I was triggered by the two opposing texts from two different medias. They are talking about architect’s role based on their directions of practice. This writing tries to explain why it is wrong to do that: commenting contemporary architecture without relating it to its architectural thinking/ theory. As a result, this writing tries to convince that material based digital innovations are the true advantages of our time of life that we should use as the starting point.
By critiquing some related projects, which explains more about “what is not”, I try to define an abstract area that can still be explored. Promoting the material itself, in which can be injected of layers of values in order to be able to adapt and interact in context; it will leaves a new periphery in the readers mind worth to investigate.
The unnecessary debate
An interesting text was published by The New York Times in its architecture weekly column, which was titled ‘Architecture; until the money ran out’ by Ouroussoff (2008). He was questioning the role of architects in solving our real problems. It fascinates me because it could be considered as a strong evidence of people opinion. If such mainstream media like The New York Times were interested to bring up this kind of topic as its article, it would have cleared that architect is being doubt as a profession. It probably has been charged as guilty for causing all the problems that are being faced by most of the society in the world. Ouroussoff stated that architects, who used to be promising with their visionary design formulas/ statements and celebrated as heroes in the cultural field, have tendencies to be segmented in serving people with their projects. He related these facts with the economic crisis the world is facing right now. Contemporary architecture is ignoring social agendas that were being advocated by architects in the modernist era. He argues:
”…But somewhere along the way that fantasy took a wrong turn. As commissions multiplied for luxury residential high-rises, high-end boutiques and corporate offices in cities like London, Tokyo and Dubai, more socially conscious projects rarely materialized. Public housing, a staple of 20th-century Modernism, was nowhere on the agenda..” Ouroussoff (2008)
Opposed to Ouroussof’s text, there was another text from the Architecture of Humanity website. It was written by Sinclair and Stohr (2008). They tried to convince that not all architects are practicing the same type that they described working on some attention grabbing projects.
They introduced architects like the MMA Architect, Samuel Mockbee, Hassan Fathy, and Buckminster Fuller as the new architecture revolution. These architects are working on their social service type of practice, trying to solve problems in areas damaged by the natural disaster or poverty. They encouraged Ouroussoff to trust to these kind of architects to lead the new architecture revolution rather than the big named architects like Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Herzog and de Meuron, Frank Gehry, etc. Sinclair and Stohr hardly argue:
“… but why call on designers who spent the better part of their careers building ever-competing, energy-consuming, sky-piercing structures, when you could hire any of a myriad of qualified (if less well-known) firms already experienced and engaged in rethinking the built environment?…” Sinclair and Stohr (2008)
Scientific based critique method
At this stage, I start to think about how we as an architect should deal with it. Those facts I mentioned above leads us to the question that is my true point in this writing: How can we fairly judge and evaluate the contemporary debate and problems in our latest architectural scene? Can we solve those problems with the latest potentials in our architectural findings and still using logical system in science?
I agree that some contemporary architecture projects, which are highlighted by the media, are not solving the problems in our real world. Cities that are dominated by the skyscrapers are proved economically and ecologically inefficient. It is sadly true!
But I don’t agree that we should focus on the choice of (directions in practice) as the solution of this particular condition. I do agree that architects mentioned by Sinclair and Stohr, working on the social serving type of practice, are noble. And I admire their sincere. But it misses the whole point because the reaction was not started from the realm of the theory as our logic base/ system in critiquing, but from pragmatic criteria such as our type of practice.
Scientific theory, in its truly purpose, gives us the direction for evaluating on something, so we’re not repeating something that is already done. That’s the aim of the system.
Re-interpretation of Vitruvian classic definition of architecture
There are lots of thing that can still be explored in this manner. The fact that innovations in digital technology are not something new and that people from all over the world and from any kinds of background (culturally, economically, etc) are already familiar and even affected by it (internet, digital camera, cell phone, game, etc), is a true given potentials that we should push forward in our explorations. It’s so powerful because finally, for example, we can simulate thousands of phenomena within architecture using computer in a shorter time than ever before, resulting more progressive research findings to be implicated.
So let me introduce some projects, from inside or outside digital architecture, which relevant to discuss. There will be explanation about the objectives of each project, and critiques given upon it, based on the 3 key aspects that are important in digital architecture: context, interactivity/ adaptive, and matter/ material.
Why are those 3 criteria considered as the key important aspects in contemporary architecture?
I agree that there is no such thing as new in architecture. It’s only chains of refinements based upon previous recorded comprehensive design thinking. And I agree to what Stephen Gage confirmed about these 3 aspects as the relevant interpretations of Vitruvius’s classic definition of architecture.
