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    An Archinerd's Spring Break

    Scott Kepford
    Apr 3, '09 5:45 AM EST

    It’s been almost a full week since the end of spring break and I’m still mourning its passing. And I know you’re probably sick of hearing me say “I went to some interesting lectures recently”, but I thought I would recap the ones I caught while on break. And yes, I am now admitting to being a total nerd, but I DID have actual fun during my break as well; I just can’t tell you about it because it would blow your mind. Well okay okay I just sat around and ate stuff. Anyway... While I was visiting my old friends/hood in NY I actually did end up making the kind-of-crazy trek by train from Brooklyn to Princeton for the Caroline Bos (UNStudio) lecture; but it was a fun diversion.

    My New York aunt once drove me to our cousins’ beach house on the Jersey shore when I was a teen, and I remember thinking Jersey looked a lot prettier than it was fabled to be, bogs and all; but pretty this train ride to Princeton was not. This was largely the Jersey of my imagination: less than two minutes out of Penn station the scenery was a desolate abandoned-agrarian plain ringed with derelict-looking industrial equipment; the likes of which went on for the better part of the ride. Sewage-y bogs disturbingly featured felled electrical lines half-submerged in the muck. Some parts were nice though; there were some cool industrial buildings (as opposed to the bleak ones; it’s a fine line), and some cute little towns and suburbs. It was also nice to see some woods closer to Princeton, though they were those short, thin, nearly transparent east coast woods. Still made me realize that I haven’t seen anything very forest-y other than Griffith Park in a good while.


    The Princeton campus was quite picturesque; probably the most ‘Ivy’ of the Ivies I’ve visited. The Architecture Building was one of the few non-”Ivy League gothic” buildings on campus, and actually seems to work nicely for the school, at least as far as I could tell. I got there a little early and spent some time in the library, which is very accessible to the studios and seems like a great resource, even though it’s basically postage stamp sized. The periodical/journal area alone was a treat and well maintained; the equivalent room at UCLA is not very often used. The facilities all added up to a nice little cloistered world of architecture, one that Princetonians seem too happy with to share: where are the Princeton schoolbloggers?

    Architecture Building

    Anyway, the lecture itself was held in the teeny Betts auditorium, where Caroline Bos was introduced by lecture series curator Jesse Reiser, of Reiser-Umemoto/RUR, who spoke of an especially fertile period at Columbia which I assumed he brought up to suggest that they were both products of, though Bos’ bio doesn’t mention Columbia. Maybe Reiser brought Columbia up for some other reason? At any rate, there does seem to be a certain shared sensibility and genetic relation of the operations undertaken in the design process between the two firms. Bos herself was a mild-mannered, succinct but engaging speaker. Though I’m probably just being a male chauvinist again as they are clearly quite different, I picked up on strange distorted flashbacks of Billie Tsien in Bos’ talk, mainly in her attempts to tie the work of her firm together by spending a lot of time talking in a sometimes largely phenomenological way about circulatory spirals as focal points and central organizing elements in many of her projects. But the similarities in delivery are basically incidental; Bos and van Berkel seem very conceptually engaged, opposed to Tsien’s unconsidered formalism. I didn’t think Bos showed as much of the really strong UNStudio work with diagrams as I anticipated; a diagram style that I hadn’t seen from UNStudio that kept coming up took the form of a jolly rancher-colored tube floating in virtual space, representing a simplified circulation path. Perhaps most importantly, Bos also settled my uncertainty about how to pronounce their name; I had always assumed that one would say both letters separately - though I’ve heard a lot of people call them “unstudio” as in “unbelievable” - but Bos said “you en studio.”

    Bos is boss

    She showed a bunch of recent projects, including construction photos of a crazy concrete spiral from their new music theater in Graz that’s the product of a decade old competition but has only just been completed. The twist, which Bos presented as an evolving constant in their work, I described as “crazy” not just because of its wacky form, but because it was so difficult to build traditionally that they used self impacting concrete pushed up from below rather than poured, which I hadn’t heard of. She also talked about the now-destroyed Villa NM, mentioning in passing that it included “some ironies”, and that it was “slightly larger than life, with this gold fireplace here.” She said it burned down in the fire (rather than just being damaged) because the fire truck couldn’t reach it since a road hadn’t been built, so the truck just slid down the hill with the house in flames. Sylvia Lavin had mentioned in our theory class that there was a rumor that neighbors had set the fire because the house was too contemporary, but that that was probably too “good” to be true. Also shown were several temporary installations, like “Changing Room” at the Venice Biennale, and one that will be installed in Battery Park City in Manhattan this coming September. The installations seem to serve as experiments in purer geometry than their more complex permanent work. Bos stated that she wanted to question why the house is such a treasured zone of experimentation for architects, and that small projects like the installations are great ways for them to work out their ideas. She also said she was interested in “pure geometries”, as shown in “Changing Room”, but that she wanted to use the installations to find new ways to occupy those geometries. While I think the installations are really beautiful formal expressions, I think their permanent work, like the Mercedes Benz Museum or Villa NM (which I suppose didn’t turn out to be so permanent…) are much more interesting and relevant in their complexity.

