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Seven speculations on the future of section

Marc Tsurumaki

Seven speculations on the future of section
By Marc Tsurumaki -

Section, as both a representational technique and a series of architectural practices pertaining to the vertical organization of our buildings and cities, provides a rich and underexploited territory for architectural invention at the outset of the 21st Century. The section reveals simultaneously interior and exterior profile, the space contained and the envelope that defines it, exposing the invisible interrelationship between optically discontinuous conditions. As such, the section represents an instrumental form of knowledge, one that shifts the understanding of the building from image to space; revealing the connections between material form and experiential effect, program and performance, inhabitation and structure. Given the often daunting complexity of challenges and constraints that confront architects today - from the technical to the social to the environmental - section provides a unique tool for understanding and choreographing these multiple and often contradictory imperatives, leveraging them to catalyze new spatial, programmatic and performative possibilities that coalesce in the vertical configuration of our architectures. And yet, as the economic imperatives built into development formulas have increasingly driven architecture towards efficiencies of space, section has come to be seen as an exorbitance. The architectural exploitation of the vertical dimension, with its attendant material expenditure, loss of profitable square footage and increased constructional complexity, its apparent “excess”, runs counter to the desire to maximize floor area and therefore the financial return on allowable zoning envelopes compelled by the ruthless demands of the market. The logistical and financial logics of repetitive floor plate construction, still the dominant mode of spatial exploitation in dense urban areas, tend to reduce the majority of building in our cities to the ad-nauseam stacking of generic space, privileging rapidity of erection over architectural invention, quantity over quality. In our suburbs (both in the US, where I write, but increasingly in a global context), where it is cheaper and easier to build out than up, an equally well-established set of building typologies - from big box stores to just in time distribution centers, schools to supermarkets - are constructed based on the ruthless efficiencies of the extruded plan, the three dimensional inflation of planimetric organizations without meaningful variation, enclosing the greatest area within the smallest built envelope. Meanwhile, the increasing complexities of technical requirements have colonized the vertical expanses of our buildings, converting the ceiling plenum into a habitat for an invasive ecosystem of ducts, pipes, cables and conduits that consume and flatten inhabitable space. In this context, section is too often marginalized as a luxury. However, it is this apparent excess of the section, the manner in which it exists outside the reductive formulas of monetized space that renders it an instrumental site for architectural experimentation. Often elided in the developer’s vision, with its preference for the comprehensive and totalizing device of the plan, the section enfolds a plenitude of spatial opportunities within a blind spot in how space is conceived and packaged within market driven systems. This is not to say that sectional elaboration is inherently inefficient. On the contrary, just as any efficiency inevitably entails a corresponding set of inefficiencies, the apparent exorbitance of section carries with it the potential for engaging a density of performance, as section is where thermal forces, building form, structure and material systems converge and are rendered most legible. Whereas the plan is conventionally understood as the means to organize program and is more typically argued to be the locus of design agency, the section choreographs forces and vertical hierarchy that are critical to a consideration and understanding of performative and tectonic conditions. At the same time, section implicates the exchange among multiple aspects of embodied experience and architectural space, making explicit the intersection of scale and proportion, vision and view, movement and perception that are best apprehended in the vertical dimension (as opposed to top down). While most commonly deployed as a retroactive tool to describe constructional requirements and coordinate building systems, it is this capacity of the section to engage simultaneously the experiential and the material, the technical and the social, spatial form and perceptual effect that constitutes its primary instrumentality. Reconceived as a projective device, section can reveal a means of working within the demands of economic, constructional and performative requirements while liberating unforeseen formal, programmatic and inhabitational potentials. Manual of Section, our most recent publication, derived from an extensive research into the role of section in architecture. The book is focused on a series of detailed sectional perspectives, constructed by our studio, through 63 buildings dating from the outset of the 20th Century to the current day. Provisionally categorized into a heuristic taxonomy of