Saturday, February 26, 2011

Not knowing the key elements that help you recall a certain thing can be incredibly frustrating. We've all experienced this, like when you can't remember who sang certain song or quipped a legendary line. Online search engines can usually alleviate this problem. Google anticipates where you're going before you even finish typing your search. But what if the thing you're looking for isn't traceable by any of the obvious terms? What if the terms are too generic and give you too many results (except for the right one)? Or what if the item simply isn't tagged properly, sitting quietly in some corner of webspace waiting to be found in some other roundabout search method? How lonely must that little online item be? And how frustrating must it be for those who cannot find it?

Such was my frustration for six long years, after hearing an amazing episode of This American Life, and despite searching high and low for the episode after hearing it the first time, I was never able to find it again. Not in the radio show's archives. Not on iTunes. Nowhere. For six long years. In that time, I retold the story to my friends and family members (especially the politically minded, as you'll see). Each time I knew I was forgetting important details that held the original together. I think I even started making things up just so that the overall account made sense. I repeatedly went back to the web, digging through the show's archives, searching through online forum threads and chasing dead links, no thanks to the show's restructuring of its online archives. I never gave up on the search, but sometimes I did forget about it for long periods of time, until something reminded me of the story again and made me think to look for it, never with a different outcome. But just the other day, there was a breakthrough.

The day started just like any other Saturday. I was at my computer, drinking coffee, reading the news, checking blogs, stalling before my morning bike ride. I heard Ira Glass' voice from the stereo downstairs while Andrea watered the plants. Almost subconsciously I plugged my typical search terms into the Google homepage: "This American Life" + Afghanistan + Rumsfeld (hence the politics). The resulting links were a purple nightmare, the dead-end links I'd visited in the past. A few blue links appeared near the top. So I clicked on one - a blog with a comment thread that mentioned the show, something I'd come across a lot in my previous searches, many written by people who (like me) remembered the show, some more vaguely than others, but could never find the original in the archives. At the bottom of this blog was a comment with a link, probably another dead end. It had "" in the URL, which could mean luck or just another dead end. Not even thinking really, I clicked it. And then it happened. I was on the show's website. I was looking at my episode. Six long years. And there it was. Staring me in the face. I'd found it. Was it lonely and in a corner like I'd assumed? Probably not. But there I was, happy as a kid that found his lost dog (wow, I guess that happens a lot).

I hesitated before clicking play, just enough time to put down my coffee and put on my headphones. Moments later I was six years back, hearing the show for the first time, driving through Cambridge's Central Square in my sputtering Camry along Prospect Street, heading to Jamaica Plain to visit Andrea. I'd forgotten that that's where I was heading, but I remembered it now. And I remembered all of the details of the story that were lost, and the times I'd invented fiction while retelling it in the past.

Interestingly, my search terms never would have helped me find the story through the program's website. Here's the show's description, which has no overlap with my previous online investigations:
The story of a series of misunderstandings with very dire consequences. Shaheen was stopped by the police, who looked at what was in his car and before Shaheen knew it, he'd come to the attention of some of the highest ranking officials in the Defense Department. Gabrielle Galanek talked to Shaheen and his girlfriend Molly about what happened. (35 minutes)
Nothing about Afghanistan or Donald Rumsfeld. Of course, because these are minor players in the overall story. But still, these things were the glue that held the story together in my mind, and did so for so long. Why? I can't be sure, but this glue was the barrier between me and the show. Afghanistan and Rumsfeld were blocking my access to Ira Glass and his description of the show, which was so appropriately vague that almost no search terms could find it on the web. To get around this barrier, I had to rely on people who assembled their recollection of the story just like me, with the same details and the same search terms, who published these things on the web and allowed me to search for them. But don't we all hear a story differently - each of us remembering different details, different meanings, memories and so on? Luckily, I found someone (good old Aram Harrow, whoever he might be) who not only shared my memory of the show, but who also knew where the real thing resided. I have no idea how he found it, it doesn't matter now, because he wrote the comment that became my breakthrough. He unknowingly ended my six-year separation from the story of my affection. And for that I thank him.

