Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog: Stan Allen and Preston Scott Cohen

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Oct 20, '11 12:43 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    Stan Allen, Dean of Princeton University School of Architecture and Principal of SAA/Stan Allen Architect, is going at it tonight with Preston Scott Cohen, Chair of Architecture at Harvard GSD and Principal at Preston Scott Cohen Inc. The video is also posted at the GSD's YouTube Channel.

    Thanks to Orhan for mentioning this link, which signals that Princeton is looking for a new Dean! I wonder if they'll be talking about this? If not, it suggests a number of obvious questions for the follow-up.

    6:38: Packed house in (half) Piper tonight; people are spilling out of the aisles. They should have set up for the full auditorium so that everyone could find a seat. But I admit that I do like the excitement a packed house.

    PSC: "Welcome to Stan."

    SA: "It's good to be back."

    Scott is starting things off. "The field condition is...the built environment conceived as a series of parts. It begins in a single element or elements that cluster or aggregate to become many."

    "It is a logic of aggregation that we are interested in here, and the effect of that logic. Seriality. It's about generating an analog to heterogeneity rather than wholeness."

    "In Field Conditions, Stan, you basically divide the world of architecture according to two principles: the first you call the break: quantifiable units set upon the other. And the other: the geometric. Clearly, you are an adder, an algebraic--our opposite--which is why I brought you here to talk with us." Scott gives the example of the mosque of Córdoba.

    "At the risk of opening a can of worms, I'd like to [think about] why Olgiati and I are die-hard dividers. Could one argue that there is an incipient monasticism in your work, in revealing the particulars of the parts--reveling in its singular figurality..? ...That's my question for you."

    SA: "Well, it's great to be here."

    PSC: "Yes, buy a little time."

    SA: "While we were walking down the hall, Scott said, 'you know, I think we're opposites.' and I said 'I think it's true, but I think it's too subtle for anyone to really care.' And he laid it out in a very clear way."

    "Two things to say: first: I did a studio at Columbia in 1984; and we were talking with Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Sanford Kwinter, rethinking the part-to-whole problem. The context that might be lost to these students is that we were reacting to deconstructivism. The model of that school was that you start with a whole and break it apart: Tschumi and Eisenman. So the early attraction of the field condition was that: instead of breaking down a whole, you start with small elements and through repetition bring about a different sense of the whole."

    PSC: But there are other dividers; they're the worst dividers.

    SA: ..."Greg and Sanford at that time were looking at biology; I was looking at music and minimalist art. When you look at [Iannis] Xenakis... he makes an analogy to being in a demonstration in a crowd in Athens, and how you get lost, absorbed into a larger whole."

    PSC: "But this would not be the whole that has an aspiration to cohere?"

    SA: "Greg and Sanford wanted to make a new kind of organic whole; I was still comfortable with the notion that you'd always read the tension between part and whole."

    PSC: "I'm going to quote one of your statements, although not a recent one: 'Form matters more for what it can do than what it looks like.' Very important. ...The hypothesis is that certain forms are conducive to supporting certain programmatic responses. The language of form here is signalling what it is expected to do. So the question is: do you think we do the same thing in a neoclassical or modern vocabulary of form as we do in these field forms? To play devil's advocate, I could say that people do the same thing, more or less, regardless of the order of the building. It is really something new?"

    SA: "Not necessarily. One thing was the notion that you were no longer representing the institutionalized, centralized power and representation of hierarchy. [But] I'd be suspicious of saying that it's somehow fundamentally democratic."

    "The more subtle argument...were those around thought in the sixties, that the building created non-specfic spatial relationships. An openness in spaces. That shouldn't be confused with undesigned spaces or the 1960s notion of universal spaces: in spaces where anything could happen, often nothing happened."

    "I was interviewed by [...] at one point and they used the phrase: 'Nonstandard expansive systems capable of becoming specific at any given point.'"

    PSC: "You still haven't told me what is wrong with [dividing]."

    SA: "There's a passage in Foucault that says there are no constraining architectures; there are liberating architectures per se. Even thinking about infrastructures, at a larger scale you can specify ways in which people move through spaces--degree of openness, access. We used to use this phrase: 'architecturally specific, programmatically indeterminate.' And we realized that we had such a space: the steps of Lowe Library. [All kinds of diverse activities happening there: convocation, protests, etc.] And this is a symmetrical space. But where it is positioned in campus is hugely important--the fact that all the paths cross there--and that has nothing to do with the classical language. If it faced north, though, it wouldn't work."

