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Constellation of Architecture Practice

Toshiko Mori Architect

Constellation of Architecture Practice
By Toshiko Mori -

The world in which we live is dynamic and constantly shifts through divergent modes of production, expression and engagements. It is no longer sufficient to stay within a pristine and monolithic architecture practice isolated from the turbulence experienced in the rest of the society. Architectural practice engages with physical artifacts of cities, institutions and habitations. Before emerging as a building, architecture is a productive and systematic mode of thinking. It identifies problems within a complex organization through the discovery of interconnections. In practice and teaching, my recent focus has been on how to expand from “trade practice” of form makers, to “cultivating practice” that can influence the way we engage with society and civilization.
My challenge over the last several years has been focused on how to increase the capacity of architecture so it may respond to complexity and diversity. One of the outcomes of industrial revolution is that the “trade practice” is based on a progressive isolation of expertise silos. The standardization and linear model of mechanical production has a tendency to be exclusive, precariously vertical and top-down.
It is exclusive because it tends to eliminate issues to seek clarity and simplicity. Architecture deals with more organic sense of time based on seasons, (climate, economy and politics) instead of automatic mechanical clock. Its embrace of seasonality resembles more of an agricultural practice. “Cultivating practice” is interesting because it simplifies and is expressed in clarity by inclusion.
The idea of “parallel” production remarkably exists in both agricultural practice (rows of vegetables growing concurrently, often producing symbiosis) and digital production (where parts are produced simultaneously while creating feed-back loop). For me, the concept of “parallel production” is essential to overcoming the complexities and dynamism of contemporary society. Multiple strands of work can exist simultaneously in an infinite spectrum while operating at different speeds. The lateral interaction between these strands creates holistic weaving of ideas and inventions. The cultivating practice of architecture should be vital to the nourishment of humanity and its environment.
I do not believe that modes of production, say hand-made, machine-made, or those using digital fabrication, will displace one another. Rather, they will continue to co-exist and operate in diverse economies.
The constellations of practice are charted in the following groupings:
the first one is a traditional studio practice, working with typology, site and program in various sizes and scales.  In our projects that deal with arts we collaborate with artists, or curate artwork into exhibitions. We continue to research the relationship between contemporary architectural language and historical buildings throughout our design process.
Visionarc is a think tank that works on identifying common denominators and intersections of large and complex global issues to promote strategic planning at macro level.
Paracoustica is a non-profit agency focusing on portable concert hall fabrication and deployment to fuse architecture, music and community services.

Houses remain one of the most fascinating categories of work for my practice. It is a timeless typology, the very basic and minimum unit of human existence. Houses are the source of vitality and the seed of growth for larger agendas and contributions. How one lives and organizes his or her life changes with the time and generation. It is a mirror of society at large, and a microcosm of civilization. Fertile soil is cultivated for children who grow up in these houses and it becomes the backbone of ordinary daily life. One learns a great deal of emotions, psychology, human relationships, aspirations and values specific to each family. Memories of houses remain powerful throughout the life of an individual.

Pavilions are small public buildings that appear in transitional areas such as visitor centers for historic buildings, subway canopies for new subway-lines in New York City, or a roof canopy for a Children’s Museum. They are examples of micro-architecture that encourage informal interactions, reacting and adjusting to contexts.
Greatbatch Pavilion, which sits next to Frank Lloyd Wrights’ Darwin Martin House is a visitor center which is a transparent volume as opposed to the house which is opaque and made of bricks. It is a vitrine, a viewing apparatus of historic structure for the visitors.  Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s roof pavilion provides shelter against rain and bright sun to extend utility of existing roof. The #7-line MTA canopies are part of Hudson Park and Boulevard, which help transition between underground subway service and connects it to the park setting above.

Buildings for Syracuse University and Brown University function as centers of environmental, energy and ecological studies. They encourage collaborative study and interaction among various disciplines. This collaborative environment allows users and scientists to uncover complexities of climate and environmental issues, and discover viable solutions for a sustainable future. The Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems is grounded through an architecture ramp system that utilizes energy and water from its own foot print, an ideal prototype for ecological building. Brown’s Building for Environmental Research and Teaching, on the other hand, focuses to study effects of climate change, the result of atmospheric CO2 emissions. Therefore, architectural expressions appear on the roof and ceilings.

Art and Architecture
Working with artists and works of art challenges our notion of spatial constructs such as boundaries, territories, and definitions of scale. “Color Moves” exhibition design for Sonya Delaunay blurred the boundary between decorative and fine arts by assembling in themes or switching display surface to challenge conventional sense of categorization. “Josef and Anni Albers: Design for Living” shows separate yet parallel work of Joseph and Annie Albers. Thomas Schütte and Mel Bochner installed his work in between construction for the new gallery for Peter Freeman. At Sean Kelly Gallery, in its inaugural installation, Anthony Gormley collaborated on this installation as a dialogue with the new space, counter balancing the size of the new gallery with weight and density utilizing objects and relationships to gravity.

