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Exit Through The Pop-Up
Young designers pop up at L.A.’s Geffen Contemporary
Back to the Future
Chicago Architecture Biennial announces 2017 participants
The Architectural League Prize turns 35
It was 1980 and New York City was experiencing its highest crime rate and worst recession since the 1930s. In spite of the doom and gloom that had set in, some were optimistic about the city’s future. One was a young architect who recently arrived to New York from San Francisco. That year, he entered a competition for young architects by proposing a fantastic village of houses atop an abandoned elevated rail line. The competition was the inaugural Young Architects Forum, and the visionary dreamer who saw potential in the rusted viaduct for a thriving community was architect Steven Holl.
Holl’s now legendary Bridge of Houses, the first suggested revitalization of what is now the High Line, was one of 12 winners that year. It was profoundly poetic, hugely influential, and it made the case for both an ideas-based architecture and for having a prize for young architects. The Architectural League of New York couldn’t have wished for a better start for its new program.
Now in its 35th year, the Architectural League Prize (formerly the Young Architects Forum) is a prize with gravitas for young architects that rewards winners with a plum lecture opportunity and a part in an exhibition in New York. It is highly sought after by promising young guns and for good reason. Of the prize’s 200-plus winners, only a small percentage have drifted into obscurity. Most are heading up significant practices and running design schools. Some, like Holl, Billie Tsien, Rick Joy, and Neil Denari are truly famous, bringing to fruition buildings of extraordinary quality that are making their marks on history and influencing generations of architects to come. The prize is not a perfect predictor of future prominence, as it casts its net widely and is open to all architects in North America out of undergraduate or graduate school fewer than 10 years. However, it’s been a pretty good indicator of the people and the ideas likely to matter next.
When it began in 1981, the League Prize was an oasis in a desert of opportunity for young architects. “There was really nothing like it,” said Anne Rieselbach, who as program director for the Architectural League of New York, has shepherded the League Prize program for the past 29 years. There was the P/A Awards sponsored by Progressive Architecture magazine, but that was a different opportunity. And some, like architect Claire Weisz, who won the prize in 1991, considered the P/A Awards to be “out of reach and unattainable.” Weisz credits the League Prize as being hugely influential and an important forum where architects just starting out could get validation amongst their peers. Her winning project, “Beg Borrow and Steal,” which was conceived from borrowed and bartered materials sourced from a closing fashion store and cleverly exhibited on clothes hangers, was her first public collaboration with Mark Yoes, now her partner in WXY.
Architect James Sanders got the program up and running. Prompted by the dearth of opportunities for young architects in a city that was coming out of a recession, Sanders and others established the inaugural competition, which had many of the hallmarks of the current one. There was a poster to get the word out, a competition theme around which contestants organized their work, and a jury. The poster the first year was designed by a young Michael Bierut. And the theme was “Dwelling in the Cracks: Responses to the City.” Like all of the competition themes to follow, it was topical, reflecting current concerns and issues confronting architectural practice, this one being the state of the city. In addition to Sanders, who teamed up with Roy Strickland, the winners that year were Dodie Acklie, David Cagle, Steven Forman, Robert Grzywacz, Alexander Gorlin, Ralph Lerner, Michael McDonough, Mark Schimmenti, David Spiker, Donna Robertson, and Holl. Holl and Gorlin went on to have distinguished careers as designers and Robertson and Lerner (now deceased) made their marks in education as deans: The former at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the latter at Princeton.
When Rieselbach took the reins in 1987, five years into the program, she ushered in some changes: She limited past winners from entering the competition again (Denari was one of two people who won it twice), introduced a publication of the winners’ work in 1999, and secured a new venue for the program in 2010. Prior to 2010, the projects were exhibited at the Villard Houses in the Urban Center’s galleries on 30-by-30-inch boards. Since 2010, Parsons has hosted the show at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center.
Rieselbach recalled some interesting moments. “2006 was a watershed year where everyone did CNC milling. It was really quite amazing.” In terms of where people are from, “A lot of people teaching at Michigan, a lot of interesting young architects from Canada, and plenty of women,” she continued. Most recently, Rieselbach observed a return of the hand in the work, a hybridization of digital and manual techniques. She went on to say that recent winners like Jenny Sabin (2014), Skylar Tibbits (2013), Sean Lally (2012) and, Michael Loverich (2010), in particular, are doing work that tests the boundaries of architecture.
