Good afternoon. Before I hand the podium over to Andrew, who will be introducing our guests today and moderating the event, I would like to briefly offer a bit of context to those of you who are joining us from outside the core four studio. My name is Jeannette Kuo and I’m an Assistant Professor in Practice here in the architecture department. And this year, I’m also the coordinator of the four-semester core studios. As you know, probably, that this semester is one during which students are confronted with the full complexities of our built environment.
While it is a studio with a focus on housing, it is, perhaps, more accurately described as an attempt to define what it means to live together– from the scale of the unit to the scale of the city. And this year we feel that the stakes are even higher, given our current political climate. For the site this year, the students are tasked with envisioning an urban future for a fragment of South Boston. Central to the brief are, of course, the following questions– what is the agency of architecture within this ever-shifting, amorphous, and multi-layered organism that we call the city? How can we, despite the limits of our disciplinary prowess, address issues that go beyond the relatively inert constructions of buildings to affecting the politics of space? How can we address the seeming banalities of individual lifestyles and desires while designing new forms of collectivity that embrace difference and change? But beyond the studio brief, what is an integral part of the studio agenda and pedagogy is the exposure to a plurality of voices and design approaches, reinforced through the individual positions of each instructor, as well as the teamwork which is part of the process of the semester.
But plurality is only productive when there is dialogue. And to underscore that, we have imagined a series of events meant to generate cross-sectional discussions and debates. Today’s talks, along with the upcoming states of housing colloquium, are aimed at exposing critical stances along certain disciplinary fault lines, as well as offering a platform that would open up some of these otherwise quite internalized discussions of the studio to the wider GSD community. In the interim, we will also have a few studio-wide exchanges beyond the review format that will, hopefully, allow us to further– have further opportunities for discussion and debate.
We hope that you will join us all throughout the semester. And we also welcome any comments and feedback. And last, but not least, I would like to thank Michael Hayes, who has been instrumental not only in his support for these series of events, but also getting us the necessary funding to bring it to life. And now without much further ado, here is Andrew Holder. Thanks, Jeanette. And thanks to everyone for coming. So today I have the great pleasure of introducing two of my mentors, and also friends– Bob Silman and Neil Denari. And I’ll just say, from my point of view, their return visit to the GSD is long overdue. And I’m very happy to have them here today. So Bob taught me that good formalists disclose their structure at the outset. And so here’s what I’m going to do– just give a kind of cursory introduction to the very few of you who may not know who they are; talk about some overlapping histories, both with my own educational history, and their histories here at Harvard; and then I’d like to close, before I turn the floor over to them, with an attempt to kind of frame a polemic.
Because we brought them here, not only because they’re sort of wonderful and interesting in their own right, but I think the kinds of work they are doing are particularly apropos now. And so I would like to kind of make that claim for a sort of contemporary urgency. So, first up, in the realm of just kind of the cursory overview, Neil Denari. Neil Denari is, of course, a practicing architect and principal of NMDA.
He’s the interim chair at the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, where he is also a professor. He’s had a long teaching career at many institutions. One notable stop was his tenure as director at SCI-Arc. He’s the author of countless essays. I’d like to just call attention to three of his books– Interrupted Projections in ’96; Gyroscopic Horizons in ’99; and– it’s either MASS X or MASS 10– Neil? MASS X– MASS X, forthcoming, I believe, in a matter of months.
He’s exhibited everywhere– held in– his work is held in major museums. I’d like to call attention to three of my favorites of kind of Neil’s vast body of work. I’d refer you first to a show in 2010 at the Ace Gallery, called The Artless Drawing, that shows Neil’s engagement with the kind of representational modes of computation– before computation. His work– I believe, in 1995– an installation at Gallery MA in Tokyo, which was a kind of single-surface project, before the single-surface project as we know it. And then, much more recently, the work that he did, starting in 2012, on the Keelung Harbor project in Taiwan. Bob Silman is a design critic and theorist. He is currently Director at the UIC School of Architecture, and he’s held that position since 2007. UIC– University of Illinois at Chicago. He’s the editor of a volume called Autonomy and Ideology, and has served on a number of editorial boards for important journals. So if I kind of frame Neil’s work with what I consider to be some of my own personal favorites in kind of his oeuvre, I’ll do the same for Bob.
Essays I would refer you to– first, “Notes Around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism,” written– coauthored with Sarah Whiting, while she was here at the GSD, I believe. And another, much shorter publication– “10 Reasons to Get Back Into Shape.” He is an occasional designer, and has a beautiful project called Off Use, which is a house on Olympic in Los Angeles.
And I believe that he is in some phase of completion on a book manuscript, which we are very much looking forward to– I think, tentatively entitled This Will Cover That– Writing and Building from the Death of Corbusier to the End of Architecture.” All right. So a bit about their histories and what brings them here. So, first, I’ll just just disclose that I have a sort of personal histories with both of them. They were teaching at UCLA while I was a graduate student there. Bob was a kind of direct mentor. I took two studios with Bob. And he also chaperoned during my first trip to Tijuana. Neil was, I’ll say, more of an indirect mentor.
I was not in his studios. But he was always a kind of interested and engaged critic. And, I would say, occasional supporter, occasional critic of my work in a kind of fascinating way that shaped the trajectory of my career there. I think that their role at UCLA is quite important. So if we think of the status of that institution in the early 2000s, that was the kind of high watermark of the digital turn, and a particular brand of West Coast digital formalism. And I would credit Bob, Neil, and also, perhaps, Mark Lee, as holding down a kind of counter-proposal to that work– or maybe we could call it an alternate center of gravity at UCLA. And, by extension, a kind of alternate center of gravity for that entire discourse. So, whereas the digital turn sought to be hot– they were interested in the cool. Whereas the digital turn sought difficulty, they were interested in the easy and the graphic. Whereas the digital was a kind of withdrawal into certain narrow forms of disciplinarity, they were seeking engagement through disciplinarity. Where the digital thought production of novelty by form, they sought production of polity by shape.
They also have a history of intersection here at the GSD, or a history of intersection with the GSD. So Neil Denari is, of course, a graduate of this program. And he was a visiting critic for option studios, I believe, in 2010. Bob is also a graduate of Harvard, but not of the GSD. He’s a graduate of Harvard Law, where his third-year paper– and this will become relevant in just a moment– was entitled “Reinventing Modernism– Roberto Unger and the Postmodern Legal Consciousness.” I think Bob was also a visiting professor here under Max Goggin. But I will say that it is missing from your CV, somewhat conspicuously. All right. Now the– now for the polemic.
So I think if we return to the GSD of the late ’80s and early ’90s, the GSD and the law school, we could imagine, were a kind of ground zero for an entry of the critical turn into the professional discourse. Roberto Unger, coming from the law school, perhaps kind of held down a corner of what we would call the crits among that faculty. And he was a kind of interlocutor who moved between the law school and the GSD. And sort of from our own ranks, Michael Hayes, writing through and about Meece, helped construct the possibility of a critical architecture, that offered a kind of mirror through which we could critique, or dissolve, the constructs of capital. So I would position Bob and Neil’s work as a kind of extension or reaction to that lineage– or, maybe more properly, a kind of counter-proposal to the critical.
And if I had to put it all under one umbrella, I would call it a projective agenda, as opposed to a critical agenda. So while this is a somewhat crude caricature of a kind of deep body of work, I would argue that the projective agenda is interested in the modes by which architects represent the city and construct homologies with it, that also open up possibilities for working on the city, perhaps in a political sense. Which is just to say that our disciplinary modes of description can also be mobilized to construct new futures. And, as a corollary to this, that form– or more properly, shape– will always already be political and capable of taking action in the urban sphere, if only we figure out how to mobilize it.
So, in Bob’s case, this means what I would call a kind of plastic politics, which means imagining the formation of new groups of people, or collectivities– in his parlance– new urban affordances for those collectivities; and fictional futures that can inform or recalibrate the present. In Neil’s case, this maybe takes the turn– the form of what I would call a graphic urbanism, which we could think of as working through the ways in which the building can retain the gestalt immediacy of the drawing– particularly through pattern and shape– to propose future constructions that although verging on the machine aesthetics of the sci-fi, already trade on a deeply familiar set of semiotic codes. So, if all of this sounds kind of obvious in terms of my description of the projective, I would argue it’s simply because their work has been so completely absorbed and naturalized by the academy that it is now kind of endemic to the way we work.
It’s completely naturalized, but under assault from, let’s say, three different vectors. The first vector of attack on this line of thinking, I would say, comes from the empirico-historians, mostly under the umbrella of a group called the Aggregate Collective, who have relentlessly asked architects to provide evidence for the fictions we espouse about the nature of the encounter between people and buildings. And the accusation– or part of this would also be that architects are kind of ill-equipped to answer these charges. The second vector of attack has to do with architectures of social justice, which are related to the kind of empirico-historians– but a separate challenge that has asked us to take seriously the politics of marginalization and subjugation of the vulnerable in minority populations. But this kind of architecture has accomplished that by, let’s say, reworking and exhausting the modern language to empty it of content and replace it with an extra-architectural agenda.
