MAS Context Fall Talks 2016

Couplings 2016

November 9, 2016 at 6PM

The inaugural edition of the MAS Context Couplings series explored the influence of past projects, realized or unrealized, in shaping contemporary thinking in a design discipline. In this edition, each of the eight Chicago-based architects participating in the event shared a project by another architect that they consider relevant for their practice today. This framework established conceptual connections between projects while providing a snapshot of the opportunities and issues at stake in architecture.


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Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Participants included:

Paola Aguirre – Borderless Studio
Katherine Darnstadt – Latent Design
Judith K. De Jong – UIC School of Architecture
Sean Lally – Sean Lally Architecture
Ang Li – SAIC Architecture, Interior Architecture, & Designed Objects
Julie Michiels – SOM
Ryan Palider – UIC School of Architecture
Eric Rothfeder – ERA / Eric Rothfeder Architect

Thanks to the Chicago Design Museum for hosting the event.

Below is an edited transcription of their presentations.

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Judith de Jong, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Judith de Jong on the Milliron’s department store in Los Angeles

I am an architect and an urbanist, so my interest lies fundamentally in the reciprocating relationships between architecture and the city and, more specifically, in opportunities for design innovation in architectures and urbanisms of mass culture. Most recently I have been exploring this in writing, as well as through speculative design work for urbanizing suburbs.

A project that I have been looking at repeatedly in the past few years is the Milliron’s department store in Los Angeles that was designed by the partnership of the architect Victor Gruen and the designer Elsie Krummeck. There are a few key ideas here that make it conceptually relevant to my practice today. First, it is an early project that hybridizes urban and suburban, and materializes that hybridity through an, at the time, new architecture and urbanism of the automobile. And it explores the possibilities of atypical sites for collective suburban life. And just as a note, with the exception of the next image, which is an aerial image, all of these photos are by the photographer Julius Shulman, who is famous, of course, for photographing the Case Study Houses in Los Angeles.

In the post-World War II period we see a fundamental and transformative shift in American life that is materialized in the incredible volume of post-war residential suburbanization. Culturally, America was becoming decidedly suburban, its mobile nature exemplified by, but by no means limited to, the worker who commuted alone by car from a distant home outside the city limits.

Built in 1948, Milliron’s was part of a planned urban center in a new suburban community for defense workers. The freestanding store was meant to be only one level and, therefore, consumed quite a lot of its allotted site. The adjacent surface lot didn’t provide sufficient parking, so what they did was locate additional parking on the roof. Now, roof parking is not a new idea, but it is also not particularly typical in the United States. But this inventive approach here made manifest two relatively recent ideas: first, the car was now a distinct, spatializing force in every suburban and urban project; and second, the car could be an agent of innovative built form.

At Milliron’s, the concrete frame of the streetside arcade curves down to the ground, creating a portal from the street to two large scissor ramps leading to the roof parking. Pedestrian entry to the store from the rear parking lot occurred under the dynamic crossing of the two ramps, a moment both literally and conceptually framed by the car. Along the main road, the store’s street edge was pulled back, creating a wide sidewalk for pedestrians. The large plate glass windows that you would find in a typical downtown department store were reimagined here as giant display vitrines that were sized to attract attention and broadcast the merchandise, not only to the slower speeds of the pedestrian, but also to the faster speeds of the cars on the adjacent street.

Moreover, the project extends the street from ground to roof, where it explored the possibilities of atypical locations for collective suburban life through additional rooftop programs. On the roof we find a 250-seat community center, a restaurant, and a beauty salon. Importantly, all of these were open past retail hours and were available to the community, so people could come, use the space, host public meetings, and attend public performances even when the store wasn’t open. It was a shared amenity.

In this way, the project extends the history of retail as a certain kind of locus of collective life, often for new audiences, that we see pioneered in the Parisian arcades and the Le Bon Marché department store in Paris. This project also presages Gruen’s later proposition that the shopping mall, of which he is a pioneer, could be a “social, cultural, and civic crystallization point in our vast suburban areas.”

In the end, Milliron’s is conceptually important for my work because it is an early hybrid urban-suburban project. It explores the spatial impacts and design opportunities of the car, and it proposes that collective suburban life can happen at atypical sites. And I would argue that these ideas continue to be key considerations for architecture and urbanism in the rapidly urbanizing suburban landscape of today’s American metropolis. Thank you.

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Ang Li, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Ang Li on Robin Hood Gardens in London

Lately I have been interested in the ways in which architects negotiate architectural afterlives, from rethinking the role of buildings as political agents within preservation and demolition debates to tracing how the dissemination of images of architecture in the media influence the way we think about heritage and the construction of architectural cannons.

