SCI-Arc Right Now Conference – Observations and Extrapolations
This past weekend, I was excited to attend a conference at SCI-Arc, entitled “SCI-Arc Right Now.” Due to the recent succession of the dean, the school was interested to explore what the current nature of progressive architecture might be. It seemed universally accepted among the panelists that the formalist approach to digital design is becoming exhausted.
I’ve always found SCI-Arc to be outside of how I perceive architecture. The school preaches a dogmatic search for “difference” in their design work, which to my viewpoint tends to ignore the humans who would eventually occupy buildings. My attendance at the conference was about discovering the nature of the SCI-Arc “search for difference.” I wanted to better understand where I agree or disagree with that dogma, and uncover how my own ideas of pedagogy could coexist with the aesthetic pursuits at SCI-Arc. Or, even further, what are my own misconceptions about architectural theory?
My own theory over the past year has progressed from an obsession of dynamic diagram, to an understanding that such a diagrammatic approach may actually stem from the neurological processing of the user. My theory starts first with the acceptance that humans within a culture behave roughly the same and that they bring a visual memory to any structure; a successful building will embrace this correlation while proposing new opportunities for form and expression. Alternatively, SCI-Arc promotes a formalist approach to design, where discovery of architecture arises out of abstract explorations in texture and geometry, and not necessarily in research of cultural, urban, or behavioral context.
CRITICAL THEORY => NARRATIVE DISCOURSE
There was an interesting chart presented by Todd Gannon, where he explains the discourse in architecture right now has moved from critical theory to a narrative understanding of architecture. I need to research this assertion more, as I haven’t really thought much about the categorical theoretical judgements of architecture. According to the chart, narrative discourse is more concerned with operations, process, and organization, which seems to coincide with my own ideas.
Tom Wiscombe mentions that there is no unifying principle in architecture right now. That seems fair, because as I’ve written, the general movement in architecture is towards an overlapping of different processes which recombine to form new designs, hybridizing both purposeful and stylistic approaches.
CAVE ALLEGORY – STEWARDSHIP OR ARROGANCE?
David Ruy gives a full description of Plato’s Cave Allegory. It’s a story that presumes most people look at shadows, and are content with believing those are substantive. But, there are also those who are more curious and look back at the light to see what causes the shadows (and those who escape the cave, and so on), and they become the effectors of space and form. It was unclear to me if Ruy meant the shadow observers were ordinary citizens or other architects. I’m curious, because that’s an important distinction of either stewardship or arrogance.
Some panelists were concerned about legibility of the architecture (or cave shadow). For SCI-Arc academics, it seemed pretty consistent that the primary concern was to maintain various levels of ambiguity, mystery, etc., to “destabilize what people see.” In one session, Jimenez Lai preaches his interest in illegibility. I would have to ask the eternal question though, why? To what purpose does disorientation or opacity of ideas serve the the building or its use?
There was the discussion at the conference of creating a “glitch” so that, presumably, the shadow observers would notice the origin of the shadow figures. I suppose to some degree, the visual interest of creating difference serves to reinforce the public’s awareness of architecture as a whole. But, while the fussy ideas hidden within Lai’s work may never be apparent to the viewer, the unnecessary acrobatics will probably overwhelm. Should architects be concerned to not offend a building’s users?
An interesting undercurrent at the conference was the self-awareness that the continued explorations at SCI-Arc for newer abstractions was creating an infinite search for ever “sneakier” forms. To me, this infinite search is bittersweet. If you were to look at a weird building once, it is no longer really odd the next day. So, in that sense, infrequently visited places, such as museums and tourist sites, may be well suited for fantastical representations (though I’d hope without any emphasis on disorientation). But, the 98% of typical buildings – the retail store, the office, the apartment building, the house – I’d argue, do not desire the complex over the comfortable.
REPRESENTATION AND DIAGRAM
One possibly semantic undercurrent was whether representation (= scaled drawing) is a form of abstraction. I’m not sure I understand that argument, other than the literal surrealness of proposing that a drawing of a building is an actual building. But, nobody is saying that. Similarly, I don’t think books become abstract representations of actual events just because they aren’t literally the story.
But, that concept of representation segued into a more pressing discussion, for me, on diagrams. This was the concept of “decoupling.” Mark Foster Gage was very uncomfortable with having a diagram directly relate to the shape of the building, and therefore was distrustful of diagrams. To be fair, it was never made evident what type of diagrams he considered in his judgment. Indeed, it seemed from conversational context that it was an indiscriminate judgement on any type of diagram, including those based on cultural notions like feminism or on scientific references like DNA. In my designs, I specifically use a type of dynamic diagram to create the geometries that literally shape the building, giving meaning to those shapes. For Gage, that would be “coupling” ideas to form. He says: “Diagram is a crutch, we should design and judge buildings based on its architectural qualities.” But, without defining those “architectural qualities” I’m not sure either him nor I are in any position to judge such a statement. It is curious though. What are those “architectural qualities?”