    I decided to get out of New York earlier than I had been thinking I would, I think mostly because I always idealize the city (well, Brooklyn at least) when I’ve been away and have a lot of nostalgia for my time there, but when I come back to visit I realize every time that it doesn’t meet my expectations, and that I’d rather just be in Los Angeles. I still love New York (I know, I know, just buy the ‘I heart NY’ shirt), and might even end up there again some time (as if I’d be able to afford it whenever that would be), but I now know that I appreciate it more for my friends who are still there, and otherwise pretty much only for its infrastructure (density and transit), much more than for its cultural production or “scene”.

    So anyway, I wasn’t able to go to the Bernard Tschumi lecture at Columbia, but was able to go to the Elena Manferdini lecture at SCI-Arc the same night. I was pleasantly surprised by Manferdini’s presentation, because my general impression of her work was that it was overly fashion-y and not so rich. Somehow though she managed to leave a super fashion-y impression (complete with a video of a literal fashion show in her SCI-Arc installation) that was still really interesting, basically because it was successfully implementing fashion techniques in architectural production. Though I was a little dubious about some of her approaches, such as the idea that one pattern should be used as a design at all scales, from jewelry to chairs to buildings, and I cringed a bit when she said she was appropriating indigenous women’s headdresses for a tower in China, (not to mention puking a little in my mouth during the aforementioned fashion show video) but despite the approaches I thought the work was really excellent.

    Manferdini - oh my god my dumb iphone obliterated her face - sorry!

    There seemed to be more UCLA faculty in attendance than students (which happens consistently; come on guys!), including Sylvia Lavin and Greg Lynn, who both made interesting statements in the Q&A (I hesitate to call them questions though). Sylvia said that Manferdini’s “fixation on the body gives me the heebie jeebies”, and Lynn noted that Manferdini moves from the 2d to the 3d in her work, contrary to a lot of contemporary practitioners, and that she “fetishizes the 2d part of [her] practice”. Manferdini basically seemed to agree and said that for her there’s power in the simplicity of 2d drawing. Sylvia also brought up what I think is a good point, that there’s “a faultline worth tracking” in the split between Manferdini’s draped filigree skins and relatively ‘dumb’ cores and slabs, but Manferdini apparently didn’t want to spar anymore and didn’t say anything in response. Overall though I thought it was a really successful lecture, despite work that I wouldn’t necessarily say I fully identify with, but now definitely respect.

    I went to SCI-Arc again on March 28th with a bunch of media/arts friends for the Mediascapes symposium, subtitled “Immersive and Virtual Architecture at the Edge of Physicality”. The panel included some very interesting speakers, like Ben Bratton and Manuel DeLanda, but the format didn’t allow much time for anyone to speak, so almost everyone used double their allotted time. Ben Bratton, who will also be appearing at Postopolis Saturday, talked about his formulation of the “Turing City”, and DeLanda gave a truncated version of his talk at SCI-Arc a year or so ago. While I think the symposium was only partly successful on its own, due to format and the event feeling sometimes like little more than an ad for SCI-Arc’s program, it turned to total farce for me at the end when Eric Owen Moss ranted to the whole panel that the event was a complete waste of time. My friends and I stayed long enough to watch him storm off, but left soon after. I’m hoping the next SCI-Arc event will go a bit more smoothly!

    Mediascapes = Egoscapes?


    • _JC

      I feel as if I should defend NJ as I was raised and educated here, but theres not much I can say about that train ride. I used to take that trip (north east corridor line) every day back and forth to work for 2 years and it was pretty depressing actually. Starting from the train interior, you're surrounded by brown seats and yellow fluorescent lights, only to take a look outside and see more browns and yellows being drowned out by industrial emissions. Princeton is very nice though, and its a shame that the outsiders view of NJ comes from the train lines and the NJ Turnpike cause it gets much better, how could it not?

      Apr 3, 09 10:45 am  · 

      Jersey rocks! But yea, that train ride is tough. Probably the best part of the whole affair is immediately around Newark Penn Station when you get to go over the passaic river on those awesome bridges, then parallel route 21 for a bit. I pity you though... Brooklyn to Princeton via train? Ouch... that must have been awhile. Good thing the Princeton SOA is within walking distance of The Dinky station.

      JC.. have you ridden on the new double-decker cars? I hear they're pretty nice. I generally slum it on the Path so I can't say I've experienced them personally...

      Apr 3, 09 4:20 pm  · 

      actually, yes. funny story:

      the first time I ever got on one of those was when NJ Transit introduced one as a test to see if they would start using them full time....When everyone walked onto the train no one really noticed it was a double-decker, we just thought it was a light blue train instead of the typical brown, so we just kept walking with our heads down. The first person to realize was the guy in the front of the line who abruptly saw he was at a dead end with stairs going up on the left and down on the right (its split level in section). He stopped short which created a shock wave and the whole line of people including myself fell down behind him. It was the first time I realized how pathetically routine that whole process you're on a factory line to work.

      They are very nice though, and Jersey does rock.

      Apr 3, 09 4:46 pm  · 

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