Archive for the ‘uncategorized’ Category

What Excavation Dirt Wants To Be

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

At the intersection of classic architecture and unusual artistic experiments, the artist/potter Adam Silverman is currently in the process of developing a project analyzing the clay found around the Kimbell Art Museum in the context of its new Renzo Piano-designed expansion (previously reviewed here). Silverman hopes to generate an artistic dialog between Piano, Kahn, and the “concerned observer” found in Tadao Ando’s nearby Modern Art Museum, by collecting samples of clay and other raw materials found at the sites of each building. He has so far excavated tons of earth from the construction site, carried trees home in his rental car trunk, and even filled buckets of water from the Kimbell’s fountains.

The artist describes his project as a continuation of pottery’s historical traditions. Ancient works were informed by the particulars of the clay available at their site, connecting the art to its particular geography and climate in a distinctly architectural way.

To quote the statement:

The traditional country potter works by setting up his or her studio near a clay deposit and making pots from that clay. As you might imagine, different areas offer up different clay, and these differences cannot help but inform the end result, the finished pots.

Archaeology is the study of cultures through the analysis of their artifacts, usually artifacts that have been excavated.

How I’m thinking of this project is a combination of the country potter’s practice with a reversed archaeological practice. Or “Reverse Archaeology”.

Reverse Archaeology proposes a cultural version of the country potter’s practice—to harvest materials from a culturally significant site and imbue the work with that significance. For me, it is hard to imagine a more culturally (architecturally speaking) significant and complicated place to try this idea out.

The artist is currently studying the specific properties of the clay found at the site in a manner which seems true to Kahn’s own previous tectonic inquiries into what a brick “wants to be”:

After seeing s0me examples of the artist’s previous work, such as his Boolean Valley (with Nader Tehrani) at the nearby Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, I can’t wait to see how he will represent his discoveries.

The Thoughtful Making of Cyberspaces

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The mainstream adoption of augmented reality-enabled contact lenses and related devices could liberate architecture from the practical necessities of physical construction by simply encoding the designs as three-dimensional electronic visions projected onto any observer’s eyes. Form would literally become independent from function, likely provoking a wave of unprecedented design risk-taking exacerbated by the chaos of networked distribution. Marriage-destroying remodeling ordeals might be supplanted by 99-cent home façade downloads, while holographic pop-up ads could stop traffic in Times Square.

Such a revolution seems decades away, but the possibilities have become technically plausible enough to be worthy of consideration by future architectural visionaries. Mobile location-based applications such as Foursquare have already begun bridging the gap between the web and physical reality, ticket sales for 3D-enchanced movies are climbing, and University of Washington researcher Babak Amir Parviz has developed augmented reality contact lenses that solve many of the biological interface problems involved in placing an LCD screen next to a wearer’s eyes. Organizations such as the military, having already spent decades using “head-up” information displays to enhance their air combat operations, could represent a likely future developer of such emerging systems. From there, the technology could trickle down to civilian use through numerous compelling possibilities. Automotive applications could reduce traffic accident rates, while educational software might transform a stroll down a city street into an interactive museum of local history. As these new augmented reality technologies proliferated, they might eventually, with the exact time frame of adoption dependent on our society’s collective level of squeamishness, be seamlessly integrated into our everyday experience through direct brain implants. Ultimately, our perception of the world, one of the most basic of human senses, would now be influenced by the mutations of a massive international network.

The result would be a new type of space unlike anything that architects have ever drawn before. In a future where any building’s appearance could potentially be designed or changed in true independence from its function, both the historical Modernist union between form and function and the ancient Virtuvian equation compelling architects to balance between firmness, commodity, and delight, would now be shattered. The shifting nature of these electronic visions would undermine the field’s even older values of stability and permanence, with building designs transformed into fleeting, temporal visions that could fluctuate in response to changes in society, market demand, or the will of any three-year-old viewer who imagines his or her dream house. The results might transcend architecture’s primary known language of space, time, physicality, and even meaningful purpose.

Architects, however, would not face these challenges entirely unprepared. As far back as Le Corbusier’s free plan and free facade concepts, modern designers have supported the separation of form and function; new-found steel technology was used to structurally support Corbusier’s buildings on pilotis, or columns, artistically liberating the facade and plan from the weight of gravity. Louis Kahn similarly segregated his buildings’ mechanical and electrical systems inside defined corridors, or “servant spaces,” to prevent their functional needs from intruding on outside aesthetic decisions. Separatist rebellion continued after the demise of modernism with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s 1972 publication, Learning From Las Vegas, which advocated a “decorated shed” building typology where ornament was applied on top of a basic generic framework to address a building’s specific informational and emotional needs independent of its universal structural engineering. Memorable symbolism was as crucial to the success of such a postmodern building as its ability to function as a basic shelter.