As Stephen Gage explained, those 3 are the updated interpretation of English poet Sir Henry Wooton on commenting Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture about 3 most basic aspects that should appear in a project to be considered as architecture: firmness (context), commodity (matter), and aesthetic/ delight (interactivity/ adaptive). He defines further in describing the relation in those 3 key aspects in the context of an environment:
“…It is worth examining this attributes more closely. When we ascribe the quality of firmness to the same object, we do this in terms of our understanding of the environment in which it sits. When we ascribe the quality of commodity to the same object, we extend the description of the environment to include our understanding of the behaviour of people. When we go further and ascribe the quality of delight to an object, we can only do this in terms of our own understanding of the understanding of others.” (Gage, 2008, quoted in Sheil, 2008)
Regarding to this new interpretation, let me start examining the MMA Architect’s project, which I think is repeating something that is already done in the modernist era of architecture.
They designed low-income housing for a Cape Town Shantytown, which is the winner of Inaugural International Design Award for Humanitarian Innovation which was given by The Curry Stone Design Prize.
MMA Architect offered indigenous mud and wattle building techniques. The building is using brick and mortar foundation to support two story frame of timber and sandbag infill construction. They argue it will reduce the consumption of energy because it’s not using any electricity and it’s efficient because it’s not involving any skilled labor to construct.
This project is using a method, which Reiser and Umemoto introduced as collaguing techniques, that is strictly embedding one material with one values/ function only in a building.
In terms of this kind of attitude towards material and how they relate it with the structural aspect from the building, it is considered as an excluding way of ignoring lots of other values. Each material embeds only one function, by reducing much other potential in it for many problems that can be solved by it.
I would like to bring up Sir E.H. Gombrich’s quotation in his book titled “Norm and Form”, that can be found in Reiser and Umemoto’s Atlas of Novel Tectonics. He explained:
“It will be remembered that the Principe of exclusion is a very simple, not to say primitive, principle that denies the values it opposes. The principle of sacrifice admits and indeed implies of a multiplicity values. What is sacrificed is acknowledged to be a value even though it has to yield to another value which commands priority.” (Gombrich, 1971, quoted in Reiser,Umemoto, 2006)
I don’t agree in using the modernist method of design because it is already proved that it has problems in its adaptability. It doesn’t have flexible system because of its embodiment of singular value within a material. It should respond to the changing situations or conditions in the future in the given context. It means that it is efficient in a short time, but not in a long period.
I think we should start to focus in finding possibilities of facilitating the plurality of functions within the material. One way to achieve that goal is by using a method that Stephen Gaged introduced as a self control system. It is a system that allows an object to make continuous evaluation about the conditions of a place where it sits and make certain internal actions upon it in order to adapt and to be survived.
Stephen Gage stated that the idea of this system ambition of having layers of aspects/ functions within material is started when time based was considered in architecture. Afterwards, people have been interesting to explore cybernetics that offer an autonomous control system and tries to apply it in architecture.
One of the reasons why is it started to be explored was that is a kind of shifting paradigm from “men as the center of the world” into an equal position with another creature in the nature, which was explained by Usman Haque in commenting Gordon Pask Conversation Theory. He argues:
“…Now at the beginning of the 21st century, Pask’s Conversation Theory seems particularly important because it suggests how, in the growing field of ubiquitous computing, humans, devices and their shared environments might coexist in mutually constructive relationship…” (Haque ,2008, quoted in Bullvant)
At this stage I want to introduce some projects that was made with this kind of attitude of research. One of them is a research that is held by Neil McLoughlin Architects.
They concentrated on the reactions between everyday found object and nature itself in order to give a sense of aesthetic. Their projects demonstrate evidences of material based research, which is trying to create responses from nature’s phenomena (physics, chemical, kinetic) from the material natural potentials.
The first evidence is a result of collaborative works with an artist, Martin Richman, creating a self illuminating and scented field. By using some gardening equipments made from plastics scattered upon detergent covered area in the RIBA building’s floor, it is absorbing the UV lights from the sun in day time. And when the night comes, it will start spreading the light that is lit by its physics interactions between UV light-plastic-detergent and the strong scent for the whole floor in the building. This finding is worth to be explored in terms of its ability to provide light without any electricity. It’s an evidence demonstrate the interaction between material and nature by its physical reactions.
The second one would be a canopy made from computer-etched copper sheet. The two layers of the copper was prepatinated with different chemical processes, so that through time it will has different colors from it designed geometric pattern. It gives us an evidence of opportunity of a self-continuous chemical reaction between material and nature.
And another project that can be used as evidence is the one that demonstrates the relation between material and nature that can produce movement by its chemical and kinetic potentials. It is a creature made by Theo Jansen, which can be moved by wind and sea water as the stimulator of the internal mechanic operations in order to be survived in the beach.
I advocate these projects as evidence that demonstrate of a system embedding several layers of values. This kind of system allows a communication between the material and its given context in order to be able to adapt. It has big opportunities for further development since they still can not be defined as a complete architecture project.
In search of material based aesthetic in digital architecture
Critical point that I can still give for those projects would be its unspecific kind of aesthetic. Somehow I feel that it is not something that I can consider as an architectural aesthetic. I’m still trying to find a distinct formula that can define a very different aesthetic from the other field of art and previous architectural thinking (i.e. post modern era).
