Keisuke Toyoda’s NOIZ architects explores the intersections of technology, architecture, art, and fashion. Toyoda is also a professor at the University of Tokyo and came to CMU in Fall 2022 to lecture. His work with AI, smart cities, and the “common ground” encourages us to explore ways our physical and digital world forming new relationships, and what that means for the future of architects.
A project I found of interest in particular was the 3D digital archive project, specifically because it was dealing with buildings being demolished. Thinking about your computational background, what does the physical action of demolishing mean today when we start to enter this world of digital preservation?
Let’s say the definition of the word architecture or building is about the 3D structure, like columns and beams. But at the same time, through this practice of preserving the digital archive of the building, which is not physically existing anymore, the definition or meaning of an architectural building is much wider and expanded like the shared memory of whoever used that building or a local pride if it’s a symbol of your area. Now, with digital technology, we can subdivide the [architecture] and then extract a certain quality or improvement. We can manage it and then either preserve or provide it to the open platform so that the people can start playing with it, and change the scale or change the design, which wasn’t possible before. The demolition of the building doesn’t mean that we lose everything.
You talked a little bit in your lecture about the tatami mats that you’re working with and it made me think about how Japan is well known for their craftsmanship. Do you feel in any way that entering this digital realm is demolishing, in a way, these practices that have thrived so much on the tangible for so long?
We have [had] more and more opportunities to collaborate with the more traditional and conventional kind of skills and craftsmanship, so their weaknesses and our strengths, and our weaknesses and their strengths match very well. But it has to have a certain translation and some mindset [while] being fine tuned, but once that happens those tend to be a very, very good combination and open up the value. Let’s say the tatami mat as I mentioned. It has very local [roots] due to the physical limitation. The master has to go to the room and they have to guarantee by measuring [the room], but now with scanning, anybody in this room could [scan] and that could be coordinated with your skills. The architect doesn’t need to be aware of how to weave the Tamami mat, it could be some digital skill.
So it’s a dialogue or dance between both the Craftsman and the people working in digital interfaces, rather than one taking over the sphere of the other?
Right, you just need to know the skill of translation. The craftsman’s issue is not normally described in a digital language, but you must have an eye to withdraw it and analyze, and then translate it into a digital issue and what could be applied. That translation ability of the physical issue and digital issue is a new skill set that could be very well-trained in architecture school.
You also presented your Thematic Pavilion and mentioned how it will be available to interact with digitally. So, in a way, it almost goes through its own demolition and rebuilding through that digital interaction. What was your main intention or goal by making it available digitally?
I’m not really sure what’s going to be the end result, but we’re trying to make it happen just so we can experience and then discover through the process. We are trying to push the threshold of what’s possible in reality and then how much of that kind of combination would have an effect on the, let’s say, VR translation. So we don’t know the limit yet. But just by applying it, especially in such a foundation like the World Expo, the amount of people who use this is on a completely different level which might be a good opportunity to see the frustrations of it and what unexpected creation emerges out of it.
It feels that architectural explorations through digital means have a lot more freedom than it would be if we were to build something physical, and have to consider all the environmental or social impacts that it has. Do you feel like doing your research and experimentation through digital means has opened up what architecture can do?
I believe so. You know the architect used to be, and still is, responsible and then also privileged to be able to define every single detail of the final form. You have to actually design what the edge will be, and what the details will be. That’s the role and the beauty, and also the special skill of the architect. But at the same time, we provide powerful or valuable DNA to the market and let people edit it. That could be the role and power of an architect left as a new territory, so in that sense we don’t need to be the only one to give the final form. Actually, our value could lie in providing better tools to the people. The end result is left to the user, so [being] the architect doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the giver of the final form. So, it’s a choice but we feel like we are training ourselves to get used to that new concept that we still feel awkward with. We’re not giving a final form and that might be a new value and open some kind of new possibility.
Talking about some of your research and ideas of the common ground, one thing you were talking about was, for example, if you don’t define this table in front of us to a robot, it won’t exist to them. It made me think that it’s a little intimidating to see how people can become responsible for the erasure or creation of things in the physical world, whereas humans can’t ignore a table if it’s physically there in our world. So how are we to assume responsibility for what exists in the digital format? And how do we decide what doesn’t exist?
What a philosophical question. It’s going to be defined by the economy from a business point of view. It takes some time and effort, and of course money too. So, for the time being it will be defined by the market. We just need to accept it because in the transition period, it requires extra energy, and we need corporate society to invest in it. So, it’s like a feasible and realistic kind of approach that we [try to] attract those kinds of people who want to make money to invest into this and make it happen as a transition. Once that’s happened and it becomes like air or water, then there might be some space for extra creation. So, for instance, a common ground that we must have are sensors in space, which is not very economical in the beginning, but by doing it, maybe the AI installed in a building can learn the more it happens. It’s a gradual process and I’m hoping that eventually it becomes a tool for everyone.
On the topic of demolition and creating the future that we envision as architects, are there any other areas in your practice or interactions with architecture that you feel need to be demolished to be reinvented? We talked a little bit about the “starchitect” concept which is something my generation of architects is very interested in, as well as demolishing the idea that architecture is by an individual. So, what do you feel should be demolished as someone who has had years of experience in the practice?
The architect, the job and the profession used to be enclosed or limited within the physical character and the form [of it]. That means everything has a bunch of different types of information. But we didn’t have technology to break it into pieces and extract the entity or any information by itself. That’s the demolition and the destruction. Recreation happened in the information layer, subdivided into the different points of view which can be extended out of the physical body. That could be happening on the Internet, it could be happening on the software. And then once it’s out, it can merge into some other entity which also used to be enclosed with the physical territory. Physical meaning that the object has physical means, such as within a [territory], so that information can be extracted. And this merges into something else, like I explained about the collaboration with the musician. With the digital format, we can translate between each other, which is the recreation of digital language. This seems key for the new generation.
It almost feels like we’re assuming the role of the translator in some sense. And we can argue that we have been translating the needs of people into physical forms, but it’s interesting how the language continues to develop based on the media that we’re using. As an architect who does work heavily in the digital format, do you feel a sense of attachment to your creations? You talk about how while you might put out one idea for the thematic pavilion, it will take any form once it’s out there. That’s what happens when you make something accessible on a digital platform. Do you feel like your notions of ownership or approaches to projects have changed?
