Before Theory

 

Before Theory

Published in This Thing Called Theory, November 2016.

In the final section of his well-known essay “Practice vs. Project”, Stan Allen writes about errant trajectories in contemporary architecture. He draws a parallel to De Certeau’s walker in the city to describe the ways in which there will always be free movement and tactical improvisations against the structure imposed by the city.[1] His point is that control exercised by any regime can never be total. Resistance will always find other ways around or through constraints imposed from the outside. There will always exist fissures and cracks in existing frameworks that enable tactical reworkings – in the context of this essay, new trajectories for contemporary architecture that do not abide by dominant paradigms from the discipline of architecture and broader cultural contexts. With the concept of the errant trajectory in mind and with a desire to define an alternative construction of architectural theory, this paper calls attention to four legible, perhaps errant trajectories in experimental architecture being developed in the United States. With the ambition to foreground the theoretical implications of this work, I begin by revisiting a passage from an essay written by Michael Speaks in June 2005:

More perhaps than anything else, the certainty of theory vanguardism has retarded the development of a culture of innovation in schools of architecture, which requires a more fluid, interactive relationship between thinking and doing, as well as an expanded definition of what counts for architectural knowledge.[2]

In his provocatively titled piece, “After Theory”, published in Architectural Record, Speaks provides commentary on the role of architectural theory in both the academy and in practice. He concludes that theory is not just irrelevant, but continues to be an impediment to design innovation. Ten years later, the role of theory and the legibility of a discipline of architecture continue to be called into question. These enquiries often result in binary oppositions – either, or over both, and. Rather than making distinctions and fuelling debates between ideology and intelligence and between theory and design, an emerging group of academic architects in the United States, myself included, are avoiding the construction of oppositional agendas and devising new ways of producing architectural knowledge through the parallel development of conceptual projects and educational events that seemingly respond to Speaks’s call for a more fluid relationship between thinking and doing. These projects and events have primarily been born on the fringe of architectural experimentation and have slowly started to solidify as legible departures from the preceding 20-year period that privileged technique and process over theoretical explication and aesthetic assessment, and sought technical virtuosity and formal novelty over the extension and evolution of disciplinary knowledge.

In the wake of this so-called “digital project” new trajectories for architectural design experimentation have emerged, each partnered with a burgeoning theoretical discourse surrounding contemporary architecture. Here I make a case for the legibility of these new paradigms, chart their emergence, define their existence, and differentiate their design agendas and theoretical enquiries. Before doing so, I’d like to present a brief overview of the attitudes and ambitions shared by the collection of designers whose work constitutes the formation of these “post-digital” projects.

The first priority of these theoretically charged projects, and a shared motivation among this group of architects is to foreground the production of architectural knowledge through the synthesis of, to quote Speaks, ‘thinking and doing’. The trends emerging in the United States are not purely theoretical, philosophical, ecological, historical, or technological – they are design trends and rely on and encourage promiscuous encounters between multiple references, sources of inspiration, mediums for production, and motivations. In his 2005 essay, Speaks applauds the modes of operations adopted by young practices such as SHoP and William Massie. These offices use speculation to produce innovations that enable architectural design to more directly and aggressively acknowledge and engage the marketplace. Where the work of those young offices aspired to make advances in constructability, cost-effectiveness, and performance, the conceptual work and educational events developed by the emerging group of designers today demonstrates an ability to synthesize thinking and doing without an abandonment of architectural theory. This group shares an ambition to problematize and develop convictions about the most salient issues in contemporary discourse – formal composition, spatial relationships, aesthetic qualities, and the continuity and evolution of architectural discourse across generations. The design work is speculative in nature – often “critical and almost always “projective”. The educational events conceived of by these architects take the form of short-term intensive design exercises and often precede theory. Over time, the accumulation of convictions developed in the work and through the workshop has yielded design principles and new architectural knowledge that begins to formalize four diverse, emerging trajectories of contemporary architecture: Almost Figures, Formless, Post-Post-Critical, and Preservation. What follows is an attempt at establishing these new architectural projects.

Jimenez Lai_Skyline of Misfits_2013_BW.jpg
Stewart Hicks and Alison Newmeyer_Treatise Model-1_2014.jpg

Almost Figures

In defining the concept of the almost-figure, it is useful to make a distinction between shape and figure. For the purpose of this classification, shape is defined as the silhouette of a solid primitive.[3] Circles, squares, rectangles and triangles are shapes. Figure is defined as an articulated shape with associations to something other than itself. The outlines of objects such as ducks, baskets, crowns and hearts produce figures. Shapes have names and figures have associations.

