“Intern Architects” and the trouble with titles

Yes, change is good. But wait, no, standards are better. No hang on, we have to let things evolve. On the other hand, consistency and tradition are better values….
Where between these two poles does architecture situate itself? The answer should be: right in the goddamn middle. There should be no noticeable creep to one side or the other, and the profession should maintain a steady adaptability in tandem with certain fundamental principles that we decide are the foundation of the profession, and of nature, as long as the name for it exists.
Notice how I stress the latter? That’s because I’ve noticed an increased amount of “revamps” and “streamlines” and “realignments” that the powers-that-architecture-be are haphazardly imposing on its practitioners. Inasmuch as our words shape our reality, the latest one speaks to a broader crisis of identity.
“…doctors, lawyers, and architects…” This triad, perched on a gleaming tier of the pyramid of professions, has become almost a maxim uttered by admiring citizens. It represents professions that require a lot of knowledge, contain strong codes of ethics, breed responsible individuals and role model citizens, have high prices of admission, are easily dramatized (with the exception of architects), get to wear suits (with the exception of doctors), and can be trusted (with the exception of lawyers). It used to be that simply calling oneself a registered “professional” in any discipline immediately connoted these standards, and it was heavily policed. But the situation has changed– much has been written on the standard of “professionalism” and why it has become diluted and meaningless, with occupations like massage therapy, cosmetology (hairdressing) and interior design (sorry guys) on the official NY State list, and others like bartending in states like NV & TX. Are states capitulating to individuals seeking some kind of special documentation that gives them an edge in the competitive market, or added legal protection? Are the states being too fearful of discrimination? Is there any honesty coming out of this friction, or simply people unwilling to give up rights? The dilution makes sense economically: like currency, if there are more licenses being given out, then the value of each one decreases. But it doesn’t have to be so. The core standards must be upheld, while allowing the total numbers to increase.
Sadly, architecture has felt the effects of this, by association and by Great Recession. As NCARB’s annual report shows, there was a huge post-recession downturn in the number of candidates passing exams and completing training. In response to that, they instituted a series of “streamlines,” which is really a euphemism for “lowering the standards.” This categorized-hours and computerized-examination approach is another step in the search for a lowest common denominator. The irony is that according to that same report, the number of candidates passing the architecture registration hurdles is back on the upswing the past couple of years. So why continue changing the standards?
Is it weird that I wish I had taken the ARE like this?
The crisis of identity crystallized with the latest and strangest step: NCARB’s decision, announced at the 2015 AIA National Convention, to change naming standards for not-yet-architects. They were responding to data that showed discomfort with the term “intern architect.” There will soon no longer be “interns”… but what will we be? The proposal provides no alternative. This is equally good and bad.
Another irony: very few people in the actual profession use “intern” the same way NCARB does. The term is reserved for only the youngest entry-level employees fresh out of school. Once you begin leading, managing, or designing projects yourself, the name shifts to something like “designer” or “junior architect” or “associate”. And truth be told, even these terms come up seldom– mostly when they’re solicited, like in interviews and resumes. There is also a difference between a business-related job title and a profession-related job title: “partner,” “associate,” “principal,” “staff ___,” or “trainee” reflect your role in the firm from a staffing perspective, while “architect,” or an archaic title like “apprentice” speak more to your standing in the community of professionals. But even these terms bleed into one another. Is a “staff writer” at the New York Times on the same rung as a “staff architect” at SOM? Use of job titles is still mostly a nominal practice, meaning the usage or definition in actual practice is different. And herein lies the crux of the governing bodies’ oversight: they’re disengaged from reality. Allowing actual usage rather than data to shape reality would help us all admit that names are names, but what really matters is the attitude of its bearer.
A slightly related thought: there have been times when the definitions of certain words have decided court cases. Sometimes the court rules in favor of the dictionary definition. But more often than one would think, it sides with the colloquial, more commonly used definition of the word. Lexicon Valley, Slate’s excellent podcast on language, has done such an episode.
NCARB is responding to the fact that most people find the term “intern” to be derogatory, and that it’s unfair to lump fresh trainees with almost-licensed architects working at prestigious firms with a decade of experience who just haven’t passed the Structures exam. But maybe it is fair. At the end of the day, the goal is to make sure architects are becoming Architects not for the name in itself, but for the connotations it bears. We want Registered Architects to be conscientious, responsible, diplomatic, intelligent members of a huge web of other professionals, all collaborating to improve the built environment. And we want the name to truly correspond to those things. We have to work more on strengthening the code of ethics and sense of camaraderie among architects, rather than dilly-dallying with words. My sense is that the best way to keep that standard up is through my peers, not through governing bodies. If I gain licensure at the age of 28 but truly feel unprepared to lead my own projects, I should wait and feel the pressure from colleagues to keep improving until I feel ready. Conversely, if I am 55 years old and cannot legally sign a drawing, I should feel the same pressure every time I call myself an architect.
Noah put it brilliantly: The title “intern” should stay, and stay derogatory, because it’s incentive for people to surpass it.I highly recommend listening to Archinect Sessions’ episode 30. In the episode the hosts travel to the AIA National Convention in Atlanta– and discuss this very decision. Donna Sink and Ken Koense, the token architects of the show, get really into the nitty-gritty and it is an interesting listen. Ken’s calling it “verbal gymnastics” is on point. Donna even suggests calling “interns” “architects” and registered architects “registered architects.” Ken also reminds us that the states individually are responsible for legislating standards, and that the AIA has no power except that of endorsement (hence, why all the hubbub over this naming thing when states haven’t made any moves?)
The discussion starts at 15:20.
This all draws attention to the European standards, which generally set a lower bar in terms of time and money– in fact, a lot of the time you can call yourself an architect immediately upon graduating from an accredited school (there is an exam at the end). With “architect” as a minimum, other titles are added to it or modify it as you gain more and more experience.
Saying everything and nothing at the same time. “Project Designer” is the “it is what it is” of job titles.
I need to fully disclose that I myself am an Intern or Architect In Training, and should be licensed by the end of 2015. But there is also another lifelong architect who is very dear to me who will probably never get licensed in the US. She is my mother.
Through various life circumstances, not least of which include living and working in three countries between the ages of 28 and 35, having a child, and most recently being laid off during the recession, my mother has had to make the most of unforgiving circumstances. Since 2008 she slowly clawed her way back to busybody solvency, and now has established a tiny humming architectural practice renovating townhouses, doing one-off energy and zoning analyses, and has assembled a team of local expeditors, engineers, and registered architects. She works 18 hour days and is happy. She has said she plans never to retire– to work as long as she lives.
Obviously she has completed the required hours, but she never got around to taking the exams. She feels she may never muster the energy to take them. But she doesn’t really need to– she is happy asking someone else to sign the drawings. But the fact bugs her that her Architect of Record, who only reviews the projects and hasn’t designed a single part of them, is taking home 50% of the fees. It is almost silly how someone so dedicated, hardworking, and knowledgeable as my mother is unable to add “RA” to the end of her name (she is, however, a SAFA, or registered architect in Finland…). Her case is marginal, but nonetheless elicits empathy.
I have invented a title for her. It is borrowed from a frequently used term in academic parlance: ABD, or, All-But-Dissertation, describing the final years of a PhD where coursework and required reading are complete, and all that’s left is the darned thesis.
My mother shall be Marina Himanen, ABRA (All-But-Registered-Architect).
Marina Himanen, ABRA, at her desk.

