“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho!
In our practice, experimentation revolves around the belief that invention, discovery and imagination are best triggered by the physical making of things; they, in turn, tell you what to do, tell you what they are. Experimentation also revolves around our belief that architecture can generate its own forms of knowledge and expertise: that architecture can only evolve by challenging the status quo, seeking new methods of production, transforming materials, and developing techniques for space making. Experimentation is a process of trial and error, failure and success, that needs its own space, one independent from the day-to-day demands of deadlines, budgets and baseline pragmaticism.
Our strategy can be diagramed by a simple equilateral triangle of which each vertex represents a primary work area: research, teaching and building. Each is an independent focus, relying on its own boundaries, yet is informed by and has a bearing on the other. Each area is defined by its independence and its points of contact.
Where does experimentation happen? Experimentation requires a workspace that enables play. Play requires an unburdening of experimentation from the usual constraints of commercial practice or academia. This play space foregrounds testing – to see if things succeed or fail, to see what the value of a thing is, what its currency is, and if it can be used architecturally or otherwise. The processes that drive research are not linear or chronological; rather they are aggregate and depend on curiosity – that is, an interest in testing a premise. It is an additive process. Emerging technologies, tools, and materials are the essence of our research. Ours is not a practice dependent on style – we are focused on approach, and part of that approach is a dedication to experimental research. As Regine Leibinger says, “kein Stil sondern Haltung”.
Experimentation can occur spontaneously, of course, but certain formats or venues help clarify or support research. Exhibitions and biennials offer temporal and provisional situations for the display of research, and give experimentation an audience and context. Academic settings often offer open-ended, generous frameworks for experimentation. But, as a place to start, the architect’s sketchbook endures as an archive of inklings, ideas and thoughts that set the stage for an investigation. Despite the draw of the digital, a sketch still records the unformed, the fragment, or the beginnings of an idea. It is the trigger that can introduce further investigation. It is a place to start.
If these various sites are about reception and display, the actual space for experimentation is widely varied. It occurs in the workshop, the studio, the factory or the garage – in all available and relevant maker spaces and in conversation with collaborators. Experimentation can happen within the realm of architectural production or parallel to it (the automotive industry, machine tool industry, the ceramics, glass or timber industries, etc.). The idea of prototyping means improving a form over time and understanding its performative characteristics (what it can do) as well as its esthetic characteristics (what its effects are). Concurrent with finding places to work and places to display is the idea of generating choices. An internal mantra has become “revolutions of choice”. For us, this means that experimentation and versioning produce an archive of things that can be used (or not), and it challenges the idea of the standard building catalogue. Architects can determine the components, elements and fundamentals that constitute their buildings rather than relying on standard products from industry catalogues. This offers a kind of internal consistency between architecture and its own physical tectonic makeup.
The architectural installation offers a productive exhibition format for experimentation. Unlike the architectural representation (models and drawings), installations not so much represent an architectural reality than produce one – one that is physical, experiential, at the scale of 1:1 or the human body, structural and spatial at once. In short, it is an architectural event and has replaced representational artifacts as a method for experimentation and exhibition.
A particular building type – the pavilion – has endured as a reoccurring site for experimentation, both within architecture history and in our practice. Typically unburdened by permanence, utility, occupancy, or performance, the pavilion allows for more elastic ideas about structure, form or space making that more conventional types of architecture cannot. A pavilion is normally limited by size, scope, budget and program. Its siting is usually temporary. In its scale and scope, it mediates between material experimentation and more complex building projects. It can test a thesis without the demands of permanence or absolute architectural fidelity. It is for these reasons that the pavilion endures as a fruitful and enduring study site within our practice.
The experimental favors process over completion. Process favors versioning things and showing itself as a path to discovery that is transparent and adaptable. Process makes visible how building and conceptualization are in dialogue with each other. Process speaks to the transformation of things. If the digital resists or tends to hide process, the physical, sequential making of things tends to make visible the steps in which each phase informs the next. This is an aggregate process that produces collections of things that later can be evaluated.
For us, experimentation is about production and archiving is about collecting, categorizing and storing this work. Archiving is about syntax and meaning. What is the value of experimentation and what is its context? Our archives replace the standard building catalogues of the past and rather act as internal reference material. The output from our experiments is catalogued in a series of “atlases” (Atlas of Fabrication, Bricolage Bricoleur, Revolutions of Choice) that show work as process, or works in progress, as opposed to completed buildings. These catalogues, quick and cheap to produce, are manuals on how to do things. Both process and instructive making are foregrounded in documents like these, which assume that knowledge can be stored and shared.
Besides catalogues or atlases, archiving is also physical – that is, we keep our work material, samples, experiments, installations and models both for storage and retrieval. Such references empower us to conceive and construct buildings via self-generated systems, which is made evident when such an archive is built. Active archiving is an ongoing process; exhibiting offers a chance to sift through this material and categorize and make sense of it. An invitation to exhibit at Haus am Waldsee was an opportunity to frame our work through the lens of a collective (non)retrospective. Non in the sense that it was a freeze-frame or glimpse into a process that continues to adapt, change and evolve.
In 2020, we were invited to show our work at Haus am Waldsee. This was an opportunity to collect archival materials – models, installations and physical work – which were initially amassed in a large warehouse and from there selected for the exhibition. Conceived during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, the opportunity and moment actually proved to be quite advantageous: we were able to show extensive physical work (unaffordable to ship elsewhere in its extent and range), as we could simply transport it across town to the museum. The exhibition also offered an in-depth glimpse into the process of active archiving – that is, it was a demonstration of the relationship between research and its relevance for future use.
