Critical Performance

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A Review of ‘In Pursuit of Architecture’
Hosted by Log and The Museum of Modern Art
September 21, 2013
MOMA, New York, NY

The 29th issue of the New York City-based architecture magazine Log marks the tenth anniversary of the magazine and puts a finger on the pulse of the current state of architecture theory. Edited by Cynthia Davidson, Log is one of the few American magazines dedicated to architecture theory. To mark the anniversary, Log teamed up with The Museum of Modern Art to organize the conference In Pursuit of Architecture. A call for entries was sent out around the world for architects 59-years old and younger to submit one project to be selected for publication in Issue 29 and to be presented at the MOMA conference focusing on ‘how ideas become buildings’.

At the film-side entrance of MOMA on 53rd St, hundreds of theory-folk from around the world descended into a dark, underground film-screening room during one of the last sunny Saturdays of summer. This was not your general public audience, but rather select academic readers of Log. The exclusivity of the event became fully apparent when Cynthia Davidson remarked “if anyone doesn’t understand why these ten architects were chosen, you should leave the room now.”

In Pursuit of Architecture

The bright yellow advertisements for the conference showed a network of names arranged in spherical formation, suggesting a curated architectural globe. The audience had high expectations for a good show. After all, both architects and critics were literally on stage and in spotlight. This conference was not just about how ideas make singular buildings, but rather about which singular buildings will affect the future direction of architecture.

The day was divided into two parts. Part One included presentations by Neil Denari; Freek Persyn (51N4E); Maria Alessandra Segantini of (C+S); Umberto Napolitano (LAN); and Jesse Reiser (Reiser + Umemoto). Part Two consisted of Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample (MOS); Kersten Geers (Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen); Frank Barkow (Barkow Leibinger); Preston Scott Cohen; and Ben van Berkel (UN Studio). The invited critics were Sam Jacob, Sylvia Lavin, Emmanuel Petit, and Sarah Whiting who were charged with steering a lively discussion in response to the architects’ presentations.

Fortunately, I did not need to leave the room per Davidson’s ultimatum. The ten architects were curated along a roughly American-European spectrum with a dynamic-liberal/classical-conservative formal overlay. There were many exceptions, such as the Dutch architect Ben van Berkel’s geometrically complex and smoothly tri-foiled Mercedes Benz Museum. Geographical and contextual forces gave rise to further complications. For instance, the American firm of Reiser + Umemoto’s 0-14 building and Neil Denari’s HL23 Tower both strived to be iconic as required by the demands of site and client. In contrast, Umberto Napolitano’s EDF Archive in rural France and C+S’s Law-Court Offices in Venice, required more neutral responses to site.

Skipping ahead to the end of the day, the bright yellow advertisement of names came to read more as a Tower of Babel than a perfectly platonic sphere of contemporary architecture. The greatest achievement of the conference, I think, was that it revealed how specialized the research agendas of the panelists have become. It wasn’t that a general discussion was impossible, but rather that it was more productive to discuss specific research agendas in depth. From the audience, the critic Jeffrey Kipnis pointed out that architecture, like science, is now thriving in its own hyper focused realms of research. For Kipnis, Ben van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen discussing ‘transformative geometry’ in depth would be more productive than everyone discussing a lowest common denominator.

In Pursuit of Architecture

The difficulty of a productive general discussion fell rather unfortunately on the critics more than anyone else. They were charged to lead a horizontal discussion among a diverse group of specialists eager to dive deep into their subjects. Furthermore, at a time when the respect and value for architecture in society needs to be bolstered, audience members were expecting criticism and dialogue to be constructive and move projects forward rather than tearing them down. What would be the point of a negative critique at such a selective and celebratory event?

A wise approach for anyone on stage, whether as a member of a panel at a conference or as an actor, is to consider the point of view of the audience. Hungry for spectacle, the audience has expectations. Critique, no matter how cerebral or intellectual, should not be separated from a creative style of delivery. The ten architects had their twenty-minute presentations with multi-media, video, drawings, and talking points refined over ten years in some cases. For critics, being on stage is an opportunity to display their expertise in oration, rhetoric, interpretation, and history.

This kind of compulsion to perform was evident in Emanuel Petit. Limited by time, Petit put every second to good use, thus making the crowd feel the event worthy of their time, just as the architects did with their highly worked and condensed presentations. Petit captured the audience by virtue of being animated, optimistic, and determined to construct rather than tear down. Petit’s performance also stood out because he was a good listener. Architecture, like any other form of art, continuously erodes conventions and conceptual categories. As a result, Petit acknowledged the critics role as an interpreter of the work and not an imposer of outmoded categories. Criticism is an art of listening.

It should come as no surprise that the least constructive moments of the day came as some critics compared the ten’s work to what seemed like their ideal point of reference, Peter Eisenman. The exemplar of the golden age of theory was both physically present in the audience and clearly present in the minds of some critics. This should be no surprise. After all, historically speaking, Log is in a new and challenging time. How does a theory magazine, roughly fifteen years after the heydays of theory, reimagine itself within a landscape less concerned with theory?

