Untitled, a proposal for a personal Utopia
350 x 350 x 300 cm
Wood, oil on panel
ISCP, New York, USA
Dutch artist Alon Levin's latest exhibition Postponed Modernism is on view at KLEMM'S, Berlin. The gallery describes his wooden structures as:
Philosophical, economical, and social theories of progress and growth, organizing principles, and ideas of modernist utopias are some of the recurring themes in his work. Levin examines the images, metaphors, and symbols that represent these concepts, and explores the contradictions and failings of their systems. The work can be seen as a narration about the buildup, breakdown, and possibly the reinvention of meaning itself.
Sobering up from inaugural festivities, it is time to face the work and responsibilities outlined by President Obama. One such task is to support the arts. All arts not just architecture and design. And so, I implore you to go see the theater piece Architecting now at Performance Space 122 as part of the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival. It has architect in the title, so it is not that hard to make the leap.
Architecting, developed by TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment, a theater
company dedicated to dissecting and celebrating the experience of
living in America today), is set in a post-Katrina bar and tells the story of a young architect brought to New Orleans after the death of her architect father to complete a speculative housing development in the colonade and clapboard tradition. What she finds is Margaret Mitchell and FEMA trailers and what unspools in the bar is a story of race, land, and struggle in the South. The narrative bobs and weaves through time in monologue, dance, and video—a cultural mash up of place and identity. Not to mention a critque of well-meaning, but misguided architectural folly.
The run at PS122 has been extended until February 15. Go.
Gavin just sent over a video that he and Laura Hanna finished for The Nation. The topic, The Commons, seems particularly important these days as we look to both publishing (creative commons), networks, and even infrastructure. The video has a lovely indie vibe and cool tuneage. Gavin says: "It has a nice soundtrack, so make sure you're speakers are turned on."
Groan if you must, my other thought was "Just another brick in the wall." But I prefer the Commodores over Pink Floyd.
So, why the bad music puns? Because the article I wrote about MacArthur Genius John Ochsendorf, an associate professor of building technology in the MIT School of Architecture + Planning, is up on the Architect website. Ochendorf's research looks to the history of masonry, specifically, Catalan vaulting—thin tile vaults that can stretch across large spaces without formwork:
Engineer and architect Rafael
Guastavino Moreno brought this Mediterranean masonry technique to the
United States when he emigrated from Spain in the 1880s. Simultaneously
structural, decorative, and fireproof, the vaulting system is known for
its use in, among other notable structures, Manhattan's Grand Central
Terminal, by Reed and Stern/Warren and Wetmore, and McKim, Mead, and
White's Boston Public Library.
Between 1885 and 1962, the R.
Guastavino Co. (the founder's son Rafael Guastavino Esposito inherited
the business) erected nearly 1,000 buildings across North America, a
body of Beaux Arts structures largely neglected by historians. The Guastavino Project,
created by Ochsendorf and managed by the MIT's architecture department
at guastavino.net, documents the company's Boston-area oeuvre.
Although Ochsendorf draws on
masonry's past, his work is decidedly forward-looking. In September, he
received a prestigious MacArthur fellowship, more commonly known as the
"genius grant," for his research on structural engineering history and
technology. With research assistant and Ph.D. candidate Philippe Block,
he is developing 3-D modeling and parametric tools that can decipher
the compression loading in historic structures and assess their safety.
Called thrust network analysis (TNA), this same computational method
makes it possible to design and engineer new kinds of structural
vaults. Currently, the MIT Masonry Group, led by Ochsendorf, is using
TNA in conjunction with Buda, Texas–based Escobedo Construction to
erect a privately owned pavilion with a free-form, compression-only,
unreinforced stone masonry vault outside Austin, Texas.
Also under way, though on the
far side of the globe and at the other end of the technology spectrum,
is the Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Centre, located a few
hundred miles north of Johannesburg, South Africa. The ambitious
sustainable project, situated in a UNESCO World Heritage site and
designed by Lerotholi Rich Associated Architects, makes exclusive use
of Catalan vaulting to form the interior spaces of the center's handful
of buildings. The vaults were designed by Ochsendorf, Block, and
Masonry Group alumnus Michael Ramage in collaboration with South
African engineer Henry Fagan.
Filmmaker Laura Hanna brought the work of architect Ted Smith to the loud paper broadsheet. She hadn't heard of San Diego's Ted Smith when she was commissioned to make short video about him for the US Pavilion at the 11th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. And little wonder: the reclusive Southern Californian architect doesn't have a website or any publications to advertise his work, and often shies away from public appearances. This unorthodox and self-described "developer-architect" states, "Where the industry is complex, I hope to eliminate voice by acting as many industry players as possible. I want to be the architect and the developer and contractor. Architects are well- trained to make good buildings and cities, and need to know that perhaps they are the main players that will advance alternative goals." Smith’s reticence to engage with the media does not stem from lack of opinion; his GoHomes are as much about social activism as they are about personal history.
Last night was friggin awesome. My endless gratitude goes out to Gavin and everyone at Studio-X who helped put together the show, including the C-Lab interns; the panelists: Felix, Stephen, Luke, and Mark; our moderator, Kazys; and finally, to all the friends, colleagues, and publishing enthusiasts who showed up. The discussion ranged from the democratic nature of the historic zine subculture to the role of self-publishing in the online mainstream and what this means for architecture, place, and community. The turn out was great and I couldn't have asked for more. Thank you.
