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 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.
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.
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
“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.”
|Rice terrace in Ubud, Bali.|
|A canal in Amsterdam.|
|St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice; from The Stones of Venice; John Ruskin; c 1850.|
|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.|
|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.|
|Successive images of a growing Arabidopsis thaliana plant straightening out after being placed horizontally. Copyright INRA / R. Bastien; S. Douady; B. Moulia.|
|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.|
|My own sketches, imagining a tower for servers which treats vertical movement as its main axis.|
|Onion cross-section via oldschool.com|
|Solanum seed via brighthubeducation.com|
|Cover art for Invisible Cities, the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition.|
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?)
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?”
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.
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…?
…or Aalto wrapping the metal columns of the Villa Mairea in wood…?
…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)…
…or the muscular bulge of columns (a.k.a. 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.
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.
|Michelangelo’s sketches for the fortification of Florence, c. 1530|
|Julien-David Leroy; genealogy of the Christian Church type; 1764.|
|Charles Jencks; Evolutionary tree of 20th century architecture; 2000.|