Quality Control – Interview with Nader Vossoughian

NADER VOSSOUGHIAN, Associate Professor of Architecture, New York Institute of Technology

To start off, can you describe your current and ongoing research interests? And also your various relationships to architecture as a scholar and educator?

I am a Germanist, philosopher, and architectural historian by training, and I have always been attracted to research topics that blend these disciplines. I currently teach architectural history and theory at the New York Institute of Technology, and I was a guest professor at the University of Kassel a year ago. I had the privilege of studying with Keller Easterling at the Jan van Eyke Academy about five or six years ago. It inspired my current work on standardization, which I consider my life’s work.

When Keller introduced me to the topic of standardization, I was a little puzzled at first. “Isn’t this well-trodden territory?” I thought.  But the more she probed the issue with us – and by “us” Imean the other participants, Santiago del Hierro and Dubravka Sekulic in particular, who are brilliant theorists in their own right – I became fascinated by it. I became interested in the work of the German architect Ernst Neufert in particular, and I traveled to Germany that summer to examine his archive at the Bauhaus University in Weimar.

I realized as I began working on Neufert that standardization was poorly understood. I also came to understand that the work which Keller was doing was both necessary and groundbreaking: it was groundbreaking because she was showing to the rest of us that “quality control” – which anyone of us who have been placed on hold by a telephone service professional is familiar with – belongs to the DNA of “infrastructure space,” to use Keller’s language. Keller’s work showed us how standards such as those belonging to the ISO 9000 family can be used to interrogate inherited understandings of power.  For power, Keller suggests, is not invisible or abstract the way that dialetical thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, or Weber would have us believe, but is embedded in the concrete tools, managerial systems, specification sheets, and procedures that condition the work that architects, designers, and other professionals perform on a daily basis. It underpins the very infrastructure of global capitalism.

During Keller Easterling’s studio midterm review you challenged yourself to rethink how tenuous even “taboo” subjects are taught in a theory seminar or architectural studio. Why do you think in architecture school that there are issues that are considered forbidden?

This is a fascinating question. I don’t believe that the existence of taboos are unique to architecture schools. Virtually all institutions have them to some degree. I also believe that the existence of taboos is not a bad thing per se. Freud suggests as much in Totem and Taboo, and I find myself agreeing with him.  Taboos can indeed be oppressive, but they can also bring continuity and provide boundaries.

What I think that I wanted to say with my remark about taboos is that the election of Donald Trump represented a violation of a number of taboos – or at least it felt that way to me. It was depressing and demoralizing to witness, particularly given the way in which he utilized bigotry and misogyny to gain votes. Yet it also galvanized many of us. My seventy year-old mom has become an activist, which was never the case while I was growing up. We’re also seeing just a lot of people stepping out out of their comfort zones artistically and professionally as well as politically. To some extent, Roger Waters was right when he said that, “the only thing… that’s positive is that a new kind of anarchy is going to happen next.”

And as a scholar and educator, is there subject matter that you believe should be more widely considered as part of the pedagogy of an architecture school?

I think that schools need to rethink the one-size-fits-all model of design education: we need to create spaces for less structured and more self-guided forms of inquiry. The Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht did this beautifully under the directorship of Koen Brams. He did away with academic degrees; he also did away with “students” and “faculty.” Everyone was a researcher. Researcher-driven projects were the norm at the school. Effectively, if you wanted to organize an exhibition, write a book, put together a colloquium, or invite a guest speaker, the resources were available to you. A person simply needed to come up with a convincing proposal. It was exciting, and it was kind of lawless, in a good way, with artists squatting in the main building, etc. It produced philosophers, artists, designers, and historians of the highest caliber. It stimulated some very exciting and memorable discussions that continue to this day for me.  There was a strong sense of community.

Your body of work has shown that you are able to negotiate many disciplines in the pursuit to understand transcendent models of space-making. Is it possible to describe how you understand your own model of interdisciplinary research?

Thank you for saying this. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of an intellectual nomad, and my scholarly interests probably reflect this to a degree. I studied philosophy and German in college, as I already mentioned, and I was lucky enough to be able to take classes in a range of disciplines, from German studies to comparative literature, from art history to architecture, during graduate school. I am not sure I work with any one model as a scholar. A main theme for me, however, is that I have always been fascinated by language – particularly universal languages such as those developed by Otto Neurath, among others. My work on standardization is a product of this interest. It has brought into play ideas and protagonists that span various disciplines. It allows me to think about the design of design – the systems, practices, technics, and institutions that shape how it is that architects think and act. It also permits me to engage theoretically with the ideas of Keller Easterling, Reinhold Martin, Markus Krajewski, and a host of other individuals whose ideas matter a great deal to me. All of these researchers have introduced important methodological innovations. I’ve tried to build upon their efforts in varying ways.
Much of the criticism and skepticism around studios like Keller Easterling’s is that they are too topical or “hot off the press,” in so far as that they are responding to developing issues and unpredictable circumstances. These studios do not rely on a critical distance to history for models of design, but are trying to invent their own. How have you observed our rapid fire world influencing the design process or even the parameters employed by the architect? What would you say to those who are critical of studios that operate in these ways?

I wish that more professors had the courage to engage topical issues! I am grateful to Keller for that. I also think it is a mistake to believe that historical research can ever give us “models of design.” It needs to be seen rather as a Gesprächspartner or interlocutor. It should foster critical reflection – it should never tell us what to do.

Keller’s work is deeply historical, in my opinion. I also consider her to be an artist, designer, and theorist of the highest caliber. She embraces the standpoint of the Flâneur, which has its roots in the writings of Baudelaire, among others. The Flâneur has inspired some of the most nuanced and profound analyses of modern capitalism – most notably Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, for example. It has paved the way for a number of highly incisive contributions to architectural theory, for example Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York in addition to Keller’s 2007 book, Enduring Innocence. It influenced at least one very noteworthy contribution to the history of technology, namely Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, This represents a study of “anonymous history” that I see as a precedent for my work today.

