Character Plotting

September 14, 2020

Joseph Altshuler’s diagrams aim to unpack, chart, and correlate a loose cohort of contemporary architects and projects that leverages character in their practice.


Riffing on “Genealogy”

Charles Jencks’s “Evolutionary Tree to the Year 2000,” originally published in 1971, is perhaps the most famous infographic in the history of architecture.1 Part classification of the five decades preceding it, and part prophetic prediction of the three-and-a-half decades to follow it, Jencks’s “genealogical” diagram remains impactful because it delivers a seemingly comprehensive scope of architectural activity within the singular, open-ended, and interconnected format of a gestural flowchart. Unlike a scientific genealogical tree, Jencks’s diagram removes hierarchy and celebrates unexpected and unscientific links between pluralistic architectural “species” that congregate within bulbous “attractor basins.”

While the original diagram does not explicitly indicate the time of its creation, it nevertheless communicates specifically about its time and place.2 In its effort to assemble order out of the past and predict multiple futures, it necessarily reinforces its contemporaneous position in the present—Jencks is obsessed with the now. For this reason, scores of architects, theorists, and critics have followed Jencks’s lead and crafted their own versions of the Jencksian diagram in order to articulate a sense of the ever-changing now with specific tones of voice and intellectual biases.3 (Jencks himself has created multiple updated versions of his own diagram, most notably in 2000, to pat himself on the back for his prescient original vision.) The greatest success of Jencks’s diagram is not its purported discovery of disciplinary taxonomy, but the extent to which such a broad collection of successors have been so inspired to reenact or riff off of its original ambition.

A Playing Field of Characters

In this spirit of ongoing riffing and revision, the diagrams here aim to unpack, chart, and correlate a loose cohort of contemporary architects and projects that leverages character in their practice.4 While most updated takes on Jencks’s diagram adopted the comprehensive scope that was integral to its original ambition, this series of diagrams embraces a limited latitude of the wide variety of architectural work happening today. By zooming into the subjective and specific lens of character, the diagrams aim to more precisely articulate positions and relationships among actors. This pursuit is anything but scientific and necessarily incomplete, but it aspires to arouse cultural conversation and disciplinary debate surrounding this contemporary architectural agenda.

As a pair of separate and parallel diagrams, each frame plots a different deployment and understanding of character in architecture according to a different part of speech: character as an actor (noun) versus character as a physical attribute (adjective). The four Cartesian axes of each diagram offers four different elaborations on this definition of character—each axis is not an ideological “pole,” but rather suggests a possible synonym for “character” according to the particular deployment and part of speech.While the alter-ego-like synonyms along each axis vary with each frame to reflect the changing part of speech for character, each of the four quadrants remains consistent and indicates an operative bias for what architectural character may or may not privilege in its making or delivery in the world. For example, a project plotted along the right indicates an operative bias toward performance and charisma, while a project plotted along the left indicates an operative bias toward symbolism and significance. Projects plotted closer to center are more “well-rounded” while projects along the periphery exhibit more extreme biases. In this way, each diagram acts like an athletic playing field, where actors with specific “positions” (e.g. forward, midfielder, goalkeeper) generally gravitate toward specific regions of the field but can move around freely to interact with other players as unexpected moves or projects may provoke. Akin to Jencks’s precedent, these regions are formalized with names and hatch patterns that establish territories of disciplinary distinction. Territories of the playing field that remain uncharted suggest intellectual affinities for future exploration and inquiry.

Mas issue character character plotting 01

1. Adam Nathaniel Furman
Identity Parade, 2013
London, UK

A collection of vibrantly colored and decorated ornaments embody a fictional character’s multifaceted and ever-changing personality.

2. Andrew Holder
48 Characters, 2013
Ann Arbor, MI

A series of tumescent, bulbous creatures demonstrate how the language of posture and character can describe architectural possibilities that geometry cannot.

3. Angie Co
Critters, 2013
Syracuse, NY

Animal silhouettes extruded in two directions produce the likeness of physical movement and suggest dual dispositions.

4. Ania Jaworska
Confetti Tower, 2009
Bloomfield Hills, MI

An anthropomorphic exhaust pipe-like figure emits confetti upon human passersby.

5. Bittertang
Buru Buru, 2014
Lake Forest, IL

Netted straw wattles conjure the open jaw of giant beast, inviting staged and impromptu performance within its ruddy interior.

6. Bureau Spectacular
White Elephant, 2012
Louisville, KY

A faceted figure freely tumbles into eight different stances, merging multiple personalities with the plural postures of a singular object.

7. Bureau Spectacular
Township of Domestic Parts, 2014
Venice, Italy

A collection of nine small pavilions each accommodate, communicate, and exaggerate the identity of a single domestic program.

8. Cosmo Design Factory
Yonderview House, 2015
Hillsdale, NY

A collage of creaturely forms come together to accommodate a single home, hybridizing modern and vernacular domestic forms.

9. Cosmo Design Factory
Murphy’s Monsters, 2013
Flint, MI

A packaged set of temporary architecture pavilions capitalizes on zoomorphic shapes to provide cultural activation and amenities to a vacant parking lot.

10. Could Be Architecture
Civic Characters, 2015
Houston, TX

A quintet of small, creaturely buildings accommodate new municipal offices to provide a more lovable identity for local government while mixing up programs of bureaucracy and pleasure.

11. Design With Company
IMC Character Buildings, 2012
Urbana, IL

A set of interactive, figural kiosks activate the interior of a former civic building, providing new functions and identity for a community organization.

