Robert Miles Kemp is going to be one of 2014’s Innovators of the Year. Mark my words. If I worked for Autodesk, I’d be calling him up right about now – or at the very least trying to steal his secrets.
And secrets they must be because Kemp’s little company, Digital Physical, has kept under the radar, housed away in some nondescript loft space in Los Angeles. What Mr. Kemp and his bearded acolytes have developed is something so simple, so obvious, and yet utterly revolutionary. It’s one of those inventions that all architects are soon going to realize they need – and clients will soon start to expect.
The “it” is Spacemaker VR, architecture’s first virtual reality system made for designers. Yes, you have to wear a VR headset, but you won’t care if you look like a dork because you (and your big clients) will be blown away by the fact that you’re looking, flying around a 3D model of a future-space – all while being firmly in the present.
We all know what architecture critic Banksy thinks about 1 World Trade Center. He infamously called it a “shyscraper” in an op-ed piece the New York Times declined to publish. But that hasn’t stopped the article from circulating and pissing New Yorker’s off. In true Banksy form you can find it on his website, mocked up to appear like a front page headline.
In it, he writes, “It reminds you of a really tall kid at a party, awkwardly shifting his shoulders trying not to stand out from the crowd. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a shy skyscraper.” Of course, this didn’t stop the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) from recently celebrating it as the tallest building in this here United States of America. Yippee ki-yay!
But- who cares? New York has many other things going on urbanistically and architecturally that render tallness less significant than it used to be, if not outright pointless. Infrastructural interventions of the more horizontal sort, a la the High Line for example, seem far more significant. In the face of real urban complexity and uneven development, grasping for tallness is a simplistic go-to, while the real problems remain down on the street, unrelated to air rights, view corridors, sunlight access angles, and blocked horizons.
And yet cities of the world continue to privilege tall towers as icons of economic and political might.
Christine Outram’s rant “Why I Left the Architecture Profession” is an honest and seemingly spontaneous attempt at staking out a position against an “outdated” profession. It’s explosive in its assertion that “you,” meaning all you architects, are out of touch. “You” don’t listen to your clients. “You” are obsessed with form-making. “You” are a soulless machine, designing by code templates and cut and paste, with no regard for humanity. Her essay hits like a splatter bomb, throwing shrapnel in all directions. It’s a drone strike that has killed innocents. It’s clumsy and reckless.
It begs to be deconstructed. It demands a counterattack. And, judging from the lengthy comment thread, this is what it has reaped. Be that as it may, the issues are obvious. Telling architects they are “outdated” or that they don’t listen seems like a calculated attempt to get the attention of architects and to get them to somehow prove themselves, to make them mad in ways equal to her own anger.
Well, it’s got my attention. Here’s my rebuttal.
On October 23rd, the Walt Disney concert hall, the project that almost never was, will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Throughout these ten years it has had all manner of transformative power attributed to it. But has it really transformed LA? What would the city have been like if it had never been built? Would it be fundamentally different?
The answer? No.The city wouldn’t even be that different in the immediate vicinity of Grand Avenue.
I don’t mean to poo poo the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon project, but the more I hear about it the more I wonder if this isn’t an indication of just how far behind the United States is in terms of energy policy and the design of smart environments. Are we really that far behind that we need a program like this to prove this stuff really works? Are people still disbelieving? Do they really need demonstration homes to show how photovoltaics produce electricity or how sustainable principles can be applied to architecture? I suppose it makes sense in a country that still obsesses about the Case Study Houses and has debates about climate change.
The purpose of the Solar Decathlon is primarily to educate the public on high-performance building practices. Since 2002 when the DOE held the first one, it’s been putting “green” building in front of people who otherwise would not get to experience it—or, in reality, a self-selecting population of people who are probably already into such things.
In the 1970s roughly 20 percent of all US college courses were taught by adjuncts. In recent years, especially since the global financial meltdown, the number of adjunct professors has exploded to the point where they might be considered a floating population of migrant laborers. According to a report from the National Education Association (NEA), currently more than half of all US college courses are taught by adjuncts, or what Sarah Kendzior calls “Academia’s Indentured Servants.”
