TAKING ARCHITECTURE SERIOUSLY | The Plan
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TAKING ARCHITECTURE SERIOUSLY

WORKac

Should architecture be funnier? This very idea is anathema to most architects and critics; architecture is supposed to be serious, stable, safe - built for the ages. Architects from Louis Kahn to Peter Zumthor have cloaked their entire oeuvre within the shrouds of the sober, mysterious, poetic aspects of light, structure, solid, natural materials. Not funny at all. Fashion Architecture Taste (FAT) were architects who took a different approach. Their Soft Hercules stool, for example, was a classical bust cast in foam rubber to make a comfortable seat. Sam Jacob, a founder of FAT, describes it as an object that seems as solid and serious as something in a museum; while in actuality it is soft and squishy and designed for the home. This disparity is what makes it funny, but also somewhat threatening to architecture’s ideals regarding solidity. Jacob believes that “the use of humor in architecture undoes some of the things which are held very dear. Humor is very immediate; and therefore not seen as timeless.” Like the Hercules stool, humor in architecture can make it “lose its stability.” Perhaps this is a good thing. Other creative endeavors embrace humor wholeheartedly. Surrealism is one of the most important art movements and yet its most well known works - from Meret Oppenheim’s teacup to Magritte’s pipe or Dalí’s melting clocks - often produce giggles. Funny literature is taken very seriously; see John Irving or Philip Roth. Today, comedians such as Louis CK are redefining stand-up comedy, utilizing humor to tackle extremely difficult - sometimes verging on philosophical - issues. Architecture, however, seems more like film, where comedy has historically had no shot at a “Best Picture” Oscar because to be funny is supposedly not to be serious. In our practice at WORKac, we are always intrigued by the notion of funny, trying to discover what it can do for architecture. For us, if a project doesn’t have something “funny” about it, it is lacking something. Things we find funny range from combining programs and elements that don’t normally go together (a kitchen and a greenhouse for example), to tweaking infrastructure to make it visible (collecting rainwater via a waterfall, rather than a pipe) to simply introducing second nature where it is least expected (a blueberry garden on the 6th floor of a ten-story building). These all get at and try to re-present very serious issues about architecture’s role in transforming how we live, so of course we don’t think what we are doing is a joke. When we say “funny” we often mean something unexpected in the design, something that invites people to stop and think - as much as stop and smile. This embrace of the unexpected has always felt like a powerful way to get people to imagine a different way of living, working, learning or engaging culture. We often use humor the way that people will lead with a joke in making a serious speech. It cuts the ice, creates an atmosphere in which people are ready to look at things differently. In light of this, it always seems to us that being funny is simply equivalent to being creative. In this sense, architecture certainly needs to embrace this funny side in order to carve new paths for today’s uncertain world environment - if we can only get past the idea that humor is something light and fleeting and treat it more seriously as a creative impulse. It is therefore important to try to define what funny is, how it works and how it can be leveraged in the pursuit of new architectural concepts and experiences. Weird Science It is certainly odd that something as pleasurable and commonplace as humor has such a bad reputation in architecture. After all, people spend more time laughing than exhibiting any other emotion. Studies have shown that including jokes in a speech or a lesson can increase listeners’ comprehension and learning by up to 15%. Reading funny jokes can improve test scores and even increase mental rotation, the ability to turn complex and abstract shapes in the mind. (Given this last fact, architects should definitely take notice.) Most importantly, humor has been shown to be intrinsically linked not only with creativity but also with thought itself. In his book Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why (2014) Dr. Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist, breaks down the three essential components to “get” a joke, which he terms constructing, reckoning, and resolving. He then argues that “these stages are the same ones we use for solving daily problems, from logistical to interpersonal to existential.” Weems writes: “These three stages are key not only for humor, but for all aspects of complex thinking.” Dr. Weems explained to me further in a recent conversation: “Creativity is really about linking previously unconnected ideas. It can be measured by how unusual the connections that we are making are. Similarly, in humor, the bigger the jump between the expected and the unexpected, generally the funnier the joke.” Along the same lines, in a well-known discussion about