FIVE POINTS FOR THESIS

The following is an edited transcript of a lecture given to the graduate thesis class at SCI Arc in the spring of 2014. 


I think the philosopher Richard Rorty was onto something when he wrote:


"Interesting philosophy…usually…is a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises great things."                  


This phrase resonates with contemporary architecture in general and SCI-Arc thesis in particular, as I’ll try to show. But first, following Rorty, I want to encourage all of you to vaguely promise great things with your thesis projects—and to avoid being a nuisance. For this talk, I came up with Five Points for thesis, which I hope will help in both regards. We’ll start with this:


PART ONE: SIMILARITY AND DIFFERENCE

There is nothing new under the sun. - Ecclesiastes 1:9

This is a phrase we hear often around architecture schools. It’s an inoculation against naïveté and superficial valorization of novelty. It’s also pretty easy to demonstrate.

1280Px Peter B  Lewis Building  Entry

Fig1: Frank Gehry, Peter B. Lewis building. Cleveland, Ohio, 2002     Photo by Daderot

If we look at something like Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis Building in Cleveland [Fig. 1], for example, we could say that there’s not much new here. We’ve seen it in Bilbao. We’ve seen it in Downtown Los Angeles. If we follow Peter Eisenman, we could say that Gehry got the idea from Schinkel. From there, it’s pretty easy to lock Gehry’s project into a trajectory that goes back through Stirling’s Staatsgalerie to Le Corbusier’s Capitol at Chandigarh through Schinkel’s Altesmuseum to Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House and Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. Each of these projects conforms to a similar plan diagram: central rotunda, U-shaped wrapper, and porch [Fig. 2]. With a few more steps, we could take Gehry all the way back through the Parthenon to the Primitive Hut. Trajectories like these are fairly common and tend to have a domesticating function: works are validated in terms of what came before. 

Fig 2

Fig 2: (top left to lower right): Frank Gehry, Lewis Building; James Stirling, Neue Staatsgalerie; Le Corbusier, Capitol at Chandigarh; Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Altesmuseum; Lord Burlington, Chiswick House; Andrea Palladio, Villa Rotonda

Gehry plan: Gehry Partners, LLP

Stirling plan: from James Stirling Michael Wilford and Associates: Buildings and Projects, 1975 – 1992 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994): 57

Corbusier plan: from Le Corbusier Oeuvre Complète vol. 7, 1957 – 65 (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1995): 88

Of course, we could look at it another way. Rather than point out the similarities between projects, we could draw attention to the differences. The Primitive Hut, for instance, is a novel arrangement of trees in a forest. With the Parthenon, whether we look at it in terms of the conversion of wood detailing to stone or as the conversion of myth to reality, we find plenty that is absent in the Primitive Hut. If we look at Palladio, we’ll discover an almost unprecedented use of temple architecture for a residence. We’ll also see a whole collection of rooms in the plan, something absent in the earlier temples. At Chiswick, the rooms become much more specific—the Green Velvet Room, the Red Velvet Room, et cetera—contrasting Palladio’s seeming disinterest in specifically programmed spaces. Chiswick is also emphatically frontal, a significant swerve from earlier schemes. Moving on to Schinkel, notice the appearance of the voids on either side of the central rotunda. We see those voids expanding in Chandigarh, with the columns in Schinkel’s outer wrapper becoming a free-plan field. At the Staatsgalerie, all of the pieces are still present, though the porch has turned back into trees and the rotunda has lost its dome. With Gehry, the central rotunda either compresses into a desk, or divides into two elements, depending on how you look at it. You get the idea: we can portray the sequence as moving from novelty to novelty to novelty.

So, it’s not a question of whether or not something is new, it is a question of how something is described. In school, we have a tendency to describe things in terms of domesticating similarities. For thesis, I want to encourage you to talk about projects in terms of novelties and differences. Look for those moments where the examples start to move into new territory as opposed to looking for ways to circle them back into the fold. So, Point Number One is Privilege Difference over Similarity

PART TWO: CLICHÉS

“Nothing new under the sun” is both correct and incorrect, depending on your point of view. It’s also a cliché. The word ‘cliché’ originated among French typesetters. To speed up their work, they would gang together the letters for commonly used phrases into single units. Another word for this is ‘stereotype.’ It is thought that ‘cliché’ comes from the sound produced when the letters were melted together. Over time, it has come to mean the overuse of common conventions and phrases. “Once upon a time,” for instance, is a cliché. So is “thinking outside the box.” In design, think of the overuse of historical quotation in certain strains of postmodernism, or, closer to home, recent overindulgence in things like parasites.

