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Back to the Future
Chicago Architecture Biennial announces 2017 participants
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.