creativity, the actor John Cleese said: “Look, the […] last thing I can say about creativity is this: it’s like humor. In a joke, the laugh comes at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way […] Having […] a new idea is exactly the same thing. It’s connecting two hitherto separate ideas in a way that generates new meaning.” Making these types of connections produces pleasant emotions. Weems notes that the regions of the brain most closely connected with the enjoyment of humor are the anterior cingulate - which is used to resolve conflicts - and the amygdala, which is part of the “reward circuit” that delivers dopamine throughout the brain. Weems writes: “The anterior cingulate and the amygdala […] help us make sense of our world by seeking out conflicts and complexities, and then by resolving those conflicts in an emotionally satisfying way.” It is really this aspect of humor that we are most interested in exploiting in our design process - the idea that by utilizing elements of surprise and unexpected juxtapositions in the creation of both shape and experience, we can trigger new emotions - and realizations - in people. Of course, we are not really interested in making people laugh out loud or creating architecture that is immediately recognizable as “funny” (like the famous Longaberger headquarters, a building for a basket-maker in the shape of a basket), but rather in creating projects that are funny in their unexpectedness, and pleasurable to experience. Similar to the "Yes, and" concept in improvisational comedy, we accept certain conditions and concepts as a basis and then add on: striving to introduce complexity and an accommodation of multiple readings in the creation of a new architectural language of space, form and experience. An example of a common strategy is the design of multiple circulation routes and different experiences which are layered on top of each other. In our Assemblée Radieuse conference center in Gabon it is a shaded exterior circulation loop around the perimeter of the building that allows people to talk as they walk and look out over the landscape, serving as an informal counterfoil to the auditoria within. In our Children’s Museum of the Arts it is a “kids only” zone of multicolored spaces that exists over, beside and through the art spaces. In Nature-City, it is the idea that a continuous landscape can coexist with a continuous urban experience. In all of these projects, the intention is that people gain a deeper understanding about the possibility for diversity and complexity in architecture. That instead of making choices - formal or informal meeting spaces, art spaces or play spaces, nature or city - architecture can move beyond assumed oppositions and bring things together, as if allowing us to “have it all,” while still embracing a deep sense of responsibility. Given the scale and importance of issues such as sustainability in the face of climate change, the creation of public space in an increasingly privatized world and making urban experience generally more livable as the majority of people move to cities, we feel that this particular understanding of the role of humor in creativity can help introduce new ideas about humans’ relationship to their environment in a memorable and deeply-felt way. An Old Joke It’s not that architecture has never been funny. Certainly, Postmodernism was engaged in exuberance and unexpected lightness in its embrace of diverse influences in order to shrug off Modernism’s stifling orthodoxies. Think of Venturi and Scott Brown’s serious research on Las Vegas, or their categorization of buildings into “sheds” or “ducks” (and personally I think this also might be the best way to think about what makes a building funny, or pushes it over into kitsch. The decorated shed is clearly more sophisticated... and more funny). Firms like FAT, or MVRDV, continued this tradition of irreverence, producing works that incorporate unexpected programmatic moments, pop-like patterns, the juxtaposition of experiences, typological appropriations and scale effects. This conception of humor in architecture as a means to introduce radical new ideas about society and the environment is not new. In fact, it is precisely what drove the visionary 18th Century French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux to create fantastical works of utopian architecture. Ledoux wanted to both illustrate and provoke pre-revolutionary social ideals through the creation of his Ideal City of Chaux. These delirious and visionary projects included rural projects for coopers (its forms inspired by barrels) and charcoal burners (a pyramid reminiscent of piles of charcoal) and communal institutions such as the Cénobie, a commune for 16 families that was to be an “asylum of happiness” - and even the phallic-shaped plan of the Oikéma, a brothel. The Oikéma was actually designed with the aim of convincing young men of the value of matrimony by exposing them to every variety of sexual pleasure and degradation. (Ledoux writes that “viewed from nearby, vice influences the soul. By the horror it instills, it causes the soul to react towards virtue.”) That very embrace of opposite