Today, I want to focus on a particular building that has undergone a series of transformations over the course of its lifetime. The building in question is Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, a Brutalist housing project from the early 1970s that has since experienced a revival in the past few years in the architectural press through a series of ongoing public debates around its imminent demolition.

This audience is likely familiar with the project’s architectural provenance, or at the very least has been exposed to many iconic photographs of the building. Today, instead of focusing on a close reading of the architecture itself, I am going to attempt to retrace the recent publication history of Robin Hood Gardens, using the project as a case study to examine the ways in which we evaluate lasting architectural value—what we choose to protect and what we allow to be demolished.

Robin Hood Gardens was designed in the late 1960s as council housing for the Greater London Council, the city’s public housing authority, in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. It consists of two precast residential blocks at seven and ten stories each around a landscaped central green mound. The building was designed to house 240 units that includes a combination of 1 bedroom apartments below and 2-6 bedroom maisonettes above.

When construction was completed in 1972, the project didn’t initially receive significant coverage. One of the only published mentions of it that year came from a lukewarm review written by Peter Eisenman for Architectural Design that described it as a somewhat compromised version of the Smithsons’ unbuilt schemes. All this changed in 2008, when the building was slated for demolition to make way for the ongoing Blackwall Reach Regeneration Project. In reaction to this news, the British architectural newspaper Building Design launched a widely publicized campaign to list Robin Hood Gardens with English Heritage, gathering letters of support from established figures in the design community such as Richard Rogers, Kenneth Frampton, and Zaha Hadid, to name a few.

One of the key arguments for the preservation of the building on the grounds of its architectural significance centered around the Smithsons’ infamous design feature of the “streets in the sky,” a series of open-air balconies that connected the individual units. This unique architectural typology was intended to provide a series of internal streets that would encourage spontaneous interactions amongst the residents and in turn foster a sense of community within the building. In practice, they never lived up to this promise and since the building was first occupied they have faced numerous criticisms over the years for compromising the privacy of the units, harboring crime and isolating the residents from the street life below. Within recent debates around the project’s future fate, these streets in the air have come to symbolize opposing ideologies for both sides of the debate. In a way, they reveal the gap between theory and practice in the Smithsons’ scheme, where the most iconic element of the design is also the very thing that lead to the building’s failure.

Looking at a photograph of the streets taken in 1972, the year the building was completed, it is easy to be swept away by the nostalgic charm of the brutalist architecture. But when you turn your attention away from the building itself to focus on the view beyond framed by the balconies, you are presented with an uninterrupted panorama of the urban context of Tower Hamlets in the early 1970s, a series of sprawling, low-rise residential developments. Placed alongside a more recent photograph taken a few years ago from the same angle that captures the recent construction boom taking place around Canary Wharf, the two images reveal the relentless cycles of progress and obsolescence that has come to define this part of London.

Under the encroaching pressure of this rapid development, Robin Hood Gardens was eventually denied listing status in 2009 and the developers were given a green light to begin work on site. Since then, the project encountered a number of unplanned hurdles— from the economic crash during the recession, to the discovery of asbestos on site—that drastically slowed down the demolition and redevelopment process. Today, eight years later, both buildings on site remain standing in a state of limbo, even though half the residents have already moved out.

When you run a search for images of Robin Hood Gardens today to get a sense of its current status, it is often hard to really understand the temporality of the project. On the one hand, there are the promotional photographs from the developers showing construction teams in hard hats on site, suggesting that work is happily underway. On the other hand, a series of artistic representations of the building by artists, architects and photographers—such as these by the photographer Kois Miah—have emerged during this same period that attempt to memorialize the site by capturing the lives of the remaining residents through personal interviews accompanied by intimate images that capture the interior life of the building—a time capsule of sorts.

At the same time, the project’s stalled state also opened up a public stage for a lot of divergent media speculation, with BD taking the lead. Often you would find articles published less than a few months apart that each paint a very different picture of the building’s future through dramatic titles and conflicting imagery, where Robin Hood Gardens is described as being “remodeled,” “replaced,” “revisioned,” and “remembered” all at the same time. Glossy developer renderings of the new residential developments planned for the site are placed alongside black and white construction photos of the project from 1971, further conflating the site’s already complex timeline. Judging from these articles alone, it was often very hard to tell whether the building was on its way up or on its way down.