The third vector of attack, let’s say, are the descendants of the ’60s and ’70s Italian leftists, who, in all earnestness, would ask us to believe that the concrete grid is somehow an authentic will-to-form of the proletariat. If we– so those are the kind of my configuration of the projective and these kind of three camps that seek to sort of destabilize it– or, perhaps, replace it. And I would say that if we are to retain the political capacities of form and aesthetics, and if we are to retain the projective capacities of representation, this argument must be initiated anew.
And so I welcome Bob and Neil to help us undertake that project today. Please welcome them here to the GSD. Andrew, thank you, and Jeannette, and all the faculty, thank you for putting this day together. And super happy to be here with Bob, as well, and to address everybody in second year and, I think, a few others as well. The title of the talk is meant to– and the subtitle– it is about the grid. And, let’s say, in terms of the three ways in which the work might be under assault, as it were, I’d like to think that maybe the project’s a little bit homeopathic. In other words, if the grid is both humanizing and inhumanizing.
At some level, I want to give the city more of what it already suffers from, to be able to overcome what we might see as a limitation. And that’s a fault line, obviously, for the studio– the organizing device and the zebra, of course, is the– not of course– the zebra– The zebra is there to identify, partly, the issue of the graphic project, and, secondly, the project for which– I’m involved in, which is to defamiliarize– and I think that’s a loaded term. I think it’s a term that could belong to either projective or critical camp. At one level, defamiliarize the grid– and you’ll see how we’re doing that– to be able to, let’s say, humanize it more, allow personality involved, beyond politics– or along with politics– to be able to see what can happen with the work.
I’m also coming to you as much as a practitioner as a teacher. They’re indistinguishable for me. And I’m going to be showing you current projects that are in the office and we’re attempting to deal with this very issue. I didn’t have to do anything special, necessarily, to prepare for this, because in terms of, let’s say, or Neo-Marxism. That’s always on my desk anyway, because I’m always checking the challenges of capitalism and the market, relative to most of what we do in our office– which is– at this point, it’s actually 65% to 70% projects for developers. More and more work for developers, just because the cities are busy now. And we do have housing– especially in Los Angeles– that needs to be constructed.
But you have to think of architecture in a field of all other disciplines, objects, nature, industrial, design– cultivated nature, wild nature, et cetera, et cetera. And it finds itself in the field. And I would argue that it’s just one medium among all other media. We practice it, and this is what our expertise is, and so forth. But I’m not really a strong Hegelian to believe that architecture’s the mother of everything, or because it’s the biggest, it’s the most powerful, especially at the level of accommodation and communication. So that’s in question. And it would be part of the pro forma, so to speak, of this or any talk to put architecture historically and in terms of iconicity and in terms of cultural value, like it has been– put it in relation to the contemporary world, in which space– virtual space more and more– and this isn’t about putting goggles on.
It’s not about a high-tech movement. This is just simply that says, I like to think we’re designing for the future. And the future isn’t so much about the extinction of architecture, or this will kill that. It’s really about how architecture will be used. And if, let’s say, teenagers today– and, by the way, in 10 years they’re adults like you are, and graduating, and going out and renting apartments, and hoping you can possibly own something, because that sovereignty is still part of what your life is– when kids are spending time in their rooms, annexing social space– the condensing of social space, of course, is going on through the telephone, through the app system– for which, on the one hand, the phone is no longer a monument or a fetish object, while the cathedral still is.
But we’re wondering how much the cathedral is actually used as a device to communicate versus the phone. I’m going to just run through– because I think it’s also part of this– the four basic functional devices for which anything, especially architecture, is read through. And they’re well-known and kind of classic. Number one is function. And that’s the brief that you get when you’re handed in studio– solve for x number of housing units. This is a photograph of the interior of HL23. It’s a condominium on the High Line in New York. So it serves its program. It’s got 11 high-end, highly– I would say engaged with the city– but highly defined apartments. Second is exchange, of course. This building is, like any other building that– if it’s a condominium, then it’s got a price on its head in terms of value. And, like many projects in New York– especially Manhattan, the Manhattan that we know now– buildings such as this, which are designed for a first world order, a luxury market, for which Manhattan has become the big trading floor architecturally of that– apartments have been bought and sold.
Of course, they increase in value. You could think of any object that’s got a certain, let’s say, escalation in value over time. So it’s got an exchange rate attached to it. The symbolic one might be a little bit challenging here, because a client commissions the project, challenges us to do a project that doesn’t fit the zoning envelope– sort of for two reasons. One, he doesn’t want to build a building that fits the zoning. And, by the way, it would be the same as the small one next door, 25 feet wide. And so it was a dare, on the one hand. And city planning had to embrace it as a project, which would be a benchmark for development. In other words, if it had enough of an image of a project, which had, on the one hand, a strange disdain for efficiency, then that would become a device, which would be almost like a gift to the city– not a gift for the people who live there, but a gift to the city.
And that’s stretching, I know, the idea of gift. Because, I think, probably 50% of the people in New York hate this building. And 50% like it. So for half it’s probably an eyesore, not a gift. But let’s let it roll that way. And the last one, of course, is the sign value– sign value for the person who lives there– expression of status– sign value for the developer, who had the nerve to commission it. And, because it’s a luxury object, you can say that it’s only a sign within the context of that particular world, for which, on the one hand, we weren’t imprisoned by having to deliver a particular sign form. So, in this case, we were saying this is our architectural project, which, in the contemporary world of architecture, it too has its sign-form logic, outside of the people who own it or built it.
And in that sense, what’s interesting about buildings themselves is there’s always two owners, theoretically– the people who bought the condominium and the architect, because, in a certain community, this is my building. It’s a building I did. And so it’s a bizarre form of ownership. And yet, that still goes on as a sign form for value in the work. And so here’s a quick diagram on how an architect and a developer may work. And, of course, the asterisk of profit on the right– which has to do with everything, all the blood, sweat, and tears you put into a project for your modest fee in relation to whatever the developer– you can imagine that there is a strange antagonism between those. But they have to find an alliance through, let’s say, legacy, identity, and the pro forma of actually doing the project. So this is a super important drawing for me– now we’re in part two, with that little preamble. And I’m assuming everybody in the studio knows this work, because it’s been contextualized as a studio that’s had to– whether forthrightly put out by your professors, or by what’s going on in studio– an Italian leftist, highly resistive project, which can include theoretical projects, of course, like No-Stop City, which was truly a homeopathic project.
Give Northern Italy more of everything that it hates, and put a mirror up to the world, and let everybody read that and understand that that’s probably not a good direction for what consumer society is going to turn into. There’s a real pivot there that I think is challenging for us. So the Project, which, of course, was built along with bar buildings, as well, and I’m sure you are incredibly well-informed about them. When you look at this drawing– which is a pretty weird drawing, because it looks like a projection perspective on the bottom.
And at the top it’s a flat perspective. The roof, actually, doesn’t project beyond. And Rossi makes the chiaroscuro from , of course– it laminates that into the rational project. And shadows look like they’re going in two directions, even though they’re not. The shadows in the small windows could be going from either side. You don’t really know. You have to track it– where the big fins and the big louvers in the arcade are. But, if you know this building, you know that the sense of life, on the one hand, that exists in this drawing maybe didn’t translate. Because the kind of heart and soul of, let’s say, Rossi’s particular brand of rationalism is really embodied in this project. What’s interesting is, while I was at the GSD– 1980, ’81– this was the drawing that I used to generate really all the work I did in the ’80s, in terms of graphic style.
And while my classmates at that very time were doing knock-offs of this project and drawing it only in single line ink with no shadows, I was doing not a rationalist project, but drawing it deeply within this level of chiaroscuro and heaviness that Rossi, on the one hand, had hoped to project into the building, but couldn’t quite, necessarily, get there. The other part of– and that’s very much an exploration of the grid. The other reference in this issue of the Z, so to speak, is a counter-project going also on in Europe at the same time– a very well-known one, the function of the oblique, which never really posited itself as a project for architecture.
There was one building– a church– done by Virilio and Parent. But otherwise this was x is bad, y is bad, and z is the only thing that matters. And so whatever was a rectangular grid is just simply been pulled, if you polled CVs in a model, to be able to get around the regimented aspect of the grid. Now I mention the diagonal just because I see diagonals in Rossi’s project. And, of course, this is only a graphic projection. This is just me being a close reader of images to find that there is, maybe, something other than what Rossi had in his work. As we know, the school, the prison– the school, the prison, and the hospital were the three buildings that– types that he referenced in everything. One penal– I guess you could say a school, depending on who you are, could be penal.
Or it’s just simply an issue of discipline, et cetera, et cetera. So this issue of how the grid is a discipliner, and can also become dehumanizing, and, potentially, penal in its visual code as it references something like the prison is a dangerous faultline. And that’s what I want to draw the attention to. In other words, it’s not strictly the project or the A architectural project to rid the author, etc. There are still so many things going on in there. This is, more or less, what Vancouver looks like today. This is an image a few years ago. High rises in Vancouver and downtown started cropping up about 1980. And each one of these towers– mostly, at this point, designed by local architects, who themselves were working with incredibly rigid formulas from developers to exploit footprint and FAR and so forth– but, at the same time, creating a city that, on the one hand, besides its kind of spectacular landscape, has produced, let’s say, a skyline of snowflakes.
