Harvard GSD M.Arch.I (Lian)

Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around the GSD and beyond.

  • Live Blog: Stan Allen and Preston Scott Cohen

    Hi Archinect!

    Stan Allen, Dean of Princeton University School of Architecture and Principal of SAA/Stan Allen Architect, is going at it tonight with Preston Scott Cohen, Chair of Architecture at Harvard GSD and Principal at Preston Scott Cohen Inc. The video is also posted at the GSD's YouTube Channel.

    Thanks to Orhan for mentioning this link, which signals that Princeton is looking for a new Dean! I wonder if they'll be talking about this? If not, it suggests a number of obvious questions for the follow-up.

    6:38: Packed house in (half) Piper tonight; people are spilling out of the aisles. They should have set up for the full auditorium so that everyone could find a seat. But I admit that I do like the excitement a packed house.

    PSC: "Welcome to Stan."

    SA: "It's good to be back."

    Scott is starting things off. "The field condition is...the built environment conceived as a series of parts. It begins in a single element or elements that cluster or aggregate to become many."

    "It is a logic of aggregation that we are interested in here, and the effect of that logic. Seriality. It's about generating an analog to heterogeneity rather than wholeness."

    "In Field Conditions, Stan, you basically divide the world of architecture according to two principles: the first you call the break: quantifiable units set upon the other. And the other: the geometric. Clearly, you are an adder, an algebraic--our opposite--which is why I brought you here to talk with us." Scott gives the example of the mosque of Córdoba.

    "At the risk of opening a can of worms, I'd like to [think about] why Olgiati and I are die-hard dividers. Could one argue that there is an incipient monasticism in your work, in revealing the particulars of the parts--reveling in its singular figurality..? ...That's my question for you."

    SA: "Well, it's great to be here."

    PSC: "Yes, buy a little time."

    SA: "While we were walking down the hall, Scott said, 'you know, I think we're opposites.' and I said 'I think it's true, but I think it's too subtle for anyone to really care.' And he laid it out in a very clear way."

    "Two things to say: first: I did a studio at Columbia in 1984; and we were talking with Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Sanford Kwinter, rethinking the part-to-whole problem. The context that might be lost to these students is that we were reacting to deconstructivism. The model of that school was that you start with a whole and break it apart: Tschumi and Eisenman. So the early attraction of the field condition was that: instead of breaking down a whole, you start with small elements and through repetition bring about a different sense of the whole."

    PSC: But there are other dividers; they're the worst dividers.

    SA: ..."Greg and Sanford at that time were looking at biology; I was looking at music and minimalist art. When you look at [Iannis] Xenakis... he makes an analogy to being in a demonstration in a crowd in Athens, and how you get lost, absorbed into a larger whole."

    PSC: "But this would not be the whole that has an aspiration to cohere?"

    SA: "Greg and Sanford wanted to make a new kind of organic whole; I was still comfortable with the notion that you'd always read the tension between part and whole."

    PSC: "I'm going to quote one of your statements, although not a recent one: 'Form matters more for what it can do than what it looks like.' Very important. ...The hypothesis is that certain forms are conducive to supporting certain programmatic responses. The language of form here is signalling what it is expected to do. So the question is: do you think we do the same thing in a neoclassical or modern vocabulary of form as we do in these field forms? To play devil's advocate, I could say that people do the same thing, more or less, regardless of the order of the building. It is really something new?"

    SA: "Not necessarily. One thing was the notion that you were no longer representing the institutionalized, centralized power and representation of hierarchy. [But] I'd be suspicious of saying that it's somehow fundamentally democratic."

    "The more subtle argument...were those around thought in the sixties, that the building created non-specfic spatial relationships. An openness in spaces. That shouldn't be confused with undesigned spaces or the 1960s notion of universal spaces: in spaces where anything could happen, often nothing happened."

    "I was interviewed by [...] at one point and they used the phrase: 'Nonstandard expansive systems capable of becoming specific at any given point.'"

    PSC: "You still haven't told me what is wrong with [dividing]."

    SA: "There's a passage in Foucault that says there are no constraining architectures; there are liberating architectures per se. Even thinking about infrastructures, at a larger scale you can specify ways in which people move through spaces--degree of openness, access. We used to use this phrase: 'architecturally specific, programmatically indeterminate.' And we realized that we had such a space: the steps of Lowe Library. [All kinds of diverse activities happening there: convocation, protests, etc.] And this is a symmetrical space. But where it is positioned in campus is hugely important--the fact that all the paths cross there--and that has nothing to do with the classical language. If it faced north, though, it wouldn't work."