The prize has nurtured many hook ups both personal and professional: Dan and Marie Adams of Landing Studio (2015), Lisa Iwamoto and Craig Scott of Iwamoto Scott (2002), Eric Bunge and Mimi Hoang of nARCHITECTS (2001), Shih-Fu Peng and Roisin Heneghan of Heneghan Peng (1999), David and Paul Lewis (1997) and Marc Tsurumaki (1992) of LTL Architects; Stephen Cassell and Adam Yarinsky, of ARO, (1996); Weisz and Mark Yoes of WXY Studio (1993); and Mónica Ponce de León and Nader Tehrani,(1997), formerly of Office dA. Especially interesting are the three deans of Princeton’s School of Architecture: Ralph Lerner (1981), Stan Allen (1988) and Monica Ponce de Leon (2016).
Many of the winners are now dominating the headlines. nARCHITECTS’s Carmel Place, WXYs’ Salt Shed (with Dattner Architects), and City View Garage in the Miami Design District designed by Dominic Leong (2007) of Leong Leong, and Iwamoto Scott (2012) have been in the pages of many national and international publications, including AN. Without a doubt, the League Prize winners are a fascinating group of mavericks most likely to shape architecture’s future.
The first Chicago Architecture Biennial—curated by Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima and staged at the Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the Windy City— opened to great fanfare October 2. The events drew throngs of architects and journalists from around the world; a formidable sampling of the Chicago’s political and social elite; and, perhaps most importantly, a strong showing from the general public. There were more events than even the most dedicated biennialist could attend, and the whole affair was without doubt a boon to architecture culture in the United States. It was also enough to make one wonder if the designers gathered to represent the titular State of the Art of Architecture might be a little too comfortable in the territory they have staked out at the fringe of the discipline.
Though the breadth of the exhibition made it difficult to determine a clear curatorial position, much of the work on display loosely clustered into two opposing camps: the snarky neo-postmodernism that has become fashionable with young American designers climbing the tenure track, and the earnest output of mostly international practices seeking to affect change in underprivileged locales around the world.
There was strong work on both fronts. Amanda Williams’s “Color(ed) Theory,” for example, advanced a subtle yet biting critique of racial and economic imbalance by painting a series of destitute structures on Chicago’s South Side in bold colors. Norman Kelly’s “Chicago: How Do You See?” drastically altered the complexion of the Cultural Center’s flamboyant Michigan Avenue facade by augmenting its fenestration with vinyl caricatures of historically significant Chicago windows. Both projects stood out by virtue of the forceful impact each made on the fabric of the city.
Too many other participants seemed content to exhaust the efficacy of their work within the gallery walls. Consider the wealth of socially motivated data gathering and photo documentation on view. Just about all of it was not only statistically but also architecturally irrelevant. Besler & Sons provided a neo-pomo complement with “The Entire Situation.” A meditation on the unconsidered ubiquity of cheap construction materials that invited comparisons to the early work of Frank Gehry, this hermetically self-contained piece had none of the punch—because its designers took none of the risks—of Gehry’s early experiments with corrugated cardboard and chain link. In spite of the interactive fun of the “StudFindr,” programmed by Satoru Sugihara and situated on the adjacent wall, the most lasting takeaway from “The Entire Situation” was the hilarious, if unintended, irony of its title.
My quarrel with the neo-pomo and “neo-critical” projects that dominated the biennial has less to do with the self-indulgent frivolity and self-righteous banality to which its authors so often succumb than with the fact that so many talented architects set their sights so low.
Such was the case with the full-scale “houses” by Tatiana Bilbao S.C. and Vo Trong Nghia Architects on the third floor on the Cultural Center. Each architect wagered on cost-effectiveness as the driving force of their design, and each delivered results that, however laudable their social aims, ultimately underwhelmed as buildings. Bilbao’s scheme, admittedly, was a prototype for projects rendered in somewhat more substantial materials (several have been completed in Mexico), but given that it and Nghia’s scheme were presented as “real projects” tackling “real issues,” their failure to compel conviction as architecture was all the more problematic. Each gave the impression of a nose thumbed at more aesthetically driven projects in the exhibition, and came off as less serious than cynical.
