suckerPUNCH will be posting interviews in a new section – in the ring
the second of five interviews will also be featured in the current publication of tarp: coding parameters. tarp is the architecture manual published by PRATT.
image: stack pavilion by freeland buck
images clockwise from top left: technicolor bloom, surface poche studies, stack pavilion, earl’s gourmet mural all by freeland buck
sP: Could you tell us a bit about the seminars and studios that you have been teaching at yale?
brennan BUCK: The primary ambition with the seminars is to find a way to link up theory and design; to make theory directly applicable to design. They involve both reading and discussion and design and fabrication. The first one was called Voluminous Surface and it was primarily about geometry and its different guises in contemporary architecture. We looked at discourse around geometry and we looked at geometry in the context of art history – perspective and that sort of thing. We also looked at geometry more generally in design culture today. The students took that set of ideas and applied it to fabrication projects at the full scale of the interior. The other class I taught was called On the Face of It, and it shifted interest to the scale of the facade and dealt with modes of expression for buildings at the scale of facade. It relied in part on Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s essay Politics of the Envelope, and looked at different types of expression for buildings – the social and political implications of facade composition and effects. Avoiding meaning entirely is impossible, so we were trying to find a mode of contemporary effects that realistically dealt with meaning in contemporary society and what that could mean. Similarly to the full-scale fabrication class, it was half readings and discussion and half drawing. We thought about fabrication as representation – not at full scale but as representation of a facade and not just with ink on paper but instead as 3-dimensionally substantial and having materiality. The primary interest on my part is to get students to address contemporary problems in terms of both ideas and design.
sP: How do you simultaneously engage fabrication explorations and precedent in your courses?
bB: I think Yale’s students strike a good balance between mild exuberance for technology and continuing interest in architectural history and precedent. I am influenced by how Sylvia Lavin ran the school where I studied at UCLA. For her, theory was applicable and practice-related. There were classes that were technology seminars and theory seminars but they were each based on common ground with other areas of the curriculum.
sP: What were some successful projects that engaged both the theory and technology sides of your seminars?
bB: In the geometry seminar, there was a project which looked at fabric based experiments that other students and people such as Elena Manferdini have been doing. With that work, there is a relationship between how you cut the fabric and the form the draped fabric eventually takes. There was a project that translated that into steel and cut a sheet of steel with different sized leaf shapes. They stretched the steel and based on how it was waterjet cut it deformed in different ways and took on specific curvature. It was almost an infrastructural way or an algorithmic way of thinking about material.
sP: Are there certain historical precedents that you have seen that have good traction in stirring up contemporary work?
bB: Some of my interests lie in the 1960s and 1970s corporate architecture in America. Specifically corporate campuses built outside New York and the correspondence between those buildings and similar buildings in eastern Europe built after that. Both used architecture to build the prestige of institutions whether it was a company or government. I think there are similar formal tropes they shared such as modularity and repetition, but also a grandness and continuity of space. The modularity becomes particularly relevant to fabrication.I also like to discuss the interior in terms of Walter Benjamin’s writing about the paris arcades and the effects of lighting, glass, transparency and reflection which is always pretty relevant. To elaborate on that, one of the things that I am looking at this semester in a class studying interior scale fabrication is that contemporary architecture is being interiorized generally; it is taking up concerns and effects that were part of interior design and using them at the scale of the entire building. Jason Payne in LA is doing that and Splitterwerk, an office in Austria is doing that in projects where they coat all surfaces of a room in wallpaper including the stairs and ceiling. There is an excessive interior condition that they are exploring.
sP: Do you think this interiorization of effects is a cultural or technological shift?
bB: I think it is more of a cultural shift. It comes down to the relationship between effect and meaning. A postmodern idea of clear iconic or symbolic meaning does not apply in contemporary society. I think architects are looking for other ways for buildings to express something. A lot of them are thinking about atmosphere and effects as that contemporary expression.
sP: Architecture has gone beyond geometrical form based experiments into explorations of mood, affect, atmosphere effects. Does this idea manifest itself in your courses?