They’re all the same. They’re, really, slightly different. But it’s like this is the equivalent of freshly fallen snow. I see all the flakes but it’s just one big thing. And, of course, our client says, can you make a speck in the snowflake landscape, because this is what is needed. So the project of resistance or difference or value at the level of exchange, at the level of sign, at the level of symbol– it all starts to operate. At some level it’s an alliance, whether it’s holy or unholy, between the architect and the developer to make a project. This is a rental building. It’s a mixed use building. There’s commercial on the ground floor. There is an office building that is stealthily operating in the base. And the rest of it is a rental building. Here’s the makeup. And what’s important to look at this is a lot of this project is determined by the zoning envelope.
For instance, the one big profile that you see is not by us. I would never sit down in my studio and draw a form like that to say let’s make a tower like that. Never would I do that. It’s defined and determined by that. Our client wanted us to push all of the FAR up into the spike. So we have to find ways to, I would say, mitigate– oddly enough– that free form that you get with the zoning envelope. There is an office building that’s actually behind the facade that still resembles the housing. So that’s a certain over-coating of the graphic effect of the grid. And you see very small studio units. That’s actually the office building– the big window, the small windows behind, as a way to carve out the, let’s say, the appearance of the problem of the podium and the tower, which is a big problem in a place like Vancouver where those rules sort of generate it. And the second thing we’re trying to do in relation to that, of course, is once we get through with the form, get through– we put a wallpaper over the whole project to give it less of what the city suffers from, let’s say, which is now trying to differentiate every facade as a way to get around the kind of blase nature.
We thought we’d make a project that would kind of make a hypertrophic grid, but do it in a way that the city hasn’t seen before, even though it’s not a claim of novelty or anything like that. You know, the one on the upper left– that spike, that diagonal, is given by the zoning envelope. And the second one, with terraces facing to the south– that’s our discretionary moment, among other little ones. Because otherwise we could have trimmed the building off level and given more space to gridded units. But instead we produce a moment of, let’s say, de-familiarizing of the grid.
Yet the blank areas between the gridded windows and all the slopes are telltale signs of the problematic, which is housing doesn’t want to do that. Housing doesn’t want to get into the world of the Z. It only belongs to the X and the Y. So to force the Z– or the Zebra– onto a housing project is a project that’s, I would say, trying to problematize the real problem of the grid as both the inherent logic of housing, based on economy, based on politics, based on ideology, based on the idea of making a project that should be the background. And housing should never express itself in a certain way. So clearly we’re in a both-and sort of world. Here’s the main shaft of the building. These are– every unit in this building is a Swiss army knife. Nobody will even be bringing in a sofa, because this is a micro-loft loft project, that we know now is a valuable asset in a city like Vancouver, which is one of the top 10 most expensive cities in the world, along with New York, London, and Frankfurt, to live in.
So who the market is, how much they cost, et cetera. Of course, that brings up a whole sort of issue. But this is a rental building. It’s different than a building for sale of another sort. So within the shaft of the building we have a It’s an unflinching, slightly staggered, set of voids, you know, that run up the entire edge of the building. And those staggered windows, of course, play with and make tension at the edges, in the corner, in the bevelling of the shaping of the project. It’s almost like we’re showing you the way in which the problematic nature of what does it mean to deviate from the grid is working.
Two and three bedrooms sort of fill the diagonal part of the project, whereas here we’ve got studios that are machines. They can’t be altered in any way. So that’s a real pixel project. And we find ways in which we can absorb peculiarity. We want that within the larger units. I just mentioned these two buildings, just for a second, before I show you one slide to the last one. So 1972, the future, Nakagin Tower, the apotheosis of metabolism– what, really, Tokyo wanted wasn’t so much just an idea, necessarily, of a living city, but something that was– if I’m going to live in a city that’s part of an economic miracle after World War II, where real estate had become what it is today, which is incredibly valuable, and if I’m only going to get a pod to live in, then it should be the best pod possible.
And that pod should show itself as an idea, rhetorically, to the city. And it should be a prototype for everything else that would come. Of course, it’s never been updated. No pods have ever been removed. And, in fact, the wrecking ball has been swinging so close to this project for 15 years now that it’s incredible that it still exists. Trellick Tower, by Erno Goldfinger, II– kind of more refined building in that series– the Balfron Tower in East London was the first one– was finished in 1972. And it was dead on arrival. You know the whole story. You’ve seen that movie High Rise. That’s what it’s all about. It was dead. It was finished. The tower was a problem. And the tower have been proven to be inelastic in terms of being able to support ideas of the collective or the social, even as it argued, probably, in different terms for the idea of the sustainable. And if you look at the little graph on the right– this slumping value– and I’m talking about dollar value– of Nakagin– they intersect, conceptually, somewhere about seven years ago. And Trellick Tower is now a highly coveted building.
So some of the aspects of image and material, and also the relation of the time, politically, depending on what culture you’re in– these are 8,000 miles apart– same time-frame, different story. Just a slide here of a second project in Vancouver, Twin Tower project. It’s not within the center of the city. It’s across the river in an area where there are few towers. And yet it’s along a new, transit-oriented district. There’s going to be a subway line that connects University of British Columbia on the west and eastern part of the city.
And, of course, these projects are challenging politically, because they’re about rezoning. This is, as of right– massing, but the FAR is three times what the site is. The previous project is an FAR of two times the site. So they’re about promoting a certain kind of density. And the only thing I’ll say about these projects is it’s pretty clear, again, what’s going on, which is we have drivers for a lot of issues of repetition. And yet the cultural nature of the project is curious, relative to value. This is a public park. We haven’t designed it yet. Of course, on private land– the land slopes up to a lane in the back that allows you to walk out onto the park.
Otherwise, you might just say it’s a green roof. But it will actually be designed as a public park. And that’s an amenity that the developer will give to the city. So we’re already talking about gift economy, or symbolic economy, at some particular level. The building on the right is going to be a dormitory for Emily Carr College. It’s the best art school in Canada. And the one on the right is market rate building for families. And where you see a square window, that’s four units ganged together. And where you see a diagonal unit, that’s our free play, where we’ve got study rooms, or gym, meeting rooms, and so forth.
So this is, yet again, a diagram of– it’s an overt diagram of what you can’t fool with. And where the Zebra comes into play is where you’ve got program of, let’s say, optional ways to manipulate the building geometry. And, in this particular case, while we argue that the unit should be good, it should be a grid, it should work– the sliding doors, the accommodations, and so forth– and that we’re going to put a certain amount of energy into space where the degree to which the building does something to deviate from the grid, it’s supported.
It’s allowed. There is an economy to do it within the idea of– I don’t know– gridded logic that we’re trying to challenge and, I guess, confront and overcome. Thank you. It’s freez– it is freezing in here? I’m freezing. It’s a little cold. All right. Let’s see. First of all, I collectively want to thank the core for inviting the periphery here to the center. Neil and I appreciate it. Andrew has pitched the event to us as a reunion. And I have a standing rule that whenever Neil goes to a party, I will go also. So I’m here. Part of it, I think, that Andrew’s idea was to rehearse certain discussions that occurred at UCLA among Neil and I and some others in the early 2000s– so, let’s say, 15 years and 3,000 miles ago. So I take this as an invitation– this invitation as a license to say nothing new. So this will be of no use to your housing studio, I assure you.
Just now close your eyes and remember what you just saw. From here on out, forget everything else. Broadly, I think, as Andrew has laid it out, the discussion involved kind of late ’90s split– certainly at UCLA, but other places– between the formal aesthetic and the political, social projects. Let’s say a split between those who were interested in working on architecture and those who wanted to work on the city, and our attempt, really, to overcome that schizophrenia. Variously, and since then, I’ve had different ways to try to talk about that, to try to do that. One, broadly, under the aesthetic-political umbrella of the projective. And I think Andrew has talked about that– done a better job of talking about it than I will, as you will see. That there was a kind of possible disciplinary way to engage not primarily a critical disciplinary, but, in fact, one that would proactively set out to produce alternative worlds. And that was– and, again, I think, as Andrew has said, and I hadn’t thought about it in a long time– since I was here– but it really did come from Roberto Unger’s ideas of the projective in the early ’80s, and his particular, let’s say, modernist politics– politics of personality, as well as collective politics.
So the idea of a plastic politics is, in this sense, you know, the idea really also, in terms of Unger’s ideas of plasticity, that there’s nothing necessary or natural about the world that we inhabit, and that, in fact, it can be organized in other ways, and that’s actually an activity that architecture can undertake and actually do well. So, for other reasons, more narrowly, and more specific to certain debates in that period of time, the specific coloration of the projected project, let’s say– as sometimes I would call it– as Andrew and Neil have– graphic architecture, graphic urbanism, my interest in green dots, which I will mention, briefly; the possibilities of shape as opposed to form; and, more generally, recently, the idea of the cartoon.