Building Codes, Dwelling Codes

I’m going to describe to you a stereotype in the design world.
Frequently we encounter characters who are obsessed with the building code. While there isn’t anything wrong with adherence to and knowledge of the law as such, this dude has fallen under a spell. Every increase in floor area, every added faucet, every change in lighting layout or hallway width makes this character run to the fabled 4″ code binder. He trumpets the need for rigor when addressing a building’s technical requirements, and laments the complacency of most design professionals toward these rules– what he can’t see is that his dependence on them leads to the same complacency… in disguise.
Since they are law, building codes present a curious dilemma. It’s a mistake to think of The Code as a Bible– in my experience it is best treated as something more amorphous, more mutable, more prone to its own errors. I’m not saying that we are free to break the rules, but that there is more interpretation at play than at first evident. Architects and engineers are entrusted with the interpretation of these rules, and are expected to use their interpretation in conjunction with their design brilliance. Design brilliance here plays the part of questioning the rules, and encouraging them to change if the times call for it. Thus, the example set by the aforementioned character sets a bad precedent which has implications for both the design and the use of architecture. Isn’t it strangely incongruous that the hardcore standards imposed on the makers of a building hardly apply at all to its users? It may be a revelation to some, but inhabitants of architecture (i.e. EVERYONE) are given a great deal of freedom in their habitation. It should remain this way.
Inhabitation, in this regard, is defined as a series of decisions and inventions freely taken by an individual as to what to do within a space, and the patterns that result therefrom.
This un-uttered power should be preserved because over time it leads to a bottom-up evolution of architecture— where form follows habitation– and can result in some wonderful (and perhaps lasting) new architectural types. Conversely, sustained lack of this decision-making leads to dependency on codes & standards– complacency,  and in the worst case, fear of change & discomfort. Or: squeamishness. More on squeamishness later, as it bridges the way to our relationship with the natural environment.
Full disclosure: I write this because I feel these qualities continually trying to creep into my own mind. And the problem is that I cannot shut them out completely if I am to become the architect I want to become. A clicking technical mind that has the building code minefield mapped out will better be able to sidestep the pitfalls, and like I mentioned earlier, be able to use the abundance of regulations to push its design to new boundaries. In fact, it may help to avoid the opposite of that dreaded complacency: where a designer who never interacts with the technical aspects of architecture devolves into a sculptor, or graphic designer. This person becomes allergic to laws and regulations, and ends up mostly disappointed when his or her spectacular design is shown to fail the tests. I would argue that we should be more wary of this mindset because most architects come from an artistic background.
We all know both of these kinds of characters. Our job is to play both parts.

Frei Otto’s legacy: the infinite ladder of scales

Frei Otto’s Pritzker Prize win is great news, and a long-deserved recognition. The tensile roof structures for which he is best known are broad and altudinous webs which still knock us on our asses when we see them. Broad, altudinous, and web-like also happens to describe his legacy on the profession fairly well. Here is a brief gaze upon the sweeping web of Otto’s influence.
Portrait of Frei Otto. Image via morphocode.com.
To begin, some background theory regarding the 20th century’s description of the ether (or time-space, or that infinite continuum of emptiness which matter and energy and the universe and people occupy). The discovery of the elementary particles, the theory that mass and energy are different forms of the same thing, and that space and time exist in an interconnected, interdimensional edifice, were evidence that life, the universe, and everything is quite homogeneous. It was radical to imagine everything we know as simply an aberration of an otherwise perfectly balanced soup… like bubbles in a hot cauldron of star-boullion. OR, according to Gilles Deleuze, folds in space.
Many architects have taken Deleuze’s fold quite literally. Take a look at half of DS+R’s schematic models and you’ll see this intestinal slab worming its way through the section. Take a look at Zaha Hadid’s buildings and you’ll see whitewashed surfaces with little up/down differentiation. Take a look at Frank Gehry’s buildings and you’ll see a career-long attempt at enfolding architecture holistically be reduced to wavy facade treatments concealing traditional construction techniques.
XYZ Dance Center by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Image via pinterest.
Blohm+Voss yacht interior by Zaha Hadid. Image via archdaily.
Fisher Center, Bard College by Frank Gehry + Partners. Image via architecture.about.com.
Otto’s work, under brief analysis, shows that it not only touched on these concepts of material homogeneity earlier than the starchitects above, but it penetrated them to the core of architecture. Let Manuel De Landa illustrate. De Landa has long been interested in the overlaps between computer science, genetics, and architecture. As a philosopher he is refreshingly excited about bringing these fields together as great human tools.

