Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Half-Resurrected Field of Architecture

It's inspiring to see some midwesterners tearing it up in Minnesota, a state as conservative as ours. Rock on. I appreciated Houminn's devotion to process. When they talked about process, I liked what they had to say, and they talked about it sufficiently deeply to keep me interested.

When they started talking about product, however, I dosed. Houminn is symptomatic of leading-edge practice today, which can't talk about product deeply. Houminn's projects were essentially like the Dubai project Manto slammed on Friday - the one that defined "plant irrigation" as its primary design intention. So Houminn defined "natural ventilation" as a primary intention, or on another project, the reduction of solar heat-gain by 1%.

Clearly they had other things in their head. They mentioned racecar air-intakes and camouflage. But... why? What is relevant about those things? Why did they spend so much time justifying their work functionally, and so little time talking about the significance of their sources of inspiration, or the significance of the experiential impact of their designs? When it came to aesthetics, they were basically silent. Were they holding out on us, or are they oblivious to the deeper significance of their work?

The same problem arose in the Office da lecture. In the Q&A she was very explicit: "Our designs are driven by program." Yet clearly they weren't. No purely functional explanation can be offered for the faceted skin of the gas station canopy, nor for the crazy folded-plate roof of the drive testing facility.

What's going on here? If contemporary architecture is supposed to incorporate a return to meaning - a return to the significance of architecture beyond minimum functional solutions - then why do these folks remain so silent on the meaning of their work? The answer can be found in the nature of leading-edge architectural education, and the rediscovery of introspection among leading designers.

The current generation of leading-edge designers is the first of its kind. When in leading-edge architecture school, its members were mostly indoctrinated into the still dominant Post-Modern view of the world, and its corresponding approach to architecture. Central to this approach is the belief that architecture (like everything) is ultimately meaningless. Meaning in Post-Modern thought is subjective, that is, it is arbitrarily projected onto things by an observer, according to each observer's whim-of-the-moment. What a building means to me, Post-Modernists like to say, is not what a building might mean to you. And what a building means to me today might not be what it will mean to me tomorrow. If this subjective view it true, then designers have no control over the meaning of their work, and thus, according to Post-Modern architectural theory, designers should not be concerned with meaning. The idea that designers can make meaningful architecture is a delusion of the past.

This idea is still deeply infused in the thinking of first-generation Genetic designers. It is as though they have habitualized the turning-off of any thinking about meaning. They instinctively avoid any line of inquiry that might lead them there, steering clear of the "hornets nest of unanswerable questions" it implies to them. This peculiar habit of mind makes them blind to the absurdity of such statements as "Our designs are driven by program." They have contorted their thinking in such a way that they've actually convinced themselves this is true.

(This is a dangerous state of affairs - a vulnerable time in the growth of Genetic architecture - in which the whole movement could careen into a New Functionalism.)

The first generation of Genetic designers have been successful in taking back only the field of design process. Here they have aggressively cleaned out the cobwebs of Post-Modernism. They have opened the field back up, allowing architects to reflect on process and experiment with it beyond any prior age. But they have not yet broken the Post-Modern vice-grip on product and the closely linked consideration of significance (i.e., meaning). This, I hope, will be the great achievement of the second generation of Genetic designers. This will complete the pending architectural renaissance. Designers will again develop the ability to reflect on product as well as process.


  1. Thanks for the summary Kyle. I heard a lot of us discussing the lecture afterward, usually in a critical way (their wall system only turns one way). It can be hard to discuss meaningful architecture when your audience is averse to it on a fundamental level. Not that the lecturers were trying. I'm thinking more about students in Microcosm trying to answer questions about our projects to other people in the school. It is difficult to do without feigning the same ignorance that your listener is displaying. What I mean is, they think we are 'just playing' or 'fooling around' with material and glaze over if qualities and meaning are brought in. Then, if we are able to stick to our guns and insist it is meaningful it results in a direct challenge to all of their beliefs (Similar to the dialogue started in 302 with Jerry although he has been very willing to engage the subject).

    So looking at the last line of your post, do you have any strategies for equipping an audience, early in a dialogue, with the background/tools needed to think about product meaningfully?