So for everyone else looking for the same show with the same terms, search no more. I give you Episode 288: That's Not What I Meant, which originally aired on May 6, 2005. Enjoy, and may you relive not just a great story but the memories of hearing it for the first time.

Image Credit: Kim Asendorf


Saturday, February 5, 2011

I recently produced a series of visualizations for James Cohan Gallery of Chelsea, NYC for their installation at the annual Art Basel fair. An exciting group of artists will be shown in the installation including Roxy Paine, Bill Viola, Robert Smithson, and Fred Tomaselli.

(a collaboration with Ben Ritter)


Friday, January 28, 2011

One of my favorite moments in the morning is opening the front page of the New York Times website. It's a morning ritual and a rite of passage into the new day. But what's even better is when I see the words "interactive feature," "multimedia" or "graphic." In my early morning haze, before the coffee has taken full effect, these words are lighthouses for my foggy morning brain. They signal a bit of news represented through the lens of a different medium, more easily digested in the morning hours as compared to a full-length text article. This is not to say that interactive or multimedia graphics are an "easier" form of news digestion, which can be had on a number of other news outlets. Instead, the NYT's visual media are a means of representing the news information in a way that only a graphic could make clear or compelling. This, in fact, is better than coffee at bringing me out of the morning fog.

I don't know much about how the Times structures its multimedia graphics department, or how news items are selected for graphic representation. I'm sure I could find this out if I did some digging (I might need a graphic to help me with that, too). But there are two recent examples of NYT graphics that I think best represent the value of what they do. On January 8, one year after the earthquake in Haiti, the NYT released an interactive graphic showing the growth of new squatter towns, to be seen as both a sign of the area's destruction as well as the birth of new forms of settlement. The viewer can navigate through several satellite images comparing settlement patterns before and after the earthquake, as well as a present satellite view one year later.

In the second interactive graphic, the NYT represent America's most recent demographic population patterns (culled from the 2010 Census data) in a zoom/pan-able GoogleMaps-like format. I haven't spent so much time on a single graphic web interface since the original GoogleMaps was released in 2005. The clustering of demographic groups is nothing new, but the thoroughness of the data and its immediate accessibility is an accomplishment. This graphic in particular had friends sending me interesting finds for over a week ("this parcel 100% latino!," "race totally obeys the grid in Chicago!").

It's interesting to note that both of these examples are maps - a graphic that I seem to be biased towards, as well as a medium that the NYT interactive department handles especially well. Of course, there are many other examples that are equally compelling, such as the videos and slideshow-style photography series. But for me, nothing pumps the mental caffeine as much as the maps - especially when the map is about caffeine itself.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Recently, I've been busy editing two publications for Asymptote, both of which were recently released: "Architecture & Speed", a guest edition of the architectural journal L'Arca; and Asymptote Architecture: Actualizations, a new monograph of the firm's work. If you want to get your hands on them, you can check out Amazon, your local design bookstore or library. And if you're in NYC, I hear they're also being sold at the MoMA museum store. Enjoy and please do let me know what you think.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

This week marks the debut of Asymptote's Baku Eco-Cultural Master Plan, a project that I managed in 2009. As shown in the video above, Asymptote's ecological improvement proposal for the capital city of Azerbaijan features a new cultural causeway linking its historic district to new architectural landmarks. The master plan uses natural remediation to refurbish the ecological environment of Baku Bay reviving the city's coastline and the Caspian Sea.

Along with GCAM and Atelier Jean Nouvel the project, was presented to top-level Azerbaijani government officials. First stages of the project will include the construction of a new Museum of Modern Art by Jean Nouvel, followed by Asymptote's master plan consisting of cultural islands linked by causeways, with hydro-filtration infrastructure and vegetative remediation beds. The Baku Eco-Cultural Master Plan is an exciting and innovative urban proposal and a progressive step forward for the city of Baku.

Also, be sure to look out for two new publications by Asymptote coming out very soon. More on that at a later date!


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Earlier this week, the film critic Roger Ebert posted an article on his blog, detailing what he perceived as the sad state of modern architecture. The bulk of his text focuses on the minimalism of Mies, which he sees as "soulless," and the use of industrial materials (introduced in the modern era) for the construction of cheap and commercial architecture. today His article then turns to the style of Gothic architecture as an exemplar of architecture with soul and material craftsmanship - the supposed antidote to our contemporary architectural ills.