    PSC: "And if it were a field form..."

    SA: "And Jesse Reiser pointed out: the tread-to-riser relationship is such that you're forced to walk diagonally across the space; that's a subtle architectural condition that is really important. So you're right--"

    PSC: "yes"

    SA: "But..."

    PSC: "But I don't know where the political charge is in the field operation. You've lost it; you've just conceded."

    SA: "OK, you've won round one."

    Stan is now presenting the Maribor Art Gallery in Slovenia. "We didn't set out to design a field condition museum, but...[it ended up that way]. If we built the museum of roughly similar parts that built up to a larger whole, we could operate in a very contemporary language that was in some way sympathetic to the condition of the museum."

    "The unit here...[some confusion with slides.] Oh, Scott has edited my powerpoint." [laughter]

    PSC: "No, it is exactly as you gave it to me."

    SA: "I know."

    "...Rather than framing the site and creating some sort of internal square, we worked with the porous edge, creating irregular smaller scale spaces that complemented those that we found in the historic city."

    "Quick lesson: when you aggregate a hexagon you get a continuous field. When you aggregate a pentagon you get those voids that bring light into the project."

    "So you see all the columns coming down in the reflected ceiling a museum it didn't need a lot of lighting; and we wrapped a zinc rainscreen around the entire project at the lower level."

    "Our attitude is that galleries need big, clean, white walls; if there's complexity, it's in the way that light is brought into the spaces. I don't like to say 'neutral,' but they serve the art well."

    PSC: "When I first saw it, I was struck by this grid system of pentagonal elements. And I saw some localized errors, if you will."

    SA: "That's where we cheated."

    [This image of the structure is what Scott was scrutinizing.]

    PSC: "But they're very intentional." Scott is pointing out where the nodes don't align in the grid, where the pentagons have sheared off.

    "Now you could have gone with hexagons; everything would have fit. But you go with 108 degrees in pentagons. It's a willful choice to create a disintegration within the system, to produce the appearance of a condition of heterogeneity. You add another layer of rhetorical information. So it goes back to the question of what architecture should be representing."

    "Isn't this a postmodern problem; the conscious representation of heterogeneity? It's not heterogeneity. I love the idea that you'd get a system to problematize itself, but..."

    SA: "All the early studies were hexagons. It was a kid in the office who came up with the pentagon. But it was brilliant. When I was a fourth year student at Cooper Union; and in fourth year you do analysis. A triangle is stable, a square is stable, but a pentagon is the simplest form that produces instability; it's irreduceable."

    PSC: "But imagine if you had found a large-scale periodicity...if there were a pattern that you could cycle whereby those fissures induced by the pentagon would cohere, then the whole system would be a closed, unified field. Would that then not be the field condition? What would be the problem; that wouldn't have contradicted your position, would it?"

    SA: "I think the representational aspect is important. And i thought the reference to the pitched roofs would help us win the competition, but it different. But what I like about this project is the toggling between regularity or standardization, and heterogeneity. We wanted it to be incomplete in that sense."

    [Lost some text in here, but there was more discussion of the museum and then PSC dug into SA about the columns as shown in the above two images.]

    SA: "...It was a response to program...we saw the lower level as connected and porous to the city; at that level it was like a piece of infrastructure connected to the horizontal space of the city. The muscularity of the columns spoke to that. What I like about the columns is that they mark the central space of the pavilions."

    "The problem with the early field condition stuff in the early 90s is that I could never get out of the mat building. This project works with the field condition in a way that gets out of the mat building. That has to do with iconicity and tectonics. The mat building, like so much in the 90s, was in love with horizontality."

    PSC: "But it's really a two-zone project. The top zone is just subdivided; it's not a separate zone."

    SA: "Yes, we divided...oh, I knew we were going to fight over the laser pointer."

    PSC: "You divided! You're a closeted divider." [laughter] "The tripartite. You're a classical architect in your elevations."

    SA: On to the next thing. "What I like about Scott's approach is that we haven't uttered the word landscape yet."

