Chair, Department of Architecture, GSD, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA
Generated from a discussion at the Fall 2015 ACSA Conference in Syracuse, New York, this article tackles the very topic of the conference (“Between Autonomous and Contingent Objects of Architecture”). It reflects on projects of autonomy (new and old) asking what they contribute to architecture as a discipline and profession. What, if anything, is at stake in such projects? It discusses some contemporary examples of autonomous and object-oriented theories of architecture. While autonomy originally posed a radical challenge to ways architecture was made and reasoned, this article contends that the critical energy generated with that challenge has been exhausted and replaced with disengaged copies of earlier experiments. It is unclear what insights these newer versions provide to architectural discourse. This article further conjectures that the socio-economic context in which autonomy re-emerges today is fundamentally altered leaving its advocates in a much more precarious position than the exponents of previous iterations of architectural autonomy. It concludes that notions of architectural autonomy are an absurd alibi, incommensurate with a discipline so constrained by social and economic expectations as architecture.
Architecture is usually defined through intent while cities come into being out of multiple human actions over a long period of time. This seems to trap us between a view of architecture as authored object, and a view of the city as authorless, evolutionary process. The debate about the autonomous and the contingent object thus, goes back to the separation of architecture from its skill base in craft and building practice that took place in the Renaissance. This separation also includes the operations through which buildings and cities are produced by designers, clients, users, regulatory codes, markets and infrastructures. The resurgence in the debate on the competing claims of autonomy and contingency testifies that since the Renaissance we have failed to develop theories and techniques that address the relationship between authored architecture and authorless contexts. As a result, coupled with commercial forces, recent advancements in digital technology and complexity theory claim architecture and the city as self-organization, dismantling architecture and depriving it from relevance in shaping social capital. If in the Renaissance, architecture was separated from the city, which was the relationship between the ways in which a city was built and the urban fabric? How can we better understand the relationship between the architectural project and the processes that configure the urban structure in which it is situated? This paper argues that for architecture to reclaim its scope as a social discipline it needs to theorise its relationship with the social, the political and the economic processes of its context.
Tolerance lies at the crux between the contingencies of context and autonomous production. The problem of detailing lies, in part, on understanding that the detail, from its representation to its actualization, is the architecture: tolerance is what transpires in the transformation. It is a byproduct of the disciplinary autonomy of architecture that is created out of understanding contingency: designing with it is the making of architecture. The whole is no thing without its parts.
Historian Kenneth Frampton discusses "tectonics" as a series of opposites, particularly between the “ontological” and the “representational.” The design of details is thus suspended between what it “is” and its appearance. What is crucial to consider in this relationship is that the construction of those details must be designed in any work of architecture. In the translation from drawing to built work, the design must accommodate reality: the imprecision of equipment, humans, materials, and site. The literal gaps given over to “reality” are what we understand as tolerances.
Tolerance exists between the lines of a drawing, but it is virtually the only way to ensure a building can be created on site. It can also be seen as something outside the control of the architect – a building is contingent on the tolerances supplied by manufacturers and agreed upon with contractors. The gymnastics of designing for or with tolerance is typically done behind the scenes so that the representation of the building (idea) and the building (form) appear the same.
This essay will explore architects with a particular insight into tolerance, and who seek to maintain control of the parameters of variability inherent to the design of construction through details. The work of architects including SHoP, Kieran Timberlake, and Frank Gehry will be considered for their attitude towards and understanding of the nature of tolerance. Their work will be studied from built object back through the design process, examining the ways in which tolerance is tied to tectonic expression, where the parts (and what lies between them) facilitates the whole.
The purpose of this paper is to argue for “practice” as an autonomous object in architecture by rehearsing contemporary attempts at its definition, and offering an alternative. To support the argument, the author utilizes the characterization of objects from the philosophical practice Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Additionally, exemplars from a realized project designed by the author are used to demonstrate how representations reveal the metaphysical autonomous object of practice from within material projects. The aspiration of this work is to hunt for an object of architecture independent of the polemics and compromises that seek to legitimize practice with academic and professional audiences. The author suggests that the pursuit and articulation of an autonomous practice that exists outside of both the contingent singular building, and the relations to all other architectures that academic discipline demands, is useful in empowering new creative practices in the field.
