The Indicator: Craft in the Digital Age

DRL10 [C'] Space Pavilion by Synthesis Design + Architecture in collaboration with Alan Dempsey. Image, SDA
A few weeks ago there was a flurry of debate about one of Zaha Hadid’s designs being copied, or at least copied in terms of its outer form. Very soon after this I discovered an interesting article in the most recent issue of MIT’s Leonardo: Journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology.The article, “Hybrid Reassemblage: An Exploration of Craft, Digital Fabrication and Artifact Uniqueness” by Amit Zoran and Leah Buechley, raises some interesting points about the nature of originality, the subjective experience of making original things, and the potential for digital technology to impute this subjectivity to new and repeatable objects. In essence, the authors are discussing the position of craft, the hand-made, the personal, subjective act of making something that is singular and based on a personal process, the negotiation of decisions and risks with tools, materials, and design intentions.

The Indicator: Christo is Over the River

Jeanne-Claude and their team during a wind tunnel test for Over The River, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, April 1998 Scale of the fabric panels: 1 to 16.7 Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 1998 Christo

In 1992, the artist, Christo, with his now late-wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, had a vision to suspend miles of silvery translucent fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. Would you expect anything less?

Christo usually works at such massive geographic scales—land interventions that can be discerned by satellites passing overhead. Here his ambition stretches for 42 miles (67.6 km) of scenic river with no less than a total of 5.9 miles (9.5 km) of fabric suspended over the eight different sections of the river.

The Indicator: The Death of “The Death”

Le Corbusier's grave, Cimetière de Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Alpes Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur Region, France. Via

A few weeks ago, appearing on the heels of a Salon article by Scott Timberg, entitled, “The Architecture Meltdown”, GOOD Magazine published “Why ‘The Death of Architecture’ May Not Be Such a Bad Thing”. Penned by public interest advocate and writer, John Cary, the article offered a provocative corrective for architecture in the Great Recession. In fact, it seemed written for the purpose of provocation rather than offering real solutions.

The article, which I will break down by borrowing the language of Buddhism, conveyed Four Noble Truths: [1] Architecture is suffering, [2] There is a way to end the suffering, [3] The way to end the suffering is to follow a new path, and [4] The path is the “emergent” field of public interest design. This is how architecture can rise above the “meltdown” and save itself and the world.

Sounds simple enough, right? Let’s do it!

The Indicator: Moby, Part 3

Photos from

G: What drew you out here?

M: A bunch of things. One: the desire to be warm in the winter. Two: the desire to live in the strangest city in the western world. Three: to be around an odd artistic and professional environment founded on creativity regardless of the dreck that comes out of here, it’s still creative. Whereas if you go to a party in New York, you meet people who do jobs I don’t understand. They’re in arbitrage, or corporate accounting, or they are hedge fund managers. They don’t make anything. They just sort of figure out how to generate money off of other people’s efforts. You come here and you meet very successful people who make things. There is this sort of roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude that exists here that you don’t find in other places. I also think that one of the defining characteristics of LA is the overwhelming rate of failure.

You know, hedge fund guys…they don’t fail. Wall Street guys? They are born, they grow up in Connecticut or grow up in Bedford and they come from privilege and they’re entitled, and they go to Penn and then Harvard Business School and then they go to work on Wall Street and then it’s all success from day one.

The Indicator: Zombies

Back from the grave, the first post from The Indicator series by Guy Horton, published in 2010 at AD.

This town, is coming like a ghost town.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.
This town, is coming like a ghost town.

- The Specials, “Ghost Town”

When I look back at the events leading up to being laid off, I think of zombies. Of course zombies aren’t real so what I’m really thinking of are movies about zombies. I haven’t seen them all—there are hundreds—so the zombies I’m most familiar with are the pop-locking ones from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or the funny ones from “Shaun of the Dead”. I never thought that that part of my subconscious that identifies with zombies would get triggered. But, then again, I never thought I would get laid off. There is a first for everything.

So, how does one identify zombies? As I learned from “Shaun of the Dead”, by the time you know, it’s too late. Remarkable as it seems, the people you least expect to become zombies are suddenly shuffling along shedding limbs and trying to eat you. They are, as it turns out, usually your close friends and colleagues.

When the economy began to falter back in 2007, architecture was one of those fields that began to experience a steady increase in zombie population. There were many rumors about which firms they worked for, whose softball teams they were playing on, whether they were more likely to be associates or principals. What about that Arch II with the mysterious limp and the foreign accent? Then there was the designer who always looked like he had had too many late nights out. Maybe those strange interns.

