5 (student) Projects: is a group of projects completed at Yale University’s School of Architecture by 5 young architects during their graduate education. Each of the 5 projects are sited in New Haven on or adjacent to Yale’s campus. Each project focused on an institutional building, loosely defined by program, type and context. These commonalities became a framework for discussion that illuminated individual polemics and debate about experimentation in today’s architectural landscape. Despite the initial appearance of diversity within the set, each architect sought to address a common set of ideas emerging at Yale and perhaps within the discourse of architecture at large. Primarily addressing the legacy of Postmodernism (in its various guises and forms), each sought an architecture that engaged historical memory, local context and an renewed concern for communication and legibility. Each was interested in an operable or speculative way to use history and its associated culturally established values, meanings and forms to produce new bodies of work. In that sense, each sought a contemporary way to learn from the past that would have particular resonance in today’s social, political, and cultural milieu. The identity of the group of 5 is meant as a provocation towards two related issues: the desire for individuality and expression by today’s younger generation of architects inculcated by media and secondly, the desire for consensus within discourse on what counts today as critical & theoretical concerns for architecture. The aspiration behind the interviews and feature is to reveal an internal discussion which demonstrates an effort to clarify and identify a set of ideas that underpin contemporary architectural production. The feature and interviews were organized and conducted by Alexander Maymind. You can check the first interview, second interview, third interview and fourth interview in case you missed them. Read the fourth one after the break.
Interview 5: Alexander Maymind (critic: Keith Krumwiede) Matthew Persinger: Your project is a contemporary public art institution that serves both the Yale University community and New Haven at large. What makes the project a ‘Kunsthalle’ (as opposed to a more traditional museum)? How did the issue of being open to the public affect the architecture? Alexander Maymind: I interpreted the Kunsthalle as a building that is both an active container for art objects and a unique spatial viewing experience that challenges the art for primacy. This was done by attempting to define this difference between a Kunsthalle and the museum by speculating on what defines a contemporary art-viewing experience. Specific tropes were identified as crucial to how an institution is defined, how it asserts its identity, and thus reifies the work inside creating a meaningful encounter. Therefore I defined a kunsthalle to be understood as an institution that has embedded within it the notion that, architecturally, it wants to subvert its own institutionality and present critical questions about the nature of the experience. This meant investigating how the building choreographs the viewer’s relationship to the art but also challenging the way a user engages the building. The entry, circulation, scale, promenade, and progression through the architecture were all choreographed to, in some way, dislocate the traditional means through which architecture operates. For that reason, it falls within the critical project, something that may have had its high point a number of years ago but for me, is still a valid and provocative project, lingering in the shadows of many current discussions.
Can you explain how architecture subverts institutional authority? In contrast to your building, the adjacent site has buildings designed by Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph, two other architects who were concerned with articulating architecture’s ability to construct an institution. Similar to the discussion of context in the other four interviews, there is a concern for rethinking how an architect can be contextual in a provocative manner, as something other than totalizing respect toward the existing situation. The architecture was defined to be a totally public place but attempted to avoid the usual cliches of transparency and accessibility. In stark contrast to these cliches, the architecture purposely attempts to be bunker-like, solid, and ominous. Part of my task was to speculate of what the ‘public form’ of the building would look like, how it would be legible relative to the context, etc. Additionally this meant that, unlike typical museums, which operate through a common set of typological characteristics (a certain monumental scale, vast lobbies, clearly defined circulation routes – all of which serve to communicate and to position the building as a veritable cultural institution), the kunsthalle attempts to question these obligations and shake things up in the process.
One can begin by looking at the front door. Or in this case, the 6 different entry points. Similar to the way that Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center displaces its front door and makes it ‘difficult’ to find, the Kunsthalle multiplies its entrance into six different downward pathways, each leading to a different part of the building, both in terms of plan and section. What this achieved was a deferring of entry from the front sidewalk into various deep parts of the section of the building, where one is already ‘inside’ before actually entering the institution. The circulation of the building is a somewhat labyrinthine, circuitous set of wide ramps that all interconnect at different points. There is no dominant way to circulate through the space – the sequence of moving through the space has a wide number of possibilities – a sort of architectural, choose-your-own-adventure if you will. Upon entry, what becomes immediately apparent is that a large part of the building is underground and has the feeling of a bunker or an archive, a shelter for art. This creates a ‘stop and think’ moment where suddenly one realizes that something quite different is about to happen. The underground condition also created an indirect top light that trickles down through various smaller interstitial spaces and finds its way slowly downward.
