Just a collection of my thoughts or links to other thoughts on architecture and design.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Shifting Paradigms Part 1

From Archinect:

Steven Song is a young architect in NYC who has written an article named "Shifting Paradigms: Renovating the Decorated Shed." It explores theories discussed in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's latest book, Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, which revisits the dual quality of Architecture as signage and shelter in the post-industrial information age.

Learning from recent developments in communication technology and personal electronic gadgets, and considering increases in urban/suburban population density, the article suggests that these changes prompt a redefinition of context, signage, shelter and their relationships to one another, if architecture is to respond to new life styles and necessities of today.

Signage, Shelter and Context in Architecture

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, arguably among the most influential architects of the late 20th century, have explored and emphasized the importance of learning from the vernacular landscape to better understand the social, cultural and technological context of the present. In their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi and Scott Brown acknowledged the duality of architecture -- its role as both
shelter in its interiority and signage in its communicative, decorative, informative, and symbolic aspects. Based on their studies of the automobile-oriented Las Vegas strip, they coined this combination the Decorated Shed.i (Figure 1) Their celebratory learning-from the vernacular, especially the 1960s Pop culture, has led to a general perception of them as post-modern. This paper re-evaluates Venturi and Scott Browns theories and investigates their significance and potential in a contemporary context through a reading of a recent expression of their ideas in their latest collaborative book Architecture as Signs and Systems: for a Mannerist Time.ii


Figure 1 - 1970s Las Vegas Strip and the Decorated Shed sketch from Learning from Las Vegas

The book revisits the architectural duality of
signage and shelter, introduces the concept of superimposed activity patterns as a design tool for deriving physical form from social conditions, advocates a reassessment of our ideas of context in architecture, and discusses the relationship between form and functional flexibility, ultimately advocating rule-bending mannerist architecture for todays post-industrial Information Age. (Figure 2) These ideas are relevant to contemporary society, in which rapid developments of communication and sensory technologies blur boundaries of civic, public, and private spaces, negating the dogmatism of one rigid value system, one established aesthetic measure, or one function in a static space. Unlike Neo-Modernisms superficial staged-functionalist architecture, or Deconstructivisms nervous expressionist style, which avoids historically and culturally pertinent architectural dialogues, Venturi and Scott Brown suggest methods of understanding contemporary society both as a whole and as individual patterns, while celebrating architecture as an integral part of its complexity. Through a study of current social and technological paradigms and their effects on society, this paper proposes that shifts in these conditions necessitate yet again a redefinition of context, shelter, and signage, to cover the breadth, flexibility, and interactivity called for as their trinal relationship continues to expand in architecture today.


Figure 2 - Architecture as Signs and Systems and its authors

Context: Shifting Social, Technological, and Spatial Paradigms

Venturi and Scott Brown consider architecture
s spatial and systemic aspects partly through a discussion of context. According to Scott Brown, context in architecture takes many forms -- not only the physical, but also the social and cultural patterns of the space-time. Context both affects architecture and is affected by it.iii

In any culture, the social paradigm that defines its values and the technological infrastructure that supports its activities are inseparable.iv As Manuel Castells writes, "technology is society and society cannot be understood or represented without its technological tools"v. Time magazine
s selection of YouTube.com, a virtual space and non-tangible product, as the best invention of 2006 is symptomatic of the shift from the established social paradigm of the old Industrial Age to that of the new Information Agevi (Figure 3) The development of communication technology and personal sensory gadgets such as the internet, cellular phones, the iPod and the Sony PSP, has provided society with the ability to instantly and conveniently shift the spatial perception of its users. (Figure 4) Even in a public or civic space, a cellular phone user can have highly personal and private conversations with another user who remains anonymous to the public. Conversely, a user connected to the internet can fulfill conventionally public functions, such as shopping in on-line malls, having open discussions in on-line forums, or facilitating meetings through video conferences, all within the most private space of a bedroom. One can even engage now in Massive Multiplayer On-line Role-Playing Games (MMORPG), such as Second Life, a 3D On-Line virtual world, which is built and owned by its 7,256,167 global users (as of June 20, 2007),vii whom the program appropriately refers to as residents. (Figure 5)

There are two kinds of activit
ies here - non-spatially based activities, dependant on information and communication technology; and spatially based physical activities. In 1964, Melvin Webber described the nonplace urban realm of the city of the future, in which motor-based personal mobility would make physical places immaterial and people could choose the nicest places, wherever it was, to fulfill their activities.viii Webber felt then that the development of communication and transportation technology would allow many activities that now depend on spatial propinquity to be conducted through non-spatial means and that this would encourage a distension of human settlements. However in 1996 he observed that urban centers still prospered and many activities continued to be spatially based, because of the credibility and convenience of information received face-to-face and the added attractiveness of chance encounters.ix But developments in communication and transportation technology have undoubtedly improved the speed and ease of connection across extensive space, and therefore increased levels of interaction and transaction between distant places.

