suckerPUNCH will be posting interviews in a new section – in the ring
the fourth of five interviews will also be featured in the current publication of tarp: coding parameters. tarp is the architecture manual published by PRATT.
image: Jujuy Redux [View of South Balconies, Eaves And Duplex Facing Jujuy Street] by Maxi Spina [msa], Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich [P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S]
images clockwise from top left: Reflective Formations [Topological Analysis: Torsional Rate of Change], Reflective Formations [View of Installation piece and water-jet cut plastic templates on the background] by Maxi Spina, Jujuy Redux [Wood Form-Work Assembly Sequence for Balcony System Construction on South Façade], Jujuy Redux [Construction Process as of January 2010; View from Santiago Street] by Maxi Spina [msa], Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich [P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S]
suckerPUNCH: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
maxi SPINA: I studied Architecture in Argentina, in a large, public and free university, which gave me a rigorous –perhaps even traditional- architectural education. It was really important for me to have that kind of education since it provide me with a wide background, which allowed me to be very selective in the kind of speculative work I pursued later on. While a student and after graduating, I was also involved in the school as a TA and then as an Instructor. That together with collaborations I did with Hernán Diaz Alonso and my brother Marcelo allowed me to test ideas into architectural substance and material form with a higher degree of experimentation. Both Marcelo and Hernán transmitted to me their passion for the discipline and culture at large, but more importantly the idea that architecture can transcend its own set of strictures and function as a cultural shaping force. It was at that time in which I became interested in furthering my education in the US, and even though I was indirectly influenced by the rise of digital tools and their potential for architectural design that started in Columbia University during the ‘90s, I thought that Princeton offered at the beginning of the new century a more fertile ground where to further interrogate and integrate those tools in more through disciplinal terms. While in Princeton, I was very much influenced by the materialist and tectonic approach of Jesse Reiser and by the rigorous logistic intelligence of the diagram and its unfolding potential of Peter Eisenman. Later on in NYC working with Daniel Libeskind I continued to explore the spatial and cultural issues while emphasizing the articulation of them into formally complex structures across several scales. While Peter, Jesse and Daniel influenced me in different ways, all of them promoted the principle of non-linearity in the design process for which I am grateful for. My teaching approach both in Berkeley and CCA continues these lines of research from my mentors as they potentially converge into a new form of practice.
sP: Your work experience includes an interesting range of collaborations with architects with perhaps similar tendencies but with very different agendas. How do you think all these influences affected your practice?
mS: Well, I collaborated and studied with these architects over a period of ten years (97 to 07), from the time I was an undergraduate student to post-graduate school, so they influenced me over a period of time in which my architectural development and growth was changing dramatically. While working for Hernán, I was in contact for the first time with the professional world of this discipline; he transmitted to me his input, energy, passion, commitment and enthusiasm for architecture and architectural culture at large. Being exposed to Peter Eisenman’s ideas about indexical tools, coding and tracing were a great academic formative experience. The idea that a design proposal may emerge from a kind of dynamic diagramming, which can alter or regenerate itself at each iteration and function much like a live organism, is something that continues to fascinate me both as a design and pedagogical tool, in as much as it presents the possibility of looking at history or precedents in an active, engaging way. More recently, working with Daniel Libeskind allowed me to explore architectural production as a joint mediation between abstraction and figuration and see the design process as a kind of graphical genealogy; and in doing so, to understand drawing as a generative tool, capable of contributing to a project evolution by engendering a myriad of diagrammatic conditions –conditions that interplay between line and sign. But, looking back, I would say that the influences from all these Architects –some of them friends- are more about process, techniques and methodology than about results. The important point for me is to be able to filter all these influences by challenging or reinterpreting architectural conventions and constraints –those that although mutant, continue to characterize our discipline in so far as material practice.
sP: You brought up Peter’s interest in the role of history and larger architectural problems. It seems precedent exists as interesting way to push new technology and techniques rather than let those techniques fester on their own. How do you take on precedent?
