Naked in Alaska

DORIAN BOOTH (M. Arch I, ’16) & NICOLAS KEMPER (M. Arch I, ’16)

“Unless you are naked in Alaska, you are in the designed space” said Patrik Schumacher, director of Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), “Every single act is framed by a designed artifact.”

The zeitgeist — and the tech and algorithm driven design method parametricism — is alive and well in London. At the Architectural Association (AA) Patrik Schumacher, parametricism’s chief evangelist, began a talk by emphasizing his credentials as a member of the avant garde, a ‘proto-engineer’ who imagines new forms of organization to be resolved by those who follow (presumably engineers). His co-teacher, Theodore Spyropulos, threw the claim right back at him: how could Schumacher — whose office has hundreds of employees and buildings going up around the world — possibly claim to still be part of the avant-garde? They used to be out in the wilderness, but since he has clearly “been asked to the table,” what are they now?

Schumacher gestured around, “Today, everything is designed by a professional. In fact, everything is Bauhaus — Gropius and Mies designed this room, designed these chairs, designed that television.” Bauhaus. Not the Parametricists. That was the problem.[1]

The room and the chairs were hardly visible for the students covering every surface — most of them in the AA’s Design Research Lab [DRL] unit started in 1997 by Schumacher and Brett Steele. Today Spyropulos directs the unit, and the teachers focus on technology in design. Rob Stuart Smith’s students will design real time drone swarm fabrication systems. Shajay Bhooshan — who also works for ZHA — wants his students to design a new ‘maison domino,’ using robotic arm 3D printing. Theo’s students will each design 36 houses, in a contemporary recreation of the mid-20th century Case Study Houses. And Schumacher’s students — like the studio at Yale — are designing a cluster of towers for a site in Shoreditch, London.

Because DRL seeks to design everything, its adherents are not particularly content to let their opposition live and let live. Judgment of their contemporaries, who are teaching this semester at Yale, came quick and fast. Dismissive of FAT (“Why would you go back to older, less sophisticated repertories?”), they fixed most their attention on Pier Vittorio Aureli, whose unit is the most popular at the AA. For them, Aureli’s work “was the retro-condition, we have been there, it is a form of nostalgia. He is proposing a form of architecture and society which has collapsed, he is hankering for the ‘70s, but there is a reason that did not continue.”

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Pier Vittorio Aureli lamented to his Yale studio, which is engaged in designing affordable housing, that parametricism passed without making much of an architectural contribution. Schumacher was now the one hanging onto the past. Indeed many of the more ruthless ‘proto-engineers’ — Object Oriented Ontology [OOO] comes to mind — have written parametricism off as dead. Having ridden high in 2005-6, when, as Patrik said, ‘we could smell blood,’ the parametricists took a staggering blow in the crash, which canceled many of the more fantastic projects and shifted the focus of architects onto the plight of the downturn’s many victims. A new emphasis and interest in social issues left Schumacher — whose clients are usually fantastically rich — in an ideologically awkward place.

Social issues are Aureli’s raison d’etre. His studio spoke more about San Francisco’s social and political history than its architectural one. For him, the city was, and continues to be, shaped more by social and political forces rather than purely formal ones. In discussing the construction of the Coit Tower, for instance, he was quick to note that the tower was an attempt to control the Leftist groups that inhabited Telegraph Hill through a philanthropic gesture by the West Coast industrialists. The architecture is thus directly informed by, and in relation to, the political environment in which it was created. The formal and sociopolitical are inseparable.

Aureli emphasized to his students that he focuses on the past not to revive some kind of retro-condition, but to study the great potential of projects both architectural and philosophical that were never fully realized. It is an opportunity for redemption — he understands the failings of the 20th century’s utopian and socialist projects, but believes they are not without merit. There is something to be learned from their radical approach to domestic space, the political formulation of which is central to his studio brief at both Yale and the AA.

Schumacher understands that social issues are a weak point for parametricism: “Many of the most intelligent students today want to talk about social issues, so we should talk about social issues. Aureli is talking about social issues. He [Aureli] is talking nonsense, but he is still talking about what interests them.”

Schumacher emphasized that his interest was in social issues not for those on society’s margins, but its cutting edge: “What does Google need? That is the more interesting question than what does a suburb of Mumbai need — we know what they need — hot water, shelter, electricity — it is right there on the shelf.” Google, “the research driven swarm,” is something we have never seen before, one of many challenges unique to our age.

But it was Aureli, in San Francisco, whose studio toured the new Frank Gehry designed headquarters of Facebook. They asked its project architect, Greg Sobotka, pointed questions about whether Gehry Architects had considered the blurred boundary between work and life, a new condition now typical in the tech industry (they had not). And it was Melinda & Bill Gates who in their foundation’s letter last week said what the world needs is to rethink how we approach unpaid domestic labor — the very agenda of the Aureli studio.

So if Schumacher’s agenda is no longer new — is in fact a revival — and Aureli’s is more in tune with the tribulations and priorities of the tech industry, where does that leave Schumacher? Perhaps he will have some answers in his upcoming issue of AD, Parametricism 2.0.

In his talk, Schumacher noted that new ideas sometimes just move slowly, likening ZHA to Alberti, whose project started with theories and drawings, like Città Ideale — depicting a fantastical gridded and axial city — that from there became individual buildings, the occasional town square and finally whole gridded and axial cities and nations.

The path might be long, but Schumacher will not rest until he sees parametric cities, nations, even chalk boards, pluralism be damned: “We need to figure out which paradigm is best, for the city in the end is one. Where is the convergence? We need to reclaim the ability to judge.”

Unless you actually are naked in Alaska, the consequences of this convergence are very real. Anyone who has taken even the most casual gander at ZHA’s work and Aureli’s drawings will understand a ZHA city and an Aureli city — even chalk board — are radically different propositions.

Back at the AA, Eugene Tan had one last question for Schumacher: “What happens if you lose?”

“Don’t think I will.”

 

[1] Architect Robert Palmer and builders William Scott and Robert Grews designed the room itself, at the back of the second floor of 33 Bedford Square, in the late 18th century.