This post goes along with this one where I shared two videos that started my work on thesis this semester. Here, I wanted to explain a bit about what I mean by "unaccomplished performances," which is the working title for the project:
I’m starting with the question: what do we mean when we talk about performance in architecture? As David Leatherbarrow writes, is this the kind of performance that we get out of a machine—like the efficiency of an engine—or is it the kind of performance that we watch unfold on a stage?
What is interesting to me about this question is that we could describe some of the main discourses in contemporary architecture through both kinds of performance: First there is the translation of data (about climate, intended program, demographics, structures, etc.) into built form. This is machine-like performance, because the building acts efficiently—often in terms of environmental controls, but also in the support of activities, use of materials, or construction techniques. Second, the building expresses this action; in the case of digital parametric techniques, this is achieved through gradients or complex geometries that meter material or formal effects across the building. In “good” design, the same design moves that allow a building to perform as a machine also perform theatrically, communicating to people how its design incorporates data in the production of desired outputs. This combination of the machine-like and theater-like modes of performance is what qualifies a project as architecture, rather than merely engineering (in the case of machine-like performance alone) or design unworthy of consideration by critics and academics (in the case of theatrical performance alone).
This notion of theatricality or expression is not new. If we look at CCTV and note that the irregular pattern we see is not composed of the structural members themselves but members applied to the façade to communicate the location of members within, we can equally look at the non-structural bronze I-beams that grace the exterior of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. This is a recurring theme in pre-modern western architecture, as well, but for the moment I want to lay emphasis on the dialogue between the regular geometry of the modern building as a result and expression of industrialized production, and the insistence on variation, gradients, and difference within the rationalized structure of the contemporary building. Today, we often implicitly consider this formal expression of difference to be something that allows for individuation or a relief from what can be the oppressive regularity of industrial methods; my thesis, in a sense, aims to critique this assumption.
To do this, let me describe the contemporary building that exhibits these two kinds of performances as an accomplished object. I mean this in both the senses of the word accomplished: both skilled and complete. These buildings are skilled in the sense that they pack a great deal of data and disciplinary technique into their design. But they are also complete in the sense that to the extent that a building is optimized through the incorporation of certain data into its design, it is by definition not optimized for conditions that were not foreseen by this set of data. The building is fixed in response to a set of data; it may be “responsive” in the sense of being embedded with variable and interactive conditions, but the scope and range of these responses are fixed and set in advance.
It is in this sense, of the design incorporating the building’s potentials into it, that the building is also understood as an object. While notions of variability, affect, and responsiveness operate in terms of experience and individuality, I would argue that this is a relatively thin interpretation of these notions. The discussion of phenomenal affects is often limited to what can be rendered, such that the effectiveness of the design can be measured by the extent to which our experience matches the image supplied and determined by the architect. When a building is varied or variable as an expression or accommodation of individuality, this strikes me less as an escape from the oppression of homogeneous industrialization than a perfection of it: it is like the Target or Amazon offers that are both tailored to and meant to tailor my habits as a consumer. You can have any form you want, as long as it is some subset of the given geometry.
In contrast to this notion of the work of architecture as the accomplished object, I would submit a notion that is admittedly and even deliberately inadequate: that of the unaccomplished performance. Whereas the accomplished object is skilled and complete, the unaccomplished performance is contingent, imperfect, and never optimized; it is also ongoing. By this, I mean to describe the continual processes of habituation that characterize the interaction, at a micro-scale, between inhabitants and their habitat. A building draws out of people certain postures, activities, and modes of life; and people likewise adapt their buildings, both deliberately and through the inadvertent accumulation of habits and stuff, so that they behave in certain ways. This way of looking at buildings understands optimization only in the relative and weak sense of adaptation. The seasons change, your needs, change, you change; and your ways in which you use and adapt your space change continuously as well.
No building is entirely an accomplished object or an unaccomplished performance, as every one has certain tendencies and structures embedded in its design; and every one undergoes a process of adaption and change according to its use. These terms, then, describe discourses more than buildings, but I think these discourses matter. If we think of the notion of comfort through the lens of the building as an accomplished object, we think of comfort as the intersection of certain ranges of temperatures, humidities, and levels of sound and light. The delivery of these conditions by a building can be achieved more or less efficiently given the climate and patterns of use, and the accomplished object can deliver these conditions in a manner that is, on average, less demanding in its use of resources.
That sounds like a good thing, and it is; but consider the point of view of the unaccomplished performance: it does not aim for optimization, and does not take for granted the need for the building to hit a certain intersection on a graph. Instead, there is a negotiated process between people’s activities, preferences, actions, and what they ask of their built environment. We make choices, develop habits, and experience trade-offs; and this process of negotiation, as Richard Sennett describes, is skilling rather than deskilling. The effectiveness of modern buildings in often providing comfortable ranges of temperature, humidity, light, and sound to us is deskilling, and it positions and hides the trade-offs we’re making in a way that results in deep changes in our built environment. To take one example, the spread of air conditioning has allowed massive migrations in America to the south, where air conditioning—and its attendant destructive cycles of heat island effect, pollution, and sprawl—is required to live. Buildings and cities become built in such a way that maximizes our dependence on these technologies, and we’re caught in an arms-race of optimization, of contriving ever more accomplished objects to meet our needs.
I’ve opened up more issues here than I’ll be able to adequately address this thesis semester, but this is what’s on my mind as I embark upon this project. Given that the notion of performance is not only one that is bandied about in academic contexts, but something that is legislated and shaped by environmental standards and building codes, I think it’s worth our time to reconsider.
Thanks for reading!
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