Big time. The purpose and fun part of doing this by ourselves through the experiment of this concept, is approaching change. The goal of our interests is how are we going to change perspective and how are we going to be able to contribute to society. In terms of understanding society and the profession, every half a year I’m lecturing something and then they’re taking out previous lectures from a year ago, two years ago, and it looks so different. That point of view is very interesting. They come up with their own kind of standard methodology and they then become stuck in their own territory. It’s a good thing you can build up skill levels but at the same time you’re going to be stuck. The territory won’t change with this kind of point of view which allows you to continuously change, and that’s very refreshing and fun too.
I feel when we talk about physical demolition it’s because the field currently is so attached to physical form, and it makes me think a lot about sustainability and the permanence of certain decisions in a certain time period. How does this affect or translate into the future social and economic conditions? Can the digital format become a more sustainable approach to architecture because it removes the physical aspect?
It used to be that the function was tied with the physical existence. So, I used the example of taxis and Uber. Taxis used to be popular but the demand has gone down, but still, the physical taxis do not diminish. Pittsburgh has like 100 taxis. It can be too many or it could be too few. So it’s more economical. That type of thing, especially associated with physicality, one-toone doesn’t make enough money. You must get some equipment and software, which needs a certain investment. That’s the reality. But to collect that money back with that particular business, from my experience, loses money. But if the same system uses sensors that could work for the business, that could work for 3, 4, or 5 different kinds of entities and then start making money. So, by itself a business doesn’t collect as much money back, but the addition of an application uses one stone to kill five birds. That’s the kind of sense that the architect needs to have to contribute to society.
Yeah, because coming up with the theme [of demolition] for this semester made me think about whether this concept of demolition will even be needed 50 years in the future. Will it rather just be iteration, because when it comes with physical things, it does require more of a larger scale intervention just because of the cost and the final sensibilities of a form, versus something in a digital format where it becomes more about quick iteration than if you were to propose something in a physical space.
As we’ve been living throughout history, myself is always myself. There’s never been doubt about me being a different person. Now there could be some situations in this entity where I could be changed or shared between classes, by offering the use of myself to others. For example, you could be very good at fashion and have the time between classes to go into an app and give someone advice who is currently shopping at Saks 5th Avenue who needs help with their own fashion. They give you access to share your advice and the body becomes shared. If somebody in the hospital wants to be able to go to the class, you can offer your body by taking the same class in their place and discussing the course material with them. That might be the choice. An object is not withheld by physicality anymore, and that’s a positive shift.
Something we found interesting was the medium that your work invokes; not just drawings, but film as well. And it's not just about having a building as a final product, but analyzing the social context. What roles do you see for drawing vs film in architecture?
Yeah, I think both have different agencies in our practice. What’s most interesting to me is when the two become combined into what I call 2 ½ dimension drawings. It’s when you actually draw, but also context your own drawing through the act of animation. You can do that in a series of ways: you can make a drawing so thick that it becomes a model, or you can use augmented reality to actually animate a drawing, so you can contest your drawing and also view in different ways. That way you don’t fall into the trap of just doing a drawing, or just doing a film. Both have limits, right? The drawing allows us to view a frame for an extended period of time, while the film allows us to understand ephemeral aspects around the built environment that we either aren't able to draw, or become an ethical problem in deciding how to depict something ephemeral.
An example would be sound; right now, you can’t really draw sound… smells… These are things that we aren’t able to draw, or we try to as designers but hit certain limits, while film actually captures these aspects of the city.
Would you say that architects, and other designers, should be able to use as wide a range of mediums as possible?
Exactly. Being well rounded in mediums, in these tool sets, allows us to actually understand the world around us much more, whether you’re an artist, designer, or architect. Having more tool sets at the tip of your fingers allows you to take in other aspects of the world around you. Your set of tools limits your ability to practice as an artist or architect.
And that's usually the biggest problem, right? It's not that we're not thinking about others; it's because our tool sets segregate us from thinking about others, either being animals and vegetation, or people and race. Many of these mediums have limits, but when you have an array of them and hack into these mediums, you have the ability to challenge that limited thinking.
Why do you think [in architecture] that drawings are so dominant over other mediums like film, collage, etc?
Or do you think that's changing now?
I think it's definitely changing because of the world that we’re living in, especially with the pandemic. We never thought of how the pandemic would influence us, as a discipline and a practice. But I think we tend to fetishize the act of drawing, which was probably nurtured through a Western colonial perspective around drawing… which also means that the way we think about drawing are also within this Western canon.
For example, my studio tends to work a lot in the oblique or axon drawing. But within the Western canon, that’s what’s used to draw machines. If you decolonize that perspective, you see that indigenous people have always used the axon and oblique to draw relationships. Oblique and axon drawings were never really about the machine; they were about how people connected with each other in building and experiencing the world.
When we look at buildings, we tend to look at the elevation or perspective. But under the vise of the discipline, which was nurtured during the early 1400s, a lot of our practice became material driven, aesthetic driven architectural design, which led to the monster that we have today, which is around modernism. I think we tend to love our drawings so much, and so it's really hard to break out, but I think it's definitely shifting because of the world we have to live in today.
I noticed you used the word decolonize; what role do you think architecture has played or is still playing in settler colonialism?
It’s hard to think about an architectural practice that decolonizes because we are very much a product of culture. And like many humans, we like to claim territory. Because architecture in the making of the city is about building when you claim territory, it’s hard to say if we will ever reach the point of architecture with a notion of decolonization. If we acknowledge that, we can begin to have conversations around, whose agency are we designing for? What aspects of control are we allowing them to take over? How do we humble our own profession and what contracts are we giving people to design for them or with them? I think there's a long way to go and I don't think there's ever an answer, since we're humans and as humans, we tend to claim territory. Whether it’s people who are Asian, Western, Alaskan… We like to set up borders because we want to feel safe.