Venturi and Scott Brown’s architectural adoption of ornament and pop culture references was inspired by the exaggerated features of roadside architecture, whose primary method of viewing was a fleeting glimpse from the highway rather than the more immersive levels of engagement previously found when appreciating a building at the slow pace of walking on foot. The partners rendered their buildings’ elevations in bold, bright, attention-grabbing lines designed to be clearly noticed at 55 miles an hour, but an even faster method of viewing architecture arrived near the turn of the millennium. Our last decade’s spectacular attention-seeking contemporary museums erected by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and other “starchitects” have likely been seen by more people on the Internet than will ever visit the actual buildings in reality. Designers such as Diller/Scofidio + Renfro and Jean Nouvel have further blurred the lines between the architecture and the virtual by integrating displays and projections into their buildings. Although Kazys Varnelis and Anne Friedberg argue, in their Networked Publics article, “Place: The Networking of Public Space”, that the rise of electronic architecture is unlikely to provoke a complete elimination of physical space in favor of virtual reality, it still seems likely that increasing portions of our buildings will become virtual in the years to come.

Further augmented reality developments, although ambitious, could also be motivated by pragmatic financial incentives. As smaller and more mobile electronics insinuate their way into expanding portions of our everyday lives at the same time that our economic recession continues, architects and developers might begin to approach virtual reality as a more affordable means of creating radical facade shapes than physical construction. Liberated from such concerns as finances, engineering, and lawsuits, virtual elements could enable exponentially higher levels of architectural risk-taking than were witnessed in even the competitive icon-generating atmosphere of the early 2000’s. Architectural culture would likely respond by placing greater emphasis on superficial exterior style, with the potential for buildings to adopt the more rapid pace with which trends change in faster-moving fields such as fashion.

Eliminating most of the risks and requirements involved in creating architecture would also lower the barriers of entry into the profession. Architecture would transition from a field that demands as many as eight to ten years of schooling and internships before one obtains a practitioner’s license, to a medium in which anybody with the appropriate easy-to-use computer software could participate. With opportunities to alter the appearance of our built environment no longer restricted to those financially secure enough to hire or become architects, such a development could potentially transform architecture into a relevant mainstream cultural medium, and perhaps even achieve the old Modernist holy grail of applying architecture to address public social issues.

Alternatively, the democratic proliferation of architectural design could just as easily spell the death of the profession. Just as computer networks overturned all previously known methods regarding how music, films, and print media are created and distributed, architecture’s transition into a partially digital medium would undoubtedly disrupt the field’s existing power structures as a flood of untrained newcomers projected their most impulsive and willful architectural fantasies while rapidly sharing (not to mention pirating and hacking) other users’ designs from around the world. As with the shortfalls now facing graphic designers who often struggle to compete with cheaper non-schooled competitors, professional architectural practice might recede from a legal requirement on serious building projects to an entirely niche luxury tailored for a few dedicated remaining connoisseurs.

If architects lose their relevance, computer programmers are inadvertently preparing to fill the void. Their first foothold is language. Countless architectural job seekers have labored to unearth opportunities to practice their ancient field amidst a morass of technology company propositions seeking the many programmers who have now styled themselves as “information architects.” With most augmented reality developments currently originating in the technology sector, programmers and web designers occupy a natural position from which to pioneer the Internet’s expansion beyond the edges of the computer screen and into the three-dimensional outside world.

How will those digital designers react upon leaving their familiar domain? According to Varnelis and Friedberg, current precedents would suggest that they may be unprepared for the new form of perception: “Although the Web has become graphically more sophisticated, when we visit it we navigate a two-dimensional interface. Corporate presences on the Internet appear to us as brochureware, not as virtual structures that we can enter into and inhabit. Indeed, the Web is curiously nonspacial …” Such an analysis would suggest that, when spatial augmented reality finally arrives, the predominately two-dimensional experience of the web’s traditional designers could create a vacuum of unmet demand for the three-dimensional spatial skills which thousands of hungry architects have spent years perfecting. This could become architecture’s next opportunity to reassert its relevance to society, and from a Modernist point of view it would indeed be our imperative to join this emerging technological revolution.

Finally, from a less altruistic angle, architecture’s expanding audience and new digital format could potentially revitalize the profession with greater market demand and higher salaries. What if tomorrow’s architects found themselves recruited as high-flying employees of Microsoft or Google, or even dreamed up their own augmented reality start-up companies? After all, the creator of the term “information architect,” Richard Saul Wurman, originally emerged from an architectural background, and our field could still have an opportunity to reclaim that title if the next generation of designers possesses sufficient vision to imagine our future possibilities.

(Note: Several people have compared this article to the premise of the movie Inception. I saw the movie a few days after I had finished my penultimate draft of this article. As I watched the movie, my growing realization that comparisons could be made to my ideas did much to undermine my film-going experience.)

Ergonomics Caught the Russian Spies

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Photo credit: Flickr user hfb, Creative Commons.