This whole lecture is worth listening to, but at 11:00, De Landa brings up Frei Otto as an example of someone who takes advantage of so-called “morphogenetic pregnancy” in nature. This means: combining the physical properties & limitations of a certain material with a creative designer’s mind to both model reality and build it. Allowing two inherently creative processes to work together, responding to the mutable environment and the consistent natural laws, generates architecture that looks almost like it could’ve been formed without people. The material does its thing– and it acquires a kind of flowing form that begins to speak directly to Deleuze’s fold.

You can think of it as two ends of a scale. On one end is the mind of an artist– a thinking individual with the creative impulse. On the other end is the universe and its governing laws. There exist things that come scarily close to the dead center of that scale: things with an elemental presence, deeply rooted in their physical composition, and yet unmistakably singular, pushing and demonstrating the limits of a particular law or principle as if trying to transcend it.
Examples of this are: the stone arches in Arizona, snowflakes, craters, seashells…………..
Sandstone arch in Arches National Park, AZ. Image via ramseytravels.com.
A snowflake. Image via versesofuniverse.com.
……………………….and Frei Otto’s soap bubbles!
Otto’s soap bubble model. Image via researchlm.wordpress.com.
Otto’s Olympic Stadium for the Munich 1972 Olympics. Image via curbed.com.
Manuel De Landa argues that, structurally speaking, genetics also belongs to this group.
DNA, RNA, and protein. Image via exploringorigins.org.
This is the template for the theory of evolution. More significantly, the 20th century has taught us that the architecture of genetics can be applied to almost every process in the universe– get this, not only in the built environment, or in nature, but in the human mind. And as we inch into the 21st century, we are beginning to realize that every organism, even thinking and feeling are essentially very complex algorithms built of RNA on the same principle as a spreadsheet.
Back to Otto– in spite of what appears to be a rapid dehumanization of the past century, let nobody deny that he felt a connection to or care for humanity, for the empowerment and improvement of the lives of people. His other famous projects demonstrate that he was deeply dedicated to the pleasure of selbst bauen: the control of one’s own built environment (BIY!). However, he didn’t lose sense of the individual’s place within a greater patterned framework, as any successful modular housing needs to be designed. This video demonstrates Otto’s ability to retain the human within the web. Better yet, he made us see that we ourselves are the creators of that web, and that at no scale should the ability to enrich life be ignored.
The aforementioned ennobling of disparate scales is what brings Otto’s legacy full circle. The way he visualized and organized the elements of architecture, tying together in an infinite ladder of relationships, teaches us to look for inspiration for the biggest things in the smallest things, and vice versa (my own photo series microcosmos is based on this inspiration). As a practical matter, 2 things to take away from the Munich Olympics project is that 1) such building is scaleless without reference to the human body, and 2) it works well only as a roof— we are still unable to impregnate architecture’s superstructure, interiors, and systems with that material homogeneity. But we shouldn’t relent in that effort. Can this truly be achieved in architecture, where a single material or single structural pattern makes up every component of a house, rather than wears it like a dress? I believe it can, but the how is a complete unknown. This is not discouraging, this is infinitely motivating. Let’s keep stretching, keep digging, keep blowing bubbles.
Rest in peace, Mr. Otto.

A coup of optimism, a loss of mystery

BIG’s ski-slope-toppedAmager Waste-To-Energy Plant in Copenhagen. Image via inhabitat.com.

There’s little to belittle Bjarke Ingels’ approach to architecture. It fires on all cylinders– through his youth, his energy, his charisma, his Scandinavian origins, and most importantly his ability to make design more accessible to the common man. These are all desirable traits, and thus far his ability to steward positive change on a large scale is inspirational.
But I use the word APPROACH in particular because what deserves a second look is its RESULT (the impact of both the buildings themselves AND the philosophy which birthed them).
Optimism has, to me, always been less about the kinds of thoughts one brews in one’s own mind and more about how one responds to those thoughts. It would be shortchanging to consider optimists as simply those who think nothing but positive thoughts– the key detail is that optimists always consider positive outcomes. They are able to observe and thus initially perceive the same ills and plight as pessimists do– they’re not blind– the difference lay in how they turn those forecasts around, how they refuse to accept what intuition might dictate: that a bleak present implies a bleak future.
If architects are to be civil servants, protectors of nature, engines for change, and collaborative problem-solvers, they must begin with an optimistic attitude– not only because improving the conditions of living is the noblest of all pursuits, but also because such a mindset automatically shifts their motives outward, and acts as a firewall to those hyper-theorists, sculptors with licenses, and ___others who would claim to serve others but seldom look past the end of their own noses.
Another benefit of optimism is that it fuels creative activity. An assuredness or hope that things can be improved more easily leads to taking on a larger workload, and never to refuse a challenge. Yes is more!

