Sep '08 - Sep '11
I’ve been a bit slow on the posts recently, due I think to a sense of malaise in both life and school. It might be due partly to the fact that I’ve convinced myself that I got salmonella poisoning at the beginning of the quarter and I STILL feel pretty sick, almost at the end of the quarter. But don’t start thinking I’m a hypochondriac; I ate a few peanut butter Clif Bars that were later recalled by Costco, so I think I have a pretty good case for poisoning. Anyway, pretty sure you don’t want to hear more about that! So instead I’ll talk about a few of the recent lectures here, which cover kind of an interesting spread.
The first lecture of the winter quarter was Chris Bangle (former Director of design for BMW) on Feb 6. This was easily the most crowded lecture of the semester, probably due to the fact that it drew curious architects and designers as well as a bunch of car geeks, including a bunch of Art Center car design students (where Bangle went); the first group from Art Center that I’ve ever noticed at LA lectures. Our Chair, Hitoshi Abe, gave a funny intro saying there was “no taping allowed” and “no posting on YouTube” as if we were about to see a classified gov’t briefing. Bangle was a good lecturer in terms of being entertaining, and integrating media into the slideshow to make it more engaging.
Chris Bangle, whose multimedia lecture extended even to a chalkboard for a minute
He also had a very polished, sealed narrative for his work, along the same lines as Bjarke Ingels last quarter. The keystone to the lecture was Bangle’s work on ‘GINA’, a concept car sheathed in fabric rather than stamped sheet metal. The design work was very seductive, but the talk stayed almost exclusively on car surfaces, when it clearly hinted at issues outside car design. This was the major critique I heard variations on after the lecture - that Bangle didn't discuss thinking beyond fetishistic attention to surfaces; not even addressing concept car design as corporate branding, fashion techniques applied to car manufacturing, which might subvert traditional modes of factory production, much in the way of architectural implications of his research, or why it’s okay to devote so much energy to rare design cars when we aren't sure cars in general are still such a good idea economically, environmentally, or culturally. This kind of myopia in scope could be considered a weakness in having corporate types lecture in schools, no matter how interesting (and no matter that Bangle left his corporation recently); but maybe it’s also a way to look at how lecturing architects, despite being enmeshed in this weird hybrid of academia and business, are often kind of “corporate types” themselves...
Spanish architect Enric Ruiz-Geli of Cloud 9 spoke on February 23. He had a very wacky presentation style that felt pretty schizophrenic overall, making for an entertaining talk. A contrast at least to the hermetically sealed Bangle lecture. He opened by comparing Edward Scissorhands’ goth castle in the manicured suburbs to UCLA’s position in Los Angeles (not so sure about that analogy... ha ha) as a way of saying the (cultural) “hackers become part of the hacked”. Ruiz-Geli wasn’t afraid of making sweeping statements about contemporary culture like this, which I appreciate. Another example was comparing the hideous “spanish colonial style” houses in a Spanish development (so it’s not just LA!) around an artificial lagoon to the houses owners’ high tech carbon fiber speedboats, and how to solve the social split between allowing advanced technologies and forms into gadgets but not homes. I think you could make an argument that speedboats have been co-opted into a kind of kitsch consumption culture, but Geli does have a point. In statements that I have somewhat less sympathy for, he said he draws inspiration from natural phenomena like ice, bubbles, and clouds as they all deal with flows of particles and water - okay, fine, a bit ’90’s, but I can live with that - but then he tacked on that he gets inspiration not only from ice, bubbles, and clouds, but also dreams. Dreams? But I’ll forgive him for that; he IS Spanish after all. Geli is very much into fabrication and visualization technologies as a way to mimic these natural forms; don’t let him near an MRI or I’m sure he actually would try to make architecture from his dreams. But gentle jesting aside, the work is very nice looking, and I think he is working though some interesting problems with fabrication technology. He showed several projects, including Villa Nurbs, a bubbly house of aluminum, ETFE, and corian sitting on a concrete plinth; an office building hung from a giant truss, clad with ETFE pillows with their own IP addresses for controlling LED lighting, and channels that can fill with steam to provide shading; and a beachfront installation mimicking waves with spray nozzles and lighting powered by a tidal generator offshore. At the end he also demonstrated a media arts-y interactive installation that seemed to visualize in 3D the pressure participants placed on a mat. It was a little unclear.