With “Corridor House,” the third full-scale “house” on the third floor, Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS offered a canny counterpoint to Bilbao’s and Nghia’s efforts. Though the architects paid lip service to the idea of affordability and ease of construction (particularly in interviews with trade publications), they also made much of the project’s status as an oversized and meticulously crafted model. Fantastically ersatz “boulders” (stitched together from paper sheets printed to resemble stone) along with cheekily reimagined interior furnishings completed the scene. A provocative meditation on the necessary artifice of architectural design, the scheme proved far more engaging than its purportedly more engaged counterparts.
For all the tension on the third floor, the most exciting projects in the exhibition were located outside the neo-pomo, neo-critical dyad. The Swiss firm Gramazio Kohler joined forces with the MIT Self-Assembly Lab to stage “Rockprint,” a productive mash-up of robotic fabrication, material science, and a hell of a lot of gravel. Los Angeles-based Johnston Marklee assembled an arresting collection of their own photo collages and artful images of their completed buildings by photographers including James Welling, Livia Corona, and Marianne Mueller.
“In Oblicuo,” a multi-panel presentation of several competition projects in Budapest, architects Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich of PATTERNS joined forces with Casey Rehm to produce a striking re-imagination of the border between abstraction and photo-realism. Tomás Saraceno’s nearby spider web constructions were just plain cool.
Some of the most satisfying projects were also the most straightforward. Junya Ishigami’s exquisitely spare models of the Kanagawa Institute of Technology were a case in point, as were designs for environmentally sensitive campsites rendered in drawings and an impressive model by the Canadian firm Lateral Office.
Also notable was Atelier Bow Wow’s “Piranesi Circus,” which filled the Cultural Center’s inaccessible courtyard with a series of catwalks, ladders, and platforms designed, according to the architects, with circus performers and, in another nod to postmodernist themes, “imaginary prisoners” in mind. To my eye, the scene suggested not only the collision (and collusion) of entertainment and entrapment but also, via the precarious ladder which drew visitors’ eyes up past the cornice line to the sky above, the possibility of a way out.
After several hours at the biennial, the suggestion of an exit was a welcome gesture. I, for one, was jonesing for actual buildings. The Cultural Center itself, which proved that architecture can be both frivolous and substantial, offered welcome respite, as did “Making Place: The Architecture of David Adjaye,” the handsome retrospective assembled at the Art Institute of Chicago by Okwui Enwezor and Zoë Ryan. So too did the opportunity to duck out to revisit nearby masterpieces by the likes of Sullivan, Wright, Mies, and Gehry.
Getting out was a good thing, for it was well beyond the main venues that I found clearest presentation of the confidence and optimism I had hoped to find at the heart of the biennial. “Chicago Horizon,” the elegantly understated pavilion assembled by Ultramoderne just above the ominously churning (at least when I visited) Lake Michigan, powerfully suggested that The State of the Art of Architecture might best be sought not in the turbulent froth of a directionless present, but rather in those rare and remarkable buildings that lift us above the fray to direct our attention toward the more profound possibilities of an unknown horizon.
Technology and architecture have been deeply intertwined since the Industrial Revolution—mechanized production, coupled with innovations in structural technology, radically transformed the space of production. Delving into more recent history, Frank Lloyd Wright reinvented the modern office landscape with his Johnson Wax Headquarters while Eero Saarinen, in his project for Bell Laboratories, exploited the aesthetics and flexibility that resulted from postwar modernism to suit the needs of scientific research at the dawn of computation. In response to emergent technologies, both designs generated spaces to serve the new machines while creating efficient workplaces for managers and employees.
Though architects’ embrace of new technologies as inspiration and mode of production is not novel, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture’s exhibition The New Creativity: Man and Machines, curated by Sylvia Lavin with the UCLA Curatorial Project, demonstrates that there is still undiscovered territory to be considered.
The curators divide the artifacts of the show into four distinct categories: Home, Office, Studio, and Shop. In doing so, they present a discretely compartmentalized view of how technology drove the creation of avant-garde themes within architectural culture during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Situated in what was once Rudolph Schindler’s own space of professional production and bohemian domesticity on Kings Road, the exhibition draws conclusive links between the creative process and often mundane technologies that produce innovations in design. In addition to using Schindler’s home and studio as an armature for the show, the curators included a Plan Hold drafting machine as an example of a catalytic design tool. Introduced into Schindler’s office by Esther McCoy, it purportedly put a “kink” in his Austrian rationalism, as evidenced in the drawings depicting the hinged plan of the Kallis House.
