Why We Got Into Character

September 14, 2020

Guest editors Design With Company discuss the conceptual approach to the Character issue and reveal how much architecture is really a big story about how the world works through constructed environments.


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© Stanley Tigerman.

Character is duplicitous. At once, it describes the core of something—qualities that underlie its fundamental being. It is innate, genuine, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. At the same time, characters are fictional. You play one . . . in a play. You get into it. You slip it on with a costume and an affect. Character can describe something completely superficial, and at the same time, it can describe something thoroughly essential. Why is that? Why would we look to the same word to describe both of these conditions? Also, how does the word slip so seamlessly between people, buildings, letters, furniture, etc.? Is there a Venn diagram that reveals what is shared between these seemingly disparate circumstances?

We at Design With Company got into character, architecturally anyway, when we were searching for a bridge between narrative-driven architectural explorations and formally driven ones. We like stories and we like forms, but we could not get one to reinforce the other to our satisfaction. As a design strategy, stories don’t tell you what forms to make and forms don’t necessarily prompt stories. So, we thought character could bring the two together. We never solved our initial problem; we still make stories, and forms, and there is always a tenuous relationship between the two. Such is the case with words and things. However, our interest in character remains mostly because of that whole duplicitous thing.

Character is subjective. It describes qualities that relate to experiencing human subjects, which makes it uncomfortable territory for architects. They tend to prefer more concrete descriptors and objective, quantifiable means of valuation. Since it was shunned by architects in the 1950s (more on that later), the word has been co-opted by apartment hunters, neighborhood design guidelines, and preservationists. “That place had so much character!” “You shall not paint your home in any colors that are not in accordance with the character of the neighborhood.” What do these applications of the term mean? An informal poll of potential definitions for an apartment’s character resulted in the following list (some are contradictory):

  1. Idiosyncratic design details, especially ones at a small scale.
  2. Embedded history, with marks bearing use over time.
  3. Unexpected materialities, especially those associated with exterior or nondomestic applications.
  4. Visible workmanship.
  5. It is unique and unlike other spaces of the same category, e.g., other apartments.
  6. Feels familiar and cozy.
  7. Has elements which have a use lost or transformed over time.

At a neighborhood scale, character refers to a set of visible design traits shared between multiple buildings. Even here the term is duplicitous. How can the same word describe how a building is unique, and at the same time, describe how well it fits into its context? In either case, it tends to be a positive attribution. It allows those who utter it to make an inarguable personal statement of approval. I know it when I see it and I like it.

It wasn’t always this way. The concept that buildings could be described as having character first developed within the academy in eighteenth-century France as a means to shift the conversation from the structure itself onto the effects the structure has on its occupants and viewers. This shift helped get the discipline out of a rhetorical jam brought on by the quest for perfection and ideal proportions, which is a discourse reserved for monumental public structures, religious edifices, or royal buildings. Further, the effect buildings have on people is medium specific, that is to say, it is a set of effects that only buildings can produce. Character opened up the conversation to include buildings of all sorts and gave architects a language for the expression of a work. Over time, as theorists and architects refined and appropriated the concept, it began pinballing back and forth as authors laid claim to ever more expansive definitions. Finally, it was abandoned by the academy all together once the convolution approached today’s levels.

However, we believe the term and its associated concepts has been out of our lexicon for long enough and so we resolve to take it back from the real estate agents and neighborhood development boards. It will likely acquire new meanings this time around. The ideas that we scoop up under its umbrella may link to the original use of the term, or they may introduce wholly new concepts and territories for architectural exploration. To take the temperature of character today, we offer this issue of MAS Context. We are not staking a claim for what character must mean, nor are we writing a manifesto demanding everyone design with character. Instead, we are holding up a mirror. This mirror allows us to see projects as related where we might otherwise only see difference. We have seen enough evidence to think something is going on here. Or maybe, everything looks like a nail to a hammer.