Emphasizing the idea of the archive, the work was displayed both on industrial shelving within the domestic space of the museum (a former villa) and freestanding in the garden spaces. Objects were marked and referenced, forming a collection of work samples in dialogue with each other. If active archiving is an evolving and infinite process, exhibitions like this offer a selective cross-section of the work, showing the value and potential of archiving and continual reference as a working methodology. The Haus am Waldsee exhibition framed our critical approach to architecture as one of a collection of ideas.
While experimentation is often forward looking, seeking new possibilities in an unforeseeable and unfolding future, history offers lessons and methods that condition our approach to experimentation. Artists Donald Judd and Richard Serra, whose work was adjacent to architecture in form and thought, made pointed critiques at architects and how they practice, site their work and approach space making. These criticisms have been key to our practice, and have continually served as challenges to which we feel compelled to respond. Judd’s essays defined space making precisely (the distance between two rocks), while Serra proposed an idea of parallax or moving through space. Such ideas have been touchstones that offer us a chance to amend our work as architects. These direct attacks on the architectural profession are complemented by other historical projects – some of which are incomplete, as architecture, or, in the case of several artists, latent as precedents for their structural and architectural possibilities. For example, Buckminster Fuller’s work on geodesic domes and tensegrity structures were realized at different scales and contexts (New York City!) – not as fully resolved architectural solutions but as demonstrations of a technique. We are interested in revisiting these projects with the added complexity of architectural resolution, considering site specificity, envelope, program, occupancy, horizontal floors and surfaces – that is, looking at architectural complexity to test the viability of such systems.
Other artists-engineers, such as Gego or León Ferrari, conjured highly suggestive sculptural structures, which stand as compelling architectural propositions. Our goal has been to test these ideas as architectural projects, with the above-mentioned complexities in mind, in order to ratify them in a very different way. So, whereas precedent continues to impact architecture in education or in conceptualization, these so-called (by us) incomplete projects offer a very different precedent from outside the direct history of architecture.
The experiments of architect-engineers, such as Frei Otto or Yona Friedman (our Summer House neighbor at the Serpentine Gallery), were conceived as frameworks or infrastructural projects – often photomontaged into different contexts and scales. They were typically not resolved architecturally, and thus are compelling as incomplete precedents open to architectural resolution and completion.
For us, precedent is more interesting, as found, in the incomplete or parallel projects that artists offer. In this way, history acts as a kind of sparring partner for experimentation – together they look forward and backward in time.
Equally important to our selective mining of history is our work with structural engineers. Early in our practice we gravitated toward structural engineers as collaborators. A central idea to our practice has been that engineering is not a prop of an architectural idea but an essential framework where both the structural idea and the architectural idea can be one and the same. Structure can spatialize an architectural outcome and those things can be legible and compatible. This also coincides with the idea that experimentation profits from new techniques or strategies that can be developed by other actors, such as engineers, and that architecture can only evolve when driven by such possibilities.
Engineers including Werner Sobek, Thorsten Helbig, Jürg Conzett, Mike Schlaich or Transsolar have developed important engineering techniques, like infra-lightweight concrete (Schlaich), gradient concrete (Sobek), structure as space (Conzett) and formal, sustainable building techniques (Transsolar). Our approach has been to appropriate these methods and use them to come up with very different results than an exclusively architectural approach to a solution. We ask: how can engineering drive architecture?
Engineering also has its own histories, of course. And using emerging technologies (digital or parametric), we revisit structural models, like the space frame from the 1950s or the Vierendeel truss of 1896, as engineering types that can be newly conceived in more optimal configurations, digitally and with new materials.
Another focus of our practice has been materiality. Experimentation has meant working with specific materials: either as something enduring (wood, steel, or concrete) or as something new or hybrid. The formal transformation of a material by tooling can create an architectural outcome, leading often in unexpected directions. This was fundamental to our education at Harvard University. As George Wagner wrote about us: “The mediation of materiality and ideation most completely reveals Barkow Leibinger’s work as influenced by the spirit of Rafael Moneo’s Graduate School of Design. Crucial to the pedagogy Moneo espoused was the conviction that architectural ideas and materials were inextricably intertwined. Put another way, architecture is a physical substance, and the point of conceptualization is to figure out how to treat that material”.
This is, in fact, a reversal of how architecture is typically conceived (first as form then as a construction of materials). The tools or techniques we choose (cutting, pouring, stacking, weaving, etc.) determine a material’s formal transformation. This prompt is essential to our understanding of how experimentation can start.
Teaching is another activity in which we have been able to embrace experimentation. During the Covid-19 pandemic, working with students via apprenticeships became increasingly attractive. Such a structure provided opportunities for collaboration and the “dirty realism” of practice. This proved advantageous against the digital void of online teaching.
We do not really teach anything. We ask questions, typically two or three per semester, which are answered through students’ work. We do not teach techniques or history; although we make sure our students know about history and technique. Because of this, teaching is an ideal platform for research, experimentation and discovery. The fewer the presumptions the better.
Experimentation resists style, consistency, the same-old-same-old. It underscores the idea that architecture can be original, can be authentic, can be new. It requires naivete, doing things wrong... flying blind. It is the belief that the specific identity of a practice can only be defined by this kind of activity. It also means that a critical practice is one that is ever evolving, adapting, and changing in response to emerging discoveries and possibilities. This curiosity makes our work, and the places it occurs, vital, exciting and open-ended – a forum where architecture is seen as a positive and forceful agent for change, and where imagination can improve the world we live in.
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