The 2013 American Association of University Professors annual report paints an even bleaker picture, finding that 76 percent of the academic workforce is made up of adjunct, part-time faculty, teaching graduate students, and non-tenure track, full-time professors.
We have entered an era in higher education where many alarming forces are converging.
A few days ago I took part in an AIA-organized Twitter discussion (#aiachat) focused on the subject of IDP, or what we here in the US call the Intern Development Program, administered by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB).
I periodically get sucked into these Twitter discussions when I’m busy procrastinating and not writing what I’m supposed to be writing. Call it a weakness for provocative questions thrown out on Twitter by faceless moderators:
Q1: What advice do you have for interns getting started with IDP?
Q2: Many states allow concurrent completion of IDP and ARE4. What are the benefits of participating in both at the same time?
Q3: What resources have you used to help navigate IDP?
And so forth.
The discussion brought back painful memories of my own tortuous IDP experience. By the time we got to Q7 or Q8 I came to a conclusion: IDP needs to be radically overhauled and re-conceptualized.
When New York City architect Curtis B. Wayne first started talking about “The Fourth Architecture,” it was clear he was not doing so to make friends. You do not write manifestos to make friends. You write them because of some perceived urgency, because the time is right.
As a long-standing practitioner, radio host, and graduate of Cooper Union and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, he already has a lot of friends. What he’s interested in is saving architecture from the current orthodoxy of form-making over substance, or “sculpture you can live in.” “We are too wise for this,” writes Wayne.
In fact, I can go further. Judging from the little red book that has finally emerged from Wayne’s brain, appropriately titled, The Shape of Things that Work: The Fourth Architecture, I’m almost certain he set out to piss people off. But not without a purpose.
The Architects’ Journal recently announced its call for entries for the “AJ Writing Prize,” its annual search for “the best new architectural writer.”
Back in 2011 (how did I miss this?) they published a treatise on the qualities of good architectural writing penned by one of the prize’s judges, architect Alan Berman. Now, please consider that I am butchering his essay by removing this quote from the stream of his thinking, but, that being said, this paragraph stands out:
Architectural writing should aid everyone’s understanding of buildings and assist architects to design better ones. This is not to say that it should be an instruction manual or ignore the importance of the myriad intellectual endeavours which explore the human predicament –about which architects should always be conscious. Rather it is to say that architectural commentary should aim for clarity and precision of expression by means of lucid terminology and simplicity of structure.
This strikes me as a very technical and precise way of producing writer’s block. If this is the extent of good architectural writing, or writing that is in the service of architecture, then “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The Indicator: Two Shows, Many Cities: “A New Scuplturalism” at MOCA and “Never Built” at the A+D Museum
Here in Los Angeles we have a complicated relationship with architecture and two con-current museum exhibitions demonstrate this in ironic and puzzling ways. This came into clear relief when, on Saturday, August 03, 2013, something amazing and unprecedented happened: architecture was on the front page of a major US newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.
This, it must be said, is a very unusual thing for architecture. Moreover, it was not the type of architecture you might expect to grab the spotlight. It was the un-built original plan for Los Angeles International Airport by Pereira and Luckman, c. 1952. If you’ve been to LAX you’ve seen their Theme Building. They also did the plan for LAX that was finally accepted—the less visionary, less ambitious plan. This was being re-presented to the world in the context of “Never Built” a show about the unrealized architectural dreams of Los Angeles currently showing at the A+D Museum.
Is the word “starchitect” really denigrating to architects? Is it really a problem for the profession? Really? It depends on how you look at it.
And, yes, as it was pointed out to me, “This question itself is a rehash.” Well, the issue of labeling architects has been a rehash since the sixteenth century so we might as well trot it out one more time.
It’s a rehash principally because the way we label architects has implications for the profession’s bottom line. It drives fees up for a few and down for everybody else. It makes some firms busy and others less so. Or does it even do anything but put contemporary architecture on the minds of the general public, the broader client base?
