Figure as Device


Figure as Device

Published in Project, Issue 4, March 2015.

Township of Domestic Parts is an installation designed by Jimenez Lai, founder and leader of Bureau Spectacular, for the Taiwan Pavilion at the 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. In response to curator Rem Koolhaas’s exhibition theme, “Fundamentals,” Lai identifies domesticity as a potential point of origin for architecture. Township is comprised of nine small buildings, each housing a particular domestic activity, placed in close proximity to one another inside the Palazzo delle Prigioni. Each object, not quite big enough to be architecture and too large to be furniture, is unique in its appearance and can be interacted with in a variety of ways. Visitors can climb atop, slide underneath, hide inside, pass through and lean on the isolated parts within the collection. Brightly colored and formally playful, the buildings are both visually and physically alluring. Beyond its affective qualities, Township elicits cognitive engagement by embedding historical architectural references within the forms of the installation. The combination of idiosyncratic forms and layered references renders Lai’s project one that simultaneously advances the discourse on form and addresses the need for architecture to engage a wider audience. Lai accomplishes this through what could be called the loose-fit figure.

In defining the concept of the loose-fit figure, it is useful to make a distinction between shape and figure and to call attention to Lai’s influences. For the purpose of this analysis, shape is defined as the silhouette of a solid primitive.[1] 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.”[2] Lai’s use of shape in Township subscribes to Somol’s notion of shape’s lack of obligation to the discipline of architecture or any signature oeuvre, but it also transcends 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, Township demonstrates Lai’s commitment to architectural form that is nuanced and finespun over obvious and careless.

Lai’s use of figures stems, in part, from his interest in John Hejduk, who produced poetic free-hand figures influenced by mythology and spirituality.[3] Operating as a digest of history, performance, symbol and text, Hejduk’s figures are more than drawings or their associated texts. Lai’s Township of Domestic Parts, following Hejduk’s example, embodies history through reference and elicits social engagement by setting the stage for human interaction in simulated domestic environments. Each of the nine buildings encourages specific physical interaction between the viewer and the object and, in doing so, alters the way that viewers interact with other viewers.

Beyond the viewer-object and viewer-viewer physical engagement encouraged in Township, figuration enables a cognitive connection to be made between the viewer and the objects of the installation. A figure signifies something other than itself and, by its ability to be comprehended through cognition, enables a specific aesthetic experience that transcends the affective, sensational and material. While many figural projects often make only a singular association–the oversized sculptures of Claes Oldenburg and Adolf Loos’ Tribune Tower come to mind–Lai’s Township contains embedded associations that are multiple and layered. In this layering, Township falls between a collection of articulated shapes and a set of ambiguous, or loose-fit, figures. Neither shape nor figure, the nine buildings are carefully composed collections of “almost-shapes” and “almost-figures” that enter and contribute to the discourse on composition and constitution of architectural form.[4] The open-endedness of the “almost-figures,” enabled by multiple signifiers and compounded by their proliferation in three-dimensions, defines the loose-fit-ness of the buildings. This loose-fit relationship between the figures and their significations is not ambivalent,[5] floating or empty; rather encourages the recognition of multiple figures by the individual viewer.

Two buildings within Township, the House of Alchemy and the Altar of Appearance, best illustrate the concept of the loose-fit figure. In both, features such as eyes, legs, heads and mouths anthropomorphize these “buildings.” The House of Alchemy, with its eyes and mouth frozen wide open, seems to be in a state of shock, while the Altar of Appearance, like Michelangelo’s David, is glancing downward in an apparent state of relaxation, as if to seduce a passersby into admiring its contents: the stage-setting of the formal living room. In combination with primitive solids such as cylinders, pyramids, hemispheres and boxes that produce habitable volumes, the anthropomorphic features create objects that are simultaneously animated and static. In addition, the careful production of anthropomorphic features through aggregation of solid primitives produces objects that are both referential and autonomous. An outcome of this calibrated development of the loose-fit figure is the notion of double coding.[6] For Lai, in addition to the anthropomorphism that allows these objects to exist autonomously for immediate public consumption, there are also layers of architectural references more recognizable to those familiar with the discipline. Lai imagines these references as “Easter eggs,” the term used to describe the jokes, references and other “treats” hidden for connoisseurs in video games, television shows and other contemporary media.

A close reading of the Township of Domestic Parts reveals multiple “Easter eggs.” Its overall organization, a distribution of unique parts, employs the loose-fit plan strategy, which can be described as a flexible assignment of function to space. Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House and SANAA’s Kanazawa Museum are both sources of inspiration for the Township plan. Lai borrows the organizational strategy here in two ways: first, individual activities are assigned to individual buildings; and second, each building engages in a flexible part-to-part relationship with the other buildings, reinforcing the legibility of the individual parts over the coherence of the whole. 