mS: It is always important in my opinion to be able to position your work within the field, which requires the difficult enterprise of constantly producing a reading forward as well as backwards; in other words, what your work denotes and what it may inspire. And this not to fetishize someone’s work, neither to expose your own individual genealogy, but rather to distill that body of work to a point in which one is able to study the mechanisms, procedures and formal devices that recur in it, and create a methodology that suggests a future trajectory. This demands a more reflective practice of form generation, and the difficult task of both engaging convention as well as of rupturing with it at some point –which is the genesis of any act of creation or recreation. For instance, in the Jujuy Redux project (presently under construction) I am co-designing with P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, we wanted to engage those inevitable formal and functional mechanisms that usually recur in the mid-rise housing building typology (i.e.: balconies, eaves, projecting slabs, window strips, etc). In other words, these elements do not belong to a specific precedent, but they are rather typologically specific, and yet they constitute somewhat of a collective precedent that was important for us to address. We thought that these inevitable elements in housing buildings’ envelopes have too often been divorced from one another, either by code or by mere architectural idiosyncrasy, instilling along the way, unconditional fragmentation. After a careful look at the history of this systemic typologies and their local-level formalism, we wanted to engage these repetitive systems without at the same time repeating their effects in as much as distinct pieces; that is, to alter the homogeneous perception that typically emanates from the vertical stack of building elements, while refraining from the separate substitution, permutation and scaling of parts, to which architectural housing innovation is typically reduced. The answer we crafted for this premise was to create controlled transitions, by producing effects of torsion, aperture and deviation. These types of articulations generate a visual and physical distortion, which triggers alternative readings of the building and alters the homogeneous perception that typically emanates from the vertical stack of building elements. These techniques were oriented towards infiltrating what appear to be antagonist categories such as those repetitive shell’s systems and the building’s mass, so as to destabilize their status in as much as distinct elements.
sP: Could you speak about your current seminars and studios?
mS: This year I’ve been teaching Graduate Thesis and two digital design seminars: Synthetic Tectonics, which is designed as a workshop or testing laboratory in tectonic studies with equal emphasis in formal, graphic analysis and CNC material technology; and Radical Representation, which is structured as a critical evaluation of the evolving relationship between architecture’s generative and representational tools, establishing dynamic connections between 2D and 3D. Both classes assume a scenario of ubiquitous computing, in which the designer is asked not only to handle these new technologies but to shape them into a novel visual sensibility. Also, in both classes, through their own specific means –graphic or material- there is an endeavor to represent the insightful aspirations of an architectural proposition that exceeds its mere geometric description; a proposition that aims for a poetic translation rather than a machinic transcription of digitally generated form.
sP: The description for your representation course brings up intent and architectural ambition. We are interested in the line between explicit and emergent/generative design. The shift back towards beginning with intent and ambition rather than chasing a recursive process. Could you discuss your attitude towards intent and technique?
mS: If I could define that kind of relationship using my work as an example, it would be somewhere along the line of this idea of ‘processing substance’. As ambiguous as it may appear, I like to think about my intentions in terms of formulating digital scenarios through tectonic impulses or, vice versa. I embrace this kind of ambiguity and I try to develop digital techniques which register and synthesize the effects of a particular sensibility (in the case of my work that we are discussing here, twisting and torquing, to name the main ones) but also to fundamentally mediate those techniques through a computational field of influences. This mediation I see it working very productively in terms of scalar shifts. If you take for instance, the Reflective Formations Installation: on a micro scale, the self similar pieces are manipulated by an algo‐rhythmic logic that encompasses a series of constraints that links adjacent modules and clusters of points; this logic activates a field of proximities –and proximities in turn, give way to trajectories of movements. These internal pieces follow the same spatial movement and formal logic of the overall form at the macro scale. I think the digital environment allows for a new model of connectionism, in which one is able to not just concentrate in a single intention or expression, but more at a population of them, sequentially calibrated. Yet, all that is still only concerned with a formal or geometrical ambition; there is another level of expression, in which all those ambitions enter the material fabric of architecture, and at that level, ideas of representation are still crucial. For instance, in the Reflective Formation installation, I was interested in entertaining the idea of a spatialized drawing, and push for a scenario that approximates an almost abstract corporeal reality, or materiality of degree-cero. This material decision allowed for an alternative –perhaps even less dialectical- way of perceiving the interstitial space that arises out of this medium of elasticized lines, manifested through narrow, thin surfaces intersecting in space.