Architects see this kind of thing every so often, where those with prominent voices leave the borders of their own discipline and speak out against the current state of architecture. Naturally, I took issue with Ebert's article and wrote him a letter explaining why. He sent a brief reply., and here's how it went:

I appreciate your post, however I have a few critical objections. I should state that I am an architect, and therefore I have a biased appreciation for the work of American modernists. I also feel that you're not giving the style it's fair shake. In fact, I think your argument corners a very limited view of what the modern movement was in architecture, avoiding other readings in which I think you might find some appreciation.

It seems that your main points are: 1) modern architecture lacks a soul (or, that it lacks the image of the man behind it), and 2) that modern architecture embodies the commercial and material perils of global capitalism. To the first point, you avoid acknowledging a broad range of modernists who produced buildings with incredible soul and expression - Eames, Saarinen, Utzon, Pei, Wright, just to name a few. And each of these have had a significant effect on architecture's evolution beyond modernism. Look at the work of today's emerging avant-garde practitioners and you will see things that are almost baroque with effect, but still tied to the lessons learned from modernism. But to associate all of modernism with the pure and minimalist canon of Mies is as much a violation as associating all of modern film with a single  Hollywood director. Mies had a particular agenda, identified particular challenges within that agenda, and solved them with incredible grace - so much so that, in his architectural details, some see incredible passion, expression, and dare I say it: ornament. To that end, you forgot a critical Mies quote in which he declared "God is in the detail," a belief that architecture's capacity extended far beyond that of a single man's soul.

As for the second point, which locates the failures of global capitalism as a trait in architecture, I think you short change the profession yet again by assuming that architects are willingly complicit in the drab storefronts you describe. To make this assertion without examining the bigger picture of architectural practice, you place the entire burden of urban junk on the shoulders of architects, absolving the responsibilities of developers, city planners and politicians. Unfortunately, the profession is mostly reliant on these parties for defining architecture's potentials and limits, and often these are far less than ideal. Again, I could turn to Hollywood as a metaphor. In either case, architecture or movies, heroes are rare, and even if they do take shape they're usually the product of a higher (and not so innocent) power. The next time you pass a boring storefront bank, I'm not saying that you should pity the architect, but you might consider writing a post with a slightly different slant, yielding perhaps a more effective response.

Lastly, I'd like to end with a question. I'm curious to know why you gravitate towards the affect of Gothic architecture (i.e. the photos of Justin Kern) and not towards the systems (both logical and aesthetic) that defined its style. My feeling is that the tradition of problem-solving and the belief in aesthetic form that we see in the Gothic style was very much alive and well in the modern era, and certainly lives on today. I think you're missing so much of a city if you confine yourself only to the old. While you might not like the surface treatment of the new (or the modern), I hope you can find it in you to look deeper and to appreciate the intelligent minds that gave it order, logic and some semblance of joy. Sometimes, you have to look at these things abstractly. But given your tenure, I'm confident that you won't find this too difficult.


Ebert: I basically agree with you. I admire modernism but not most of the way it is now translated into the cheapest building strategies. Bank branches for me are a perversion. Mies would have designed lovely ones.
I'm very grateful for his personal reply, and I think he's right about Mies (not about his architecture lacking soul, but about banks). I'm still very curious to know why he finds comfort in Gothic architecture, especially the "Gothic" buildings he mentions in Chicago. Surely this is a strange sentiment to have in America's capitol of architectural modernism, but one which is nevertheless a reality, even for America's most prominent modern movie critic.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Dîner en Blanc - Receive a text. Race to the specified location wearing the best white vestments. Guys: set up table, tablecloth, cutlery, dishware, glassware, pour champagne. Girls: serve food. Start first the first course. (All in under 15 minutes)

This is Dîner en Blanc, a flash mob interpretation of the Parisian summer-time supper al fresco. In 2008, the event was held at the Champs Élysées. 2009, Place de la Concorde. 2010, Le Louvre. Each year, the location is kept secret - participants receive text and twitter messages just 15 minutes before it begins - so as to rely on the flash mob's lighting quick speed to set everything up before authorities can intervene. The 2010 dinner was reportedly attended by over 10,000 and the event continues to grow each year.

