On Default: A Conversation with Gonzalo Vaillo
“What is the default that you believe is the most pressing to address or that you’re the most interested in?”
I find ‘default’ as a problematic term when it is used as a goal because it implies that you’ll deliver something that is already known. I would say that the default can be seen as the common agreement within a society, a common ground, which is what makes a collective cultural form of living particular and specific. And this idea obviously is what establishes a measure of rightness. I think especially in creative fields, there is always a necessity that each proposal needs to be confronted with something, and I think that’s what provides guidance and orientation in every design. I think that default is what provides a kind of a measure.
So in a way, the default is the system of valuation and conventions of how to judge things, and the practical effect of the situation is that you don’t need to start from scratch every time, so this makes the default, in a way, additive. This is what can somehow interest me about the default, that it is a starting point upon which to build something on top of or add something. The default is not the goal, but the minimum from where to begin. What makes me feel extremely uncomfortable with the term, is this condition of the default as something that you have to take for granted. Contrary to that, I think different opinions can coexist and precisely because none of them is accurate enough about the thing in question; it gives the opportunity of constantly unfolding something new and unexpected that is outside the regulations of this default.
I find the celebration of difference much richer, which is not what the default is doing. I think that the default established a structure of power that is usually really tough to subvert. It’s probably those totalitarian aspects of the default that I like the least.
How do we operate with the default?
Within the status quo of the default today, I find some contemporary trends in architecture problematic. For example, automatisms or optimization that, in my opinion, are [purely] default-based. There is always a preconfigured solution that you simply accelerate, and I don’t think this gives you any kind of progression, relevant design, or spatial contribution to the discourse. On the contrary, the default defines the medium of expression in which to deliver an architectural phenomenon. So I’d say the default is to meet the conventions that define the mediums for communication to exist. My interest lies in what someone perceives and how someone interacts with the building, but that is not defined by the default and predetermined understanding of what to perceive and how to interact with the building. I think this is in tune with what I will call the sense of extended perception; that is, when you don’t understand something immediately, you don’t take it for granted, you need more time to come to your own personal impression. The medium is default but the content cannot be.
How should we operate with the default?
I think the default cannot be taken as a model of epistemological comfort. To the contrary, it is the goal that has to be challenged. It requires a certain degree of rebellion and nonconformity, but you need to know what your rebellion is against or what it is you are challenging. Therefore, I think that you cannot operate in complete ignorance of the default. The critical engagement with the default, then, is first understanding its contemporaneity, which for me is still regulated by what Mark Gage criticizes as the “problem-solving model”. That means that we still understand architecture as a service and a byproduct for other contemporary agents, whether it is social injustice, global warming, political implications, applied technology, and so on. Obviously those are relevant topics that architecture has something to say about, but I think we are confronting them erroneously, and to be honest, with a really short-sighted perspective.
Basically what I want to say is that architecture cannot be a response to our purposes because architecture has its own purposes.
What we don’t understand is that our interests are already contained in architecture, if we take it as a thing in its own right. I know that this is a really polemic argument. It is not ethically correct if I tell you that when I design a building I don’t look firstly at the energy performance to shape the design according to that parameter. I think that the capacity of architecture is in this case really underestimated and paradoxically can give a more effective response to socio-political and environmental problems when those issues are not the only subject matter, but the architecture itself is. I find it much more compelling dealing with architecture from this autonomous condition. The specificity of architecture is ontological, meaning any understanding of architecture is partial to what indeed architecture is and can do apart from our cognitive capacities or epistemological assumptions. For this reason, the project of autonomy is so necessary, not as isolation, but ontological autonomy that avoids epistemological reduction. It is this excess or surplus in between these two conditions that creates the framework that interests me to address.
How can we operate with the default?
I see the default as something of a totalitarian model, which claims for the truth. My immediate reaction is distancing myself from it. When the default operates through dogmas and axioms, I find it dangerous because it creates a structure of power that demands political implications that we do not necessarily need to deal with. Given the situation, I find the tools of aesthetics a productive way of working. That means that offering an architecture that is open to individual interpretation, but that multiplies the gradients in which “everyone is right, but no one is correct,” as Wolf Prix says.
In today’s terms, the intentionality of the architect is irrelevant. The moment that architecture does not look for the default as a goal, that means designing an architectural arrangement that is not doing what everyone expects it can do. Architecture, and the building as a placeholder, can challenge the observer to find his or her personal engagement with the space. However, it is precisely the medium that requires certain physical participation of the user to achieve such aesthetic experience and this is clear when Peter Eisenman speaks about the question of movement and the unpredictable way of unfolding functions that are immanent to that space. Each space has its own particular affordances, so the role of the architect comes in the way we deliver a space and how we can make more or less evident these affordances. This is what I’m most interested in as an architectural effect through an arrangement of architectural syntax that is not obvious and cannot be taken for granted. This is what justifies my explorations in abstract and excessive formalizations that start from the hypothesis of challenging automated cognition, as something negative, and have a higher degree of complexity of affordances in an excessive and abstract space.