalisms. Stripped of symbolic garments, Peter Eisenman has suggested architecture possesses weak signifiers unable to explain its own relevance. Therefore, in lieu of stable signs, indexicality has been a tool for architecture to reveal the various influences on and the traces of its formation. Since the failings of modernist millenarianism, architecture plays an increasingly unstable role within civic society such that architects increasingly rely on process, diagrams, and mark making as a storytelling device. Alternatively, the most dogmatic and persistent attachments societies have to architecture arise from signifiers and forms that have no indexical value. Folkism, classicism, and other revivalisms deploy the allure of symbols and motifs that endure by mutating across time and space. Without reverting to such retrograde sentimentalism, can we design a non-indexical and mutant symbolic architecture without need for the tracings of process and biographical justification?
Architecture has always privileged aesthetic pleasure achieved through the integration of parts. Classical proportion, gothic structure, baroque plasticity, modern modularity, and digital smoothing are all techniques with an underlying principle of integration, the foundation of architecture’s part-to-whole experiments. Most recently, integration is beset with new strategies, ambiguous gestalts, allusive figures, and object-coherence, all of which seek to destabilize the appearance of the whole. Whatever the disciplinary exercises, a (dis)Integrative architecture would shed the anxieties of the “difficult whole” and needs no teleology of completeness. In its shifting qualities, the architecture’s various parts are left to their own coincidence; the left part need not know what the right part is doing. By sustaining thresholds and figures of difference, architecture can maximize multiple pleasures, narratives, and citizenship, perhaps stumbling upon an intimate whole full of holes.
The problem with innovation is that it is reactionary, always wanting to not be what already exists. And in assessing the future, it has become a model of planned benchmarks always collapsing future into the verifiable present. Running at a breakneck pace, innovation is not self-aware, using its own failures as an excuse to move onto the next big thing. Unfortunately, the adoption of innovation in architecture is incompatible with its temporal scale and incapable of amortizing its effects. Today’s innovation may lead to tomorrow’s nightmare. Stone bridges outlast steel ones. Glass skyscrapers blast death rays in all directions. Air conditioning once led to the Reagan revolution. As robots, 3D printing, and smart systems take over research priorities in architecture, are we still able to advocate for an architectural vanguard without technological contribution? Unlike electronic devices, a hallmark of architecture’s success is its ability to survive through old age, outlasting its own contemporary fetish. Lingering in its own withdrawn mystique, ancient architecture continues to generate new effects and meanings, a reliquary of unplanned innovations.
Complex building assemblies, with its network of vendors and consultants, are hollowing out the thickness of architecture, replacing it with many layers of unlike parts. Everything is inside everything. Impregnated and post-processed sandwiches of alloys, plastics, and composites now constitute ever more complicated buildings. Finding meaning and satisfaction through honest material expression is increasingly a fool’s errand. Similarly, digital technology and its representations have ushered us into the non-referential world of simulacra. The loss of medium specificity is not to be lamented; Greenburg has long been dead. Instead, the intricate combinatorial effects of new synthetics are something to be celebrated. Shedding our nostalgia over the natural world, material experimentation will redesign the sensory associations we have with the world, both reinforcing and upending medium specificity.
Architecture is one of the few disciplines where its representational media are both embedded within and autonomous from its means of production. Looking back, architects have operated in many strategic modes, renderings that simulate reality, collages that eschew realism, and drawings that obliterate buildings. However many polemical varieties have been deployed in the past, the recent progress in computation offers a new paradigm of representational provocation. Computing speeds allow desktop users to simulate precise material and lighting effects, thus collapsing space and time into a series of GUI sliders. These high-fidelity images squeeze out ambiguity and readership in favor of rapturous consumption and salesmanship. Clarity and saturation of the image becomes pornographic. With such robust platforms, we must now ask what new forms of foreplay and strip tease are afforded by the computer so that pleasure and interpretation are expanded in space and time.
In order to organize its many parts, architects have long constructed systems of proportions derived from the human figure. This humanist project begins with Vitruvius and is later revived in Renaissance treatises, further parsing the relations of human proportion as divine providence. And though the dogma of classicism has continued to underwrite the human-scale projects of architects, Leon Krier being prominent among them, proportions are not scales. The drawings of Francesco di Giorgio of a man on a church plan reveal the delirious and absurd proposition of confounding scale with proportion. By superimposing proportional systems of two unlike subjects, in this case that of a human onto that of an architecture, something non-scalar occurs. Considering the many conundrums that we find in the metropolis today, it would behoove us to continue di Giorgio’s project of proportional precision and scalar abstraction. Let us pile on the scales of infrastructure, hyper-objects, vermin, art festivals, food trucks, and global warming, striving towards an architecture of unincorporated scales.
Max Kuo is currently a Design Critic at Harvard GSD and a founding partner of the design collaborative, ALLTHATISSOLID, with offices in Los Angeles and Kuala Lumpur. Kuo has an interdisciplinary background in art, architecture, and media. His diverse body of work continues to address multiple interests and to be received by multiple audiences. As a studio artist, he has produced work through artist-in-residency programs at the Whitney Museum, Independent Studies Program and in Beijing through Red Gate Gallery’s International Artist’s program. His art practice consists of projects, which interrogate the social politics of architectural representation, urban constituencies, and temporal urban identities. This work has taken the form of collaborations with punk bands, urban hypnosis, and absurdist architectural proposals.