Ironically, the one element of the project that remains unchanged in Robin Hood Gardens’ many representations is the landscaped mound at the center of the site in between the two towers blocks. This is an image that was just released last month by Howarth Tompkins, the latest team of architects who have been selected to design the scheme to replace Robin Hood Gardens—as you can see the proposal maintains this central void. While the “streets in the sky” have become the most divisive element of the building’s design, one might argue that this beloved landscape feature has in many ways taken on the opposite function as an equalizer within recent debates. It is the one thing that everyone can agree on—the developers, the residents, the architectural community have all come to embrace it in their own ways. Here is a photograph taken in 1972 by Peter Smithson capturing Shadrach Woods descending the mound, alongside another image from 2014 depicting a more recent architectural pilgrimage where a group of tourists attempt to climb the mound during a tour organized by the British Council. Further afield, a scaled model of the mound appeared at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale in the British Pavilion curated by FAT Architecture and Crimson Architectural Historians. In fact, the model was actually constructed out of earth that had been extracted from the original mound at Robin Hood Gardens and shipped to Venice, so the circle closes in on itself.

In many ways, this mound has taken on a monumental status that is at the very least equal to the building itself. Which is why I think it remains important for us to think about where it originated and what it is made of, that even this most unifying feature has a much more contested history embedded within cycles of construction and demolition. This is a photograph taken by Peter Smithson in 1970 from the Smithsons’ archives at the Harvard Graduate School of Design commemorating the day the original terrace houses that occupied the site in the 1960s were demolished to make way for their building, creating a giant mound of debris in its wake. In this image, you can almost see history repeating itself—revealing that this seemingly neutral landscape is in fact both a historic document of what Robin Hood Gardens superseded as well as a premonition of its future obsolescence. For me, the mound provides potent symbol of the inherently cyclical nature of building construction and demolition, and perhaps a good reminder to us all to think more speculatively and expansively about the cultural and material shelf lives of architectural projects.

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Ryan Palider, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Ryan Palider on the French Communist Party headquarters in Paris

I am interested in the making of architecture and architecture as a disciplinary field that engages in the culture of the world and of the place. I am going to start off by talking about a recent transportation minister in London that sees Brutalist architecture and Late Modernist architecture as ugly and has it in his cross hairs do away with. He would rather put up this neo-classical arch in place of some of the Modernist train stations. The previous presentation already talked about the Robin Hood Gardens which has already been under attack and is soon to be demolished and replaced by these nondescript housing blocks. Even in Chicago, the birthplace of modernism, seminal works are slowly becoming extinct and losing their place in the landscape. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for these monuments of concrete, glass, and steel, and before they are lost to the ethers we all should take a moment to learn the lessons that we can gain from them.

Tonight, I would like to talk about Oscar Niemeyer’s French Communist Party headquarters in Paris in terms of form, structure, culture and how these are devices that architects use to produce their work.

At first glance, the building is a simple gestural composition: a bent bar, a dome, and a tower. But on closer investigation, these three elements are highly articulated or attuned to each other and the site. The bent bar is made by connecting rational segments of circles and bars. When you look at it in the site, the gestural curvature is responding to the formal context of the site and also transforms it’s context by creating a plaza that engages the city in a meaningful way. I would also argue that the building is also engaging a broader context than just the adjacent buildings of the site. This is the picturesque Parc des Buttes-Chaumont that is a block away filled with neoclassical architectural follies. One could read this building as a modernist folly, as a new park within the city. Context is an important concept within the discipline of architecture, and it is clear that this work by Niemeyer is in conversation with previous works of architecture. Niemeyer is building on the relationship of building to the ground plane set up by Le Corbusier and the attitudes of rooftop garden in the way in which architecture looks back at the city.

These Late Modernist buildings are often decried as being highly pragmatic in terms of structure and not given the proper credit in terms of the innovation that one finds in them. To make a massive building delicately hover above the landscape actually takes a lot of structural maneuvering. The building rests upon five pillars. Its underbelly is sculped to produce a tension between the landscape. This tapered floorplate is repeated at each level. The floor slabs are tapered further at the intersection of floor and structure. This produces a sculptural quality to the interior rather than just a mundane repetitive structural frame. The payoff of all this tapering of slab is that because it becomes super thin at the perimeter of the building the façade can become a broad expanse of glass. When inside the rooms of the bar building you get mass and structure on one side and delicate expanses of glass on other side. The glass facade wasn’t designed by Niemeyer, for this he enlisted the help of Jean Prouvé. Proving that architecture isn’t an individual sport but a team sport. The innovation within the curtain wall pushed the limits of technology to produce the upmost, thinnest system possible. And then the client threw in a curve ball. They didn’t want a bourgeois HVAC system, they wanted an operable window to cool the building. Prouvé produced an elegant, operable system that doesn’t detract from the thinness of the façade. All of these details are missed at first glance.

