November 5, 2008

Three-Day Architecture Symposium Tackles Major Issues In Industry

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Architecture of Disbelief may conjure images of futuristic constructions in Dubai, buildings of fantastic geometry at the forefront of innovation in commercial architecture. Yet the topics discussed at the three-day architecture symposium this past weekend, and related works on display in Hartell Gallery, do not limit themselves to one category; rather, they present work that engages a range of influences, methods and implications. This work pushes beyond the normative practice of simply creating new structures in architecture, presenting unique design processes whose resultant forms and spaces can begin to have interesting and potentially significant impacts on the people and societies they interact with.
So what then is this so-called “Disbelief”; how is it pertinent to architecture? “It is the period of most advancement, when people try to stretch the boundaries, challenge the status quo to the level of discomfort. It is fantastical and has little to do with building, but can eventually have the effect of building,” said Jim Willamson, professor of architecture.
“A recession forces a crisis, as Lebbeus Woods outlined. It prompts different sorts of architectural endeavor and triggers serious speculative work, which is what ‘Architecture of Disbelief’ is all about. When the economy turns down, the world of the unbuilt or the yet-to-be-built gets very busy and architectural academia has a strategic role in guiding that business and making good use of its agency,” Mark Morris, professor of architecture, remarked on Saturday.
The presentations themselves were dizzying displays of speculative works. Neil Spiller lectured on the advent of technology around World War II, and how appropriate use of computer and cyberspace, as in the work of Cedric Price and Archigram, has hidden potential for architectural space. Woods presented a response to the Sarajevo War, where building ruins introduce a new category of order, and gaps can only be filled with time, perhaps in the form of his mechanistic sketches. Dagmar Richter discussed a redesign of LeCorbusier’s “Dom-ino House” whereby the original performance criteria of inter-War housing needs is adjusted transformatively to create a contemporary “Dom-in(f)o House” that addresses shifting urban densities.
Jeffrey Kipnis’ esoteric lecture can be best described as his fascination with the itch of experimentation, the 1960s and “architecture’s answer to the Beatles,” and his quote from Perfect Acts of Architecture — “I rage against settled histories, they feel like dead light. I love discovering unexpected latencies and untapped potentials.” Karl Chu, Evan Douglis and Neri Oxman dealt with systematic iterations, how computer-generated, naturally derived and algorithmically computed designs result in a performative emergence of form.
The work of these designers is much more complex — to accurately portray it would require infinitely more detail. The significance of the symposium lies not in the works themselves, but in the nature of theoretical design. This was the essence, the most significant conclusions from the remarks at the roundtable discussion. That these complicated and intelligent design iterations exist — that they have potential for physical manifestation in significant architectural, social, and even political, economic and cultural ways — is the most important rationale behind the symposium.
To this respect, the symposium seemed to be lacking one crucial component — the critical context. What are the ultimate ideas for extension of these carefully constructed and evocative designs? While the concepts behind these forms are explored in writings on or by the speakers, the nature of the presentations can be deduced as a parade of beautiful images, discussions of process and generation which are intriguing, yet remain largely unapplied to a particular context. This is not to say that design processes and resultant geometries are expendable “surface” notions. On the contrary, they are brilliantly created systems which could, unfortunately, be discounted and simplified on the act of refraining from discussion of critical contexts and larger implications of design.
Without knowledge of underlying ideas and intentions behind these works, one could be tempted to classify it as ornamental art. This brings about an important distinction, the definition of architecture and what separates it from art and ornament. Many might describe architecture as an art form that carries an inherent social responsibility — a creation of shelter, building or structure that addresses functional requirements and simultaneously responds in sensible and sensitive ways to the society it interacts with.
From this arises the problem of representation and abstraction — how far can these theoretical designs stretch and be interpreted while retaining design and social intentions. The nature of the symposium was such that we are left to create connections for ourselves between these created geometries and the practice and education of architecture. Few built architectures comprehensively merge the role of the architect with such holistic design methodologies, though movements such as Russian Constructivism, and work of people like Eisenman, Koolhaas, Tschumi and Hadid, begin to arbitrate such disconnects. Because such involved systems have not yet been fully integrated into architectural practice, we are left to wonder how designs can materialize into responsible and responsive systems on the larger architectural and personal scale. If left to our own creative devices, we may very well mediate these needed jumps from model or drawing to built work, or come up with our own systems of design. But the question still lies in design systems and how accurately and pertinently they can be translated into built architectures.
The symposium on the whole was successful in that it generated a significant amount of debate among students and faculty, questions which will be formally addressed in follow-up roundtable discussions and in a compilation of the event in a publication set to be released in the spring. These questions, not just on the work of the specific speakers, but about the potential for architecture, its usage of seemingly disconnected discourses, as well as the larger role it may play in the world, will hopefully incite creative responses. Perhaps these creative manifestations, whether design systems or solutions to the disconnect between such systems and architecture, will wave in a whole new approach to architectural design, one which is more intelligent and responsible than that of Dubai, and one that integrates such phenomenal ideas and processes in such a way that it very well may become believable.