As part of the exhibition Mass Market Alternatives organized by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s (SAIC) Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects (AIADO) and MAS Context, John Szot lectured at SAIC on Tuesday, September 26, 2017 on the project. The exhibition was on display from August 28 until October 2, 2017 at the AIADO gallery located on the 12th floor of the Sullivan Center. Below is an edited transcription of his talk.
We started Mass Market Alternatives a while ago. It was just a running conversation for about seven or eight years before we got serious about it. We were coming off of the finish of a project that was more video than building design. I spent a lot of time in Texas, which was the inspiration for getting involved in the suburbs to begin with, Houston being a largely suburban community.
But before I get into that, it might make sense to spend some time really quickly discussing one of the principles that I think connects the work of the studio and continues to inform it in a way that is a bit challenging with regards to professional practice in the most conventional sense. And that is the sense that, on a certain level, design is really about perfecting our relationship with the material world. Architecture is often cast as a kind of design, which makes perfect sense. I don’t actually assume that is the case at all times. I think anybody that has worked on a building feels like, “Well, this doesn’t really feel like design,” in the sense that the process is not nearly as methodical as one would associate with a design-oriented endeavor. That is a consequence of the fact that buildings themselves have a kind of life that exists outside of the perimeter of design in the most conventional sense.
For us, the idea that design is focused on perfecting this relationship often comes into collision with something that buildings have to deal with quite a bit, and it is the idea that perfection is an inhuman concept. One way to interpret the relationship between these two axioms is that design is meant to help elevate the human condition in a way that enhances it. The flip side is that, somehow, the human condition is encumbered or perhaps sidetracked by the effort to achieve something that one might pass off as perfection. In certain circumstances, design might be counterproductive to gaining a deeper understanding about who we are as a species or as a society or however you want to categorize it.
I do think buildings participate in between these two ideas, and the project that we are going to look at today is an attempt to continue to pick at this puzzle, to really understand where design and architecture fit together. Are they synonymous? Does one reside within the other? Is one a little bit larger than the other in order to encompass this other idea that being human is something above and beyond or transcends the idea of design or the ambitions of design? Or is design meant to essentially hone the definition of being human into something a little bit more palatable? It is still not clear to me which it is, but I do know that buildings are often a point of debate as far as that goes. You don’t have to look too far to find examples of architectural instances where these two things collide in a way that is a bit confusing, at least for me, but also stimulating and exciting.
One of the moments in architectural history’s recent past that I think sheds a little bit of light on how this might get sorted out comes in the form of Advertisements for Architecture that Bernard Tschumi put together between 1976 and 1977. In it, at one point, he talked about Ville Savoye. Built in the 1940s, it was in a ruined state, left to rot as a result of the chaos of World War II. It was eventually restored, but in the 70s Bernard Tschumi encountered it, and he wrote eloquently about it being in a perfect state in its ruined condition. Somehow, the concept of space had come into sharp focus as a result of it being compromised from a practical point of view. I’ve got to be honest with you, I still haven’t sorted out exactly what the hell it is he was talking about. It was this thing about the perfection of space and how that was potentially more moving to him than the physical experience of space, but it’s not 100% clear to me.
One thing that does happen in professional practice regularly is that you are finding your own artistic ambitions colliding with the practical obligations of a given project, and it is often a give and take or compromise. There are many dilemmas that you have to negotiate. I turn to the passage that Tschumi wrote pretty regularly in times like that in hopes of finding some guidance through that process, because it would be really great to find a way to have your cake and eat it too. That is to say, have the building be perfect from a conceptual point of view but, at the same time, satisfy the practical requirements. In this case, as the building fell into disrepair, somehow those two agendas slipped past one another and were able to engage their audience in what was clear to him at that moment.
Somewhere in there, there is the solution to this problem. I also think that there is something about the way in which a building falls apart or is compromised from a practical point of view that also suggests that it is an entity that is larger than the concept of design. That is to say, it is not meant to be perfect. In a way, it is augmented by those moments that essentially challenge the reason for it being built in the first place, and that is a principle that ties a little bit into this project. I am going to try and draw a line through that today.
Houston is the fifth largest city in the United States last I checked, although you never know when that is going to change. It is a city that is largely composed of exurban neighborhoods or communities. It is infamous for not having a zoning law. So, in a way, it is a Wild West when it comes to building or property development. This is a portion of the northwest sector of the city exhibiting the suburban development that has taken over the outside rings of highway, which you see in this image for those of you that are familiar with Houston.
