Archinect

Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

Live blogs, and sometimes other stuff too.

  • Thesis: is performance in architecture like the performance of a machine, or a theater?

    Hi Archinect!

    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!
    Lian


  • Thesis: unaccomplished performances (video)

    Hi Archinect! I’m in thesis this semester in the M.Arch.I program, and am being advised by my studio critic from first (!) semester, Danielle Etzler, as well as K. Michael Hays. We kicked off the semester with a pin-up in the first week of September, and a desk crit this past Monday. The...

    unaccomplished performance - time lapse


    unaccomplished performance - charcoal dawn



  • Live Blog - George Lakoff, "The Brain's Politics"

    Hi Archinect! I'm at MIT for George Lakoff's talk,"The Brain's Politics: How Campaigns Are Framed and Why." The talk's blurb says: Everything we learn, know and understand is physical — a matter of brain circuitry. This basic fact has deep implications for how politics is understood, how...


  • Live Blog - Jürgen Mayer H., "pre.text / vor.wand"

    Hi Archinect! It looks like a cat sat on my keyboard, but "pre.text / vor.wand" is the title of Jürgen Mayer H.'s lecture tonight in Piper. This has been the first week of classes. (I'm in my thesis semester and second last semester of my M.Arch.I.--more on thesis soon.) 6:36pm: Scott Cohen...


  • Economic Considerations Regarding the Future of the Architecture Profession

    Hi Archinect, Here's the excellent slide deck from a presentation by Kermit Baker, Chief Economist at the American Institute of Architects, in a "collateral discussion" (whatever that is) held on March 4, 2012 (as posted online at aia.org). The main theme, as I see it: baby boomers holding on to...


  • ContemPLAY: Adventures in full-scale digital fabrication (interview with Sophie Wilkin from McGill)

    Hi Archinect! M.Arch. students from my alma mater, McGill School of Architecture, have designed and built a steel and wood pavilion that they’re calling ContemPLAY, and I recently sat down with team member Sophie Wilkin (via text chat) to find out more. Here’s an edited version of our...



  • A Single Surface, Multiple Players: Design and Construction of the Stair for the BSA Space

    Hi Archinect! It's been a while--I've been enjoying summer! But I did find time to chat with Eric Höweler (Höweler + Yoon Architecture), Patrick McCafferty (Arup Boston), Jason Smith (Commodore Builders), and Tom Couturier (Couturier Iron Craft) about their collaboration on the stair...

    Patrick McCafferty: “Arup’s in-house finite element software was used to analyze the dynamic response of the stair in order to fine-tune the structural design and detailing requirements.” This video, courtesy Arup Boston, shows the stress contours as load is applied to the stair.



  • Live Blog: Marikka Trotter and K. Michael Hays

    Hi Archinect! I’m at the very beautiful Cambridge Public Library (by William Rawn Associates) for a conversation between Marikka Trotter (co-editor with Esther Choi of Architecture at the Edge of Everything Else) and K. Michael Hays, who was co-author together with Trotter of...


  • Live Blog: Scott Cohen and Nader Tehrani, "my house is better than your house"

    Hi Archinect! This one is for the lols. The GSD's Scott Cohen and Nader Tehrani, Head of the Department of Architecture at MIT, are having a friendly lunchtime debate--as illustrated by the hot air rising from each house in the poster. 12:10: Scott opens things, describing his close and collegial...


  • Live Blog: Margaret Livingstone, "What Art can tell us about the Brain"

    Hi Archinect! I'm at MIT today for Margaret Livingstone's lecture on visual perception. She'll be talking about how works of visual art can inform us about how we see. (Her excellent book with many visual games and informative optical illusions is called Vision and Art: the biology of seeing.)...


  • note to incoming GSD and Career Discovery students about housing

    Hello, Sorry to abuse my blog in this way, but this is just to reach out to incoming GSD (and MIT) students, as well as GSD Career Discovery summer students, who are looking for apartments. We have a Facebook group with almost 300 members called 'Harvard GSD Housing' where you can post ads...


  • video: Marc Simmons, you talk pretty

    Hi Archinect! I wasn't able to live blog last night's lecture by Marc Simmons from Front, but it's just as well, as he talks so articulately that it's better to watch the video yourself, at the GSD's YouTube channel. It was a great presentation of Front's façade consultation and...


  • Live Blog: One Harvard: Lectures that Last

    Hi Archinect! I'm at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square for the Harvard Graduate Council's 'One Harvard: Lectures that Last.' Top professors from each of Harvard's twelve schools have been rounded up to to give a talk:     Roland Baron | Harvard School of Dental Medicine...


  • maps

    Hi Archinect! By now, you've probably seen Google's April 1 release of its 8-bit map for NES. But have you seen this real-time animated map of wind in the United States? And this Metro Distortion Map that shows the travel time to stations in Washington DC? And Mapnificent, which shows what places...

    Google Maps 8-bit for NES



  • Live Blog: George Baird

    Hi Archinect! George Baird is giving a lunchtime lecture today, hosted by the student groups CanadaGSD and LandGSD. Baird is the former Dean (2004-2009) of the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, and is a partner in the Toronto-based architecture and urban design firm...