ideas is, in itself, quite funny - more so when it is combined in a giant penis. However, like many of the examples of humor in architecture, the intention is quite serious, given Ledoux’s convictions. Even formally, the Oikéma was more than a one-liner, utilizing juxtapositions, complexity and layering to go beyond what could be reduced to a visual pun. As Ledoux’s biographer Anthony Vidler writes: “From the front, a temple, from the rear, an oval pavilion, from the side, a long, arcaded basilica, the Oikéma revealed its true message in plan alone - a secret known only to […] one who had traversed its sequence of spaces.” The complex relationship between plan and elevation mirrors the contradictory and complex social manipulations that Ledoux was exploring. Compare this to the Longaberger basket building in Ohio and you can see how deep and complex the use of the unexpected - or the “funny” - in architecture can become. Ledoux’s unexpected - yet familiar - forms give rise to both new programs and new spaces. It is this unexpectedness, these connections between high and low culture, between unusual forms and a classical vocabulary that make them funny. Thus while they can be read in one sense as jokes that can be “gotten” once the connections are made and the motivations and results understood, they are by no means slapstick or simple projects. They represent the relationship that we find both critical and important in the reading of humor as a tool in architecture. Vidler concurs, writing that Ledoux called his Ideal City “an experiment, to awaken with boldness of thought and execution ‘the apathetic sleep’ of architects and reformers.” For our own work, I often describe elements of the design as being incorporated in order to “jolt” people out of their day-to-day lives and to make them consider, if only for an instant, the possibility of an alternative way of living. Jump forward two hundred years and this is also the way that James Wines of SITE talks about his work’s relationship to humor. SITE produced some of the funniest - and yet most challenging - works of late 20th Century architecture, and have had much influence on our own work. Wines began his career as an artist but became disillusioned. As a sculptor, he said recently: “You wake up every day, you make shapes, and that’s that. If you have a certain talent for making forms, everything looks good. But the one thing that really did distinguish 20th Century art is the fact that it could be critical. That was our first direction, that we could build a critique of art.” Rather than simply making forms, Wines strives for what he calls a “built-in ambiguity.” “People come to a building with certain expectations, and we play with those expectations.” What’s more, he stresses that complexity can only come through an embrace of variety and an openness to other ideas. “Hybridism is what makes all art interesting; it’s what’s flowing into it from other places. It’s very hard to look at just a pure, good building - or a pure, good painting. Something other than forms has got to happen - something else has got to be going on.” If a building can do that, Wines says, it “always lasts” because “people are always trying to figure it out.” Get it? One of the main impediments to even speaking about the idea of humor in architecture has been the perception that it is easy or shallow to utilize it in creative work, when the exact opposite is the case. Ledoux, whose work was misunderstood for many years, is to this day associated with the idea of an architecture parlante whereby a building’s form “speaks” its function. (A building for water surveyors is a simple water-spout, a charcoal burner’s house is in the shape of a pile of charcoal.) In truth, this was a term invented to describe his work derisively, after his death, and is clearly a complete oversimplification of the very unique creative formal designs which emerged from his musings. For SITE, Wines says: “One of the first cover stories on SITE was in Architectural Record. The whole next issue was filled with letters to the editor saying ‘cancel my subscription’; all these diatribes. No matter what I do, it's always ‘marginal architecture’ or ‘alternative’ or - and that's always the final - that it's not ‘real architecture.’ People get bogged down (with the idea) that architecture is this serious thing. And of course, they are right. Anyone who’s ever done anything really significant has done it seriously. A critique of architecture is, by definition, a challenge.” People are often suspicious that using humor can be ironic, or even cynical - a way of looking down on clients, or the profession. Sam Jacob demurs, saying: “To break free from the mute walls of architecture we did stuff that was more extreme, in a kind of a cartoon, pop way. We were working with community projects and we thought we could bring other kinds of taste and culture into the world of architecture. Architecture works on so many levels: disciplinary, historical, contemporary, everyday - all at the same time. I think the idea of irony actually helps deal with that. Not in the sense of literally being ironic, but a mode of irony, that things can