If we look more carefully, we can see that clichés have three main characteristics: They operate by repetition. They eradicate authorship. And they follow a formula.

Think back to that phrase, “Once upon a time.” Despite its prevalence, nobody knows who first wrote it. There has been a lot of debate over its attribution. My favorite theory is that it comes from Charles Perrault, the brother of the French architectural theorist, Claude Perrault. Charles used the phrase, “Il était une fois,” in all of his fairy tales. I’m not sure if he used it in the multi-volume works of architectural theory he was writing at the same time. But, in any event, you can see that clichés are by definition repetitive and that they tend to eradicate authorship. They also follow a five-point formula:


Formula

Let me demonstrate how this works. Here is Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino [Fig. 3]. This was not a brand new use of reinforced concrete, but it is a nice compression of several concurrent innovations into one tidy package. Let’s take it as the innovation. We’re all familiar with the repetition in Corbusier’s white villas. We’re also familiar with the codification: Corbusier’s Five Points of 1926—the pilotis, the free plan, the roof garden, the free façade, and the ribbon window. Notice there are two points for facades, no points for doors, and notice how he almost cancels the point about free façade with the one about ribbon windows. From the beginning, he’s stacking the deck, pointing you in a certain direction. 

Fig 3

Fig 3: Le Corbusier, Maison Dom-ino, 1914-15.from Le Corbusier Oeuvre Complète vol. 1, 1910 – 29 (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1995): 23

The part we really need to pay attention to is parody. Once the codification is in place, it’s very easy to just keep doing it. Parody is a way to break the cycle. Here is a low-brow parody, the Crapi Apartments in West L.A. [Fig. 4]. The Getty Center, just a little bit further west, is a high-brow parody [Fig. 5]. Both are parodic repetitions of Le Corbusier’s five points. We can see the trajectory hardened into cliché in just about every issue of Dwell.

Fig 4

Fig. 4: Crapi Apartments. Los Angeles, 1960 

Photo by the author


Fig 5

Fig. 5: Richard Meier, Getty Center. Los Angeles, 1997

Photo by the author

Let’s run through the formula again in a different context. The innovation in this case is Psy’s Youtube hit, Gangnam Style. It went from 90 million to a billion views in about a month and a half, so we have repetition. The codification came very quickly: the Five Points of Gangnam Style [Fig. 6]. Just as quickly we begin to see many low- and high-brow parodies [Figs. 7, 8]. And finally, we see it become a cliché with the birth of a new kind of wedding dance [Fig. 9]. My point is that it’s a slippery slope from the Maison Dom-ino to the Electric Slide.

Fig 6

Fig. 6: Hugo Sanchez, Gangnam Style!!! The 5 Basic Steps, 2012

Image by Hugo A. Sanchez 

Fig 7

Fig. 7: Michael Mayne, Ganon Style, 2012

Image by Michael Mayne 

Fig 8

Fig. 8: Ai Wei Wei, Gangnam Style protest video, 2012

Fig 9

Fig. 9: Gangnam Style wedding dance, 2012

Now, let’s look back at these five steps. The first four, innovation, repetition, codification, and parody, are all perfectly reasonable places to locate your thesis. In general, most thesis projects are two or four. There are a couple of ambitious threes. Every once in a while we get a one. We get a bunch of fives, which I would like to eliminate. I think it’s very useful to do a good repetition project, that is, a development or refinement of a current problem. Some among you might be suited to attempt the codification project. I think parody is probably where we’re most exciting. I don’t mean taking something and making fun of it. Parody in this sense means to understand something and begin to twist its principles, to swerve them toward something that wasn’t intended, like the Crapi Apartments or the Getty Center.

There is another story about clichés. We’ve all read Gilles Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon, in which Deleuze attacked the clichés he saw forming of both representational and abstract art. His answer was the idea of the Figure—something that stepped over intellection and was able to impress itself directly on the central nervous system. That’s what he saw in Bacon’s paintings. We have spent a fair amount of time at SCI-Arc talking about cliché breaking, which is something parodies can do. Lately, I’ve noticed another problem beginning to develop, which I’ll call “inadvertent cliché making.” Something like suckerPUNCH, for example, which is great for getting a lot of information out into the world, has an unfortunate side effect of helping to produce clichéd versions of significant innovations very quickly by encouraging thoughtless copying. I think we have to be careful about that. So, Point Number Two is Avoid Cliché Making

PART THREE: PRIVILEGE HOW OVER WHAT

One way to avoid clichés is to shift our point of view, to look at the problem differently. I will demonstrate the point with Norman Foster’s Willis Faber and Dumas Building in Ipswich. [Fig. 10] It’s a kind of parody—Foster follows seemingly antithetical rules that were set down before him—Corbusier’s Five Points, Gordon Cullen’s Townscape Casebook—to produce something that no one would have predicted. It’s hard to determine exactly what it is—It is modern? Is it traditional?—but it’s incredibly instructive when we study how it does what it does. Contrasting the critical tendency to say "no" to prevailing doctrines, Foster cunningly says "yes" to all of them. 