According to a recent Fast Company article, the recent detection and arrest of an 11-person Russian spy ring was essentially made possible by the Russians’ failure to consider the kind of human factors that are so often overlooked in all types of organizations:

“In the end the downfall of this computer-based system was apparently the password needed to encode and decode the messages–it was 27 characters long, and was so hard to memorize that some of the suspects had written it down on a piece of paper that the FBI found during a search. This proves how even the highest tech can be defeated by simple human failings …”

Although the password error alone was not entirely responsible for the detection of the spies, it is interesting to note that design played a role.

A Competition Where Everyone Wins

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

While browsing the internet for potential opportunities, I came across an innovative series of design competitions. The simple format and democratic transparency of the Spontaneous Architecture project, run as a collaborative experiment between Pre Office, GSAPP’s Studio X,  and Good Magazine, aims to explore new ways for the architectural design competition to generate discussion, debate, ideas. That freedom is achieved, perversely, through the use of a restricted competition format; each contestant has only a single 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper with which to show the world his or her ideas. That minimal format, combined with the contest’s quick timetable and low $5 entry fee, encourages risk-taking and innovation among the competitors. As a result, each month’s entries can often be highly abstract and experimental …

… or theoretical:

This proposal, for the US/Mexican border, provokes the following question in its descriptive text: “What is a border? Conceptually, it’s a line, separating one side from another. But in architecture a line always gets a thickness.”

Other contestants may take the alternate approach of honing their message through simplicity. The results often resemble the visual equivalent of a one-liner, albeit ones with powerful impact:

Some other entries, meanwhile, are just plain bizarre:

All of the entries, whether tectonic or outright psychedelic, are displayed for public viewing and voting on the competition website. In an interesting blend of the digital and analog worlds, the entries are also discussed in real life at a monthly Studio X event. The presence of those venues for debate and discussion ensure that each contestant has the potential to make a statement, provoke thought, or contribute to a larger dialog, regardless of whether or not they win or even necessarily intend to win.

I was also impressed by the thoroughness and passion with which many of the competition entries addressed the pressing issues of today’s society. Although their awareness was undeniably kick-started by the format of each month’s competition brief, which inevitably highlights a particular social or cultural challenge, the results often suggest inventive new solutions beyond the  rehashed political arguments typically associated with such themes. A proposal to place medical offices and waiting rooms on trains, for example, pragmatically reinterprets the unpleasant urban reality of long commute times as a tool for health care improvement:

“Combine idle time. Use time during the commute for visual checkups on specialized checkup trains.”

Such competition briefs also encourage designers to think beyond the scale of individual buildings, and instead consider the overall systems of society and how design can impact the future:

Decentralized health care kiosks to serve local communities.

Some other dreams embark on a more idealistic direction, resembling dramatic large-scale utopian (or perhaps dystopian) visions:

Immigration infrastructure designed to link unemployed workers with countries that have demand for their labor.

Regardless of how spectacular some particular entries appear, however, the discussion-focused nature of the competition seems to lend its entries to be judged by the critical fiber of their ideas rather than the presentation of their surface imagery. Andrew Miller David Ruperti’s winning entry for the March 2010 Olympics-themed competition, for example, requires a few moments of blinking before one can look past its distracting background. Once you do, however, the overall idea will make you seriously think:

“Identity Games proposes that Olympic teams be allowed to identify themselves with non-nationalistic groups. This change would invite a flood of new teams representing both geographic and non-geographic communities.”

January 2010 winner Daniel Georges’s global warming predictions are similarly challenging:

“Even the things that will be saved won’t be the same any more.”

Beyond the merits of any individual submission, however, the competition’s overall spirit of dialog and risk-taking creates an atmosphere which I haven’t quite seen before in any other design contest. This is the kind of ambition that the world needs more of right now, and as this generation (my generation) of emerging architects grows and develops, we hopefully will see much more of it to come. If you’re interested in joining the project, there’s still time to propose your solutions to this month’s topic, the Gulf of Mexico oil leak, before the competition deadline of June 15.

Student Centers: Separated at Birth?

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Rendering by SOM via the NY Times

Upon beholding Skidmore, Owings, and Merill‘s rendering of their recently unveiled $353 million design for the New School’s new student center, I noticed that its design looked oddly familiar to another building which I recently reviewed….

Rendering by Weiss/Manfredi, since I don't have a picture of this view of the completed building handy on my laptop.

Weiss and Manfredi‘s Barnard College Diana Center. Her construction was completed earlier this year.

Both buildings are collegiate student centers designed to combine academic activities and student life. Both of their facades use warm metal cladding, punctuated by cascades of glass, to connect said campus life to their larger surrounding city. Both buildings strive to gain further brownie points through their attempts at green roofs. And the bright SOM interior, flowing across multiple levels of space, also seems more familiar than its modernity would suggest.

Another SOM rendering, also via the NY Times.

Admittedly, the New School proposal does exhibit some distinctive features, such as the 9-story, 600-room dormitory perched on top of its offending student center wing. But despite those differences in size and program, the two specimens are looking oddly similar to each other…

Thanks to Mariya Meshcheryakova for the tip!