Mark Pasnik speaks with inter·punct about the revolutionary work of his practice, over,under.
For additional information and to view Mark’s full lecture, visit the CMU School of Architecture website.
over,under engages in a number of speculative research projects including your work in urban design and on the future of the city. What value do you see in this way of working?
Mark Pasnik: Early on an advisor told us that we should find a niche and follow it. It really sounded pretty boring—we could do all hospitals, all commercial facilities, all housing, whatever it was, stick to a niche. During our time at Machado and Silvetti Associates, my colleagues and I worked on a number of different things, and so we set up our practice intentionally in a similar way. In the beginning there were four of us, and each had a different skill area and expertise that the rest of us could lean on. We really enjoyed that kind of varied practice—and even though we opened right before the recession, we ended up doing fairly well because these layers enabled us to do a wide range of work from graphics to exhibitions to urban design when architectural commissions weren’t coming through.
It was a lifestyle decision as well, because we wanted every day to be interesting, not a repetition of the same thing over and over. In some respects, today it has made it slightly harder because we don’t have that one area of expertise that everybody knows us for—and which would generally lead to more commissions. Our ideal is when a client wants to hire us specifically because we do a number of different things. On a restaurant project in Abu Dhabi, we both branded it and designed the space. I really enjoy when we’re integrating disciplines. There’s a coherence when the whole experience—from architecture to branding to the menu—are all integrated with one another. In the case of our urban projects, we have designed city districts and then designed books guiding how to realize them. We thrive on that type of integration, which I think distinguishes our approach. Sometimes clients come to us precisely because of that integration—maybe integration is our specialization.
You spoke to this in many ways already, but much of your work at over,under—from your urban work to graphics, branding and curation with your gallery, pinkcomma—it’s crossdisciplinary, and is perhaps outside of what we traditionally think of as the role of the architect. How does this engagement with a larger cultural discourse inform the office’s work on more conventional architectural projects?
MP: That’s a good question. I think there are several ways this informs the architecture we design, some that are more direct and others that are more about method. In general, the cultural projects—like our book Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, or HAClab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern which we curated at the Carnegie Museum of Art—required an enormous amount of research to discover, analyze, and synthesize vast amounts of information to be intelligible by the public. This kind of deep research and synthesis are skills that we’ve developed across the office and that we often apply to the way we might develop or communicate a project.
To give an example, our architectural guideline projects involved a lot of time researching best practices, case studies or other projects to help understand how the client might see themselves in the global world. When developing a waterfront neighborhood in Abu Dhabi, for instance, we examined a series of case studies of the world’s greatest waterfront marinas which became a part of the way the project was defined.
Rami el Samahy’s teaching and research on the Arab city helps enrich this historical and cultural link. The work that we’ve been doing in the Middle East is highly contextual but contextual to the modernist period, a beautiful moment when international architects developed a strong body of regional buildings. These wonderful modern works were localized in ways because of unique climate-driven constraints. In our own projects, we’ve been looking at this language, and seeking to develop continuities with it. In this way the cultural side of the practice is always at least indirectly influential on the architectural side of the practice. More directly, we’ve used parts of our Heroic research to understand issues such as the qualities of concrete, its technical demands, scales of elements, and proportion.
To that end, pinkcomma gained some notoriety in 2007 when it started showcasing proposals for saving the Boston City Hall, which Mayor Menino had said he wanted to demolish or sell. What role do you see for architects to engage in these controversial public issues, as you’ve been speaking toward just now? How can architects advocate for an increased involvement in the design of cities?
MP: We strongly believe in advocacy, which has been part of the role of pinkcomma from the beginning. The Boston City Hall show was the very first one, and set a mission that the building is an important civic icon and deserves to be better understood. The choice isn’t simply between preservation as is or demolition—there’s also a middle path to look at how the building can be transformed. That’s an approach we have continued to look at, especially through teaching. I’ve conducted studios at Wentworth on the future of Paul Rudolph's Government Service Center and Chris Grimley has taught similar studios at Northeastern on graphic interventions in Boston City Hall.
The whole idea of starting the gallery in 2007 was to focus on Boston’s critical discourses. Critical exhibitions were occurring at places like Harvard and MIT, but they rarely focused on Boston. Those schools aren’t often driven by locality. At the time we opened, the Boston Society of Architects had exhibitions, but they really functioned as a marketing arms for the architecture firms, showcasing health care awards and such. So when we opened pinkcomma, we wanted to focus on that gap: between criticality and locality through a new kind of advocacy.
"Once the Boston City Hall show ended, we started looking around and noticed this amazing collection of concrete buildings that nobody was studying. We started documenting them and the effort has since led into a number of outcomes, including the successful preservation effort to landmark the Christian Science Center."