Through all of that, Neil’s work was a sort of important touchstone and inspiration for that kind of emerging agenda of mine. And so it was great to have that proximity. Since then, 2000, 2002, 2006, a lot has changed, obviously. Lines have been redrawn. Those, let’s say, on the other side have quickly embraced techniques and arguments from what I thought was our side. And so it’s hard to tell apart any more what you are doing from what you thought they were doing. And so this leaves one in a certain midlife crisis. In some ways, the project was institutionalized, for better and worse.
And I feel co-responsible for that. We also, obviously, occupy a much more brutal and evident sort of political economy today. At the same time, you could also say, you know, some ways not much has changed, or, in fact, lessons have not been learned. And one finds, you could say, even the possibility of doing a project in the big sense in architecture at all today is, in fact, more challenged than it was then. And so, I think, that this is the first thing for me to set out, which is, what are the possibilities of a project today? Andrew called me an occasional designer, which is quite generous. I would call myself an occasional everything. Because I’ve been an admin over the last 10 years, which means I have nothing to show for it. But I just want to set out four basic, quick– hopefully– provocations for the discussion.
Again, let you close your eyes and let Neil’s work resonate. I’m going to set this for 17 minutes, so that we know, when it goes off, that I am in violation of the time rules, which I will be. And I will just stop. And you would think that after 15 years I would be much better at this, but it turns out, I’m not. I have no time-management skills whatsoever. So I just thought I’d start here with Herzog-De Meuron, Remy Zaugg collaboration– an early project– sort of start with– imagine we the words, we close our eyes, and you, man, you can no longer imagine anything. And, in some ways, I do think that Herzog-De Meuron are an instance of this graphic architectural project. I also think that they have a project. This differentiates me, I think, from someone like Michael Meredith, who has basically dismissed Herzog-De Meuron as having a project in those terms.
And, I think, that they are, in some ways, form an apotheosis of a certain historical project that I will allude to. But, in any case, I think if we’re talking about graphic architecture, first point is words and things. This is part of a much longer discussion. But you know, I think, that– I don’t mean just simply words in the sense of billboards and super-graphics, although I do mean that also. But, again, the possibility of the project to say that the text and the object rub against each other in a certain sense. Clearly, this is Venturi’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but also– it’s clear that the speech-act that’s going on here– this kind of cartoon with a speech bubble– a declaration of something that’s clearly not the case, the very typical, American loft-building, with a sign that it’s a monument– again, is clearly his argument, you know, for a shed and against a duck. You could also say, though– you could revise it and say, I am a city, which would be just as possible– not a monument.
In other words, Venturi’s problem wasn’t only with sculptural ducks, but also with mega-structures– you could say buildings pretending that they’re cities. So rather than look like a city, you could just simply say– declare– I’m a city. And, in fact, maybe that has more currency today, because you can imagine these sorts of structures laundering the landscape, particularly among those interested in logistics as big data centers, or big-box retail, or whatever. And they, in fact, are seen to be urbanism for some people. I would say, though– and maybe this follows Andrew’s point– that there is a kind of misinterpretation, I think, of Venturi’s nominalism in this sense. In other words, it turns out that the words are still important. I think that today this is what we’ve gotten instead. I think that people understood Venturi’s nominalism to basically say, well, we can do without the sign, actually. And I would say that that is maybe two genres of work today that you could see, whether that’s the kind of logistical school, or what Andrew might call the neo-neo-rationalist school of boxes. So we can talk about that in the discussion, maybe. The other person I want to throw on the table here is Robert Smithson, whose work, I think, also defines, in some way, the generational project that I still want to hold out hope for, I guess.
This is from Smithson in ’67– “the scale of a letter or word changes one’s visual meaning of the word. Language thus becomes monumental because of the mutations of advertising.” And what I’m interested in Smithson’s work, really, is this idea– and you can see it in Heap of Language, and many other projects– he is the first artist-critic, and I am interested in the architect-critics of the same generation. But the idea– you don’t know whether this is a text to be read, or whether it’s an object to be looked at, or if you’re supposed to look at the words or read the drawing, let’s say– the confusion between the visual and the verbal; the collapse, you could say, of words and things, which is fundamentally the Smithson problem. So I think that when I think about the issue of the graphic architecture, and the problem of words, I guess it’s because I think it emerges at a certain point in time. Let’s say that there was a moment– we call it modernism– when form and ideology were seen to be isomorphic, or they fit together. There was a transparency between them. And that, more or less, the world that I’m interested in– which is the possibility of architecture as a cultural project– happens after this fissure, let’s say, when someone like Colin Rowe, after the war, says that in fact form and ideology– what modernism looked like and what it said– were never co-incident; that, in fact, the forms and the ideology never added up.
So there was the physique flesh of modernism versus the word. And Rowe, of course, being the good formalist, decides to go on the side of the physique flesh. On the other side, you could say, Reynor Banham, at the same moment, says the exact same thing. He says, look, there’s -isms as styles– like Cubism and aesthetic; and there’s -isms as slogans– let’s say, ethics, like futurism. And Banham says let’s forget the forms and go with the ideologies. So, really, they say the exact same thing.
They just end up on different sides. And it’s that, you could say, split that de-lamination, if you will, of form and ideology that marks the period of an attempt to struggle through the issue of thinking text and architecture together and apart in some other, more dynamic way. And I think Venturi’s one version of that. This is a highly shortened version of this book project, you could say. But later on there are people, then, who get so mannered that it’s not just really that form and ideology don’t add up.
They would say– there are those who say that form and form don’t even add up. Or those who say that ideology and ideology don’t even add up. Or even, matter and matter don’t add up. And the names of those people are Eisenman, Herzog-De Meuron, and Koolhaas. In particular, I’m interested in the way in which the index and the image in the plot, which I’m giving– I’m naming the way in which they think things and words come together. Peter– you know– the trace of a process of form colliding against form produces its legibility. In other words, that’s an index. Rem– the case that the plot– meaning both in a geological sense of a plot, like Smithson would say, rocks– like a plot of land– but also a plot like a narrative plot, and even a plot like a drawing– are the superposition, really, of one ideology on the other. The ideology doesn’t add up. Or in Herzog-De Meuron’s case, the– you could say, the opposition of matter and matter. And, again, this is where I, again, disagree with Michael Meredith’s recent dispute with Herzog-De Meuron, saying that they’ve established a problem for our field, because they don’t have a conceptual project or consistency.
I find that hard to believe. I think they have a completely consistent conceptual project. And that it actually falls out of this. It doesn’t mean that they are architect-critics in the same way that you might think of Eisenman and Koolhaas. But they, in some sense, don’t need it anymore. And so, in a way, for me, they do mark the end of a period– of this productive struggle between text and object, and one that we never definitively leave. But let’s say it’s not as predominant as it once was. And, you know, I think you can date that to the mid-late ’90s. So let’s say this is still my hope. And now I haven’t even said which of these I hold out most hope for. Because, in fact I hold out hope for any of them. That’s how bad things are. I don’t even care anymore which way you go. Please just have a project. And so, you know– and I say that against an alternative world, which I inhabit.
This is from Chicago a year ago– this is from Chicago Architect Magazine. Sorry about the fuzziness. But it’s essays in the same issue of the magazine by Michael Sorkin, Aaron Besky, and Gordon Gill. Michael Sorkin, basically, talking about a series of studios he’d done in Calumet, from, actually from this school as well as City College. Aaron Besky about his new role– that month’s role– as Dean at the Frank Lloyd Wright school. And Gordon gill about projects of Smith-Gill in Chicago. Again, really, they were all thinly veiled advertising copy meant as editorial. So everyone is, let’s say, hawking a product. Let’s give it that. And let’s say that– this is all at the same moment that the Chicago biennial is happening. Now the best thing about these three disparate things– marketing different things, whatever– this is our multiple-choice part of the day. So, you know, you’re not in a studio, but you’re going to have a test.
So one of them concluded– figure out– this is their conclusion– we have to figure out how to make our world more beautiful, open, and sustainable. OK? Another one said, we have to commit to projects that are environmentally sound, economically viable, and intrinsically beautiful. And the third one said, we have to invent forms of urbanization that will lead to sustainable, equitable, and beautiful futures. This, I call– this is the Manchurian Candidate, folks. Like you are obligated to say these things. Now you could say, OK, well, what are the answers? Well, those are the answers. And I say, who cares? Honestly. The fact is, you can only say this new Vitruvian triad over and over again like you’ve been hypnotized. In other words, words no longer have meaning, because they are simply marketing platitudes. And I want to say that this is a shift in the last 40 years. This is a bad sketch of my version of 1977– which is to say that there were forms and there were words.
And the forms were different, and the words were different. But there was some kind of loose affiliation between the word and the form. And they go by different names. You could have Rem– the word embraced more than what the forms did. You could have — the forms embraced more than what the words said. You could have Peter Eisenman, who had serial words to address basically the same forms. You know, there are different ways you can play the game. But they’re different, right? They’re connected in some way. Now this is the world we live in right now. And it struck me on this occasion I know, there was another panel discussion that the Van Allen proposed. And, as many diverse offices– KPF, SON, Gang, Studio Libeskind– would show tower after tower– I couldn’t tell one from another. They were all the same. You know, what used to be corporate, what used to be boutique– it was all the same. Honestly– I mean, I know I’m getting old, but seriously. And then also what they said about that was exactly those same things that Besky, Sorkin, and Gill said.
