If “action painting” is produced by the dynamics of dripping, smearing, and sweeping brushstrokes of paint to reveal the complex character of abstract art, then “action drawing” would be something like juxtaposing lines, planes, volumes, typographical elements, photographs, and paper cutouts on a drawing that aims to uncover the intricate universe of architectural ideas.
Each of Perry Kulper’s architectural drawings is a cosmos of information and possibilities that resist the banal and simplistic reductionism so typical of contemporary architectural representation. Series after series, his drawings display objects as background, and background as object in a constant visual journey of an architecture that doesn't settle and always evolves: an architecture of ideas.
WAI Architecture Think Tank discussed with Perry Kulper the concept, intention, and potential of drawing architecture.
WAI: There was a moment in our academic experience in which we became very interested in the potential of representation strategy. This was at the same time as one of us was researching about the potential of the representation tools of the avant-garde in the 20th century, starting with Le Corbusier and ending in the late 1960’s with projects by Archizoom and Superstudio.
Following our studies we discovered in Europe, in the midst of the debacle of Wall Street, that the architectural crisis had started a long time before the crash of Lehman Brothers. We felt that architectural representation and its dialectical relationship with architectural thinking was being overlooked, as representation was becoming a mere sales exercise in which renderings and cartoonesque diagrams served as smoke screens that tried to disguise a lack of intellectual depth.
In order to continue our interests and answering a strong urge to challenge the situation we created WAI.
We would like to know about the origins of your fascination for solving the puzzle of architectural representation? Could you share with us how your interest in this realm of architecture started?
Perry Kulper: While I had a latent interest in architectural drawings in my time in grad school at Columbia (Archigram, Graves, Stirling, Abraham, etc) and in the offices where I worked, my active interests in architectural representation evolved through: a self reflection on my own limitations as a designer through a realization that I lacked the formal, material and representational skills to work on a fruitful range of ideas; an interest in trying to find ways to visualize and materialize thought; trying to find a way into unexplored disciplinary conversations; exposure to a range of architecture and art practices in Los Angeles that opened questions about what architectural representation might discuss.
My interests in architectural representation were motivated specifically by my early years of teaching at SCI-Arc where I was around a number of provocative people who were thinking and working on the potential of the architectural drawing including Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian of Studio Works, Andy Zago, Neil Denari, Coy Howard and so on. I was also beginning to think about the preferences of various kinds of architectural drawings and I was formulating thoughts about the ‘crisis of reduction’ and how the architectural representation might help avoid the reduction of things too quickly in the design of a project. I was also wondering how I might account for things that couldn’t be metrically, or instrumentally visualized and was moving from my more dominant formal predilections in design to relational thinking and how to structure various interests in spatial settings. This suggested to me that alternative forms of visualization, imaging and drawing might be more effective in relation to an increased range of ideational and architectural possibilities.
During that period of time have you seen architectural representation in general undergo substantial changes or has the essence remained the same although with a different set of tools?
Digital culture has and will continue to have significant impact on the roles that visualizations have played for the architect over the last 15- 20 years. What can be worked on, who can work on it and the translation of what’s being worked on have changed in contemporary life. Collaborative logics, forms of spatial generation, construction logics (linked to digital fabrication, in particular) have changed the roles, questions and operational positions for architectural representation. Arguably, the latent capacities and tacit knowledge gained through the making of a drawing have been changed through the instrumental techniques linked to various digital protocols. The changes are less dramatic in practice and perhaps more vivid with un-built projects and speculative research. Architectural representation has changed to include other forms of imaging and visualization ‘outside’ the conventions of drawing practices, opening alternative potential for what’s in play and what’s not in a project. In some influential discussions there has been a shift from what architecture looks like to how it behaves –a movement from the configuration and image dominance to parametric and performance logics. We’ve also witnessed an increase in the roles of the meditating visualizations, particularly the use of diagramming. There are certain questions that remain the same and others that will change. Key disciplinary discussions linked to a multitude of cultural shifts will be of increased importance as they become integrated in spatial production, particularly in relation to shifts in the augmented or changing roles of architectural representation.
Has your perception and understanding of architectural representation changed during your years of experience as a thinker, educator and practitioner? Have you seen an evolution or any dramatic change in your approach towards architectural representation?
Yes, my sense about the potential of architectural representation has both changed and been enlarged astronomically. Several key things come to mind including: an increasing interest on my part to augment the picturing of architecture (as the dominant mode of recognizing the potential of a project), to the generative roles of mediating drawings and their capacities to consider a wide range of ideas simultaneously, I have augmented imaging form or its abstraction through visualizations connected to relational thinking. In addition to what things look like I am particularly interested in: how they are structured; the roles that representation have played in expanding what I think is possible ideationally, conceptually and materially; a clearer understanding of the capacities of various approaches to architectural representation and when to deploy them relative to the different phases of a projects development; the value of moving between certainties explored in the space of representation and hunches, guesses and flat out shots in the dark; the latent potential of the drawing in relation to its explicit intent; an ability to work on and through temporally active conditions rather than static appearances; and an expanded sense of what might be considered as fodder for the architectural mill.