In his essay “Twelve Reasons to Get Back Into Shape”, R.E. Somol makes a case for a return to shape as a primary visual and formal device for architecture because shape dodges the rhetorical excess of expressive mass and exhibits the immediacy of the graphic. Somol writes, ‘[Shape] performs precisely because of its “defective” condition: crude, explicit, fast, material’.[4] Many of the projects associated with this paradigm of the almost-figure subscribe to Somol’s notion of shape’s lack of obligation to the discipline of architecture or any signature oeuvre, but also transcend the idea that shape is ‘crude, explicit, fast and material’ through the production of figures, which are refined, implied, slow and perceptual. In doing so, these projects demonstrate commitment to architectural form that is nuanced and fine-spun over obvious and careless.

Three recent projects demonstrate the emergence of the almost-figure. The first, Skyline of Misfits, completed by Jimenez Lai[5] in 2013 is a collection of articulated cubic masses. Each cubic mass has been fit with elevational profiles that are the result of partial shapes subtracted from a rectangular boundary. Each face of the mass is then altered by the removal of material, producing a composite figural form with no singular elevational profile gaining hierarchical significance. In total, eight figural forms comprise the Skyline of Misfits. Tapering, armatures, posture, and three-tiered vertical stacking characterize not only the Skyline of Misfits, but also the primary protagonist in a recent project completed by co-founders of The Los Angeles Design Group, Andrew Holder[6] and Benjamin Freyinger, titled Houses. The central figure of Houses exhibits anthropomorphic features – stubby arms and legs, a long neck, and a dominant brow – and stands confidently atop a plinth. From between the lower limbs slips a staircase, guiding visitors upward to a series of spaces stacked within the figural form Regarding elevational and formal legibility, Houses nestles comfortably in between ambiguity and exactness. A third project, a model prepared by Design With Company – Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer – for a 2015 Graham Foundation exhibition curated by Jimenez Lai titled Treatise, demonstrates an interest in the conflation of character and figure. Exaggerating the features of the Midwestern dwelling unit, Hicks and Newmeyer present a mannerist portrayal of the most beloved features of the single-family dwelling. An assemblage of aggrandized pitched roofs, archways, shingles and portal windows play on the charming nature of these architectural elements and comprise a composite figural form with variable depth in all four facades.

These projects fall between collections of articulated shapes and sets of ambiguous, or almost-figures. Neither shape nor figure, they enter and contribute to the discourse on composition and constitution of architectural form.[7] The open-endedness of these almost-figures, enabled by multiple signifiers and compounded by their proliferation in three-dimensions, defines the loose-fit-ness of the forms. This loose-fit relationship between the figures and their significations is not floating or empty; rather encourages the recognition of multiple figures by the individual viewer. The looseness between object and reference, whether figural or architectural, is a device that delays reception and places the almost-figure on the verge of the poetic.[8] Through their idiosyncratic development of form and layering of associations, the almost-figure is created “artistically”, prolongs reception, and elicits cognitive engagement. This is achieved by developing new forms that operate in between shape and figure and by diversifying the ways that both architects and the general public can connect to the form. In doing so, this trajectory provides contemporary architecture with strategies to simultaneously evolve the ongoing discourse on architectural form and expand architecture’s audience through visual association.

Formless

The formless trajectory can be defined by projects that resist the certainties and confidence of previously dominant paradigms surrounding architectural form. Design work associated with this trajectory intentionally avoids formal order, lacks bravado, and disrupts visual and spatial coherence.[9] Formlessness is most legible in recent work by Andrew Kovacs.[10] Two projects, Medusa and Architectural Cliff, exhibit the qualities that define this trajectory – a preference for parts over wholes, expression of incongruencey over fluidity, and a composition that falls somewhere between a messy pile and a neat stack. In pursuit of disorder, these projects resist repetition and systematic growth, and they exist without an underlying organisational structure. In both Medusa and Architectural Cliff, Kovacs collects and reassembles dollar-store treasures to create idiosyncratic and unexpected architectural fantasies. These projects are representative of a larger generational shift away from topological clarity and uniform geometric resolution towards indefinite patterning and episodic, localized order. Kovacs’ blog, Archive of Affinities, a venue for the collection and curation of his most beloved architectural artefacts, serves as an endless supply of source material for his recent acts of appropriation.

Another version of the formless trajectory, one with a significantly different aesthetic sensibility, manifests itself in recent projects by Adam Fure,[11] whose work infuses architecture with raw materiality and intensive atmospheres that challenge the experiential norms of contemporary culture.[12] The project titled Rocks demonstrates how this notion of the formless arrives through a clever combination of an alternative constitution of the natural, the concept of free formation, and an obsession with masking the process of making: one that runs counter to the previously dominant disposition to celebrate and make visible in the in the final artefact the process of digital manufacturing. Ultimately, the formless provides a counter-narrative to, and, in some cases, an evolution of process driven digital work and places emphasis on the visual experience over fidelity to technique.