have more than one meaning simultaneously. Early on, critics thought we were being very flippant. In fact, it was incredibly sincere - and maybe it’s the sincerity which was a little bit scary to people.” Work which deals with issues as complex as humor, surprise, pleasure, or change - is often frightening. Weems agrees, stating that the pleasant surprise of humor can sometimes cross instead to shock; the two extreme emotions are opposite in terms of pleasure, but related neurologically. Humor, therefore, can also be seen as one manifestation of the “shock of the new” that accompanies any major shift in aesthetics, taste or social norms. In fact, extreme reactions can be viewed as confirmation that a mode of inquiry or design meant to create new conditions and mores is on the right track. As Jacob says, “with humor, you can say something that you couldn’t say in a straightforward way - it can actually be a way to an unsayable truth. It’s a much more real way of talking about culture.” And humor in architecture does not go unappreciated, creating sometimes unexpected allies. Wines recalls that Arthur Drexler, the former Chief Curator at MoMA who supported SITE from the beginning was “the most serious guy in the world. But, he had that ability to flex his brain.” Wines continued: “In fact, even Louis Kahn would ask me to go on lecture tours with him. We were like polar opposites and I was the young kid on the block and he was the old master, but both of us were very respectful.” Agile minds like to go out on a limb and these strange bedfellows point out again the intimate relationship between creativity and humor. Kahn is one of the last architects one would expect to embrace SITE. But Wines explains by quoting another unexpected friend, Chuck Close, about his art collection. “The last thing I want to do is collect people who do what I do. I want to collect people who are the opposite, who are doing another point of view.” Kahn appreciated SITE’s difference. He was open to new ideas - even if completely different from his own approach. The punchline Clearly, as these examples show, creativity and humor are intrinsically linked, and architecture that at first seems “funny” is often just a more unexpected, more radical proposition than people are used to. In fact, the conscious use of the mechanisms of humor, interestingly, like the jokes inserted into a serious talk, can also allow these radical ideas to be introduced more gently, and in a more familiar way to people. While the reactions may at times be extreme, we believe that adopting the strategies of humor in the creation of a complex and layered architectural vocabulary can not only lead to new forms, but also to new attitudes. One of the reasons Modernism continues to be as criticized is maybe because it was simply not flexible enough - it didn’t have enough humor to it. By instead working with the layered, the unexpected and the pleasurable, by allowing multiple readings of a project, the chance of success is greater. Our projects for Edible Schoolyard NYC are “funny.” They are bright and bold, with pixel-patterned shingles forming abstract flower patterns directly lifted from Venturi and Scott Brown’s Best store. Set in an abundant garden where there used to be a parking lot, is a greenhouse stuck on to a kitchen and, in the back, a series of strangely shaped volumes clad in spongey blue rubber. It’s for kids, who are naturally more creative, curious, impressionable - and funny - than adults. It is amazing to watch the children experience the building for the first time, smiling as they discover that the fat round blue volume in the middle holds the rainwater, or getting excited as they notice how the greenhouse roof and the kitchen classroom roof are lined up perfectly to direct rain water into this cistern. The building sparks their natural curiosity, appeals to their sense of fun and is attractive and familiar to them with its bright colors. At the same time, these projects represent and support the organization’s important mission of educating children through growing and cooking food, connecting food to everything from math to science to history and helping children form a healthy relationship with fresh organic produce in neighborhoods that are food deserts, with high rates of obesity and diabetes. The program makes them think differently about food. The building makes them think differently about their environment as well. For us, this is the ultimate expression of why we think funny matters. Funny is diversity, the unexpected, the surprise of something different. Funny is strange, challenging and sometimes threatening, Funny is thinking outside the box, or forgetting the box entirely. Funny is pleasure, exuberance, the oversharing of overcapacity. It is the ability to hold two thoughts - or to experience two worlds - at the same time. Funny is soft and squishy when you expected hard and unforgiving. Funny is neurology, criticism, commentary. Funny uses irony as a mode. Funny is accepting and inviting, inclusive and friendly. Funny is serious fun… but it is also, funnily, quite serious.

Dan Wood

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