When you mention that the approximations, hunches, and shots in the darks have hugely increased, does that imply that the process has become more artistic in the sense of a programmatic freedom that allows you to explore representation “as” an end in itself, instead of representation as a possible building in the future?
Partially, as a result of allowing uncertainties to enter drawings I have enjoyed freedom of many kinds. A more relaxed and accommodating approach has allowed me to work ‘creatively’ (always a dangerous word) in broadened ways by supporting expanded relational capacities in the drawings to discuss things that might not otherwise be in play. I try to visualize and support ideas long enough to see if they might be relevant to a project in the long run. Increasingly, I am less judgmental about possible ideas for a project, especially in the early phases of a project –about whether everything in play is suitable for the piece of work. Depending on what I am working on I often make drawings, or parts of drawings that are not targeted at a synthetic building proposal, but are specific in their intent –studying erasure as a possible representational and spatial activity, for example.
With the liberations I’ve granted myself come different kinds of possibilities including an ability to make connections where I hadn’t seen them, to open the range of ideas that might belong to a project and to work on things that might not initially, or ever, make sense. Eventually, I tend to look for a fitness between the situation in which I am working (the situation might include a site, or sites and their respective histories, physicality, futures, etc, the cultural and disciplinary questions at stake, considerations of like projects in the world, my ambitions for the work, etc) and whatever I might propose –a kind of measure of what is relevant, or appropriate to discuss in a project.
Explored through certain kinds of drawing techniques, the hunches and approximations allow me to see other possibilities- the drawings and my understanding of the work frequently gets richer and talks about an expanded set of constituencies, or possible participants, real, conceptualized and as yet unimaginable. To be honest, I also simply need to support some considerations through drawing in the only ways I can at the moment because in the early phases of a project, in particular, I often don’t know how to resolve the geometric and material articulation for ideas. By allowing the co-existence of fairly certain ideas and hunches I relax a need to get it all right and enable conversations to emerge through the visualizations, discovering the project rather than attempting to prove it. If I had the skills to ‘convert’ the intellectual project into a geometric and material one immediately, I might not make mediating visualizations. On the other hand, the potential that emerges as a result of making drawings that try and move ideas to formations enables a multitude of unforeseen and sometimes profitable trajectories to enter a project. Ultimately, some of the drawing efforts have been testing grounds to examine the appropriateness of ideas and where ideas might come from.
On that same line, do you think that architectural representation can or should be appreciated as an art in itself, or should it always remain judged as a purely architectural exercise?
A great question- I’ve had a range of conversations with friends, colleagues and students over the years about your question. I think that architectural representation has a range of things it can discuss, both internal and external to the discipline. I think we should position and support a broad range of ways in which architectural representation works including its capacity to work as a design accomplice, to enabling musings without known outcomes, to speculating on alternative agendas for architecture (the roles of so-called paper architecture, for example) to, as you’ve suggested, being objects in the world with their own potential. I don’t think architectural representation should always be judged solely as an architectural exercise, absolutely not. From my perspective it’s useful to expose the roles architectural representations play, when and how they might be deployed, how they relate to other forms of architectural representation and how, if appropriate, they might find their spatial translation. For my work, I’m interested in finding appropriate modes of representation given the tasks at hand- the situational fitness of things again. I also value decisions I make in the drawings that are not linked to the situation in which I am working, but are linked to the agency of the drawing with its own potential.
Has any specific strategy or tool helped you to have a better understanding of the potential of architectural representation or of architecture as a discipline?
Amongst a range of things that have happened relative to your question a handful of key things occur to me. These include: the potential of composite architectural drawings, or visualizations- using multiple representation languages simultaneously in the same drawing; strategic plotting —plotting relations of agents, actions and settings, over and through time; analogical thinking —thinking and working through likenesses with things, events, conceptual structures, etc; and an expanded sense of the potential of architecture through the use of diverse design methods. I’ve indentified 14 of them and those means for producing work have allowed me to work on a highly varied range of ideas in different situations.
Referring to something you wrote in the piece “The Labor of Architectural Drawing” when discussing the risk of drawing as a confrontation with the “conceptual daylight of the blank drawing surface”, we can’t help but see an allegory with one of Jose Saramago’s literary masterpieces about a city in which a mysterious outbreak makes people go blind. The blindness in the story is not portrayed as the typical visual blackout, but on the contrary, it is manifested as an incessant light that drowns the sight of those affected in an ocean of milk in which any discernible contrast between the sky and the water has become imperceptible.