bB: Definitely, the seminar is all about what architectural criteria applies when we think about interiors. The spaces I like to go to in New York are not glossy geometrically-designed spaces, but are much more finely tuned in terms of atmosphere.
sP: Do you have any favorite places in New York?
bB: The places near my house in Brooklyn tend to be more idiosyncratic and eclectic compositions and filled with different materials and furniture.
sP: Do you see them as a curated experience or are they just mismatched materials and objects?
bB: Curated is the way to talk about it. They are choosing recycled cabinetry on the walls and specific lamps, each of which evoke specific places or periods. It makes for comfortable and engaging interior spaces but does not necessarily suggest developments for architecture that are applicable beyond the scope of a restaurant. I wonder what lessons can be taken from that and be applied in a substantially architectural way using a strategy of curation.
sp: Is there an overlap of the seminars in their focus on the facade and the interior?
bB: I think it’s always more interesting for me to change topics. The interiors class i am teaching now is related to the past geometry class but it has shifted. I think what unites them is an interest in form and finish or form and effect. In our work, my partner David Freeland and I try to employ both equally to get maximum affect; not just by thinking about color and pattern but thinking about them in relationship to form.
sP: Your work such as the installation, Technicolor Bloom, seems to go beyond application of pattern or geometry alone to engage color as a way to investigate affect. How do you see uniting interests of effect and surface in your work?
bB: Technicolor Bloom was an experiment in testing relationships between form, pattern, thickness, depth, and color. We had four or five different parameters that we were varying somewhat randomly to see what happened. Initially is was about how you get curved surface from faceting and how you reduce the visual impact of facet through pattern. Then we started thinking about the effect of varying the depth between layers and the color gradients between layers. How could we get color to refract between layers and are there other spatial and visual effects that could be created.
sP: The scale of that project engaged the body in the gallery, not just as wallpaper or a surface application, but as a spatial experience at that scale that deals with architectural concerns such as enclosure…
bB:…and organization. It’s a gallery show with limitations, but we were interested in shifting the circulation and organization of the gallery space. The project was essentially a tunnel through the gallery – a space that is in the center of the school, surrounded by hallways so people are constantly walking through it. With the installation in place, you could no longer move from one side of the gallery to the other; you had to move through or around the installation. Within the limitations of that scale of construction, it was an attempt to play a role in the spatial organization of the school.
sP: Did that project influence your teaching or following seminars?
bB: The geometry seminar came directly from that project and in some ways the facade seminar was an interest in how pattern informed by that project could have effects at a larger scale.
sP: Your seminars seem to take on long standing architectural problems such as aperture, construction, spatial organization, and enclosure that go beyond purely formal interests. It is interesting how this work can take on this rich history and precedent and engage in these problems rather than being a stand-alone object set against black background.
bB: There are a lot of ways to approach this work, through science, materialism, geometry. I am always more interested in approaching it through architecture because that in itself is endlessly fascinating to me.
sP: Do you see any major shifts in the academic environment between here and Europe having taught at a number of institutions on both sides?
bB: I think there is a bit more of a uncritical euphoria for fabrication technology in Europe which I think people are weary of or more skeptical of here, which I think has been nice to return to for me. So there is a lot of talk about technique as an end in itself among the younger architects I have encountered in Europe. There seems to be a backlash to that here. I think Mark Gage recently wrote, with good reason, a critique of research and obsessive interest in technique, and I share that skepticism towards an obsessive interest in technique. At the same time, I think the origins of technique fetishism in the 90’s was a way to get away from conventions of intuition and composition, and the idea was that algorithmic technique could in some ways force or prompt new solutions. So I still believe in that idea, but I think in the end it is about the end rather than means. I am interested in straddling that divide.
sP: Do you see a new engagement of the public in contemporary design through the development of atmosphere and effects?
