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Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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

    Lian Chikako Chang Sep 22 '12 4

    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

     

     
    • 4 Comments

    • t a m m u z
      Sep 23, 12 7:20 am

      well, thats a conundrum, no? is a building the pimp or the ho, or what percentages of a pimp and a ho is it? and are you siding with the ho or the pimp that is in it.

      quantitative energetics performance, fine, no issue. i don't think you need to add it to the medley to create more of a medley.

      you also have above structurally /technologically symbolic performance - how successfull interpretive is the building. you call it 'performance'..you can call it other things. the word is a measure of its own fashionability here. the art of interpretation preceeds the choice of that word. i think you can drop the usage here because its quite disrespectful. interpretation did not wait for these people to come up with the word "performance" in order to reveal its significance.

      you have, paradoxically, retrospective performance. your people-migrating-to-AC-lands example (whether it is contingent or otherwise - people could have chosen to build more sustainably, but then the energy moguls...capitalism...etc etc- huge questions, bye bye questions). post-the-fact performance - sort of in the vein of Koolhaas's Manhattan and the rest of the world. i think that that sort of envisaging performance needs double sight, one on the past as present and one on the present as future. both a historian and an interpeter. also, i think it requires a peculair tendency towards a 'creative fatalism". it certainly is less interested in what is marginal to it, what might even be antithetical to it. at this point, i would be interested in anti-performance (of that object of yours),  the alternative,  the thing that does not confirm that mainstream apotheotically i.e, fo example, why does your building need to reveal the diagram of its own 'performance' proclivities? why does the mobius strip need to be illustrated so pedantically? this, i feel, is an inheritance of the architect's version of fake modesty (structural honesty, as it is known modernistiaclly). can you truly call that performance? i mean, can you conceive of the degree by which a building is honest to a mythical (and i don't mean that peojoratively) conjecture a degree of performance, given scientific nature of the word 'performance'?

      many different meanings of performance that you (and others) are fusing to each other. this way is counter-intuitive. its like people are fascinated with the word "performance" now so they stick anything of interest to it. ok, like giving out 3D gasses in movie theatres, they're handing out "Performance" glasses in architecture schools. so...

      in my opinion, you are turning the word performance (as others are/have), into a contemporary mythiacl Cerebrus of Architecture, a monster guarding some secret entrance to- and truth of-  Architecture with its many faces. i don't know but i don't believe in such monsters - i believe that monsters live in our heads only, not on the street corner with a starfucks occupying part of its ground floor.

      panzerstadt
      Sep 23, 12 7:38 pm

      To tammuz : stop arguing semantics, it gets you all hot around the collar and stops you from saying anything useful. I do agree too that plastering new trends onto words like performance are like 3d glass gimmicks, but that was not her point. Do give us an example of what you would truly call the sort of performance in architecture that you believe in, then perhaps we can discuss intelligently.

      To lian, So in effect you are arguing for a symbiotic process of having the occupant to finish off his own building, in a way, in pursuit of 'skilling ' the occupants for a more intelligent society? The patron accomplishes the performance that the architect has laid out for them? Or how would the architect build to achieve an accomplished object that the user then freely inhabits, forming daily rituals out of the act of living in the preconceived stage that the architect sets for them? I believe that I am phrasing it all in a slightly negative light because it seems apparent that the unaccomplished performance that you seek to study and give form to, and henceforth to 'design ' (because it is what architects do), would inadvertently become the subset of a given geometry that you avoid in the first place. So what is it that you seek to achieve by the end of this thesis? Do you have a result that you seek to explore? Do you seek to illustrate the design process of an 'unaccomplished performance' that is also untarnished by the architect and his/her geometrical subset? Do you want to delve into the importance of 'skilling' a person in and how architecture can facilitate that? Good start by the way. Kudos for dealing with thus broad topic. You should start zooming in though. A thesis semester does not wait around for you to search all avenues before you delve into one.

      t a m m u z
      Sep 24, 12 12:47 am

      panzerstadt , my collar is pretty cool. and lian's question is primarily semantic

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

      i.e the underlying question that she is posting to herself  is....what is "performance"? you may accuse her of some degree of confusion, certainly, but i'm helping her to seperate a few strands of different meanings of performance that she intertwined. so please, don't bark at me for trying to help.

      Thayer-D
      Sep 24, 12 11:21 am

      I wish you all the best in your explorations as this Thesis might lead to something interesting, but just be aware that not all the best musical riffs can be taught in school.

      "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 kind of classification creates boundarys where none exist.  Schools will wax poetically about Vernacular buildings on the one hand and then lambast a contemporary building executed under the same conditions as "mere "engineering". 

      "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."

      How does this kind of thinking comport with the fact that the masonry shells of many a traditional city have been happily re-purposed for modern times and "data"?

      "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."

      It sounds like you mean to describe life (the continual processes of habituation).

      "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 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. "

      That's quite a sterile world you've described, and I'm not sure most people would simplify comfort as something quite so quantifiable.  It sounds a lot like LeCorbusier's bogus mathematical analysis of the space and light required for optimal living.  Ruskin once described the functional need for beauty.  I wonder where on the graph that lies.

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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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