Some complain that the recently epic proportions have depleted the event of its prestige, others are quick to praise its widespread publicity. Either way, the dîner has gone viral, spreading to other cities like Berlin and Montreal.

New York has yet serve as a host to the Dîner, perhaps because its patience for flash mobs has been worn thin by iPod dance-a-thons and pantless subway days. But the city still offers several underground eateries; most of which are near impossible to find and even more difficult to book. Perhaps our time and effort is better spent ironing a white suit, waiting for the elusive text message and hoping there is a cab nearby ready to whisk us away.

Photo Credit:  Balthazar


Sunday, June 27, 2010

If you've seen Pedro Almodóvar's recent film Broken Embraces, you may have noticed the amazing landforms of Lanzarote's vineyards. The vineyards are located in and around the Denominación de Origen wine region of Lanzarote known as La Gería. The striking feature of these vineyards is their traditional method of "protected" cultivation. Single vines are planted in pits with small stone walls surrounding each pit. The accumulated pits create a desolate moonscape hybridized with what looks like a larval population of grapevines, all of them shockingly green against the dead grey of Lanzarote's volcanic earth. The agricultural technique is unique to La Gería, designed to protect the vines from Lanzarote's constant wind and to collect rainfall and overnight dew. However the visual effect gives it even more singularity and a much stronger sense of otherness.

This sensibility is adeptly captured in Almodóvar's film, precisely at a moment when its plot takes a decisive and fatalistic turn, one which requires a beautiful and foreboding landscape to equal the characters' dangerous romance. The intertwining of these two elements, land form and narrative form, subsequently serves to amplify the sensation of discomfort while swallowing us in the lushness of things that we want to love but know that we should not: bleak landscapes, adulterated love. Surely, Almodóvar selected this place for precisely this kind of isolation.

Of course, this makes me curious about which places he overlooked before settling on the vineyards of La Gería - a question that might never be answered. Still, Lanzarote has certainly been added my list of desired (albeit other-worldly) destinations.

Photo Credit: u_did


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Summertime is an interesting season for architects. While the academic population breathes a collective sigh at the conclusion of yet another school-year, architectural practice is revving its engines for an upcoming sweaty season of production. Staff sizes balloon with summer interns. Principals previously distracted by academic calendars give focus to practice with a new urgency. Clients eager to spend weekends (or weeks!) by the beach pull the contract trigger, if anything to finally clear that task from their to-do list. After all, who wants to worry about architecture over the summer? Except for architects...

"Summer architecture," not unlike the summer of love, is an interesting phenomenon, where it is simply too hot for the black suit, and the concept of a casual Friday claims more and more of the week's other days. Mondays are often buzzing with the download of weekend adventures, followed by a check of the inbox (not much there, of course, since everyone else was also away), and a rallying of the troops. Everyone has a bit of sunburn on their nose, plus a smile and a burgeoning air of eagerness. The workshop is buzzing and the double-click of the mouse has a noticeably bouncier rhythm, as if architecture in the summer has a healthy, restorative power. Some days in the office it feels like a yoga studio, or worse, a Silicon Valley start-up - a far cry from the fall, winter and spring when the atmosphere aspired to be a sophisticated 1960's ad-agency, replete with pocket-squares and meeting-martinis.

Architecture in the summer has its tell-tale signs: big models, bright colors, weak plans, v-neck t-shirts, and at least one odd romance or two. The summer then drags on and these things slowly develop (models, plans, romance...). The worst part of summer architecture is the end, when time runs out on not only the summer itself but also the work, and although it is the last thing we want to do the final week before it all ends, we charrette. Interestingly, this seems to be a fuel of its own right - much like the weekend trip to the ocean - and as we slip back into our autumnal alter egos, that final intensity is what we share on a Monday morning (most likely, after having worked Saturday and Sunday). And before we know it, we're back to pocket-squares, and the plans are looking a bit more robust.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

A lot of things happen when you take on the government. You don't sleep very much. You have no time to update your blog. And worse, you stop paying attention to the outside world, and hence you have little to share on your blog after said taking on the government is complete.