Dialogue in Details: Exhibition at the 2012 Venice Biennale
The intense intersection of the “detail” - the convergence of ideas, materiality, tectonics, and construction - expresses an inherently collaborative nature of architecture. An architect’s voice and visions remains intact as existential evidence of their ideas. We have framed each details as a totem - an object carrying an abstract spirit of its own, an animistic character that echoes the personality and signature of an architect. By isolating details and presenting them at half scale, one starts to inhabit this menagerie of architectural ideas as one detail starts to speak to another; they echo each other’s history, precedents, and references. Over the years, we have had the opportunity to work next to, in reference to, and in addition to the works of architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson. Five details represent each of these five Masters. Our intellectual response is represented in the five details that stand in parallel dialogue. These are silent exchanges with deceased Masters, yet conversations and speculations continue on, creating an intellectual continuity within the language of contemporary architecture.
Global Redesign Project and Visionarc
In seminars titled “Global Redesign Project,” at The Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), we explored possibilities to look at complex global issues through architectural systems. Through my think-tank research agency Visionarc, we came up with analytical tools to map obstinate and large issues architecturally. Through modes of architectural representation such as plan and section cuts, elevations and three dimensional diagrams and models, we were able to identify intersections of issues. These included water scarcity (various waters are under different mandates which exasperates scarcity issues), and energy production (tar sands mining, where the environmental damage of cost of extraction is enormous and irretrievable). One result is the idea of identifying “design blind spots”, or missing links in global issues. The weak links cause fragility and instability and it is likely to be the cause of future crises.

Itinerant Architecture
The instability and risks that are the result of complex interface of social change and climate afflict many communities, especially in underserved rural and urban places. These situations are often overlooked, but by reframing and repositioning the role of architecture, one may start to understand the basic possibility for establishing stabilized communities.
The age-old predicaments of architectural reach into a society beyond an elitist realm can be broken. Through invention and innovation, we can arrive at a new typology for these circumstances. It can be a new prototype or hybrid combination of multifunctional and traditional origin, balancing the parameters of resource scarcity, labor skill, material sourcing, and functions combining geometry, techniques and technology.
There remains a great potential for simple yet elegant solutions capable of translating sophisticated technology into accessible technique. In order to respond to a large and varied constituency in terms of instability, migration and displacement, the architecture needs to be responsive, adapting to diverse circumstances and economies. Therefore, instead of a static and form-specific framework, it proposes a systematic approach, embracing flexibility and adaptability to develop a resilient, multi-tasking model.
The proposed framework of Itinerant Architecture is not only temporal and mobile in nature, but also includes shifts in programs and usage. These involve new challenges of viability for time-based use in multiple phases that consider function and duration as compatible programs.

The nonprofit Paracoustica focuses on underserved communities by creating itinerant architectural prototypes that deal with mobile, portable and temporary structures. The first prototype is a portable concert hall that combines mobility, acoustics, ecology and engagement of community through music performance. It is a vehicle to address missing links in society, to re-connect broken ties, revealing a new typology of architecture. Paracoustica started as prototype that was as a result of academic research for a new typology, working with the students at the GSD. It has transformed into a not for profit agency with collaboration between musicians, researchers, architects, engineers, and manufacturers.

Sinthian Cultural Center, Senegal
It is critical to look at traditional and ancient techniques to combine new technology and digitally produced geometry to stretch its capacity and update its relevance in contemporary society. The project has multiple purposes to be used with a calendar of events and seasonal change.
The project responds to seasonal use as its roof is a rain water collection system. This communal rain water cistern provides its inhabitants 25% of their yearly water usage. It is a gathering space for community during the harvest season and for community rituals and celebrations. It is a place of shade during the hot season and residence for visiting artists and doctors.
In our world where lateral and de-centralized connections are increasingly becoming the structure of society, it is feasible to shift our operation to a “cultivation practice,” so that as architects we can create the fabric of civilization resilient to disruptions and destructions. Materials must be conceived for various levels of resource availability and manufacturing capabilities, ranging from hand-crafted and machine made, to highly sophisticated digital production. Materials may be natural or artificial, or locally produced or globally traded. For many communities, reused, recycled and re-purposed materials are staples of production.
The employed technology also needs to be capable of adapting to different degrees of sophistication, taking advantage of local techniques and manufacturing capabilities. However, it is conceivable and desirable to introduce new and advanced techniques to less-developed circumstances, thereby generating future economic opportunities.
One needs to analyze the global and universal aspects of the proposal in conjunction with locally-specific solutions. In addition to material and technique relevancy, climate and situational issues can also work to dominate the systematic permutation to enhance characteristics of local culture.
The specifics of portability, duration of use, and various skill levels of labor inputs, maintenance and construction procedures had to be accounted for. The construction processes involved cycle of production, maintenance and disassembly, in other words, life cycle and seasonality. In addition to functionality, ecological impact, energy efficiency, water management, temperature, and general impact on resources need to be considered.
A result of fragile and unstable circumstances, culture can often become secondary to survival measures. However, it functions as a medium to provide robustness, strength and resiliency. Architecture in this case, delivers cultural identity, and represents powerful vehicles of social cohesion.
The constellation of architectural practice of our time is spectral. It maps out references for navigation and orientation for our future discourse.

Toshiko Mori



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