And then as we populate and grow, we need more space, so there's always going to be that contestation in spatial practices. How do you negotiate that? The only way that I can think of now is to have a much more engaged practice, where you think about co- authorship between multiple identities. But there's always going to be someone who’ll have a lot more agency. And as we’re humans, if we’re designing for non-humans, there will always be that notion.
A great thing about the films is that we hear from people living there, which isn’t commonly done in architecture. Especially with the bastard architecture, where people build temporary structures in their own environments. What could architects learn from these people by going to these areas and actually talking to people, rather than thinking that they know everything?
What we can learn from bad architecture isn’t the construction technique itself, but around how physical infrastructures are a social agreement between people, and that is the key to actually understanding the knowledge behind these construction techniques. They also understand that public space is temporary, so they don't claim public space; they set up in a public space for the time being, then move or shift. To me, that’s the key. Designers sometimes fetishize these things or design for them, which usually fails drastically, because they’re social agreements between people. It’s anthropological and ethnographic. When you begin to understand that type of social agreement, you can acknowledge it by allowing space for others to agree to take over a certain amount of time in your building design or urban planing. That's why you see a lot of them in certain areas in New York, Los Angeles, and even here in Pittsburgh, which is much more controlled. For example, the night markets, where vendors create temporary installations to vend, make, or celebrate… and then they pack up and leave. It’s temporal and becomes a ritual of the people, rather than being static, top-down, and controlled.
Because that happens in public space, what role does thinking of space as public vs private play in architecture?
I don't think there's a good form of public space anymore, but it occurs in the banal things of the city, like the sidewalk. No one has the ability to claim sidewalks; they’re this kind weird, interstitial space between cars and our building fronts. Is it the building fronts or the cars that own the sidewalk?
Jane Jacobs talked a lot about the sidewalk; the sidewalk is the most democratic space of the city, where strangers mitigate with each other. We trust strangers to not stab us on sidewalks, therefore we use and hang out on sidewalks… again, it’s a social agreement that we can maintain as strangers and come together to use it as a passageway, to vend, have green parts, etc. What's so scary around the pandemic was when our sidewalk spaces became a scary zone where people actually did that, so then it showed up in our media. It begins to contest our notions around the public.
But because it is the public, it allows for people to get pushed and shoved. Leaving this to the public, not having a top-down surveilled public, means that there can be accidents or villains. That's the commons. The Commons isn't this pretty place where we hold hands; the Commons is where multiple identities can actually come together, good and bad. It's always this mitigation between strangers; to trust a stranger is the most public thing you can do in the city.
As architects, we often try to control everything, such as the sidewalk. How do we need to change as a profession and discipline to allow for the freedom of the commons and for people to use the streetscape? Is it even an architectural problem, or is it a political problem? How much agency do architects have in making these spaces?
If we're thinking about controlling the things that will happen, architects don't have that agency. But we do have the agency of designing how our building meets the ground; we create sites of vision towards public spaces like sidewalks. There’s a sense of control, but also a notion around community, since the interiors can bleed out to the exterior. When you don't treat the sidewalk or streetscape as part of the ecosystem of your building, you create interstitial spaces that are not nurtured by the community, so they become leftover spaces that can become problematic, or opportunistic spaces for people to hang out and linger in. The problem with giving the architect or client too much agency is the lack of public space or the inability to linger on the street or sidewalk. Being unable to linger in front of certain buildings, since you’ll get kicked out or arrested, has made our democratic spaces into private spaces for big developments
It’s always a kind of mix and match. Giving the people who own or live in the building the ability to see out gives them the control to say “the sidewalk is part of our building”.
But to also leave enough space so people can actually hang out on a sidewalk is key, so these issues depend on policy. A lot of policy makers, activists and grassroot leaders should become part of our design conversation when talking about rethinking urban design, so we can think about the hidden infrastructure or problems that communities might be facing that we tend not to think about. Because making huge public spaces, right? Grabbed commons are never the answer. You’ll have huge public spaces with trees, bikes, all of that… but it still fails the community because it's not an agreed, shared space between people.
How much do architects interact and collaborate with urban planners or city government?
It depends on your practice. I know great architects who work with policy or have planners who look at policy inside of your firm, so they consult with each other. There are also architects who just say, “All I do is residential. I just make buildings and work on interiors.” There's a huge array across the board, but to the expense of my own bias, I feel like there’s not enough of engaging others in our conversation.
One thing I loved about your lecture is that you focused on your family and background. Usually lectures just focus on their work, but family and where you’re from is so important to your work. Could you expand on that? Also, how could architects and architecture students bring their background into their work more?
I tend to focus on my family or familial history in my own lectures because I'm trying to acknowledge my own biases, and to make myself vulnerable in that I think a certain way because of this, and I don't expect everyone to understand this.
Not everyone has the same history or story, but to be able to acknowledge your own story inside of your own practice is key, because then people who have familiar stories can begin to relate or bridge. For me, the most important aspect, especially in teaching, is that you create that safe space for students with similar stories to bridge that type of network with you, and use that to become the best Rem Koolhaas in 20 years, or to shift their own practice and things the way they want to do it because of their own history. To be able to acknowledge that is powerful, especially as a student in taking ownership of your story and using it as a platform to create things. That way, you don't strip yourself down to become the perfect architect who wears black all the time. You allow yourself to grow into the professional that you're meant to be, which makes you a more resilient designer in the face of calamities. You’re not just another robot of 100 designers who does the same thing, who wears the same thing and who only knows how to draft. You want to become a designer with an array of tool sets to deal with the large overarching urban problems we're facing today. You need to actually own the tool sets and don’t become a slave of the tool sets.
What if it's the reverse scenario, where you design for a community that has a completely different background from yourself. Should you try to limit how much personal identity goes into that work?