bB: I think there has been a growing popularity or popularization of architecture in the last decade which I think is a positive thing. It’s good to engage, somewhat critically, in something everyone can access and be involved with. I am really interested in atmosphere and affects because they do not require expertise to engage with. They require expertise to produce and curate but are very accessible. I just wrote an essay for Log about the Union Carbide Headquarters in Connecticut. It was the biggest office building in Connecticut which Kevin Roche designed in the 1970s. It has gone from being headquarters for huge company to a generic real estate asset leased out to 10 or 12 different companies and owned by hundreds or thousands of individual investors. It is a case study for what is happening to the real estate market in general where there is a value to the generic over the specific, where architecture is not used for institutional identity anymore. The idea that architects need to create identity or specificity in their work is a reaction to that changing state of conditions that we work under. Engaging in accessible media is an important part of creating character which people can identify with.
sP: Architecture can have more cultural resonance when it is seen by a bigger audience and moves out of architectural publications.
bB: I do think there is a warranted concern about iconography and iconic buildings because there is a reductiveness to that which I want to stay away from. At the same time, given the way real estate works now, that seems less of a problem than the proliferation of generic office and residential complexes everywhere.
sP: Architecture always borrows from other disciplines and some of your studios have looked at fields such as automotive design, space travel, and the music industry. Are there any that particularly inform your work or interests currently?
bB: that is something that I learned form Greg Lynn – his interest and belief in the relevance of other types of design to architecture. He is always interested in the technology and culture of other design disciplines which I think is super valuable, but I am less a die hard design fan than he is so I still believe in that kind of research and staying aware of other areas of design culture but I am more focused on architectural problems.
sP: Appropriations from other disciplines are also curated by architects who need to be agile in order to filter and quickly decide what can be easily borrowed without investing the time in specifics that will not help further the architectural development. How do you see this operating in your work?
bB: I think architects are always generalists and there is an expertise in that. We always approach other outside disciplines and techniques from our own perspective so we know what to take on without needing to take it all on. I am a big believer in the expertise of generalism, at looking at a broad set of concerns and adapting them to suit an architectural problem.
sP: What problems are you currently exploring in your work or that you want to explore in future?
bB: I am currently interested in the border, or the overlap, between atmosphere and meaning. Robert Levit makes a convincing case in an essay called “Contemporary Ornament” that some form of meaning is inescapable for architecture. A contemporary architecture heavy on pattern and articulation for him inherently implies things about nature and the individuality valued by our society. If you accept that some generalized set of associations will inherently be evoked, how do you think about that, not in a reductive postmodern way, but in a more open, multiplicitous way. There is a good case to be made that most of our media and a lot of our urban spaces already work this way. We’re asked to judge politicians on whether their facial expressions seemed upset and angry or friendly and optimistic, and we have been identifying with products based on how they make us feel for decades. Through the effects of form, surface, and lighting, architecture can be immersive and powerful in a similar way. Dave Hickey’s essays about the political power of beauty and Nigel Thrift’s writing on what he calls the ‘spatiality of feeling’ suggest that aesthetic decisions have social and political implications – that aesthetics can be performative.
sP: Do you see a shift in attitude from the west coast to the east coast?
bB: There has been more of a straightforward interest in technology on west coast. For me the whole discussion of parametric design is an overblown pitfall of a technique-based discourse where it becomes about efficiencies and in the end it becomes about cost savings and optimization which I do not think have much to do with how people interact with buildings. I think there is a new neutrality or universalism in subtly modulated roofscapes and gradient assemblies. There is a banality in the evenness of that which is unfortunate, even though it is at the opposite end of the spectrum from iconography – buildings with a crisp single figure like Swiss Re. I think somewhere in between there is a more rich identity-producing sweet spot.
sP: I like the sweet spot.
sP: Who is on your radar?
bB: Georgina and Marcelo, Johnston Marklee, Ruy/Klein, Splitterwerk, moh
sP: What are you reading/listening to/watching?
bB: Mad Men has been fantastic in terms of aesthetic culture. In terms of music, I am interested in how musicians can shift between genres – Nico Muhly in New York who is able to switch between folk and classical genres really beautifully.And the painter Glenn Brown who is fantastic in terms of the question of iconography versus smooth gradient fields – he strikes a great balance with overlapping and interrelating figures in his paintings.