In other words, the forms have gravitated to self-similarity. The words have gravitated to self-similarity. And there is absolutely no relationship between them anymore. And so this is the world we occupy. It’s also something that I noticed in my days when I would come here as a critic– it’s a unique phenomenon to this place. I have to say– and I haven’t been here in a while, so I hope to be disproven. But there is a way in which everyone is super articulate and smart about the argument, about the research, of the critical position, whatever– you got it down.
And then you stand in front of drawings equally accomplished, very well done, very professional, a kind of standard Dwell modernism. And there’s never any relationship between the two things. It’s just like– I feel like the guy from Zoolander– it’s like, am I on crazy pills here? Doesn’t anybody know this? But I think that this idea that somehow– just, please, don’t do that. Don’t do that thing. Like try to make the words have some impact on the work, and the work to reverberate into that argument, you know? This is– all right. OK. I’m sorry. So, basically, we have– it’s a demonstration of technique, really, which is the form, the R&D product development, and the kind of marketing and advertising, which has become the word. OK. Part two– you are the problem. Now I, in this case, don’t mean you, the GSD. We already covered that. What I mean is the royal you– which is to say, a certain, particular subjectivity that has emerged. And I date it with 2006. Because that’s when Time Magazine named you the Person of the Year.
In other words, that each atomized individual– you– the addressee is always you, a kind of personal address. And much of the work of that era– I will show some things, like interactive walls or mass customized garlic cloves. All of it, really, was meant to address you. In other words, that’s what mass customization is, right? That’s what interactivity and feedback are doing– shrink-wrapping more of you. Like, we love you, and we will make you more like you. This is our job as designers, which I find totally, you know, politically suspect, to say the least. So, you know, again, to set out what the graphic– the political nature of the graphic project was to really challenge– which only had a hunch of in the early 2000s, that all of those discussions of a kind of post-Fordist, mass customization, and so on– were part of what we would now refer to as the political economy of neoliberalism.
But that form of individuated address– de-collectivizing, you could say– is the political problem of that era’s work, and which, I think, the graphic project was meant to be an alternative to. And so I think someone who’s done a really good job about diagnosing this relationship of geometry to form– or geometry to politics, urbanistically– is Albert Pope– whose analysis you know, and so I won’t really get into it. But, you know, more or less, that there was the gridiron– and so back to Neil’s grid– a kind of single-line weight that connected all of us in a way that had open-endedness ways of producing propinquity, you could say, between people you don’t normally see. By the way, this is the problem with our last election. We don’t actually see people that we don’t agree with anymore. You know, that we’ve screened it out. Our phones screen– every technology we have; our sorting mechanism about how we live. Who knew there were that 50%– or not quite 50%– out there. I didn’t meet one person.
So I’m still a little bit in shock since November. But that’s another problem. But, you know, I think Albert actually diagnoses the spatial, architectural, urban geometric problem by the– what he calls the kind of articulation, in my terms; or the refinement, you could say, of the geometry; the greater intricacy that, really, the suburb and ex-urban developments produce– so a kind of five-line weight problem, where you go from now no longer the gridiron but, basically, the kind of interstate to the feeder road to the off ramp to this– a series, basically, of smaller and smaller ways in which the grid individuates itself. Now you should immediately think, architecturally, of mass customization. That’s what it does. It addresses you. And so this kind of narrowing, ultimately, of the addressee to be at their spiral, at their cul-de-sac, at the end of the road.
In other words, it’s a capillary system that ends up with you at the end of the cul-de-sac in your private house. It’s a kind of geometry that filters out that ability to become something else or to have to rub shoulders against difference. So it’s really against that mass customization or, in Albert’s case, the shift from a kind of grid to a ladder form, that was part of the desire. So to sort of talk about, again, this particular 40-year transition. And, again, going back to the moment of the biennial in Chicago. You know, I think that some of the same tropes were in effect, let’s say.
Sorry, I got two– more or less that the first event– which went by this name, The State of the Art of Architecture in ’77– was a group of ideologically minded architects– Silvers, Grays, White– oh, man– all right, that was 17 minutes. I’m now on your time. I will make this as quick as possible. You know, and then the kind of expansion of that field geographically, generationally, and so on– which is mainly seen as a success.
But, for me, it really marks this transition from a kind of moment of debating positions, where difference was a construct– an ideological construct– to the idea that now we just witness results. This is what we do today. In other words, now it’s not we’re constructing difference, but simply diversity as a statistical fact, a condition. I think the reviews and the positive reviews of it were this was meant to be an endorsement. The show is not about big names and its message. Architecture could be defined in individual, personal terms, i.e., you. You like it, you don’t like it; you know, it’s up to you.
And I find that, actually, architecture is not valuable in terms of personal, individual terms. It actually has a different set of terms that are collectively shared. And if we want to have a political architecture, they have to be discussed in those terms. So my quick version of the transition here is– for those of you who are Bond fans– the early Bond– you know, let’s face it– Sean Connery, great Bond. Kind of a boring, wooden character, though. You know, grant him that. He had some fun on the job. He had some perks. But like the Bond of You Only Live Twice, or From Russia with Love, versus the new Bond– Skyfall, Spectre, et cetera. You know, the Sean Connery Bond was on the job, on the clock, doing his work, fighting the Cold War– even if it was called Spectre, and not really SMERSH, or the KGB, for whatever reasons. But, basically, it was still part of the Cold War, ideological, east-west politics.
The new Bond– basically, the guy is never on the clock. He’s like– they can’t even find him to do a job. He’s like, they have to put a LoJack on him to find where he’s at, because he’s off on some personal revenge mission. It has nothing to do with world ideology. It’s all about him and his traumas. You know? And so, you know, the confrontation scenes of these recent Bonds– and they’re identical, by the way. And this is what’s brilliant about the things. First of all, the evil guys, they don’t confront him– they’re not really confrontation. They’re not even really torture. What they are is therapy sessions. You know, like finding out about you. It’s all about Bond. So, you know, Silva– my favorite– it’s like, James, we are like two rats.
It’s beautiful. And then, Blofeld– oh, yes, you ate at my house. Yeah, we were too cuckoos. So, thank you, cuckoo. You have to see the movies. I’m sorry. I can’t do better than that. But, basically, the stories are the same thing, right? Silva and, you know, Raul Julia– I mean, sorry– Javier Bardem– and Bond share a mother– M– Mum– and, ultimately, one of them kills the mother. But they want– he wants them to team up to kill the mother together. In the other one, they share a father. In both cases, they’re brothers– you know, hypothetical brothers. You know, the Silva character’s a brother.
And M is the mother. And, in this case, you know, Bond is literally the stepson, I guess, and the brother of Blofeld. So they’re really family dramas is really what they are. And so the epiphany moments are Silva– it’s about her, and you, and me. And then in Sky– in Spectre, it’s like, it was always me– the author of all your pain. This kind of brotherly, you know– Oedipal identity politics. In other words, we’ve left ideology and moved to a world of identity, and kind of personal empathy. And so this is, I think, a kind of huge loss for our moment. And I won’t go through the form of that. I think there are other projects, you know, flipping back to the biennial, that were quite successful in thinking about other ways through it– Fujimotos and that. OK. Point three– don’t articulate, saturate. I just got a text message– how’s it going? What do you think? Too long, I would say. So High Plains Drifter, ’73. This– basically, how– I say, don’t articulate.
For me, the cartoon project– the graphic project– really emerged, in my understanding, in this late ’90s Downsview competition with the distinction between FOA’s project and OMA– Bruce Mau’s project for Downsview Park. And so the project, really, that I was beginning to realize in the ’90s at UCLA of this kind of geometric intricacy– what I would call a kind of critical indexicality– versus the kind of graphic expediency project about really soliciting and trying to pull together a new collective. And I won’t get into the philosophy of that. But let’s say the former FOA project, the intricate project, the geometric project is a line with Greg Lynn’s project in the Embryo House– that version of the egg. In other words, you start with a standard kind of prototype or gene that then differentiates. Again, you basically start with similarity– there’s a world of identity first, and differences second, and differences addressed to you– again, the individual. As opposed to the OMA egg, I would say, which starts with the world of differences, that tries to bring them to produce a new identity.
So this, to me, was the issue. Mass customization was really about how you differentiate a product to individuals– atomize. Whereas, what I call custom massification, is how do we start to produce new forms of collective identity that we can share, even if we didn’t see ourselves in that identity beforehand. Like that’s the political aesthetic project. So this is really from green dots. You know, that the project of Greg and FOA, which is somehow combining articulation and notation, you know, which I won’t get into here. But read the article. As Dean Martin used to say, if you want to hear the whole song, buy the album. This is the other project– the graphic project– Decoration, Figuration– which is what I call a graphic expediency– which I took from Venturi and Hejduk and, therefore, got the idea of the big outlines of cartooning. In other words, a kind of crudity, of which– then I elaborated a set of principles, located them in some projects, to try to draw a circle around work– and I would put Neil’s work in this category, as well– you know, that wasn’t, at that time, promoted as a kind of thing.
