In his Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche asserts, “…We must seriously despise instruction without vitality, knowledge which enervates activity, and history as an expensive surplus of knowledge and a luxury…” History must be at the service of living, he advocates, not the other way around. At the same time, history has its uses, and total amnesia is neither possible nor desirable. The German philosopher wrote in an era he perceived as detrimentally historicist; we, on the other hand, are coming out of a period of unhistorical thinking, where the past seems to have become obscured by a fin de siècle fog, the discharged by-product of technological novelty – at least according to one possible reading.
Spurred by the development of computer-aided design technologies, the architectural styles at the vanguard of the last few decades have largely abandoned historicist tendencies, reveling instead in the vast potentials of parametric modeling. But, the novel quickly loses its shiny veneer, quickly falling into the concatenation of buildings and styles that together comprise architectural history and where it can finally be judged on its actual merits. It is perhaps due to this inevitable fading of novelty-induced euphoria that the past appears to be reemerging in the architectural imaginary – like, for example, with last year’s Venice Biennale curated by Rem Koolhaas, which took an indexical look at the history of the profession.
A perhaps different mode of operating – one that is neither subservient to history nor rejects it – is demonstrated by the architect Heather Roberge, principal of murmur, in her new work entitled En Pointe. “Forms are informed by a lot of information,” Roberge told me, as we stood in front of the shiny mass of contorted aluminum, currently installed in the SCI-Arc Gallery. In part intended as a reflection on the “historical and spatial significance of the column,” the installation opts out of the historicist approach (in that rose-tinted sense of the word) while still operating in close relationship with architectural history. With En Pointe, Roberge combines a thoughtful analysis of the development of the column with modern engineering and aesthetics.
On first approach, the installation recalls the large-scale sculptural work of artists like Richard Serra. Bright aluminum sheets are bent and folded like origami, composing angular columns that, in an inversion of the norm, grow out from tapered bottoms and meet at their extremities. Each individual column encloses its own poché space, while together they form an additional structure of voids and passageways, like an arcade collapsed in on itself. In Roberge’s words, the columns appear “both as individuals and a collective as you move around.”
For En Point, Roberge studied, in particular, the hypostyle hall and classical columns. During the development of the project, she also led a studio at UCLA that investigated the genealogy of the column, culminating in the production of a fascinating chart, which is reprinted in the catalogue pamphlets. The class looked far and wide in their survey, and went on a research trip to Japan where they considered such case studies as early timber construction in Kyoto and the work of Sou Fujimoto. Roberge’s pedagogical method parallels her architectural practice, mining history while maintaining a steady gaze on the present.
The columns in En Pointe cannot stand alone. Rather, “the mass and silhouette of each column is eccentrically distributed to stabilize its adjacent column.” This engineering accomplishment was facilitated through an open-source gaming platform, Unity, and later double-checked by Matthew Melnyk, an engineering consultant and founder of Nous. Instead of “defaulting to an axis,” the columns are effective only so long as they lean together. This is not a mere subversion of roles, but rather an exploration of new potentials. While the conceptual gesture is clear, a contingent column is not quite the same as a prone one.
In an accompanying text, the work is described as challenging “the long-held notion of firmitas (originating with Vitruvius) as a necessary expressive quality of the column.” Like the best of them, this challenge comes coated with reverential love. Rather than staking the new contra the past, Roberge utilizes history fluidly in order to develop innovative forms. In fact, it is precisely in this invocation of the history of architecture that her work derives its striking contemporariness. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes, in turn invoking Nietzsche and his aforementioned text, the contemporary is “that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism.”
En Pointe is currently on view at the SCI-Arc Gallery in LA's Art's District. For more information, click here.