The spaces defined by these ramps are quite narrow and tall, nearly imposing and awkward in proportion in terms of view — an obvious point of tension between the demands of the building and its ease of curation. The viewer’s relationship to these tall vertical planes is both foregrounded yet visual attention is always in tension with the longitudinal axis, the attenuated ramp itself. To return to the aforementioned critical project – which for the sake of argument can be expediently defined here by its tendency toward internal, discursive concerns (exemplified by Eisenman’s project of indexicality, self-referentiality, and architecture as writing, and thus architecture as language and architecture as an intellectual practice) and less by architecture’s relationship to program, experience, narrative (exemplified by Koolhaas’ exploration of metropolitan architecture determined by program as event and scenario, architecture as an urbanistic microcosm), I wanted to bridge the divide between these two opposing projects/ figures and find some way of negotiating and coming to terms with both. A big and laborious task to be sure but worth the struggle in my opinion.
The project also explored how presence and vision in architecture (along with other art practices) serve as the principal determinants of how immediacy and meaning are constructed. I am interested in the nature of what counts as the “conceptual’ in architecture. Typically understood as an emphasis on the mental or intellectual aspects of a building over the experience or haptic pleasure, I don’t believe that the two can be cleaved apart, essentially I think it’s a false dichotomy that also serves as a convenient straw man argument. So the Kunsthalle wanted to somehow participate in aspects of the conceptual without falling prey to the attendant cliches. Stated another way, one could say that I wanted to blur the triadic relationship between object/ subject/ context which typically serves to stabilize and reinforce decidable meaning through architecture’s ability to institutionalize an art-viewing experience. The project somehow created an unlikely dialogue with the 1960s and 70s Institutional Critique artists, but here transformed and conceptualized through the medium of architecture itself. That was the stated ambition – as for whether or not it holds up to scrutiny, it’s up for debate.
Secondly, the building is also contextual, a claim which is typically associated with a whole separate set of issues and discussions and architects. Even though the scale of the Kunsthalle is similar to its neighbors, and it maintains street frontage, and is even clad in the same grey brick (albeit with different patterns and motifs) as found elsewhere on campus — these moves beguile the other aspects of the site strategy, ie. the 40’ terraced void carved out of the ground in the back of the building. Most of these contextual characteristics arose out of a balancing of (a nearly overwrought) internal complexity and (fairly restrained) legible exterior form – an idea which I have admired in Adolf Loos’ work and writing. I believe this attempt to re-think context as a conceptual problem unifies the five projects and is a key similarity between them.
Let’s talk about the issue of being nearly underground and the idea of working with the ground. What is the effect on the context? Again, similar to the concern for the conceptual, the issue of excavated projects was a major question in the 70s, when architecture faced the oil crisis and retreated into either the purity of form as language or pure environmental response. One of the principal ideas that I worked from was an understanding of how architecture relates to the ground, both literally and metaphysically, and how the ground is constitutive of place, with all of the evocations that stem from the loaded word ‘place.’ I believe that architecture begins from the ground, the ground plane, and the ground plan. One can look at a genealogy of the ground in this diagram to see how it was a crucial aspect of Modernism’s critique of the genius loci, regionalism, vernacular and local tradition, etc. I wanted the ramps to feel as if they were all a part of the “ground floor plan” but depressed and tilted into the mass of the building.
In contrast, and to switch gears, let’s discuss how the project is pragmatic. The ideas about form and space were in stark contrast to my usage of a fairly conventional construction technology – load-bearing masonry and steel frame construction. That part of the project was nearly banal. The use of the brick both inside and out was an attempt to estrange the material from its role as pure cladding. Because all vertical wall surfaces in the entire building were covered in this brick, there was a certain sense of bad infinity – that this material is everywhere and even gets in the way of understanding where the building is exterior and where it is interior. This was a conscious effect that I wanted to produce in order to create a material detourne with the brick. Secondly, the patterns of the brick were elongated to subtly increase the effect of the longitudinal axis and in other moments, to register and mark the poche in the transverse axis.
