Archive for January, 2009

The Mediators

Note: Originally intended for the latest copy of loud paper, this essay is posted here as part of my ongoing concern with the acts and instruments of judgment. Ultimately, it’s an argument for being more explicit about the factors that shape design decisions and using that knowledge to inform the specific ways that the architect acts. There’s a wide world of options out there between buildings and books: size matters.

The architect is foremost a mediator–negotiating the desires of the mind and all the contingent specifics of the situation at hand. By working between the abstract realm of possibilities and the concrete world of consequences, the primary skill of the architect is the ability to make the unavoidable compromises of getting things done dissolve into a wash of intention. Regardless of scale, budget, or brief, acts of architecture are always the result of such mediations and introduce new relationships within the participating public.

In this way, what the architect does sounds a lot like McLuhan’s definition of a medium: something behind the scenes that changes the way we relate to each other and the world. That architecture is a medium rather than a thing or quality may help to explain why the discipline never seems to escape that fundamental existential question: What is architecture? Architecture is everything transmitted by the architect… but that doesn’t help us very much.

Sources: left and right.

Precisely because the architect is a mediator–a human instantiation of the medium of architecture–McLuhan’s trusty message about mediums is useless for the discipline. Instead, let’s massage medium into format: The format is the message. Every building, every publication, every bit of output from the architect is formatted for realization and tailored to an audience. Architects no longer enjoy the simple pleasure of designing buildings, they design a library in Caracas for the city government, or a stadium in Belarus for an international magnate. They write books for post-critical academics, pamphlets for North American students, and websites for the image-hungry public to name just a few examples. The work of the architect has never been more tied to all the specificities of client, market, place, and politics nor have the concerns of these groups ever been more enmeshed. Each format has its own set of catalytic constraints, biases, and conventions that the architect must work with.

World of Warcraft figures that have escaped the screen as 3d prints. Source.

Not only is the transmission of ideas and ideologies instant, as McLuhan observed, but the internet and the dropping price of media equipment, from video cameras to 3D printers, has further altered the default mode of content. We can no longer think about things being designed for a single medium, rather they must be formatted for a variety of outlets, existing simultaneously at multiple scales and across multiple media platforms. If globalization has replaced historical time with the flatness of space, we now contend with concurrency and multiplicity.  The formatting of our world is precisely what makes this work: things are formatted differently for specific places, uses, and audiences to allow cohabitation. To truly take advantage of this position as mediator between the world of possibilities and that of consequences, architects must realize that they are not in the business of producing media, but formats.

Mega walmart on the left and a comparatively small Walgreens which has hopes of generating half of each store’s energy needs on site.

Where a medium is scalar, a format is dimensional. By referring to specific numerical ranges rather than orders of magnitude, dimensions contain the information of intentionality and identify critical thresholds. When does a magazine become a book and what’s the difference between a box and a Big Box? Looking at dimensions offers hints towards cultural context as well as describing the size of a thing. Searching out these thresholds helps the designer to understand the possibilities of one format over another, calibrating their efforts to get maximum impact from minimum effort.

Palevsky House (left) by Craig Ellwood who took much from MVDR, author of the Farnsworth House (right).

Where media are defined by their transmission, formats encapsulate. The specificity of a format is in the way that it encloses or captures content, and is thus about what the author decides to include and what editing or compression techniques they use to make everything fit. For the designer, the format is an active tool of control. It focuses on methods of including specific content rather than the exclusion of all that which is beyond the limits of the transmission medium. When value engineering sends the architect scrambling to find new ways of achieving the same effect with lesser means this is precisely an act of formatting–how can the original idea be encapsulated in a new format without losing its potency?

Where a medium is about limits, formats describe conventions. Once you’ve found the limits of a medium you have hit a dead end, but a format defines a central point from which countless offsets may be imagined. By acting as a center of gravity, the conventions of a format define the rules of the game and ultimately help us judge the good from the bad in a world without the comfort of absolutes. The breathless pursuit of new horizons in each project during the past decade has resulted in exhaustion and segregation. Take a look at the proposals for the UAE and you will find a catalog of contemporary archite
ctural interests with each project developing intense knowledge about its own area of specialization but no satisfying way to compare them. Here a greenwashed tower, there a smooth shiny spindle glinting in the sun, yonder a banal engineering marvel. A better understanding of the formatting of these projects–the mediation of the conventions and constraints of politics, place, market, and client into material form–offers the possibility of desegregating the various architectural discussions that have emerged as the discipline shoots in disparate directions.

Size May Vary, an interesting book about formats of all shapes and sizes.

Formatting offers us a way to think constitutionally about the discipline by returning the discussion to what exactly what we are producing, rather than fixating on specialized techniques of production. Instead of pondering what architecture is, we have to ask what architecture is making. How do we format (and judge) our work for those within the discipline differently than the glossy renderings that we produce for the public? Whether buildings, books, or bread, what is the operative value of our output and how are we measuring it? What are the formats that we offer to contemporary society and what good do they provide? Or better yet, what are the formats that contemporary society needs as it attempts to pull itself out of the very real problems of financial and climatological collapse? McLuhan used a structural analysis of media to illuminate and make operable the intricacies of his mid-century world; understanding the potentials and productive constraints of contemporary formats may help us put a little bit of structure back into our own.

A Few Zines

For any OTWAS readers in NYC this week, don’t miss the A Few Zines show/panel discussion which is opening on Thursday, January 8th. Mimi Zieger has revived loud paper for a very special broadsheet issue (which includes a submission from me that I’ll post here in a bit).

A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production
January 8-February 28, 2009

In the 1990s, zines such as Lackluster, Infiltration, loud paper, Dodge City Journal and Monorail subverted traditional trade and academic architecture magazine trends by crossing the built environment with art, music, politics and pop culture–and by deliberately retaining and cultivating an underground presence. Much has been made of that decade’s zine phenomenon–inspiring academic studies, international conferences and DIY workshops–yet little attention has been paid to architecture zine culture specifically, or its resonance within architectural publishing today.

A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production does both. Rather than attempting to present an exhaustive retrospective of architecture zine culture, it highlights complete runs of several noted zines that began in the nineties. The exhibition also features contemporary publications that continue to draw inspiration from the self-publishing tradition, such as Pin-Up, Sumoscraper, and Thumb.

To launch this exhibit, curator Mimi Zeiger has published a new issue of loud paper and organized a party and panel discussion, including:
Luke Bulman, Thumb
Felix Burrichter, Pin-Up
Stephen Duncombe, NYU professor and author of Dream and Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture
Andrew Wagner, Dodge City Journal and currently, American Craft
Mimi Zeiger, loud paper

Moderated by Kazys Varnelis, AUDC

When: Thursday, January 8, 2009, 6:30 pm (updated time!)
Free and open to the public

Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610, New York, NY 10014

Exhibition hours: Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6pm
[Studio-X is a downtown studio for experimental research and design run by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University.]