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Constructing Culture

Mónica Ponce de León

Constructing Culture
By Mónica Ponce de León -

The global events precipitated by the pandemic and the realities that they laid bare have offered us an opportunity to re-examine the agency of the discipline of architecture. The role of buildings in the degradation of the environment can no longer be ignored, and our historic alignment with structures of power cannot be denied. There has been a cataclysmic shift in consciousness. Looking back at the 20th century, it is now shocking to recognize how with little criticism architectural discourse in academia and the media was dominated by open exaltations of the figure of the star architect, combined with the shameless embrace of capitalism regardless of its effects. And yet for all of our newly found consciousness, our raison d’etre is now all the more unclear. The question remains: what is the path forward?

Silverhouse Studio, Current Interests, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Courtesy Current Interests

For starters, I would argue that a little humility may be in order. Concerns with environmental and socioeconomic issues were already part of our conversations prior to 2020. There are many who built careers contending that global warming and social inequities should be the focus of design practice, asserting that design’s mission is to solve the extraordinary global challenges of our time. Despite the good intentions, this approach may be another version of positioning the architect as hero. While we can all agree that architects (and all citizens for that matter) have the urgent responsibility to engage these issues at multiple levels in our lives, it is not clear that the field of architecture has been effective in making a substantial impact in responding to these challenges. The truth is that this problem-solving approach to design, and its moralistic undertones, is a stance that has been well-rehearsed throughout the last 100 years, with little effect on the world around us. Mark Wigley has argued that as architects we tend to inflate our own importance in society; I could not agree with him more.

Despite of architecture’s historical alignment with power, our actual power is very small. The architect’s capacity to solve the global challenges of our time is limited at best; and to pretend otherwise, perhaps causes more harm. Nowhere is this more evident than in the effect that buildings have on energy consumption. The choices that we control as architects pale by comparison when considering the profound impact that new legislation would have on curbing the environmental impact of building, beginning with embodied energy. Yet architects are reticent to call for more code restrictions and often oppose them. This is not to say that the work of those who are making extraordinary efforts to curb buildings’ carbon footprint is without merit. Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis’ recent publication Biogenic House Sections is filled with remarkable lessons from which we can learn, and we should use them as proof of concepts for what should be codified through legislation.

It may serve us well to accept our limited influence and acknowledge the nature of what we do. Akin to music composition, creative writing or film, architecture is a creative practice with the capacity to construct culture. Architecture’s unique ability to envision alternatives to the world around us and materialize them, is a form of cultural production that should not be underestimated or undervalued. This is what gives architecture its extraordinary vitality.

Architecture’s relationship to cultural production is complex. As a creative practice, architecture is free to speculate; but as a material practice, it must contend with everyday realities. Unlike music or film, architecture is highly complicated by extraneous forces. Buildings are produced in tension with pressures that have little to do with the discipline of architecture, yet everything to do with the process of building (ever changing zoning ordinances, inconsistent budgets, uneven access to materials, the peculiarities of a client, economic interests, etc.). This myriad of contingencies has a significant impact on the architectural object, clouding the fact that architecture is a creative practice.

Progetto per la congregazione Beth Shalom, Preston Scott Cohen e Carl Dworkin, Overland Park, KS, USA. Courtesy Preston Scott Cohen e Carl Dworkin

But the fact remains, that as architects, we imagine that which is not there, give it shape and bring it to reality. Each project stands as a sample of what is possible and as a critique of what already is. We do not reflect society, as many like to say, but rather we give form to what could be. Our “superpower” is that we can use design as a critical tool of inquiry that enables new ways of understanding the world and shaping new versions of reality.

Expanding the possibilities for creative practice outside of the conventional structures of power, may call for new forms of practice and a re-evaluation of the relationship between architect and client, tectonics and identity, form and program. In looking for examples to include in this op-ed, one thing became clear to me: there is no single path forward; multiple strategies are possible.

The anti-heroic ambitions in the work of Current Interests may serve as a model for new forms of material practice. Their Silverhouse Studio, for example, seems almost banal at first glance; but it quickly unfolds into an eloquent form of friction against forces over which architecture has no agency. This renovation and addition project was designed for a Chicano artist, long-time resident of Echo Park; a Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles which has seen itself rapidly change and gentrify. This is a poignant paradox for Echo Park. In a community that prior to WWII was known as a hub for members of the communist party, median home prices have now reached the one-million-dollar mark. Current Interests operates within this reality without nostalgia, materially articulating an alternative identity for Echo Park. Resale value be damned. Concrete shingles are dyed nearly black, glazing is mirrored and tinted, and both are set against a quilt of exposed insulation in silver. Quoting poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s discourse on “opacity as a right for everyone”, Current Interests re-fashions suburban ideals of privacy with a series of material strategies that in their words, “agitate normative values of building construction”.

If the work of emerging practices such as Current Interests points to tectonic invention as a means of presenting alternatives to the status quo, another fruitful area for re-examination is the architect’s responsibility in composing the arrangement of spaces within a building. Fulfilling the programmatic needs of a client has long been accepted as part of the job of the architect. While for many this is a mundane part of the job, we need to consider that it is precisely in the configuration of spaces within a building where the architect has the greatest impact on institutions and individuals alike. Robin Evans proves this point beautifully in his seminal essay, “Figures, Doors and Passages”, where he historicizes the hallway as an invention that cemented the stratification of social classes in 17th century England. Ten years prior to Evans, Alan Calhoun in Typology and Design Method, argued for typological manipulation as one of the more powerful tools at the architect’s disposal for effecting change. While known for its geometric dexterity, a close reading of work of the office of Preston Scott Cohen can help illustrate this point. Take for instance, their recent Congregation Beth Shalom project. The ovoid shape given to the sanctuary is unusual for synagogues, which typically are rectangular with the congregation facing forward towards the bema. This building type in America has always had to contend with the fluctuation from large attendance during High Holy Days to the relatively modest gatherings for Shabbat; as a result, most sacred spaces are too big for one function or rather small for the other. To resolve this issue, it is common for sanctuaries to expand onto adjacent multipurpose spaces. The end result is a profound loss of sacred character, with the sanctuary similar to a conference center. When we consider the kinds of pressures that the Jewish community is currently undergoing in the political climate of the U.S., issues of identity are of great significance.