    PSC: "But a night without landscape is like a night without architecture these days, I thought."

    SA: "But it's important here."

    OK, now SA is showing his Taichung InfoBox project.

    "We thought we could build a free-standing pavilion. We visited the site and were shown this hangar built in the 1950s when the airport was constructed. We already had a roof, and a very heavy concrete slab; so all the expensive parts were taken care of. So we built a bamboo building inside the hangar."

    "Now this is the slide I shouldn't show. By code, the building had to be a steel structure, even though bamboo is just as strong. And the bamboo scaffolding just wraps this structure. But that part was done [as it would be traditionally], in a .75 x .75 x .75m grid of bamboo lashed together."

    SA: "This project was done as division; we started with a cube and started chamfering the corners and hollowed it out."

    PSC: "But there's something field here, in working with the technology that is productive. A different sense of field: being on the ground, working in the conditions."

    SA: "The field is tactical."

    PSC: "Yes, I don't want to forget that part of the thesis."


    SA: "Certainly with the seriality of the computer, well--there was an intuition there [in the early days of the field condition."

    PSC: "But you did not enter into the expression of computation."

    SA: "I was never a smooth guy."

    PSC: "Even I slipped into that for a moment. Everyone was vulnerable to that."

    Ok, last project: Busan Opera House.

    SA: "How could we possibly work with the language of aggregation for an opera house? It seemed like a contradiction, and certainly it was not our initial project."

    "I showed this to Jeff and he said it looked like a Scott Cohen Project."

    PSC: "Okay...yeah, a little on the right side [where there is something funky...what appears to be a hypar]."

    SA: "We had a working analogy for the project, which is that somehow a piece of the mountain had found itself between the city and the sea."

    "If you Google 'opera house,' you get the Sydney Opera House. We've lost the urbanity of the Garner Paris Opera House."

    "Well, the starting point of the project is when we realized that the roof if this shed is a pentagon. We were very happy."

    PSC: [laughs.] "You're as bad as I am!"

    Stan is explaining the plan and 3D form through this nice series of diagrams. "That's the same thing, rotated 90 degrees, pulled down instead of up, allowing us to create occupiable spaces up there. Thinking about this landform we wanted to find ways to occupy it in ways other than working from the ground up."

    "To my mind it's a successful experiment when the aggregation forms some sense of the larger whole. You can read the parts but there are also times when you can't decipher them."

    Oh, they lied! He's doing one more project, a house an hour north of New York.

    SA: "In 1999-2000 when this was designed, the emphasis was on that (pentagonal) piece in contrast with the horizontality of that piece. It was done right after Maribor and we were a bit frustrated that we didn't win Maribor, so we were building a little piece of that. That's one way of explaining it, but I'd prefer to say that [it was more about engaging] the tectonics and verticality and the iconicity."

    "But the canted wall created a perfect painting wall for [the client]."

    "The neighbors have taken to calling it the 'Minter Chapel' which is...a little bothersome."

    Questions from the audience. One of the questions has to do with when a field condition is no longer a field condition.

    SA: "...a field condition...I don't want to make a litmus test, but it relies on the size of the elements and the number of repetitions."

    "But the field condition has more attraction as an urban idea than an architectural idea."

    Question from the audience about how Stan sees the way he advanced the discourse at Princeton.

    SA: "Scott did a great job of teasing out our differences. But I think you could say that Scott, Jesse Reiser, myself and a number of people working today share a lot of territory. It's a kind of generational snapshot: people born between 53 and 61, with the exception of Fujimoto--he's the outlier...and Scott is the perfect example--we were educated in the seventies and eightes when there was a strong theoretical charge. Our work is characterized by experimentation and even alternative practices. But now, the work is directed at institutional projects. And I'd like to think that all the energy that informed that work in the 70s, 80s, and 90s is still there, but directed toward the issues that are the issues we need to be dealing with today."

    PSC: "Well, it's getting late, but thanks so much... (etc.)"

    [Applause] And now Stan and Scott are still going at it. Not sure what they're talking about but I hear the words "diagram" and "indexically." Whooo...

    Thanks for reading!