Most of your attention through thesis will be devoted to the specifics of how you will do your projects, but your presentations tend to focus on what your project is. I think it’s a good idea to break this habit. The third point, Privilege How over What, can help to do that.

Willis Building Ipswich  Aerial View

Fig. 10: Norman Foster, Willis Faber & Dumas building, Ipswich, 1974

FOUR: DEVELOP NEW VOCABULARIES

In talking to the students this semester, I have noticed a really consistent pattern, not in the work itself, but in the way that the work is described. Especially early on, project descriptions tend to be too general, too abstract, and too familiar. I’d like to change that. Some of these habits probably come from thesis prep, so we instructors have some work to do, too.

We’re getting better in terms of generalizations—we don’t have as many projects about light or nature or things like that—but we could be more specific. As for abstraction, here is a hint: Any time your thesis is driven by a term that ends in -ism, -ity, -ology, -tion, or any of those suffixes that turn a verb into a noun, you’re probably on a slippery slope. That’s because these generalized, abstract categories actually produce familiarity. A good way to avoid that problem is to follow the advice of Colin Rowe. In the 1950’s, Rowe proposed the particular, the personal, and the curious as antidotes to systematic architectural formulas. I think these are great qualities to shoot for in a thesis: try to develop your projects so that they are specific, that they are yours, and that they are a little bit weird.  

As I said, I think cliché has a lot to do with the vocabulary we use. The vocabulary we use most of the time remains that of critical theory. We tend to speak in the vocabularies of cultural criticism, linguistic theory, and philosophy from, say, the 1960s into the ’90s. That language is what, in Rorty’s terms, is becoming a nuisance to me.

Now, I want to make sure that this is not taken as just another in a long series of attacks on “the critical.” Rather, I want to identify what critical theory is good at and, hopefully, what some of its blind spots are. Then I want to lay out an alternative trajectory that sheds a little light on those blind spots. We’ll use this chart as a guide:

Tg Chart

Let’s begin with the words themselves. The word ‘critical’ comes from the Greek word krinein, which has to do with division and judgment. ‘Theory’ also comes from a Greek word, theoria, for contemplation and speculation. If you keep going, you arrive at theoros, meaning spectator. The word is also related to the theater. If you go back further, you’ll find resonances with a pre-Greek word, thauma, which has to do with marvel. This gives us a hint at the source theory’s associations with falsehood, as in, “Well, that’s only a theory,” or “I want facts, not theory.” A slight detachment from reality is built right into the word.

If we look at critical theory as a mode of intellection, we see that it is used primarily to ask ontological and representational questions. That is, critical theory tends to make us want to ask questions like, “What is it?” and, “What does it mean?” These are important questions, but they are not always the most pressing ones in the design studio.

The technique that we use to ask these questions tends to be logical analysis. Critical theory demands that ideas hold together, that principles be sensible and apparent, that we can understand how the whole thing unfolds. All these aspects give critical theory a distancing character. Critical distance takes you out of the heat of the moment in order to allow calm and considered opinion-making.

Finally, the aim of critical theory tends to be classification and judgment. It’s very useful to be able to classify things—to put things in their places and make sense of them through a kind of divide-and-conquer technique. It’s also very important to be able to judge things, to be able to say, “That’s a good one and this is a bad one and here’s why.” Critical theory is very useful in bringing discipline and rigor to those kinds of questions, and it works because of its twofold ability to break a thing down into its parts and to contemplate a unified whole from a distance.

Of course, critical theory has shortcomings. It tends to be non-participatory or, at least, distant. The action tends to be elsewhere when we’re having a theoretical conversation. You don’t do theory on the battlefield. Critical theory is also reactive. The critic watches from the audience and makes judgments after the fact. An architect also needs techniques that allow her to participate in real time. Design happens before the fact.

I have been thinking about these issues a lot lately. In the 2GBX seminar, we’re reading a lot of literary criticism written by authors as opposed to literary criticism written by critics. We’re trying to shift the lens, and we’re just beginning to articulate an alternative paradigm I’m calling Narrative Discourse. I don’t love the term, but I think it gets at some of the things that I want to stress in thesis.