Says Wiscombe, a problem with diagrams is that they “tell you what to think. That reductionism is quite terrifying.” I just don’t know why that’s terrifying. What is he scared of? Why is he petrified of the correlation between resultant ideas and actual geometry?
Later on, Jennifer Leung presents a diagram of DNA. Clearly, there are many types of diagrams, and I need to do more research to classify types of diagrams. For me it’s pretty easy to judge whether a diagram is honest and purposeful. But, that rulebook is only in my head. For “Diagramism” to penetrate architectural discourse, it will require rules of representation. For example, it’s pretty clear to me that a diagram of DNA has no obvious use for the layout of a building in plan, or the layout of windows on a facade, etc. It can be employed artistically on the latter example, but it remains an artistic application. I believe these types of aesthetic pursuits have no ability to intelligently inform built work that relates to humans in any way other than difference. Leung says about her work something like: “It’s not meant to make you comfortable, it’s provocation to unsettle.”
AESTHETICS AND FORM
Mark Foster Gage believes that formalism is over, there are no new shapes to create (or at least soon). So, he proposes designs that repurpose and combine symbolic cartoon references – simultaneously both progressive and regressive. His proposals remain purely within the realm of pattern and texture, without producing any more architectural form than what a blank surface could. There is a worthy artistic pursuit of the grotesque in fine art, and of symbolic superimposition. But he even admitted that the superimpositions of symbolism were accidental, not intellectual. Gage recalls when a viewer was offended by the nature of how one of his cartoon characters enveloped another character’s breast. He remarked that it was not intentional. So it was clearly the viewer’s own fault for having projected such a meaning on their own. So, why implement the grotesque? Beyond happenstance, what can be gained from superimposing different dolls like betty boop and donald duck as a surface treatment for architecture?
Aesthetics are somewhat interchangeable to me, their application theoretically may or may not alter the reading of form (or pattern language). I could make a cube, and then put the superimposed dolls on the surface, or instead I could highlight the graphic magazine covers of the ONE Archive, like I did for my firm’s USC project. The reading of form can be manipulated by the choice of materials and textures because of human visual associations. Ideally, these neurological responses will relate to the dynamic diagram as well, which should maintain primacy in creative problem solving. So, for the ONE Archives, the magazine covers are deployed as a cast concrete skin, emphasizing the solidity of the archival building, and hinting of the types of media collected within its interior stacks. It may seem an obvious reference to a trained architect, but it’s possible that for 90% of people who would view such a building, the meaning is just as strong but it is subliminal, and still within the range of “shadows on the cave wall.”
Are we running out of forms and textures, similar to how the music industry may be approaching a saturation of tunes and beats? If so, should we really be talking about recombination? There’s likely an encyclopedia of trite textures: solid, stripe, plaid, parametric, slash, differentiation, chaos, de stijl, etc. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said in 2010 that we are creating more content every 48 hours than our entire human race created prior to 2003. Architectural content parallels this trend; a simple review of the thousands of submissions for the Guggenheim Helsinki competition would reinforce this. Or, the book Siteless: 1001 Building Forms, notably, written way back in 2008. For the music industry, a critical moment of realization may have occurred during the lawsuit of “Blurred Lines,” where Robin Thicke’s obvious sampling of Marvin Gaye’s song was up for consideration. The obsessive pursuit of difference might be ignoring two very important theories: (1) the very real phenomenon of recurrence, or recapitulation – that because problems themselves recur, adaptive solutions repeat in kind; and (2) that all form, function, visual material, etc., stems from a genetic tree of previous thought.
Diagramism would likely need to work in parallel with artistic and aesthetic explorations because, on many occasions, a diagram won’t tell you what the building looks like, only it’s form. It would require visual exaggerations and aesthetic complements. Explorations in understanding the neurological interpretation of color, pattern, etc would also inform the visual 2-dimensional appearance of a building. Neurological explorations might bring us historically backwards to gestalt theory and Gyorgy Kepes’ Language of Vision. But, those concepts haven’t been proven an incorrect assessment of human experience, just stale exercises.
There is a common thread through all of the work presented that is obvious to me, as an outsider to academia the past 5 years or so. All of the designers are operating at very high resolution, with mostly beautiful results. It seems that parametricism and algorithmic modelling exhausted itself at larger scales a few years ago (= lower resolution). Now the interest is seemingly in the finer textures, the higher resolution. It’s more about hiding the computation in plain sight, or not being inspired by computers at all but arriving at a similarly complex texture. Differentiation has progressed past the point of proportional pairing and the gradual morphing of shape. In the work presented at the conference, a viewer would not be able to easily distinguish the operational forces of the textures. That’s promising, interesting, and exciting! But, still, I believe for compound programs, this pursuit is complementary to a deeper understanding that could be provided by research into program and context (diagramism). Unfortunately, the panelists never had an opportunity to present the entirety of their representative projects. At a superficial glance, many of the presented designs visually remained in the realm of “pattern.”