    P.S. After the lecture, Scott lamented that they got so caught up with the geometry questions that they didn't get to talk about how field conditions also have to do with working in a context, and the architect giving up total authorial control. Which is too bad, as this would have indeed been interesting! And as a landscape student pointed out to me, Stan Allen would also have had many interesting things to say with regards to the relation between all of this and landscape. There were many landscape students in Piper last night, and this really would have been great to hear. Alas!

    [photo credit: the Stan Allen part of the first photo is from this flikr site. The Scott Cohen part of the above photo is from the GSD website. The others were taken by me in Piper Auditorium. All the slides shown tonight were Stan Allen's.]


    • what do you think they will be fighting for?

      Oct 20, 11 2:46 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      I have no idea. But Scott loves to be polemical so he'll think of something.

      Oct 20, 11 3:01 pm  · 

      I think they should be talking about, well.., you. Seriously.. Why a leading institution sees no value in one student and the other leading institution sees a value in the same person? Just for starters..

      Oct 20, 11 3:08 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang



      Well, Princeton has a class of about twelve, and the GSD has a class of about sixty. So there are going to be many people who get admitted here but not there.

      Oct 20, 11 4:30 pm  · 

      so they think the same way, just the contingency then.. that was easy, thanks lian.;.)

      Oct 20, 11 5:30 pm  · 

      never mind lian.

      there is plenty to talk and ask about apparently.

      Oct 20, 11 6:27 pm  · 

      frankly, this is all about what they have.. nothing wrong with that, but essentially it is about construction. there is nothing to ask except listen, like many before them. they don't reconcile architecture with people and not able to "evict" the object, which makes them closed looped in themselves. these are artificially created field conditions. sounds like formalists are playing off their last joker cards. the deck is thinning.. 

      thanks for the blog lian.

      Oct 20, 11 7:39 pm  · 

      Thanks for the blog, but apart from some amusing good humored debate these two just appeared very similar, their conflict more a scholastic argument than anything that has bearing on anything outside the cloister - both more interested in creating a closed "fool proof" system to work with, than actually working with program, client, context, what have you... ach... And meanwhile outside, the world is getting built...

      By the way, I think Stan "won" by being more good natured and pleasing, at least in typed form - (eventhough PSC alway has some advantage because his Steve Martiny looks...)

      Oct 21, 11 6:14 am  · 

      You left out about 5000 "sure, sure"s from Stan.  

      It could be a new drinking game - shot every time Stand says "sure"

      Oct 21, 11 3:13 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang


      Oct 21, 11 4:39 pm  · 
      Dani Zoe

      thanks for posting this lian!

      Oct 21, 11 5:00 pm  · 

      so you take those photos of the slide from the slideshow? is that how you usually do it?

      Must take a good zoom....

      Oct 21, 11 6:21 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      @Nam: Shoooor... Sometimes I grab the images off the internet if the same slides are already posted somewhere, because it's easier and the image quality is of course better. But otherwise I just snap photos of the screen and do a perspective crop if they're taken from a really extreme angle. It's a low-budget kind of thing to do, but when the final image is only 519 pixels, it's enough to get the point across. And yes, I do have a decent camera now so that helps!

      Oct 22, 11 10:34 am  · 

      frankly, this is all about what they have.. nothing wrong with that, but essentially it is about construction. there is nothing to ask except listen, like many before them. they don't reconcile architecture with people and not able to "evict" the object, which makes them closed looped in themselves. these are artificially created field conditions. sounds like formalists are playing off their last joker cards. the deck is thinning..


      agreed - one thing that may or may not matter is that neither of them have built much, so maybe that's why there is this disconnect.

      Oct 25, 11 10:50 am  · 

      The youtube link doesnt work

      Oct 25, 11 2:43 pm  · 
      chatter of clouds

      if i may advocate the devil, i don't see most architectural practice being any less of a closed loop that the purveyors of this lecture typify. you guys cite interaction with the client as evidence of an open loop, or at least a non closed loop. i would say that would really depend on the client: if the client, as most corporate clients are, values solely  profit, corporate image, efficiency...etc ...well, to me, thats a closed loop, only larger. yes, their rhetoric and ethos is is the rhetoric of many typical corporate or retail architects  and as well that of the "phenomenological" architects in the vein of  zumthor, pallasmaa and so on. its not just the formlaists who play this card.