Another important move within the building in terms of structure is the decoupling of the core from the bar building. This allows the interior to be opened up and flow throughout the glass bar. The formal quality of the core produces a completely different reading of the building from the backside, where we get a monolithic tower. This move has an experiential payoff too, creating a sequence where occupants go from the darkness of the stair tower to the lightness of the hallway of the glass bar, eventually reaching the glass perimeter and its expansive view of the city.

The other thing that I am interested in architecture is engagement in culture, and, particularly through materiality: the real versus the artifice. Modernist architecture gets a bad name when it comes to materiality at times, which I will talk about in a minute. The building came about in the mid-1960s when the French Communist Party received 20% of the vote. They were at the largest size in their history and decided to consolidate their two headquarters into a new building that could communicate the new vision of the French Communist Party. They contacted Oscar Niemeyer, a famed architect and long-time communist that believed that architecture was a political act. Through the composition of the transparent bar and the public promenade in front, the building becomes an architectural response to the mystique of the old Communist Party. Another political move within the project is taking the most hierarchical space within the building, the Assembly Hall of the Party, and putting it out in the most public space, in the center of the plaza. A final bold move that happens within the building is that Niemeyer depoliticizes the ground plane by allowing it to flow underneath the building. The public plaza swoops inside the building and becomes an open lobby to the building organized only by a series of freestanding walls. Creating a free plan that gives the occupants a sense of openness and access to all spaces.

The other thing that I mentioned I am interested in my own work is materiality, the real versus the artifice. While these Late Modernist and Brutalist buildings often are decried for an earnest sense of materiality, and this building does have that earnestness, but it is always punctuated through an integration between the real and the artifice. This starts at the plaza where the undulating concrete of the plaza dolm melds into the natural hillside of the landscape. This attitude towards materiality happens again in the building, where the subterranean world of the conference rooms has a diaphanous ceiling that mimics the light of the sky above. So, even though you are below ground, you have this artifice of being open to the sky above. This attitude plays out even in the carpet. The carpet symbolizes the continuation of the landscape from the plaza.

The most hierarchical space in the building is the Assembly Hall that takes the form of a dome that dominates the center of the public plaza. As you enter the assembly hall, the hill-like dome becomes a cloud-like interior. A cloud made of pure artifice for artifice’s sake. The interior of the dome is an ornamentation that also serves a function: it solves an acoustic problem due to the shape of the Assembly Hall. This chandelier-like dome never shies away from its artifice as it diffuses the light to producing a cloud-like effect. My one joke is that it was brave for Niemeyer to produce a type of space within the center of the Communist Party that even a Bond villain would feel at home in.

Today the Communist party has 5% of the vote in Frances so they have rented out the space in their building. But the architecture still has a cultural relevance, being a backdrop to numerous movies and fashion shoots. It is also the preferred location for a number of animation studios and tech companies. My closing comment is that next time you pass by one of these buildings that worships the cult of the ugly, I ask you to peel back the surface and see the wonderful world that awaits you inside. Thank you.

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Julie Michiels, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Julie Michiels on the Centraal Beheer offices in Apeldoorn

I like a good grid, maybe because I grew up here in Chicago. Not necessarily as a rigid structure, but as something that provides a framework that can be manipulated. It is about human perception and human interaction with it. The majority of the work that I do at Perkins+Will is workplace, and workplaces are the places where we are spending most of our time these days. Going back to the history of workplace, starting at the factory floor, we can see the presence of the grid and we can understand that it applied for efficiency and economy, not with the human worker in mind. Open office became popular in the early twentieth century. Frank Lloyd Wright pushed out walls and got rid of some of that hierarchy that had made its way in, but the spaces were still organized in very neat rows, very much gridded. In the 1950s and 1960s, we see a push back against that, fostering mobility, and making the grid more human. Unfortunately that was able to be cherry picked by the people who were paying for the space, making it back into these efficient, simple, and inhumane rows of workforce. So it looks a lot again like the factory floor but with different machines in front of us. Luckily, we have a sense of humor and it made for some good films such as Jacques Tati’s Playtime.

That brings me to Dutch structuralist Herman Hertzberger, one of the few heroes in the design of office space. The reason why I think his work is interesting is in his use of the grid and the ways in which he employed a framework within which people can find their own usefulness and identity. It is not just giving a blank palette to people but giving them some guidelines and some points to work along.

I’d like to discuss his Centraal Beheer offices in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, a building completed in 1972 that recognizes his ideals and exemplifies the structuralist movement. You can instantly see the application of a grid, specifically a 9 by 9 meter Tartan grid. And it is not just about the application of the grid but also about the subtraction and the intersection of the grid as well. Looking at the plan, we can see that he is using it to create a central space at the ground floor. Another thing that is relevant to me in the work that I do is bringing the concepts of urban planning to an interior. Hertzberger was able to use the grid to create interior streets that pulled you through the central plaza for gatherings or many other activities.