In the story, the hero is portrayed as somebody whose sense of duty and hope keeps her from going blind. In her struggle between her feeling of impotence in front of the overwhelming amount of problems of a blind society she has to carry the unbearable weight of responsibility and somehow guilt of being the only one able to see.
When you affirm that architectural drawing’s “potential for creative engagement with diverse ideas in a project are on the wane,” do you feel as if architecture has lost its sight, and that there are just a few architects able to see and understand the potential of architectural representation as a tool to think architecture?
The Saramago (‘Blindness’, if my thin memory serves) reference is interesting and useful, but I don’t think I am in a parallel world to the hero. I think I’m looking for potential in architectural representation that maybe others aren’t, but I also don’t expect them to —the cultural and disciplinary questions and interests are just different. I do see the world of architectural representation as amazingly well poised to act as cultural and spatial agents, especially in the midst of significant change –as a generative realm, not simply a descriptive medium, or a technique motivated position.
I think there are multiple sights, or sites for the discipline to work on. I don’t think architecture has lost its sight, it’s just seeing other potentially interesting things at the moment. To be honest (this is pure conjecture) I’m not sure there’s a broad interest in architectural representation, or more specifically the roles of the architectural drawing at the moment. In the early 21 Century architectural representation seems often to be used instrumentally, often bypassing the expansive potential of representation as a way to think through spatial problems and to enlarge what it is that architecture might discuss.
Parenthetically, related to my interests in situational thinking, in diversifying my skills as a designer and in trying to come to terms with what kinds of issues are relevant to work on in a project (its ‘scope’ towards a cultural and disciplinary ‘fitness’) and how to work on them (using particular design methods and representation techniques, strategically), I am often interested in sustaining multiple families of ideas, or interests in a project. Given my predilections the potential of architectural representation is huge on this front.
Do you see your architectural approach as a mode of intellectual resistance?
No. The approach, ethically, structurally and operationally that I champion might be entirely different from project to project, or from speculation to speculation. I think some people see what I do as a mode of resistance, but that’s not my intent. I consider my interests more a form of augmentation and challenging default positions rather than a mode of resistance. If there is intellectual resistance it has more to do with challenging the mono-project, while avoiding the crisis of reduction and in not taking the means and techniques we deploy in architectural production for granted. I have a desire to develop spatial scenarios that participate at several levels with multiple constituencies in a spatial proposition- culturally, disciplinarily and situationally.
And finally, referring to what you call the crisis of reduction, do you think that the current architectural scenario (disciplinary, academic, professional) offers a fertile soil for the development of new representation strategies, or is a radical change needed?
From my point of view, and very generally, I think the use of representational strategies is sometimes deployed instrumentally and that anything outside that usage is seen as peripheral, or outside what the discussion might be. Because of my frequent interest in trying to support and develop multiple families of ideas in a project, single, or mono- drawing approaches tend to be inadequate to the questions I ask. Said differently, I don’t always have the skills to figure out how to sustain ideas I’m working on in a project through conventional drawings like plan, section, perspective and so on. Given my predilections these drawing types, while historically extraordinary in their own right, implicate synthetic understandings of the ideas of a project at the time of their use. Sadly, my understanding and ability to make synthetic decisions is often not ‘in sync’ with the preferences or allowances of traditional drawing types.
And while I rely a lot on the conventions of architectural representation, in fact I grew up in architecture education and in practice through them; I have tried to understand their biases and preferences, so that I can deploy representation strategies more tactically, given what I’m working on. Again, I generally look for an appropriate set of relationships between what’s being worked on and how those things are being worked on. Said differently, drawing types ask the ‘lions to jump to the same platforms at the same time’ and my design skills and interests simply don’t work that way.
I think there is a reasonable range of representational strategies available disciplinarily, professionally and academically. I do think we might address the question about contextualizing the representational strategies available, what they’ve led to and when they are more effectively deployed as a way. I also think that it’s possible to innovate within what’s known, by shifting the relational assemblies, or relational contours within a representational approach. To be honest I do think that radical changes might be necessary.
Perry Kulper is an architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning. Prior to his arrival at the University of Michigan he was a SCI-Arc faculty member for 16 years as well as in visiting positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University. Subsequent to his studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (BS Arch) and Columbia University (M Arch) he worked in the offices of Eisenman/ Robertson, Robert A.M. Stern and Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown before moving to Los Angeles. His interests include the roles of representation and design methods in the production of architecture and in broadening the conceptual range by which architecture contributes to our cultural imagination.
WAI Architecture Think Tank
WAI Architecture Think Tank is a Workshop for Architecture Intelligentsia based in Beijing. Founded by Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia in 2008, WAI asks What About It?
This interview is part of What About It? Part 2, a graphic narrative in magazine format made available in limited edition printed copies, and as a free digital resource on the internet.