Houston is growing in a concentric way, building highways concentrically around its center. It is up to its third ring. Not unlike a tree, these suburban communities crop up along the highways, which is no surprise. This is not an unusual phenomenon for suburban development in the United States, but Houston happens to have a very large suburban community. There is something beautiful about the pattern of development itself. Some people might characterize this as a problem. I think it would be easy to do that from certain perspectives, particularly from the perspective of sustainability. Culturally, the suburbs certainly have their problems, but economically, it is an amazing solution. It has been wildly successful, and as a result, we have to pay attention to it because it has a momentum that could be useful. We decided to get involved in a way that we felt we might start to turn that corner and understand it as a cultural phenomenon so that we wouldn’t necessarily give up any of the momentum that it established economically.
It is important to note that this project is pre-Hurricane Harvey. I am not really going to get into the climatological, meteorological, and ecological issues associated with this particular event. It was pretty serious though, and Houston was hit pretty hard. The city is built on a swamp, so a lot of flatlands, in the northeast sector in particular, were inundated to the point where many buildings were completely destroyed and people’s lives upended. Oddly enough, from the reports I am getting, other areas of the city were not really hit that hard. All that said, this is a problem we are going to have to address, there is no question about it. This project doesn’t necessarily do that in its current state, but possibly in the near future.
Mass Market Alternatives is a project that is trying to engage the trend that certain sources have been citing after having some time to go through the census and realizing that a lot of growth has been happening in these low-density areas, suggesting the suburbs. There is still a high demand for housing in suburbs. There is still a lot of interest in living in the suburbs, and I attribute that a bit to the growing realization amongst millennials that the suburbs do have something to offer as one matures into a different stage in one’s life.
There was a recent piece by Alan Berger that was published at The New York Times on September 15, 2017 titled “The Suburb of the Future, Almost Here.” It is a great article where he talks at length about the millennial generational optimism about technology and how it could be brought to bear in the suburbs in a transformative way. He talks about how exciting it would be to build a community that is based on drone delivery, autonomous vehicles, a renewed sense of how important it is to cultivate positive relationships with one’s neighbors, and a different sense about what it means to be social. It could possibly reinvent the suburbs from the ground up, given that there is a lot of interest amongst the generation as far as buying homes are concerned. However, the one thing that is a little bit suspicious about it is the sense that somehow, the suburbs might engage technology in a way that completely transforms it. It is in a way similar to how Le Corbusier’s 1930 Radiant City plan was breathtaking in its audacity and its embrace of industrialization to somehow change society but also utterly terrifying. It totally disregarded the value of the organic qualities of a city and how incremental development generates more interesting environments from a cultural point of view.
My question is, is it possible that, as a cultural and economic precedent, the suburbs are worth preserving the same way that we would look at maybe a gothic quarter of an old city and say it is worth preserving? Not for historical reasons, but for spatial reasons, for social reasons, does it present a type of model that is worth extending into the future despite the fact that certain technologies might be challenging its current configuration? Because, for better or worse, the suburbs are American and, as a result, they have been the inspiration, or perhaps at least the motivation, behind certain artists to bring together bodies of work that are provocative and that help us understand ourselves a little bit better.
I turn to these portraits, these artistic careers as evidence that it could be something worth talking about because of the revelations that have taken place through this work.
A few examples are Juno Calypso, David Byrne, Gregory Crewdson, and David Lynch. Could it be that the existing configuration has already has been embedded so far into our cultural consciousness that its economic success and it having been established in this way has essentially set a precedent that should be balanced with these interests in technology, with these interests in somehow making communities healthier? Could it be that the kind of challenges that the suburbs present is also a kind of prescription for getting to know ourselves as a society?
With that in mind, we didn’t assume that rewriting the script for the suburbs from the ground up was the right thing to do right off the bat. As a matter of fact, for economic reasons, it seems that trying to find a way to work with the existing formula would be in our best interest if we were actually to get involved at some level. So, we started by saying, “Okay, then, what is the formula? How does it work? What are the different chess pieces that we have at our disposal in order to somehow change the equation?” What it boils down to is something quite simple. Developers see an abundance of land, and their proposition is to find ways to make the homes cheaper without compromising their ability to deliver on a couple of promises: the sense of independence that comes with buying a detached home on a modest-sized plot of land, and the charm of rural living without giving up any of the contemporary conveniences that come along with living in close proximity.