With concrete buildings, people see Chris, Michael Kubo, and me as advocates of a past era, but we’ve also been consistent participants in the discourse about the future of the city and its planning. We have taken a role as critics of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and its insider culture, as well as pushing for a comprehensive plan for the city. In fact, we wrote an “ideas” article in the Boston Globe immediately after the current Mayor Martin Walsh was elected—and about a year later the city announced it was embarking on just such a plan for the first time in fifty years. I wish we could claim that he listened to us, but I’m sure there were many others pushing the idea as well. Still, we’ve tried to maintain an active independent voice on civic issues.
I’d say the most important way that we’ve been advocating for the city, is to raise the quality of design in Boston by promoting emerging and smaller innovative design firms. A very small number of firms have been doing a very large amount of the new development. The results tend to be relatively uninspired. This monopolizing of work fails to foster a new generation, and we get into this rut of building after building being designed by the same few mega-architecture firms. Even the mayor himself has complained about the problem. Through our Design Biennial Boston event, our hope is to help emerging practices find a public platform to showcase their design skills. It is a reminder that innovative thinkers are standing by to help shape the city. Overall, I think architects make good advocates because they’re passionate—they really believe in what they do.
Along those same lines, was your work on Heroic motivated by a specific flashpoint or event—suddenly these concrete buildings were in the news and they needed to be addressed—or was it an interest that you all had before?
MP: I was always interested in concrete buildings, Chris for even longer than me, but I hadn’t spent the time to think about them very deeply. I certainly had seen a lot of Sert's buildings in town, but I never put together how many there were and how they came into being as a result of strong civic and private leadership. The 1960s were a time when Boston, much like Pittsburgh, wanted to reinvent itself, and this very specific architectural language took hold. There was Le Corbusier’s building, Rudolph’s building—I knew them as isolated objects, but I hadn’t really stitched them together in my mind as a story.
I think the former mayor prompted us to get mad. His proposal to abandon Boston City Hall got us charged up—it was our first show, and we received some good press attention for it. We suddenly were a part of the discourse. When we started the project, few people were talking about the issue of concrete buildings, but now it has grown into a topic of widespread and urgent interest, particularly following preservation battles for Bertrand Goldberg’s hospital in Chicago, Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center, and many others.
Would you say your efforts have had an impact on the public’s perception of these buildings?
MP: I still think Boston City Hall may be the most widely criticized building in Boston, but that may be changing. My co-author Chris Grimley and I spoke at the Boston Book Festival to a room of 120—which wasn’t an architecture crowd at all, more like an NPR audience of intelligent, open-minded people. At the end, a lot of hands shot up with questions, and they were very thoughtful, not a one dismissive. Before the final question, I polled the crowd: “who thinks the Boston City Hall is ugly and who thinks it’s great?” The reaction was about fifty-fifty, which shocked me. I had expected it would be ten-to-one against the building. The last question came from a woman who turned to the audience and asked: “I’d like to know who changed their minds today?” I would say about 10 to 15 percent of the room, including the questioner, raised hands. That made me happy! At first glance, a lot of people might have a visceral but uninformed opinion about the building, but when they learn more, they begin to understand its position in culture and history. They’re more likely to see value in it, even if they might still think it’s ugly. I have become encouraged to see concrete buildings getting wider attention in this way. I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been.
Considering the complexity of the issue—the positives and the negatives and perhaps the changing attitudes nowadays—what to your mind makes these buildings, these icons of modern architecture, worth saving?
MP: I personally think that modern architecture reflects a wonderful cultural tradition—it’s a fascinating recording of a moment and its values, just like a vase from ancient Mesopotamia, or a building from the Italian Renaissance. All of these communicate to later generations some recognition of the earlier generation’s legacy. Heroic modernism is likewise an important legacy that was grounded in a time, a set of aspirations, and some very noble characteristics about public investment in cities. Unfortunately, we’ve lost that lesson today. Today, we use private markets and public-private partnerships rather than the municipal tax base to fund our public life, civic spaces, and cultural institutions. These earlier buildings remind us of a time that should teach us about the value of citizenship and civic life.
In general, any building carries potential lessons. Now that Heroic is published as a book, we’ve had a lot discussions of moving on to postmodernism. That’s a little harder. We love the concrete modernist period, but we have more misgivings about postmodernism. Chris constantly pushes us that our task shouldn’t be about taste, but instead about cultural artifacts that deserve recognition and preservation. While we’d argue that not every building needs to be saved, at the very least, we want to have the discourse around them reflect their special qualities and value. There are many other arguments behind the preservation of concrete buildings—we shouldn’t just be a throwaway society. We shouldn’t just tear down a building when we think it’s ugly, outdated, or outmoded. But really, when you get down to it, I believe we should keep them above all else for their cultural presence—their capacity to reflect another time, other people, other ideals, a capacity which allows us to measure ourselves and our own beliefs against them.