This organization wasn’t just considered in two dimensions. It was a three-dimensional study as well in order to make it all work together. When the modules are held low there is a potential for access to lower roofs. When the modules are held apart, it allows light to get deep into the spaces as well as views out from parts of a building that might not typically have that available.

The building was designed from the inside out, and Hertzberger wasn’t necessarily interested in the form of the building as the starting point. He was more interested in the value of the space that was created inside, understanding the building as a unifying whole in which people could create unique identities. Modularity is part of that interest and exploring how the same module could be used over and over again, the same kit of parts, to create both collective spaces and individual spaces within a single framework. It is important to remember that, in all the current talk about open workplace, collaboration, third place and all that stuff, is not a new idea even when people seem to talk about it like it is. I like that this example demonstrates that.

In the images, you can appreciate the urban feel of its interior given by the presence of the streets and the choice of building materials. You see the layering of spaces, different activities happening in proximity of one another. Here is a view overlooking the streets below, and a game of chess happening above. Chess is a good analogy to the design of the building as in the game of chess there are very finite rules but the moves are endless.

Finally, one of the important aspects to him was the idea of individualization. Employees were actually encouraged to bring their own furniture. And the architects chose to not photograph the space until, I believe, it was three years into its occupancy, so that people had time to plant their roots there and really made it their own. Typically we all try to hurry up and get in there to take photos before anybody moves in. The building was vacated in 2013 and the developer that owns it now wants to give it a multifunctional use that would include housing. I believe that they have contacted Herman Hertzberger to involve him in the adaptive reuse process.

In ending, I think that these values and ideals are relevant today as technology in the workplace drives us to be infinitely adaptable to ways of working that we don’t know yet while, conversely, the environment pushes us to strive for longevity and an infinite use in a building. And, ultimately, the need to consider the users as individuals. Thank you.

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Eric Rothfeder, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Eric Rothfeder on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York

My talk tonight can be titled Things That Keep Me Up at Night. The Asch Building that you are seeing in the image housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which in 1911 was the site of the country’s worst industrial accident when 146 workers, mostly young women, died in a fire. It would ultimately galvanize in a workers’ movement that led to substantial changes in labor laws and building laws. Many years later, Frances Perkins, who was FDR’s first Secretary of Labor, said that the New Deal really started on the day of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

This is a building that typically belongs to the history of the labor movement of the Progressive Era and tends to be excluded from architectural history, but it is relevant for several reasons. First, I think architectural history tends to be a history of successes, but maybe as architects we need to attempt to engage in some of our most intractable problems, and we need to explore our history of failures and their consequences.

This project brings up questions of architectural agency and engagement. In particular, I am fascinated by the architect of the Asch Building, John Woolley, whose name has disappeared from history with the exception of a letter that he wrote after the building was completed. In it, he stated to the City of New York that, despite their objections, his building was, in fact, safe. He argued that it didn’t need the three full fire-rated egress stairs the city required and that that two plus an exterior fire escape was sufficient. This was an argument that the city accepted but, during the fire, the very poorly designed fire escape collapsed leading to the death of about a dozen people.

I consider Woolley as a sort of metaphor for architectural agency. You look at this situation and it suggests the culpability not just of his choice to engage in a problematic industry, but also extending certain economies and efficiencies for the benefit of the client and at the expense of the workers. In this narrative, Woolley is responsible and we read a kind of architectural agency to cause or prevent the disaster. But there is a little bit more to this story, which is the story of the locked doors. During the trial of the factory’s owners, it became clear that they had locked all of the doors, with the exception of one, as a way to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. And that was the reason that the death toll was so high. Looking at the story, you can speculate that, even if Woolley had provided an even safer building, if he had provided those three stairs recommended by the city, they would have ultimately been locked. If we as architects provide the doors, but then they are locked beyond our control, then what do we do? It is an irresolvable question, a moral fable and it keeps me up at night.

But maybe, in a more optimistic note, there is another lesson to draw from this situation, which has to do with the way the building confounds the relationship between private and public. During the trial of the factory owners, the issue came up as to whether the conditions of the factory would constitute a public nuisance. The factory owner said, “No, this is a private space. This is our own private space.” And the judge said, “Well, you had hundreds of people working within this space. That’s larger than some towns and villages. How can you say it’s not a public space?”