      now, why is a big loop better than a small loop? Orhan, if i read you well, its the absence of addressing or representing interaction with the public: as persons and as space that is discordant?  i would understand that, especially in a global climate of frustrated strife, economically and socially. its amazing with all this talk about walls and light and not a nod towards the people inhabiting the spaces, justice...etc. but i think it was Rem, one of the devils themselves, who said that if you want to change the world, go be a politician or planner not an architect. perhaps, in the clamour and irked pathos of the outer world, these two upper (middle?) class boys are politely and honestly just doing what they've been taught to do and what they're teaching others to do. are they to blame for not pretending to be able to do more?

      Oct 26, 11 7:24 am  · 

      tammuz (i am glad you're finding time to write here again,) i agree with all you have said and it is better said, expanded, what i alluded to. i am no devil though. maybe this is an upper middle smallish loop and big with the students? 

      'reconciling people with architecture ought to be architects' work, however. you build it and they will come is quite cynical.' (with that, i have given the gist of my upcoming manifesto in a superstar book.;)


      Oct 26, 11 1:24 pm  · 

      I have no problem with formal explorations in repetition, redundancy, and self-similarity, but for me, I'm guessing like orhan, there is this odd disconnect between this discussion and how people actually use space.  IMO - people tend to inhabit and activate spaces and paths at the periphery, edges, and thresholds - so "the field,"  really doesn't describe anything other than aggregated forms and structure. oh look - a space - now we're in another space!  and those museums - how the hell are people supposed to use them without any kind of orientating device or areas of respite? without edges and thresholds all field-like forms eventually devolve into the flow of ikea's showroom.  you ever notice how you get museum tired in ikea?  you have to eat some swedish meatballs just to give you enough energy to power through that place - that's why the cafeteria is at the beginning...  


      and PSC's example of the cordoba mosque- the most important part of the great hall is not the field of columns, but the qiblah wall (literally - a wall) with the mihrab (a niche - i.e. spiritual threshold). I guess there is some interesting "field condition" going on with the structure of the hall- how the space was used is entirely oriented to that one edge - without that orientating edge you're bouncing around that space like a pinball.

      Oct 26, 11 5:41 pm  · 
      chatter of clouds

      hi Orhan (and thank you);

      take a look at the tel aviv musuem of art amir building and perhaps you could have your say on the matter.

      in my opinion, there are too many contrived tendencies. at certain angles and in its simplist form, it could have the dynamic and elegant mineralism of early zaha hadid or zvi hecker (i know, zh & zh they should collaborate ). but this building (judging from the illustrations at least) ) seems to occupy two worlds simultaneously, one where form is  imperative and directive/expressive and another where form and geometry are ornamental and narcissistic.  i think Le Corbusier's promenade architecture here (take a look at the atrium pictures of the linked page) has done a conceptual escher turn on itself. it is no longer the building unravelling around the user; if anything, the architectural visuality winds and folds into itself as if to mostly underline its rhetoricity. it would be a very interesting excercise to try to appreciate the obvious and latent intentions of this building from a semiotic stance.

      Oct 29, 11 9:17 am  · 
      chatter of clouds


      despite your counter-points, i sense toasteroven's criticism of positing the cordoba mosque as observing some sort of field condition. and not only because of the mihrab and qiblah wall, which toasteroven is wrong in describing as a spiritual threshold. in orthodox sunni - and even in shia and other factions where it concerned the mosque that is not associated in some ways to metaphysical events or quasi divinely inflected figures (i actually would have to be really careful in phrasing this- so forgive the laziness) - there is such thing as a spiritual threshold let alone the notion's  applicability to a contigently assigned area of prayer. hence, the possible appropriation of any structure or open space for the purpose of mass praying. calling it a spiritual threshold would be assigning some divine value to worldliness, which is forbidden. anyway, to go back to the actual topic...i see a contradiction between theuniformity of purpose and the isotropy of a prayer area and of the cordoba mosque it punctuated by all these columns...and of the notion of field condition...which, i assume, assumes a facet of variegated flux.

      Oct 29, 11 9:41 am  · 
      chatter of clouds

      sorry: there is no such thing as a spiritual threshold...etc

      Oct 29, 11 12:06 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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