Let’s look again at some etymology. ‘Narrative’ comes from the Latin, narrare, meaning to relate, recount, or explain. It can be traced back to a pre-Latin root, gnarare, which has to do with knowledge and skill. ‘Discourse’ comes from the Latin, discurrere, meaning to run about. The root verb, currere, is related to “current,” which gives it a relation to flowing, to currency, and to timeliness. When it first came into English in the 16th century, discourse meant to run over a region.

If we look at the mode of Narrative Discourse, its questions are more operational and organizational: “What does it do?” and, “How does it work?” as opposed to, “What is it?” and, “What does it mean?” The technique has to do with detailed description, another idea I borrow from Richard Rorty. Vladimir Nabokov discussed the necessity of fondling the details when you are working with literary texts; a good reader was attentive to the details. I want to you to bring that kind of detail-oriented attentiveness to your thesis projects. The character I’m after is proximate and current—intimately bound up with details as opposed to generalities and with the present as opposed to the past. Finally, the aim has to do with action and making as opposed to classification and judgment.

A solid, well-rounded architect should be nimble in both paradigms. I think most of us tend to be pretty nimble in the upper part of the chart because that’s where most of the sacred texts of the discipline come from. But I think we could learn a lot by paying attention to the bottom part.

Now, this chart doesn’t get too close to the question of how to do it. For that, I want to introduce two more terms: character and composition. Colin Rowe used these terms in the 1950s to specify his interest in the particular, the personal, and the curious. I’d like to follow in his footsteps here. Let’s start with composition.

Fig 11

Fig. 11: Douglas Graf, from “Diagrams,” 1986

Image courtesy of Douglas Graf

Douglas Graf, who has been a very big influence on me, provides a useful starting point for speaking of architectural composition. Graf’s ideas aren’t exactly new, but they operate somewhere outside of conventional critical vocabularies and attend instead to the specifics of how a building is put together. He is very attentive to architecture’s fundamental elements. In these diagrams [Fig. 11], Graf demonstrates how any perimeter will always also suggest a center, that any set of modules will begin to suggest an axial alternative, that if you look at things carefully and study them long enough, they will tend to turn into their opposites. With these ideas in mind, we can look at something like the Temple of Khonsu, as Graf did, and see it as both a procession and a barrier, as simultaneously one thing and two [Fig. 12]. We begin to see something we might have written off as old and boring as quite odd and ambiguous in terms of its composition. 

Temple Of Khonsu

Fig. 12: Temple of Khonsu, Karnak, c. 1500 BCE

Fig 12B

Image courtesy of Douglas Graf

Or look again at Peter Eisenman’s diagrammatic analysis of the Maison Dom-ino [Fig. 13]. Now, we know Eisenman was making a serious argument about the nature of form and the essence of architecture. But he also was inventing another creation myth for the field. The way he developed his story was by being incredibly specific about compositional details. The difference between a square and a rectangle is significant. The distance between the edge of the slab and the columns is significant. Eisenman’s story unfolds narratively. 

Fig 13

Fig. 13: Peter Eisenman, from “Aspects of Modernism,” 1980.

Drawn by Jay Johnson. Courtesy of Eisenman Architects.

It has a beginning, it has a middle, it has an end. So, I like to look at an analysis like this not as a statement of truth, but rather as a kind of story, as a fairy tale written in form.

Fig 14

Fig. 14: Douglas Graf, from “Diagrams,” 1986

Image Courtesy of Douglas Graf


There are other, weirder things. Here is Graf’s transformation of the Villa Savoye into the Palazzo Farnese [Fig. 14]. It passes through the Stoa of Attalos along the way. Now, it would be very easy to look at something like this and think, “Well, that’s not very serious.” Maybe, but it’s kind of fun, and it only works by being very attentive to compositional particulars. It’s also exactly the same technique that Jeff Kipnis and his team used to produce some of the figures in the Figure Ground Game exhibition. They took Andrew Zago’s MOCAPE scheme and unfolded it to produces the White Walkers [Figs. 15, 16]. You can understand it through a narrative: “Once upon a time there was a building. It desperately wanted to be a real building, but it was never built. Then, somehow, it came to life at the Venice Biennale, and now it’s walking around in Rome and at SCI-Arc.” I like that the story is told with form, not with footnotes. This is the kind of attentiveness to and inventiveness with the particularities of form and organization I think all of you should work toward. 