Exactly. If you begin to acknowledge and understand your own story and biases, you can begin to be careful. Around people who have different stories, you can actually listen in and hear their stories, you can actually look and see how they live. Then you begin to correct your biases, to build a relationship. You don’t want to go in not knowing your own biases, and then intervene in ways that interrupt or destroy communities. In many cases, designers go in with great intentions, either being sustainability or social justice. But we need to first correct our own biases, since social justice means different things for populations in China or Europe, than in America. America, Europe, Africa don’t think about race the same way. When you begin to understand how we’re embedded in certain ways of thinking and biases, then you can begin to unpack them through relationship building, trust building, community engagement, and actually hearing the real story from that community. You need long term conversations and dialogue with communities. Our design processes might have to change from this capital driven design meant to get a project done into longer spans of relationship building where designers have to become stewards of community before proposing large scale design.
A lot of architecture studios try to engage the community, but are there for one semester and then leave. There have been issues with CMU, for example, with communities where they tried to do a well-intentioned studio, but after they take the community’s input and time, they just leave and the community gets nothing. How can we change that relationship in both the profession, and our studios? Is there a way to create a sustained relationship between the school and communities?
It's different for each professor, but I think ethical research is a good way to talk about that type of relationship, along with understanding the contract that you're giving communities. If you're doing community engagement, you might be looking at how you do an ethical IRB so you can be a steward of the community that you're engaging with, who knows what you're doing and what they can expect out of you. When you’re holding studios and reviews, giving the space on campus for those stewards to come into the campus, and be one of the reviewers. You're giving the stewards the agency to critique the work that you're doing, so the voice of the community can begin to contest the way we draw, or sections, the materials we want to use, and just humble our methods of design. You have to actually go talk with community members, gather their stories, and then regurgitate their stories through the act of design. And then ask, “is this what you were talking about?” You need to listen to critiques or advice from community members to correct your own design.
Because it takes a lot of time for that to happen, do you think it'd be best if architects only design for communities that they either came from or are similar to where they came from?
I think it's not the question of designing for a community that you come from, but your skill sets in engagement, relationships building, and trust building. You should also be having a diverse set of our designers, who have different backgrounds, on your team. I was talking to a colleague from Wisconsin, and she said “whenever I go and visit and give public talks, all these Asian students flock and ask me all these questions” because there's a lack of Asian faculty at that university. If you're not giving space for Asian faculty or designers, or black faculty or designers, then you won’t have that type of voice inside of your school and you’ll continue to do the things you do, without ever contesting due to the lack of another voice as part of your team. Collaborative work projects in school are great because then you contest with your peers, get angry at each other, yell at each other, then you begin to understand that your way of thinking is not the only way of thinking. The fun part is when you can agree to disagree, then use that disagreement to nurture architecture, product design, art, performances, etc.
Could you talk more about your studio and how it thinks about engaging with the community or student identities, etc?
My studio isn’t focusing on community engagement. It was against my ethics, since I don’t know if I'm only staying for the year. What I'm focusing on is learning to see and hear through field work, from the outside in and the inside out. My students are all doing individual projects so they can begin to see their biases through the act of drawings. Sometimes you become lazy, and you end up not drawing something, but you have to question why don't you draw certain things? Why do you want to draw other things? Why do you become blind to certain things inside of the city when you're doing field work? By learning about your own way of thinking and looking at the city, you can begin to contest the conventional ways of architectural thinking and make corrections to your biases.
I had a conversation about sidewalks, like, why don't you draw your sidewalk? There are people sitting on the sidewalk, there's someone playing the trombone on the sidewalk, but you’re erasing them from reality when you say, “I'm not going to draw you” or “I'm not going to show you in my video.” But you can help that by using a wide series of tool sets.
As fields, how often do design and architecture interact when it comes to education?
I don't know about here at CMU, but when it comes to discourse, public interest or community engaged design, across the nation, or even globally, there has been a kind of seminal knowledge of thinkers who actually comes together. And interestingly, like, I've been finding it so awkward and weird, where like, like, oh, like, your professor was my professor like, 10 years ago, to do the same thing. And, you know, and like, you know, in that person's like, currently in Taiwan, right, like, it's, like, awkward, but then it's like, oh, that's so cool. Because then you're like that person, the person I'm talking about is like, doing like, product design and doing like the the hawkers. So and stuff, whereas I'm much more of an archetype.
I don’t think cross disciplinary interaction on multiple levels happens between design and architecture at institutions because we’re limited by the tool sets we have and our ability to communicate. There's still work to do, but I think there's much more multidisciplinary thinking than when I was in school that also pushes the boundaries of the creative realm. It happens because students want it now. For example, why are we still designing bathrooms for men and women, why don’t we have inclusive bathrooms?
It’s always been taught in architecture school that you need this square feet for men and this square feet for women, but students are realizing that we actually have a critical problem we’re not addressing and ask if, “can we do this?” Which pushes the faculty or the designer to rethink some of the things they were embedded in.
The notion of inclusive bathrooms never showed up in the canon until like 2012. That was when my instructors realized they were segregating people using bathrooms and the use of bathrooms is part of the right to a city; you shouldn’t have to look this way to use the bathroom.
Students are hungry to push for these types of conversations, pushing their instructors to rethink the way they make things. Rethinking our own processes is key.
Does this process just take a long time, as each new generation comes in and challenges the past generation?
Yes. Because we are humans, the way we think is always going to shift. During the Civil Rights Movement, everyone just thought they were angry colored people, angry women, angry queer folks on the streets. But when we look at it many years later, we think, “yeah, that needed to happen for sure.” With time, thinking is always going to shift, and because we're bad people, there will always be someone we're leaving out of the conversation. We have to accept that and then correct those mistakes.
We need to think about cross dialogue and try to figure out who we're leaving out for the conversation. That goes back to accepting and understanding our own stories, and the underpinnings of what we don't know. For me, I can talk about the Civil Rights Movement from a queer and Asian perspective, but I can never talk about it through a black perspective. By understanding what you don’t know, you become less susceptible to erasing someone else's story.
In school, it’s not just teachers teaching students, it’s students teaching the teacher as well. What do you think you’ve learned from your students this semester, or in past semesters? Has your way of teaching changed from when you first started, based on student feedback?
I learn more from my students than I ever teach my students. There are a lot of things they’re going through that I’ve never gone through, like starting school during a pandemic. I learn from their ways of learning, and their underpinnings and stories.