In the Shop section, offerings from contemporary practitioners Greg Lynn, Craig Hodgetts, Erin Besler, and others illustrate a future-present where the computational machine is no longer a mere mode of production, but merges directly into the architecture.
The exhibition’s thesis, that the melding of technology and creativity has a seismic impact on design intelligence, resonates in Lynn’s RV (Room Vehicle) House Prototype. The scale model studies the impact organic form and mechanized technology has on the traditional idea of domestic inhabitancy. Lynn’s pod-like vessel shifts orientation as the needs of the homeowner change throughout the day, allowing the floor to become wall and the ceiling to transform into furniture. When juxtaposed against other works in the exhibition, such as the authorless process inherent in the Peter Vikar’s Synthia the Drawing Machine, or the Low Fidelity models developed by Erin Besler and her hot wire cutter, the spatial impact of Lynn’s rotating house and Hodgetts’ Mobile Theater are the only elements from Shop that suggest that technology truly elevates the human condition.
The Office mines design history for mundane examples to prove a humanistic point. Renowned for their consummate dedication to promoting modernism’s stripped-down aesthetic, Herman Miller promoted workplace furniture—cubicles, storage cabinets, chairs, and executive desks—through quirky sales videos that celebrate the activities of secretary and manager alike. Developed by Robert Probst in 1964, the Action Office presents a flexible order to a 1970s corporate landscape quickly being overrun with word processing machines and appliance-sized computers. Action Office transformed office managers into architects. When one considers the impact Herman Miller’s product had on the space by simply deploying well-designed furniture and cubicle systems, one wonders if the technologically-driven form-making favored by some of the contemporary designers in the Shop section of the show produce the type of cultural-spatial impact as the “office in a box” that came out of Zeeland, Michigan, almost a half century ago. The issue here is that, despite providing seductive form, technical proficiency doesn’t always deliver pleasurable space, no matter how many compound curves or tweaked angles in the design.
The value of The New Creativity: Man and Machines really lies in selectively magnifying transformative moments within design culture that most would overlook, drawing them together into a soft manifesto. The exhibition, however, trends more toward promoting visual representation and aesthetic output over spatial impact. It takes a critical eye to cut through the history-porn and find the true value in a majority of the work. It is troubling that there is little discourse around the architecture (realized or proposed) produced by the tools in the show beyond its representational value.
While Paul Rudolph may have been a quick study of the repro-machine, his monolithic housing proposal in the show leaves much to be considered in humanist terms, especially when examined through the lens of postwar urban development and the well-documented negative sociological impact such projects had on the more intimate prewar metropolitan culture. Similarly, for anyone who has lived Office Space at some point in their career, the Action Office System cubicle promoted by Herman Miller might seem more like a dystopian flashback, rather than innovative social and spatial tool.
The archival objects, drawings, and models in The New Creativity: Man and Machines invite a certain degree of introspection about the discipline’s hermetic tendencies. Why should we care about office furniture, when during the same decade Action Office invaded office space, humanity had its sights on a lunar landing?
There’s a comfortable clarity and pleasurable visual eroticism to be celebrated in the realm of cool machines, or hip representational proficiency. But more is at stake. Saarinen’s Bell Labs, which through its lifespan transformed from a space of deep computing into a space of deep consuming, endured as a testament to modernism’s infinite spatial flexibility. That shifting paradigm parallels the move from the 20th to 21st century and makes a point that The New Creativity hesitates to point out: While technology is temporal, the architecture it produces, for good or bad, is here to stay.
Next month, all heads will turn to the Midwest for the opening of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. As North America’s largest survey of contemporary architecture, the event will draw participants from around the globe to create exhibitions, installations, and performances—including several practices that call Los Angeles home: Besler & Sons, Bureau Spectacular, Bryony Roberts, Johnston Marklee, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, and Productora, a Mexico City-based practice with a principal who splits his time between L.A. and DF.