I agree the importance of user of an architectural object that is explained by Edward Winters, in his book titled “Aesthetic and Architecture”. An architectural object always has to have relation to the public. The user plays important role in defining an aesthetic of architecture.
He tries to categorized architecture as public art, and stresses that architect as its creator/ artist has to relate their works with the public where it sits. He argues:
“…These artists could not have produced the work they have without concerning themselves with the particular publics for whom the works made. Architecture just is a public art. It works are placed in public spaces and together they form our towns and our cities. Art, when it went public, had to address the issue arising from its newly found publicity…” Winters (2007)
With such consideration, I’m start questioning about perception that people can achieve from an architectural object. What kind of values within architecture that can be understood by the public? How can we achieve that in the project?
Having understanding about how a brain works in order to make a perception is important at this stage. Stephen Gage argues that an architectural object should be learnt first by its spectators. It’s the natural way. By the time they understand about it, it gives the sensation of delight.
Gage continues to bring us into explanation that is I consider as an opportunity of an exploration in the digital realm. He was questioning about what happen next when it’s already understood by the spectators? Is it going to lose its sensation again? How can we keep those sensations disregarding how many times the spectators came to the same object?
Gage introduced something that he called continuous epiphany. He explains about the variety that should be contained in architecture in order to achieve particular sensation of aesthetic. He argues:
“…Perhaps if the variety is great enough the observer will always learn new things – a continuous epiphany…” (Gages, 2008, quoted in Sheill)
At this stage it is quite clear that variety holds important role in order to give the continuous delight that is needed to make a distinguished aesthetic. The more the merrier! And there has been no better time to achieve more varieties than right now, since the digital innovations allow us to simulate millions array of variation probabilities.
But I’m still questioning about the common values that the public share together as their communal perception upon an architectural object. Is there any such thing?
Let me introduce about what Peter Eisenman differentiated between conceptual aspect and perceptual aspect related to aesthetic in his “Notes on Conceptual Architecture; Towards a Definition”. He argues that conceptual aspect of architecture is something that is already processed as layers of meanings inside the brain of every observer, while perceptual aspects of architecture is formed by the physical appearance of the object itself.
He’s taking a word symbol as an example on how observer reactions of a word. If we were looking at letter “X”, an observer would have said that it is a letter “X” that they were using conceptual aspects. It is a common agreed upon meaning. But if they were saying that the letter “X” is “something that is centralized”, they would have reacted using the perceptual aspects. The objects appear with their own natural and physical meaning.
With this definition, I promote the perceptual aspect that can define about which perception that should be advocated. It is coherent with the set of arguments which I already explained before about the physical potentials from a material that should be consists of layers of values.
It would have repeated something that is already done in the post modern era, If we were implementing the conceptual aspects. Because meaning which is a seed form of a culture, can be formed by those physical potentials within the material in architecture.
Using this logic, it is worth taking a glimpse to the project that Marcos Cruz and Marjan Colleti are doing in their design investigation in the Bartlett School of Architecture. They tried to explore the possibilities of implementing typological approach in the topological realm.
I consider this as repeating something that is already done in the post-modern era of architecture. Typological approach tries to implement certain shapes or symbols that are already exist in a society and it is representing certain meanings to their history as a community. I do object to it with such consideration that culture and history can be formed by architecture, not the other way around. Reiser and Umemoto clearly stated this particular argument in their Atlas of Novel Tectonic.
Material has to be placed at the top priority of further investigations. Evidences and arguments built above, based on the real problems and theoretical problems, direct us to explore the connection between material, context, and interactivity/ adaptability. It has the potentials for innovations regarding to theoretical logic. And since it all started from the real problems, hopefully at the end it’s going to give a problem solving kind of architecture.
By Ardes Perdhana
Curry, C. 2008. Curry Stone Design Prize Website [online]. [Accessed 16th January 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://currystonedesignprize.com/?page_id=208>
Eisenman, P, D. 1971. Notes Towards a Conceptual Arhictecture: Towards a Defiition. Casabella. n 359. p. 49-57.
Sheil, B. 2008. The Wonder of Trivial Machines. Protoarchitecture: Analogue and Digital Hybrids. Vol 78 (No 4), pp. 17, 19.
Haque, U. 2007. Bullvant, L, (ed). The Architectural Relevance of Gordon Pask. 4D Social: Interactive Design Environments. Vol 77 (No 4), pp. 55.
Ourousoff, N. 2008. ARCHITECTURE: It Was Fun Till the Money Ran Out. New York Times Website. Accesed 14th January 2009. Available from World Wide Web: <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9504E4DD153BF932A15751C1A96E9C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1>
Reiser, Umemoto. 2006. Atlas of Novel Tectonics. New York: Princeton Architectural Press
Sinclair, C., Stohr, K., 2008. Architecture for Humanity Website [online]. [Accessed 16th January 2009]. Available from World Wide Web: < http://www.architectureforhumanity.org/updates/2008-12-21-a-letter-to-the-new-york-times>
Winters, E. 2007. Aesthetics and Architecture. London: Continuum International Publishing Group