And so, for me, it’s a politics of indifference, which is to say not a project of differentiation and difference in identity, but really a kind of cool, aloof indifference, is what the graphic project is. And, for me, you know, I mean I take– in some sense, Stanley Fish’s argument– in utility, he says, is a fact about academic work, and a defining, not a limiting fact. And unconcerned with any usefulness to the world is the key to its distinctiveness. And this unconcern is displayed, not in the spirit of renunciation, but in the spirits of independence and the marking of territory. So I think this is, really, the job of schools and architecture is also to maintain that degree of what I call indifference, as opposed to the identity politics. Now this is what I call the fashion of politics. This goes back to the 2008 election, when Obama got in trouble because he didn’t wear the lapel pin flag, if you recall– big controversy. Obviously, not American; not– doesn’t believe in the country, wasn’t wearing the right pin– that form of identity politics.
And, I guess, as opposed to that, I would say there is also a politics of fashion and, I would say, a politics of architecture that you could think of differently. This is from Alexander McQueen show at the same time– I’ve never been this hard since I’ve been in London, McQueen said. I think it’s dangerous to play it safe because you will just get lost in the midst of Cashmere twin sets. People don’t want to see clothes. They want to see something that fuels the imagination. I think that that’s the job of architecture. In other words, it’s not about the pin fashion idea, that somehow there’s a fashion of politics is to say that there is a way to represent a priori a preexisting constituency that you represent. As opposed to the idea that if you throw out something– an unlikely object of desire– into the world, it will gravitate and construct an audience around it.
You know, that that’s the world-making activity, I would say, that I associate with McQueen and, really, what the project of the projective was. Fellow travelers, Rem Koolhaas won’t go to it. But, basically, hard now in this context to look back at this text– although I still take it to heart– a pretext for Nietzschean frivolity. Dare to be utterly uncritical. Certainty of failure has to be our laughing We have to become irresponsible. You know, it’s that kind of tempting of disciplinary irresponsibility that I am interested in. And this graphic, in particular– this four Earth thing, which is supposed to make us feel bad– which I always take optimistically and say, yeah, that is really cool– four Earths. I think we need four Earths. That sounds good. , Like how do we imagine different worlds? The moral version of the four Earth problem is Chicago’s identity as a green city, which is these little green toupees on the top of buildings– this one’s city hall– which are basically the end of cul-de-sacs that are totally inaccessible.
Talk about the lack of accessibility of this new atomized public realm. For me, Chicago’s the Green City because of this, which is every St. Patrick’s Day when they dye the river green. And all of you will be like, awful. How can they do that? But it’s actually a much more important collective political event than the green roof. In other words, to bring the city together around a certain graphic urbanism, I will call it, where, on one day, everybody is becoming Irish– which basically means getting drunk and kissing, indiscriminately, strangers. But let’s say it produces a certain form of collectivity. And this was the essay that, I think, Andrew gave you.
And so I want to get into it. But it was the SAGO project for housing for the foreclosed exhibition in Rialto. And, really, the idea that how could you take even the cul-de-sac, the site of Albert Pope’s, let’s say, atomised individual, and start to think about ways of collectivizing it, in particular through this kind of, again, a saturated graphic urban project– the turning inside out of the house, in some way; the involution of the outside on the inside. Basically, using the architectural– you know, that we have to stop assuming that the real world is held by other people’s abstractions– politicians, bankers, insurance salesmen, et cetera. Like, in other words, their abstractions are no more real than our abstractions are. Why do we consider their world the real world and our world not the real world, you know? That, really– and, moreover, all of their abstractions are based on ours. In other words, the relationship to the ground, the definition of inside and outside, the gridding of territories, and subdivision of zones– these are our disciplinary techniques that they’ve naturalized and internalized. And it’s our job to pervert the system, precisely through a hyper-disciplinarity.
Actually, Roberto Unger would call this deviationist doctrine. And that that’s the way in which you become political through a kind of hyper-disciplinarity. All right. Skip all this– blah, blah, blah, blah. I should point this, though– this is a studio that Neil did when I first started, which I take as an example of this. It was Google Earth plus Photoshop and narrative scenarios that re-describe Chicago in this kind of hyper-realistic way. So Battle Island was locating all of fields off of Grant Park.
Jayne Mansfield Park was a nice one there, lower left. So the postscript here is it’s not just the job of design to rethink how we can generate the project. I do think that criticism– we have to reinvent what criticism is. And, therefore, maybe this addresses Andrew’s first point about a certain group of scholars and historians who are working a certain way. This is a magazine that we just launched in Chicago– Penelope Dean is the editor; James Goggin, the graphic designer; a bunch of us are on the editorial board. On sale at the Carpenter Center– not to be unmarketable. But the magazine is basically these 15 characters that different authors play over time. So, in this issue, I happen to play the inventor and the cameo. Sam Jacob was the mortician. The outsider– we have someone who’s not really involved in architecture. In this case, it was Jon Langford, a kind of punk rock musician, founder of The Mekons, The Waco brothers– which is great, because now we have this huge following that we never would have had otherwise. Because everyone is like, want to follow Jon’s work, and so, all of a sudden– his ratings are much higher than the rest of ours.
So we’ve explored a whole new market by having an outsider inside that magazine. Even you as a character. But the idea is that we– in other words, I think that the group of historians that Andrew was talking about are embarrassed, just like that Cathy Lang Ho quote about stars, about individuals, about heroes, whatever it is. And the alternative is to go anonymous, go generic, go collective. And we think that there’s another way, which is inhabit a fictional character– that we will, together, inhabit that fictional character, like we inhabit Bond or Batman or whatever else. Many people get to play that character. And that character– in other words, we start from our differences to become identical by– it’s like Elvis impersonators. There’s something that’s revealed to you when you go to an Elvis impersonator event. You know, and everybody is trying to become the same thing.
But they’re kind of awkwardly not that different in whatever way. They have the wrong shoes, the wrong belt. Or everybody’s kind of off a certain way. But the ambition to like inhabit the same role and the same character and define a character over time, and to make the character point the way for a discipline, because we don’t see the– artificially, to create a construct to see the field of architecture through another set of eyes– the political economist, the talent agent, et cetera.
So that’s the, let’s say, the ambition of the magazine, and to really run it as columns, where everything starts at the beginning. There are small credits in the back, so you can find out who did it. In other words, it’s not about promoting identity, nor is it about hiding identity. It’s just about rethinking the fact that we are playing a fictional character as a way of advancing argument in the field. Because what we’ve lost– my contention– is the ability to make arguments today. And what we need to do is figure out how to do them. And I would say, against research. Look, I was a big research studio guy, on the early train– worthless. Done. Over. So that’s it. That’s really I have to say. Thanks. Yep. So, first, I just wanted to sort of offer our sincere gratitude, again, for the two of you coming. Those were wonderful, wonderful talks. And, Neil, Mariana Ibanez and I were whispering, as you were showing the green commercial building, that we’re sort of wildly jealous of that thing. I think you’re a step ahead of your far junior colleagues, in terms of a kind of fractured high modernity, which I also see then sort of searching out.
It’s a really incredible piece. So we are going to be kicked out of here by another lecture in– just slightly after six. So I kind of want to balance the million questions that I have, maybe, against the desire of the audience to ask a few of their own. Because it was a sort of promise that the students would get to engage you directly, as well, after reading the materials that you sent along. So I’ll ask either one– one, maybe two, questions. And what I’d like to do instead of playing a kind of pop quiz game is maybe engage you in your role as pedagogues, and just say like here are some issues that we’re working through. Like, how would you take this on? Or I know that you’ve also engaged sort of similar things in your recent teaching, and can you kind of help us work through it? And both of these questions kind of came up in your talks. So that it might just entail kind of repeating, for me, a bit more slowly some of the things that you’ve already presented.
The first has to do with the kind of relationship between an explicit social agenda and architecture. I alluded to this a little bit in my introduction. But I think it’s easy for us to fall into a kind of imagining of the social agenda and architecture as existing with respect to one another in a kind of zero-sum game– that the more architecture one has, the more we pay attention to the habits of the discipline and building, the less attention we are paying to the kind of urgent social question, which we should– to which we should be turning our attention.
And if we spend money on the building, then that also comes at a cost. And, it seems to me, as though maybe that project has sought out a kind of emptying out and repetition of modernity for very specific reasons, like the kind of repetition of the modern box as being the sign par excellence of the new sort of social project. And maybe it’s sought out modernity precisely for the reason that you articulated, Bob, but in a kind of opposite value system– that there is the kind of appearance– if word and form kind of map on to one another in modernity, we would want to return to that because it feels– or has the appearance of being– authentic– like no games, no humor, no bullshit– just you’re doing the thing that you’re supposed to be doing. So I’m wondering if you guys can maybe kind of take on that question of how to see kind of agenda, particularly, a kind of social agenda– not as in conflict at all with the kind of project of the discipline.