The Indicator: Modus Extremis

Architecture sans tourists. Photo by Guy Horton

I am constantly amazed by the extremes architects go to to realize their “vision” or to impress or even merely serve a client. Clients demand so much and architects seem to willingly bend to insane schedules that tax their people to the maximum. In the age of extreme everything, architecture is extreme working.

Of course sometimes good things can emerge from the pressures of compressing schedules. There are synergistic flows that can magically occur when people are working under the pressure of an impending deadline. Granted, sometimes pressure is a good thing that allows creativity to emerge.

The Indicator: Terra Vague

Sustainable Cenotaph for Isaac Newton – Boullée, 1784. Courtesy Star Strategies+Architecture as cited in The Architect’s Newspaper, AN Blog

Sustainability and Form have dominated architectural discourse, trapping the discipline between utopian play-acting—promising what it cannot deliver—and computerized “gaming” of design extremism.”

– Mark Jarzombek, “ECO-Pop” in Cornell Journal of Architecture 8:RE, January 2011.

In what he calls ECO-POP, Mark Jarzombek, associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT (i.e. someone with credentials), draws attention to how sustainability is deployed as an ideology and visual trope more than as a repertoire of achievable, well-thought-out strategies. This is my unabashedly biased interpretation of his manifesto-like article—in fact, let’s just call it a manifesto.

The Indicator: Iwan Baan…On Photography

© Iwan Baan

Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful.

-Susan Sontag, On Photography

Julius Shulman was best known for photography that envisioned architecture as art. His images distilled architecture as paeans to its central function in society. As such, Mr. Shulman created a photographic trope that either ignored people altogether or portrayed them as props that highlighted architecture’s mastery. It is thus fitting that the winner of last year’s inaugural Julius Shulman Photography Award went to a photographer whose focus some might arguably say is people.

The Indicator: Living Sustainability

Courtesy of Mark English

Sustainability can be associated with wildly expensive technological advances. Which not coincidentally can immediately turn off clients.

So how do we define it? What does it mean, from a resource-conservation standpoint, as well as from a business one? For one viewpoint, we turn to Mark English, AIA. He has promoted sustainability efforts on several different levels for years. That means that not only does he incorporate sustainable strategies in his designs, he also helps other firms implement them in their work. He has been involved in programs including the California Solar Initiative, Green-point Rating, and he is also a Director on San Francisco’s AIA Board. He also edits two online publications including “Green Compliance Plus” where articles explore such topics as Passive Houses and the debate on Green Certification, and which also assists other professionals in meeting energy-efficient goals. Another publication, “The Architect’s Take,” presents news from an architectural standpoint. In fact one of those articles provided the basis for some of this author’s work.

The Indicator: Made in China

19th Century Confectionary factory, via

“Made in China.” For so many in Western nations, this phrase conjures up a plethora of horrific images. There is the Human Rights argument: low wages, inhumane working conditions, and so forth. Then there is the issue of quality, as in, there is none.

First let’s talk about human rights in terms of manufacturing. The favored discourse is that Chinese factories exploit their employees and hence the resultant quality of the goods is far inferior. Sensational stories that support this conclusion always seem to cross international lines. Moreover, there are basic protestations of Human Rights’ violations and then the specter of Tibet is raised.

The Indicator: Learning from IBM

Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC), via

The Economist has some really interesting articles on doing business. The latest are on the 100th anniversary of IBM and another which measures the success of multinational business vs. philanthropy in changing society for the better. IBM came out the winner in the latter one. Not, however, because it is a multinational corporation but because of the way it does business. IBM treats its employees well which directly shapes its influence on the larger, now global, community. Moreover, while many think of IBM as a “tech” company and its stock is often listed as such, IBM actually categorizes itself as a service company.

There are five major strategies that have ensured IBM’s ability to withstand the vicissitudes of a dynamic business sector, three of which directly apply to architecture firms. First, IBM puts its customers first and foremost. They do this by using a significant number of their employees to foster and maintain client relationships. That makes it more difficult for other companies to poach their customers. Why? Because those other companies don’t think developing and keeping clients happy is a good use of their resources, i.e. employees. IBM knows better. Clients trust them precisely because of their long relationship. So when clients need something, they turn to IBM. That means a steady client-base of loyal customers who in turn recommend IBM to their clients and friends.

The Indicator: It’s Personal

My old firm, the one I got laid off from almost exactly two years ago, has had another round of layoffs. I’ve lost count how many that is (over ten I think), but since it included several principles, I’m guessing that this is either a death knell or time for a major restructuring of that office.

