Like the portfolio of an established hedge fund seeking to insulate itself from turmoil, the industry of architecture is diversifying in an attempt to maintain its relevance. Depending on the outlook, one may find this act to be an apt shift in the face of changing times, or the desperate grasping of straws of a profession unsure of its purpose in society. However, this essay intends not to be a comprehensive deconstruction of an industry. Rather, this is the story of a personal experience with two facets of architecture colliding: the experiential and the performative.
Emphasizing the performative aspects of architecture is certainly in vogue right now, and not without reason. Substituting more ephemeral experiential assertions for quantifiable factors, like daylight penetration and graywater management, scream added value. In the highly commodified present, today’s generation is growing up in a world where a feature checklist and a good experience are considered substitutable. And yet, those two characteristics are more diametric than related, in spite of their perceived similarities. This pervasive attitude is seeping into the current, trending parametric/performative camp of architecture.
My first exposure to this phenomenon occurred in a studio dedicated to the redevelopment of a vacant expanse nested between the Strip District and the Allegheny river in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My partner, Mark Terra-Salomão and I had the goal of creating a community that took continual development and vibrancy to such a level that inhabitants had the ability to physically rearrange their built environment. Furthermore, we developed a set of performative goals, to help direct our development. In our hubris, we titled it the new development “Str2p District,” the “2” symbolizing our absolute conviction in how much of an improvement our collaboration constituted.
And yet, in spite of our efforts and warm critical reception, the result was sterile, anonymous and industrial. We foolishly made a checklist and assumed it could enrich the lives of inhabitants.
01 / Modularity and Modification
One of the main issues facing current architectural practice is the outright disregard for the fragmentary and the incomplete. Most current architectural works take on the quality of an autonomous artifact, designed to exist irrespective of its time or context. Disregarding the systems-based nature of civilization immediately relegates any building disengaging and inflexible. Embracing the fragmentary and the incomplete is a philosophical model popularized by Spinoza, where he asserts that ‘wholeness’ and ‘fragments’ are understandings derived from the varying perspectives of the observer, rather than an intrinsic quality of an object. Spinoza used the metaphor of a “worm”—better understood as a cell—in the bloodstream as a means of expressing the duality of fragmentation and wholeness (Sacksteder 1980). The blood cell, from its perspective may see itself, a cell, interacting with other whole cells within the universe of the body. The cell is a whole from a perspective scaled to itself, and the body is the incomprehensibly large medium within which the cell rationalizes its existence. Of course, from the human perspective, the cell is but a fragment of our wholeness, yet we are a fragment of other larger structures should the observer choose to expand his or her perspective to larger scales (Sacksteder 1980).
Much in the way the blood cell is a fragment of the human, and the human is a fragment of the universe, or civilization, or what have you, the units of the Str2p District project are the wholes of the resident’s experience that are simultaneously fragments within the greater development. The development is a fragment of the whole of the city of Pittsburgh, and so on.
The inbuilt modularity of Str2p District goes beyond just an understanding of the situational awareness of its placement, but also acknowledges the transient and the perpetually incomplete experience that is an urban environment. Modular unit system allows for user engagement. Inhabitants had the ability to transform their living space according to their changing needs by adding modules. Users have the ability to make a meaningful, personal impact on the environment making the development of the neighborhood a story of the experiences of its inhabitants.
However, the modular system that enables the perpetual adaptation of the occupants is still a restrictive system that forces inhabitants to conform to a rigid 12-by-12 foot grid. This compromise was developed, seemingly out of necessity to maintain a regular structure for the tower blocks. Not only did the modular expansion system create a formally restrictive grid, its also exacerbated basic performative issues with the tower blocks. The over-engineered system creates logistical issues for otherwise easily implemented systems, including moisture barrier, and thermal insulation.