sectional strategies - extrude, stack, shear, hole, nest and incline - these projects demonstrate a vast diversity of effects, a proliferation of vertical invention provoked by the very limitations of the technological and cultural context in which they were produced. It is part of our contention (in the essay that frames the content of the book) that these sectional techniques arose at least in part as a response to the modernist embrace of repetitive floor plate construction and the logics of the “stack”. Beginning in the early 20th Century, the repetitive floor plate building provided a means for both accelerating construction and maximizing the financial return on limited plots of urban land. Aligning perfectly with the demands of capital, the development of the Chicago Frame and Domino system prefigured a sectional efficiency that threatened to cancel out the very potentials of section as an architectural technique, relegating the vertical elaboration of buildings to the repetition of homogenous space. Paradoxically, it was the very limitation presented by the standardized stacked section that compelled the range of inventive refinements and strategic deviations catalogued in Manual of Section, from variations in height to complexly sheared, perforated and inclined assemblies that reasserted a diversity of spatial effects. Simultaneously accepting and diverting the logics of the stack, these techniques demonstrate the potentials of an imaginative engagement with section based on the transformation of known typologies and technologies. The historical perspective of this research informed the selection of projects for the book, meaning that Manual of Section was focused primarily on buildings dating from the 20th Century forward and which conformed to the taxonomy of section that arose in response to the material culture of the last hundred years. In this way, we intended to construct a common basis for a discourse that we found to be curiously absent (in contrast to the volumes of material that discuss the plan for example), and to lay the ground work for future elaboration and dialogue regarding the potentials of section. However, Manual of Section also includes a range of more contemporary projects, from Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Museum of Image and Sound to Toyo Ito’s Taichung Metropolitan Opera House (the latter of which aspires to transcend the logic of stacked floors and vertical walls entirely through the deployment of a fully three-dimensional matrix of surfaces), and argues for the agency of section in engaging our current technological, political and ecological condition. It charges architects to examine how we might reconceive section today, at a time when the crises and opportunities we face are so profoundly different from those of our predecessors. What are the new forms and sectional inventions demanded by our contemporary moment, when the techniques and practices of architecture are becoming radically diversified and challenged from both inside and out? While a thorough engagement with these issues lies beyond the bounds of a limited essay such as this one, it nevertheless allows an opening for an initial series of speculations regarding the future of section. Rather than providing definitive answers, these speculations are offered as a series of productive inquiries in the hope of provoking a more thorough and organized discourse: 1. Historic architectures inherently generated an isomorphism between tectonic logics and spatial form, since the construction of traditional load bearing architecture mapped the vertical propagation of static forces directly into the expression of the building’s masonry mass. With the segmentation of building systems from the 19th Century onward, exterior expression and internal configuration became increasingly distinct, and the vaults and load-bearing walls of pre-modern construction, which had once demanded a certain reciprocity between inside and outside, gave way to the multiple layers of the contemporary envelope. Interior and exterior were more and more pulled apart, resulting in a conceptual expansion and delamination of the “solid” wall into a multi-layered system, often responsive and intelligent. While this has resulted in increasingly sophisticated technical solutions for thermal performance, daylighting and ventilation, aimed toward reducing energy consumption and mitigating waste, the majority of these projects are nevertheless predicated on maintaining the binary distinction between a climatized interior, based on homogenized expectations of comfort, and the exterior environment. Passive House standards provide another example of this extreme climatization, one that again results in a cocooning of occupied space, minimizing apertures and exchanges through a thermally expanded wall. But what if the performative boundary between inside and out could become a site of occupation? Rather than simply a more complex skin, how could the expanded envelope become the starting point for a more complexly layered organization of space based on a dialogue between the spatial and the thermal? What if the distinction between the ideal interior and exterior could be rethought to encompass a range of environmental states - pulling apart and occupying the boundary until notions of inside and out blur into a spectrum of occupations, temperatures and nested spaces; the architecture of the wall transformed into a thickened and inhabitable membrane? In our own work as LTL Architects, we have attempted to exploit this threshold condition for spatial effect, most recently in a project for the Telluride Center for the Arts in Colorado. The design comprises a new timber volume, containing the climatically sensitive program, suspended within a historic masonry shell. This nesting of architectures creates a layered system of inhabitable thermal buffers and circulatory spaces for the extreme climate of the Rocky Mountains while maintaining a museum quality environment for art within. 