Tangential Fabrications

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Computer



Jan '12 - Aug '13

  • anchor

    Whither Installation Symposium Part 1: Interview with John McMorrough

    Aaron Willette
    Jan 20, '12 5:01 PM EST

    As mentioned in my previous post on the blog, I sat down with John McMorrough, Chair of the Architecture Program and Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan to briefly talk with him about this weekend's Research Through Making presentations and Whither Installation Symposium (both of which I'll be live blogging) . We intentionally focused on the "why" and "how" of the events rather then the content, but even within those constraints John gave some great insights into the nature of the installation format itself and the direction of the symposium.


    Aaron Willette - I think it’s clear that no one would or could really debate the validity of the topic at hand: obviously the use of the installation format in architecture is on an uptick, or is at least perceived as so. I’m curious to the concept of timing: why is this a conversation we're having now? I’m sure the polemics panel will touch on the topic, but I'd like to hear your point of view as someone organizing this event as to why this is something worth bringing to the forefront of the larger dialog.

    John McMorrough - I think there are institutional reasons for the school to have a symposium on installation work today; we have invested a lot in the idea through initiatives like “Research Through Making” where grant money is offered to faculty to do project-based research (usually in the form of installations) and the outfitting of the Fabrication Lab to be one of the best in the nation. Clearly, it’s something that’s on the mind of the school, but I think it is also an issue for schools of architecture around the nation.

    The rise of installation makes sense from the institutional perspectives of architecture schools…it involves design, technology, knowledge of construction…it seems complete as a microcosm of architectural effort. It assumes qualities of making or realization, it comes with its own values of the good: build this thing, it’s there and we all see it. However, the installation project has supported itself by its manifest “goodness” in that it rarely claims a position other than its existence. Of course you could say installations have always been around, as small-scale construction projects or exhibits, but it’s also clear that the “installation” as a particular genre of work has become something in recent years that is quite predominant. What the nine-square grid design problem was to early post-modernism in America, the installation project is now for contemporary work.

    AW - Do you see the conference playing into an interest to validate installations as a medium for architects? Talking to designers that are working within its boundaries, they’re often torn as to if they're still operating as architects, regardless of how they might be using installations to explore architectural ideas.

    JM - There are now architects, our faculty included, who have been trained under the model of building installations, starting their careers as “installationists.” This seems to me as different from what installations started out as: a preparation for moving on to other scales of building. Now that it’s become a thing unto itself, the question is: if it’s not preparation for another thing, then what is it in its own right? One could imagine a whole series of ends: pedagogical in that it trains students in the rudiments of construction, fabrication and technology, or aesthetic in training new sensibilities and offering that up to an increasingly wider public. One could say, more skeptically, that the location of what Manfredo Tafuri called the “boudoir” in the 1970s - the retreat of architecture into its own internalized codes under the logic of autonomy - is now the fabrication lab.

    AW - I’d like to talk a little bit about the curation of the panel members. Moving from Ben Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio to Anne Rieselbach of the Architectural League of New York, presents a range of individuals involved with installations in variety of ways - how did you go about picking these individuals and why were they picked?

    JM - Before even the invitation of particular individuals, there was the idea of the three panels: polemics, pedagogy and practice. The practice one is obvious in that you bring forth people who are working in this scale of work in different ways. It’s a simple formula: people whose work we think is interesting; a sort of geographic diversity, so some people from the east coast, some people from the west coast; and people who work closer or further away from the “installation” as we have come to understand it. The pedagogy panel brings together members of a generation trained in the logics of installation, who are now teaching in schools developing and extending that model in different ways. For the polemics panel the idea brings together those who identify emerging practices and curate a picture of the field either through exhibitions and/or awards. Given the logic of the occurrence, I think we're heavier on the practice side than the other sides, but we really tried to create a balance of perspectives. Hopefully, there’s enough fly in the ointment that tacit agreement isn't reached too quickly, but we'll see.

    AW - Is there a hope to bring these camps together within the academic environment of the school post-symposium? Is that an intended end goal or perhaps a happy by-product?

    JM - Architecture, despite our global attentions, is extraordinarily provincial; it operates in localized cohorts (schools, firms, etc). That’s one of the things that’s interesting about the installation trend: how can we have this moment of tacit agreement among a whole number of schools that this is a kind of work that you should be doing. At Michigan amidst our own efforts in such things: the productions of our labs, our new degree programs, the Research Through Making projects, it also seems like the time when we should question the very nature of the thing we're doing…as we get better and better at things, we must ask harder and harder questions of ourselves. The opportunity of the symposium is to initiate debate within the school and, hopefully, to spread that debate to other places. 


    • samsa13

      This symposium appeared to be a promising venue to critically assess the installation trend but after reading the other blog posts associated with this event I was disappointed in the lack of critical voices. I would disagree with McMorrough's comments about the installation being the contemporary analogue of the nine-square grid problem. That problem provided a basic framework for each student to learn fundamentals of architecture on their own terms. These installations operate as career vehicles for young faculty and schools to get publicity. The students are not allowed to develop their own personal positions on architecture - they simply provide free manual labor for faculty. Why isn't any of the Research through Making grant money available for student projects? What are we missing out on architectural education by focusing on installation work - the "sheer quantity of challenges implicit in architecture" as Ball asked? Lots of questions could be asked, it seemed like a missed opportunity.

      Jan 27, 12 11:57 pm


      My apologies for the unacceptable delay in my response. I didn't even realize you had commented until I clicked through this post while working on a recent paper, but wanted to take the time to respond to your comments...

      I believe that John's comments regarding installation being analogous to the nine-square grid problem was directed towards the use of installation in the design studio, such as the work presented at the symposium by Chris Romano from the University of Buffalo. As a MS student I don't operate out of the TCAUP design studios and  am oblivious to a lot of things that happen on the third floor; from the work I have seen over the past year I would say that the few studios and electives using installation occur primarily at the graduate level and are employing it as a tool to explore the exact challenges that Ben Ball was referring to. I would agree in hindsight that more critical voices would have been welcome in the conversation and that the symposium didn't have "enough fly in the ointment" as John somewhat foreshadowed.

      Its my understanding that the Research Through Making initiative is funded in some capacity through the funds that come into TCAUP through other faculty research projects. If this is correct, Monica Ponce de Leon is basically funding "internal" research with the windfall gathered from "external" research. I can't speak of the budgets for other RTM project, but I know I was paid for my efforts in Glass Cast and am under the impression that this was standard for the others. Based on my short time here so far the school gives funding to a number of studios and electives every semester (something I have personally benefited from), so they are injecting money into student work in addition to promoting the faculty work.


      Oct 8, 12 1:23 am

      Block this user

      Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?

    • Back to Entry List...
  • ×Search in:

About this Blog

An in-the-trenches view of digital fabrication, academic research, post-hardcore music and whiskey. Not necessarily in that order and often in combination.

Authored by:

Recent Entries