The redemptive feature of the modular rearrangement is that it promotes inhabitant engagement of the neighborhood. Residents have the ability to make an impression on the built environment that is a reflection of their needs. Hence, their modifications become a personal expression of themselves. The question then becomes how residents can have the ability to imprint themselves and their needs onto the neighborhood in a way that does not wholly unbalance the community. A rather unorthodox, and potentially failed, example demonstrates how inhabitants of a community can alter their neighborhood:
In 1923, French industrialist Henry Frugès commissioned Le Corbusier to construct a housing development near Pessac for workers and their families. The houses were the epitome of early functionalism: spare, white boxes that made no allusion to tradition or their context. Evidently nostalgic of their traditional homes they had left to work in the factory, the residents took it upon themselves to modify their residences with casement windows, pitched roofs, and vibrant colors (Botton 2008). Ostensibly, this is just one of many instances of residents rejecting the lofty agenda of a modernist architect. However, the Pessac development can also be understood in a different light: as the architect creating a framework upon which inhabitants can build for the neighborhood to develop. As the occupants modified their residences, fragment by fragment, the whole of the neighborhood changed to reflect its residents. This state of perpetual incompletion is something that characterizes virtually all vibrant urban communities. Although not reflective of the aesthetic values of residents today, the development is a successful example of an architect creating—albeit unintentionally—a modifiable community.
Another, more contemporary, take on a modifiable or modular architecture is the Borneo Sporenburg housing by West 8. This development, built in 1996 was a master plan for two spurs of a formerly industrial dockland (West 8 n.d.). The strict Dutch building code forced the row houses into identical dimensions of 4.2 meters wide and 9.5 meters tall. To mitigate the restrictive dimensions imposed upon the development, West 8 allowed architects to design highly varied structures. The row houses within the development are delightfully varied, with highly individual colors, window styles and materials (Botton 2008). In this case the normative physical structure of the units is disguised by the exuberant treatment of the facades of the buildings. This is not modular in the sense that the buildings can be physically added on to, as seen in the Str2p District scheme. However, the balance between formal consistency and leeway constitutes a more consistent methodology than the hodgepodge of the user-driven modifications of the Pessac development.
Ultimately, the development of each of the fragments of an urban community has a great impact on the ways in that community develops as a whole. It is within the methodology of the architect wherein the conflict arises. Either the architect creates an empty framework upon which the inhabitant can build, or forces the differentiation at the beginning of the project. The degree to which the architect involves themselves with the fragments of the project appears to affect the degree to which the built environment of a community manifests itself as incomplete. With the former example, the degree of incompletion is much greater, and hence the opportunity for organic development. With regard to the latter, the level of incompletion and opportunity for development is more staged than real. This understanding of the factors that influence the modification of a community, reveals that creating an ostensibly standardized framework allows for latent incompletion.
02 / Relationships
The relationship inhabitants have with their built environment is absolutely critical to the development of a vibrant community. What makes a community successful is quite literally embedded in the ecological definition of the word: “interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.” The neighborhood is a habitat for a community of people, and interdependence is absolutely necessary for creating any kind of community.
Without systemic interdependencies binding fragments together, the fragment becomes autonomous. Tragically, the state of the built environment in the current American city is the autonomous. The default perception of a residence is the detached house, setback from the lot border: the autonomous object.
The Str2p District project ostensibly had the goal of creating dense, car-free commuter housing. However, neither Mark nor I were able to escape notion of the autonomous dwelling ingrained by our predominantly American upbringings. The result was a unit that, while in a relatively dense format, acted as a detached house. Each tower contained two units on each level, encircling a stairwell. Out initial proposal created a suburban subdivision-esque experience, where each unit was an essentially identical autonomous object in a field, with identical amenities. The major amenity that forced our understanding of the units as autonomous was guaranteeing sunlight penetration at all times. While goals like this are ostensibly positive, they promote the experience of the unit at the cost of the experience neighborhood. Especially considering that occupants may spend up to two-thirds of their time at work or at third places in a community neighborhood, arbitrary performative goals on a per-unit basis do not make experiential sense. Ultimately, our failure was to understand the unit a collection of autonomous objects, rather than as a fragment within the neighborhood.
In the original iteration of Str2p District and the conventional understanding of the autonomous dwelling, the unit is a commodity defined by a high degree of homogeneity across units. Jana Leo invokes in Zero Estate the understanding that the singularity of the object, popularized by modernism, is a symptom of the designed culture within which we live (Leo 2006). The perpetually uniform object, emblematic of modern society is both institutionally ingrained and experientially unchallenging.