Apparently it was also unclear to my theory professor Sylvia Lavin who Geli dragged onstage in a funny interchange to help him demonstrate - she escaped when he wasn’t looking and when he called her back she said something like “oh, I wasn’t finished? I didn’t know what was going on.” Ha ha. Maybe you had to be there.
Enric Ruiz-Geli, blowing minds with a slide of Star Wars' behind the scenes architectural infrastructure
I had never heard of Ruiz-Geli before the lecture, but entered the dinner drawing that happens before every lecture - two students are allowed to attend the dinner with the guest lecturer following their talk based on a random draw. It turned out that I got the dinner, along with a friend’s sister who’s an undergrad in the department. It was a very strange experience, and actually fun. Or am I confusing free alcohol and food with “fun” again? I do that sometimes. We had actually pretty good Indian food which was apparently from UCLA catering (who knew?) which we ate with UCLA Chair Hitoshi Abe, instructors Barton Meyers, Greg Lynn, Kivi Sotamaa, my studio professor Olivier Touraine, Dagmar Richter, Roger Sherman, new seminar instructor Michael Osman and a middle aged couple I had never seen around before, who turned out to be the guy who owns the water nozzle manufacturer behind Ruiz-Geli’s beachfront project, as well as the spray nozzles in Diller Scofidio’s Blur. Michael Osman, who I had to apologize to for getting his name wrong in an earlier post after he told me that he actually read this blog, went on to insist that I’m a very "powerful person" due to the blog, which I of course had to argue with. I guess his point was that I have a very direct channel to the outside world that is one of the few feeds the administration has little control over. In that sense I guess I agree, but maintain that it’s ultimately of pretty little consequence. Until someone starts paying me anyway! Osman introduced me to Hitoshi by saying “Have you met our very powerful school blogger, Scott?” to which Hitoshi replied in probably the most diplomatic way possible (with that intro!) with “Nice to meet you, did you enjoy the lecture?” Ha ha. A good department chair, designer, AND diplomat in one person? Our department is pretty lucky I guess! Even if Osman didn’t convince me that I have any power whatsoever (which I told him was probably part modesty but mostly TRUTH, ha ha), he did get me to think in a different way about the possible ethical/political (in a local sense of course) implications of the blog, which I had previously largely considered a hybrid of fun diversion from studio, personal journal, and hopefully a helpful tool to people trying to decide what school to apply to outside official departmental sources of information (that last being what I relied on the schoolblogs heavily for before starting school).
The next lecturer was UCLA alumna Billie Tsien, who is kind of the most wildly different architect I could imagine to follow Ruiz-Geli. Though I guess they’re actually both a bit ‘dreamy’. She spoke a week or so later on March 4. She, with her partner and husband Tod Williams run a New York office producing very earthy work with handcrafted details and an obsession with qualities of light and rusticated materials. Those aren’t usually the qualities I’m most attracted to in architecture, but I think their work is the best of the current practitioners with similar values. I would say they are pretty rooted in a Louis Kahn-ian tradition, but I think I might like Tsien/Williams’ work better. Is that sacrilege or something? Well you know us ‘millennials’ - no respect. Tsien’s presentation was engaging despite her very calm demeanor, and despite a presentation aesthetic that I can only call “Marin Mom” (Marin is the hippie-turned-hippie/yuppie San Francisco suburb that I’m from), in that a lot of value is placed on things like memory and permanence, cultural sensitivity and collecting ethnic objects, modern dance, trees and light, relationships between people, handcrafts, and a delicate appreciation of things that starts to become excruciatingly fetishistic. Maybe I liked Tsien because what she was about seemed so familiar and comforting, as if my own mom from an alternate universe was up there talking about her design practice - but now I think I’m getting a bit ‘dreamy’ (and nevermind the “excruciatingly fetishistic” part of the preceding sentence; when I bring my mom into it that’s just weird, ha ha).