Project titles form a kind of poetry of their own and speak to the breadth of experimental works we should expect in Chicago: Furniture Urbanism, We Know How To Order, House is a House is a House is a House, Grid is a Grid is a Grid is a Grid, Hotel Tulum, The Entire Situation, Mute Icons. The projects range from drill team choreography to software interfaces to collaborative multi-media installations.
AN asked participants to share their thoughts on the upcoming Biennial, which is on view October 3, 2015 through January 3, 2016.
Do you consider yourself a West Coast designer?
Mark Lee and Sharon Johnston, Johnston Marklee: There is a perpetual sense of foreignness, a sense of constant discovery related to L.A., that we find very attractive. We try to bring this mentality to the projects we are doing outside of Los Angeles.
Jimenez Lai, Bureau Spectacular: I am not from Los Angeles and not from Chicago. I have never been a citizen of anywhere.
Marcelo Spina, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S: We do and we don’t at the same time, but this is not being ambiguous. Being from Rosario, Argentina, makes us very close to the ethos of Los Angeles as a mecca of architectural innovation in close proximity to cultural speculation and physical production. We have been in Los Angeles for almost 15 years and this is where our office has grown, so this city, with all its freedom, excess, and clichés, is very much part of who we are as architects and thinkers. However, our projects are as much here as they are elsewhere so we always strive to position our ideas within a larger cultural context, precisely so as to avoid being easily classified as either West Coast, South American, etc.
Bryony Roberts: I consider myself a global practitioner with a soft spot for Los Angeles.
The title of the Chicago Architecture Biennial is “The State of the Art of Architecture.” How do you interpret this art-architecture relationship? What can an interdisciplinary approach contribute to architecture culture in general? Are there hazards?
Wonne Ickx, Productora: We believe there is “art” in every form of productive activity as soon as there is a real commitment with the discipline and a will to question that same discipline. We feel that the art is a very natural component of everything we do. Art and the art world is an obvious part of the context in which we work.
Erin Besler and Ian Besler, Besler & Sons: The hazards are many, but fortunately they tend to be just inconvenient rather than mortal hazards. Kind of like a video game where you can’t save. The interdisciplinary approach, for us, seems to really just come down to issues of vernacular, like: How the hell do we communicate with other discourses and design methodologies?
Roberts: I interpreted the title to mean an emphasis on the cultural capacity of architecture, which I definitely appreciate, since for me architecture is as much a cultural endeavor as a tectonic or functional one. I think of my practice as moving between different scales rather than between the different fields of art and architecture. Working from the scale of the body to that of the city helps me break out of the convention of the architect producing only singular buildings. But of course it leaves a lot of uncertainty as a business model.
Spina: We find this a “call to arms” to take on this contemporary paradox between autonomy and engagement at the highest possible level.
I do think architecture needs to be open to speculative dialogues and creative exchanges with philosophy and the sciences, but without giving away its own set of core principles and powers. There are hazards and rewards for this kind of cultural engagement, and with a healthy degree of curiosity and skepticism, we are all for taking risks.
Lee & Johnston: What is provocative about the title of the biennial is the underlying question: What does architecture do best that no other discipline can do?
What can L.A. (or Mexico City) teach Chicago about architecture?
Besler & Besler: We go through a weird adjustment period when we travel back and forth between L.A. and Chicago. It does strange things to your proprioception and the color temperature and stuff because the two cities are so different in terms of building materials.
If we had to stretch, we might say that Los Angeles seems to have a lot more interesting and novel residential applications for gutters and downspouts than Chicago—all sorts of strange spans, splits, and transitions. Maybe since they rarely have to serve a hydrologic function they’ve become pure ornament in Los Angeles. But if anyone has documentation of some nice gutter or downspout details from Chicago, please do send them to us!
Ickx: The lack of high-end materials or specific building technologies in Mexico demands very basic and straightforward architectural proposals. We think that it is interesting to develop buildings that do not depend on specific constructive processes, technology, or detailing. We believe that in the U.S. there is far too much emphasis on technological innovation and/or representation.
Lai: I think saying one city can teach another city about architecture is potentially a dangerous way of thinking about the function of cultural differences. Chicago and Los Angeles have independent and valuable sensibilities, and I do not think the values of one city can be applied to another.
Spina: The limits of history as a source for architectural invention.