2. Even as the boundary between interior and exterior has become pulled apart into a layered technical skin, the modernist desire for visual transparency has resulted in the reductio ad absurdum of the curtain wall; a single transparent layer between inside and out. This attenuation of the wall, however, came at the expense of a proliferating array of technical paraphernalia required to compensate for the resulting environmental exposure, a life support system colonizing the vertical spaces of our buildings, replacing them with a kind of architectural “dark matter”: an invisible material density verging on a volumetric equivalence with the lived spaces of our built environment. Perhaps more than anything else, this thickened plenum of equipment, both energetically and spatially consumptive, has negated the potentials of section in a vast range of architectures today, rendering the reflected ceiling plan the most underexploited of sites for invention. While the articulation of the ceiling plan, as an expression of structural forces, the manipulation of light, or a means to define and activate space, can be seen as central to most historic architectures, in the majority of contemporary buildings, the expression of tectonic logics, the infiltration of daylighting and the vertical expansion of space must negotiate with the density of technical systems required to maintain the optimal interior climate and provide access to data and communications networks. The banality of the acoustical dropped ceiling grid, the building industry’s solution to conceal these unsightly but necessary systems, has all but cancelled out the potential of the ceiling as a site of architectural play. A consideration of section in the 21st Century therefore must include a re-examination of the status and role of this repressed “dark matter” of architecture and its alibi, the suspended ceiling. What would it mean to abolish the dropped ceiling from our buildings? To remove altogether its discretion and convenience and to wrestle with the exposed viscera of our technologies? Alternately, can the dropped ceiling itself be reinvented as the site of design intensity, where the exchange between occupied space and plenum is exploited for its sectional capacity? For a lecture hall in Columbia University’s School of Journalism, LTL sculpted a new form of custom “dropped ceiling” based not on repetition but on variability, creating a responsive surface that integrated lighting, mechanical equipment and acoustics. The resultant form negotiates the requirements of technical systems to generate a topography of performance, referencing the logic of classical coffering while adapting to contemporary demands. 3. From the 19th Century onward, sectional means of representation came to be instrumental in conceptualizing, projecting and managing the ever more complex and layered conditions of the modern metropolis. With its capacity to reveal the interrelationships between the technical, material, infrastructural, programmatic and social dimensions of urban ensembles, section demonstrated the interconnectivity and contiguity between systems that, on the surface, might be perceived as separate. Pierre Patte’s famous section through a proposed Parisian street portrays the intimate interconnections between domestic interior and public infrastructure, conveying in one drawing the hidden interdependencies between private life and collective form. Today, at a time when more than half of the world’s population resides in urban centers and architects are justifiably preoccupied with the spatial politics of cities, section can play a vital role in not only revealing extant conditions, but also in projecting new urban futures. As opposed to the masterplan, with its pretensions of control and rationality, section opens up a more nuanced way to understand our cities, which operates from the ground up rather than from the top down. The section provides a unique means of visualizing and revealing complex systems, relations and forces: infrastructures, layers of vehicular and pedestrian movement, sites of transition between horizontal and vertical and the multiplicitous nature of the urban ground. As our cities become more vast, more dense, more multi-layered, they are also the sites in which vital issues of political identity, social and ecological justice, and collective and individual agency are played out in explicitly spatial terms. Socio-economic stratification, for example, is often correlated to spatial stratification (witness the land banking of high-rise towers in New York) and density in many cities now takes the form of increasingly compressed and stacked dwellings for those at the lower end of the economic chain. In this context, section, with its capacity to move beyond the surface, to bore into the inner workings and concealed connections of things, might lead to a renewed understanding of urban forms and processes that encompasses multiplicity and transformation, the temporal and the dynamic, the environmental and the political. In a project commissioned to rethink a developing area in downtown New York City, LTL deployed sectional strategies to propose a new form of vertical urban living. Envisioning a system of housing bridges that stitch across an existing superblock in lower Manhattan, the project exploits the enormous roof as an elevated landscape, perforated by light courts and linked by inclined surfaces, creating a fully multi-level urbanism. 