I’ve had to correct myself many, many, many times, throughout the semester. I'm a queer Asian man who has a very biased way of thinking, especially around engagement and race. Sometimes it becomes a little bit dangerous, because some students just want to be a great designer, and that should be okay. I constantly have to correct myself; not everyone can become a community engaged architect who uses architecture for activism. We can’t all be that. We need a well rounded ecosystem of architects; some Bjarke Ingels and some Rem Koolhaas, and then we need some activist architects. That variety allows us to grow and contest with each other. If suddenly all architects become activists, you’re not going to be able to push certain things in the making of the city. We need breadth.
If your student wants to become the best architect ever, how do you reframe your own ways of teaching and looking at the world to nurture this new architect who’s going to become the best builder of a city, rather than stripping another student to think the way I think. It’s good that they also challenge my methods, which can become outdated; the use of film has been done since the 1960s. That's why I've recently moved into animation. How come animation artists can impact people so much and architects not so much? How come we watch Studio Ghibli movies and they’re embedded inside of our souls… and go to the studio and make a building that doesn’t do anything besides sit in our portfolio.
That's why this semester we're focusing on the accessible image, like animation or comics and rethinking how we make our cities. I’m working with a wide array of students with diverse backgrounds and trying to teach them how to look, because many students here are international, and it’s difficult to engage in a foreign landscape. I'm constantly grappling with how to help them understand why cities are the way they are.
Do you feel that students in your second year studio are resisting or having to adjust to the process of just seeing and being in a place? Most scientific studios are just going in to take measurements and photos, but you're emphasizing something beyond that. Do you feel like your students were able to just immediately embrace that, or was there an adjustment period?
They’re still adjusting. There’s been a lot of, “how does this relate to architecture, again? Am I just becoming another anthropologist?” I have to sit down and talk with them about why it’s important, how most of the time buildings are used differently than the function we designed them for, how to understand urban patterns, and how those can become inspirations in urban design; actually going into the neighborhood and seeing problems, but also the opportunities.
For many designers, we need a problem to solve, so we map to see problems. We don't map to see the great things that are happening, even if they’re in small, interstitial spaces. By mapping the good things happening in the neighborhood, you bring in nuances as you think about architecture. For example, you can think about how communities have been resilient for a very long time, even in the face of the pandemic, in the face of racism and then draw from that. This creates a much more integrative but transformative and radical architecture.
It’s been a process of asking questions for the student, which is good because you have to question these things before you can begin to understand them. If you don’t question, you'll never find an answer, and you won’t have any capacity to actually think and imagine new things.
Hi Rebecca! We went through and we looked at some of your works and talks you gave. In your work as an artist, you talked a lot about the human voice listening space. So how do you think we can use the voice as a tool? What do you think architects have to learn from that? How can architects use the human voice as a tool to create?
That is a great question. One of the things that I like about voice is that it can take so many forms: not only in terms of forms of the human voice, but in terms of like a storytelling voice, or a voice of an instrument……I always tend to scale out when answering this kind of question.
However, one of the things that's interesting and I don't know about (because I’m not an architect) is considering users of voices, just like clients for architects. What would the user be like? If it is voice: is it a collective voice, or if it is a single voice? It’s a different input into a space that would then have to be addressed in a design.
I do also think that there are ways that just sound, in general, is not considered, unless it's a sound-specific place like a theater or a hospital. And even in hospitals, it's not often considered: How about starting with, sound? I like the idea that the voice can have a real perspective, whether it's aesthetic or whether it's content.
In the Marfa series, you were describing very particular spaces using soundscapes as a tool. One of them was a hair salon where people could hear all these ladies gasping…
There's that I would listen to that sound piece. There wasn't a hair salo piece. But one of the things that I liked doing as someone who is a sound space maker(I need a better name for what I do) is to think about just the architecture for listening.
I was related to what you just said that was in the Marfa show there's an artist named Inigo Mangani Laval, and he did a video piece of a bullet slowed down and he gave us the audio. When it slowed down, it sounds a lot like what you just heard a bit ago was raining, that kind of quality to it. Where we installed it was out in a county park, using a system of speakers that were old and that were just out there for like square dancing and like counting city dances. Thus, you had to be in one spot to actually hear the piece, but we didn't tell anyone where that spot was. So people would just go out there. Sometimes if someone had a sonic learner, they'd look up and be like, “Oh, there are four speakers”, “Oh, well, they're pointing here like”, “I should stand here” or “maybe I'll go to the bandshell and see if I can get some reflected sound” and people would come back and be like: “I couldn't hear the piece but I just sat there and listened to the Go-Karts forever. it was so cool” or “there were these birds…” People come back to the gallery with these descriptions of the piece that they love that had nothing to do with the actual sound and I really loved that. Every once in a while someone will be like: “I was just walking; it was really quiet and then I heard this crazy sound” because they have walked to the sweet spot where it was and then they like kind of just like found their way into it. So I personally love that where it's just people start filling in and just listening. Yeah, but there's also one that we did was Darla Robledo, where we just had napkins, So it’s basically to experience the peace you had to go to a bar and just those were the cocktail napkins...So that was, that was like the hair salon.
That's cool. Our second question was, from listening to your lecture in going to the workshop just now, we know you believe strongly in the ability of sound as a tool to do lots of different things. Where do you think the limits of sound as a tool lie? Because you know, every tool has limits.
That's also a great question. We live in, you know, a multiverse. Even in terms of doing sound art, part of one of the things is like Sound is unseen; you need a way to translate it. So that's something that actually in terms of limits that I come up against that challenge. I don't like headphones or how we listen to sound a lot. I think that sound should be it's great to hear it in your bones. So there’s a lot of different ways that could translate sound as material into other viewers. There's a lot of answers to that question already, but I still feel like it gets stuck at that point a lot. I don't know if it's just because it's a newer medium, or if it's because of the medium itself. But I think that it's interesting to suddenly start going from this thing that I feel like is very expansive and responsive and then have it suddenly hit this wall where it's limited. That's something that I think about a lot.
And I haven't really turned it's interesting to hear the question because, well, what would that mean for an architect? What other elements of design? What would that mean for a painter like do they get a certain point where they're like “Oh, I wish the canvas was 3D”?
