Email Q+A with Lateral Office
LOLA SHEPPARD and MASON WHITE (Partners, Lateral Office)
P!: Do you feel that the value and expertise of architects are changing or should change?
LS: We have been interested in expanding the agency of architecture by, among other things, redefining at what point the architect might get involved in the design process. Typically, architects are brought in once site, program, and budget have been established. However, an overlooked skill of architects is synthetic thinking—looking at spatial, cultural, social, and economic questions simultaneously. We see architects as possessing the skills of detectives. We see design as a mode of speculative research in the early phases of the project, when the architect can look at social and cultural context, site, logistics and other questions. This allows the opportunity to identify synergies and overlooked possibilities. In this role, the architect might help shape the brief and conception of the project, instead of simply giving form to it.
MW: The question and value of expertise are difficult, in part because Architecture is slow, both as a discipline and as a practice. There is more of a viscous, reactive change that is always taking place, rather than the fits and bursts that might be found in other creative disciplines. But there are advantages to slowness. I would say that we are suspicious of expertise, or any claims to expertise. We think a more productive identity for the architect is to be an expert generalist—someone whose expertise is where spatial practice impacts or is impacted by external factors. Here I am thinking of probably the most influential diagram of disciplinary meanderings: Charles Jencks’ diagram “Evolutionary Tree of the Year 2000.” Produced in 1971, it documents historical shifts as well as speculates (up to the year 2000) possible areas of interest for architects and shows the fluid connections between eras and external influences. Jencks revisited it in 2000 to reflect on its predictive accuracy.
P!: What makes you feel that architects are qualified to address ecological, social or political problems?
MW: It’s interesting that these issues—ecology, society, and politics—are sometimes placed outside of architecture, as though you can remove them and just have architecture by itself. But, I don’t think you can. There is no architecture by itself. What would it do? Whether an architect likes it or not, their project is participating, even if involuntarily, in an argument about contemporary issues. In some instances, even non-participation in a particular issue is a subtle positional argument. Architects must be semi-qualified for many things that they will not necessarily be experts at, since many of these things come embedded in the outcome of designs. Having an awareness of a design’s impact on society, environment, economy, politics, is what distinguishes an architecture more accepting of its inevitable influence.
LS: We like Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor of the hedgehog and the fox, taken from the Greeks. Berlin offers the contrasting characters; Colin Rowe later brought it into Architecture, in this way: the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Architects cannot pretend to be ecologists or sociologists or politicians, but they can engage and learn from these disciplines in order to expand the agency of architecture, urbanism, and landscape. Recently, we have begun using and embracing the notion of being “undisciplined.” It’s a playful acknowledgement of a critique that one may level at another. This kind of practice is not anti-disciplinary, nor necessarily multi-disciplinary. Instead, it accepts that questions may be provoked outside the discipline, although the methods of response remain within the discipline. Looking outside of a discipline is not to avoid its particularities, but rather to expand and clarify the questions and ultimately the agency that it can or does have.
P!: Have you been in situations where you feel unqualified taking on a particular problem? In those situations, how have you engaged other experts to support you?
MW: I like the anecdote of Cedric Price declining a complicated commission for a house from a couple by instead suggesting that they needed a marriage counselor, not an architect. How refreshing to decline work for human reasons. But, yes, we have been in similar situations very recently, and in fact, are often trying to put ourselves in this situation. I am thinking of a design-research project on e-waste we conducted recently titled “States of Disassembly,” which took us to some very dark corners of contemporary life—our denial of our own electronic waste/consumption impact. We were consulting the United Nations reports on this and had a few conversations with a Dutch chemist who specializes in sustainable development and statistics and a German political economist. It was interesting to try to find a common language to understand each other. They were perplexed by why an architect would be looking at this—and that skepticism helped us to clarify our intent. In terms of the drawings to reflect on the research, we decided to draw at three scales: the Earth, the territory, and the machine. Although atypical architectural scales, they were necessary to communicate the findings.
LS: In terms of how we work, we rely on in-house, in-depth research as a first point of entry into disciplines outside of our own. This provides a means of gathering information and knowledge before formulating questions about a given subject. However, depending on the length and scope of the project, we often consult or collaborate with others. In expanding the questions architects might grapple with, it’s also crucial to recognize the limits of disciplinary knowledge. There are always limits.
P!: Do you see your work in a trajectory of an overall evolution of the practice of architecture, or as a mode of practice that exists alongside traditional practice?
MW: I am open to either interpretation, although we try not to think about this too much. I think we exercise a mode of practice that might not fit for someone else, and that is fine. We don’t see our success as being about how many we can convert to this mode. Though our practice model might not make the most business sense, it seeks to provoke and ask questions about the boundary of disciplines. This can be risky, but a worthwhile risk, we hope.
LS: In 2015, I was one of the organizers, with David Ruy, of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual meeting titled “The Expanding Periphery and the Migrating Center,” which was asking many of these questions about the contemporary state of practice. We hoped to use the annual conference of educators to highlight the anxieties surrounding architecture being compromised by external forces. One observation that the conference brought to the fore is that it’s not clear that there is a “traditional practice” anymore. Practice seems to be moving to a shifting and ever-expanding periphery with several niches. This is both natural and healthy to the survival instincts of a practice.
P!: In your opinion, when does building become infrastructure and when does infrastructure become landscape?
MW: It is an interesting question of taxonomy. However, looking for distinct categorical lines within any sub-genre can be frustrating. While there might be dictionary-defining representations of infrastructure and landscape, these increasingly slip toward each other. In fact, qualities of both have to be relevant today, because landscapes have to perform (like infrastructures), and infrastructures often need to masquerade (as landscapes).
LS: This is a tricky question—to define and distinguish that line would be ambiguous. However, I think we see infrastructure operating at a more territorial scale—it implies an organization with certain systemic logics. Buildings and landscapes operate within the scale of a singular site, although they often are tangled within infrastructure—literal and territorial—which makes [infrastructure] relevant to understanding their impacts and influences beyond the specific, bound site. Rosalind Krauss asked similar questions for sculpture in the 1970s with her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” by introducing, through a Klein diagram, more hybrid kinds of sculptural outcomes, such as axiomatic structures, site constructions, and marked sites. These are also sculptures, but with maybe non-traditional understandings, and this opens an “expanded” possibility for the production of sculpture. In thinking analogously for architecture, there may be expanded outcomes with similar new categorical claims, such as productive surfaces, civic conduits, or spatial containers.