In response to your question about how our world has influenced the design process or the parameters employed by the architect, I have a couple of thoughts to offer. First of all, I think that “the world” (however we construe it) is always an ever-present force in design and architecture. The two can never be separated. Having said that, one noteworthy thing that I think that new technologies are reminding us is the fact that design is itself designed. And it is today more so than ever. It used to be that the architect had a relatively stable set of representational tools and instruments at his or her disposal (e.g., T-squares, pencils, drafting tables, plans, sections, elevations, etc.) This gave the designer a feeling of mastery and control, artificially perhaps, but still. Nowadays, the architect must reckon with the fact that today’s design tools can be tomorrow’s trash. Digital software applications obsolesce at a dramatic rate. What is more, these tools have a direct impact on the quality and character of one’s work. They are influencing choices about materials, costs, and labor needs.

Take some of the new (or maybe now not so new) plug-ins, for example. Every student has software at his or her disposal that allows him or her to import manufacturer-issued specifications at the click of a mouse. These specifications are time-saving tools that help with meeting deadlines. They help assure compliance with code and safety requirements. They automate the selection of materials and the placement of fabrication orders. They also, however, erode the value of the architect’s expertise. They represent a form of automation. They enforce specialization. They standardize standardization on an entirely new level.

Nearly a century ago, an architect had to pick up a copy of the Sweet’s Catalog to partake in this process. Deciding on whether to embrace prefabrication and automation was a conscience choice. Today, under the current economic circumstances, it is not a choice at all. It is almost indistinguishable from design itself. What we call “architecture” is increasingly a cut-and-paste job that requires at least as much administrative and logistical expertise as it does artistic imagination or cultural acumen. What is more, the fact that architects are succumbing to these shifting expectations so readily in academic settings – and with little to no theoretical reflections – demonstrates a lack of historical imagination, at least in my opinion.

The Germans have in fact a beautiful word for what I am describing – it is called Typisierung. Typisierung could best be translated as “templatization.” That is to say, it is about using templates in deriving architectural solutions. This is not necessarily a bad thing – usage of templates can actually enhance quality in design, as architects such as Hermann Muthesius argued over a century ago. But it appears to be consuming design theory and practice today in ways that are just unprecedented. Details that once represented earnest and serious design problems – office furnishings, for example – are now just called “equipment.” The equipment, moreover, is often what gets used to signify the program, as though having a toilet bowl icon and sink icon in a drawing is enough to signify “bathroom.”

Now I don’t want to suggest that educators are responsible for promoting this sort of thing. On the contrary, I’m sure it bothers my designer-colleagues more than it does me.  I also don’t want to sound like a technology-naysayer. I accept that the very tools of standardization that are rationalizing and automating the design process can also work to democratize prosperity, at least to a degree. Having said that, I regret that architects are not spending more time today talking about the infrastructure of design – they are not talking about the design of design itself. I also think that questions about labor need to be foregrounded in the discussion. This is because the technology questions of today are also labor questions – they are reorganizing the workplace in profound and unmistakable ways.

I should say that I consider the writings of architects and theorists such as Keller Easterling, Peggy Deamer, and Pier Vittorio Aureli to be exemplary and groundbreaking. This is because they bring crucial social questions to bear on our understanding of technology. I also find it interesting that they all teach at Yale. I have never thought about that before. It occurs to me now for the first time.

In response to your last question – what I would say in response to those who are critical of studios that engage with the contemporary world – I would first want to know why they are critical. I would say that we should make these critiques more public – and that they deserve a nuanced response.

We need to remind ourselves that the discussions that we’re having today – about technology and design and architecture and politics – are in many ways not unique; some of the most exciting theoretical contributions to architecture from the last century came from people who had the courage to share their ideas with people who did not necessarily agree with them, who presented their arguments as forcefully and candidly as they could, but without losing their sense of respect for The Other. I think that is really important. We always need to leave room for The Other. When we foreclose this sort of opportunity, when we become too sure of ourselves, we are in deep trouble. Architecture is rich and exciting and inspirational precisely because it is messy and uncomfortable.

Your recent work has focused extensively on Ernst Neufert and the role of standardization in building design. The idea of standardization or a “manual” for design could arguably be considered to be made out of fear of the unknown. How might you consider or say that this understanding of space is liberating or more democratic than autocratic?

You raise an interesting point. Manuals do indeed serve an important psychological function: they reduce ambiguity and provide certainty. They can feel oppressive at times. But part of what they also do is reduce barriers to entry in particular trades and professions. For one of the basic messages behind the Bauentwurfslehre, for example, is that it assured people that virtually anyone could learn to be an architect. (It is not just about talent or artistic ability, as some might have us believe.) It was also conceived for the purpose of rationalizing and economizing intellectual forms of work. Without saying so explicitly, Neufert and his publisher (Bauwelt Verlag) brought Fordist and Taylorist principles to bear on the organization and presentation of architectural knowledge. They developed a format for producing knowledge that could readily be updated and amended. (This proved highly profitable.) They developed a system that permitted them to outsource their consent-related needs. (Neufert’s students and assistants played a crucial role in producing the drawings contained in the book.) They also furnished Germany’s Nazi government with a recipe that it could use to centralize the policing of the architectural profession. In the mid-1930s, the Bauwelt’s senior editors included staunch Hitler supporters such as Friedrich Paulsen and Leopold Sauttner. They were eager to seize the new economic opportunities that Hitler’s 1936 Four-Year Plan afforded.  Their shared the Nazis’ imperialist aspirations as well.