In thinking from that point of view, there were two stratagems that came into sharp focus for us. In order for the developer to make this happen and compete economically and be successful, the first thing that happened is the construction of the homes themselves became normalized. These pictures are taken from a suburban development that is under construction in Houston, and I think they are quite revealing in the sense that these homes, through the industrialization process, are actually just sheds. They are sheds put together through rather surprising means, the products themselves being so heavily branded that it speaks a lot to the degree to which industrialization has influenced how we build. The presence of tape and glue shouldn’t come as any surprise to anybody nowadays, although it certainly is a far cry from the kind of physical fasteners that I think would speak to a different kind of standard of stability, but this is really a question of material science. I’m digressing a little bit.
The challenge here for them is to find a way to continue to streamline this process so that the components can be purchased in bulk, deployed, and put together in a very systematic way, and essentially save a bit of the resources there at the end, at the last minute, in order to finally build the thing in a way that is acceptable from this nostalgic point of view. The question for us at that point is, why does nostalgia come into focus? What is the angle there? If it is really about the industrialization of the process, why do the homes end up looking the way that they do? The answer, of course, is that this is where market demand comes into play.
There is an interesting relationship there. It is one that is familiar to anybody who has taken a basic course in economics. Doing these things in bulk is more profitable for developers, and as the phenomenon of suburbs has grown and grown and grown, the obligation to do these kinds of developments in larger and larger swathes has only become greater and greater. It has gotten to the point where the developers are obligated to speak to the largest market audience within the overall marketplace for these homes. Otherwise, you are not going to be able to take the bulk product that you put out on the market and sell it. As these developers start to compete and get larger in the process, their ability to maneuver within that market is reduced. So, the houses start to look more and more alike, especially in Houston, but then the emphasis starts to shift to marketing, where the packaging of the homes as a community becomes a way to differentiate the products themselves, and we have these funny lists. This list here includes the names of actual neighborhoods in the Houston area, with funny things like Carpenter’s Landing as an attempt to somehow bring a blue collar sensibility and an earnest hard work and marry that with a quasi-religious kind of bent to it.
This list goes on and on, and I think one of the interesting aspects is that while many of these names here do seem very similar, it is possible that the marketplace itself is becoming very, very sensitive, and the difference between Sundown Glen and Glenloch actually becomes much clearer, I think, the longer you look at things like this. There is another whole dimension to this where, as the product continues to be more consistent or trends towards being consistent, there’s a hypersensitization towards a rather mediocre product. All of a sudden, we lose focus on what the true potential of all of this worth might be if we were just to change course. But it is not like they have a choice. They have to play to this market in order to ensure that these large developments that they are putting together are bought.
Between the normalization of the construction process and the obligation to grow as a business, we start to see a moment of desperation where marketing becomes paramount. This is a neighborhood in northwest Texas where they often come with these large water storm retention ponds that are meant to deal with conditions a little more modest than what they saw with Hurricane Harvey. But that one center there is trying to get a little creative there, and the retention pond is in the form of a crucifix. Where political affiliation becomes part of the marketing strategy is where I think the rubber hits the road. It becomes very clear that this is a political question, and marketing has now flowed into the political arena. As developers compete somewhat innocently, because they are just trying to make a buck, we are starting to see this symbolic content being encoded into the environment itself, which is an amazing phenomenon. But it also demonstrates that there is still some potential for architecture to play a proactive role in shaping the cultural landscape.
While all this is going on, I think the most interesting thing about these homes is what is happening on the sides, in the backs, and on the roofs. While there is a great amount of attention lavished upon the fronts of the houses in order to get them to play to a certain desire for a historic pastiche nostalgia that characterizes these homes for the most part, the sides and the backs are essentially these destitute reflections of the bare minimum for code. They are fascinating in the sense that they are so totally indifferent that it is hard not to be a little bit intrigued, from my point of view, as to how these things happen. Compositionally, it occurred to me at some point that we might actually be looking at the essence of the suburbs right here. It is a kind of indifference where the real industrial nature of these sheds is coming into sharp focus. It is just happening right under our noses, under the noses of the intended market audience, perhaps, just because they are focused on other things. To me, this seems to be the most authentic kind of compositional and spatial expression of what is happening in the suburbs as far as all these different dynamics are concerned.