Reinventing Dealey Plaza, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, MPdL Studio e Delineator, Dallas, TX, USA. Commissionato da Mark Lamster per conto del Dallas Morning News. Copyright e courtesy Stoss Landscape Urbanism

By designing the sanctuary as a series of overlapping rings, Cohen imagines a different possibility where a single space can simultaneously feel intimate for Shabbat, and yet be grand for High Holy Days. For the weekly Shabbat, the ovoid gives shape to a long tradition of the congregation focusing on itself, with the Rabbi among them. During High Holy Days, the liturgy moves to the high bema and the seating faces forward, but the sense of coming together remains as the form continues to envelop those in attendance. The balcony, which had historically been relegated to women, is used by Cohen as a means to provide a site for expansion, accommodating those who may be less attentive to the rituals. The project coincides with a moment in America where temples have seen an overall decrease in their numbers, while paradoxically experiencing an increase in Shabbat attendance. While deeply rooted in cultural norms, but offering an alternative to a well-stablished building type, Congregation Beth Shalom creates a new experience and demonstrates what is possible. This kind of rethinking of our institutional practices through new spatial paradigms, holds a great deal of promise.

I believe that for these tactics to have greater impact, it will be necessary to restructure the relationship between architect and client, and bring into practice design strategies that have long been part of speculative architectural projects. We need to dispel the image of the architect as “serving” a client and construct a different model for practice. Speculative projects, such as Atelier Office’s Promised Air, for the city of Detroit, cannot happen under the conventional client/architect relationship. Commissioned by the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2016 (of which I was a co-curator with Cynthia Davidson), Promised Air is a powerful critique of the connection between race, socioeconomic status and the environmental degradation of Detroit. While the project got little attention in Venice and was completely ignored by architecture media at the time, the alternatives it proposes have only become more pertinent in the intervening years. As Robert Fishman writes, “Precisely because a speculative project can make visible these otherwise hidden possibilities, it is arguably more real than projects that merely register and thus reinforce the limitations of the present”. (His emphasis – not mine).

What if we conceived a form of architectural practice where the speculative project leads to true transformations of the built environment? There are a few projects that take steps in this direction. Responding to a call for proposals from the City of New York to create a cultural venue in a portion of the city set aside for public use, Diller Scofidio + Renfro invented a new typology where the building expands and contracts to drive new forms of cultural production. Much has been written about the project; but what is little discussed, and extremely significant, is that at its inception, the building did not have a “client” in the conventional sense. There was no institutional framework to determine a priori the program of the building or its form. Instead, the idea of the building was the catalyst which shaped the non-profit institution that now runs it and that appropriately was given the building’s name: The Shed (formerly known as Culture Shed). During the design process, the building’s concept came under criticism from members of the Manhattan Community Board 4, who felt that when the retractable roof is closed the community would lose several thousand square feet of space. Looking back one may say that the criticism was misplaced. The extraordinary flexibility of the building (a technical and architectural feat) is what enables the artistic diversity it engenders. Moreover, this transformation allows the building to dramatically reduce its heating and cooling needs when space is not in use – a smart energy efficient strategy. Without the institutional independence of The Shed, the project may have taken a completely different form and potentially lost its cultural vitality.

Recently my studio was invited to collaborate with Stoss Landscape Urbanism on the redesign a section of Dallas that includes Dealey Plaza, the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as well as a large piece of infrastructure known as the Triple underpass, and significantly, Martyr’s Park which is soon to become a memorial to victims of racial violence. The project was commissioned by Mark Lamster on behalf of the Dallas Morning News. As he writes in the Sunday Edition of the Paper, the intent was “to suggest what is possible, to begin a conversation about what it could be”. The timing of the project could not be more critical. There are significant political and cultural divisions in the United States, and public discourse continues to rapidly erode.

The Shed, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in collaborazione con Rockwell Group, New York City, USA. Iwan Baan, courtesy DS+R

Our strategy proposes to close to vehicular traffic the section of the road where Kennedy was assassinated, and create a public space elevated over the Triple underpass connecting to Martyr’s Park. The elevated public space will provide a place from gathering and reflection with a memorial overlook from which to take on views of Dealey Plaza and the city at large, as well as a Commemorative Grove to provide shade and a link to nature. Rather than relying on conventional techniques for memorializing, we think of public space as providing the context for education, connecting significant civic spaces and institutions and helping frame the stories they tell. Despite the speculative nature of the project, we developed a highly detailed proposal where material specificity offered new ways of thinking about public discourse and commemoration. In this project there is no distinction between architecture and landscape architecture. For example, the tree and the columns stand at slightly different angles alluding to a feeling of instability. As Chris Reed, founding partner at Stoss, describes it, “This is not a place where everything is normal. We want to acknowledge the activities that went on in this place and not pretend that everything is ok”. But as they grow the trees will self-correct and grow upward, embodying a sense of hope for the future.

Each of the projects I have used as an example, is representative of a myriad of strategies, object lessons in response to the question: How do we move forward? I, for one, am interested in their combinatory possibilities and the potential to transform the practice of architecture. It is time for us to engage in meaningful civic conversations about the public and private environments that we design, as well as the ways in which they partake in the shaping of society.

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