Sometimes however, optimistic architects can leave things behind. And I hate to hinge my critique on form and aesthetics, but I think it reveals an important pitfall in that kind of thinking– a pitfall which ultimately works against optimistic architecture’s core principles.

Don’t the projects of BIG, JDS Architects, Ole Scheeren (not surprisingly a protege of Rem Koolhaas– he of the building-that-looks-exactly-like-its-programming-diagram) sometimes appear too formally simple? By simple I mean that the parameters that governed the envelopes are too obvious. You can see this in Bjarke Ingels’ summary of the “courtscraper” building on the West Side in Manhattan (at 19:00 in the TED talk video): solar studies, views, and contextual references are too obvious, too similar to the massing model, and the human-scaled details that residents will encounter on a daily basis haven’t developed yet. The materiality and thus the physical presence of the building is lacking. And yet we’re pulled in by the great renderings. To be true to the level of development of the project, it’s better to show the building as an abstract mass, as if it were 3D printed. Optimism and pragmatism have led to a building that is so correct in addressing all of the specific issues of the site that it doesn’t allow for unexpected material moments to crop up and inspire the kind of contemplation that has sustained great works of art. Again, this is not to say that this materiality couldn’t be achieved with closer design, but I’m seeing a pattern in many larger-scale developments, where a certain glossiness persists: both with regard to the use of scale-less, glossy materials (aluminum, glass, etc) and with regard to a consideration for detail early on.

BIG’s Zira Island Masterplan. via dezeen.com.
BIG’s Zira Island Masterplan. via dezeen.com.
Isbjerget, aka The Iceberg, developed by JDS Architects. via dezeen.com.
Isbjerget, aka The Iceberg, developed by JDS Architects. via aasarchitecture.com.
Buro Ole Scheeren’s proposal for the DUO Skyscrapers in Singapore. via. designboom.com.
Buro Ole Scheeren’s proposal for the DUO Skyscrapers in Singapore. via. designboom.com.
OMA’s Seattle Central Library. via archdaily.com.
OMA’s Seattle Central Library. via archdaily.com.
A typical commercial C5-1 development as illustrated in the NYC Zoning Code. Hey…!

Perhaps this is a function of schematic design (detail is not worth exploring until we sketch out the full mass). Perhaps this is a function of youth. Perhaps it is a function of the split between builders and designers that has gone on since the Middle Ages. But unless this is a paradigm shift in our definition of “the beautiful”, we are simply looking at the sacrifice of beauty and contemplation for the sake of pragmatic optimism in design. We are so dedicated to “solving the problem” that we are letting materiality and craft fall by the wayside. There is a simple reason for the necessity of this sacrifice: the dire global issue of sustainability (in the face of climate change, overpopulation, and resource depletion). It parallels the structural changes that took place at the Bauhaus under Hannes Meyer– the changes that gave the school the machine-made, assembly-line style that laypeople nowadays associate it with, and which in fact was a far cry from the work the school originally produced in the 1920s under Walter Gropius (such as the intricately detailed Sommerfeld House in Berlin).
Could this really be the case? Is architecture and every other public design service being forced its hand by global issues? I would be remiss to promote a return to the era of ‘masters’ of 100 years ago and prior– an era that quickly became modernism, too preoccupied with things like national identity, corporate interests, and technological allegory to design sensibly for the future. Given the genuine motivations of this current crop of architects and planners, I can only carry my trepidation so far. Ultimately, the pragmatism brought on by optimism brought on my climate change must win out for the sake of the preservation of a noble profession. So it is true: I would take oversimplified pragmatism over nuanced modernism. With two hopes:
1) That our generation of architects will be able to preserve the ART of building, that is: conceive of buildings which serve humanity with a dose of mystery. I recommend we continue reading Louis Sullivan for that reason– one of his favorite words is “inscrutable.”
2) That the pragmatic model will hold up when it is promoted from within cultural regions other than Scandinavia. Will we be able to spread this mindset to places like India, Russia, Mexico, or Liberia?
And, I’ll be a son of a gun, there ALREADY are such architects! These are architects of social immediacy. These are architects as activists.

Rebel Architecture from Al Jazeera:

Diebedo Francis Kere: “Architecture is a wake up call”