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David Eskanazi_Training Wheels-7_2015_BW.jpg

Post-Post-Critical

In “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form” K. Michael Hays proposes an alternative to the ubiquitous chasm between architecture as an instrument of culture and architecture as an autonomous form.[13] Hays identifies resistance as the most potent weapon of critical architecture. Resistance enables the architect to develop new architectural knowledge and generate new cultural activity without the burden of limitations imposed by an existing structure – be it disciplinary or cultural. Years later, in “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism”,[14] R.E. Somol and Sarah Whiting claim that Hays’ “critical” position has become quotidian and propose an evolution towards the “projective”, or “post-critical” – developing a theory of architecture that exchanges its indexical, dialectical approach for one that is diagrammatic and atmospheric. To put it simply, the critical refuses to accept the dominant paradigms of architecture and culture, and the post-critical aggressively engages and seeks to evolve both – acknowledging and drawing from our discipline’s authority figures and broader cultural habits. Where the critical is ideological, the post-critical is intelligent. The critical delivers, the post-critical encourages participation. The critical is hot, the post-critical cool.

We now find ourselves in another pivotal moment, looking for ways out of the established divide between the critical and projective, one that has led many emerging designers to choose between either/or: either to retreat into the interstice of dialectical opposition or to eschew the critical project in favour of pure cultural, social, or political correspondence. The post-post-critical trajectory actively engages both of these recent paradigms regarding criticality and proposes another trajectory for contemporary architecture. Post-post-critical architecture acknowledges authoritative disciplinary figures and architectural paradigms, and tends to cultural habits and nostalgic memory; it employs the close read and produces absurd constructions that, through misuse and exaggeration of the ordinary, are as banal as they are provocative and extraordinary. In doing so, the post-post-critical trajectory produces architectural objects with internal coherence in relation to disciplinary concerns and instrumentality within a broader cultural context. Three recent projects best demonstrate the simultaneous efficacy of the post-post-critical in academia and venues of mass consumerism alike. These projects, The Entire Situation by Erin Besler,[15] Paranormal Panorama by First Office – Andrew Atwood and Anna Neimark,[16] and Training Wheels by David Eskanzi,[17] mine, among other things, the potential of corners, paint specifications, and scale, respectively. Topics deemed vapid and unimaginative by the previous generation of avant-garde architects are featured as departure points for this group of post-post-critical architects who are conceptualizing the practice of architecture and practicing how to be architects by engaging conventional modes of construction, utilizing off-the shelf products, and participating in the procedural aspects of document production within the architectural design process, ultimately realising a theoretical partner for the quotidian life of the practitioner.

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“Preservation”

As evidenced by a number of special events and recent publications,[18] there is a renewed interest in historical artefacts as source material for experimental architecture. Following this interest, and in a manner more akin to Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc than John Ruskin, a group of young architects are developing architectural designs that propose new forms of preservation, seeking to uncover and extend disciplinary accounts through appropriation and successive authorship. The desire for the work produced by this group is not simply to resurrect in an act of nostalgia, but to both preserve and enliven concepts that are native to the discipline of architecture – concepts about building form and spatial organization, to name a few. Embracing the impermanence of architecture, these “preservation” projects seek to add to, subtract from, agitate, edit, double, invert, repurpose, modify and transform existing architectural artefacts. The projects associated with this movement also problematise the fundamental elements of architecture – not doors, windows, balconies, and toilets, but form, space, and order. Ultimately, the “preservation” trajectory demonstrates how the discipline of architecture is constantly revitalized by the recurrent collusion between history and design, and how every generation has the opportunity to alter one with the other.

Two projects exemplify the emergence of the “preservation” trajectory. The first, Inverting Neutra by Bryony Roberts,[19] presents a spatial inversion of the solid-void relationship found in the Richard Neutra’s VDL Studio and Residences, constructed in Los Angeles in 1932. Roberts’ installation subverts the existing architectural strategy, which presents a meandering vertical spatial void. Where Roberts works on a historical artefact, Alex Maymind,[20] in 100 Drawings, works from historical artefacts to document, appropriate, and reproduce architectural acts in search of new rules and systems for architectural formal and spatial order: ‘the drawings oscillate between the scale of the city and the individual building, between autonomous figures and blatant agglomerations, and between legible archipelagos and interconnected wholes, allowing divergent contiguities and spatial relationships to emerge from within the set’.[21] Through alterations, corrections, and inventions Maymind’s drawings are conceptualised as intentional misreadings of historical works and seek to reimagine architecture’s encyclopaedia as a collection of found objects not fully exploited and explored.