Tadashi Kawamata is one of my favorite artists. Not simply because the work is somehow architectural but because much of it surprises by appearing to have been thrown up in secret. Though obviously sanctioned there is an illicit quality to it. It’s dirty, rough, and seemingly improvised out of found materials—though obviously the work of such an acclaimed, grant-receiving artist is not carried out this way.
I have no problem with such appearances. The problem arises from the manner in which such appearances toy with reality when the reality is clearly not one’s own, but merely mined for shock value.
The problem with articles like “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities”, recently featured in The New York Times, is that they contribute to a misleading and simplistic narrative about China’s economic development, casting it as a story of “good” versus “evil”.
This was recently highlighted by a critique authored by the NYU Stern Urbanization Project in which The New York Times article in question was called out for being overly sensational and reductive in how it covered China’s policies concerning internal migration from the countryside to urban areas.
I see a convergence of sorts. It might be a coincidence but, then again, I think not. The wheels of “Pacific Standard Time”, the Getty’s juggernaut architectural assault on and about Los Angeles, have been turning for what seems like months now with exhibit after exhibit and symposium after symposium.
Is it just me or is “Pacific Standard Time” fatigue setting in? I’m not complaining. It gives me a lot of material to write about so I don’t have to just make stuff up. It corresponds with something called history, after all. But where is the self-reflexive, self-effacing, ha-haExit Through the Gift Shop wink about it all? It’s all so damn serious, isn’t it? It seems cooked up to be so monumental and deterministic. So Grand Narrative from the get-go, right out of the institutional blocks, like a marketing campaign.
The title “intern” should be banished from the profession of architecture. It’s about time. It has run its course. It’s outmoded and contributes to a culture of exploitation in the guise of opportunity. Frankly, it makes us look so nineteenth century.
More importantly, I’m tired of seeing articles decrying the state of interns every summer when “intern season” kicks in. Can we just be done with this? It’s depressing. Don’t exploit the interns! Pay the interns! No free labor! Class action lawsuit! Solidarity! FU pay me! All very well and good. However, if labor laws and ethics have not fixed the problem, maybe getting rid of the title will. It’s just a title, but it sets a bad precedent.
I pass by the Eames House almost every day at about 35 mph on my way down to PCH, the sand, the waves, the subterranean tunnels, and the tsunami zone, where LA coughs up its junk on the urban beach, where the Westside comes to its logical conclusion. Sometimes traffic is backed up so far up the hill—this is Los Angeles, after all—that I sit motionless and adjacent where the house should be, but can’t actually see it. I listen to the engine, the radio, the sound of helicopters and leaf blowers. The house is silent somewhere behind a wall of dense tropical flora.
My first actual visit to the house was when I was barely thinking about architecture. In a way it was my introduction to the possibility that someone could do architecture, that it was something one could succeed at. It was optimism on real estate once considered solidly middle class. Improbably light-weight and even painterly, like a Mondrian composition, it sits in a perfectly mundane American yard, like the delicate skeleton of a bird perched over the Pacific.
There is something soothing, even easy about vernacular architecture. It’s the territorial and spatial equivalent to Muzak. It evades and pre-dates the self-conscious identity of glitzy, cutting-edge architecture we are so familiar with today. There is an innocence to the vernacular. These are the buildings and environments of childhood.
This is apparent in the exhibition, In Focus: Ed Ruscha, currently showing at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. What captivates about the shots is that they dare to curate buildings that are usually just part of the background. They become objects of curiosity, spectacles, even.
When Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, gives a bad review there is the sense that he is essentially dismantling a building, chipping its façade apart, like breaking down some charade in defense of the public’s honor. Like a hired killer he disappears the architecture, but at the same time heightens its visibility in the culture.
This ability, to provoke in such ways, is precisely why Thom Mayne would like to bar Mr. Hawthorne from taking a crack at reviewing the new building he and his firm, Morphosis designed for the firm’s new offices.
On a recent tour of the new digs, Mayne, as reported in The Architect’s Newspaper, was overheard saying, “There are no good writers in Los Angeles” and “All local writers are horrible.” To add further insult, he wants a science writer to cover it. That should be a short review.