It's absolutely true. Sometimes we hit a wall and drawing doesn't do it anymore. We have to switch to a model or something else or vice versa.
Yeah. So I think I should always tell people to jump through different paradigms like: “Oh I should think about it that way too!” I'm actually really trying to do a lot more material studies for myself, just to have to find some of that vocabulary that we're using sounds and material and then also, perhaps some different solutions for how to share an experience that isn't just like headphones or speakers or, you know, a spatial way.
So my question is, what do you think of the difference between visual art and sound art? Because we have lines, structures, and hues to contribute to a design, but how does sound art contribute to that?
That's a great question too, thank you. It's like sound study is a new, pretty new discipline, like 100 years old. So I think that's still being developed; there's a lot of vocabulary are still being developed. And even like, what conversation I was having with a student is thinking about how to use sound as a texture and not bring it into a narrative structure. As someone who isn't a visual artist a couple of ideas even come to mind if we were trying to answer that question with visuals. That's one reason it's really fascinating is that there's a lot it's become as a discipline a lot more robust over the last 10 years. Especially at this really nice place where those questions are going to start to be answered more readily.
I think sound really translates scale really well. In this way, you can go from very intimate to bombastic if you think about the different environments that it lives in. I think that that nimbleness is super interesting, and I haven't really ever tried to correlate that with buildings’ scale for sure, but with actual visual arts.
I think it's just like what we did in the workshop when I was standing in the middle of the hallway like all of the sounds echoed so the sounds are all blurring. I can't hear you very clearly. So I think maybe like there's some connection between the visualization of sound and how it speaks of the volume of the hallway to me. it's really interesting.
I love that. And I think you could draw that.
I think it's very inspiring. Thank you for speaking of that point.
Cool. There's actually a file on my computer that's just musical score, or just graphic scores, which is different because that's usually coming from more of a compositional element as opposed to like a descriptive visual of something which is super interesting.
Cool. That's all the questions we had. Thank you.
Those are some good ones. Thank you.
inter·punct joins Mark Stanley for a breakfast interview discussing culture and politics in the late-postmodern. This interview was published as a stand-alone issue. Download PDF.
For additional information and to view Mark’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
i•p: You presented a broad array of work, far more modes of expression than most lecturers. This made us wonder if you see yourself as wearing many hats - for instance, if you act as a curator for exhibition work and as a critical designer with the futurology institute - or if you see yourself as an architect in all of your projects?
Mark Stanley: I like to think of myself as a cultural producer more than anything. I think architecture and architects are good at that anyway; they know more than they let on about cultures, about things that happen inside of architecture, about things that architectures cultivate or throttle or modulate inside of them. That’s probably my favorite way to think about it. So when I’m taking on different modes, I’m usually not thinking about it differently; I like to not make distinctions between the types of work I do. I get that other people do like to do that, so any kind of steerage or categorical framework around my work – and this is the only reason I would do it – would be to try to be understandable to different audiences. In this lecture, I just wanted everyone to know that I wasn’t completely crazy, so I showed some work up front to demonstrate that I’m a designer too, before getting into something I was way more interested in, which was to try to open up some cultural juice, some political frameworks, some programmatic thinking around what happens in the world and in architecture and how they can be allied with each other.
i•p: Is the idea of medium something you have resolved going into a project, or is it a process that influences the articulation of the end product?
MS: It’s a little of both. There are moments along the way where you have to basically risk a claim and say, “Okay. I know I’m going to make 21 agents in this project”. That happened in the Manhattan Project 2.0 really early on. I just said, “I really want to spread the deck on this project. I want to make 21 agents. Some of them are going to be built things, some are going to be people, some will be non-human actors, and some are going to be government entities, but I know 21 is the right number.” Just because it’s larger than 20 and less than 22, it’s an odd number, it’s a multiple of 7 and it just seems like the right number. So there are moments like that, but there are also moments along the way where things start to emerge: structures, ways of organizing things. For example, there were three governmental entities: The Agency of Airborne Information, the Bureau of Techno-Nature, and the Institute of Simulation and Actualization. So those three became main organizers in the project to gather the other eighteen agents around them, which was not a concept I had at the beginning but one which emerged through the development.
i·p: You talk about this idea of Network Culture, where urbanity is synonymous with connectivity — but what does that mean for the new rural? How do these ideas apply to the 2016 election, one of the clearest urban-rural divides in recent history?
MS: The 2016 election was this recalibration moment between the urban and the rural. People who had always been rural and had never engaged in what we think of as the city suddenly had all this agency in everything because they were connected to the network. They had been snapped – at least behaviorally and socially – into an urban condition. The election map is a sea of red with blue points on it where all the cities are. Every time there’s a city in a county, that county turns blue. We know that cities align with democratic left-leaning politics. Why is that? Because there are simply more people in a space together. They have to get along together, even if they don’t like each other, and become citizens next to each other. But in a rural place, that’s not the case. I grew up in a very rural place, which is just an entirely different life experience. After a while, a lot of political ideas that don’t involve other people appeal to you a lot more. The 2016 election cycle was interesting because the people in rural places which presumably had no agency to change the politics of the nation in any serious sense tapped into this really high-powered agency across social media. And now we’re learning a lot more about other non-human agents that had a hand in that too, like Russian bots. “Where’s the rural now?”, I think you said. Well, I’m not sure it exists anymore. I mean, what are the statistics about cell phones — there are 9 billion cellphones on the planet and 7 billion people? Is anyone really disconnected anymore? And if they are, do they really register on the global culture? Maybe that’s one fairly irresponsible way of looking at it, but if we just allow ourselves irresponsibility for a moment, sometimes it gives us new ways of thinking about everything.
i•p: There’s an idea in policy debate of inherency versus solvency; inherency being the statement of the status quo and solvency a much more pragmatic call to action. A lot of us struggle with this space between just raising awareness about an issue and dictating a solution, and we wonder how you reconcile the two within your own work as you bridge the gap from very human-related practical solutions to extremely speculative projects.