4. While Manual of Section, constrained by the format of its publication, was strategically focused on the scale and performance of the building section, section also uniquely reveals the relation between architecture and landscape. Section invariably invokes the nature of ground, the relation to topography and hydrology, and architecture’s spatial engagement with the surrounding environment. Given the current obsession with landscape among architects and urbanists - born of the anxieties surrounding the current environmental crisis - section provides the capacity to rethink the critical interface between building and site as a dynamic interplay of forces, rather than a static intersection of material conditions. To do this, section must engage the ground as a performative (deep) surface rather than a single cut line, expanding the standard architectural convention (typically static and fixed) to engage temporal flux, relational dynamics and shifting conditions of human and non-human inhabitation. What if, through section, building and landscape could be seen not as oppositional but reciprocal, opening up a deeper understanding of how our interventions impact the natural systems in which they are imbedded? LTL’s Water Proving Ground, a project for Rising Currents, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that addressed the challenges of sea level rise for New York, proposes a new urban landscape conceived through section as a dynamic system of exchange between land and water. Operating through tactical shifts in the topography to generate a variety of inclined and sloping surfaces, the project creates a mosaic of natural and constructed terrains continuously activated by tidal flows. 5. As the foregoing suggests, section can and must play a critical role in addressing the profound and ever more urgent impacts of climate change and sea level rise on coastal inhabitation. A consideration of water levels immediately implicates section, not only in the banal sense of determining base flood elevations but in the more subtle ways in which topography and hydrology interact with the constructed environment. A slight increase or decrease in elevation has exponentially more dramatic effects when seen in relation to water, as demonstrated by the bio diversity of our intertidal zones where comparatively minor shifts in inundation can sponsor a vast range of ecological conditions. Correspondingly, an understanding of sea level rise implicates section as one of the primary means of assessing both its risks and its unforeseen opportunities. While taking seriously the very real and potentially catastrophic effects of these transformations, section can simultaneously reveal the collateral possibilities for rethinking the relationship between the city and the sea. What if, like the aforementioned intertidal zone, these newly imperiled territories could become not only more resilient, but also the site of an enriched ecology of inhabitations and uses? In Amphibious Suburb, a proposal for Structures of Coastal Resilience, LTL explored the sectional implications of rising sea levels to rethink the relationship between housing, topographical and hydrological conditions. Here, section, including the manipulation of the ground as berms and channels, the elevation of buildings and the recircuiting of movement systems, provided the mechanism to generate new patterns of (sub)urban living in the face of massive environmental change. 6. Contemporary developments in digital technology offer architects the capacity to work simultaneously in section and on the architectural figure as a whole. Historically, this was not the case, as the section was more frequently deployed as a cut through a preconceived whole, whose plan and external expression were previously established. Yet, even as modeling programs allow this simultaneity, the section is still too often delayed and deferred, still conceived in the programmer’s logic and designer’s workflow as a reductive clipping plan that retrospectively reveals flaws in the model rather than as a site of invention. To take full advantage of the operative and instrumental capacities of the section requires the reconceptualization of the section as primary. It requires foregrounding the section as a site of projection rather than a retrospective view. By making the section the subject of examination and a focus of study, Manual of Section is aimed at facilitating this shift in the discourse and catalyzing an approach to architecture where the section is seen as the driver. Moreover, the fluidity of the exchange between design information and production systems means that the act of cutting assumed in the making of a section can