Balkrishna Doshi: Architecture Without Adjectives

Like Nests of Old

Stick by stick. Beam by beam. I will make this house mine. Mine with the trees.
The studio had to be completed first—a warm brain first to conceive the rest. It was enclosed by September which was his goal (cutting it rather close to first frost in the snow belt), but was still damp and dim on the inside. Halfway through framing out the porch at the south side, in the fleeting heat of mid-afternoon one day, he decided he wanted the studio to remain a few degrees colder. He could crack the small window, close the door, and direct all light to the workdesk. A draft would maintain the humidity at slightly drier than the rest of the house. The rolls upon stacks of drawings and cardboard models would thank him for the museum-like conditions.
“Remember why museums are always so cold?”
Motherbird wove such tall truths. They towered over logic and emotion without the trace of a shadow. They dotted the sky like stars of the branch… like chickadee nests.
“Help me with the rivets,” he goaded his own, either because his toes were chilled or because he felt awful standing idly aside, barking instructions. Looking at the backs of their heads, it was as if the house was helplessly trapped between being actively ignored and having any audience at all.
Things that are passed on so often acquire a new value independent of their function as objects, something which he found calming and unsettling at the same time. On the one hand, he could run his hand along the spine of the book by Bachelard and place it in full view on the bookshelf as one of the finest twigs in the canopy, and simply remember how his mother spoke so fondly of having read it for the first time in school, and learned about the necessity of attics, the necessity of small bathrooms, the necessity of a kitchen around which hangs the smell of recent toast. But on the other hand, that value ballooned and overtook its value as a book, its own necessity of being read, and as the years and memories piled into his mind like spices in the cupboard, it became a specter, and he grew scared of reading it, worried that he might awaken some ghost with a horrible sense of humor, no ear for birdsong, and haunt the house from the moment it was completed…. And so the book was sapped. It more closely resembled the brilliantly colored leaves his mother collected and used as bookmarks.
In the shower, in the sauna, in the ill-fated porch at the north end of the house, in all their pristine, steely whiteness. They were all just interconnected nests. Most of my life I spent sleeping in nested beds. I kept trying to remind him when we’d brush past each other in the hall.
In the attic, I leafed through a yellowing photo album. Colors more real here, though. I read an article about a new technology which would strengthen colors as they aged on photographs. Or did everything else just become dull? Every white wall around me, gently and nervously changing color like old reptiles, made that seem possible. A subtle combination of both, I hastily concluded, as all architects do. It was always like that. God. Nothing but compromises. Balances, a little of that and a little of that… the diplomatic dinner tables where whim and wisdom toast each other’s success…. Couldn’t there be the one time when everything is as per my own mind? I would first have to free myself, yes. But then I could build for myself, and for my family (their gravestones would be split from the shale outcrop at the foothills of my property, staked into the leafy mineral soil by the river and reconsecrated next month… life’s a river, son), and for the jays that come to breakfast at the birdfeeder which I hung from the porch eaves. I would tip my cup to them. Then when we’ve finished our coffee we can both return to our nests, theirs with worms, mine with photographs, poised on the shelves as if to fall.
November is the most social month, the month of sitting across from everyone you know. But when I am in the library or the kitchen, I am alone. When I sit in the sauna, none of the guys will help fill the furnace with birch logs. They’re focused these days on the bedroom, and planning the trim for my deathbed… which I suppose is keeping with our schedule. Just completing it for Thanksgiving, I felt that much lonelier. I suppose, having spent all that time looking at old photographs, I did in fact awaken a ghost, but the ghost was me, as a child, from the winters of 2020. He was a young ambitious architect. He was too committed to authoring the next civic center to realize that architecture is just an elaborate evolution of nests, made of sticks and stones and spit and sweat, which could just as easily come tumbling by New Year’s day.
I awoke in early December to the smell of coffee and toast, and his shuffling about the kitchen. I normally eat quickly, but this time I let him have a look at me from across the table. Like me, he didn’t speak, but I showed him around the nearly-completed house (wood unfinished, sawdust settling, drills and trowels ever like a boy’s toys)—his eyes lit up especially when he saw the studio. He sat down at the sunlit desk, smiled, and, turning to me, said “I think… this is where I’d like to die,” before melting and leaving me a puddle of tears to mop up. You old sap. You get me every time.
Yes, boy, see you soon, when it’ll be your time to build a house, like nests of old.

Imperiled Education – The Glasgow School of Art

The following is an excerpt from Building Sights, a BBC TV series which features famous works of architecture around Europe and the US– and the architects, artists, writers, and celebrities who provide short essays describing them.

The parallels struck me immediately. Replace “Glasgow School of Art” with “Cooper Union” in Bruce McLean’s essay, and the text becomes instantly contemporary. Think what you may about Morphosis’ NAB @ 41 Cooper Square, the questions raised in the last passages affect us all. I’ve added color for emphasis.
“This is one of the great modern buildings that set the pace for the twentieth century and I don’t think we have kept up with it. The Glasgow School of Art was designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. An artist couldn’t have a better start than to study at the Glasgow School of Art. I’m certain that the reason I have worked with so many different materials– paint, stone, film and ceramics– lies here at this school. Mackintosh was a master of many materials: iron, wood, bricks, mortar, glass, concrete, tiles, fabric, upholstery and even hair– look at his moustache, it’s practically a piece of sculpture.
“The beauty of this building is that Mackintosh makes the parts add up. There’s a grand design inside and out, and I don’t just mean the outside walls, I mean within the rest of Glasgow, because unique as this building is, it’s very much part of the town. You can’t imagine another building sitting on that slope. From where it squats you can build up a composite picture of Glasgow.
“It is a physical building. It confronts the world putting on a different face for all four points of the compass. It is outward-going, but never aggressive. It is an optimistic building, it has to be because of its function– to foster the creation of art. Art shouldn’t be about hiding away in a corner and whingeing with angst in your pants– it’s about facing the world.
“There’s something vigorous and Scottish about the building and you can see how Mackintosh has used traditional native design. Yet his genius lay in the assimilation of other influences of the Japanese, and Art Nouveau. From one angle the building has a foot in the baronial Middle Ages, from another a foot in the twentieth-century.
“It was put together with a purposeful defiance of the law of symmetry. However, this asymmetry doesn’t stop the building being a homogenous or living entity. There is an organic logic to the building. The corridors and stairwells bring the masterplan to life, forming all sorts of interconnections on different storeys. You are kept on the move– in spirit anyway.
“It is a young person’s building not because Mackintosh was barely in his thirties when he built it but because of the spirit. You don’t get anything like it today. This isn’t nostalgia on my part, a case of older being better, it is a case of people only building to apologize or conceal. We are afraid of being Modern so we Post-Modernise, and these Post-Modern buildings make us feel worse, not better. So in today’s climate the Mackintosh building stands out– a Utopan beacon. The pity is, Mackintosh was hardly allowed to build anything in his day. He was ahead of his time and we are only just catching up with him or are we?
“Nowadays when art education is being dismantled, and education seems to have fewer resources, it has become more difficult to match Mackintosh’s optimistic vision: we lose sight of it at our peril.”
Lastly, given GSA’s recent awful luck after its library was heavily damaged in a fire, we hope it will find an appropriate, inspiring solution for restoring its architecture and functionality.