Yeah. I’ll kind of leave it there. Because it seems as though you both have sort of separate escape routes from that question. And that the kind of positing of these two things being in opposition to one another doesn’t keep you awake at night at all. And so maybe you can just kind of explain your respective escape routes from that problem. I might jump in really quick. But if I think about the three articles and the three extracted quotes from the Chicago Project on beautiful, sustainable, open. The beautiful is a curious term, because who says what’s beautiful? We know what sustainable is supposed to be. And, I guess, if you can make a net-zero building, it can look like anything. So you could foist a travesty– a visual travesty– on a city and go, but, you know, it will be here forever.
In other words, I have all the data to back that up. So the split between the project of the social and any other project still falls on a dividing line between the ego and the promiscuous architect doing whatever they want, indiscriminately. But now, theoretically, an architect could do that and do it with discrimination and make a project that’s sustainable and still could be maddeningly offensive at some level. And it’s always assumed that those words go together, if you have the right kind of politics– that’s one way of extracting that. McQueen– McQueen foisted stuff that was not everybody thought it was beautiful, but he’s a exemplar of an idea about sparking the imagination. Let’s say that’s one of the examples of that. The just one more sort of anecdote, and maybe you read into it– you know, the was occupied before it was occupied, if you remember that. It was a challenge because of how much the units cost. And, you know, it’s the end of a certain era. And half of it was also about it didn’t look like housing.
So there was the project of abstraction being played out. But you didn’t really know if it was the radicals or the proletariat worried about whether or not a house should look like a house more than that project did, in a way– which is also a fault line for what the grid means today, in terms of the you– if you’re the grid versus McQueen makes a project and says, I’m offering you something other than the grid. That might spark your imagination– which, finally, is a way of saying, in terms of Ungerian politics, it’s– there’s not a natural order to anything. And you build it, and you construct it. So I think your provocation was making sure that, at least, we said– or, in my case, said that the grid doesn’t come pre-invested, historically or otherwise, with a politics.
You think it does. And you’ve invested it that way. But it’s not a natural– it’s not necessarily a natural sign for resistance, if a resistance politics is what we’re thinking about and concerned with today, at some level. So I’m sure you can– Yeah, no, I mean– –go in a different direction, or– I think it’s not like, do you have a politics, or do you not have a politics. It’s like what kind of politics do you have? And there is a politics which I would consider as retroactive– which I’m calling identity politics– but I would call it a politics of being, of identities first, versus a politics of becoming– which is to say, you know, how– a politics which basically allows us to become something other than we already are.
And so the issue is– with the flag pin and– that example was one attempt to say that. It’s not about an architecture that represents a preexisting constituency. But it’s actually our job as cultural producers is to bring an audience into being that doesn’t preexist us making that thing. Like our job is to make an audience that doesn’t preexist in a package of saying, you fit this demographic and this is your audience– which is my problem, ultimately, with Alejandro’s argument about performance and communication, or rhetoric, that somehow– and, in general, with the parametric project– that somehow– like let’s say, look, this tower does all these great things in terms of its envelope.
And, by the way, it looks like a palm tree in its antenna reef, so that will make the people there identify with it. Or it’s a film still and, you know, therefore, the British Film Institute will like this project because the iconography that comes out of it happened to come out of the performance, and they identify with that. But that’s basically saying my constituency has a representational image that I can reproduce as an icon. And, you know, I think– I find it cynical and not political. And I think that the issue is you have to tempt failure if you’re operating culturally and politically– which is to say, maybe no one gravitates to that thing.
Maybe nobody buys that magazine. Maybe nobody goes to that project. But that’s your job, in some sense, is to fail. We occupy a world where failure isn’t an option, whether it’s don’t get me started on that– the idea of a guaranteed product– that’s what we’re supposed to produce. We’re good service providers. We provide this guaranteed product that has no risk. We’ve eliminated risk out of it. It’s been cost-estimated before it even hits the drawing board. You know, no problems. It will work. You know, everything in our culture is doable. This is what I call the culture of delivery, or doability. This is what the neoliberal, political economy dictates. It’s a worldview which is only here and now. And so the problem with parametrics is it can only re-map the here and now. Those are the only parameters that it’s mapping. And so, in a way, you can only get more of the same. And that’s not a politics. So the issue is how do you jump out of that political world into some other world? You can’t possibly do it parametrically because, in fact, the categories and the so-called needs have already been pre-digested and pre-defined.
So you’re just balancing a world that has already accepted it’s pareto-optimal point. And so the issue is, well, what techniques can you do to imagine what I call untimeliness, as opposed to the now-ness that neoliberalism dictates as our present horizon that has no history, no past, no future– it will for always be the same. And we’re just optimizing. We’re just good optimizers of that pie. And if we could organize totally, maybe we want cake. We don’t want pie. Maybe we want something– in other words, it’s not about that form of efficiency. Thank you very much, Patrick. I was going to ask a question about proposals, but I think I’m going to go icons instead. So, I think, while not explicitly addressed, maybe, until just at this moment, Bob, it seems as though there is a kind of criterion of judgment that you and Neil maybe hold in common that has to do with kind of icons, iconicity, and sort of urban scale semiotics. And so, if in Bob’s formulation, a certain kind of isomorphism between a collective and its icon is bad– like palm tree antenna reef– maybe Neil proposed an alternative– I think you may have just coined a kind of wonderful phrase on the fly, where you called some of your projects erstwhile monuments.
And maybe I would just tweak that and call them erstwhile icons, where they have a kind of– they’re the result of a kind of casual– or let’s say they’re the result of a process that does not aim at iconicity, but arrives at it anyway, and, therefore, have kind of slippery relations to definite meanings, or definite decodings. And so that sounds like a possible definition of a good, iconicity. it also seems as though, Bob, maybe, in the case of the Green River in Chicago– there is a kind of desirable urban scale signage. And so I’m wondering if you guys can sort of help us parse out sort of good from bad in those terms? I mean, I wouldn’t call– I’ll be Neil’s lawyer hero for a second. I don’t think you should call it icon. I think what Neil meant to say is logo. I mean, I think, that that’s actually what we share– a kind of interest in the logo. I mean, my argument would be the icon reproduces a preexisting identity, because of its resemblance and a group like corncobs, or whatever they like.
You give it to them. A logo has a degree– and I would say, the digital work out of which you and others have come– let’s say, Greg’s work about the blob– was, how do we resist any form of resemblance? In other words, either it resembles something, or we have to challenge any form of resemblance. I think the logo is interesting because, again, it’s what I call imageable, but surprising. In other words, it’s not about resisting forms of identification. They just don’t come at the preexisting forms of identification that an icon has– the built-in audience. So the issue is– for me, the logo is between the blob and the box, or between the icon and the blob, in the sense that it could gather– you know, it’s abstract enough to gather people who weren’t in that box to begin with.
And so, for me, Seattle Public Library is a logo, not an icon or a blob, you know. So it’s a different category of– which I think comes out of the graphic and, you know– so that’s. And, you know, I think what’s important is the issue of profile and silhouette to me in Neil’s work, also, which is my interest in shape– which is to say, you know, you’re not extruding the ground plane. Part of the Z is the fact that there’s cantilevers that are gravity defying– cantilevers that produce a kind of logo or sign that is a shape not dictated by logics of extrusion or– I’ll come back to that. But the answer to that first part about a sort of erstwhile, or unintended, level of– I don’t know– a quality to the work, I think comes from two things– Number one, openly– and I’ll talk about icon, because every client says, I want one. And which– I’ve also written about the icon post-2008, which is, architects were seen as being the shills for icons. We’re the ones who wanted it because we had the tools, the technology, the ego, and the ideas. And then we’re supposed to shut that down.
But, meanwhile, cities and clients still wanted them, not because they’ve become, necessarily, more educated, but because it somehow resurfaced as a project that still had value, but was now in the hands of the commissioner, rather than the architect being the one to theoretically supply it. So it also has to do with what arrow the direction of, you know, desire is. Number two– maybe it was easier to get to a project that had a easier or a higher economy, let’s say, return.
Because I was trained or had intuitive ambitions toward the exotic rather than the politically restrained architectural project. So, at some level, the ability to manipulate has always been part of the skill set. And it also came with a certain fearlessness to work that way. Except that, now, really, since the Gallery project, it’s been– I still want the same end-game, but I don’t want all of the anxiety imprinted on the project, in a way.
I don’t want to show that part of the work. I could debate the difference between icon and logo, at some level, just because if, at the heart of the icon, its history, is the image– because that’s where it came from, Christianity. And if the logo is a branding device for which immediate recognition and retaining of the image is meant to convey or allow you to have loyalty to it, or knowledge, I would say that I’m interested in the device but, let’s say, not interested in– as– maybe even as much as I was 10 years ago– the immediacy of it. Like the green project– if it’s a profile on one end, it’s completely different on the other end. So which one is it? And, in fact, we had an extruded profile for that scheme in the office at some point, going it’s got to be that.
