About Thom’s Question for Dominic

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The question was why do you do a proper architecture section and then go back to more conceptual exercises and the answer has to do a little bit with the history of architecture and a lot with how I cook octopus. There are times in the history of architecture when we are very concerned with the rules, like the French Neoclassicism that gave us the original Louvre and, come to think of it, I.M. Pei’s intervention is very rule bound too. Those plates of glass were a big deal at the time. Careful coordination with their manufacture made them possible; most definitely not off-the-shelf items. Pei’s pyramid has structural clarity and not just because the glass is both transparent and holds itself up. It was a feat and the French do love their structural feats going all the way back to Chartres. The use of parametric systems to design form in architecture schools was also rule bound, so much so that architecture design started feeling more and more like industrial design design. I enjoyed and still enjoy the luscious forms that come out of it. I even had a brush with the great Erwin Hauer, the parametricist before parametrics, through a sophomore year sculpture course.

But there are other times when it’s all chaos but it’s the good kind of chaos, as when Alberti “classicizes” Santa Maria Novella with the huge volutes or when Palladio decides that it’s not a problem to ignore triangular structural integrity and breaks the pediment. I like that the etymology of the word Renaissance (of French origin, incidentally) is “again a birth.” This is no clean and neat tabula rasa of the eighteenth century; births are messy things. And so it was that the architects of this new architecture birth played fast and loose with classical elements, literally a mishmash of things, as when in Sant’Andrea Alberti mashes together the arc de triumph and the Pantheon. You have to play for a while and then if you are lucky, eventually, after much much play, you get Michelangelo. Are we in this anything-goes-phase now? I’ve heard the word “post-digital” being thrown around in studio reviews. Is there some sort of new and improved and messy birth of architecture going on? My reptilian brain is telling me that it’s the collage we should be using (as a way of thinking, the way Alberti and company were collaging Roman buildings together).

This also means that there’s necessarily a lot of jumping around, from the measured to the conceptual, then back again to the measured, and again to the conceptual, and so on. The scanner “toy” I brought into studio helps with the Alberti-style mashing because it turns everything into gray mush. The term “informed misuse” came about from a discussion with Anthony Buccellato about how to use technologies such as the 3D scanner in studio design processes (he’s doing his own informed misuse studio this semester with Dagmar Richter re. Revit).  But the most important thing, as always, lest we forget this is about teaching architecture, is the priming of the architect with a bunch of exercises that teach different modes of thinking: broken crockery arranged in a Louise Nevelson box; a section collage that mixes fiction and nonfiction and explosions of color; monochrome folded paper representations of the gray mush we scanned, collaged, flattened, folded, and mounted. But also there’s the size of the gym and the location of the principal’s office. There’s a body of volumes that have to be assembled in the gray space of a three dimensional digital model and then cut and printed. Some of the work in the broken crockery box, in the section collage, in the folded paper from the gray scans—the thinking that when on while completing these exercises will make its way into the more programmatically faithful arrangement of volumes of the building, but not in the direct way in which we were programming form until very very recently. Did the tragic and too early death of Zaha Hadid coincide with an end to all that? Maybe. We still have all those parametric tools at our disposal but now we are using them like Alberti did, taking lots and lots of Alberti-liberties.

Now, about cooking the octopus. I don’t have a large range of dishes I can cook, but I do have a handful of things I can do very well. My chicken cacciatore was a big hit at a recent potluck, in an Italian-American-cooking context too, and that’s some steep competition. I also know how to cook octopus to sumptuous tenderness, a tricky thing to do. The first step starts in the freezer—it needs to sit frozen for a few days to begin the tenderizing process (this is what in studio we call “research”). When my mother was a child and large enough freezers were hard to come by they were simply draped on tree branches and beaten with a stick, the low-tech tenderizer (there has always existed the gleeful consumption of “pulpo a la gallega” in Northwest Spain). Then, for the cooking process, you drop it in boiling water, then in ice cold water, then in boiling water again, and so on. There seems to be lots of evidence supporting the usefulness of a kind of “toggle” between two conditions. Eleven years a go I discovered a Finish-style resort and with it the joys of going from a cold cold lake to a hot hot sauna and back again.

This toggle effect from one mode of operating to the other, from the conscious logical brain, to the reptile brain, back again to conscious decision making—this switching back and forth produces, I hope, the vague sense of an architecture emerging as if out of the fog, slowly becoming more and more distinct.

 

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