Internal Memo: Gallery Talk: Adjacencies
On September 13, 2018, Nathan Hume, the curator of the “Adjacencies” show at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, hosted three short panels featuring contributors to the exhibition. The first panel included Alfie Koetter and Emmett Zeifman of Medium Office, Kristy Balliet and Kelly Bair of BairBalliet, and Andrew Holder of the Los Angeles Design Group. The second panel included Erin Besler of Besler & Sons, LLC; Mira Henry of Henry Architecture; Adam Fure of T+E+A+M; Clark Thenhaus of Endemic Architecture; and Jennifer Bonner of MALL. The third and final panel was Molly Hunker and Greg Corso of SPORTS, Kutan Ayata and Michael Young of Young & Ayata, and Zeina Koreitem and John May of MILLIØNS.
Kristy Balliet: How does iteration, that is, design iteration, work in your office? Once you have one [design], what are the decisions that you think about to make the next one?
Alfie Koetter: For us, it’s a pretty straightforward project. Iteration would be a really active way of describing it, in that it is all iteration, all process. In going from point A to point B, or, one iteration to the next, we simply do the same thing all over again. We keep the rules; we set very strict rules for ourselves and abide by them consistently and constantly. So what we have presented here, which is the Barcelona project, is iteration eight or nine. It’s unclear where it is, we just decide where to stop when we like the way it looks. There’s this strange balance between precision – the quantifiable precision of removing yourself from having to make any design decisions – and also having to compete with your own case to make a certain qualitative declaration, to say “I just like this one.”
Emmett Zeifman: In that particular project, because the elements we started with were organized on a grid, an orthogonal grid, the iterations were in groups of four. It stopped when it would have broken down or required another tool to keep working. Because the system, after rotating four ways around a square, would collapse. Sometimes the things stop because they just can’t take anymore.
Andrew Holder: We are interested in iteration as a mode of design and if that mode has a logical terminus or if it’s a perpetual project. For us, it isn’t, it can’t be extended indefinitely. In our more recent series of three houses, we model in Rhino in tree diagrams. We have a first version of the house, then it splits and we pursue different ideas. Those trees are not generated by geometric possibility. We don’t really think in terms of underlying plan geometry. We think in terms of the arrangement of things, and so we have a particular arrangement of walls that we can sort of push around, but it’s a manual tree of decisions, like “this goes there,” and so [the iteration] exhausts because the catalog is limited. We’re also really interested in judgment. How do we get so critical about one house versus another that all of the others become not only “less favorite” but intolerable? In terms of extending [iteration] across multiple projects, maybe what we’re more in search of is something slightly looser than the perfect project as it would be understood by the generation before us. By project, I mean Project with a capital P, the kind of intellectual enterprise that Wittkower saw when he looked at Alberti’s facades, where each one related to a perfect underlying schema. We’re looking for a looser way to let ideas move back and forth between instantiations.
Kelly Bair: No iteration, we do it once. [Laughs]
Kristy Balliet: What aspect of that question? How do we iterate?
Alfie Koetter: Yeah, how do you iterate? Because I think these are two very different takes on iteration, one that is highly mechanical, and one that requires sensibility in ways that ours does not. Maybe we conveniently lined up in a way that you’re somewhere in between [those different processes].
Kristy Balliet: Because of the way we work, there are usually two iterations that are happening in parallel. They start to have ideas that become related to conversations and criteria that we set up. Then there’s kind of a merging, the two come together in one iteration, and then split back to two as we’re working on a particular aspect or detail. In terms of how to label things, there’s option 01 or option 02, or version 01 and version 02. There’s something in that, in terms of whether we think “okay, some things are locked in, so now it’s version 02 of that” versus “things are still loose enough that we’re still in the same conversation, but what’s coming out are still options.” I don’t know that we 100% agree on that.
Kelly Bair: Yeah, I think we start out with options and end up with versions.