    PSC: "And if it were a field form..."

    SA: "And Jesse Reiser pointed out: the tread-to-riser relationship is such that you're forced to walk diagonally across the space; that's a subtle architectural condition that is really important. So you're right--"

    PSC: "yes"

    SA: "But..."

    PSC: "But I don't know where the political charge is in the field operation. You've lost it; you've just conceded."

    SA: "OK, you've won round one."

    Stan is now presenting the Maribor Art Gallery in Slovenia. "We didn't set out to design a field condition museum, but...[it ended up that way]. If we built the museum of roughly similar parts that built up to a larger whole, we could operate in a very contemporary language that was in some way sympathetic to the condition of the museum."

    "The unit here...[some confusion with slides.] Oh, Scott has edited my powerpoint." [laughter]

    PSC: "No, it is exactly as you gave it to me."

    SA: "I know."

    "...Rather than framing the site and creating some sort of internal square, we worked with the porous edge, creating irregular smaller scale spaces that complemented those that we found in the historic city."

    "Quick lesson: when you aggregate a hexagon you get a continuous field. When you aggregate a pentagon you get those voids that bring light into the project."

    "So you see all the columns coming down in the reflected ceiling a museum it didn't need a lot of lighting; and we wrapped a zinc rainscreen around the entire project at the lower level."

    "Our attitude is that galleries need big, clean, white walls; if there's complexity, it's in the way that light is brought into the spaces. I don't like to say 'neutral,' but they serve the art well."

    PSC: "When I first saw it, I was struck by this grid system of pentagonal elements. And I saw some localized errors, if you will."

    SA: "That's where we cheated."

    [This image of the structure is what Scott was scrutinizing.]

    PSC: "But they're very intentional." Scott is pointing out where the nodes don't align in the grid, where the pentagons have sheared off.

    "Now you could have gone with hexagons; everything would have fit. But you go with 108 degrees in pentagons. It's a willful choice to create a disintegration within the system, to produce the appearance of a condition of heterogeneity. You add another layer of rhetorical information. So it goes back to the question of what architecture should be representing."

    "Isn't this a postmodern problem; the conscious representation of heterogeneity? It's not heterogeneity. I love the idea that you'd get a system to problematize itself, but..."

    SA: "All the early studies were hexagons. It was a kid in the office who came up with the pentagon. But it was brilliant. When I was a fourth year student at Cooper Union; and in fourth year you do analysis. A triangle is stable, a square is stable, but a pentagon is the simplest form that produces instability; it's irreduceable."

    PSC: "But imagine if you had found a large-scale periodicity...if there were a pattern that you could cycle whereby those fissures induced by the pentagon would cohere, then the whole system would be a closed, unified field. Would that then not be the field condition? What would be the problem; that wouldn't have contradicted your position, would it?"

    SA: "I think the representational aspect is important. And i thought the reference to the pitched roofs would help us win the competition, but it different. But what I like about this project is the toggling between regularity or standardization, and heterogeneity. We wanted it to be incomplete in that sense."

    [Lost some text in here, but there was more discussion of the museum and then PSC dug into SA about the columns as shown in the above two images.]

    SA: "...It was a response to program...we saw the lower level as connected and porous to the city; at that level it was like a piece of infrastructure connected to the horizontal space of the city. The muscularity of the columns spoke to that. What I like about the columns is that they mark the central space of the pavilions."

    "The problem with the early field condition stuff in the early 90s is that I could never get out of the mat building. This project works with the field condition in a way that gets out of the mat building. That has to do with iconicity and tectonics. The mat building, like so much in the 90s, was in love with horizontality."

    PSC: "But it's really a two-zone project. The top zone is just subdivided; it's not a separate zone."

    SA: "Yes, we divided...oh, I knew we were going to fight over the laser pointer."

    PSC: "You divided! You're a closeted divider." [laughter] "The tripartite. You're a classical architect in your elevations."

    SA: On to the next thing. "What I like about Scott's approach is that we haven't uttered the word landscape yet."

    PSC: "But a night without landscape is like a night without architecture these days, I thought."

    SA: "But it's important here."

    OK, now SA is showing his Taichung InfoBox project.

    "We thought we could build a free-standing pavilion. We visited the site and were shown this hangar built in the 1950s when the airport was constructed. We already had a roof, and a very heavy concrete slab; so all the expensive parts were taken care of. So we built a bamboo building inside the hangar."

    "Now this is the slide I shouldn't show. By code, the building had to be a steel structure, even though bamboo is just as strong. And the bamboo scaffolding just wraps this structure. But that part was done [as it would be traditionally], in a .75 x .75 x .75m grid of bamboo lashed together."