The individual buildings contain more “Easter eggs.” The Garden of Earthly Delight is a crown figure lifted off the ground by a set of steel tubes that are bent and looped through one another to function simultaneously as beams and piloti. The crown pays homage to Hejduk’s House of the Suicide, built in 1990, while the structural tubes resemble a portion of Greg Lynn’s unbuilt Slavin House, designed in 2009. Venturi Scott Brown’s Franklin Court Ghost Structures, built in Philadelphia for the 1976 US bicentennial celebration, are echoed by the House of Social Eating, which outlines the figure of a typical house, a pitched roof over a box. Finally, there is the House of Shit, the bathroom, which Lai considers the ultimate fortress of solitude, where one can exist in total privacy. Here, Lai creates a scenario for two individuals to be alone together. The House of Shit contains a conjoined twin toilet similar to the toilet in the “Bathroom Sweet” project, a retreat for an imagined celebrity couple designed by British architecture collective F.A.T. (Fashion Architecture Taste) in 2005. As in the other “buildings” of Township, the design of this object privileges the formal and referential qualities of the architecture over its ability to communicate the function that occurs within it.

In embedding these “Easter eggs” within Township, Lai simultaneously embraces the influence of firms and figures such as SANAA, John Hejduk, Greg Lynn, Venturi Scott Brown, F.A.T. and others and selectively transforms portions of their projects, offering up alternative manifestations of these familiar architectural elements. This strategy of sampling, found in many of Lai’s projects, grounds the architectural efforts, placing Lai’s projects within the critical context of the discipline and affording him the opportunity to converse with other architects through design.

Regardless of the legibility of function, each building is named and partnered with a primary domestic activity: working, relaxing, using the bathroom, gardening, cooking, eating, dressing up, having sex, and sleeping. The associations one has with these domestic activities, in combination with the names and physical characteristics of each building, create a unique character for Township.[7] In a manner reminiscent of the collages of Richard Hamilton, Lai constructed collages of domestic environments in order to provide a critique of contemporary life and convey characteristics of particular lifestyles, thus constructing character for each domestic activity and its assigned building within Township. The names of these buildings acknowledge the peculiarities of domestic activity and amplify the disposition of these loose-fit figures. For example, the Altar of Appearance calls attention to the ritualistic nature of changing our natural guise every morning while the House of Social Eating, similarly, implicates the ritualistic constitution of domestic dining events.

Through the construction of character, Lai makes a clever connection between form and function. However, in Township, the loose-fit figures that define the objects, through their appropriation of past architectures, follow form over function.[8] In Lai’s installation there is an alignment, conceptually, of flexible function afforded by the loose-fit plan, to the loose-fit figures that constitute the architectural forms. The nine buildings are not fixed in their plan relationship to one another, thus allowing for flexibility in the development of spatial relationships between domestic activities, while the figures that emerge are not singular in their associations.

The looseness between object and activity, and between object and reference, whether figural or architectural, is a device that delays reception and places Township on the verge of the poetic.[9] Through its idiosyncratic development of form and layering of references, Township is an example of material created “artistically” that prolongs reception and elicits cognitive engagement. Lai achieves this 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 installation. In doing so, Township provides contemporary architecture with strategies to simultaneously evolve the ongoing discourse on architectural form and expand architecture’s audience, an opportunity in design that is too often missed. It is this partnership between meaningful contributions to the discipline of architecture and captivation of new audiences that defines the successes of Township of Domestic Parts.

Photo credit: Iwan Baan, courtesy Bureau Spectacular.

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

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

[3]  The characteristics of these later works can be found in the projects documented in John Hejduk: Mask of Medusa - Works 1947-1983 (New York: Rizzoli, 1989).

[4]  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.

[5]  In his essay, “Variations on the Disco Ball, or, the Ambivalent Object,” Jason Payne discusses ambivalence, signification and difficult readings. He writes, “To be ambivalent is to choose to be unclear, undecided and equivocal. It is this inscrutability that comes from withholding all that might otherwise be seen. The ambivalent object, then, must surely require much effort to create and maintain.” Payne, “Variations on the Disco Ball, or, the Ambivalent Object,” Project, Issue 2. In Lai’s case, multiplication of signification is prioritized over the empty or floating signification that comes with ambivalence.

[6]  Charles Jencks defined “double-coding” as the “combination of modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects.” Jencks, The New Paradigm of Architecture, (London: Academy Editions, 1977).

[7]  Here, character is being defined as the aggregate of features and traits that form the nature and disposition of an object or individual.

[8]  In his essay, “Origins and Trends in Modern Architecture,” Matthew Nowicki argues that flexible space is the answer to every architectural problem, freeing form from the responsibility to communicate its associated function. Matthew Nowicki, “Origins and Trends in Modern Architecture” in Architecture Culture: 1943-1968 ed. Joan Ockman, (New York: Rizzoli, 1993), 150. 

[9]  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 than 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).