The fourth edition of inter·mission, discussing architectures role in the age of the individual. Download PDF.
Note from the Editors
Embracing a people-first culture has been celebrated as the key to success in this century, with everyone from The Huffington Post (now HuffPost) to Uber making commitments to “put people first” and even undergoing major rebranding to promote their user-focused practices. These commitments undoubtedly vary in sincerity and application, but clearly, today’s consumer is far from interested in products that do not reinforce the strength of their individuality. Whether it’s because of an association with a specific individual, or a commitment to everyone’s right to express themselves, ventures that succeed (at least in a strictly business sense) do so because they cater to the highly specific needs and desires of the individual.
Mass customization has long been the form in which individualistic ideologies have manifested, made possible and popular through architecture and design. Making the idiosyncrasies of consumers the highest priority, this approach to production has made it not only possible, but normal for people to expect everything they own and do — cars, clothes, food, furniture — to be made-to-fit. The users become more important than the object, with the production process becoming a means to their ends.
More recently, the advent of influencer marketing dramatically rearrange consumer priorities and create new reasons why some products are valued more than others. Entertainer-entrepreneurs are a dime (read $1bil.) a dozen and the success of companies like Kylie Cosmetics and Goop can hardly be attributed to the qualifications of their ambassadors, or the quality of the products they sell.
As we pull at the threads of the relationships between designers and users, it becomes necessary to ask: what of the product itself? If (designed) space is a commodity, what happens to it when those who design it and/or those who occupy it are the focus of the process by which it is created?
In this issue of inter•mission, we test the limits of the architectural profession’s influence in and on the Age of the Individual: a time when a brick sold by the right people can fetch $1,000 on eBay.
Casa Poli - Pezo von Ellrichshausen
The act of creating a structure for another human being to live in seems to pose an ethical dilemma: what right do architects have to dictate how another human being lives? We are often advised, “show them what they didn’t know they wanted”. How egotistical is that?
A partial answer perhaps lies in several aspects that characterize prescriptive practices: 1) Prescriptive practices pertain only to the relationship between the architect and the inhabitants, 2) the language1 of the architecture2 reduces the amount of possible behaviors or actions of its inhabitants and does not involve them and 3) the architecture is permanent and therefore does not engage or respond to its inhabitants.
In this understanding of prescription, the idea of permanence is key. If the architecture is permanent for the foreseeable future and employs a restrictive language, then it becomes unresponsive to its inhabitants. So, inhabitants can respond to the architecture of the Barcelona Pavilion, but the Pavilion doesn’t reciprocate. If the architecture is semi-permanent — for example, if there are movable partitions — then the spatial dynamic arguably changes, but the inhabitants still use the language established by the architect. If the architecture is impermanent and there are layered programs for each space, then the architecture has the opportunity to be non-prescriptive3.
A non-prescriptive practice uses the architecture as a series of prompts to create a dialogue between it and its inhabitants. The language accommodates a variety of responses because it attaches significance to whether or not there was any interaction at all, rather than to specific interactions. The inhabitants still work within the framework set out by the architect, but this framework asks - even requires - the inhabitant to participate. An example of this can be found in the balconies of L’Unité d’Habitation. There is a niche in the wall of each balcony, which can well and truly be completely ignored, but as long as it exists there is an opportunity for engagement. The architecture thus turns from a structure that inhabitants occupy to a series of prompts that the inhabitants can converse with.
L’Unité d’Habitation - Le Corbusier
An anonymous and empty room would arguably be the least prescriptive because anything can take place in it, a Functionalist idea Once the house is reduced to something that provides the most basic necessities, inhabitants would be free to create whatever they please. What they create will likely be an extension of who they are: maybe it will be representative of their individuality, or maybe it will take on a regionalistic identity. Whatever the character of the creation, it will still live within functionalist logic. So, even if the architecture is nothing more than a set of functional relationships, those relationships will reinforce certain social structures, host certain political ideologies, and represent certain economic statuses. In other words, inhabitants’ freedom is limited to working within the language established by the architect. In the case of the Barcelona Pavilion, the language is the Cartesian gridspace, and the system of regularly placed walls and columns the architecture. In this way, it characterizes because its language rationalizes whatever takes place in the architecture.
Non-prescriptive practices ask the inhabitants to respond to a set of prompts. Depending on how the inhabitants respond to the prompt, non-prescriptive architecture can generate better opportunity for habitation. Essentially, the former already is, and the latter asks others to define what is — in their own terms.
1. Language refers to the rationalization that the original architecture is built from.
2. Architecture refers to the objects or signifiers that occupy the language, and it sometimes elucidates the language used.