Also, Interview magazine just published an online piece about the show, a typically loopy interview with me.
The opening of A Few Zines coincided with the release of a new loud paper broadsheet designed by Chris Grimley at over,under. One side is loud paper, one side is the catalog of the show. In the next few days I'll figure out a Paypal method for sending out the issue to people. I'm also working to get a podcast of the panel pulled together. I'll keep you posted.
A brain snafu hit me last week as we sent the loud paper to print last week, I forgot to include Bryan Boyer's article, The Mediators. There is, perhaps, an irony in my fuck up. Bryan argues for "format" over "medium." And clearly, my choice of the old print media thwarted my intentions to publish the piece. So now, in a different format, I present the piece. Sincere apologies to Mr. Boyer.
THE MEDIATORS By Bryan Boyer
The architect is foremost a mediator—negotiating the desires of the mind and all the contingent specifics of the situation at hand. By working between the abstract realm of possibilities and the concrete world of consequences, the primary skill of the architect is the ability to make the unavoidable compromises of getting things done dissolve into a wash of intention. Regardless of scale, budget, or brief, acts of architecture are always the result of such mediations, and introduce new relationships within the participating public.
In this way, what the architect does sounds a lot like McLuhan’s definition of a medium: something behind the scenes that changes the way we relate to each other and the world. That architecture is a medium rather than a thing or quality may help to explain why the discipline never seems to escape that fundamental existential question: What is architecture? Architecture is everything transmitted by the architect... but that doesn’t help us very much.
Precisely because the architect is a mediator—a human instantiation of the medium of architecture—McLuhan’s trusty message about mediums is useless for the discipline. Instead, let’s massage medium into format: The format is the message. Every building, every publication, every bit of output from the architect is formatted for realization and tailored to an audience. Architects no longer enjoy the simple pleasure of designing buildings, they design a library in Caracas for the city government, or a stadium in Belarus for an international magnate. They write books for post-critical academics, pamphlets for North American students, and websites for the image-hungry public to name just a few examples. The work of the architect has never been more tied to all the specificities of client, market, place, and politics nor have the concerns of these groups ever been more nested within each other. Each format has its own set of catalytic constraints, biases, and conventions that the architect must work with.
The transmission of ideas and ideologies is not only instant, as McLuhan observed, but the internet and the dropping price of media equipment, from video cameras to 3D printers, has further altered the default mode of content. We can no longer think about things being designed for a single medium, rather they must be formatted for a variety of outlets, existing simultaneously at multiple scales and across multiple media platforms. If globalization has replaced historical time with the flatness of space, we now contend with concurrency and multiplicity. The formatting of our world is precisely what makes this work: things are formatted differently for specific places, uses, and audiences to allow cohabitation. To truly take advantage of the position of mediator between the world of possibilities and that of consequences, architects must realize that they are not in the business of producing media, but formats.
Where a medium is scalar, a format is dimensional. By referring to specific numerical ranges rather than orders of magnitude, dimensions contain the information of intentionality and identify critical thresholds. When does a magazine become a book and what’s the difference between a box and a Big Box? Looking at dimensions offers hints towards cultural context as well as describing the size of a thing. Searching out these thresholds helps the designer to understand the possibilities of one format over another, calibrating their efforts to get maximum impact from minimum effort.
Where media are defined by their transmission, formats encapsulate. The specificity of a format is in the way that it encloses or captures content, and is thus about what the author decides to include and what editing or compression techniques they use to make everything fit. For the designer, the format is an active tool of control. It focuses on methods of including specific content rather than the exclusion of all that which is beyond the limits of the transmission medium. When value engineering sends the architect scrambling to find new ways of achieving the same effect with lesser means this is precisely an act of formatting—how can the original idea be encapsulated in a new format without losing its potency?
Where a medium is about limits, formats describe conventions. Once you’ve found the limits of a medium you have hit a dead end, but a format defines a central point from which countless offsets may be imagined. By acting as a center of gravity, the conventions of a format define the rules of the game and ultimately help us judge the good from the bad in a world without the comfort of absolutes. The breathless pursuit of new horizons in each project during the past decade has resulted in exhaustion and segregation. Take a look at the proposals for the UAE and you will find a catalog of contemporary architectural interests with each project developing intense knowledge about its own area of specialization but no satisfying way to compare them. Here a greenwashed tower, there a smooth shiny spindle glinting in the sun, yonder a banal engineering marvel. A better understanding of the formatting of these projects—the mediation of the conventions and constraints of politics, place, market, and client into material form—offers the possibility of desegregating the various architectural discussions that have emerged as the discipline shoots in different directions.
Formatting offers us a way to think constitutionally about the discipline by returning the discussion to what exactly what we are producing, rather than fixating on specialized techniques of production. Instead of pondering what architecture is, we have to ask what architecture is making. How do we format (and judge) our work for those within the discipline differently than the glossy renderings that we produce for the public? Whether buildings, books, or bread, what is the operative value of our output and how are we measuring it? What are the formats that we offer to contemporary society and what good do they provide? Or better yet, what are the formats that contemporary society needs as it attempts to pull itself out of the very real problems of financial and climatological collapse? McLuhan used a structural analysis of media to illuminate and make operable the intricacies of his mid-century world; understanding the potentials and productive constraints of our formats may help us put a little bit of structure back into our own.