Flirting with Orchestration

“Architects are extant Renaissance Men.”
-Vassily L.

As little as I hate to contradict or in any way undermine the prevailing layman’s impressions of architects and their profession… there is one niggling stereotype concerning one key task…. While not misconstruing this task, the stereotype does vastly shortchange it. It is so commonly allowed to subsist that sometimes an architect will him or herself be caught devaluing it.
To the common consumer of architecture and to the architect guilty of malpractice I give a cautionary word: while I agree that architects are skilled orchestrators of the arts, sciences, tectonics, economics, and humanities, one must never allow that orchestration to become an end in itself. To the latter addressee: be wary of when you are so overwhelmed with just the effort of bringing the great parts together (only part 1 of a great piece of architecture) that you have no energy left to conduct the orchestra’s performance (part 2). It is without a doubt the crux of this profession’s fundamental challenge– to have sculpture, structure, nature, people, economics, and all others visibly interact to mutual benefit.
Some don’t consider an architect’s role to be active within the disciplines themselves, only in their being brought to physical proximity. Limiting the word “unify” like this is like cooking without heat. This is the different job for a diplomat. The conductor works within those disciplines directly, cross-pollinating, bringing out comparable qualities in each which he or she knows will contribute to the whole.
Rice terrace in Ubud, Bali.
The hill town of Calcata, Italy.
A canal in Amsterdam.
St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice; from The Stones of Venice; John Ruskin; c 1850.
It is difficult to draw a clear line between successful and unsuccessful orchestrations because it seems to be mostly a factor of aesthetics, and of perception. Immaculate harmony of architectural elements can be seen by anyone, DECIDED ON by any BEHOLDER. The thought “I see this stone wall of St. Mark’s in conversation with the multicolored light hitting it from the canal” is an individual decision. Of the infinity of possible decided perceptions for a given building, the best architects know how to snatch one decision out of the ether for us, make that decision stand for their INTENT, and keep us blind to the sorry abyss of open-ended aesthetic interpretation and judgment. If I wanted to draw attention ONLY to this painting in that museum, or ONLY this exact grid in that pavilion, ONLY this neon sign in that mall, then I am ignoring a vital mystery: that same leap of faith from seeing to thinking which poetry cannot so easily ignore. The best architecture is that which points relationships out to us, lends us a hand in the leap of faith of imagination, and the best architects thrive in that grey zone between Specialists and Renaissance Men.
Finally, in the larger sense, there comes a moment when a great work of architecture orchestrates ITSELF seamlessly with its own surroundings: its culture, its politics, its technology and ways of seeing. In a sense, that first, internal orchestration which the architect conducts is only a rehearsal for the larger harmonization which should be the result of a building’s fruitful life in the world.
The new Reichstag; Berlin; Norman Foster; 1999.

Munich Olympic Stadium; Frei Otto; 1972.
The UK Pavilion, aka The Seed Cathedral; Thomas Heatherwick; Shanghai World Expo 2010.

A New Verticality

The first question is: are humans endowed with limits– are we endowed with yokes?

The answer is yes, and there is one specific yoke which I wish to highlight, one of a highly fundamental nature.

It is horizontality. And it’s getting to be a burden.
Our sense of physical reality is shaped almost across the board by a supremacy of horizontals. We first see it in the horizon, and in our own eyes which are parallel to it, the arc of the sun, we grasp things in proportions, in lengths to widths, we feel it in the water, in the wind, and in the pull of gravity. We sleep on our backs. We study it in ourselves, in homo erectus, as the upright upgrade to our tree-dwelling ancestors. We reflect it in, among the earliest things, our written languages. and the subsequent way we’ve developed (most) written languages…..
This supremacy is so strong, in fact, that our experience of its counterpart, verticality, is fundamentally dependent on it. In essence, the only way we have been able to construct the experience of verticality is by stacking small horizontals one on top of another– a yet-to-perfected craft. In other words, not only are we unable to go purely vertical in the underlying structure of things, but we are also still unable to express the best illusion of it!
Old Man of the Lake; Crater Lake, OR. Flat water meets a hanging object pulled by gravity. The first right angle.
Watermill in Braine-le-Chateau, Belgium. Horizontally moving water, pulled downstream by gravity, is converted to any force desirable. Wheels rule.
An anchor screw. Strength in verticality only from wrapping it with a horizontal.
Steam locomotives: horizontal force– and movement– built up from a breakdown of right angles. Pistons in modern-day car engines work in much a similar way. Image via sdrm.org
Mona Lisa’s lateral gaze.
Postcard from Japan. Via armed-guard.com
Ziggurat at Ur. Humans commanding Earth, in those little horizontal treads, to usurp it, and ascend.
Social structures also follow this stacking rule. The social bowels of Blade Runner’s imagined dystopia are a recent example.