How does the project re-engage Postmodernism? How does it deal with Yale’s tradition, or in particular Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn, the two adjacent architects? How does the project engage Brutalism, exemplified in New Haven by Breuer, Saarinen, and others? And also, which architects in your own personal collection are crucial to the formation of this project? For me, postmodernism has more to do with how one comes to terms with history, and the anxiety of influence rather than as a question of quotation (as discussed by Persinger and Talbot). In that sense, I am really interested in using the discipline as a source of ideas, almost like an intelligent copycat would. I think that paradoxically, our culture is one of both instant gratification generated by the media saturation of images and simultaneously one in which the original, unique, and new object is regarded as the sign of progress. Today, I think that an important question is how one can emancipate potential futures and not simply ‘archaeologize’ the past. The problem of history is the negotiation of architecture’s own memory. Rather than focus on a particular postmodern sensibility which may be directed toward amnesia and referencing, I wanted to engage history as a way to bring forth architecture as the production of new feelings and new authenticities (as Jeff Kipnis would say). The question is not one of reference (ie. from where did you copy?) but one of affects (what is the new result and for whom?) With this in mind, my own project began by studying Rudolph and Kahn, and then abstracting crucial ideas from their architecture that I could take forward. I wanted to find a way to turn the Yale Brutalist tradition on its head yet create still a meaningful relationship. From Rudolph’s A&A Building, I took the idea of the free section and thus the lack of a stable datum. Really this meant that the building was almost all circulation, and very little static space. This effect was really taken to the max, ad absurdum, almost creating a sort of fun house of ups and downs. Rudolph’s extroverted fortress is basically turned inward to become a spatially compressed, introverted version of itself.
From Kahn, I wanted to emulate and be in dialogue with his exterior modesty (of the British Art Center but also across the street, the Yale Art Gallery). In the review, I claimed the project is a non-monumental monument. Despite the inherent contradiction, I actually stand by this claim. A part of me simply wanted to avoid designing the exterior of my building, and instead focus on this all-interior Piranesian space.
What is critical to note is that this effect is really something that should be felt when in the building – its hardly an intellectual effect. I was after a near visceral confusion, something that could not quite be known but was more insidious. How does the project use process? What was the role of the analytic formal diagrams in the development of the project? How does the project use the grid as a conceptual device?
The massing strategy for the project can be described as a fairly restrained brick-clad box which contains a set of 50’ tall vertical walls that longitudinally stratify the interior. This dichotomy between exterior box and interior grid system structured both the circulation and the experience of the building. The vertical walls divide the building into seven parallel zones which are then bridged with poche that runs in the transverse axis, perpendicular to the initial striation direction. The ramps are then connected laterally through this poche at various moments, creating an oscillating grain between the circulation (longitudinal ramps) and the connections (transverse horizontal floors). This created a conceptual three-dimensional grid diagram that structured the (rigid) plan and (free) section. A number of basic strategies that divided up the grid were attempted before deciding on the shifted sectional version. The shifts that take place serve to scramble the initial logic of the 7 striated zones and in doing so, exceed that initial spatial clarity.
Despite this interest in analytical clarity, the architecture also wanted to exceed the diagram, to not be reducible to an abstract diagram, in a similar way that Eisenman’s houses series might exceed their descriptive analytic diagrams, which, despite their promise of clarity and spatial reasoning, perhaps are always more of a puzzle and set of clues rather than an explanation for complex form.
Secondly, I was interested in exploring the compositional possibilities of grid-based diagrams as a way to recapitulate the modernist grid as an archetype. The dialectic conditions of part/ whole, figure/ ground, regularity/ anomaly, expansion/ containment are the underpinning of grid-based structures. Even that which tries to subvert the dialectical nature of the grid must respond to these initial inherent formal qualities. These structures that begin and end with the grid are less invested in the ability to organize, unify, and contain as they are in its ability to perpetuate its own logic endlessly, even to the point of irrationality.