Nathan Hume: All three offices in this [first] panel, and others throughout the whole show, have an interesting relationship to history or precedent. Not so much as a means of validating the work, or to prop up a canon, but in a new design sense, and in very different ways for each office. So briefly, what is your attitude toward history and precedent, how does that become opportunistic as a way to work, or how have you have moved out of the canon with things like the No Middle Mid-rise, and other things off that line.
Andrew Holder: For us, bringing history onto the field as a player was a direct result as what we perceived as a threat, or a demand that our architecture, before we cared for history, could respond to. That has to do with its trenchancy in a social situation. Not that the architecture operates as a kind of instrument with respect to its audience, but that it has some traction. In this series of three houses, we’re bringing the ranch house and its history onto the playing field, because it already has this set of relationships that we can play with, and it already has a language that describes how people are supposed to feel about it. We’re trying to use that power.
Kelly Bair: We try not to think too much about history, and instead put all of our eggs in the precedent basket. To us, the Lever House has as much agency as a Jell-o mold. I would say that happens in every project. It’s not about its canonical value and more about its agency.
Alfie Koetter: This project weirdly pigeonholed us as people who care a lot about history and precedent. I’m not sure we do. I don’t care for the term precedent, in that it creates the implication that there is a specific way you’re supposed to be looking at something and that there’s a certain set of conclusions you’re supposed to be able to pull out of it. So precedent, certainly in those terms, I don’t think we’re so concerned with. History, I’m not sure either. I think we blatantly start with the Barcelona Pavilion but only because it has certain qualities that worked for us. We could’ve started with anything similarly graphic in nature, but starting with a building gives us the ease of translating in terms of scale. So I don’t think there’s anything specifically about Mies or the Barcelona Pavilion, beyond the fact that it has qualities that we recognized and it worked. We could recognize those qualities and teach it, now knowing what we were looking for in other things. These things could be canonical or something from in the ground. There is nothing we value in the supposed or claimed workings of the things that we are starting from.
Adam Fure: The simple form of my question is why building?
Jennifer Bonner: Adam has said we’ve all been teaching and practicing and trying to practice for almost a decade. This happened postrecession, so a lot of us, everyone sitting here at least, found ourselves in galleries and white boxes, trying to make objects and things. Some of them were pavilions, some of them were models and drawings. The one thing that could hold everything together was that everyone was trying to figure out a conceptual project, whatever that was going to be and how it could be defined. And so for me, I was looking at roof typologies. It’s interesting; Erin, Mira, and Clark were looking at these ordinary, banal examples in architecture and trying to hack them or upgrade them in a serious way too. I was looking at roof typologies for many, many years, with a large body of conceptual work that I’ve been writing about and that I’ve been talking about and showing for a couple of years. And then, there is this strong urge to try to get one built. How can we get out of the gallery, how can we realize these things? Haus Gables will be finished in two weeks. Does it get more conceptual [once built]? I’m not sure if it does. Everyone thinks it looks really weird. The roof is messed up, the detailing is probably poor, but we had to see. Seeing the representation one to one – it’s a bit jarring to be honest – but also exciting because there’s a naivety about “Can I do this? Can I do this to a standing seam metal roof and its edging details?” I’m approaching it a bit naively.
Erin Besler: We’re super interested in building and a lot of our work has to do with trying to reclaim the space, or the false space, that was created between the discipline and the practice [of architecture]. I’m not sure that they’re as separate as we like to think they are. We’re all trying to collapse that space back together to create a new territory to work within. Not even new, just a territory to work within, but most of what we’re interested in is just really basic things. Like roof framing for example, it seems really complicated but rough carpentry is one of the cheapest forms of labor, and in a practical sense, the reason why the roof deck in the proposal for PS1 is exposed is because the budget is so small and carpentry is not very expensive and you can get a lot of people that know how to put a nail into a piece of wood. Most of our recent work has revolved around trying to deskill a lot of things that architecture and the construction industry claim expertise in. Like making terrazzo, which is something that’s passed down from generation to generation. No one gives you the full story, so you just have to go to Italy and ask somebody how they do it. In LA, you go the valley and there’s a terrazzo supplier and they tell you all that you need to know. But they say “don’t tell anybody that we told you that.” I think that there’s an expertise that architecture and construction claim for various reasons. A lot of our projects have been interested in making these things more accessible to a public and its participants that aren’t architects or builders. A lot of what we do is produce tools and apps that actually try to either manage and facilitate some aspect of design, or manage and facilitate some aspect of labor on the job site, but still maintain that we don’t give up that much control. For us it wasn’t a decision to build, it was just like gotta do it. We were always pointing towards it.