Grossformen im Wohnungsbau is the title of an unassuming pamphlet that German architect O.M. Ungers published in 1966 as part of the Veröffentlichungen zur Architektur series (VzA #5) during his tenure at the TU Berlin in the 1960’s. In it Ungers reimagines the singular architectural intervention at a scale between architecture and urbanism as a counter measure to the rapid urbanization brought about by Europe’s postwar boom. The formal coherence of Grossform (literally meaning “large form” in German) could provide a framework within which the unplannable processes of the contemporary city played out, while acting as stable markers of identity in an expanding urban field of increasing formlessness. Many of the ideas introduced in Grossformen would resurface throughout Ungers’ career, and eventually find their way into the better known Green Archipelago project. But where the morphologically pure islands in the Green Archipelago form a “dialectic city” only as a federation of ideal fragments, the scaleless concept of Grossform equally suggests the possibility of the island itself becoming a “dialectic object,” containing the exacerbated differences of the archipelago within. Faced with an urban environment in which traditional tools of urbanism have come to be swept away irrevocably by a limitless proliferation of building production, this reconsideration of the urban agency at the architectural scale appears highly pertinent today. Reconstituting the conceptual underpinnings of Grossform and outlining the trajectories of the “dialectic city” and “dialectic object” in reference to Ungers’ work, this paper aims to contribute to the (re)emergent debate on the conditions and constitutions of the architectural object: Through the combination of programmatic neutrality and formal specificity, Grossform may serve as the starting point for a contemporary paradigm in which the architectural object carries renewed urban relevance beyond its bounded form.
Architecture constantly negotiates the ideal and the real. These two conditions, being a reflection of cultural values and practices, change over time. I suggest that what remains constant to architecture are the lasting spatial and formal qualities that engage in constructing the physical and cultural landscape: how it channels natural light and air, how its permanent structures organize space, frame and supports life, shelter, protect and comfort. There are the qualities that make architecture endure and adapt to a changing cultural and natural environment. The placement of architecture in the real world often seems contaminated by a multiplicity of socio-economic structures and processes, but its situation in the world is also what provides an opportunity to engage in the making of a landscape where over time architecture finds a critical autonomy and relevance. The role of architecture in making or responding to the landscape is one of the critical questions in current debates about autonomy and contingency. In this paper, I expand on the work I presented at the ACSA conference at Syracuse University in the Fall of 2015, where I explored how the discipline of architecture has absorbed the landscape as a conceptual space, to “theorize critical means of engagement with the formal, spatial and performance qualities of its territory, to define critical contingencies that are meaningful through space and time, and to refuse those that can keep it tied to the trivialities of a temporary situation.” More specifically, my work examines how the notion of the ecological permeates the architecture discipline from the field of landscape, providing a framework for architectural discourse to theorize the relationship of the idealized and the real, to create new singular form within a situation of multiplicity.
For more than 20 years, Rachel Whiteread has situated her sculpture inside the realm of architecture. Her constructions elicit a connection between: things and space, matter and memory, assemblage and wholeness by drawing us toward a reciprocal relationship between objects and their settings. Her chosen means of casting solids from “ready-made” objects reflect a process of visual estrangement that is dependent on the original artifact. The space beneath a table, the volume of a water tank, or the hollow undersides of a porcelain sink serve as examples of a technique that aligns objet-trouvé with a reverence for the everyday. The products of this method, now rendered as space, acquire their own autonomous presence as the formwork of things is replaced by space as it solidifies and congeals. The effect is both reliant and independent, familiar yet strange. Much of the writing about Whiteread’s work occurs in the form of art criticism and exhibition reviews. Her work is frequently under scrutiny, fueled by the popular press and those holding strict values and expectations of public art. Little is mentioned of the architectural relevance of her process, though her more controversial pieces are derived from buildings themselves – e,g, the casting of surfaces (Floor, 1995), rooms (Ghost, 1990 and The Nameless Library, 2000), or entire buildings (House, 1993). From an architect’s perspective, Whiteread offers an unsettling interpretation of architectural space, one that is dependent on filling space to the brim, barring life from entering or holding it in suspended animation from within. This paper argues that architectural form, whether fashioned from contingencies or autonomous acts, has reached a saturation point in architectural criticism. The work of Whiteread helps forge an alternative reading that embraces the object-oriented methods inherent in design by turning the tables on our fascination of figural form and the obsession of substance. The essay analyzes several of Whiteread’s projects in order to explain the meaning and techniques of her work, and places them within the context of Luigi Moretti’s 1953 essay on the “Structures and Sequences of Spaces.” It concludes with research work that attempts to use Whiteread’s method to better understand the figural and material attributes of architectural space.