now be translated directly into the logic of digitally controlled tools for fabrication. Given this merging of representation and realization, what if the generative role of section could be amplified by its interface with computational manufacture? In the installation for the lobby of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s new Zuckerman Research Center, LTL Architects engaged both aspects: the section as an operative site for spatial invention and a means of translation into material production. The project is based on the concept that the visitors’ gazes, imagined as viewing cones, could be registered within the thickness of a wall. The design was explored, tested and finalized through section and precisely cut into stainless steel plates to ensure that the optical clarity, inherent in the concept, would be realized in the final installation. The result is a physical manifestation of the section cut, a slice through the visual field of the lobby space, materialized through sectional means of production. 7. There is an abundance of buildings worldwide based on the economic efficiencies of stacking and extrusion enabled by 20th Century systems of construction and environmental conditioning. Today, many of these structures are in need of significant transformation. Mechanical systems and building envelopes, designed when oil was plentiful and cheap, are no longer cost effective or environmentally justifiable. However, rather than demolish these buildings and add to the waste piles of late-capitalist excess, what if operating in section could offer a viable option for revitalizing and transforming these outmoded structures for new programmatic and performative demands? Many of the sectional operations identified in Manual of Section are playful exchanges between spatial types, offering alternatives to the dominance of stack and extrusion through combination and hybridization. This means operating tactically, seeking change through selective removal and judicious addition rather than wholesale rebuilding to add sectional delight to the banality of stacked floors. In considering the future of a series of concrete framed buildings erected in the 1950s to form the Engineering Quadrangle of Cornell University, LTL, working in collaboration with Perkins+Will, used the animating qualities of section to breathe new life into these outmoded structures. New holes cut through existing floors opened new visible and physical connections, animating the social life of students and faculty, and providing celebratory promenades between previously disconnected levels. Tactical additions to the entrance corners provide new spaces for gathering, cantilevering out beyond the original bounding box, extending the building to embrace the multi-level landscape of the site. As such, the value of the existing structure was maximized, while giving new life to the use and identity of the building through interventions in section, and setting a model for similar future projects on campus. Faced with the overwhelming complexity of conditions that define the contemporary moment, architectural discourse has increasingly grappled with the necessity to engage the contradictory demands of a rapidly developing geopolitical reality; one defined more and more in terms of crisis - whether social, economic or environmental. The fascination with complex formal manipulations facilitated by emergent tools of computation, prevalent in the economic plenitude of the early part of the new millennium has all but given way in many sites within both academia and practice to an approach that recognizes architecture’s inherent entanglement with, and need to conscientiously address, the multiplicity of extrinsic forces that both shape and, in turn, are shaped by it. In this sense, architecture’s relevance is situated precisely at its boundaries, on its intersections and exchanges with those things external to it; economies, ecologies, political and ideological systems. Section, as the revelation of the charged and contested membrane between inside and out, between the individual work of architecture and the larger urban, social and environmental field in which it is imbedded, has much to offer contemporary practice as we grapple with our own disciplinary boundaries and consider the interior and exterior of own practices. Much more than a means to reveal and resolve the internal spatial and technical complexities of contemporary building, section exposes the hidden relations among the often competing parameters and requirements that coalesce in any work of architecture, providing a key to exploit the paradoxes arising from the confluence of these multiple and contradictory logics. Moreover, a consideration of section, as the cut that reveals, exposes how we construct our relationship to more expansive natural and human-made systems, and asks us to interrogate the intersection between building and site, between architecture and landscape, between interior program and urban context, and between internal climate and external environment. Section, as the meeting point of performance and perception, efficiency and exorbitance, interior inhabitation and exterior expression, exposes the hidden relations among seemingly disconnected conditions, opening up room for invention within the rationalized spaces of contemporary systems.

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