sP: Reflective Formations was at the scale of the body rather than an object on a pedestal. This seems in line with the shift from renderings against black backgrounds and product sized prototypes to work now large enough to physically and spatially engage people. Could you talk of shift up in scale from reflective formations to scale of a building in Jujuy Redux project and your interest in the seam at different scales which seems to resist seamless tendencies of past decade?
mS: The idea of the seam, or any other form of material articulation seems crucial to me -and I think it should be for any designer interested in engaging the constraints given by the physical medium, which ultimately affect and nurture architectural form and its construction process. Both projects you mentioned deal with the idea of the seam in very different ways, given the properties of the material and the scale of application. In Reflective Formations, the whole issue of how to fabricate those seams had to do with the notching mechanism, which has a double role: its obvious role as an assembly device allowing to hold the pieces together; and a second role –perhaps more fundamental- which, given the decision of manufacturing the pieces perfectly flat, makes the notches function as a measure device –much like a ruler. In other words, the notches, which are all different, singular boolean indentations distributed along the plastic strips, allow them to be progressively torqued in space and uniquely joined according to their meeting angle. In Jujuy Redux on the other hand, given the constraints but also the more artisanal expertise available in the Latin American construction context, we did not prefabricate the concrete itself, but its mold. We created a series of steel molds composed of ribs and patches welded together, technique that borrows from monocoque, ship construction. Given the stages involved in pouring the concrete from floor to floor, the seams –or meeting edges- of the steel molds were conceived not only as a formal articulation of the envelope, but also as a discrete record of the building construction over time. In other words, the sequence and pace involved in casting the concrete allowed us to conceive what zones could be not only materially continuous, but also formally and structurally continuous, as opposite to those other zones that needed to be more discretely articulated through seams or creases. It is very interesting for me to explore how a similar set of aspirations –i.e.: formal transitional zones, torsion, deviations, etc.- find varied forms of expression once they meet different contexts, whether these are defined in terms of application, scale, culture, function, construction or material logics. These contexts are what make our discipline unique, in as much as a set of aspirations have to be commensurate with the possibilities at hand. It is important for me to acknowledge these contexts and regimes, and to accept that architecture transmits cultural meaning on several levels; to stress architecture’s tectonic basis through any form of material articulation or assembly does not destabilize its capacity for representational values but rather strengthen it.
sP: The fabrication sounds interesting. It reminds me of the description of your tectonics class which aims to push fabrication beyond conventional attitudes of taking a form and using default prototyping process, vivisection or double sided milling, and looking for more sophisticated ways of realizing complex geometry.
mS: Right; the ultimate goal of this approach is to explore the possibilities of building architecture as a sophisticated material translation, not a machinic transcription, of digitally generated form. It is important to understand that architecture’s capacity to emit meaning through its iconography –one that is, these days, undoubtedly digital- needs to be synchronized with its tectonic basis and constructional logic. Reductive principles for conceiving, describing and manufacturing seemingly complex forms such as the infinite stack of lasercut profiles have become the default mode of materiality and assembly; as a result of this approach, in my opinion, architectural representation has not only been increasingly digested by the literal, but also the integrity of architecture’s formal logic has been weakened by this self indulgent fascination with the machinic. However, in the last few years there has (fortunately) been a shift in this tendency to the literal, and we have seen a more intimate relationship between designers and architecture’s internal processes in so far as a material practice, and an emphasis in architectonic singularity in which not only its iconography, but also its material incarnation is particular to that form of expression. I believe this shift is fueled by both a renewed interest in formal disciplines of geometry as well as a return to the specific properties and mechanisms of formation of the architectural artifact.
sP: It seems your work and seminars are closely tied could you talk about how teaching informs your practice?