This points to the issue that, as architects, we are oftentimes concerned about the privatization of the public, the incursion of private interest in our public realm. But the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the building codes that came after it suggest the opposite trend. They suggest the incursion of the public interest on our most privates spaces. The building code is a way for the public to engage private space and private property. In a weird way, the wealthiest maybe have an easier time evading the tax collector, the IRS, than they do the building inspector. It is maybe a lot easier to get away with tax fraud than it is not building a proper ramp. I think that is ultimately powerful. We tend to think of these codes as a nuisance or something that homogenizes space but ultimately there is a great amount of power in that. We should be mindful of that, especially in today’s context.

There is a final irony in all this, which is that the building of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is now occupied by NYU. That university is currently building a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi, a country well known for its labor abuses especially of its construction workers. I don’t present it as a blanket condemnation of the project, but just to suggest that over a hundred years later so many of these issues continue to crop up. Perhaps we need a more nimble way of talking about it than we currently have. Thank you.

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Paola Aguirre, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Paola Aguirre on Four Sports Scenarios in Medellín

Tonight I am going to talk about sports. I am not a sports fan whatsoever, but the reason of choosing that topic is to talk about the Four Sports Scenarios project in Medellín, Colombia. The reason for choosing that project is because I wake up every day to the view of the expansion of McCormick Place. For those of you who haven’t been to the South Loop recently, it is a place that is dramatically changing. There is a 40-story hotel and sports and event arena currently under construction that has very flashy vendors and marketing images. I am really interested in seeing this transformation and this area under constant construction. As an architect, I am always thinking about how contemporary practices are encouraging better civic life, the use of public spaces in every single intervention in the city. I am especially interested at this scale and especially when projects like the expansion of McCormick Place are paid, in part, with public dollars. I am constantly thinking about how openness, civicness, and publicness are represented in every single project. I just love the fact that in English, being my second language, you can just put words together that then have a new meaning.

I am originally from Mexico and, as an architectural student, I grew up looking at architectural references from very established Latin American architects such as Luis Barragán and Oscar Niemeyer. It was very refreshing to learn, around the year 2010, about a new wave of practices that were emerging in South America that include, Felipe Mesa, who leads a small practice based in Medellin called Plan B. If you know anything about Medellin, you know that fifteen or twenty years ago it wasn’t the friendliest or safest the city, not only in Latin America, but in the world. This specific project is a collaboration between two offices, which is also very interesting. It is a collaboration between Plan B and El Equipo Mazzanti, a 25-year old practice led by Giancarlo Mazzanti. I really am very interested in the idea of architects coming together and collaborating in competitions.

Four Sports Scenarios focuses on several things, including reading the landscape and the context to create a new artificial topography. The building is an artificial mound on the street, and it is interesting because Medellin is a city located in a valley. Topography is relevant as a tool to direct views, to work with the sun angles, and to manage ventilation. The building was a renovation of an existing sports complex for the South American Games in 2010. Every time there is a sports event we pour tons of economic resources into sports centers that are probably going to be used only for a few weeks. What they did here was to improve significantly and expand existing facilities. What I really like about it is that this team took this opportunity to amplify public life and public spaces.

The program was straightforward, with a need to incorporate spaces for four different sports: basketball, gymnastics, martial arts, and volleyball. But the project is not about individual programs. It is about a unified building in which the in-between spaces become incredibly relevant. Concepts like transparency, visibility from the exterior to the interior, and how to move from one program to the other are very important. One of the anecdotes that Felipe Mesa mentions when presenting this project is, “Well, if people didn’t have money to pay to go inside and see what was happening in one of the fields, they could actually watch it from the outside.”

The project uses perforated steel panels that create a very interesting visual relationship between interior and exterior and change the reading of the building over the duration of the day turning the building into a spectacle. It is the place to be because it is graceful, festive, and in, a way, weird. It is a type of architecture that wants to play a significant role in a country and in a culture that is starting to play with new forms and new types of architecture.

What I like is that the design team goes beyond the fulfillment of a very utilitarian footprint. Layouts for sports are very prescribed, so I appreciate the capacity of going beyond what is required and playing with other elements, like the roof strips. They are very interesting not only in the plan but also in section. The continuity is not only achieved through repetition in the horizontal plane, but also by the waving of the structure. At the end of the day, it creates a spectacle not only outside but also in the inside of the building allowing both natural light and ventilation.

Whether you know this or not, architectural competitions are quite a new thing in Latin America. They started about fifteen years ago as opportunities emerging from new political frameworks. Public projects are paid with public money so they have very limited budgets, but that doesn’t prevent creative solutions to be applied to the building form and structure. I was very impressed with the steel frames and the solution that they came up with. You have to consider that we are not going to import construction technologies that don’t belong in Latin America, so this building was engineered in order to be built by local workers. This is a consideration that not many contemporary practices keep in mind.

