Election day is as good a day as any for partisanship, so I thought I’d share with you the conversation I had with our department chair, Preston Scott Cohen, as he set up for his presentation in our studio this afternoon:
PSC: So what have you blogged lately?
LC: The new desks…and Theaster Gates.
PSC: [scrutinizing me] What's that?
LC: One of our Loeb fellows; he did a performance-talk called ‘Sermons On the City.’ There was mus--
PSC: Did you cover Neil Denari?
LC: Ah, no, I didn’t get to that one.
PSC: That was a departmental event. You should make sure you cover the Department of Architecture too, since you are in architecture. [pause] You do consider yourself to be part of the Department of Architecture, don't you? You know, for all the focus and hype on the inter-disciplinarity, on Landscape and Urban Planning and Design in this school, Architecture is the flagship of the GSD. In the sheer numbers and quality of students, the quality of the work, its role within the institution--
Jonathan Levi [Our studio coordinator, who just entered the room]: And in its influence on the world. Absolutely.
LC: OK. [pause] Can I quote you both on my blog?
PSC and JL [emphatically]: Yes.
So be it.
If Architecture is the flagship of the GSD, then Scott Cohen leaves no doubt as to the fact that he is the captain of this ship. His ideas and persuasive personality loom large over the first year of the M.Arch.I, since he coordinates the first semester studio and often shows up to reviews in the second semester as well. Today, we had him as a speaker in studio, presenting his work on his Performing Arts Center in Nanjing, and his museums in Tel-Aviv and Taiyuan. Here are a few snippets from his presentation:
PSC: What is provocative about your studio project [of a performing arts center, or as Jonathan Levi prefers to call it, a New Center for Music, Dance, and Drama] is that it raises questions about the relationship between the urban and the interior in an intensive way. You’re thinking about interiors from the point of view of occupation and not just movement, designing the… final frontier of actually being in a space. […] It raises the debate on the relationship between the inside and the outside, most pointedly as raised since 1972 with Venturi, Scott Brown's essay on “Learning from Las Vegas,” and more recently with what Alejandro Zaera-Polo talks about in terms of his “Politics of the Envelope.” Which, as you know, I have criticized. But the question is that you’re either making the distinction between shell and interior evident, or creating a kind of reciprocity, but taking a position on that either way. A performing arts center, like a museum, puts the architect in the position of designing both.
PSC [Then, in the context of introducing his Performing Arts Center in Nanjing]: The design started in 2007, construction in 2008-9, opening in September 2009. This was not something, I want to tell you, that I thought was right. Nor did I enjoy it. This is in comparison to [the museum in] Tel-Aviv, with the competition in 2003, design through 2005, and finishing next year; it will be six years there, and it makes a difference.
PSC [He shows the above image, and pauses]: And this is a very inexpensive building: 3000 RMB/square meter. In comparison, the museum [in Taiyuan] is twice the size so you’d expect the cost per square meter to be lower, but it’s much more expensive at 7800 RMB/sq. meter. So you've got to give me some leeway on this one.
PSC: The building makes itself a landscape, if you will.*
PSC: And unlike Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the theater is completely symmetrical even though the rest of the building is not, here the exterior geometry is registered on the inside of the theater, without going so far as to disrupt the acoustics.
PSC: And this folded ceiling of the lobby is a kind of index of the façade. It's a dropped ceiling so it's an offset form [that is, it expresses the exterior without literally being produced by it].
PSC [after some preamble about the museum in Tel-Aviv]: The envelope is really important here. You ALL know about panelization, and how important THAT is. [laughter all around. PSC is referring to the fact that we’ve worked through the panelization of complex surfaces in excruciating detail with him and Cameron Wu last year in our geometry class, and again, in a different way, with Andrew Witt from Gehry Technologies in this year’s Digital Project class.]
Mariana Ibanez [one of our studio’s critics, as we were looking at the plans]: Scott, how many seats in that auditorium?
PSC: Three seventy five. It's a very small, very small auditorium. But it's…very intense.
[One of my classmates]: Why is the façade panelized that way, with triangles?
PSC: Partly it’s theoretical, partly aesthetic and constructional. There’s the interest and beauty in building a curve with flat panels and making those lines evident, registering this information about the geometry. And it inscribes a certain scale, a scaleless scale to be honest; these panels are huge. And they're so smooth, they look like marble, so smooth that people are compelled to touch them.
PSC: Actually the interior surfaces (as in the above photo) are the least geometrically rigorous, because the pieces of wood that the concrete was cast on are not infintesimally tapered, but straight, just twisted one to the next. Whereas the panelized exterior facade is the most rigorous. So it’s ironic that the increasing appearance of refinement actually corresponds with the less rigorous geometry in the construction.
[Now for Jonathan Levi’s question. I’d bet my firstborn that he did NOT enjoy Scott’s comment about the outsized scale of his façade panels creating a sense of scalelessness, since he’s been pushing us to articulate the relationship between our large masses and the scale and experience of a person on the street through tectonics at a human scale, in the panelization and composition of our elevations.]
JL: I have a two-part question. Part One: based on your thoughts at the beginning for the relationship between the interior and exterior, and now on the evidence of your work, how do you articulate the relationship between the interior and exterior? And Part Two is a riff off of what you showed us today, because you showed us a performing arts center and two museums. This raises the question: what is the distinct nature in civicness in these two types?
PSC: Whether we like it or not, the museum is so much about itinerary--the sequence of movement through the building--so the question becomes whether that is represented in a significant way on the outside of the building. That is the question of architecture here: if that is what so deeply characterizes it, should that be represented on the outside? Possibly. I think that's one way a museum would distinguish itself. The auditorium on the other hand, has a sense of entry which is much more theatricalized and centralized. It's not about itinerary so much as getting into the hall, which is the culminating main point. A museum doesn't have a main point like that; it's strung out with a series of points. And [in a performing arts center] there's something about the outside that would tell us that that on the inside there's some mighty space where everyone is sitting and witnessing something. Should the exterior have a formal genesis independent from the interior or not? You could approach this in two ways […]
JL: But to be frank, it's untenable to think of those two tendencies as morally equivalent. Because one of the tasks of architecture is to dedicate itself to describing its content in a way that is receivable, not just discoverable.
PSC: But take a classical dome. The inside has to do with an individual experience of infinity, of expansion through the aether to the heavens; it doesn't want to be expressed on the exterior in that way. The thickness of those shells means the outside of the building often has a totally different profile.
JL: But the expression, or not, of the dome on the outside is a separate project that architects have to dedicate themselves to, it's not something we can just leave to chance. [i.e. he’s not arguing for the exterior to be a direct transcription of the interior, but just for it to be crafted in some way.]
PSC: Yes of course. We agree there.
It was good times, and for those of us in the regular M.Arch.I program, a blast from the past. For the M.Arch.I APs, it was a glimpse in to our lives last year under the command of Captain Scott on the Flagship of the USS Graduate School of Design.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. For Preston Scott Cohen, see: http://www.pscohen.com/ and
*This one made me laugh, because I’ve been telling my fellow blogger from GSD Landscape Architecture that in the Department of Architecture, when we talk about a building “acting as a landscape,” we mean nothing more and nothing less than a building being made of folded planes whose surfaces either suggest or allow for inhabitation (à la FOA’s Yokohama International Port Terminal). From this point of view, one would (almost) be forgiven for thinking that this other department at our school is actually called the Department of Folded Planes, which May or May Not have Grass on Them.
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.