5 Projects: Interview 1 / Mark Talbot

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.

We will be featuring the five interviews this week, one per day. Read the first one after the break.

Interview 1: Mark Talbot (critic: Mark Foster Gage)

Can you explain the idea of the uncanny valley and how it was used to shape the form of the building? The diagram on the left uses a likeness to human form as a measure of familiarity… what does your diagram on the right use as a measure of familiarity?

The uncanny valley is a diagram that comes from the field of robotics which theorizes that as robots, or other facsimiles look and act more and more like humans, they will elicit a response of revulsion from any human observers. The diagram charts the positivity of a human reaction over lifelikeness; the valley is the turning point in the human reaction, where the human response slips rapidly into the negative at the point of near to lifelikeness.

My interest in this diagram has to do with my interest in estrangement and what estrangement means as a formal response to a buildings context. In the case of this project, Yale as an institution, with a strong neo-Gothic architectural character forms the context, if applied to the diagram; it is in the place of the “human” to which my project might be measured against. Obviously the interest in this diagram is not for its scientific merit, it posed an interesting aesthetic idea that allowed me to operate within the context in a manner that I was not used to.

What is the relationship to the context?

As I was explaining before with my interest in the uncanny valley diagram, the project engages with the context by picking up on familiar aspects of its surroundings, combining and abstracting elements of adjacent buildings in such a way as to relate to and estrange its own form. Particularly important to this is the development of the northwest tower which serves two major purposes; first in the interest of its relation to and estrangement from one of the area’s most defining features, that of the spire of the nearby cathedral and second; the corner tower is a response to one of the most salient features of the areas urban composition. The block on which my project is sited is the northernmost large scale block on Yale’s main campus before the scale drops off to a series of smaller buildings in a sub-urban block type of small houses on large open lots. The tower is used to mark the entrance to Yale’s lower campus, taking advantage of the lower buildings to confuse its scale; depending on vantage point, the building has monumental characteristics but can flip between both states.

Can you discuss how the Gothic arch/ cave spaces subtly reference the Yale courtyards and other buildings close by?

Yale’s courtyard buildings are a powerful feature in Yale’s campus plan; one can only gain access to the interior of a block by passing through gates which puncture the entire depth of the building accessing their central courtyards. Like the buildings through which they are cut the gates are characterized by their strong Gothic style, a style which is enhanced through their length, making the passage seem more like a tunnel than a gate. I was interested in recapitulating the effects of being caught in this interstice between the street and courtyard, using the denial of any kind of relief from this condition through a courtyard or similar void to drive the buildings public circulation program.

Can you explain the ground plane / public space and its relationship to the tartan grid? Similarly, can you explain the pragmatic warehouse plan versus the islands plan below?

To generate the tunnel effects described earlier, the ground floor plan was conceived as a hall of hypertrophied (enlarged, overfed) columns which could contain all of the required ground floor program requirements (classrooms, bathrooms, reception, auditorium, etc.). The tartan grid is the result of the expansion of a typical column and arch structure to the scale of rooms and barrel vaults (again an estrangement of the Gothic), this expansion allowed for the ground floor to be divided into the “islands” that you described. The near equal proportions of programmed island spaces to the un-programmed interstitial spaces allowed for the ground floor to take on a strong figural quality, the manipulation of this interstitial figure through the arrangement and proportion of the islands allowed me to direct the public circulation by suggestion through the scale of each vaulted space.

The building is split into three distinct layers based on use; you can see a suggestion of this in the buildings form although I tried to synthesize this difference through the building’s geometry and skin. The bottom as I have been explaining is a hall of hypertrophied columns. The top is a reading room composed of over-scaled light wells, and the middle is a warehouse. The warehouse portion of this project was used to quickly solve the buildings major program requirement, an archive to be arranged and studied by a series of archivists and curators. The middle section of the building compacts all of the programs directly related to the archive into a box to be sealed and environmentally controlled with more precision than the public spaces. Inside the box, the entire program is arranged pragmatically, offices are located in the lower portion of the box, as well as a server room and IT support and the archive is located in the upper portion of the box. The desire to hide the archive portion of the project was fairly straightforward. You can’t design everything with equal intensity, sometimes a shed will do.

What sort of manipulation of precedents was part of the process of this project?

This project relied on the manipulation of a large number of precedents to accomplish its goals… I would say that the two main precedents for this work come from Hejduk and Venturi, but the ground floor plan and the ceiling of the reading room are direct appropriations from Theo Van Doesburg and Louis Kahn respectively, other portions come from a variety of other sources. I mine precedents for their compositional strategies and try to synthesize often contradictory works. This more casual relationship to precedent allows for a more projective approach geared towards producing new affects rather than an approach that may use precedent and the legibility and meaning of that precedent to issue critiques.

For instance, the ground floor plan started with me directly copying the composition of a Van Doesburg painting, I noticed quickly the potential of the interstitial figure and re-scaled the elements of his painting to the program of the ground floor, this set off a chain reaction ending with vaults and thickened columns.

Given your own background, what sort of intellectual debt is helpful to understand where the ideas for the project were spawned? What is the relationship to Hejduk’s work and MOS?

I suppose the project was born from ideas developed by the faculty at OSU when I was in school there, particularly the lectures and writings of both Bob Somol and John McMorrough. A lot of the buildings formal characteristics can be directly attributed to MOS, for the underbelly and tower forms and to Hejduk, for the projects strong zoomorphic quality.

How does your project deal with the parts of architecture that are not necessarily part of an academic project (client, real site, budget, program)?

I find that constraints like these enrich any architectural goals that a project might have. This is not to say that these concerns rule over the project, quite the contrary in fact, pragmatics is the only way that I know of to give meaning to architectural ideas,to contextualize them, without context (be it historical, functional, siting, program, etc), an architectural idea has less value.

How does the project relate to larger common concerns that are emerging at Yale School of Architecture? Recent emerging ideas lingering from postmodernism and Venturi?

It’s interesting to think about this project’s relationship to postmodernism because I was harshly criticized at the review of the earlier iterations of this project for being too literal with my appropriation of its source material (it was also very ugly, it might still be…?). I believe that this project is interesting because it is attempting to erase the potential collage that could have been generated from the wide variety of references that it takes on. If I had not attempted to synthesize, there would be a confusion of signifiers rendering the project inert in the sense that one would read the elements and attempt to intellectualize their relationships taking power away from the project as a whole. Because the various pieces of the project were estranged from their sources through geometric abstraction, over-scaling, color, etc, the project is less legible as it is performative in that it is toying with aesthetic ideas of the uncanny.

Which architects in your own personal collection are crucial to the formation of this project?

Hejduk, Venturi, MOS, Steven Holl, Will Alsop, Neutelings Riedijk.

What is your attitude towards the social / collective ambitions behind the project?

My attitude to the social / collective ambitions of this project is the same as my attitude toward the aesthetic ambitions of the project. Utilization of the uncanny diagram immediately embeds an attitude towards the social within the project. The notion of familiarity contextualizes the project; it resonates only with those who see it in relation to the Yale campus.

Less interesting but also worth mentioning is the organization of the project’s interior. By necessity the projects interior organization stratifies building occupants into three user groups, the ground floor allows access for the general public, the middle warehouse box allows access only to the building’s staff, and the reading room allows access to only those Yale students with appointments to browse the archival material.

About this author
Cite: Sebastian Jordana. "5 Projects: Interview 1 / Mark Talbot" 18 Apr 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/128554/5-projects-interview-1-mark-talbot> ISSN 0719-8884

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