3. Emma Dyer, Interview with Herman Hertzberger, (Architecture and Education, 2016)
A new generation has taken shape around pop culture. As artists increase their influence through media that permeates all parts of American lives, their clout builds until it overflows into every sphere of our everyday. At the current moment, architecture stands separate from these artists1, however there a potential breaking-point may be heading our way.
Kanye West is starting an architecture arm to his brand and calling it the “Yeezy Home”. He claims that he will be making affordable homes that will bring a solution to social housing.
Yeezy Home main courtyard - Kanye West
We all know where this is heading. Much like designer shoes that originally sell for a low price, then get collected and re-sold for thousands of dollars, these houses will be bought up as soon as they are available and re-sold for four or five times their original price. Homes built by famous architects have, in some ways, always been a sort of collectable item among the rich2.
What if the philosophy of collector homes catches on in popular culture? If we see Kanye’s venture succeed, will we see Gucci design homes? Maybe even the Supreme home? Will they undermine the architectural profession or is their rise an inevitable (de)(r)evolution?
In some ways we are already seeing this phenomenon take place with interior design companies. IKEA allows me to essentially dress my entire house through online delivery. The great “mail-order” home is practically a reality, but these are still pieces of furniture and do not have the same hype-based attention attached to them.
But then, there is the MUJI Hut: if not the first, then the most well-marketed complete home designed by a major brand. On sale for $26K and available only in Japan, maybe it represents a return of the Modernist movement, but now with a different pair of sneakers.
In some ways, architects have always tried to build their own brands. SOM, BIG, Gehry and many others have built portfolios of instantly recognizable architecture that draws attention to itself. However, the average architect and consumer have no conversation with one another. The average person likely has no inclination to “purchase the product” of the architect.
Villa Supreme - Gil Jang
The architect’s playground is threatened by the hypebeast. Thus far, architects have seemingly had free reign over the domain of Architecture. Yet, more and more buildings are built without architects: developers and contractors are increasingly opting to work without an overhead, to the point where today, only 2% of buildings are designed by an architect.
What gives architects ownership over their own practice? It is highly plausible that Architecture will be redundant in the public eye once their favorite artists begin to apply their label to loosely “designer” buildings. The role of the profession may very well become a game of which designer house you can afford to outfit yourself with. There is a visible lack of the architect’s voice in conversation around what should and should not be built. This might even have nothing to do with the true value and influence that architecture has on the act of living, but purely be the generation of instant-gratification power monkeys that we are becoming.
Let’s say that Kanye West actually pulls off popularizing his housing program. Would it mean that architects are struggling to connect with the popular culture developing around them? Or are they too unwilling to acknowledge their own irrelevance and accept the reality of the incoming waves of hype culture?
1. architecture may exist as a vessel for their work but is ultimately never designed by them.
2. i.e. case study houses.
inter·punct in conversation
Christoph Eckrich, Gil Jang, and Lukas Herman discuss
Alberto Perez-Gomez: The Role of Architecture and
Urban Design in Psychosomatic Health
A snippet of one of our mothly larger discussion meetings, if this interests you, consider reaching out and stopping by. You’re always welcome.
GJ: So let’s say an architect plans a city: it has all these heavenly orientations towards the cardinal axes and he uses everything in his toolkit to make the perfect city. Does that action of just saying to the people living in the architecture that it’s ‘heavenly oriented’ act as a placebo to the people living in the architecture — to make them love it more, or be more proud of it?
CE: I think Perez Gomez’s fundamental argument is that it is not a placebo. He references Heidegger at the end where he draws a connection to the concept of ‘stimmung’. Essentially, it relates to his idea of “dasein”; roughly it means being here and being there at the same time — being of the world.
LH: “…your inner essence unfurling across time”.
CE: Stimmung is both a musical term in reference to harmony, but also means one’s mood. The stimmung of the room is the atmosphere of that place...
GJ: The Germans are very Japanese.
CE: Yeah, very true! What he’s saying is that you approach the world with this inner intrinsic mood, and that the world opens up to you in respect to your stimmung to it. One could even say your attunement...
GJ: The Koreans have a similar word — it’s atmosphere, bun-wigi — and essentially whenever you walk into a bar or club with your friends you say: “bun-wigi-ga johda”, or “oh, the atmosphere is nice”. People inherently have this sense of good atmosphere. And, I guess, Americans use the word “vibe”.
LH: I think it’s a lot to expect from architecture to always provide that. I think that could be exhausting to people if everywhere they go has an experience. The author mentions spiritual buildings a lot — I mean, imagine if everywhere you go the Catholic church is just bearing down on you.
CE: I don’t think he’s saying that it needs to be bearing down on people. He cites Vitruvius in talking about the main purpose of a well-designed city — laid out on axes and well-proportioned and so on — because when the environment is balanced, the stimmung is balanced. So, the way you are perceiving it becomes internal, and your psychosomatic health becomes balanced because the environment is balanced.