The human brain is a plastic object, evolved over millennia to perpetually adapt its structure to better respond to changing circumstances. Because of the plasticity of the brain, however, an identical stimulus that is repeated gradually loses its potency until the brain adapts to a new normal. Thompson and Madigan describe the reaction of a primitive organism, the sea anemone, as an analogy to how the brain adapts. In this case, when one pokes an anemone, it notes the threat and retracts into itself for protection. If one continues to poke it in the same place, it reacts, but less immediately for each time. Eventually the anemone grows accustomed to the touch as an environmental factor and ceases to react entirely (Thompson and Madigan 2005). The Str2p District in its current iteration, as with any generic architecture, influences residents in that same way. Perpetual exposure to identical stimulus, as a result of the homogeneity of the unit, renders the stimulus unnoticeable and experientially unchallenging.
As long as the architect treats the unit/fragment as an autonomous commodity, the community is rendered nothing more than a series of monotonous antistimuli. The previous section on modularity and modification demonstrated that variation in the fragments is necessary for community development. A continually developing, ever changing community is an environment that an inhabitant cannot grow accustomed to, achieving the goal of a perpetually stimulating community.
If the commoditized unit/fragment causes the experience of the community as a whole to stagnate, then it must be discarded in favor of fragmentary differentiation. Moving away from the feature-complete, identical dwelling involves a greater philosophical value shift that places more value on the whole of the neighborhood and community than the fragment that is the unit.
Giving the neighborhood a higher priority with the relationship between the unit and the neighborhood sets the stage for a truly communal neighborhood. By eliminating experientially redundant requirements forcing every unit to be a feature complete, the neighborhood can be less formally restricted. In the revised relationship setting, every inhabitant must understand and support that they and their dwelling are a fragment of their larger habitat. The revised relationship set deemphasizes the performative aspect experience plays, in favor of allowing the urban layout to more experientially inform the arrangement of the units.
03 / Urban Layout
A good urban layout takes the single relationship between the inhabitant and the neighborhood and scales it up to work on a community level. The urban layout must support the experiential goals set out at the beginning of the project to be considered successful. The goal, of course, is for inhabitants must experience the neighborhood as a place where they feel an intimate connection with the neighbors, and feel ownership and pride over their locality within the neighborhood.
Achieving these goals is something that only seems to occur in environments with an inverted figure-ground relationship. In the typical modern city, on both the architectural and the urban level, buildings struggle to become anything experientially more than objects in a field. Successful communities seem to invert that relationship.
My understanding of this type of inverted figure-ground relationship comes from personal experience from Munich, Rosenheim, Weimar and Prien am Chiemsee, Germany. All of these towns and cities are dense, tightly knit communities, where the proximity of inhabitants fostered intimate, serendipitous interaction. Of course, the urban relationships that I am promoting are limited. My personal experience of living in urban environments is limited by a germanocentric perspective. Nonetheless, these cities and towns all featured an inverted figure-ground relationship, which correlates with community and an inhabitant’s sense of ownership.
What unifies theses communities is their physically tightly knit presence that sacrifices the individual experience on a per-unit basis, in favor of proximity to urban amenities, even in towns of 10,000 people like Prien am Chiemsee. Notice how the forms of the buildings conform to the public streets and plazas. Because the buildings so tightly conform, the streets and plazas become defined spaces. In the contrasting examples of Houston and Pittsburgh, the conventional figure ground relationships do not allow the buildings to create definitive spaces. Rather the buildings exist in a void, and the space between buildings are unoccupiable gaps.
Furthermore, because the German examples developed their urban fabric before the advent of the automobile, their streets and plazas are scaled for people. This stands in direct contrast to the sprawl conventional in post-automobile cities, where public spaces are scaled to the automobile. What automobile oriented development enables more than anything else is for experientially engaging places to be located further apart.
What this means in creating an urban layout, and for the Str2p District project is that recycling old, proven urban models of ancient cities is an entirely viable method for creating vibrant communities. The relationships created within the German examples are evidence that the decommodifcation of the fragments of the urban fabric, combined with density act to create a vibrant community in an urban environment.