Cass Gilbert; The Woolworth Building; 1916. Stacked horizontals, given away in the floor slabs, but also the building’s sculpted cap.
Mies Van Der Rohe; Seagram Building; 1958. Stacked horizontals Mark II: what came close to a pure expression of verticals, in retrospect, is even more constrained by that harsh, arbitrary cut-off.
The second question is: are we capable of breaking free of these limitations unto which we are born?
We still find inspiration in nature of things achieving a purer verticality, or otherwise undermining the supremacy of horizontals. Can you imagine how hard a plant’s sense of the world must be shaken if its pot falls on its side?
Successive images of a growing Arabidopsis thaliana plant straightening out after being placed horizontally. Copyright INRA / R. Bastien; S. Douady; B. Moulia. 
Another contemporary indicator could be found in data. Data, in all of its definitions, skirts these very issues. I am of course most interested in its youngest definition: information [pl] that is used or stored by a computer.
Computers store and access information using binary, which in itself is an astoundingly simple system with astoundingly broad applications. It’s a system using rules as simple as possible in immensely complex iterations: a system that maximizes the difference in size between its rules and its output. I will return to this idea later.
While we may live our lives now with the irreplaceable aid of computers, most of us remain blissfully unaware that all that virtual information we pass through our machines must have a physical counterpart. Every letter we type, every picture we take, every song we stream, every query we search is going to be stored within a chunk of stuff sitting somewhere on planet Earth. And their amount has gotten so immense, that they are now called farms. They are systematic takeovers of space in the service of the production, distribution, and retention of data.
Google server farm. Here the proper inhabitants of the space, the data storage units, are blurring the line between up/down and left/right.
Google server farm.
Our interaction & navigation of data’s virtual space is also unique. A website can occupy an almost infinite field, spreading out in all directions. Or, it doesn’t even have to do that– it can simply be a vertically scrolling webpage. Hey! This is how we navigate most of our websites– especially the text-based ones– so much so that the scrolling wheel has become a fixture in mice, as well as in devices like the iPod. This is reminiscent of the first watermills and locomotives– turning circular motion, via a constant tangent point, into a vertical vector.
All of the websites below are designed with vertical scrolling as the primary movement. Some of them don’t even express that movement outright, employing it solely as the underlying structure.
If we are to make significant progress in the building of a purer verticailty, I feel it will be related to this virtual verticality. It isn’t farfetched to foresee a future when the primary inhabitant of Earth will be data. And while it may sound frightening on the one hand, there are architects that could pee their pants in excitement– to design a server farm– a house for information.
Information and its physical traces aren’t subject to the same laws of horizontality that humans are. The primary concerns are electric and mechanical– that is, providing them with electricity, and conditioning the air around them. They are unafraid of heights, do not need stairs to climb or views to take in. The constraints seem so minimal that the design of a server farm tower will likely be completely revolutionary.
My own sketches, imagining a tower for servers which treats vertical movement as its main axis.
Some of my early sketches arrived at a tower like a beanstalk– a vertical line first and foremost which pauses, takes detours, and incorporates into itself horizontal forms or formulae (formulae as in: mathematical functions, those equations which would change the path of a straight line on a graph) in order to gain the thickness and interiority it needs to contain the volume of servers and wiring. Whatever ‘rooms’ result from these detours might more closely resemble organelles in a cytoplasm, seeds in a hypanthium, or embryos in an endosperm… man, that’s a ton of biology references.
Interesting to note how boring the plan becomes, almost automatically.
Onion cross-section via oldschool.com
Solanum seed via brighthubeducation.com
One of Anastasiya’s first thesis ideas was the design of a city for angels. It had behind it the same motivation for representing and encountering verticality in a purer sense, not as constrained by ground. Throughout history, the divine has always been understood to move up and down (Gods in a mountain; laws passed down; Lucifer the fallen angel; the depths of Inferno; totems…). Angels do not experience gravity and are more intimately betrothed to a sectional representation of their universe. Imagine a building elevation turned on its side, its elements indicating stratified zones rather than veiling experiences behind it.
Calvino could have been a great architect– aside from the obvious, the real reason is that he has an excellent sense of sections: he builds worlds from the side, with a full view of it from top to bottom. Compared to left/right and front/back, top/bottom has always been a more challenging arrangement to accept since it forces us to acknowledge our mediocre size– the plan holds a supremacy very much related to that of the horizon: it flattens the world, and assumes that the human eye is highest, looking down on it all.
Cover art for Invisible Cities, the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition.
From the above examples, it would appear that we are eternally bound to this condition, and can only fabricate counteracting illusions. That said, I do not wish to belittle this achievement in itself, the underlying principle of which is brilliant. 
In our quest to surpass everything earthly (which has become the human mission), we’ve become experts at fabricating illusions. But we don’t do it from scratch. We pick apart the world around us, until it is beyond recognition, then go into sandbox mode. We stack. We zoom in. We reshuffle. We flatten. We break things down in order to rebuild them in our own image. This is the crux of the above examples, simultaneously the reason they are effective representations of verticality, AND why they operate chiefly as fictions.
IF it is truly impossible to separate our existence from the laws of horizontality, then we will settle with the infinite subdivision and stacking/reshuffling of space we’ve been doing thus far. Its scale is expanding and will soon be a monumental micro-division of the very laws of physics, down to the movement of atoms, in order to generate a structurally pure verticality via an indecipherable illusion of it.
But if fiction had been defined from its nascence by illusion, the slow, overarching trend throughout history has been our attempt to bring fiction into existence alongside us, to blend illusion with the real, using the same method of breaking-down. Many of the 20th century’s discoveries and advances have augmented this trend without a shadow of a doubt. What may seem like the construction of a more and more elaborate illusion may turn out to be a fusion between underlying structures and the facades that represent them. The effort to achieve pure verticality– a transformation of horizontality– would spearhead that quantum leap.

Between a rock and a wet place

Yesterday afternoon I left the office for lunch. With my food I walked into the public plaza behind 776 6th Avenue in search for a place to sit. On one side there were stainless steel chairs and tables: elevated, new, and shiny. Across from them were long red granite benches; low, unassuming, and blending with the ground.