This begged the question, what if a home could be planned in a similar manner? Is it possible that we might see or learn something new if we were to take this particular sensibility and use it for the design of the home and allow the entire home to speak as authentically as this elevation does with regard to this complete process? Could it be that we might see some new cultural manifestation if the homes themselves were allowed to be true to their nature in this respect? Furthermore, if we had a batch of homes different than those that subscribe to the mass-market formula, wouldn’t we have a political beachhead as a result of building those homes? Could it be that there is enough marginalized buyers in the existing marketplace where we could still build a large chunk of them and benefit from the dynamic of bulk pricing and bulk execution, but at the same time, the houses can be distinctly different? And, could there be enough people interested in a suburban lifestyle who are totally put off by the consistency of the existing product and who would be a captive audience?
Of course, we don’t know the answers to these questions, but we started to put together a project that might assume the existence of such a market just to see where it went. We started out with planning the community before we got into the designs of the homes themselves. It is worth mentioning that in order to be true to the idea that maybe the suburbs represents a powerful cultural precedent, we should build the community in a way that reflect some of those values in a fundamental sense. However, we need to tweak them a little bit so that they are improved without breaking from the formula in a way that is just totally radical.
In this case, the community that our homes inhabit is one where each house is put on a one- acre lot, which is slightly bigger than a standard suburban lot, in hopes that maybe the added distance between houses would encourage people to keep their drapes pulled for longer during the day. The garage has been detached from the home. Despite the prospect of autonomous vehicles eventually on the near horizon, we keep the garage for two reasons. The possession of one’s automobile is still part of the formula for what makes the suburbs work. Independence is about having one’s property or one’s belongings on one’s property. There is a little bit of a territorial dimension to it. But even if the cars did disappear, the garage still plays an important role in the suburban experience in terms of it being a woodshed for the weekend hobbyist or the ambitious heavy metal quartet trying to get things off the ground. A number of different things happen in a suburban garage so that is still part of the formula. Lastly, the houses themselves will take on a courtyard configuration in order to give each one an exterior precinct that is specific to that house and discourage the practice of building backyard fences, which I have noticed in Houston.
Once we had those principles established, the question of how to get the homes to exhibit this serial indifference that we felt had a lot of value came into focus. We set to work putting together a very crude tool that generates these funny blocks in the courtyard configuration. At some point, it might be possible to get the thing to be totally parametric so that the entire home is designed in a fell swoop right there.
In this case, instead of it being a practical algorithm, we are calling this more of an ideological algorithm, in the sense that it makes patterns that we can assign certain degrees of variation to in order to control the degree of variety we get from them. But there is just enough variety there to engage a set of details that would then get deployed according to the terms of the pattern that emerges from the computer. Using that tool, we generated four lines of patterns, or four lines of homes from these different patterns. Each one has a different color palette, the color palette corresponding to a set of architectural details. It became an exercise of simply connecting the dots where a color and one of the patterns corresponded to a particular detail. The details were then smashed together and carefully coordinated in a process where you draw a floor plan based on the merging of those two pieces of information. At that point, you had a floor plan you could begin to work with.
Each of these floor plans essentially breaks down into different precincts. Each precinct is characterized by one of the wall sections from the menu of options we saw a moment ago, and then it becomes a process of a designer coming in and then stitching together each of these disparate wall sections through detail. In plan, it is fairly benign, but I feel like the effect on the façade and the spatial configuration of the house ends up being quite profound.
This first line is what we call the precast line, and in this case, the wall sections are characterized by the use of precast wall elements, either SIPs or site-cast elements or possibly concrete masonry or large expanses of glass, which in the Houston climate is kind of a liability. They have heavy tinting on them so it is like a building with mirror shades on, not meant to be ironic. I still think mirror shades are kind of nice. The ambition here is that, in doing these homes in large amounts, we would have access to components that normally would be very expensive if it was on a one-off situation: large expanses of glass, the kind of customs details that, if manufactured in large numbers, could make for extraordinary solutions for glazing a building, which we will see more about that in detail in just a moment. Each of these home lines are inspired by something that is going on in Texas, the first line being a reflection of the austerity of Donald Judd’s work sitting in the desert in West Texas.