Fig 15

Fig. 15: Zago Architecture, MOCAPE, Shenzhen, 2007

Image courtesy of Zago Architecture

Fig 16

Fig. 16: Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk, White Walkers, 2013

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk

Now, let’s move on to character. If composition has to do with architecture’s organizational and formal structure, character has to do with its experiential qualities and effects. Here is Jason Payne’s Raspberry Fields [Fig. 17]. In this project, Payne develops a story about the material properties of wood. He looks at twisting and warping and all those things we usually work very hard to keep wood from doing. He makes a project out of them by linking those material qualities to his longstanding interest in hairy things. To do that, he has to mobilize a lot of architectural intelligence. We’re all very familiar with the story of the fur, so I want to turn attention toward Payne’s study of the building’s posture. To develop the posture of the building, Payne wasn’t just studying the form of cows lying in pastures. He was also studying William Gilpin’s 18th century drawings of cows lying in pastures [Fig. 18]. From these, he develops a specific relationship between the posture of the cow and the posture of the house. It’s important to understand that this is not a recapitulation of a cow nor is it a quotation of Gilpin’s picturesqueness. Rather, it is a translation of a complex set of character traits from various sources into something new.  

Fig 17

Fig. 17: Hirsuta, Raspberry Fields, Northern Utah, 2008-2012

Image courtesy of Jason Payne/Hirsuta

3 Cows Groupd 047 Correction

Fig. 18: William Gilpin, “How to Group Cows,” 1772

There are a number of architects looking into posture today. Payne studied the posture of cows. Andrew Zago has been looking at the awkward posture of contortionists for some time, and Kipnis is developing an interest in torpid postures in his recent projects with Stephen Turk [Fig. 19]. As some of you take up the problem of posture, I want to make sure we don’t devolve into generalities like “posturism” or “posturicity.” Much better to elaborate a particular instance of whatever abstraction you’re interested in than to construct your thesis as a kind of umbrella over the entire category. These posture projects are interesting not because of posture as such, but because of the specific forms of posture they develop. They have specific attitudes about posture and require different, highly specific vocabularies to discuss them. You will need these, too. So, Thesis Point Number Four is: Develop New Vocabularies

PART FIVE: ENFRANCHISEMENT

The last point has to do with something Kipnis has been talking about recently. Here is a quote from a recent interview:


"I have a certain prejudice against rectitude. I’m tired of every building telling me I should be young and fit and have good posture. I’m not young, I’m not fit, I like sitting hunched over, I’m often drunk and I like to lean on stuff. So, just once, I would like to walk into a city and have a few buildings tell me: You’re OK, you’re a part of the world and you belong in it."


Writing in the early 1990s about Robert Maplethorpe’s work, which at the time was under serious attack from Jesse Helms and certain conservative groups, Dave Hickey said something very similar:


"The task of beauty is to enfranchise an audience and to acknowledge its power— to designate a territory of shared values between the image and its beholder and then, in this territory, to advance arguments by valorizing the picture’s problematic content."
Fig 19

Fig. 19: Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk, White Walker, 2012

Image courtesy of Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk

I want to insist that these are not critical attacks on standing up straight or being straight, but rather celebrations of possibilities that are excluded from dominant paradigms. There’s no attack here, and there’s no apology here. The point, as Kipnis makes it, is that something like the Empire State building celebrates a community that valorizes standing up straight, and that something like the White Walker says that there is a community in which it’s OK not to stand that way.

Bernard Tschumi made a similar point in his Advertisements for Architecture [Fig. 20]. This comes out of the heyday of critical culture, but I want to point out how Tschumi uses re-description to make his point. The constraints he describes are not necessarily bad—in fact, in his view, they’re not even constraints. Rather, they become a catalyst for a new kind of freedom.

Fig 20

Fig. 20: Bernard Tschumi, Advertisements for Architecture, 1975-77

Image © Bernard Tschumi

All these examples point toward the proliferation of communities. They demonstrate that architecture does not need to aim at total world domination, which is what -isms and -itys usually do. Too often, sticking an -ism or an -ity on the end of a word becomes a license to say, “This is good for everyone at all times. Everybody do it this way.” I think we should resist that. I think we should push for smaller, more devoted audiences—and more of them—as opposed to a single, one-size-fits-all audience. Thesis Point Number Five, Enfranchise New Constituencies, is about doing just that.

So, to conclude, let’s quickly review the Five Points for thesis:

            Privilege Difference over Similarity.

            Avoid Cliché Making.

            Privilege How over What.

            Develop New Vocabularies.

            Enfranchise New Constituencies.


I hope you find them useful. Thank you for listening.