Sunday, November 14, 2010

Communication in architecture

Storefront held a dialogue between Bernard Tschumi and Peter Cook last night. It was kind of a loose chat and it didn't really have a theme. But as I went through my notes, I actually found a hidden threat: the conversation had a lot to do with different means of communication in architecture. That makes sense. The event was supposed to be a book launch for Event-Cities 4 after all.


There are telephone book kind of books - simply documenting projects with drawings and images. There are shopping catalog kind of books - grouping buildings according to their use, size, or location. And then there are story book kind of books - trying to construct a narrative with the materials at hand. Event-Cities 4 is more like the last type. Tschumi said, "When you practice, you have no time to theorize things. But when you are making a book, you start to realize the hidden consistent passion or idea behind the projects. In that sense, book-making is like conceptualizing a concept." Making a book allows you to think retrospectively and summarize what you have done in a way that might imply directions in the future.

Peter Cook saw this process of editing post-rationalization, while he also said concept is pre-rationalization to begin with. Perhaps we can say Archigram valued "the moment" more than what's before or after. But to me, whether post- or pre-, rationalization is not a bad thing. The key is whether the pre-construction or re-construction of narrative still conveys the truth of "the moment," reflecting what really happened in that particular set of circumstances. The act of editing should be the application of a new layer of meanings on top of the old ones, rather than replacing them (i.e. not simply to make things sound better intellectually).


Peter Cook entered this topic by quoting Tschumi: "The most precise architectural diagrams have nothing to do with forms or with words. They precede form and word; they are the graphic translation of thought." Cook argued that precision is a lost art now because it requires boring insistence. To be precise, you need to be thoughtful even with the selection of diagrams. In Tschumi's opinion, a diagram can be about relations - how the parts are grouped and interact; or about movements - arrows that could be corridors, stairs, or elevators; or simply a red cross on the things that you don't want to do. It doesn't need verbal explanations or formal expressions.

Tschumi said, "Architecture is not the knowledge of form but a form of knowledge." When asked what has changed in the way of thinking through the years, Peter Cook said, "When I was younger I was interested in architecture. As I get older, I am more interested in people. And with that I start to inhabit the diagrams." Architecture is not about the object. It's a container, an instrument. As Cook said, architects "manipulate" people.


Peter Cook is not an abstractionist. He prefers anecdotes to diagrams. To him, anecdotes are just another medium to tell the story, and they are more fun and potentially more effective.


Tschumi sounded terribly annoyed by the return of what he called "violent metaphors." "Bird's nest," "Water cube," "Sails"... A name of the form is not an architectural concept, especially when it is largely arbitrary. He gave insights on its cause: metaphors are potent because mass consumption has made images the most direct and effective communication tool. In our fast-paced information-loaded society, people desire answers, not questions. And metaphors go straight to answers - not much conceptual thinking is required.

I have to say, not all of the accused architects are responsible for the metaphors. Many of those are just nicknames other people come up with. I remember Luis Mansilla talking about how the local newspaper described MUSAC as waves, flowers, etc., and that was never part of their concept. But he appreciated different interpretations. People want to talk about it, and the formal/visual aspect of things is the easiest to grasp onto. In a way, this is not architects manipulating people, but people manipulating architecture.

Peter Cook was completely comfortable with metaphors. I guess part of the reason is that metaphors sound rather anecdotal. And mostly, it tells the fundamental difference between an enthusiastic celebration of high consumerism in the 1960s vs. the abstract philosophical discourse on architectural semantics in the 80s.

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