“Totally Post-Irony!”: Q&A with Michael Meredith

MICHAEL MEREDITH

Michael Meredith is a co-principal of MOS Architects with Hilary Sample and is Assistant Professor at the Princeton University School of Architecture. The issue editors emailed Michael for a contribution on September 10, 2017, to which he replied: “We’re totally post-irony! Would love to contribute. Best, Michael.”

  1. Post-ironic tendencies seem to result from a constant cycling between sincerity and irony until these positions become confused and conflated. Has your attitude towards practice shifted through the different stages in your design career, or has post-irony been a constant in your work?

Answering this question might require a little more personal context than usual. When I graduated with my master’s degree in 2000, I had a residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. At the time I was writing theme songs for people, putting up wallpaper, experimenting with materials, pouring resins . . . designing (then making) cushions for Donald Judd chairs, designing (then building) furniture, and designing a house in Marfa, among other things. I was beginning to think about what to do after school. Hilary [Sample, cofounder of MOS] was at OMA, running Prada San Francisco, and we communicated constantly. David Foster Wallace (DFW) was in Marfa too. I got to know him; we went hiking, ate and sang together, made studio visits, and corresponded for years afterward via postcard. He wanted to buy an architectural drawing, which I ended up giving to him. Other fantastic writers—Jake Silverstein, Daphne Beal and Sean Wilsey from McSweeney’s—were there. All of them, together, opened up another world to me. And for me, the post-ironic attitude you are talking about is very much related to that literary moment. DFW had a large influence at the time, and still does. Some people characterize his work as overly ironic and overly formalist; others think of it as sincere and human. It oscillates between various readings.

  1. In your Log 39 article, you place architectural practices within two categories: those that solve problems and those that exhibit “calculated indifference” and a tendency towards “nondesign”. You hesitate to include MOS entirely within the latter category, as your work appears to exhibit tendencies of both categories. How does MOS negotiate between these two competing models of architecture within your practice?

The dialectic from my piece in Log 39, titled “Indifference, Again,” is between a sort of “technical expressionism” and “calculated indifference.”[1] (The latter term being borrowed from Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction.) The opposition was overly simplified, to more clearly make a point. MOS is both against and within a sort of technical expressionism. We write software and we are interested in the technical aspects of architecture—in sustainability, maintenance, digital techniques, etcetera—but we have no interest in expressing a kind of technical virtuosity. If anything, we are for inclusionary models of architecture that do not choose sides, that are more ambiguous, more contradictory, more primitive, more amateur . . . less heroic, less slick, less corporate, less singular, less about directly expressing a solution to a problem. . . . The indifference I was talking about in the article is aesthetic; it means weird colors, crude shapes, fragments, cute images, the handmade, the post-material, awkward craftsmanship, kitsch and abject stuff as opposed to photo-realistic renderings, performative diagrams, singular-synthetic swoopy forms, data-driven decision making, and so on. . . . A lot of people have a very knee-jerk reaction against the word indifference. To them it is pejorative. And I am not suggesting or promoting apathy; Hilary and I care about the world at large, and we try to do our part. All I am saying is that the architects listed (and we as well) are not expressing this as the main value in the work. I’ve been told by friends that I should have used Roland Barthes’s book Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero), which is basically similar to what I was describing, instead of Moira Roth’s “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” . . . So perhaps what we are seeing at the moment is a degree-zero aesthetics—by which I mean designs trying to maintain a non-ideological methodology—where work whose context is an overly-saturated media and search engine environment is constructing and reworking and constructing again various forms of blankness or non-design in numerous ways.

  1. While you indicate that indifference operates through “non-design,” our reading of post-irony sees it as a paradigm for the practices of “non-design” to be applied towards a kind of “problem solving” through a tradition of visionary architecture. What is your reading of the post-ironic and the possibility of pursuing the practices of “non-design” towards optimistic visions of the architectural future?

At some basic level, Hilary and I don’t think the Utopia project of architecture is perfectly functioning, glimmering, green cities of the future. We’re not sure it would be so great. Rather, architecture’s Utopia project is the much less grandiose social-cultural project of questioning, discussion, and an instantiation of values that lead us toward a better society—one that is both equitable and inclusive by taking pleasure in difference. Indifference and non-design have an important role in this idea of an impossible Utopian project: they are about destabilizing the institutions of architecture and culture to allow for difference. Our approach, for better and worse, is a culturally relativist and reactionary project of architecture. It is not about absolutes and it is not about singular methodologies, although it requires us to construct some idea of our context to react against, even if it is a fiction. Non-design is a term that relates to anti-expressionism in the arts. And this anti-expressionist drive has a long, long history as a constant engine of the arts. It is not about not-designing, but about the non-expression of the act of design, or of a heroic and institutionalized act of authorship. It is essentially reactionary, against quote-unquote “design,” and the institutionalization and stabilization of the arts. Non-design is about questioning and reworking our cultural value systems. Recently, I’ve been working through Ben Lerner’s book The Hatred of Poetry, simply replacing the word poetry with architecture. And perhaps it too relates somehow to the post-ironic, but I’m still working on it.

[1] Michael Meredith, “Indifference, Again,” Log 39, Winter (2017).