MS: It’s a good question; a difficult one. I think that it’s easy and common, not only in architecture, but in creative and policy disciplines all over, for people to identify the problem and then want to solve that problem. And I think people are increasingly dissatisfied with that in the 21st century, because everything is so complicated. Everyone knows that there’s not a simple solution to what you’re talking about, but one doesn’t also need to throw up their hands and say, “Oh, there isn’t a solution to this problem”. I’m far more willing to go that route in my own life and work—to admit that there might not be a simple fix for an issue. Can we cope with that? Is that ok? Are we going to live on, and how? What can we do now? I mean, the problematics of the Anthropocene are that way. There’s some middle ground between the two things that you floated, between inherency and solvency — I really like the words — between illuminating, observing, or framing something, and offering some kind of approach to operate on that thing.
I like to think about it as agency. It’s not just observing and framing, nor is it just proposing a simplistic solution and coming up with all the “right” design approaches. It’s somewhere in the middle where you’re an agent — you know about both. That’s why I like working on sets. I always produce 5s or 7s or 21s because one thing just doesn’t cut it for me. And I find myself encouraging students to do that a lot too. On the one hand it’s a tactic to try to keep the discourse wide, but on the other, it’s how you gain an audience for the work. When you present one thing, it’s easy to destroy that thing. That’s the culture of architecture review, seek and destroy. See thing, find hole in thing, destroy thing. But if you produce three things, then it’s harder to do that. Or if you’re dissatisfied with the politics in a project, spread the deck across political approaches that are responsible for different flavors at different levels so that no one arrives and is completely alienated with your own political approach. If you have a robust approach, you allow the project some flexibility within the range of what’s possible, while also not forgoing making claims yourself. You don’t have to be apolitical and say “oh I’m just observing things”, you don’t have to be completely decisive and say “this is the right thing to do”, but provide a range in which you can leverage your own agency. It’s more in the spirit of what actually happens in the world.
i•p: You fielded a question yesterday about your interest in big tech. Our context is people who talk about the current socio-political culture have a strong aversion to that kind of over privatization of inherently public services. You reframed it as needing multiple approaches, but where do you stand on the politics of that question?
MS: I think there are still key moments in the whole spectrum of the growth of these giant tech companies that are alarming or appropriately “it-should-gross-you-out”. Elon Musk flew his own pretentious electric car into space. I usually find excitement in those moments when other people are thinking “That’s terrible”. But that one in particular, I thought, “Come on you can’t — you’re not going to fly the Tesla car into space, right?” There are moments like that where I do get critical and freaked out by people like Elon Musk, but for the most part I really think there’s not a lot of difference between him and other actors at his level. Trump’s one of them, Oprah’s another one… to a lesser degree, but in some ways, Dennis Rodman going to North Korea is another version of that. These actors are positioned in such a way that their image is prolific enough and their capital high enough to do these things.
Before the 2016 elections, I was one of those people who was—on a cultural research level—enjoying Donald Trump’s run for President, not because I liked his politics or because I thought he would be a good President (of course), but just because it was a special time in history when reality television was colliding violently with national politics. That was so interesting to me that culture was coming together to concoct a moment where Donald Trump, of all people, could run for President. And then he won, which put me and just about everyone else on the plantet into this existential crisis about what was going on around us, and I started to feel super sullen and guilty because I had been enjoying that half-fictional moment, and then it came to pass with all it’s violence. Since then I’ve gone through a period of adjustment; it has changed the tone of my work somewhat. And am now starting to recover into some middle ground between just rampant enjoyment of the crazy, gross culture around me and some critical encounters with the ways that it has serious ramifications that are now coming to bear on things.
To go back to the tech company question, it’s just a difficult one. I don’t think there is a right answer. If Facebook is able to track and quantify me in ways that I might not be comfortable with, even if policies emerge to better protect my privacy online, the proverbial cat is out of the bag… you’re not going to do something to “fix” that massively complicated issue, that’s going to make it all “right” again. I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier about needing to find ways to be an agent within it. In some ways (and it’s okay with me if others are less pessimistic than this) we’re all just fucked now, we just have to learn how to live with it — not just live with it, but live within it.
i·p: Earlier you speculated that these things just are, and people need to come to terms with it the hard way. Is this a belief that is restricted to your work or is it a personal political ideology?
MS: I think that living in the 21st century is about complicated relational structures and that it often refuses simplicity and clarity. We can think about early postmodernism as splintering the identity and subjectivity of everyone — as in suddenly I was able to do and be all sorts of different things, ironically completely opposed to the cultural moment that came before it. If we then cycle past the early 21st century, past 9/11 and so on, identities get extruded through all of these hyper-digital modalities and splinter even more. So, it’s hard to say what one should be up to. I just think the smarter you can be, and the more available you can be to things around you, then the better for you and the better for everyone else. Most of the work is trying to scratch that itch: what can I see around me that I’m interested in culturally and politically and how can I use it as a spatial thinker? Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t plot things out strategically as much as people think I do. I see things around me and get obsessive about them, and I just do work. Sometimes, it spills out as 5 machines that do funny things on a landscape, sometimes it spills out as 21 agents within a science infrastructure and governmental entity. It just depends on what the situation is and how I think I can best operate there. That’s just my general ethos on things. I feel like I’m on the earth to do that, and that’s just what I’m doing. And I run into problems: I run into disciplinary structures that don’t like that, and into audience gathering problems where either no one’s interested in it for various reasons or people are wildly interested in it for reasons I didn’t expect. But I’m just doing what I think I should do, what I value as an architect and spatial-cultural producer. ·
inter·punct joins Aaron Betsky for an interview on the profession of architecture; its responsibilities, aspirations, and shortcomings. This interview took place after the school’s first EX-CHANGE event.
For additional information and to view Aaron’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
i•p: You spoke about architecture as a value system. Perhaps you meant that in terms of how people externally value architecture, but do you also speculate that within architecture, our own valuation of the field has changed?