  2. It's interesting that you mention Weisman, who describes post-modern architecture as a "return to meaning". I always found that interesting. One can't just say they're returning to meaning, but let that meaning be anything one chooses, or as Kyle said, a subjective projection of a singular or collective construct. Modern lingists went down the same route, and many of them ended up killing themselves out of sheer desperation from their inability to know anything for certain. Meaning is, at that stage, something that is at best ephemeral - probably why most post-modern buildings are out of "Style" before they're completed (think of some of Zaha's early work). I think the larger problem intentional meaning (my own term) poses to the post-modern mind is that it a challenge to their BELIEF (although most won't call it that) that truth is ultimately unknowable. This relativist view of the world explains many negative reactions to our projects in school. We are viewed as the ultimate personification of hubris - those who think they actually know something for certain. Especially since our meaning may stem from a source that they have - pardon the alliteration - disregarded, discarded, or find distasteful. I find this all quite ironic, since it is actually they who are setting the rules for what can convey meaning - as if they KNOW FOR CERTAIN that any sources of meaning, other than program or its equally banal functional counterparts, are invalid. If I may attempt an answer to Nathan's question, I think you have to let your critics know ahead of time that you are not following, or, at the very least, challenging, their rules.

  3. I can't believe that Satterfield and Swackhamer of HouMinn are "oblivious to the deeper significance of their work." I agree with Nate that they fell into the trap of tailoring their remarks to a mainstream audience.

    They mentioned at the beginning of their lecture that the title "Red Green" was a response to their most recent lecture at Rice, where they said they were presenting to those that trained them. I'm going to assume that a lot of what we heard was cribbed from that lecture. It's like they were up for a final studio review with their old professors, and chickened out on the big ideas and talked about program and heat gain, because they knew that would get a positive response. Then they reused the lecture for us, because let's face it: we're not cutting edge.

    This presents a thorny question: do you think HouMinn or Office da would give the same version of their lecture at Harvard or SCI-Arc? I doubt it. We were underestimated, and we didn't prove it wrong during the Q&A.

    It's hard to raise your hand in an auditorium and ask, "But what does it mean?" It's like pointing out the emperor has no clothes. But someone has to do it.

    I agree with Paul that it's good to let the critics know up-front that you're not playing by their rules. And I second Nate's call for strategies and tools to explain and dissect the genetic architecture viewpoint with a clear logic. Kyle's already done excellent work providing us with the studio primer, the refutation of arguments against scripting and the reading list.

    But I think we've got to flex our rhetorical muscles more rigorously in our studio, while we've got an receptive audience. It's only gonna get harder. Half the battle with architecture is just being able to explain yourself coherently and persuasively - and that takes practice. I hope we can be energetic about this in the blog, discussions and reviews.

  4. The Post-Modern view holds that we are defined in reference to others. Since everything that exists is a construct of our minds (subjectivism), the mind of each individual exists only as a construct of the minds of others. (Talk about a circular argument.) The Other therefore plays an essential role in defining the self. In simpler terms, we are what others think we are. This raising of others (i.e., the collective) to a position of existential authority over the individual (the collective is primary, the individual is derivative), is part of what creates resistance to discussing meaning. According to Post-Modernism, to separate yourself from others, that is, from convention, is to separate oneself from "reality" and to undermine the identity of the self.

    Yet, every innovator must disagree with how it is already done. Innovation requires separation with tradition and convention - separation from the collective trend. Innovators have an important quality - confidence in their rightness. They choose to follow their own individual understanding of the truth regardless of whether others agree with them. They don't place primary importance on what others think of them or their work.

    This is not easy to do, especailly when you're standing up in front of a crowd. Post-Modernism tells us we should seek the audience's approval. Post-Modernism tells us that the success or failure of our lecture is determined by how much the audience learned and how much they liked it.

    But the innovator sets his priorities differently. He wants the audience to understand him, and even to find the lecture enjoyable, but this is not primary. The primary goal is to be true to his thinking - to follow the logic of his work, and to present it in a way that is true to it. He recognizes that some will understand it, a few might appreciate it, and many won't understand or appreciate.

    There are more subtle considerations, of course, which come into play when considering how to be most persuasive. For instance, sometimes you can be more persuasive by resisting the urge to clobber your audience over the head with an idea. If you present it softly and let it simmer in their heads for a while before you state it more strongly, sometimes that helps. But notice that all such more specific strategizing already assumes that the goal is to communicate the unpopular idea, rather than avoid it.


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