The work used to define the scope of this emerging paradigm demonstrates the impact of successive authorship through reengaging the most potent disciplinary adventures from the 20th century through the lens of contemporary culture and modes of production and is guided by a desire to repurpose a variety of architectural acts from the history of our discipline. The dialogues between history and design evident in the work produced by the “preservationists” produce rich narratives that simultaneously substantiate the relevance of contemporary work in relation to historical reference and facilitate continued interrogation of architecture’s canon.

 

This piece introduces, defines, and creates a provisional classification system for a range of projects and sensibilities being developed by emerging architectural designers, but, admittedly, merely scratches the surface of what will likely solidify itself as a pivotal moment in the development of experimental work in the United States and elsewhere. The diverse trajectories called attention to in this essay and the equally diverse modes of operation that characterise this emerging group of academic architects make a case for an alternative construction of architectural theory through the speculative design project that blurs the boundaries, not only between ‘thinking and doing, design and fabrication, and prototype and final design’,[22] but also between history, representation, technology, and design. Ultimately, this group of architects are demonstrating and developing new partnerships between theory and design, evolving the manner in which architectural knowledge is constructed and reasserting the value of theory as a critical tool for architectural design in both the academy and professional practice.


[1]  Stan Allen, “Introduction: Practice vs. Project,” in Practice - Architecture, Technique and Representation, (New York: Routledge, 2000), XXII.

[2]  Michael Speaks, “After Theory,” Architectural Record, Volume 193 (2005): 74.

[3]  Spheres, cubes, boxes, cones, and pyramids are solid primitives.

[4]  Robert Somol, “Twelve Reasons to Get Back Into Shape,” in Content, ed. Rem Koolhaas, (Cologne: Taschen, 2004), 86-87.

[5]  Jimenez Lai is a Lecturer at the University of California Los Angeles and leader of Bureau Spectacular, http://bureau-spectacular.net.

[6]  Andrew Holder is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

[7]  Here “form”, as opposed to “shape” and “figure”, is defined as the result of systematic development of volume that cannot be summarily understood in a single picture plane or elevational view.

[8]  Victor Shklovsky makes a distinction between poetic and prose in his 1917 essay, “Art as Device,” when he states that poetic language is fundamentally different from the language that we use every day because it is more difficult to comprehend. Poetic speech is framed speech created to deny automatic, immediate and singular perceptions. The ambition is to create material “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and its comprehension is arrived at through focused attention. Shklovsky also claims that the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be delayed. Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique (Device),” in Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. Lee Lemon and Marion Reis, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).

[9]  formlessfinder, “Besides Form,” in Formless: Storefront for Art and Architecture Manifesto Series 01 (Zürich: Lars Mueller Publishers, 2015), 115.

[10]  Andrew Kovacs is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California Los Angeles and curator of Archive of Affinities, http://archiveofaffinities.tumblr.com.

[11]  Adam Fure is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and leader of Sift Studio, http://siftstudio.com.

[12]  Sift Studio. “About.” http://siftstudio.com/about. Accessed 3rd April 2016.

[13]  K. Michael Hays, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form,” in Perspecta, Vol. 21 (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1984), 14-29.

[14]  R.E. Somol and Sarah Whiting, “Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,” in Perspecta, Vol. 33 (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2002): 72-77.

[15]  Erin Besler, http://www.erinbesler.com, is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California Los Angeles and partner in Besler & Sons.

[16]  Andrew Atwood and Anna Neimark are partners in First Office, http://firstoff.net, and Assistant Professor at the University of California Berkeley and Full-Time Faculty at SCI-Arc, respectively.

[17]  David Eskenazi, http://www.davideskenazi.com, is the 2015-2016 Oberdick Fellow at the University of Michigan.

[18]  In 2011, the University of Michigan hosted a conference titled The Future of History, and in 2013 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosted a symposium on the role of precedents in architectural design titled Under the Influence.  Log 31: New Ancients, edited by Bryony Roberts and Dora Epstein Jones, scrutinizes the role of history in contemporary architecture. A 2012 issue of Harvard Design Magazine calls into question the core of the discipline of architecture.

[19]  Bryony Roberts, http://bryonyroberts.com, is a 2015-16 Historic Preservation Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

[20]  Alex Maymind, http://cargocollective.com/maymind, is a Ph.D. student at the University of California Los Angeles and, previously, in 2012–13, the Walter B. Sanders Fellow at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

[21]  Socks Studio. “We cannot not know history.” http://socks-studio.com/2014/05/19/we-cannot-not-know-history-and-other-works-by-alex-maymind/. Accessed 3rd April 2016.

[22]  Michael Speaks, “After Theory,” Architectural Record, Volume 193 (2005): 74.