HUMANS VS TECHNOLOGY
Benjamin Bratton intelligently informs the audience that science fiction is not about the future, it’s about the present. It’s about solving and representing current dilemmas by dreaming of solutions we cannot fully execute.
Diagramism assumes such limitations of science fiction to be a guiding force of form. Here’s an analogy: the synergistic relationship between Industrial Design and Technology. Apple couples their hidden technology with a coordinated industrial design product and interface. They invest heavily in researching the physical behavior of the consumer. However, aesthetic pursuit in architecture ignores the human behavioral part of the architectural equation. Worse, the stakes are likely higher in architecture in our decade because, proportionally, technology is a smaller part of what makes a building operate. That may change over time, and it isn’t wrong to prepare for such an evolution. But, it is short-sighted to ignore the human part of it.
Architecture, for me, has again found itself stuck between two worlds: that of technology and that of humanity – or, the virtual and the real. I would elect that “honest coupling” is our best opportunity for discovery. In other words, our digital representations, diagrams, forms, whatever type of representation, needs to remain coupled to the actual building, or we are just making obtuse sculptures. Moreover, of particular importance for the academic world of architecture, there is no longer a common currency of judgment. There is no logical form making discussion to be had between theorists, no newer version of phenomenal transparency to either agree or reject. Academics seem to compare themselves over process and technique.
During the conference, no one ever mentioned cultural trends that Architecture could respond to. For example, there is a cultural trend towards virtual worlds. Augmented reality seems interesting and worthy to explore. Or what about crowdsourcing? For example, what if buildings were developed by a collective, does that change its form organization? Or, what about buildings that are designed to accommodate the “on-demand” culture, stacking needs of varying length-of-stay residents, for example? There are “differents” within our present culture to exploit and ponder for speculative exploration that wouldn’t be focused specifically with design process or aesthetics.
ICON. . . OR SPECTACLE?
The discussion in the morning session lead to what “iconicity” means. This concept has an obvious relationship to the obsessive pursuit of difference at SCI-Arc. Neil Denari says “culture decides what is an icon. The culture craves the different.” Like my Gehry argument, I’m not sure if a city full of “differents” is really what the people crave. As humans I think we like visual interest, it keeps us aware of possibility and of our own presence. Let’s guess a percentage though: how much difference in our immediate world may cause disorientation and chaos. . . maybe 5%?
It’s possible that buildings become iconic if they can pass a squint test. . . that when a viewer squints, the form is still evident. Because, then, it is likely that such a form remains imprinted on the standard visual memory of the place. So, what is “iconic” then? A crazy building in Shanghai with a tiara on top qualifies as iconic to most people. I think the panelists are really talking about spectacle. The term icon is a bit more messy nowadays, especially with its adjacent reference to graphic design.
The Iconicity session’s provacateur, John Enright, positioned Denari’s San Antonio penthouse rendering (Denari says of San Antonio: “a city with no icons, so they hired him”) with a photographic collage, “Measure,” by Victor Enrich. Interestingly, both images involve some type of “upside-down” architecture. Which, from the book Cognitive Architecture, lies an understanding to judge what might makes these pieces a spectacle. A viewer is visually aware that there is a “building” there, but it has literally flipped itself around. Since most buildings don’t do that, it’s pretty simple from a neurological standpoint to determine that the image seems iconic because of a visual trick. It’s beautiful, crafty, and not common. But, if this is a true origin of the design intent, Denari should fess up a little bit more . . it makes one wonder if he’s afraid to give up his “secret sauce.” This could be a clever strategy for introducing meaningful difference in architectural design by harnessing the power of human neurological referencing. I wonder how many architects are trying to exploit an optical device for their own design advantage? This upside-down flip, incidentally, is also a clear diagrammatic idea which, in Denari’s design, helps to emphasize the task of adding a penthouse to an existing building.
It became clear to me that Diagramism requires a classification of scales. This is crucial, because in my experience architecture students move between scales with their aesthetic pursuits without much attention, seamlessly moving from design work at the 1:1 scale to urban interventions. I’m concerned if those lessons ultimately deny a student the ability to operate on multiple levels at one time. I decided that I need to break all architectural form into 3 operational levels. For now, these are absolute, they do not change with culture or location or geography or politics.
[ 1. Component / Installation ] < [ 2. Building ] < [ 3. Urban structure ].