The crisis came to a head when Phylis Lambert asked why the ten shared apathy towards typical theory, history, and precedent? Davidson answered simply that this is a different time with different concerns and different people. Her thesis was that theory is being replaced with problem solving. On the contrary, Emanuel Petit, who left the ’problem solving’ ETH as he called it for a more theoretical America argued that theory is being replaced with a focus on the image or icon. Regardless of what is replacing what, there was agreement that theory has been long in recession. The anxiety caused by this void, it seemed, caused some critics to resort to comparing the ten to how well they fill the shoes of the model Peter Eisenman and his emphasis on the ‘project’, precedents, meta-narratives, and skepticism towards the so-called client typically antagonistic to architecture.

The most productive discussion among the panel was regarding image and icon. One may have thought that image and its more sinister cousin, the icon, ended with the Great Recession but due to our increasingly saturated world of digital imagery, both have returned in more mutated and nuanced forms. Earlier, Petit argued the recession of theory correlated with a growing interest of image and the icon. Based on Umberto Napolitano’s presentation of the EDF Archive and the passionate discussion that animated both the panel and crowd, he may be right. Napolitano’s design and presentation was heavy on image, and light on theory but for some inexplicable reason seemed complete.

As the discussion demonstrated, ‘image’ is much more complex and nuanced than it seems. Freek Persyn strongly affirmed that the iconicity of a public building is critical for stimulating and securing public support for a project, without which would not be able to exist. Jesse Reiser took a smart approach, which I think most architects would agree with. The image or iconicity of a building is simply the byproduct or result of a more conceptual investigation, which in the beginning may not have anything to do with image. Reiser’s point was well illustrated with Preston Scott Cohen’s Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Kipnis added some serious, yet amusing entertainment; describing the act of ‘putting an image on’, he emphasized the psychological effects of the image. Kipnis then left us to imagine him wearing a tuxedo or bikini – pick your choice.

The risks of an image consuming culture were also discussed. Sam Jacob cited the increase of people’s experience of architecture as being a relatively superficial viewing of web imagery and that media encourages cycles of quick production, consumption, and discarding. Sylvia Lavin embraced this new condition and challenged everyone – especially Denari and Reiser – to push the image of their buildings to the limit, in the sense of the digital reproductions of buildings being more important than the experience of the original source. It would be interesting to see how Lavin reacts to such a limit, where web-viewing speed encourages a non-close reading of architecture. At one point in the conference, she claimed that her lack of an organized critical response to the architects’ presentations was due to the fact that she did not have enough time for a close reading of the work, which sometimes involves visiting the actual sites in person.

The dystopian side of our quickly consumed and discarded web culture was also present in Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample’s presentation of their Elemental House in Las Vegas, New Mexico. As ‘research’ for the house, MOS presented a copious flow of pictures of chimneys in no particular order or critical commentary. It seems that their intentional resistance to present a clear thought process was meant to represent their unconventional approach. Calling a collection of chimney pictures ‘research’ was the kind of naive mistake a first year architecture student would make. Why MOS took such an intentionally vapid approach at ‘a conference about how ideas become buildings’ would only make sense if they were trying to present the inverse.

Umberto Napolitano’s presentation of the EDF Archive revealed much insight into the relationship of image to theory. First, the overall presentation was a theatrical performance that filled the crowd’s expectations for spectacle and entertainment. The presentation was not only delightfully entertaining but also rigorous and serious. Napolitano mixed multi-media and video; light heartedness and gravitas; clear logic with irrational poetic license; humor; sensitivity to site and client; and an impressive technical execution of the building. Lavin even commended his flawless presentation, to which Napolitano remarked, “I originally wanted to be an actor.” Napolitano, the actor turned architect, capitalized on the performer/spectator dynamic that was so latent between the stage and audience.

Lavin, however, was highly critical of Napolitano’s building and presentation, claiming it was too much shoptalk and not enough theory. This raises some broader questions about architecture criticism. Why is talking shop and process less important than referencing broad meta-narratives? The art world accepted the verb actions of Richard Serra and Process Art. Why must architecture deny it? We also know that Warhol did not need to write a treatise on the Campbell Soup Can nor was he expected to give an exegesis on it. Napolitano replied by saying frankly that his office is very busy and that the project did not require any more theory. Even further, what would be the critic’s responsibility if Napolitano did all the heavy lifting at the conference? Ironically, the EDF Archives resembles an oversized Andy Warhol Brillo Pad box, only it holds nuclear energy documents on the inside and glitters on the outside.

The tension between image and theory in Napolitano’s presentation exemplifies Petit’s argument that image may be replacing theory. More specifically, I think, the two are on a sliding scale where the volume of one can be raised and the other lowered. That is of course assuming that the intense investment of thought, once associated with theory, is now finding new outlets in image. As evident from the conference, there is also a growing movement among this circle of once theory-invested folk towards engaging culture and society more directly. Theory’s agency and place might just be rediscovered through this process of critical engagement.

As ‘In Pursuit of Architecture’ ended, and everyone headed upstairs towards the street level of 53rd St, we had spent the day underground engaging in discourse and reflecting on the future directions of architecture. As I hit the pavement and was quickly consumed in the wave of urbanity that is New York, I was left with a positive feeling. My inclinations were correct. I was immersed in the real fortunes and images of the city, which until now, never felt so promising.