Architecture and Rhetoric

October 24, 2008

Every so often the ideas of a political movement and the form of the built environment coalesce. Since ancient times, architecture has interacted with the power structures of society to create a physical image of abstract ideas.  Architecture, it may be argued, is at the height of its power when it finds its self to be synchronized in such a way.

Like fire, Architecture’s rhetorical capacities can be used for both noble and nefarious purposes.  What’s more, is that the more totalizing the architecture becomes the stronger the rhetorical relationship of form and power become.  We are currently embarking upon the pursuit of a totalizing environment that has not been seen for many decades.  The recession of the post-modern collage world, and the emergence of a technologically immersive one raises the question of who this architecture is in the service of?

In previous iterations of technocracy we have been provided a clear manifesto as to the aims of the aesthetic environment.  If we begin with the Renaissance we can see the resurgence of a national Italian identity giving form to a reclaimed Classical language.  Two centuries later during the Baroque, that same Classical language is deployed parasitically to allow the rhetoric of the Counter Reformation to renew the image of the Church.  As a further note, the plastic nature of the Baroque allows the Church to surgically intervene in the urban fabric of the city and the internal workings of its edifices; Architecture is now the vehicle of power.  As we move through the Enlightenment we find a split trajectory in the rhetoric of Architecture, where the rise of the modern technological state and the grasping for a forlorn terrestrial harmony compels Architecture to be both nostalgic and projective in its form.  The rise of industrialized form is given a revolutionary purpose following the Bolshevik Revolution and the First World War, where for the first time in history, there is a broad international desire to use architecture in the service of social justice.  The radical shift in the Modernist aesthetic agenda allowed architects and politicians to use Architecture as a purely projective medium, the stunning array of utopian visions that arose in the first half of the 20th century provide the fodder for perhaps the most revolutionary moment in human history, the first flights into outer-space.  The architecture of the second Modern movement provided our world with the tangible evidence of otherwise sublime processes.  The global vision of this architecture, it may be argued, was a direct call for global unity as the human race faced an uncertain future in an increasingly volatile and polarized world; Architecture became the lens for understanding the interconnections of our species.

Several decades of political turmoil and fragmentation have limited Architecture’s capacity to effect change; Architecture has been in exile.  Our pursuit of an increasingly narrow formal agenda has limited our capacity to respond in a broad and influential way to issues that face our world.   I believe however, that Architectures time has come again.  Our world faces is facing a stunning array of potentially species ending challenges, Climate change which is chief amongst them.  Ecologically minded architecture is nothing new—we have seen comprehensive approaches to these problems since the 1970’s.  What was lacking however, was a compelling aesthetic agenda.  What was previously framed in purely moralistic terms, where in earthiness was the dominant aesthetic of the environmental movement, has been supplanted by a much more compelling aesthetic of high performance.   This is not to say high tech—which is a fetishized mutant offspring of the space race—it is to say that the architecture of high performance seeks the most elegant formal and systemic solutions to the problems of sustainability.  In order to be successful, an architecture of high performance must be parasitic in its assimilation of existing buildings and infrastructures, and amorphous in its stylistic presentation.  It must be 99% stealth, and 1% iconic.

My thesis will attempt to define the qualities and characteristic of the stealth environment, while using a single iconic example as a rhetorical device for the Architecture’s ambitions.

What it is.

October 17, 2008

At its core, my research seeks to interlace contemporary concepts of timelessness with the projection of institutional authority. One might argue that timelessness is a predisposition of institutional authority; however, I feel that it is to our benefit if we allow the two subjects to remain separate so that we can better traverse the terrain between the two. In assembling the constellation of authors and artifacts that have designed on these topics, it became readily apparent to me that Architecture is part and parcel to the underlying construct of institutional authority. The depth of connection between the two literally spans culture and time, suggesting to us that there is something much larger and much broader at work than the simple edifice complex as described by Deyan Sudjic. In deed the topic of authority and Architecture is so vast that it does us well to focus this investigation into a narrow band of projection, namely the relationship of Architecture and Justice. And while this too may seem to be an overly ambitious exploration, the topic of justice (as opposed to governance) affords us a few salient formal conceptions that other topics do not namely, balance, symmetry, and perspective. If we allow these three characteristics to be put into a dialogue with the fourth concept of time, then we can begin to construct a cohesive and well articulated image of what a 21st century institution might look like.