If we set a size for a “building”, then we’ll also deductively have the realms of the other two. The basic reason for the categorization is because diagrams should not jump scales; the human relationship to which the diagram refers does not re-conform to other resolutions. The documented analogy for this setup is how humans process their vision of open space neurologically. Behaviorally, we accept the scale difference between a playground, the Piazza del Campo in Sienna, and Tiananman Square. And, for a Cognitive Architecture example, the recapitulating dimension of 100 meters that defines the outlines of successful public open spaces, including Piazza del Campo.
There’s the space that you touch and have security within, that is the first scale. This can involve anything from furniture, to a room, or to a kiosk. Above that, space becomes a building, which is something you occupy, roughly from the size of a mobile home up to an historic concept of what a building is. I believe the perceptual size of the building is mostly about its footprint, and for arguments sake, let’s take the size of a building from the building code. That may seem almost ludicrous to an academic, but the code was developed to secure the concept that a building should never be so big that one cannot escape it. That ultimatum is about fire, typically, but I think, for now, there is an argument that humans could have intuitive feelings like this. Historically, “buildings” have always comported to a size spectrum. After breaching that maximum size, a building should become an urban concept. I think so many projects nowadays are ignoring this separation, when a building becomes a campus (this may be true both vertically and in footprint). Buildings become impersonal and oppressive at certain scales, and require being divided into comprehensible visual identities.
The goal with the scale distinctions is not to restrict the role an architect should play. Rather, that architects need to think critically, simultaneously, about the types of relationships at each scale (and, yes, with separate diagrams). When constructing a full block, it is not ultimately successful to consider the entirety of the site as one building, because the smaller circulation issues cannot be resolved. From a user standpoint, it’s about resolving the question: what do I do here now? I believe this also parallels with a common thread of resiliency theory in ecology. If the systems become too big, they become unmanageable. This layering of scales allows for various scales of manipulation over time, including programmatic and environmental flexibility.
(Note: Perhaps there is a detail level “0”, which is about connections. But, details won’t typically be determined by diagram. Rather, details ultimately will support or reinforce diagrammatic readings at the other levels).
I should probably note that Diagramism promotes multiple, simultaneous, and sequential diagrams, as long as they can hybridize without losing their ability to communicate in form. Diagrams can be plan, section, axonometric, gestural, geometric, orthogonal, fluid, etc.
One of the panelists categorizes diagrams into two camps, those of Eisenman vs those of Koolhaas. I’ll need to investigate this more. My quick search for books on creating diagrams seemed to uncover that the research seems overly concerned with the architectural elements – employing concepts of wall and column – whereas my intention is to represent programmatic or circulation ideas.
Is diagramism abstract enough to be a good teaching tool, so that next generation of thinkers will continue to tinker and invent? I’m pretty sure the pragmatism of practice would be fine with it. But, if we are talking about an abstract judgement related to human neurological processing, then the device of creating diagrams from context could potentially always reinvent itself with time.
The academic obsession with difference may be denying the next generation of architects the structural framework to base their designs of buildings within the context of the “value argument” to potential clients, communities, and the public at large. What skills are students learning to sell designs that surpass aesthetics? What is the current condition of the architectural defense of a spatial idea?
There’s always been an assumption in academia that you teach creative extremes, to foster an educational degree that emphasizes creative problem solving (ideas) over rote knowledge. The concept is that though contexts change, the analytical skills will last forever. So, what is the status of how effectively schools are teaching students to answer the question “why” in a critical way?
In the late morning session, Ferda Kolatan called out Theo Spyropoulos for possibly being dishonest. Theo said “everyday” people were a focus of his design impulses for his biomechanical arm sculpture, a seemingly obvious disconnect to me.
There will always be an opportunity in design for aesthetic experiment, in museum design for example. But it is dishonest for us to ignore human nature for the vast majority of what student architects will build. That is the key to unlocking the architect’s value to society, and a current dilemma for the AIA to promote our profession’s relevance.
AUTHORSHIP AND AUTONOMY
Peter Trummer had some very eye-opening perspectives. He used the example of a window in his school building, and questioned the standard ideas of “authorship.” Some designer had put a mechanical window into the building which opens when there is a need for cross ventilation. It’s autonomous, the building operates it. But, then maintenance staff installed a security screen so that the window was safer and humans could no longer touch it. Therefore, who is the window for? And who created it’s hybrid appearance? Maybe it’s a semantic issue? Anyway, Trummer says he is now most interested in “architecture’s relationship to architecture.”
FIND YOUR COWBELL
Interestingly, Hernan closes the conference with this video:
. . . and tells his students “to go find their cowbell.” I know there are two ways to view this sketch, either emphasizing Will Farrell’s passionate pursuit or his superfluity. To me, the artistic pursuit is valuable, but only if it’s part of the rich harmony encircling it.