It just has to be brutal in that way. And we abandoned it for that very reason, that it was a project that, let’s say, leveraged too much of the idea of the logo, and went for what should happen, which is another critique– not a critique– but a challenge to the grid as a disciplining device. So I think our work has aspects of both involved. I have a million other questions of my own. But, Jeannette, if I could enlist you in helping me pass the mic to a student or two. Oh, great, thank you. Do we have any questions from the field? John. Second time using a mic today. I’m not used to this.
I’m interested in this form-words problem, which is distinct to today. And it seems to be either caused by, or giving rise to, or it’s just another way of saying the problem of permissiveness– which is also present today in many things, but mostly in architecture, where people get to do whatever they want, which creates that problem of the form self-similarity. Or it lets them say whatever they want, which creates the problem of the words as marketing tools. And, to bring it back to our core studio for one moment, which, I think, you were told about– I’m wondering what you think of the idea of us students being permitted to engage the urban problem as architects– this idea that we can maybe do that at all. And that, not even having solved the problems of architecture, we’re enlisting ourselves to do that. What do you think of the idea that we take it upon ourselves to say that? And, in other terms, when it’s brought back to architecture as in the case of the SAGO project, where, say, it’s against all those other abstractions– as purely architectural abstractions– then does that return to the problem of, with an architecture, everything being permitted, and not finding the same resistance as you pointed to maybe 30 years ago, when it was about debates of ideology or difference? And, I guess, you know– I would say, you could risk a little hubris.
It’s OK to say you’re going to take this problem on, and also understand, a la Koolhaas, that you might be condemned to failure. I mean, I think it’s important to take big, ambitious projects on. But, you know, again, from the mechanism of what it is that architecture allows you to do to contribute to that problem. In other words, it would be silly to illustrate some social condition or urban problem in your architecture. Architecture doesn’t do that very well. In other words, the issue is in what ways to do your– the things you have control over– your techniques, your issues– reverberate to reframe the city as it exists.
So, you know, there was this Van Allen panel– I’ll just quickly say this. Because, you know, the whole question of that panel was like, what are the urgent issues that the city will face in 20 years that architecture should take on, you know? And like, for me, it’s like the only urgent question architecture should take on is the disappearance of architecture. Like, in other words, if we lose architecture, we’ve lost our ability to engage at all.
And so we have to maintain that thing. And it was– this was at the moment after tearing down Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. So I’m not a preservationist, you know. I don’t even play one on TV. But, on the other hand, I think it was an important project. And I think that this is where architects sold their souls on external metrics. The idea– the AIA chasing the idea that we need to measure our value to the world– like what jobs do we create? What lives do we save? You know, how much energy do we save? In other words, buying in totally to the neoliberal metric model, through which we would now evaluate the qualities of architecture. And guess what? They lost that. Because the forces said, well, we’ll save more lives. It’ll be cheaper. We’ll employ more people if we get rid of this monster. So gone is Prentice. And that’s, to me, a collective lobotomy of the city. Because, in other words, Prentice and pieces of architecture like it, stage alternative ways to imagine living together that, without them, we can no longer imagine.
So it’s a loss of our collective intelligence and our ability to inhabit an un-high– it’s the obsolescence of architecture that is its political project. In other words, the fact that it takes a long time to do and it lasts a long time. And, long after the parameters that caused it, it’s still there in your face. And you have to deal with it, and realize that people organize themselves differently at another point of time.
And we may want to do so again. And it’s good to have that around to see that. You know? That’s the long way around the question. I mean, I just think that you have to find– you have to define the problem in terms that you can handle, and see the city through architecture. Be selfish in that way. Or, at least, be disciplinarily inflected. Do we have another question? Let me just say that being willing to fail doesn’t mean that you’re really going to fail– the studio. No one fails at Harvard, do they? That’s very important to remember. So making arguments as a student, which we demand. And, sometimes, we as critics forget to teach you how to make them. I think we need to remind ourselves that that’s what we’re involved in doing, is giving you tools to be able to argue with, and giving you, at some level, permission to do that.
And making spurious– Frivolous. –spurious, frivolous, but ultra-serious proposals that should and can be debated. And as long as you can work and uphold with that, I’m always going to uptick your grade, at some level. I say grade just in terms of being able to articulate what does it mean to support ambition for a student. It doesn’t mean only virtuosity. It doesn’t only mean how well you can take apart the thing and put it back together again.
That’s a craft level that I constantly try to just give the tools and then submerge it at the same time. So that willingness, I think– whether you call it hubris, or I’m trying to learn this project right now– done with the right kind of stance doesn’t mean that you’re going to challenged for a lack of humility, I would say. I think it’s a sacrifice to the larger discussion. Hi. Could you speak at all to possible choices of design constraints that might relate to an ambition to generate a new audience through an architectural proposal? Can you give us a little bit more– like de-code what you mean by design constraints? Like, if we’re looking at the urban fabric, and we’re thinking about the very small scale in our studio– we’ve been talking about thresholds between the domestic and the public and navigating that at a sort of grayscale level, where you try and look at how people live. If you’re trying to generate some sort of– something new– from looking at living patterns– I’m just trying to take it from like analysis of living– cause if you spoke to like research as not being the way to go about this, what is the way to go about that? So what do we do, Mr.
Big Shot? Yeah. No– I mean, I think, this issue of like how– my version of politics– and, again, it comes from Unger is– and what I mean by plastic is that you need– it is what Barbara Johnson, a translator of Derrida, who says, you know, the deconstructionist’s early days put surprise to work. I think that that’s our job is to put surprise to work. Like to be political means to be surprising in a plausible way, but still that, oh, I didn’t– you know, that somehow what you see makes sense even if you didn’t think that that would have made sense. That’s why it’s like a joke. Like jokes are always– like they take you on this trajectory– it’s like, oh, it’s going to be this. And then they put you over here. And the laughter is because you went from A to Z when you were expecting one thing. So like the logic needs to leave to a point where there’s an event of some other break getting you somewhere else. So, you know, I mean, I think one thing is, how do you redeploy archaic types? Like I’m much more interested now in history than I ever was before as an untimely possibility of like re-assembling, in a Frankenstein way, previous models to see what throwing a new set of concerns at them– what those two things together do.
As opposed to trying to shrink-wrap this set of needs. Like, to try to force a set of needs into something where it doesn’t belong, or vice-versa. Like I live in Marina Towers– also, I’m kind of a Goldberg fan now– you know, and the best thing about those cloverleaf thing– which I’m sure he never figured out– was you would wake up in the morning and look out at these leaves, and you’d have balconies off your living room and off your bedroom.
And it was an incredible thing that you see some guy across the way in the other tower come out, basically, in his underwear, in the morning, on the one balcony off his bedroom, and then go through and feel like he was in his perfectly private place. And then go through the house, get changed, eat breakfast, whatever– come out in the public living room all dressed. Now they are literally five feet apart, and just as visible to each other. But that, somehow, the idea of taking this, what would have been a public-private gradient from bedroom to front yard, and kind of like bending it, and putting it all in the facade– like somehow publicity and privacy were literally five feet apart, even if they were like 100 feet apart in the house. And the idea that you would just walk out in your underwear in one balcony, and then have to be dressed on the other one was like a kind of revelation– as well as like watching other people’s TV from like 40 stories in the air.
So, you know, I just think like– or this house in Melbourne, this guy, Robin Boyd did– the piano nobile– the main stairs go right up into the bedroom. So everybody enters through the service entrance– the main entrance to the house is in the bedroom. So, I think, totally– you know, it’s a great house– mid-century house in Melbourne– the Boyd– Robin Boyd House.
You should look it up. But really interesting re-organisation of a domestic diagram. And people have no problem with it, you know? So I don’t know. I think you have to figure out ways to kind of short circuit what you think are the logical ways that must be organized in your functional flowchart. And, you know, sometimes precedent does it. Sometimes some weird set of demands does it.
But, you know, I mean, it’s super rational to get to surreal ends. I wanted you to– Well, I think that my sort of opening gambit with the cathedral and the phone was meant to, let’s say, ambiguously address that. Because if you started from the idea there is no public space– if you just started from that point of view– you step out into public space, there’s behaviors, etc., etc. But a laptop gives somebody a way to do something and find some activity and still be alone in public space, whereas, I guess, reading a book or a newspaper in a cafe was the precursor to that. But no one thought you were really working when you were reading the novel.
You were entertaining yourself. Now you can have the idea of working sort of anywhere. And so tools and technology, then, allow you to essentially imagine that the nature of the collective is really just about proximity, as opposed to the emotional capacity to be with somebody. Because that’s what partly public and private promise is supposed to be in architecture– certainly for modernism– as opposed to, let’s say, just going back to the primitive idea of a street is for circulation. If you happen to run into someone, then it becomes a spontaneous moment of exchange now, while you’re exchanging constantly with a disembodied person on your phone.
You could do something radical and say there’s no public until I make it, which is sort of the opposite of what architecture is, right, which is an intervention into the public realm with some private notion. So whether it’s shifting or, I would say, that’s a kind of a polemical surprise, or a thing to work back against, like a constraint, as if there’s no public anymore. .