But what is all this talk about taking on the government? Think less conspiracies and angry militias and more along the lines of competing to win an architectural contract for a major federal building - which, now that I think of it, sort of involved conspiracies and angry militias, otherwise known as a 'team strategy'. This being the first federal competition I've ever taken on was not very easy. It required long work days, coordination of a huge consultant team, the production of enormous books and presentations, traveling, hotels and far too many scotches on the rocks. And now, I find myself with a body that only wants to sleep and a brain that refuses to work. Not for architecture, nor for this blog - except for this post, which is meant to fill the gap of inactivity. These are the government doldrums.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Congratulations are in order for two fantastic people. First and foremost, a big high-five to Chris Shusta, a member of Studio Office and this year's winner of the 2010 Rotch Traveling Scholarship.

The Rotch contest winner was Christopher Shusta, who sought to soften the building’s imposing presence while also adding attractions to bring more visitors to the site. He would build the museum in a horizontal stretch along Congress Street, adding above it an outdoor terrace that faces the area of the plaza where concerts and other public events are currently held. Then Shusta would extend City Hall’s interior courtyard, a dark, disused space, out through the side of the building, connecting to the terraced area. The interior glass walls would look onto a newly brightened courtyard, which would be draped with geometrically shaped wooden shutters in natural finish. “The thought is to bring some human scale to the building that people see as missing now,’’ said Shusta, a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Design who lives in Princeton, N.J. He received a $37,000 scholarship to travel the world studying architecture for a minimum of eight months. Boston Globe

Way to go, Shusta! I want a postcard from each of your destinations!

The second congratulations goes to Fabian Cancellara, who solo'ed to victory today in the spring classics race, Ronde von Flanderen (Tour of Flanders). Only the second Swiss rider to ever win the Ronde (and the first since 1923), Cancellara pulled away from Tom Boonen on the race's final climb, riding the final 15km alone until the finish line. Next week, the spring classics hits its crescendo with the so called "queen stage," Paris-Roubaix.

The worlds of design and cycling are alive with celebration. Kudos!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

It was a busy fall, so I’m catching up on some old reading a bit late. But in Log 17, I came upon an interesting article by David Ruy, “Lessons from Molecular Gastronomy,” which I found oddly pertinent to some of the issues and questions recently addressed here, in some of my own writing. In his article, Ruy gives a vivid and in-depth account of the famous Spanish restaurant elBulli, the most consistently top-ranked restaurant in the world, where a 36-course meal will take you six hours to complete, where your senses will be engaged beyond saturation, and where you will only have access if you are one of the few selected out of the 2-million-plus that apply every year. Its popularity is a result of its extremely unique method of food-preparation - including the use of molecularly-generated ingredients, chemical reactions and scientific devices used as cooking utensils - and the food’s capacity to expand our comprehension of both its physical capability and as our own sensorial range.

By describing the elBulli experience, Ruy establishes a captivating parallel in the way we consume architecture – a process that engages the basic senses (sight, smell, taste, etc.), plus, as Ruy points out, our cognitive sensibility, including both the magic or mechanics of that process, terms that are ostensibly spectral opposites but necessary complements in the gastronomic or architectural experience. For Ruy, the key term is technique (a synonym for mechanics), and the key question is how to position technique within the more generalized goals of food or architecture. We might see this question as basic, but within its simplicity it challenges our assessment of the components of design, most notably the qualitative weight we attribute to generative technique versus consumption. Ruy’s position on this issue is clear:

At elBulli, the technology that goes into producing the work is often extremely complex. However, the staff prefers to keep all of that hidden during presentation at the dinner table. They sublimate the technology and the burden of its implications to allow the diner to focus on the sensations alone. The sublimation of technology brings about a magical effect – “how is this done? It seems impossible!” In the sciences, technology is never sublimated within the hypothesis. To do so would obviously obscure the validity of an investigation’s results. In the arts, the problems are different. As the material world continues to lose its magic through the knowledge of its causes, it becomes the burden of artistic practices to reintroduce magic into the world by obscuring material causes once again.