04 / Aesthetics
Few concepts are held in such low regard, yet have such a profound impact on the experience of the built environment as aesthetics. Alain de Botton offers a compelling reason for the return to aesthetic consideration on an urban level in a video produced for CityLab, a site operated by the Atlantic Magazine (Bliss 2015).
Perhaps the most critical thing to learn from the video and my experience with the first iteration of the Str2p District project is how the subjectivity of aesthetics is used to invalidate any aesthetic agenda. As the argument goes, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, making a value judgment on the way something looks is not possible.
The subjectivity of our preferences ties directly into the current understanding of how the brain works. The human brain is a plastic thing that physically responds to stimuli. It reworks, strengthens and abandons pathways as they are needed, and therefore, every individual’s understanding of the world is framed through the physical architecture of their brain (Thompson and Madigan 2005). In this sense, the dominant argument advocating the disregard of aesthetics is valid. It is impossible to create architecture, or anything really, that caters to ideal aesthetics, because no two people can share their sensibilities.
The aesthetic agenda of the Str2p District project is undoubtedly a symptom of this mentality, because it has no aesthetic agenda whatsoever. The visual appearance of the project was passingly questioned during the final review, but once it became clear that it was an expression of the performative aspects, questions ceased, as if that were a good answer. Of course, stating the project was expressive of its functionality is a bit of a cop-out, a more acceptable way of stating that no thought was given to aesthetics. Reflecting upon this answer prompts the realization that the purely utilitarian consideration renders the project as a work of engineering rather than architecture.
The lack of attention paid to aesthetics presents several issues. People tend not to accept structures that challenge their understanding of the built environment, when those structures aggressively alienate their occupants. Because of the dominance of the idea that beauty is the eye of the beholder, the user feels trapped between the popular judgment of a project and their inability to criticize it. This dichotomy leaves the user passively accepting yet loathing the project, and makes the project unsuccessful given its predisposition to dissatisfying its users.
Taking a stance on aesthetics involves dismissing the relevance of subjective beauty, in the name of architecture as an art form. In contrast with the three previous sections—modularity, relationships, and urban layout—aesthetics is wholly performative; it constitutes the other side of the dichotomy. Ostensibly, architecture straddles the line separating performance and art, and its purpose as an art form is somewhat murkier than the requisite performative goals. Perhaps then, the goal of art is the fill in the gaps of the performative, and address the aspects of habitation that cannot be improved through subsequent layers of technical complexity. Pallasmaa argues the goal of art is to “safeguard the authenticity of the human experience” (Pallasmaa 2008). Beyond advocating for the human experience, the artistic aspect of architecture, the artistic dimension acts as a mediator for subjective sensations the architect imagines for his future inhabitants (Pallasmaa 2008).
Therefore it is the role of the architect to impart his understanding of how his occupants should experience a project. Ostensibly, with a project with the high level of inbuilt complexity as Str2p District, the artistic considerations must coexist with the performative ones. The artistic—the aesthetic—considerations must hence define the experience in a way the performative cannot. Technical systems simply do not have the emotive or affective qualities necessary to impart aesthetic meaning bases on their purely existential qualities. Every architectural undertaking, including, the Str2p District project, must have an artistic, aesthetic component that acts in parallel to the performative to ensure a complete experience.
05 / Impasse
To solve the issues facing a community of future inhabitants when creating a development from scratch, the architect must understand where to exert and cede control. The original iteration of the Str2p District project reached an impasse at which communal development became impossible, due to the emphasis of a normative experience for every resident. The physical manifestation of the project stood in direct violation to the stated goal of creating a vibrant, constantly evolving neighborhood community. To resolve the impasse facing an urban development, where the experience and the performative goals clash, the reasoning behind the performative goals must be questioned. Ultimately, eliminating the arbitrarily normative and de-emphasizing a top-down design process is the solution to creating a successful neighborhood. Rather, the architect should focus on creating an urban framework that allows for the inhabitants to have agency. And then the architect must let go. The inhabitants should be able to take advantage of the architect’s aesthetic agenda and the form of the urban framework to make their own experience more meaningful.
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