I like what happens when sports are not being played, and how the in between space, the interstitial space, works when the building is not open. Any given afternoon, any day after school people just stop by. And it is very interesting how the design team documented the project, positioning themselves as mere observers of all this daily activity. Sometimes they captured a lot of people using it, and sometimes they captured a few young folks enjoying the space. It was an effort to capture the everyday.

Ultimately what I really like exploring when studying other architect’s work is to see how a project has the capacity to amplify civic life and public space. It helps me to continue to think about the way designers like me can contribute to create a better public realm and civic life. Thank you.

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Katherine Darnstadt, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Katherine Darnstadt on Archigram’s Cushicle and Suitaloon

When Iker put this charge to all of us I could think back to lazy afternoons right before studio at IIT and roaming the shelves of Prairie Avenue Bookshop. I remember there was a little green book that broke the line of these really nice spines on the shelf. I looked at it and I was immediately in love. It was a book about Archigram. If you know Latent Design’s work this should not surprise you. But it was something that was really wild to me during school because it was a book that just said, “We dare to dream in color. We dare to dream in something else. And we dare to dream in what’s right now and pragmatic speculation need not apply. We want provocation for provocation’s sake.” One of the first things that struck me was their highly stylized diagram style, and that was what drew me into their work in general.

Tonight, I want to talk about their Cushicle and the Suitaloon. Those aren’t real words but they are just fun to say. They are master manipulators of space and of language and that is, in itself, a very liberating thing. The Cushicle was an artificial spine stronger than your own, that you could use to attach elements of your own private life and to create the private space that you desired to venture out into the world. The Suitaloon was this beautiful inflatable structure that was made out of a material yet to be determined. Archigram was very concerned with the influence of space technology and personal modifications to advance urban mobility and the techno future of the mid-1960s to late 1960s. They are embracing the zeitgeist of the time of, “Let’s have maximum personalization and go out and embrace this brave new world that is coming in.” Architecturally and spatially speaking, this was very different.

So the Cushicle was the spine and the Suitaloon was an inflatable structure that created your own personal space. And it could be wherever you wanted it to be. You could carry it with you and become your way of living. It looks somewhat like a very high-tech sleeping bag in their renderings, but once you inflated it and saw that it was getting the maximum amount of volume in and the minimum amount of footprint, you get that it could start to be a cladding for a home. This is because they were dealing in the techno future and the techno future had great materials. They were focused on the inflatables, and they would have this wonderful effect on the environment and the space around it. You could hear the rain, you could see the rain, you could watch it move, and flex with the wind. If you inflated it in a space that was just slightly smaller than the Suitaloon could handle, it would start to contour around the space itself and it would start to inform your contact. So you are putting your personal context in the global context and you can physically see them interact and just rub right up against each other.

The Suitaloon could start to tether together to other units, and you could start to create spaces as large or as small as you wanted and make communities wherever you needed it to be. That was part of the dialogue that they had as the VIPs of DIY space and looking at how to create spatial elements that weren’t buildings. It was interesting to me to see a prototype that wasn’t a building, that was rendered and presented in a very different way and had a narrative that went very counter to the academic experience that I was having at my architecture school at that time. You could still feel that liberation of the 1960s in there, and feel the provocations itself. It took me time to understand it because you didn’t see a building. You wanted it to be a building. We still have this tension between buildings in the built environment and our personal relationship to them. That design dialogue, that intersection of the Venn diagram, became the motivation for how I want to practice and how my firm strives to have a dialogue with the spaces we want to influence.

The Cushicle and the Suitaloon start to look at ways of ultimate self-sufficiency. There’s a thread from those projects, self-sufficiency, and going to space. This image is like a Cushicle and a Suitaloon in one and, as this is much more realistic, it doesn’t seem fantastic. It doesn’t seem fantastic that we have to tether into something to have our life in a space, and that we carry everything with us when we are in space on our way to Mars because we are still new techno humans. It doesn’t seem so fantastic, but it is exactly the same thing. What was interesting about a space like this is we think about it as tethering together and creating a community, but we are actually inadvertently creating isolation because we are creating our exact own space by literally living in a bubble. We are continuing to do that now in ways where we have the self-curating isolation as we innovate ourselves into other types of Suitaloon with VR technology and other realms.

These threads are continuing throughout our design narrative and it is talking about that relationship between ourselves and the built environment. And, as architects, that is a dialogue we need to continue to have. It is not only buildings as the ultimate final solution. Sometimes it is that provocation and the expansion of the design idea to go further when we talk about the built environment and how we interact with it beyond just the buildings.

From the 1960s on we have talked about how our house will last less time than we do. We know that already. We know our buildings are not going to last 100 years anymore and we are okay with that. We understand that they are going to get demolished, and we want them to be expendable because we want something new. So, how does it look when every generation has to make its own city? What does that city look like? I will always go back to Archigram and think about what they thought about, the conversations that they had, and what they prototyped. Thank you.

