Stephen Perrella, 1956-2008

As a tireless advocate for the possibility and necessity of the radical in architecture, Stephen Perrella seized a moment at the dawn of the digital avant-garde in the 1990s to argue for a typology of architectural production that he coined HyperSurface architecture.

Born on Staten Island, Stephen Perrella first studied applied art and graphic design at Iowa State University, only to later return to his boyhood dream of becoming an architect and completing his architecture studies at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture in 1991. He later went on to informally study philosophy at the New School as a means to deepen his understanding of the relationship between culture and architecture, and to develop a theoretical voice.

During the years of his architectural studies at Pratt, he sensed the movement in debate surrounding critical architecture practice and theory, editing two volumes of the Pratt Journal of Architecture, publishing the work and ideas of theorists, artists, and architects, among them John Hejduk, Mark Wigley, and Peter Eisenman, who would later become central figures in the late-20th century architectural avant-garde.

It was through his work on these journals at Pratt that Bernard Tschumi, Dean of Columbia GSAPP, invited him to become editor of the GSAPP Office of Publications. Last week, Tschumi said, “He came along right when architectural practice was changing from hand-drawing to generating images by computer, and he was a front-row witness and promoter of that incredible time.” It was during his tenure at Columbia that he became known as a fervent advocate of the possibilities of and necessity for the radical in architecture, while editing both the GSAPP faculty newsletter Newsline as well as the faculty’s journal Columbia Documents.

Columbia in the 1990s was the seminal school of emergent avant-garde thought and practice, and Perrella became a champion of those he deemed to embody the radical in architecture; years later, many of these became established as the elite thinkers of our generation.

Perrella was not satisfied with merely publishing and advocating the radical in architecture, but went on to develop and coin a production typology he termed HyperSurface architecture. The theory of HyperSurface architecture went beyond the possibility of not only topological forms that emerged as a result of computer applications. It also argued for a practice that seized on the immateriality of capitalism, namely the media image. Perella wanted to think through the infusion of form with media and media with form to work between the two, or as he argued, from “the middle-out.” His belief was that formal and spatial possibilities in architecture cannot be understood apart from the immateriality and destiny of capitalism in the form of the image. This was the genesis of his attempts in theoretical writings and in a series of speculative projects to find an architectural language that had its origin between the two, privileging neither one or the other, but rather fusing them in one stance.

I got to know Perrella in 1999 after inviting him out to Sydney to speak at a student conference. From that series of email exchanges and subsequent week together in Sydney, a working relationship developed between us, as well as with two other colleagues from Ljubljana, Slovenia, for the dissemination of the HyperSurface project, both in lectures around Europe and the United States. Over the years and through several speculative projects, Perrella became both a teacher and mentor, as well as a close friend. His contribution to rethinking the possibility of radical architecture will perhaps one day find a new lease on life in a future generation. 


Daniel Pavlovits