Nathan Hume: In the same way that the last group was using history to validate the work, I think that these projects are all very invested in construction and the image of construction. I think it’s not about proving the constructability of the architecture in the same way, but it’s about the image of construction or the image of elements playing with some of these conventions as they’re seen in common usage or the way they’re seen in popular culture. I’m curious of the role of that aesthetic because I think we have one or two drawings up front that look like CD sets, because the same things that are hyper detailed are not necessarily generic detail drawings. They’re renderings, they’re stills from other things, there’s something else there in terms of image. I’d be curious what image means in relation to building and how it’s different or how it also picks up or carries across to the physical building.
ON THE IMAGE
Adam Fure: That’s a perfect question for T+E+A+M. In the most simple form, what we’re trying to do is put images in space. As in, make an image of building material, which you see in this project. We did an outdoor theater a year ago, where we did a digital recreation of a historical theater, rendered it, and then projected the rendering of the digital model across steel objects from three vantage points. Everything is built out of printed vinyl wrapped around steel frames. It was an attempt at making an image into architectural material. So we’re interested in scenography, tableau vivant, like staged photographs, and asking how we can make that into an architectural problem. So you move away from the flat 2D orientation of images, and think about multiple views in space, bodies moving through space, and perception changing depending on where you are. If you can accept the tectonics of panels and sticks, and if your conceptual project is about imagery that can get printed everywhere, then it seems like a rich territory to move that conceptual aesthetic project into building, without a whole lot of friction and customized construction.
Michael Young: I think one of the most important articles written in the last couple years was by John May, “Everything is Already an Image” (Log 40). I want to talk about this article because it picks up on Nate’s question before. When we look at the work in this room, these are proposals for buildings. Typically, what we would see in these instances would be the representational conventions that we’re comfortable with as architects in moving from design idea toward building. That is, orthographic drawings that provide measurability, accountability, and the technical specificity, and models that together provide the kind of demonstrative truth that this thing can even become physical. But, what we’re looking at in this room, is in a way kind of proof to John’s argument. I would say these models are not models intended to translate toward construction. The drawings that look like drawings are images of drawings that are attempting to work through different conventions and representational modes, yet are not actually operative as drawings in the way we would traditionally think about them. In that lies, as a comment on something that Kutan and I are invested in deeply, the question of the image and the aesthetics of images. Does this group want to pick up on that and say something about a room about building that’s really a room of images about building?
John May: Of course, we can agree that there is no drawing in this room. I think that if we have done any work around that, it’s less about declaring that it’s some sort of victory and more about wondering about what that really means, especially for going forward. It’s a condition that we haven’t fully understood yet; we’re still trying to work our way through what that means. One of the underlying kernels is the labor time. We all work just as hard as we’ve always worked, but the labor time that’s required to produce the presentation and images is so much different than the labor time that’s required to produce orthographic representations, the ones produced by hand mechanisms. If you spend any time wandering around the media theory field, that means this shift is going to change how you think, because the labor time that you are engaged with a form of representation is your thought. That is how you think. I think that is the broad question that everyone in this group has been grappling with, consciously and unconsciously, and that we’re all still trying to figure out. One of the consequences comes back to things that were discussed in the first panel. We have a much more complicated relationship with historical reasoning, and I think our students are going to have an even more complicated relationship to historical reasoning. I’ve tried to make this argument somewhat provocative, but I don’t think it’s possible to do precedent analysis in a computer. I don’t think we deal with precedent; I don’t think we’re doing historical thinking when we do those kinds of things. We’re doing something else, and I’m not saying everything we’re doing works. Until we fully acknowledge that the lines on a page are not orthographic drawings, until we start really thinking through that in our pedagogy and in our own practices, then we won’t really know how to reintegrate those forms of reasoning and renew them or rediscover them in new interfaces and new forms of interaction with new hardware and software.