Today, our personal communication gadgets and our ability to instantly shift non-spatially based functions in virtual space have given rise to debate on how this alters the traditional relationship between civic, public, and private spaces. We ask how designers should react when the boundaries of spatial definitions are blurred, and wonder whether architects should endeavor to strengthen the traditional distinctions, maintaining a clear hierarchy of spaces to provide security, comfort, and convenience to occupants who have varied requirements for both privacy and public life. But neglected in the questioning is the fact that the new
non-spatial activities do themselves take place in spaces -- in work places that have some unusual and demanding characteristics. These are financial trading floors, information technology-based companies such as Google, or on-line universities whose public classrooms are dispersed to individual users private spaces. In them, the efficiency and quality of activities depend on connectivity of communication and adaptability of space. In designing them, we should critique rigid spatial hierarchy and the conventional allocation of functions, and explore better networked and more flexible spatial layouts. Such places, which benefit from synchronicity and real-time interaction across distances, are described by Castells as the space of flows.x

As the global network increases coverage and diversifies application, more spaces whose programs benefit from flexible spatial infrastructure will inevitably be created. Kevin Lynch, in his 1958 article "Environmental Adaptability," described a well-distributed communication system as a way of creating spatial flexibility, arguing that, "if internal connection is good, then resources can quickly be mobilized and shifted to meet emergencies."xi Lynch meant spatial connectivity such as corridors, but the idea can be extended to information and communication connectivity of the virtual realm, such as emails and video conferences. For the Information Age, non-spatial connectivity must be reliable and convenient, and work space must be flexible and generic to accommodate different programs and corresponding levels of privacy as non-spatially based activities change continuously within the same space. This notion of flexibility, a historically important theme in the discourse of architecture and planning, is especially relevant in contemporary society where social, cultural, and economical paradigms shift quickly and constantly, encouraging timely adaptation of the physical environment.


Figure 3 - YouTube.com as the Time Magazine 2006 Invention of the Year


Figure 4 - An iPod commercial and its users in China


Figure 5 - A captured scene from the Second Life

Additionally, the rapid densification of population in urban areas all over the world today -- whether induced by post-urban sprawl, re-settlement back into mature cities such as New York and Pittsburgh, or the gold-rush to newly developing cities such as Shanghai and Mumbai -- has caused the value of urban real-estate to rise, thereby creating an economic necessity to reevaluate the importance of flexibility in architecture, and to explore spatial arrangements that can accommodate more functions than conventional layouts in the same allotted space. In 2001, the National Assessment Synthesis Team announced that the US urban population is now at 79% of the total, a considerable increase from the 40% in 1900.xii (Figure 6 and 7) And the world
s urban population surpassed its rural population for the first time on May 23rd, 2007.xiii This shift is accelerating in speed everywhere but it is faster and grander in scope in developing countries -- in the last 40 years, Koreas urban population has increased from 20% to 80% of the countrys total.xiv


Figure 6 - US Rural and Urban Population Chart from Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, published in 2001


Figure 7 - US suburban population chart from The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000, published in 2000


Figure 8 - US population and growth trends from Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, published in 2001

Redefining Function

In the chapter entitled "Architecture as Patterns and Systems" in Architecture as Signs and Systems, Scott Brown, who uses her background as both an urban planner and architect to enrich her practice and theories, treats social paradigms, such as the development of communication technology and increasing land value per population movement, as patterns to be superimposed upon one another to collectively inform urban research, urban and campus planning, as well as building design. Learning from diverse places - South Africa, England, and the US - Scott Brown states that as society becomes more multi-cultured and complex in its definitions of value and function, methods of superimposing information become a prime means of gaining a clear understanding of both the overall social fabric and its individual patterns. Yet Scott Brown warns that users of these superimposed systems may face conflicts between the rules of respective layers, and may find it inefficient, if not impossible, to follow all the rules of every system simultaneously. She emphasizes that architects and planners should not be hasty in determining their priorities and suggests taking a
mannerist approach -- bending individual rules to derive functional optima for the whole. Venturi and Scott Brown define mannerism as an educated and productive breaking of rules by people who know the rules well. They recommend that the breaking be for functional reasons and limited in scope, because most rules have a purpose and "if all is exception, exception is not interesting anymore".xv