12. Design With Company
Animal Farmatures, 2011
The Midwest

Supersized synthetic animal bodies, filled with mechanical viscera, roam the agrarian landscape of the American Corn Belt to cultivate farmland and entertain cross-country rail passengers.

13. Elie Abrons
Peep Peep, 2014
Ann Arbor, MI

A trio of textured figures invite views into their mirrored and optically expansive interiors.

14. Endemic Architecture
Generic Originals, 2014
Ann Arbor, MI

Compound figures, composed of spheres, cones, and cylinders, prompt the subjective reading of parts and wholes.

15. Office S&M
Europa Stage, 2013
London, UK

A set of scenographic objects animate a performance and mingle with the performers, obscuring the distinction between architecture and actors.

16. raumlaborberlin
Bathing Culture, 2014
Gothenburg, Sweden

A zoomorphic figure calls the public to occupy the sauna within its elevated belly.

17. studio:indigenous
Moon Domiciles, 2012
Oneida Nation

A series of figural dwellings for new moon rituals translates environmental data into poetic architectural gestures.

18. Thing Thing
Making Friends, 2012
Detroit, MI

A set of toy and furniture-like figurines, made from recycled plastic, offers colorful companionship to local denizens.

19. WOJR
Etudes, 2015
Cambridge, MA

A series of iterative geometric figures suggest the open-ended cultural significance of architectural artifacts.

Mas issue character character plotting 02

1. Andrew Kovacs
Social Condensers, 2014
Los Angeles, CA

Flattened fragments from architectural history precisely align to generate standing superstructures.

2. Assemble
Folly for a Flyover, 2011
London, UK

A house-shaped brick screen peaks out at the world from a highway underpass to rebrand the public way for play and collectivity.

3. Bureau Spectacular
Tower of 12 Stories, 2016
Indio, CA

A vertical stack of shapely extrusions come together to suggest multiple and simultaneous spatial possibilities.

4. Design With Company
Porch Parade, 2015
Vancouver, BC

A lateral sequence of exaggerated, attached porch parts provides multiple faces for intimate interactions along a bustling urban thoroughfare.

5. Endemic Architecture
Then House No. 2, 2017
San Francisco, CA

A dense assemblage of exaggerated Victorian details create a caricature of domestic architectural conventions.

6. FAT
The Villa Hoogvliet, 2009
Hoogvliet, Netherlands

A graphic facade of cutout typography, industrial icons, and cartoonish foliage provide a visual language for a normative community building to communicate an open-ended narrative.

7. FAT
Islington Square, 2006
Manchester, UK

An exuberantly outlined brick facade with a large-scale argyle pattern provides modulating graphic identities for repetitive housing units.

8. FAT
Blue House, 2002
London, UK

A graphic facade combines cartoonish outlines and dimensional relief to depict an image of a house in front of a generic office building.

9. Jennifer Bonner
Domestic Hats, 2014
Atlanta, GA

An installation of angular massing models explores and exaggerates the formal qualities of domestic roof typologies.

Underberg, 2014
Queens, NY

Graphic and material patterns mapped onto multiple planes of suspended masses create an affect-rich communal ceiling.

11. McClain Clutter / is-office
Empty Pavilion, 2012
Detroit, MI

A composition of separate but overlapping figural outlines teases the legibility of shapes and vantage points within an urban void.

12. MOS Architects
Afterparty, 2009
Queens, NY

A collection of variably sized conic “chimneys” clad in creaturely brown fur defamiliarize the experience of a public arcade.

13. MOS Architects
Element House, 2014
Anton Chico, NM

Amplification of the roof and chimney profiles provide a substantive character for a repeated modular house unit.

14. Neutelings Riedijk Architects
Concert Hall Bruges, 1999
Ann Arbor, MI

Cantilevered figuration and a saturated surface pattern come together to provide a loose but precise identity for a civic collective.

15. Norman Kelley
Wrong Chairs, 2014
Chicago, IL

A collection of Windsor chairs with unexpected details provide variety while enacting visual games that challenge traditional propriety.

Collaborative Rounds, 2016
Lake Forest, IL

An undulating band with varying heights of waves articulates a dynamic outdoor amphitheater and encourages multiple types of performance.

17. Studio Gang
Lavezzorio Community Center, 2008
Chicago, IL

Irregular bands of multitoned concrete layers opportunistically encase a community center with unexpected affect.

18. Zago Architecture
Property with Properties, 2012
Rialto, CA

The strategic misalignment of rich graphic patterns and subtle geometric folds generates diversity for suburban housing units.

1 Charles Jencks, Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods (New York: Praeger, 1971), 46–47.
2 Jencks’s original diagram intentionally omits a chronological “you are here” indicator, but the past and future is distinguished by the fact that the past includes names of specific architects, while the future omits specific people’s names, relying exclusively on conjectural categories to articulate specificity.
3 Some recent examples include: Joe Day’s “Genealogy as Diagram: Charting Past as Future” published in Log 17 (2009): 121– 126, Paul Makovsky’s “Our Charles Jencks Moment,” published in Metropolis (2011): 66–67, and Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s “Well Into the 21st Century: The Architectures of Post-Capitalism?” published in El Croquis 187 (2016): 252–287.
4 While the diagrams plot a collection of contemporary architectural work, “ghosts” of projects from previous generations (rendered in lighter gray ink) occasionally interject themselves into the frame. Like Jencks’s precedent, these historical markers help calibrate the field and articulate disciplinary lineage without defining distinct genealogical pathways.