Billie Tsien, Marin Mom from another dimension
Annnnyway, Tsien had all sorts of Marin Mom-y sound bites, like that she’s interested in things that last, physically and in the mind; interested in “reticence”, showing a slide of a dance performance of the same name where the performer kept her back to the audience for the whole performance; and that she conceives of architecture as beginning with spatial relationships between people, which are then expanded upon to reach the scale of a building. She showed a bunch of work, the only one of which I’ve visited was the Folk Art Museum in New York, which I really enjoyed. Other projects presented included Cranbrook Pool, an indoor swimming pool with fins on the facade allowing air to circulate through the voluminous pool area and out large, deep holes in the roof; the East Asian library at UC Berkeley, which was an orientalist/modern riff on the university’s requirement of a neoclassical building; and a large office park for Tata in Mumbai India, consisting of several fingerlike buildings with covered outdoor spaces and built into sun-shading berms weaving through existing banyan trees, and clad with hand carved stone screens. She also shared a bit of process fetishism, in that she misses the material quality of mylar drawings, so they now personalize printed drawings with whiteout and pen. In this and the obsession with regional handcrafted building materials and things like metal casting processes, Tsien/Williams seems almost like a strange analog counterpart to practitioners obsessed with parametric modeling and digitally controlled fabrication. This point was addressed by Neil Denari in the Q&A portion, where he asked if she was actively opposed to digital fabrication technologies since she appeared to be so invested in the qualities of handcrafted ones. She surprised me somewhat as I expected her to say she preferred the ‘material memory and physical traces’ of hand made processes, but she basically said they did it analog because that’s how they know how to do it, and even that her son bought a CNC router that very day.
The day after, Stan Allen, Dean of the Princeton school of architecture spoke as part of Sylvia Lavin’s ‘Hi-C’ program, “a program of migrant workshops, unpredictable conversations and provocative exhibitions ... Instead of conventional academic formats, which often recall the stolid ceremonies of High Tea, Hi-C uses low level chatter and high energy content to broaden the concerns of conversations in and about architecture.” Despite its afternoon start time, High Tea this certainly was not; my poor friend Lindsay had to man the table where we were literally given ‘juice’ boxes of Hi-C, and dodgy looking bags of off-brand popcorn that I squirreled away and am actually eating now (oh and by “poor friend” I mean that she had to sit there - she isn’t poor; she went to Cooper for undergrad so she has no student loans - that’s rich in my book, ha ha). After we were high fructose corn syrup-ed up, Allen presented his work in landscape urbanism, which Sylvia had mentioned in theory class as defying Rosalind Krauss’ master narrative-y diagrid by existing in the center of all its oppositions. I had never heard landscape urbanism discussed critically, so it was nice to hear. Allen had a very clear if somewhat didactic presentation, which is appropriate for a topic that perhaps hasn’t gotten as much coverage as others in architecture schools. He spent a fair amount of time going over what he called “the seven crutches of landscape urbanism”, or weaknesses he’s identified, which seemed to be his attempt to think through possible problems with the discipline and to pre-empt the criticisms of landscape urbanism’s discipline-ness (though the discipline-ness of car design isn’t really up for debate, it would still have been interesting to hear what Chris Bangle would name as ‘the seven crutches of vehicle design’). I hadn’t really known there was a debate about landscape urbanism as a discipline, but Michael Osman brought it up in the Q&A. Sylvia responded that it succeeds almost too well as a discipline, but not well enough in material execution. Though hampered by severe non-familiarity with the issues at hand, it seems to me that situating landscape urbanism as a separate discipline rather than allowing it to be a loosely defined hybrid practice floating between broad definitions of architecture, art, landscape, and urban planning threatens to ghettoize it as has been done to landscape design itself as well as disciplines like interior design, limiting it to a narrow palette of representation and form. Sylvia seemed to situate it in this ghettoized territory by saying that landscape urbanism has a strongly defined aesthetic presentation: a set of qualities including strong contour lines, vivid colors, and a strange visual perspective - she asked “what’s between worms’ eye view and birds’ eye view?” Giraffe’s eye view perhaps? Critiques notwithstanding, the work Allen presented was interesting enough that I would like to see how the debate about the field plays out, though to me it largely didn’t seem different enough from an architect doing landscape design to merit the dangers of being canonized as a separate discipline. The work did however seem better enough than almost all landscape design that I would like to see more projects executed.
Also, and I can’t imagine this is letting any cats out of any bags that should remain in those bags, but after the Stan Allen talk I walked into the gallery where Ruiz-Geli’s work is installed and caught a glimpse of the room where the M.Arch admissions process is taking place, and saw two boxes labelled “M1 Admit” and “M1 Strong Admit” or something like that. So if you applied, rest assured that they’re working on it!