  • Wide Open: Young designers discuss their professional horizons and architecture’s future

    [Photo by Julie Chen for ArchitectureBoston] Hi Archinect! ArchitectureBoston, a quarterly publication of the Boston Society of Architects, is undergoing a change in leadership. The founding editor, Elizabeth Padjen, is stepping down after fourteen years of service and Renée Loth, a Boston...


  • Live Blog: Rosalind Williams, "Infrastructure of Lived Experience"

    Hi Archinect! 6:25: I have springtime allergies here and would rather be at home...but here I am...live blogging Rosalind Williams' keynote lecture for this weekend's Landscape Infrastructure conference. The conference, organized by GSD Landscape professor Pierre Bélanger, is subtitled...


  • Apeira: architectural speculation

    Hi Archinect! Just to mention that my former roommate, recent GSD M.Arch.II grad (and thesis prize winner) Etien Santiago, has launched a new print and online journal called 'Apeira.' The first issue includes: The Whole of Apeira / Etien Santiago Fêlure in Humans and Machines / Lea Anglais...


  • Comment: GPS-based social networking, or the death of the flâneur

    Although I'm actually pretty keen on the potentials of pervasive computing, the current hype about GPS-based social networking apps makes me uneasy. The idea is that your mobile device will be able to tell you when somebody in your vicinity has or shares certain interests (or other...


  • Live Blog: Rem Koolhaas

    Hi Archinect! Koolhaas in the haas. Omagawd! [Photo from Chauhaus--our cafeteria--courtesy of Paul Cattaneo.] Koolhaas just introduced the study-abroad Rotterdam studio he's teaching in the fall, and now...he's giving a talk called "Current Preoccupations," with Q+A led by Sanford Kwinter and K...


  • Live Blog: "Ethics of the Urban: the City and the Spaces of the Political"

    Hi Archinect, I'm sitting on the floor in a very stuffy, very tiny room for the last session of this weekend's conference, "Ethics of the Urban: the City and the Spaces of the Political." Gerald Frug and Richard Sennett are speaking, moderated by Neil Brenner. 4:45: Gerald Frug: "Richard Sennett...


  • Live Blog: Saskia Sassen, "Immigrants and Citizens in the Global City"

    Hi Archinect! The sultry r&b is playing, and Saskia Sassen is in front of the gold curtain this Friday night for the keynote lecture of the conference, "Ethics of the Urban: the City and the Spaces of the Political." This is the third in a series of conferences organized by Dean Mostafavi...


  • Live Blog: Samuel Klein, "Future of Civic Participation: Lessons from the cult of Wikipedians"

    Hi Archinect, I'm at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government tonight for a talk with Samuel Klein, Trustee at Wikipedia. It's a small crowd, but we'll see how it goes. 6:43: How ironic, we're starting with some technical difficulties. 6:44: SK is asking who has started a Wikipedia entry that...


  • Live Blog: Richard Sennett, "The Architecture of Cooperation"

    Hi Archinect! I'm a bit under the weather today, but this is one not to miss. Richard Sennett, the GSD's Senior Loeb Fellow for 2012 (and faculty member at New York University and the London School of Economics) is talking about the "Architecture of Cooperation": “The theme of the lecture...


  • Live Blog: “Design Technologies as Agents of Change,” with Bock, Seletsky, Oxman, Rocker, and Bechthold.

    Hi Archinect! Tonight's event is called “Design Technologies as Agents of Change,” with Thomas Bock (TU Munich), Paul Seletsky (ArcSphere New York), Rivka Oxman (Technion Haifa), and Ingeborg Rocker (GSD). Moderated by Martin Bechthold (GSD). Three Germans tonight! 6:32: It's still a...


  • Live Blog: Philip Glass

    Hi Archinect, We're back in full Piper, eagerly awaiting Philip Glass. I'm not sure what will happen. Our website says that "Mr. Glass will speak on the theme of collaboration and the creative process and, through brief performances, share selections from his oeuvre." [Photo by Fernando Aceves...


  • Live Blog: Tom Stocky (from Facebook) at MIT Media Lab

    Hi Archinect! I'm at the Media Lab for a talk with Tom Stocky, Director of Product Management at Facebook. His presentation is called "Design, Hack, Ship: How we build products at Facebook," and it was billed as offering "a glimpse into what happened behind the scenes of the initial News Feed...


  • Live Blog: Patrik Schumacher

    Hi Archinect! Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects and founding director at the AA Design Research Lab, is in Piper tonight for a lecture on "Parametric Order: 21st century architectural order." [You can see the video online at the GSD's YouTube Channel.] 6:36pm: PSC takes the...


  • Live Blog: Diana Balmori and Joel Sanders on Landscape and Architecture

    Hi Archinect! [Left to right: Charles Waldheim, Diana Balmori, Joel Sanders, Mohsen Mostafavi, Ben Prosky (facing away), and Chris Reed in Piper Auditorium before the lecture.] Balmori and Sanders are in Piper tonight, talking about their book Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture. I...


  • Live Blog: Preston Scott Cohen speaks with Nicolai Ouroussoff about his new Herta and Paul Amir Building, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

    Hi Archinect! We're in "full Piper" with a full house for the GSD's first public event of 2012, called "Museum as Genealogy"--and it's all Scott. [Added note as of Jan 29]: For many of us as GSD architecture students, this kind of event is anticipated as a moment when some of the most important...


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About this Blog

Lectures and exhibitions, news and events, now primarily from the Bay Area! Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in many cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.

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  • Lian Chikako Chang

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