On Default: A Conversation with Nate Hume



Volume 6, Issue 01
September 17, 2020

What is the default that you believe is the most pressing to address/ that you are most interested in?

In our work it’s trying to shift the default understanding of building materials. To us, materials act as a register of a number of things within the building industry, field of architecture, and culture at large. One thing that we are particularly interested in questioning, highlighting or even exaggerating is the understanding of the tension between natural and artificial materials. Historically, this is something that we assume is somewhat clear in architecture even though it has always shifted in perception across different periods of time and has been continually questioned and turned over. Even today, I think each of us would have default assumptions and associations with those terms. But in fact, I think they are becoming much looser and vaguer in a productive way.

The building industry is ripe with materials already in a strange liminal territory, where things that we perceive as raw and composed of living matter are in fact the most factory-processed and things that we may think are artificial contain more organic matter than the other. This shift reflects our contemporary material culture at large, not just within building materials. I think that opens up space for new aesthetic conditions as well as instigates new ways of perceiving and engaging ideas of nature and building. As it shifts, the default remains important as a means to register any change or subversion. Rather than just being disorienting or confusing, our deviations are meant to open up other readings of building materials and their organization.

How do we operate with the default?

There are two projects we’re working on this summer in the office that are moving into the construction phase and both of them are making extensive use of standard materials, because of budget and other constraints. This raises the question: where can we break out of the default and where does it need to be embraced? For us, we want to look at the ways we can start to make slight swerves from those expectations, from those defaults.

Both projects use vegetation as a material—not as a static decoration, but as a participant in the organization of the material assembly both inside and outside. Part of this has been working with a range of actual living material as well as petrified materials. The preserved materials open up conditions where we can adjust expected chromatic qualities or work with plants that are seemingly growing off the expected cycle. [By] starting with these slight interventions, we can start to deviate from the expected.
To consciously work on deviating from the default, we have to be aware of what it is and what expectations it brings with it. I think the way to engage with that is to explore the history of things, whether it’s [the development] of a setting in Photoshop, the history of the hallway in housing, or even the history of CMU block dimensions. We need to start to understand who set that default and who it is serving. For architects, most of these defaults aren’t set by us and are set by somebody else. A lot of these are productive and necessary, but as we work we should identify the ones which are outmoded and no longer serving us. The only way to swerve or move away from those defaults is to understand how they came to be.

How should we operate with the default?

I think that the issue of ‘how to find the limit’ is an important question. It makes me think of a book by George Monbiot called Feral that talks about environmental conservation. One thing he brings up a number of times is the idea from Daniel Pauly called the “shifting baseline syndrome,” The initial use of it was for fish hatcheries, where every generation the amount of fish in the water considered as the healthy baseline would be reset, with the new baseline disregarding the amounts of years past. By constantly shifting the baseline you are resetting to a new default every time allowing the current condition to become the norm. It normalizes wherever we are environmentally or politically to neutralize or minimize loss or negative development. But it isn’t so clear where to reset the baseline to.

If we say that the default condition shouldn’t be the current one and we’re going to actively change that, it opens up the question of how you decide the new limit. In conservation terms, any baseline will favor certain actors or conditions whether its flora, fauna, geology, bodies of water, or human industries tied to these and at the same time potentially harm or eliminate some of those actors. So do we go back a single generation before us because conditions seemed better then, to a point when the most species thrived, or to the beginning of recorded history for the region. In finding these limits one has to unpack who they are benefiting and to whom they would be potentially hostile—are you benefiting the majority, finding the most advantageous economic impact, or conforming to the current norm. Finding the limit also comes with determining what is the criteria to judge that and how do you open up a larger conversation about the impact of resetting the default. This could be extracted and applied at many levels to architecture in relation to contemporary life. It is certainly not so easy or clear to just reset a default to a new one. How do we think about limits or baselines as being dynamic or elastic instead of a singular fixed thing? And what are the larger implications on a whole host of actors when we adjust those limits.

How can we operate with the default?

We can think of all architecture as the constant act of deciding to uphold or upend defaults. From the minor decisions about drawing a detail, to the decision of a representation convention, to the organization of people in the city, at every level we are constantly making decisions to continue, shift or swerve a default. As a discipline, we work with codes, types, standards, best practices and standardized materials and assemblies drawn with centuries old conventions. Some of these are absolutely necessary because it’d be impossible to start over for every project or every building document. However, we need to start to recognize which ones are an accumulation of knowledge and which ones have been formed out of pressures that are not productive for us. Through the idea of elasticity and the evolving baseline, we have to constantly look at culture and architecture and ask what default are outmoded or biased and need to be rethought whether from a decade old standard or a five hundred-year-old practice. Only through understanding their motivations, is there a chance to change or influence them in any way. To subvert the default we must identify and ask these questions to open up new possibilities and transcend them where necessary.

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Volume 6, Issue 01
September 17, 2020