Ruy’s valuation of sensorial magic over mechanics is reflective of his generation's rising practitioners (whose leaders form the bulk of Log 17’s contributors), a group that conquered the introduction of digital technique in architectural practice and are currently seeking its maturation into something new. The natural reaction, after so many years of technique-based research and subsequent critique, is to return to the more fundamental agenda of sensation, which in this case is well served (albeit discretely) by the collective application of complex techniques and digital mechanics. The sublimation of technique and the emphasis on sensation is a refreshing perspective beyond an obsession with process and into the matter that engages our sincere and emotional capacities. It has nuances of the expressive modernism of Saarinen and Utzon to the transporting environments of disco. What’s missing, however, is a vision for its endgame – an agenda for the morning after, when the sensations have worn away, gotten old or grown tired. The same could be said of a meal at elBulli. After we leave the restaurant and return to our own kitchens, what role would an elite evening of sensational molecular gastronomy play in our daily lives, other than to know food’s ultimate capacity beyond the mundane? Is there a “trickle-down” effect of sensations in food or architecture, perhaps even towards an ethical design agenda? Perhaps Log 18 has all the answers, and at this rate I might get to that by the fall. We shall have to wait and see.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

It isn't quite springtime yet (temperatures in France are still below freezing), but already the European peleton is charging out of its gates, racing from the French capital to the Mediterranean in what has become known as the annual "race to the sea." Paris-Nice. A picturesque slog of 1,288 frigid kilometres. Completed in 8 days. While wearing spandex. Such is the devotion of the springtime racer to his or her sport.

And then, things can get a little hot, as in the 1984 edition of Paris-Nice, when a large group of protesting French shipyard workers blocked the race route. As the peloton collided with the protestors, several riders either dismounted from their bikes or fell onto the road. However, Bernard Hinault (aka "The Badger"), a 5-time winner of the Tour de France, took things one step further, throwing punches at the closest shipyard worker within reach. And of course, someone caught it all on film.

Fights in cycling are incredibly rare, as they should be, but when they do happen, whether it's because of the riders' wiry physiques or the lack of protection in their spandex, they are awkward and off-balance little episodes that prove why professional boxers do not wear cycling cleats.

Still, whether it's the sight of a cyclist charging into the cold with whatever protection he can find, or the image of Hinault delivering the full emotion of his off-season anxiety to someone's face, I can't help but feel the excitement of spring's impeding arrival. In the coming weeks and months, layer by layer, the winter gear will come off exposing my pasty legs to the light of day, and soon it will be summer.


Friday, March 12, 2010

With regards to ideology, is there any way to differentiate our attitude towards a mathematically-driven architecture versus that of automatic art? In particular, consider the wall paintings of Sol LeWitt or the Drawing Restraints of Mathew Barney (especially 1-6, 10). Does either example establish a stronger connection between the idea and the idea-made-manifest? The rule and the drawing, the code and the building. Of course, the pivotal and unavoidable question is why we would circumvent the will of the creator and his or her direct connection to the consumer. But in return, we should also question whether or not the rule constitutes a will, and whether or not it is intelligent enough to generate something valuable for the consumer.


Monday, March 1, 2010

It's fitting (to me at least) that in the midst of (my) recent events the GSD will be hosting a conference this Friday, March 5th, titled "The Mathematics of Sensible Things." Organized by Georges Legendre of IJP, the conference will also include Ben Aranda, Dennis Shelden, Antoine Picon and keynote speaker Bernard Cache. Incidentally, Antoine's talk is called "Architecture and Mathematics: Between Intuition and the Quest for Operative Techniques." I find Antoine's interest in digital architecture surprising, and his insight refreshing, so it will be interesting to hear his comments on the relationship between mathematics and intuition. Perhaps his view will shed light on the supposed opposition between automation and ideology (still not sure about the effectiveness of those terms, but will go with it for now).