And that got me thinking about my own situation. Again. Because if there’s one thing that triggers intense feelings when you’re unemployed, especially when it’s been a really long time, it’s hearing other people at your old firm have suffered the same sad fate.

The Indicator: Death of a Critic

When a major architecture critic heads for the exit, does anyone care? One would suspect most architects would hold the door open and wave him on through. Critics, after all, can be quite nasty and make one’s life work look like so much poop.

So, it depends. When Herbert Muschamp died in 2007 the collective tissue boxes of the architectural profession were emptied as architects of all stripes, especially those he championed, shed rivers of tears. Mr. Muschamp, it seems, was a critic of consequence. People listened to him. What then of his protégé, Nicolai Ouroussoff? (Hereafter, simplified to N.O.) Will be N.O. missed?

More after the break.

The Indicator: The Next Architecture, Part 8: Inevitability

As the economy staggers through the pre-dawn streets of a slow and agonizing “recovery” – some economists including Robert Reich argue we are not in a recovery – it is important to remember what has been learned.

As far as architecture is concerned, the lessons learned were the same ones as in prior recessions. Maybe this time architects will not suffer from amnesia or lapse into denial when billings tick up once again. It is easy to forget how difficult things have been. People tend to just want to move on and not dwell on the past. Psychologically, people seem to just want the economy to be in a recovery – even if there is evidence to support that it is not necessarily at that stage yet. Recession this, recession that. Everybody is tired of hearing about it. I’m tired of writing about it! But it is still a reality that affects the ranks of our chosen profession. No one has been immune. Professionals at all levels of experience, whether licensed or un-licensed, domestic or international, healthcare or commercial have been impacted.

More after the break.

The Indicator: Distractions

post-it art by Marc Johns

Focus! Focus! Focus! Why are you reading this! You should not be reading this now! Get back to work! You are being unproductive! You are DISTRACTED!

Architecture in an office environment often functions like the opposite of how it was in studio. For one, offices are businesses so there is a need for oversight, management, evaluation, assessment, leadership, discrete task assignments, meetings…the list goes on. Notice that all of these elements to running a firm somehow come down to time management and staffing issues. Leaders have to keep an eye on junior staff, not to be annoying and stand over their shoulders micro-managing them, but to stay aware of what everyone is doing and where the different aspects of complex projects stand. Of course, this also relates to project budgets.

More after the break.

The Indicator: The $5000 House


The best of architects is not that they can use cool software or design buildings, or even that they can help create interesting spaces. If you think back to your school days, the best of architecture was problem-solving. You were given a challenge and then you had to think of good ways to address those challenges. That included addressing social, cultural, racial, environmental, and not least, spatial, needs.

Given the opportunity, architects use a myriad of tools and critical thinking skills to solve many different problems, not just strictly spatial ones. In fact, years ago, Guy Horton and I discussed the possibility of starting a round table or a colloquium, to brainstorm on different issues with others both in architecture and other academic fields, and to offer possible solutions.

More after the break.

The Indicator: Non-Architectural Background


According to Architecture I have what you might call a Past. I never thought I did, but there you go. I do. What I mean precisely is that at one time I had a life that did not revolve around architecture. I’m one of those suspicious Non-Architectural Background types—or a person from the realm of the Non-Architectural Background.

Architecture has found ways to accommodate people like me, but at times it is still an uncomfortable accommodation. Architecture likes to view itself as cosmopolitan, cultured, and intellectual, but when it comes face to face with individuals who have educations and experiences of non-architectural sorts it doesn’t always know what to do with us.

More after the break.

The Indicator: In Praise of Clutter

Worry about what was never said / 2011 / acrylic on canvas / 22" × 28"

In 1933, the eminent, genre-bending Japanese novelist, Junichiro Tanizaki, composed a landmark essay on aesthetics entitled, In Praise of Shadows. It is more stream of consciousness than formal essay, part epic poem, part cultural theory. It revealed something different about the obvious; something deeper about the overlooked qualities of space and light. It led us by the hand back into the value of darkness.

Wendy Heldmann’s paintings also explore the obvious and seemingly unimportant, leading us into the abandoned, post-production, end-of-term architecture studio. This world is heaped with the artifacts of architectural exploration: scraps of paper, foamcore, laser-cut acrylic sheets, cardboard coffee containers, plastic bottles still partially filled with colorful liquids, dusty respirators, demolished models, battered, smudged monitors, chairs overturned onto tool trolleys, the spidery arms of darkened desk lamps. All of this becomes worth looking over again.

More after the break.