Learning from the current shifts in social patterns and rapid turn-over rates in building programs over time, Scott Brown advises architects to design buildings that can house a wide range of activities or functions beyond those called for by their first users. In proposing a spatial layout that achieves this, Scott Brown uses the analogy of a glove vs. a mitten.xvi A glove fits the fingers of the original user well, but the mitten can be used by various users because of its extra
wiggle room. Instead of designing a building custom-fitted to one original function, she suggests providing an architectural equivalent of the wiggle room in buildings to anticipate future space requirements, identifying generic, high-ceiling, open-plan industrial loft buildings or Italian Palazzos as examples of flexible space. (Figure 9)


Figure 9 - Glove vs. Mitten Sketch and examples of the spatial types with wiggle room from Architecture as Signs and Systems

Functional Flexibility in Architecture

The notion of functional flexibility has been a recurring theme in architecture. In 1958, Kevin Lynch listed several means to achieve spatial flexibility. These included zoning and concentration of structure at a few widely separated points, leaving wide spans where future changes will not affect the fabric of the whole; use of modular or lattice structures whose peripheral growth does not affect the structure at the center; use of low-intensity buffer zone between spaces to allow their programs to expand and contract without running over other uses; avoidance of narrow adaptation of forms to specialized functions; over-supply of space to provide generous room for future expansion of programs; use of temporary structures; and a well-networked communication system, so that program and interaction changes can be analyzed and accommodated efficiently.xvii Architects have conceptually addressed the subject of flexibility in many ways. Some examples are Gerrit Rietveld
s Schroder House, Mies van der Rohes Universal space, Louis Kahns The Served and the Servant Spaces, Carnegie Mellon Universitys Intelligent Workplace, and Peter Eisenmans Blurred Zone.

Inside the living room of De Stijl architect Gerrit Rietvelds 1924 Schroder House is a changeable open zone, which can be subd
ivided by sliding or revolving partitions. The concept of movable partitions, inspired by the sliding Shoji screens and doors of traditional Japanese architecture, is an idea employed by both early-modern and contemporary architects to achieve flexibility. This method became particularly popular in the Industrial Age as advancements in engineering technology minimized the need for structural elements in building interiors and allowed for larger open spaces. (Figure 10)


Figure 10 - Schroder House in Utrecht, Netherlands, by Gerrit Rietveld, and Yoshijima House in Takayama, Japan

In the 1940s, Mies van der Rohe investigated flexibility through his concept of
Universal Space, a generalized interior space, with evenly distributed artificial and natural lighting and minimal structural elements, as illustrated in his design of the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Figure 11) He also suggested reorganization of the space via movable partitions, to accommodate the different programs of the institute. (Sketch 1)


Figure 11 - Illinois Institute of Technology in Illinois, Chicago, by Mies van der Rohe


Sketch 1 - Diagrammatic illustrations of the Universal Space

Louis Kahn
s Served and the Servant Spaces in the 1960s built on Mies Universal Space but acknowledged the secondary back-of-house function as an integrated but independent part of the whole. In his design of the Richards Medical Research Laboratories Building, Kahn located the circulation and utility shafts (Servant Space), to vertical and subtly connected entities at the periphery of the laboratories (Served Space), thereby providing flexibility to the spatial layout in a minimally interrupted plan. (Figure 12 and Sketch 2) Venturi and Scott Brown expand Kahns ideas by including extensions of the public space into building interiors.xviii Drawing from Giambattista Nollis mapping of urban civic, public, and private spaces and David Cranes multi-layered definition of the "Four Faces of Movement,"xix Scott Brown analyzes urban public space as a complex continuum that passes indoors and out. The street that moves into and through the building provides linkage of exterior to interior as well as space for access, activities, and flows of communication. No longer merely a Servant, it adds a civic element to Servant and Served Spaces, thereby modifying the roles of both, while bringing the conventionally background civic street to the foreground of architecture.


Figure 12 - Richards Medical Research Laboratories Building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Louis Kahn


Sketch 2 - Diagrammatic illustrations of The Served and the Servant Spaces in Richards Medical Research Laboratories Building

On the roof of the Margaret Morrison building at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh is a faculty office space called the
Intelligent Workplace, which was completed in 1997 through the collaboration of a group of professors in the fields of advanced building systems and sustainable architecture. In addition to technological adaptability and environmental sustainability, the space aims to achieve organizational flexibility by providing its users with movable partitions and furniture units, enabling them to reconfigure the space and thereby accommodate future variance in programs. (Figure 13)


Figure 13 - Intelligent Workplace in Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