    SA: "This project was done as division; we started with a cube and started chamfering the corners and hollowed it out."

    PSC: "But there's something field here, in working with the technology that is productive. A different sense of field: being on the ground, working in the conditions."

    SA: "The field is tactical."

    PSC: "Yes, I don't want to forget that part of the thesis."


    SA: "Certainly with the seriality of the computer, well--there was an intuition there [in the early days of the field condition."

    PSC: "But you did not enter into the expression of computation."

    SA: "I was never a smooth guy."

    PSC: "Even I slipped into that for a moment. Everyone was vulnerable to that."

    Ok, last project: Busan Opera House.

    SA: "How could we possibly work with the language of aggregation for an opera house? It seemed like a contradiction, and certainly it was not our initial project."

    "I showed this to Jeff and he said it looked like a Scott Cohen Project."

    PSC: "Okay...yeah, a little on the right side [where there is something funky...what appears to be a hypar]."

    SA: "We had a working analogy for the project, which is that somehow a piece of the mountain had found itself between the city and the sea."

    "If you Google 'opera house,' you get the Sydney Opera House. We've lost the urbanity of the Garner Paris Opera House."

    "Well, the starting point of the project is when we realized that the roof if this shed is a pentagon. We were very happy."

    PSC: [laughs.] "You're as bad as I am!"

    Stan is explaining the plan and 3D form through this nice series of diagrams. "That's the same thing, rotated 90 degrees, pulled down instead of up, allowing us to create occupiable spaces up there. Thinking about this landform we wanted to find ways to occupy it in ways other than working from the ground up."

    "To my mind it's a successful experiment when the aggregation forms some sense of the larger whole. You can read the parts but there are also times when you can't decipher them."

    Oh, they lied! He's doing one more project, a house an hour north of New York.

    SA: "In 1999-2000 when this was designed, the emphasis was on that (pentagonal) piece in contrast with the horizontality of that piece. It was done right after Maribor and we were a bit frustrated that we didn't win Maribor, so we were building a little piece of that. That's one way of explaining it, but I'd prefer to say that [it was more about engaging] the tectonics and verticality and the iconicity."

    "But the canted wall created a perfect painting wall for [the client]."

    "The neighbors have taken to calling it the 'Minter Chapel' which is...a little bothersome."

    Questions from the audience. One of the questions has to do with when a field condition is no longer a field condition.

    SA: "...a field condition...I don't want to make a litmus test, but it relies on the size of the elements and the number of repetitions."

    "But the field condition has more attraction as an urban idea than an architectural idea."

    Question from the audience about how Stan sees the way he advanced the discourse at Princeton.

    SA: "Scott did a great job of teasing out our differences. But I think you could say that Scott, Jesse Reiser, myself and a number of people working today share a lot of territory. It's a kind of generational snapshot: people born between 53 and 61, with the exception of Fujimoto--he's the outlier...and Scott is the perfect example--we were educated in the seventies and eightes when there was a strong theoretical charge. Our work is characterized by experimentation and even alternative practices. But now, the work is directed at institutional projects. And I'd like to think that all the energy that informed that work in the 70s, 80s, and 90s is still there, but directed toward the issues that are the issues we need to be dealing with today."

    PSC: "Well, it's getting late, but thanks so much... (etc.)"

    [Applause] And now Stan and Scott are still going at it. Not sure what they're talking about but I hear the words "diagram" and "indexically." Whooo...

    Thanks for reading!


    P.S. After the lecture, Scott lamented that they got so caught up with the geometry questions that they didn't get to talk about how field conditions also have to do with working in a context, and the architect giving up total authorial control. Which is too bad, as this would have indeed been interesting! And as a landscape student pointed out to me, Stan Allen would also have had many interesting things to say with regards to the relation between all of this and landscape. There were many landscape students in Piper last night, and this really would have been great to hear. Alas!

    [photo credit: the Stan Allen part of the first photo is from this flikr site. The Scott Cohen part of the above photo is from the GSD website. The others were taken by me in Piper Auditorium. All the slides shown tonight were Stan Allen's.]

  • Live Blog: The Core of Architecture’s Discourse Now: A New Generation of Scholar Critics Speak Out

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  • Happy Birthday, GSD! And you too, Harvard.

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  • On Loyalties Divided (re: sacking of Michael Jemtrud at McGill)

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  • GSD M.Arch.I Q+A

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About this Blog

Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around Cambridge...and once in a while, some studio and course work. Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in most 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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