No word on whether the conference will be web-cast, but keep an eye on the GSD's events website for any updates.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's been brought to my attention that the Eisenman debacle, which I described in a previous post, is a bit more extensive than I expected*. In addition to his lecture at the AA, he has apparently made reference to GreyMatters on several other occasions. In an introduction to Anthony Vidler's Histories of the Immediate Present, Eisenman writes the following:

Of all the terms in the architectural lexicon, or, for that matter, those of painting and sculpture, the one most laden with social and political opprobrium is formalism. To be a formalist is to be a target for everyone who feels that architecture is a social project full of rhetorical symbolism. Yet I was struck, while on a recent jury at a prestigious East Coast architecture school, by the pervasive influence of a new, perhaps more virulent breed of formalism, more virulent because it was posed under the banner of a neo-avant-garde technological determinism. The nexus of this formalism lay in advanced computer modeling techniques generated out of complex algorithms that produced parametric processes of enormous complexity and consistency, replete with their own variability and distortion. The range, variety and energy of this work should have appealed to me personally, not only because of my memories of that particular institution as a bastion of intellectual conservatism, but also because this cutting-edge-process work was close to an idea of autonomy inherent in such authorless processes. Instead, I felt that something was radically wrong, something that speaks to a more general problem of architecture today. It was an autonomy freed from any passionate or firm ideological commitment.

He goes on to describe a more satisfactory definition of autonomy, which can be categorized under the rubric of the word "formal," and which he differentiates from a passionless and voided sense of "formalism." "Any internally generated forms," he writes, "that are part of a critical system in one sense could be considered as autonomous, independent of social or market forces, while still offering a critique of these forces." In other words, Eisenman clearly sees the value of autonomous systems within architecture, and respects them as a formal device with the capacity to react and respond to non-formal issues surrounding the discipline. Perhaps he is imagining these systems as a kind of grammar or visual language that indexes these non-formal issues and changes according to a predetermined set of controls. I might be misinterpreting his definition of autonomy as such, but oddly enough if it in fact has anything to do with indexicality, it seems that he has incorporated a more recent line of architectural research into a line of thinking that he established as far back as the beginning of his academic and professional career.

To stay on the topic of autonomy, I cannot contradict Eisenman's definition, especially with regard to a critical formal autonomy. But I would like to argue against the notion that the present line of digital research in architecture lacks an ideological commitment, or that it is laden with a technological determinism. In the right hands, this kind of autonomy can be tied to a true architectural criticality and a passionate intuition. The only impediment to accomplishing this ideology is the author's experience and fluency with digital technique, similar to any architect gaining fluency with the generative tools and intellectual media of his or her time. A clear ideology can only be expressed with control over those tools and an experience with those media. More importantly, a recognition of this ideology requires one to be able to discern between those with this ability and those without it. These two skills, experience and recognition, are inseparably tied to each other, both requiring curiosity, passion, ideology and, of course, practice, practice, practice.

* If anyone has access to a video archive of Princeton's lecture series, apparently there is another reference in a recent lecture he gave there. Thanks to EG for sharing her colorful memory of that event.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Photos have recently surfaced showing the present condition of the Ordos Project. What was originally conceived as an urban development, including residences, municipal facilities and cultural institutions, now seems to be hanging indefinitely in the balance, while all things political and economic sort themselves out. The experience of seeing these images is two-fold. On the one hand, the natural reclamation of architecture by sand and wind is alluring. While the decay and open parcels is simultaneously disappointing, especially as we have so much to look forward to in the designs from many young offices, including residences by I|K Studio, Studio Rocker, MOS and Scott Cohen. Let's hope the trade winds reverse their direction.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Excerpted from Peter Eisenman's lecture at the Architectural Association, February 5th, entitled "Lateness and the Crisis of Modernity":
What you find at least with students in America, and that’s why State of the Union, basically, the people that I deal with, the younger generation, is they’re beginning to behave like computers and they begin to believe that they are a computer. They have lost a capacity to intuit and to intelligently respond to conditions in a way to develop grammars. And the grammars that they have come out of the computer. So, we’re now tied to computer programs which weren’t designed for space-time architectural environments. The algorithms were for animation, for other kinds of issues, for media, and not for producing space and time in an architectural sense. And we now have something which is a disease, the parametric process disease, which, you know, has taken over in all leading institutions.