Rendering and Modeling in the Picturesque

There is an interesting split in the Romantic Picturesque, where in the pursuit of novelty compels an artist to develop work that is both naturalistic and overtly iconographic.  The fluctuation between these two modes of  representations elicits a certain attitude that is both nostalgic and projective.  Nostalgic, in as much as the mode of inquiry seeks to model the natural processes of an object; which is necessarily an exercise in excavating the nuances of an object’s history.  Projective, in as much as the artist uses the mode of inquiry to represent an idealized form; actively appropriating the signs and symbols of a foregone past to amass a vocabulary for describing the potential condition of an object.  By extension, we may be able to refer to these two modes of production as modeling and rendering, where in the model of an object is intended to describe the mechanics of how a thing came to be (or un-be), and the rendering seeks to depict how a thing could be, it is a supposition.

Architecture inhabits a strange place in the picturesque, it is happy to exist squarely between these two modes.   Beyond Ruskin’s morality, we are able to see that architecture, if done correctly in his mind, is capable of traversing time. This affords architecture two very special qualities.  Firstly it enables architecture to be the medium by which time inscribes her processes.  Secondly, by virtue of its eternal stature, architecture is capable of providing contrast to the contemporary epoch.  It is therefor a matter of “utmost seriousness” that architecture is created, because it is the vessel for time and humanity.

Piranesi Mocks You

October 17, 2008

It is possible to assert that the leanings of Piranesi’s earlier writings (Della Magnificenza) posit an attitude about architecture that prefers volume to surface.  The totalizing effects of the unadorned Tuscan edifices enable us to understand Roman architecture as one that prefers spatial ideas to surface articulation.  The haranguing by Mariette in his response to Piranesi is founded in an argument that is less about architecture and more about historicism.  While it is easy to argue lineages and chronology, it is much more difficult to argue for architectural motivation.  For Piranesi architecture is principally concerned with the invention of spatial order.  The copyists, the rigorist, the historicist, all of them are necessarily nostalgic as a means of achieving architectural authority.

Perhaps the most glaring difference that arises between Grecian and Roman architecture is the aptitude of Roman builders to achieve works of a massive scale.  The critique of Roman architecture in terms ornament is equivalent to critiquing the Empire State Building in terms of which animal adorns the finials about its spire, in other words the ornament is minor in comparison to the scale of the building and has no bearing on the profundity of the architecture at hand.  The same comment might be said about Piranesi’s engraving of the Basilica of Maxentious, where in the volume of space that is captured in the engraving does more to describe the intellectual content of the work than any critique of the decorative program.

It is for this reason that I initially find it troubling that Piranesi would abandon his position of spatial primacy as means to reconnect an obviously convoluted thesis based on Roman ornamentation.  And while this thesis enables Piranesi to thread together any number of classical styles, the assertion that ‘the architect may be as bizarre as he likes so long as he does not deform the architecture’ is either flatly wrong or subversively promoting the primacy of space.  If we assume that a man of Piranesi’s talents is in fact re-introducing a preference towards spatial primacy then the bizarre combinations of surface ornament that he proposes have a logic; the designs are meant to be satirical.  They dig at the fundamentalist position that style can be “correct” based on ornament, and by extension that certain bodies of work are more correct than others.  It allows us to create an architecture that radically alters the decorative program of a building with out deforming “the architecture.”

From this position we are able to understand the more fantastical work of Piranesi as an exercise in architectural space that is detached from style and history. Piranesi’s architecture is to some extent autonomous. And it is by this measure that the concept of the architect as genius, or generator, emerges as the driving force behind the completion of otherwise fragmentary architectures.  It addresses the reality that no architect in the eighteenth century is capable of definitively stating, “what is” an ancient architecture, however an inventive architect may be able to answer, “what could it be?”

The transition from “what is” to “what could be” opens the door to the utopian visions of the enlightenment architects.  Architecture that is unbound by style is unbound by authority and free to operate as the provisional imagination of the world.

There is a myth in Chicago, that at the age of 46, after more than two decades of practice, Bertrand Goldberg sat up one morning and proclaimed “There are no right angles in nature, there for I shall never design another one in my architecture!” The actual account of this revelation provided to us in the epic interview entitled The Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg stems from a much more profound struggle between Goldberg’s commitment to industrialized architecture and the underlying geometries that govern it.