The patio line is inspired by the work of O’Neil Ford, a modernist architect that did a beautiful job building the Trinity University campus in San Antonio, with this wonderful orange brick and large expanses of horizontal glass. In this case, we are working with brick alternating between being a veneer or being load-bearing. And this is where the conversation gets very interesting from a technical point of view, in my humble opinion, as questions about how the brick gets executed becomes paramount for making the project work.
For example, in a situation like this with computers dictating that the wall section where the glazing happens on the bottom part of the wall section versus on the top, this near-impossible detailing condition comes into focus. One of the things that makes this challenging is that brick that is treated as a veneer has to have a different type of a mortar joint than the one that is treated as load-bearing. However, one of the keys in a successful project like this is to treat the brick equally in both cases so that one can’t tell the difference between the load-bearing brick and the veneer. As it turns out, the load-bearing brick has the tighter mortar joint, which really makes the wall surface work as this orange mosaic. Otherwise, whenever you go to the 3/8ths mortar joint, it ends up looking like a veneer.
I think it is interesting because, at a certain point, you realize that the language of building still has this tangible, visceral impact. For me there it is hard to verbally explain what it means to have a 3/8ths mortar joint versus a 1/16th mortar. However, the feeling of the building changes radically as a result of that very slight variation. Joints like these essentially beg those kinds of questions and make for extraordinary buildings, not only in terms of experience, but also in terms of its construction. And I talk as if we have figured it all out, but we haven’t. That would be part of the process. We are just starting, and the question of detailing these buildings is still a rather diffuse one.
The loft line is a two-story home. Previously, we were looking at one-story versions or one-story models. In this case, the lower level is entirely glazed, partitions only happening where privacy is absolutely necessary, like in the case of bathrooms. The upper story alternates between all of the glazing happening through window elements on the backside of the building, that is to say, the part of the building facing the courtyard, or it is glazed in such a way that it is impossible to tell the difference between part of the building that is transparent versus part of the building that is just simply clad in glass because the tint is so dark. One of the important things in this case is the glazing on the bottom is protected by the layer on top, so we don’t have to employ the technique of the heavy tinting that we have seen previously.
The ranch line is being inspired a bit by the work that I had seen in Austin, Texas by Charles Moore, although this project probably has more in common with the Sea Ranch project out on the west coast in terms of materiality and form. The homes in this case are meant to be a combination of the playfulness that comes from making spaces of great intimacy along with the rather rambunctious profiles cut by the radically turning slopes of the roofs as it goes from one chunk of the house to the next. Every time the roof changes direction and slope, it is essentially reciprocating a change in the pattern that was used to generate the home.
I just want to conclude here with a few images that have come out of the studio just in the last couple of weeks. We are getting into thinking very carefully about the interiors of the precast line eventually that will fold into the other three lines we are working with. But this is essentially a series of studies that becomes marketing fodder, perhaps, for a tighter business plan for how one might approach a community built from these kinds of homes.
In this case, your entry happens in the interior of the building, just off of a hallway that connects the courtyard to the front yard. You can see a working space behind the glazed area there, living spaces, and the kitchen connected just off the living space behind the cabinetry we were just looking at. In this case, some of the spaces are heavily cloistered as a result of being a product of the wall sections that do not make an allowance for glazing in the wall. There are other spaces that are entirely glazed creating a rhythm of openness and privacy that is exciting. The other thing about glass that I was mentioning earlier is the hope that, at some point, the manufacture of glass of this scope or this ambition would be commonplace, and I know that material science is going in that direction. I have had conversations with people that are working within the industry that suggest that this might be a possibility if purchased and deployed in large enough numbers. So, the designs are essentially meant to take advantage of that. You get rooms like this where there is almost no difference between the front yard and the bedroom, save the heavy tinting that is on the glass such that there is a sense of openness on the inside, but from the outside, it still seems very private, and possibly, some of these things are operable to open rooms to the exterior, as well.
John Szot is an award-winning architect living in New York, and his work related to building design has been exhibited internationally. In addition to his architectural practice, he has held teaching positions at Columbia University, University of Texas at Austin, and Parsons New School for Design, and currently teaches architectural design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. His forthcoming book Buildingness will be an independently published volume of drawings, images, and writings related to the work of his studio and slated for release in 2018.
www.johnszot.com | @johnszot