mS: I believe in a continuous flow of information from the academic world to that of my professional practice. Both Berkeley and more recently CCA have created the context for continuing to explore and reflect about architecture and its dependencies upon digital technologies, and situate the investigation within the landscape of theoretical ideas. This, in its turn is in close relationship with my own speculative and experimental projects. Yet, I am not only interested in speculative work, but in building as well, so experimental projects are perhaps more permeable, more contagious to academic explorations than professional commissions. The influences from the academic world to these professional projects happen more obliquely, involving a larger period of time. And this is related to the issue of context I mentioned earlier; for instance, in developer-driven, housing projects, techniques and effects have to not only be more precisely calibrated, but more importantly there needs to be a precise determination of what territory, segments, elements, etc. of the building offer a fertile ground for your investigation and ambitions. However, after these last three years I can see a feed-back loop in this three-step process that goes from the academic world, to experimental practice and finally to the built work: the intricacies and lessons of Jujuy Redux’s construction process have opened a great deal of insight into our design process with respect to recalibrating design techniques in order to inject more performative potential. This loop of communication brings some reality to what I do and what I teach, and to me that’s very important; I am not just interested in creating a limitless field of experimentation or intellectual speculation in architecture or architectural education, but to also conflate them with the physical medium and the professional reality of our discipline. Again, for me, the most pressing question has become how to engage digital technologies not only in an affirmative, but perhaps more importantly, constructive manner.
sP: Could you talk about the shift from ambitions of technique to ambitions which are spatial or experiential and how this manifests itself in your work?
mS: In the Reflective Formation project, it was really important to calibrate the techniques in order to create a novel relationship between the installation and the spaces in between, in an effort to investigate an idea of ‘interiority’ within a highly sculptural body. In other words, it was important that the installation had open ends internally, that it did not complete itself as an enclosure, but rather present different degrees of porosity as a result of the angles of the pair of intersecting strips. This generates oblique spatial and visual connections, which trigger a more dynamic set of associations. The Jujuy Redux project we wanted to alter the nature of repetitive housing units by inducing new alternative manners of inhabiting and perceiving space from and towards the units. This is done through the combination of the diagonal deviations and the ruled surfaces, which together ‘peel off’ the building’s volumes into horizontal surfaces in the corner and open up views from and towards the living-rooms of each apartment. From the exterior, this design technique generates apertures and transitions, which allow you to read the mass of the building either light or heavy depending on the vantage point while it introduces diagonal associations within the vertical stack of units.
sP: Who is on your radar?
mS: In graphical arts, I have been looking at Chow Martin. I am interested in the idea of a more ‘anatomical’ mode of representation; he is able to represent the human body only through line-work in an ambiguous and intriguing way, as if the human body was made out of thin threads. I am also looking at Tim Hawkinson. I like his work along similar lines and the way he distorts the human body and creates a new mode of subjectivity. Along with Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg which are both recurring references for me.
sP: What are you watching/reading/listening to right now?
mS: I have been watching True Blood. I am interested in the bizarre metamorphosis of characters, from human to animal, portrayed from the past to the present, to see what creatures they embody. All brought to life through a vampire series -which is just a vehicle for that type of exploration. The political implications of each creature in the series are very interesting. I have been listening to Animal Collective and Beirut. I have been reading Argentinean writer Guillermo Martinez who put together a book about Jorge Luis Borges and his ideas of mathematics. I have also been reading Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.
JUJUY REDUX APARTMENT BUILDING
Location: Rosario, Argentina
Project Type: Commission (2006)
Size: 11.000 Sq. Ft.
Status: Under Construction (2007- present)
Expected completion: December 2010
Principals: Maxi Spina (msa), Marcelo Spina and Georgina Huljich (P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S)
Structural Engineer: Orengo & Associates
Construction Company: D.R.S. Construcciones S.A.
Project Management: Maxi Spina (msa) and Marcelo Spina (P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S)
Client: D.R.S. Property Group S.A.
Location: UC Berkeley, College of Environmental Design, Exhibitions + Symposia, Spring 2008.
Author: Maxi Spina
Collaborators: Julio Carreon-Reyes, Christian Cutul, Manuel Diaz, Kevin Lee, Brian Washburn, Christopher Dobosz, Behnam Farahpour, James Kirkpatrick, Molly Reichert, Yuki Bowman, Talene Montgomery, Diedre Fogg, Andrew Park, Rena Yang and Shivang Patwa.
Photographs: Eric Gillet