“My moment came in 1955, and I was designing a rather simple building. It may have even been a garage. It was a building roughly about four bays wide by six bays long or whatever, and the bay was say twenty five feet by twenty five feet. I thought, well here is a nice, simple building that I could learn something from that I had always wanted to try and never tried before. Now in the days when I grew up as a young architectural apprentice the question of who would detail the structural steel was always apart of the architect’s concerns. The architect did the design. He’d put in the columns where they where supposed to be, but with what we call the detailing of the steel – the steel connections, the way in which the steel was constructed – it was always a questioned as to whether the architect could design that or whether he cold simply write in the specifications that the contractor would do his own detailing. (…) By the time I had finished the dimensioning all the individual members for detailing, instead of having perhaps a half dozen or ten different sizes of steel I had a whole sheet of description of dimensions and sizes and selections of steel members. Suddenly this concept of industrialized structure erupted as myth, really, as a revelation. I had thought that because I was designing in a rectilinear form with a regularity of center lines that I was designing something that had to do with the industrialized world. Now, in my past I have actually built things, like an automobile or a pre fabricated house or bathroom, and I know a little about industrialization. Suddenly it occurred to me that this vast variety of sizes and types no longer was an industrialized form. If I built perhaps a hundred buildings that where identical, that would be industrialized because each part in its self would be repeated, but the parts themselves had no repetitive advantages. They where, in a sense, custom made. It was an assembly of custom made pieces, and this is not industrialization. And then almost at the same moment I began to investigate any other spatial form which would produce a repetitive regularity of structural members, and the only thing that I could find was either a shell or an egg. The only form for the garage that I could find was in a sense, a drum – a column at the center from which radial beams emerged. I had a regularity. Then I began to examine that form versus a rectilinear form in terms of wind stresses, in terms of usefulness, in terms of lots and lots of other values. Then I tried to discover whether living spaces could be designed in some of those spaces, and then I tried to discover if there where other ways of constructing a unified space other than with posts and beams. That is the way in which I first immersed myself in forms that had little or nothing to do with the rectangle, with the right angle.”[i]

There is something remarkable about this form of middle minded utopianism; where in the vision of a new world comes to us from a simple meditation about tectonic clarity. The contemporary practice of architecture finds its self searching for a similar silver bullet to our architectural problems. Once again we are faced with the daunting task of developing generative geometries that seek to synthesize disparate building systems, rationalize complex geometries, and maximize the economic scale of exotic building components. We are drawn to architects like Bertrand Goldberg because his work is evidence that it is possible to achieve these three architectural concerns with minimal means and conventional methods.

[i] Blum, Betty J. The Oral History of Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago Architects Oral History Project, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago 1992 (revised 2001) p.50

PCAD (post-critical-authorless-

design) or (parametrically-controlled-automated-design)….thank you Wes Jones

We seem to be at an interesting moment in architecture today, one that espouses the virtues of authorless design while generating totalizing environments that fill and often overwhelm a person’s sensual comprehension. This tendency towards affect establishes a strange relationship between the designer and the designed world, one where there is a tremendous amount of media being produced, however it is entirely unclear what the aim of all this production is. Traditionally the totalizing environment has been an extension of the state, a technical apparatus that uses architecture as a means to multiply the state’s authority. With authorless design, we do not have this political agenda anymore, instead we have the multiplication of tectonic elements for no other reason than the creation of visual effects in an of them self.

What is perhaps most troubling about this development in architecture is that it presents a totalizing spatial matrix that is simply waiting for a political entity to assume its totalizing power. Unlike Modernism, which was the product of certain social and political processes, PCAD is a movement without manifesto, it is a product for product’s sake. The most liberal practitioners of PCAD espouse the great liberty afforded to them by this new value-free (value-less?) design methodology. One where the digital magic of algorithmic architecture generates an image of an environment that is beyond the capacity of the designerto produce, where randomness produces unanticipated results and are treated with degree of awe and wonderment that is typically reserved for non-human processes. But as Greg Lynn pointed out in a talk at Harvard last year, that simply outputting 50 pieces of garbage from a script and selecting the best one, is still selecting a piece of garbage.

What I find to be the most disingenuous aspect of PCAD is that it creates a kind of omnipotence about the script, where in the definition of generative forces are allowed to play out, the results of which are both entirely within the genius of the script and outside the responsibility of the designer, it is to say “things happen” (which I might point out is an explanation of last resort). When speaking with Kristof Crolla about his AADRL thesis he positioned himself in such a way that the architectural product he was creating was the product of the script, therefor he bore little to no responsibility for the failings of the project, but was more than ready to accept the praise for the dramatic image of it. Of course this work is not without merit, there is a remarkable facility demonstrated here for working across media and across scales.You can see Kristof’s project at

Thesis Pieces

October 16, 2008

This web-log is a repository for the informal research that I have produced over the course of my thesis. In general my thesis work touches upon a constellation of issues regarding authority and the built environment. Hopefully, the content of this blog will be so cool that it will insight an avalanche of web traffic, heated debates about content in the comment lines, and a paradigm shift in the way we discuss architecture and the built world. If this seems overly optimistic, it’s probably because it is. So i will submit, what is Architecture if not to dream?