Aaron Betsky: The activity of architecture is, from an economic standpoint, predicated on the notion that you're adding value to the building process. But this value is becoming more eroded as every aspect of our culture gets automated. Ultimately, that's the reason why the AIA exists, to figure out and defend what the value of architecture is. Yes, you can get a building off a shelf, in fact you don't even need an architect to get a building built in most places. Architects add value, and that value has something to do with the quality of the space, the sellability of the image, the ability to organize everything from the process of design itself to the materials, the spaces, the reception of the imagery. How do you define that value? And do you let it be defined by the economic system, or can you think of other ways? What is the value of architecture beyond this nebulous set of qualities that it's supposed to provide to buildings? Those to me are the important questions.
The High Line is one good example; it has produced billions of dollars by unlocking unprecedented developmental potential in that area of New York, but also allowed people to see New York in a different way. Has it been appropriated not just by tourists but by high-end residential? Yes, because ultimately the development of Manhattan into an enclave for the super rich seems at this point almost inevitable and the High Line turns out to have just been part of that. You might unwittingly achieve something that gets appropriated almost immediately.
i•p: It's always an interesting game of capital flows, especially as architects focus on the urban realm. But as you mentioned, a lot of the banality that we face today are not in the urban areas but outside in the suburbs. As the socio-political and economic gaps between the urban and rural areas in the country widen, how can we as architects insert ourselves productively into this conversation?
AB: That to me is also a really crucial question. Many architects in America come from the suburbs, but don’t necessarily see themselves as a part of it or as invested in it. As a result there are very few projects that really address the worsening economic landscape in those areas. That’s a big issue.
If we look at Frank Lloyd Wright, he was one of the few architects who actually took suburbia seriously. He experimented with housing proposals that could both shelter individual families and open themselves up to communities. That obviously developed into, on the one hand, the Usonian house which was an alternative mass-produced house to the Ranchburger. And on the other the Broadacre City, which was perhaps not quite right in terms of its methodology but nevertheless an idea that took suburbia seriously.
But I'm always looking for hopeful trends. Recently in this country, there have been various experiments to create nodal points within suburbia. Keith Krumwiede's An Atlas of A New America is one such example. People are working on it more, but not nearly enough.
i·p: It's definitely a conversation that's not brought up enough in schools as well. Architecture studios are typically devoted to solving urban problems. In this country, suburbia has been taken over by developers and the government, and architects don’t really have a role in shaping that.
AB: The difference between suburban and urban is also increasing as cities turn into wastelands with dots of transit-oriented development. You see construction of terrible apartments that look no different in suburbia than they do in cities, so you have to remember that sprawl is not just a question of moving out of the city into the countryside. It is also the emptying out on every social and environmental level of the traditional urban area.
i•p: You mentioned that architecture is dying as a profession. Could you elaborate on that statement?
AB: Sure. That value proposition that I mentioned earlier is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Now you can buy software programs that not only allow you to design a single-family home, but entire office buildings. The architect is no longer participating in that process. Code requirements and financial considerations have become so strict that you have to wonder what design capacity the architect has at all. Years ago, Michael Bell did an analysis of a suburban development outside of Houston, and he looked at the cost of everything that went into it. On this $20 million development, the architect's fees were like $69,000 or something. That gives you some idea of what twenty years ago the value of architecture was. And it's only getting worse. Again, the field is becoming more stratified. The differentiation between the big international practices and the lower echelon is growing more and more extreme. Theoretically, the good news is that these days you can have a two-man office and design a 40-story skyscraper. The technology should be liberating for architects but in reality it just means that instead of a bunch of architects getting paid money to design it, two people get paid drafting wages to design a 40-story skyscraper.
i•p: Does that mean architects have to insert themselves into different disciplines to stay relevant?
AB: No, architects just have to ask themselves where they can make a difference. Perhaps instead of designing entire developments architects should focus more on creating ephemeral experiences such as themed retail and dining environments or office breakout spaces; whether for social interaction, commerce or spectacle. I'm still waiting for architects to figure out how to bring their particular tools to the realms that are on your phone.
i·p: It's interesting you mentioned this ephemeral realm, because the new environmental design track at the School of Design here came to mind. They try to interface with architecture and spatial design through the lens of technology and how we as human beings operate on a daily basis. They don't necessarily propose physical structures to a site but rather organizational strategies and events.
AB: Yeah. Some of the best architectures happen in festivals or in socio-political movements. I was in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, and some people at the architecture school were trying to figure out ways to exploit that. Suddenly you have this temporary liberated space that gives you a completely different perspective on the city. How can you do something with it? They were just talking, but it was an amazing moment to think about that.
i·p: You also talked about the problem of permanence, the sense of building something so grand to leave a mark and legacy. Do you think it has to do with ego?
AB: Architects are egotistical, but so are artists and musicians. Compared with major orchestra conductors, starchitects are pipers. They don't know what it means to be a diva compared to those people. So there is the Howard Roark cult which is obviously pernicious and persistent. But it’s also part of a wider social problem. As Walter Benjamin pointed out a century ago we live in a society that, as it destroys people's freedoms and individuality and humanity, does so exactly by erecting the glorified image of the star; whether it's the politician or a movie star or a celebrity chef or anyone else of that sort. That kind of fallacy is certainly true in architecture as well.
Rem Koolhaas, whatever else you can say about him, has over the years, honestly periodically tried to break through that and say: "This is a collective." Ultimately though, everyone wants the interview with him and the system is set up so that OMA gets paid more when he's on the site. So for the firm, economically, he's a star tool. But in recent years there are certainly other partners at OMA who are beginning to get their own name. When I tell people there’s something interesting going on in this firm that has nothing to do with the lead the default response is always, "Okay, but you have to go interview the lead because that's the name that you'd recognize."
i·p: That's the system that we live with, perhaps bearing this in mind we have to try and resist it.
AB: Yeah, but the difficult thing is that there is something really successful architects do that is uncatchable, and that for me is part of the problem in this hierarchical system. Oftentimes, the system rewards people who are perhaps not necessarily great designers themselves but are really good at finding great designers to work for them, getting the right clients, or reading a situation.
The difficult part is to not get too hung up on the cult of personality and try to value the ability of architecture that opens your eyes and creates a moment of awe. And that goes back to our conversation in the beginning about getting students to be rebellious. How can we encourage students to do things differently without having them believe that the only way to be really good is to do something weird and eye-catching? I don’t have an answer for that. ·