And, I was at a review at Harvard last spring and I met a very bright student, I was on his review. And it’s a year-long project at Harvard. And I said, “what did you do?” He said, “I wrote an algorithm that could produce any x-amount of variation.” I said, “oh my god, x-amount of variation. How do you choose?” He said, “choice is no longer the issue.” Right? I said, “oh, ok”. “Any one will do.” And of course, all of these things looked like weird chicken coops, when you see parametrics operating, right? And they all look the same. And so I thought, well, here I go, I’m going to be Mr. Genius Loci, I’m going to ask, you know, “what’s the function?” Or, “what’s the site?” And so I said, “so, there’s this great parametric process.” And then he showed all of the variations, all of them chicken coop, you know, punch surfaces, Alejandro. Right? Since you’re one of the problems in this area. Well, he’s going to be teaching with me, so I’m happy that I have somebody to play with - the source of the problem. In any case, I said to this young student, “well, what was the site?” He said, “oh, it was a wonderful site in Hong Kong Harbor.” I said, “oh, that’s nice, on an island in Hong Kong Harbor.” And I said, “because it’s in this island, you can choose any one of these chicken coops, since there’s no place, in a sense, but there is.” And I said, “well, what’s the program?” I couldn’t believe it, you have to understand, a year at Harvard, right? $50k for this. And he said, “my project,” hear this, “is a golf driving range.” I said, “a golf driving range?” I said, “what kind of social program is this?” He said, “well in the east, in Hong Kong, golf driving ranges are really important, there’s no place for people to play golf, so they go to golf driving ranges.” And he said, “you know what’s amazing about these chicken coops,” sorry, he didn’t use the term, “is that you can drive the golf balls out into the bay, because there’s no limit to how far you can hit the golf balls. You can hit them through different holes. You can have different size holes. You know one makes 100 yards, 200 yards, 300 yards, etc. depending on the surface.”

And I just, I gave up. I said, “I can’t deal with this. This, to me, isn’t what architecture is about.”

Maybe none of you have that problem yet, but the State of the Union in America, we call it the University of the North, where I live, but anyway it is a disease that is certainly spreading. And students today, for example, some of the students that I know at Yale, are afraid to take courses with people like Greg Lynn and others because they don’t have the computer skills. And they say, “well if we don’t have the computer skills, how can we do a Greg Lynn studio?” So I think one should be aware of this kind of thing.

I'm flattered that somehow my work made him question the discipline's limits. The only thing I ask is that he not give up. Keep up the good fight!

NB: Excerpt taken from the mid-point of the lecture. Thanks to Volkan for bringing it to my attention.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Prora, an architecture of walls, not too dissimilar from Le Corbusier's plan for Algiers. According to Wikipedia's entry on Prora:

The massive building complex was built between 1936 and 1939 as a Kraft durch Freude (KdF) project. Designed to provide affordable holidays for the average worker, Prora was designed to house 20,000 holidaymakers, under the ideal that every worker deserved a holiday at the beach. All rooms were planned to overlook the sea. Each room of 5 by 2.5 metres (16'5" x 8'3") was to have two beds, an armoire (wardrobe) and a sink. There were communal toilets and showers. Hitler's plans for Prora were ambitious. He wanted a gigantic sea resort, the "most mighty and large one to ever have existed", holding 20,000 beds. In the middle, a massive building was to be erected, able to accommodate all 20,000 guests at the same time, plus two wave-swimming pools and a theatre.

As with any residential mega-project, such as Corviale outside Rome or Karl-Marx-Hof in Vienna, the images of Prora are sublime. Just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Hamburg, and you can be on the walls and beaches of Prora in no time.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal
Pier Luigi Nervi
New York City, 1963

I would like to think that the root of problem solving in architecture is in some way tied to the notion of a structural module. The reason for this is that the structural module, if it is carefully designed as such, implies an understanding of depth, from perimeter to the center, and from space to space. And by this it potentially mediates a transition between conditions, which is itself the root meaning of problem solving. To allow the transition to occur is not necessarily a solved problem, yet if the transition puts forward a productive exchange between the two conditions, as in the problems solved by mathematics or biological species, this is the point at which architecture achieves a productive interaction with its context and discipline.