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Sean Lally, Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.

Sean Lally on the Case Study House #21 in Los Angeles

Believe it or not I think there is actually a bit of a correlation between Katherine’s presentation and mine. It is not going to seem particularly obvious at first, but I’ll try to draw that overlap out. I have an office called WEATHERS based here in Chicago and, to give a little bit of background about it, the approach of the design work and the research in general is tied to this idea of looking at materiality and the human body, but maybe not the same way we normally think about materials. We typically think about glass, steel, and concrete as a way of building space. The interest of WEATHERS is really about how we can think of energy as another material that doesn’t have to fill the interior of the space but can actually define its own microclimates of outdoor landscapes.

I just picked the project that I liked and then post-rationalized why I should talk about it. I chose Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21, which is also known as the Bailey House. It was built in 1958. The Case Study Houses have often been talked about as almost a movement in themselves, while others might say, not quite. Arts & Architecture magazine, ran by John Entenza, launched the Case Study House Program to try to think what the technologies and materials developed for WWII could mean to architecture. There were thirty-six designs as part of the program, but not all of them were built. Multiple architects designed them, such as Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, Raphael Soriano, Charles and Ray Eames, and Pierre Koenig, and some did more than one house.

This house has always been very fascinating to me because it barely exists. When you are driving by, or if you look on Google Maps, it almost doesn’t feel like it belongs there. I unfortunately have not been to this project, although I have been to the Case Study House #22, which is another one that, I can tell you, when you show up to it is hard to believe from the outside gate, that it qualifies as a house. Case Study House #22 is really nothing but corrugated metal that you walk beyond to reveal the glass, structure and view beyond that you associate as the house. These homes had steel structures, a degree of glass, and a corrugated metal curtain, used as the perimeter move. There is a strong relationship between the house and the landscape itself, which of course works quite well when you are in Southern California with its enviable climate. It takes advantage of that and works with a series of other moves. A lot of the walls don’t actually even make their way up to the roof so it allows for cross ventilation.

What really interests me, and this is where I will make a link back to Katherine’s presentation, is that so much of what you see as the building structure almost becomes furniture. A type of landscape furniture now associated with being a house. This is a Julius Schulman photograph where you see the actual furniture that was bought. Ironically enough, I would say this is one of those photos that actually shut down the project to the point where it looks like it is massive. It looks like it is this solid project where the only thing you can see is a little bit of the car in the driveway, when in reality it has a completely different feel to it.

Even the furniture itself doesn’t become a room. Other than the exhaust that makes its way up through here to the roof, the kitchen itself is nothing more than a piece of furniture in a larger space. This is why I think I have always really enjoyed this project. Because the house is barely there, a lot of the responsibilities of living move to the furniture systems. Everything moves to the furniture scale and the architectural structure itself almost wishes itself to go away.

If you look at a lineage of architectural form, you can see in Chicago the Monadnock Building, where it starts with the big 8-foot thick walls at the bottom that get thinner as they come up as masonry. Its newer version, on the south side of the block, is made out of steel, becoming much thinner. Masonry, glass, and steel have always been a way of thinning of the perimeter wall. If you didn’t know better, you would think architects just wanted it to go away. And I feel like this is a great example of essentially the closest you can come to making it disappear altogether without actually removing a surface that divides inside from outside. I like to ask, can we get rid of it? Can we actually augment climate materials and entities and our human bodies to engage with them as a form of architecture?

The example I always give is street lighting, which is, as far as I’m concerned, an architectural form. It has a shape, it has an interior, it has an aesthetic, it provides safety, and organizes program and activities. So it meets all the criteria of an architectural project. Except it is purely energy. It has shape for the human eye. So when you look back at the Case Study House #21, other than the bathrooms, which are completely sealed, you start seeing that everything is essentially a kind of small furniture scale project.

It is this moment where I would say we have come the closest to basically removing geometric form in order to create an architectural space. The thing that is important about this, too, is that it still meets all the required criteria and responsibilities of architecture. You can still cook your food. You can still go to sleep at night not having rain on you. It still does all the things we think of architecture needing to do. But what’s the next step? Can architects move yet another step forward to produce a house with even less geometric form. A house consisting more of local climatic energies like an intense street light? How do you get a mortgage on something like this? How do you get a bank to say, “Yes, let’s go for it. Let’s give you a loan to build this.” The great irony of all this is that this house now is currently for sale for three million dollars. If you have three million dollars, see me after the event. Thank you.

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Couplings, Chicago, 2016. © Iker Gil.