The metal furniture was clearly designed for durability, to be all things to all weather– but the irony is that the water had simply remained on the surface, coalesced in enormous droplets. They were waterproof, BUT STILL WET.
Meanwhile, the breathing stone had absorbed the water, letting it seep through its pores, until its surface was dry enough to sit on.

My choice was simple.

(Sounds very Steen Eiler Rasmussen-y, doesn’t it?)

Bedeviling details

Architects thrive in the jack-of-all-trades role. We fantasize about being great designers, and great builders, and great theoreticians, and great teachers, and great dressers…. But, of course, consummating a union of all aspects of building is difficult to achieve consistently on every single project, particularly the theoretician part, particularly still in the early years when recognition and craft are still developing. Imagine a 22-year-old Bachelor of Architecture, fresh into his or her first job after school, working on stair details for a high-rise or bathroom vanities for an apartment renovation. Staring at those drawings, the mind of a young architect becomes the stage for a duel between:

In the red corner: the polished theories, styles, and techniques he or she was learning just a year ago in school, and

In the blue corner: the tiny, insignificant detail currently underneath the AutoCAD crosshairs, and this 6PM deadline.

The young architect thinks to him- or herself: “How theoretical can I realistically be on a $10,000 kitchen renovation? How much philosophical & spiritual weight can I expect a single cabinet to carry? How aligned with the cosmos can a stair nosing detail really be? And even if I achieve it, how can I be sure that the world will perceive it?”

“So… is this what the International Style is all about? No? Brutalism maybe?”

The nitty-gritty reality sets in. Deadlines. Budgets. Other people, with other theories. Eventually, the majority of architecture projects run out of time or money or will on the path to perfection, and the result is, from the architect’s point of view, a discounted version of what they were imagining. This tug of war is omnipresent. Sometimes a project needs to get done in spite of the idea or spirit not being consummate (for political reasons, for money, for preserving your relationships, for preserving your own sanity). Other times, there are projects that are worth pursuing and prolonging because of the appeal of their ideas or spirits, even in the face of un-recoup-able costs or burnt bridges.

University of Washington’s NanoES Building, architects ZGF. Delievered on time and on budget. Yawn.
World Trade Center Transportation Hub, Santiago Calatrava. $3 billion over budget, and quite late too. And it’s the one that will be remembered.

Good practice (that is, functional and sustainable practice) most often ends up being neither too theoretically stifling, nor too pragmatically brash. If an architect can calibrate their expectations just right, they might achieve an alchemy, where a building or detail which satisfies all parties, falls at or under budget, gets built on time, and strengthens the interpersonal relationships, also can embody some higher ideal in its form.

For me, if that alchemy can be achieved (and it can, as you’ll see in the examples below), the most critical moment is the moment of creation. That is, the moment when an idea acquires its first physical form that is perceivable to the senses. That the built environment is indispensable to humans by now makes that creation necessary. One cannot fantasize about providing shelter– one must actually make it at some point. In that necessary creation can be found a grain of truth: The best way to measure an idea is to rub it up against physical things. An architectural theory cannot be wholly measured based on its relation to other theories– it must be brought forth through experiences. Kant made this very clear. So that internal conflict felt by every young architect, though discouraging, is actually a reaffirmation of one of architecture’s virtues as an art form– it brings the best out of ideas and materials by forcing the two to interact. God is in the details, right? Architecture, as it appears to someone, should contain somewhere in its form the spirit which birthed it, or at least traces of the struggle that spirit underwent to survive. An observer should be able to link one to the other…

But this isn’t always true! Sometimes, in the name of creation, a detail is made in spite of that assumed kinship between ideas and materials. Sometimes a building’s form gives “truth & beauty” an unexpected runaround.

What are we to make of Mies Van Der Rohe having the rivets in the Fansworth House foundation piles ground off…?  

God is in the details. So is the Devil. Here, both are uncompromised. Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano, IL. As Wikipedia points out: “note the flattened rivets.”

…or Aalto wrapping the metal columns of the Villa Mairea in wood…?

Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland. Rock, paper, scissors.

…or the Ancient Greeks themselves? The reference of wood tectonics in stone (a.k.a. petrification— Heinrich Hubsch was among the first to challenge the common theory that Classical Ancient Greek stone temples were simply stone referencing wood)…

Stone-cut tombs, part of the Necropolis in the ancient city of Myra. Stone referencing wood?

…or the muscular bulge of columns (a.k.a. entasis)…

The Temple of Athena in the Acropolis of the ancient city of Paestum. Very strong example of entasis.

…or, more generally, Joan Soane’s Bank of England? It was one of the first examples of a building divorcing the primordial bond between the expressiveness of the facade & the function of the plan (most notably at the acute Tivoli Corner on the northwest where the rounded colonnade responds more to the bustling street than to the minting happening behind it). Taken in larger context (England’s development of debt, centralized finance, and the speculative market), the Bank of England building is a great distillation of the 19th century’s notorious struggle to reconcile using historical styles for contemporary functions.

John Soane; Bank of England; ~1790 – 1830. A collage of styles on a facade concerned with the annunciation of the building’s symbolism to a nation, rather than the labor enclosed therein.
The Tivoli Corner of the Bank of England.

All these are examples of detailing against nature, or,(more optimistically) an expansion of natural tectonics through human imagination. It is an idea outmuscling a pragmatic reality. It is a theory outshining a compromise. At times, it is more important, even more theoretically sound, to express something else, something unnatural, something only to be dreamt about.

Ornament is no crime.