The content of this issue is laid out along a continuum. On one side of the continuum we have authors and architects who treat the occupants of buildings as characters to be studied and scripted, or people who find themselves as part of this script. On the other end, we have architects that consciously construct a persona that stretches reality. In between, we have architects and designers that position buildings as the characters in the show. Laying these out along a line reveals just how much architecture is really a big story. It is a story about how the world works through constructed environments. Our little character continuum juggles between the players of our story: who is the audience, what is the medium, and who is the author/architect? The story isn’t one a way street . . . we have read Roland Barthes. Below we breakdown just who and what is the character.

Building Occupants as Characters

How do buildings construct the people that inhabit them and how do architects design this process of construction? From architects conjuring fictional people to demonstrate how a building is experienced, to buildings that impose a character on others in spaces like a library, to children growing up shaped by their surroundings, there is a continual exchange between people and built matter. At its most innocuous and ubiquitous, this happens when drawings include “entourage,” or representations of people that offer an intuitive means for understanding relative scale. Entourage also provides surrogates for viewers of a drawing to project themselves into the space that is being described. The surrogates’ level of articulation can vary wildly, from collaged images of actual people, to silhouettes, to only a few lines that vaguely suggest the human form. The relationship between their activity and the building can also vary, from indifference (a person just walking through a space) to highly specific (someone peeking through a window). Beyond this, however, is a range of depth to the expression of these characters. Some might be happy, others contemplative. For the sake of exploring the concept of character, we are interested in spending more time to develop a more nuanced understanding of how a building can create settings and emotions. For instance, the same person may appear multiple times within a drawing, within multiple drawings, or we might shift to find them in other media like film, where motion and dialogue adds layers of understanding. In this issue, we look closely and for extended periods at entourage, from their initial drawing on paper until they grow up to be full participants in the world.

Buildings That Have or Are Characters

A building or space might be said to have character. Typically, this means that it posses an excess of qualities associated with a particular typology. For instance, a homey home. It often involves a level of idiosyncratic decoration, materiality, or configuration. Buildings with character also have a certain amount of history embedded into their makeup, which lends them a narrativity. What confluence of forces came together to produce such a strange detail? Buildings with character evoke emotions in their occupants. When we anthropomorphize these qualities, a building starts to look like us, or become a character itself. We can empathize with these beings that look like they have feelings. Another example of a building as a character is when it plays a strong role within a fictional narrative beyond serving as a setting. Examples include the house in the films Psycho and Home Alone, the towering apartment of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the windmills of Don Quixote, the endless hallways of The Shining, and the castle in Dracula.

We think there are three types of practitioners today that have a stake in understanding buildings as having or being characters. They are:

The Figural Formalists: Blobs combined with Hejdukian figures. People became unsatisfied calling things blobs and started to make forms that looked like other things. These things usually are some form of animal. If they have corners it comes from Hejduk, no corners, Greg Lynn. These forms are typically stand-ins for a material investigation whose designers want to make accessible. These projects usually come in numbers larger than one, proving the arbitrariness of the particulars of any one fixed form. Most of them come from UCLA.

Storytellers: Visionaries combined with storyboarders. We don’t have visionary architects anymore. Utopias are dead. Instead, architects have turned to writing stories as contexts for making unlikely buildings and grand unbuildable gestures. The story distances the architect from making claims; they aren’t saying the building design should exist as a piece of constructed architecture.

Neo-postmodernists: Historians combined with set designers. There are a host of architects that revisit tropes of postmodernism to look at them afresh. Pastiche is almost all right. Decoration is essential.

Architects as Characters

At this end of the spectrum, we explore architects that consciously formulate their own persona as a quasi-fictional character. This includes real architects shaping their own persona and dress; real architects making up fake architects; architects portrayed in literature or film; and architects that live in their own buildings which in turn shapes their character. They all consciously construct the image of the architect in some form and we are interested in how this is done.

Broadly, this collection of essays, screenplays, projects, and interviews brings together conversations about outward appearance and what lies beneath, behind, or within. It examines the role construction plays in how we behave while probing the deepest parts of architecture and its most superficial. It puts together endeavors that would not otherwise sit comfortably were it not for the duplicitous term they all share.

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© Stanley Tigerman.