Greg Corso: I don’t know what you would say to that, Molly, but the thing for us and the drawings that we produce is that there is an interest in appropriating the language of the drawing into an aesthetic. So the precision that’s presented in the drawing is not really about fidelity to what it would actually be like. It’s fairly sculptural, loose, and it has elements to it that are more about the ideas than the accuracy of it. They’re not about creating the instructions for creating the building, but rather presenting an aesthetic language or sensibility about what is in the project.
Molly Hunker: Well, I think also, in this project, we were interested in this as a speculative project, but we wanted to pair those ideas with drawings that are conventionally used to communicate to a contractor. There is an interesting tension that develops between the ideas of the project that are more about these intangible or architecturalizing effects or phenomena, and these drawings or modes of representation that are conventionally used to construct this thing. That kind of tension is what was of interest.
Kutan Ayata: Perhaps image is a dangerous word as architects. The discipline is immediately suspicious of the word because it’s associated with one genre of representation; it’s immediately coupled with the notion of rendering. But in the broader sense, maybe for an architect the end game is never a building, it’s always an image of a building.
Michael Young: I have something that picks up on that and brings us back to the iteration/versioning, project with a capital P thing that happened in the first group. We do a weird thing with our projects where they’re never done. We just do them again differently, and it doesn’t mean that they’re another project. I know this sounds so wrong, and it is such a strange exhaustion of our time and energy. Sometimes we image them 50–60 years in the future, sometimes we image them after they’ve fallen apart, and sometimes we image them as if they were done before they were actually built. I know that sounds wrong, why would we do that? For us, it’s actually trying to get at some question that the reality of a project is more than its physicality. The reality of the project is an argument that disturbs the ways in which we assume reality to be. For us, realism is not something about the fidelity of photorealism. Realism is about whether you can imagine that project having a life that’s actually in existence and that’s a tension between reality and its representations. It’s a problem that is less about verisimilitude, less about resemblance, and more about whether or not you think that object adjusted some way that you believe the world to be. We did this project last summer, and we redid it for this show. We had this project we did for the Bauhaus and we decided that it was going to become an electromagnetic refuge center to cure people of the ills of having being poisoned by electromagnetic energy. So they would have to remove the artworks so people could come in and relax in the flow of electromagnetic-free zones. Why the hell would you do that? Who knows. For us this is actually where the questions of the image matters. Because it’s not an image that dies within the realm of the fantasy, it’s the provocation of possibility in the ways the arguments we make, the discursive and disciplinary arguments we make, become a premise. At some level, I think we’re talking about these often as buildings, and I think that every single one of us wants to build. But to me, these are more interesting as projects that are arguments about the ways in which the world can be, other than the way we assume it is. They’re projects about building outside the discipline, affecting and infecting the world in other kinds of manners. In that, they all take different directions and I think that’s fantastic.
Alfie Koetter: We’ve referred to this a couple times, to this being a singular generation. Do you, as somebody who is a cell of the group, consider us to be part of a generation, or not? And if so how do we define where the brackets go?
Nathan Hume: I can answer where I bracket this group. It’s funny hearing from different people trying to decide if this is a generation, if they are in this generation, if they are older, if it’s a subgeneration, or if it even matters that there are generations anymore. For me, it’s an era of people being taught that is spread over a decade. One keystone was the “Matters of Sensation” exhibition from 10 years ago. I think almost everyone in this show worked for or was taught by one of the 16 members of that show. There’s certain things that are clearly carried into this, but I also think there’s ideas that are different from that show. Another thing would be that show showed one building out of the 14 projects, or one partial building. So for me, that might be one way of starting to think of it as a split from that generation.