Tom WISCOMBE speaks on tattoos, “the problem of subdivisions,” the role of contamination and precedent, and much more.
images, clockwise from top left: Ashley SHOULDER. 2GBX Studio, Spring 2012; Rafael Ruiz. Vertical Studio, Fall 2012; Dong Ah Cho. Vertical Studio, Fall 2011; Materials Lab 1.0, Fall 2010. Cantilever.
suckerPUNCH: Could you tell us a bit about the recent studios and seminars you have taught and what you are thinking about?
Tom WISCOMBE: For the past two years I have been focusing on the relationships between objects, and what I call “the problem of subdivisions.” Subdivisions has two meanings for me. The first is in terms of how buildings can be dealt with in terms of wholes rather than part-to-whole relations. I am tired of how building massing, interior, articulation, and ground tend to be dealt with hierarchically in contemporary architecture, or one after the other, toward a consequent and linear relation of systems and subsystems.
Imagine instead a horizontal plane, where massing, interior, articulation, and ground are things-in-themselves, and can all influence each other equally but differently. One cannot usurp or subjugate another. Each has some degree of autonomy, although they communicate with one another, push into or anticipate one another—anything just short of fusing together. I call this “Objects in Objects on Objects.” Specifically, we are considering enclosing objects, internal objects, and ground objects, an objective which links back to Jeffrey Kipnis’s “box-in-a-box” problem in “Towards a New Architecture” (1993). Whether these objects are inside one another or on top of one another, they retain their discrete character. The silhouette of an internal object is just as important as the silhouette of the enclosing object, as in an aquarium full of fish. The ground in this model is no longer the receiver of architecture, but rather a pulled-up, dug-out architectural object in its own right, which communicates with other architectural objects and the land it inhabits.
Another implication of this way of thinking is that articulation (detail, ornament, and so on), which is traditionally dealt with downstream from massing, can be allowed some degree of autonomy. This is where the concept of tattoos comes into my work and teaching. A tattoo is not a system per se; it is a figure that loosely relates to the body, sometimes tracking with, and sometimes deviating from, underlying form. It can be drawn in 2-D independent from 3-D mass, applied in such a way that it retains its object-hood. I like to imagine the tattoo as a 3-D printed thing, embedded or clicked-into another thing, so that it is neither a graphic nor ornament, but something you can identify and also dislodge.
The opposite of a tattoo is a mesh, which cannot be identified because it is everywhere. This brings me to my second point in the “problem of subdivisions.” There was a moment in the history of digital architecture, probably around the turn of the 21st century, when meshes were suddenly confused with tectonics. The term panelization was invented at this point, in a rush to figure out how to build the complex digital forms spilling over from the 1990s. It was a perfect storm of digital meshes appearing on forms for free, combined with the material limits associated with mineral materials. Thus, “configurational” part-to-whole logics—for example, “a brick is a part of a wall”—became newly entrenched in the discourse of tectonics.
The revolution of composite materials has, however, broken this spell. Composite materials force a rethinking of tectonics from the ground up. Nothing is for free. Meshes disappear, thankfully, back into the depths of the software. Material effects, surface articulation, and assembly logics are suddenly up for grabs, constituting a new realm for contemporary architecture to flourish and be free. I am currently doing a series of seminars on this topic—they are called “Squished.” The basic principle behind them is that composites require new aesthetic and performative models, and that these models might be closer to a Korean seafood pancake or a calico cat than a mesh. Concentrating on polymer-based architectural skins, we are looking at how assembly of parts can be replaced by sedimenting, grading, and squishing things together.
In the current installment of Squished, Jon Proto, Brandon Kruysman, and I have convinced the robots in the SCI-Arc Robot House to operate as posthuman tattoo artists; they can now engrave, cut, mark, and deposit materials into and onto complex surfaces. One of the most interesting things about this is the digital bridge that we have created between ZBrush and the robots, a link which skips over mesh-logic entirely and connects freeform painting techniques with industrial fabrication techniques. We are dealing with files that have three million polygons, which is, I have come to realize, so many polygons that it might as well be zero polygons. That is to say, we find ourselves in the realm of magic, where computational techniques are so powerful that they can stop being reified and disappear into the background.
sP: What do you see as unique about the work going on at SCI-Arc today?
TW: SCI-Arc is very particular. Its particularity comes from, I think, the administration’s trust in bottom-up culture. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me what to teach. It sounds like anarchy, but actually it imparts a tremendous sense of responsibility for the instructors to carve out a territory, define clear disciplinary problems, and build up a body of work over time. And I think that SCI-Arc students also feel this sense of responsibility. They feel like they are a part of something bigger, something that is right now and can’t be duplicated. They are risk takers, outspoken, and totally obsessive, all things they need to be to make a difference in architecture.
sP: What positive and negative baggage do you see current students bringing to the table?
TW: There has been a lot of talk about Generation Y students (the Millennials) to the tune of: Why aren’t they more like us (their teachers)? I think at this point it is more productive to figure out how to get Gen Y students to be even more Gen Y, to max out their generational difference. One characteristic is certainly teamwork and networking in order to solve problems. I think that’s a great model for working and thinking, and I am interested to see how they will empower themselves and make their world. I think my generation wants to be more networked than we actually are. I think we still model ourselves on older generations—maybe we have something to learn there.
sP: Are there any strange or interesting precedents you see students or professors putting into the mix lately?
TW: It’s a time of great pluralism rather than consolidation. My guess is that the general economic malaise in architecture is producing a kind of cultural reboot. Not in the sense of caving to the pressure, but rather as a kind of surge of optimism. For me, this has actually meant more of a return to the discipline than an exodus into strangeness however. I am very happy to have found ways to bridge between my interests in biology, the arts, aerospace technology, and classical issues of boundary, depth, aperture, mass, and tectonics. I am not interested in constantly leaving my discipline. I want to operate from the inside, and bring things in. I think a lot of people today are talking about things that are, frankly, outside the discipline entirely—for example, ideas about buildings growing or evolving like creatures rather than being designed by informed experts. Or worse, buildings being designed via crowd sourcing—as if one kind of intelligence is equivalent to another.
sP: What do you see as the role of contamination, from both outside disciplines and popular culture, within your teaching?
TW: The way I see it, everything is already contaminated and hybrid, and you would have to use great force to remove that and produce a clearing. And the question would be: Why would you do that at all? Fabian Marcaccio’s Paintants and Bart Hess’s STRP Mutants are some of my favorite works of art because they are by nature cross-disciplinary, not by force. You can’t have Madonna anymore; now we have Lady Gaga. Now, with that said, I don’t think you can do very good architecture if you approach it as a dilettante. Just because Marcaccio’s paintings crawl up into 2-1/2– or 3-D doesn’t mean he is avoiding the discipline of painting. He is actually calling attention to the whole history of painting.
sP: How do you see students’ relationship to technology and its present speed in terms of transferring information? What about its relationship to the disappearance of the lag time in technique and design between contemporary practitioners and students?
TW: That just means that it is more important than ever to have a point of view.