Such examples of
flexible architecture rely primarily on movable partitions or furniture in simplistic open spaces. Yet their alleged flexibility is often dubious. Not only are partitions rarely moved except at the beginning and end of occupancies, but the vagueness of the functions they define makes us question the very desirability of this type of space. Spatial flexibility is often relegated to merely an occasional rearrangement of furniture in an undefined area. Although the minimization of structural and mechanical elements in the examples above creates open, uninterrupted spaces that initially promise flexibility, some movable elements are, in reality, either inconvenient to move (in the Intelligent Workplace, the wheeled bookshelves were too heavy to roll with books in place, while the movable walls and desks needed all the electrical, mechanical connections unplugged and rerouted to be moved) and others, perhaps because they lack specific programs, merely define simplistic divisions in an open space much as did the living room of the Shroder House. The degree of flexibility provided is therefore too expensive for its limited and occasional use.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Peter Eisenman experimented with another form of flexible architecture. Adapting Jacques Derrida
s notion of an arbitrary text, Eisenman formulated a Blurred Zone through randomly dislocating the conventional architectural texts of function, site, program, and tectonics, ultimately creating a space that is not finalized but rather in the state of constant change, and hence metaphysically flexible.xx (Figure 14 and Sketch 3) However, in reality, the introduction of an arbitrary text and the resulting sculpturally abstract and intentionally chaotic architectural elements merely produces a frozen image of a space/program overlap, rather than initiating true functional flexibility. Frank O. Gehrys design of the Stata Center in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while exuding the feeling of flexibility via its intersecting forms, in reality is a static allocation of programs in a rigid space. (Figure 15) However, the range of space types in the plan may, if the circulation serves them well, allow for flexibility through variety. This is like the Furness Building at the University of Pennsylvania which, one hundred years after being built, allowed for the introduction of computer library systems through its diversity of spaces.


Figure 14 - The 3D model design for City of Culture of Galicia in Spain, by Peter Eisenman, expected to be completed in 2011, and another Deconstructivist architecture, the Danish Jewish Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, by Daniel Libeskind, built in 2004


Sketch 3 - Diagrammatic illustrations of the Deconstructivist Blurred Zone


Figure 15 - An image and a floor plan of the Stata Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Boston, Massachusetts, by Frank O. Gehry, completed in 2004

Continue to Part 2 »

[i] Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972; revised edition 1977), p. 87.
[ii] Venturi, Robert and Denise Scott Brown, Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).
[iii] Scott Brown, Denise, "Context in Context," Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, pp. 175-181.
[iv] Stalder, Felix, The Network Paradigm: Social formations in the Age of Information, (1998).
[v] Castells, Manuel, The Rise of the Network Society, the Information Age: Economy, society and Culture, Vol. I (Cambridge, MA: Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1996), p. 5.
[vi] Grossman, Lev, "The People
s Network," Time (November, 2006), pp. 61-65.
[vii] Linden Lab, What is Second Life?, (2003).
[viii] Webber, Melvin M. et al., "Urban Place and Nonplace Urban realm," Explorations into Urban Structure, (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 108-132.
[ix] Webber, Melvin M., "Tenacious Cities," Conference Research Notes: spatial technologies, geographical information and the city, Baltimore (September, 1996)
[x] Castells, Manuel, The Informational City (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1989).
[xi] Lynch, Kevin, "Environmental Adaptability," Journal of the American Institute of Planners 24, no. 1 (1958), pp. 16-24.
[xii] The Nation Assessment Synthesis Team, US Global Change Research Program, Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change, (2001).
[xiii] Dr. Wimberley, Ron, Mayday 23: World Population Becomes More Urban Than Rural, (2007).
[xiv] Kwon, Tai-Hwan , Population Change and Development in Korea, (2001)
[xv] Scott Brown, Denise, "Mannerism Because You Cant Follow All the Rules of All the Systems All the Time," Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, p. 212.
[xvi] Scott Brown, Denise, "The Redefinition of Functionalism," Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, pp. 153-154.
[xvii] Lynch, Kevin, "Environmental Adaptability," Journal of the American Institute of Planners 24, no. 1 (1958), pp. 16-24.
[xviii] Scott Brown, Denise, "The Redefinition of Functionalism," Architecture as Signs and Systems: For a Mannerist Time, pp. 158-161. and Harteveld, Maurice and Denise Scott Brown, "On Public Interior Space," AA Files 56 (November 2007), pp. 64-73.
[xix] Crane saw the street as providing access, pressure for city buildings, space for living and opportunities for communication. See Scott Brown, Denise, "Urban Design at Fifty, and a Look Ahead," Harvard Design Magazine (Spring Summer, 2006,) pp. 33-44.
[xx] Eisenman, Peter, "Blurred Zones", Written into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 111-112.

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