• interview with Peter ZELLNER

    Photo by Guy VACHERET.
    los angeles CALIFORNIA

    Peter ZELLNER discusses SCI-Arc Future Initiatives (SCIFI), Differential Urbanism, computational design, and much more.


    images, clockwise from top left: Steve MOODY, “LAND”; Jinming FENG, “Figural City”; Duygun INAL, “PATCH I LINK I SUTURE”; Joel KERNER, “Differential Urbanism.”

    suckerPUNCH: Could you tell us a bit about the recent studios and seminars you have taught?

    Peter ZELLNER: At SCI-Arc I lead the Future Initiatives (SCIFI) program, which is the school’s postgraduate urban design program. Our sister program is the ESTm (Emerging Systems and Technologies | Media) program, coordinated by Marcelo Spina. The two programs share seminars and faculty. The SCIFI program not only offers a three-semester course of study, but also generates publications, symposia, and competitions.

    I have coordinated SCIFI since 2008, initially with David Bergman. We started with a pretty heavy emphasis on data analysis and urban mapping. A lot of that approach to teaching came out of the research I did as part of the “Project on the City” at Harvard University with Rem Koolhaas in the late ’90s. However, since about 2010 I have taught a series of linked studios and seminars that have moved away from datascaping and focused increasingly on what I have defined as Differential Urbanism: an up-to-date approach to city design that produces a traversal relationality between urban figure, field, ground, and network. This work has been conducted increasingly with the use of computational design tools as well as via other, sometimes more traditional means like physical modeling.

    The teaching is now conducted at the urban scale, mostly in Los Angeles. Both the studios and the seminars have focused on three goals: first, to develop a deep but novel understanding of contemporary urban design practice and discourse; second, to introduce students to critical urban design and research skills through the study of primary source materials; and third, to allow students to acquire analytic drawing skills aligned with other urban design skills that can be implemented through the application of digitally driven design techniques.

    The “Differential Urbanism” seminars I have led set out a parallel, revised, and annotated history for a theory of a contemporary urbanism, drawn from the perspective of both historical and new works produced by architects and architectural theorists at the scale of the city. The seminars examine several lineages in recent urban thinking in the current context: Object-Oriented urbanism via Aldo Rossi; John Hejduk and O. M. Ungers; Field-Oriented urbanism, via Stan Allen’s “Field Conditions” and Fumohiko Maki’s “Collective Form”; Composite-Form urbanism via Colin Rowe’s Collage City. Last, we have scrutinized what I would term “Pliant” or “Formless Urbanism”—basically, several new and topical urban design approaches that blur figure-field relations via folding, topological stranding, deep aggregations, and other land-form based approaches to urbanism. In the last instance we have primarily focused on analyzing works by Peter Eisenman, Greg Lynn, Zaha Hadid, and Stan Allen.

    sP: What positive and negative baggage do you see current students bringing to the table?

    PZ: The current student culture, at least at SCI-Arc, is defined by a near obsessive dedication to the pursuit of formal novelty and an emergent allegiance to the robot-machine and its artifacts. I don’t see these tendencies producing either any new deficits or gains within the margins of architecture, a place where the school seems to willfully operate best. It seems like that is the new status quo. And I see those positions, if you can call them that, as givens, so I don’t know if they are valuable for an architecturally critical discussion to continue so much as they enable architecture to be considered from different vantage points. I do think that these tendencies are not valuable at the urban scale until other factors are brought to bear on them. So to an extent I am skeptical about novelty as a cultural proposition without any alignment to a larger social or political position vis-a-vis the making of cities. I also have my doubts about machinic design tools as means to an end; at least once we are talking about making more than one object or designing a network of spaces, objects, conduits, and fields. We need a standard for judging the results of computational design, at least when we design cities; probably buildings too, but I believe that sometimes the principles we might apply to assess the efficacy of any tool can loosen at a more intimate scale.

    sP: Are there any strange or interesting precedents you see students or professors putting into the mix lately?

    PZ: In general, I think most of our students have embraced many of the (sometimes dated) precedents we have been exploring, often bringing new skill sets to the analysis work of projects that have never been submitted to digital modeling, animation, and simulation. For instance, one of our SCIFI students just produced a pretty rigorous animation studying Rowe’s notion on the ambiguous composite figure as described in his book Collage City. Ten, or even five years ago we didn’t have students interested in conducting that sort of work at SCI-Arc. Beyond that what I sense is a new hunger in the students, I am teaching for real content. There is an almost ravenous approach to seeking meaning in the work, and in my seminars my students have tackled complex readings, from Tafuri to DeLanda and Kipnis, with a real sense of mission.

    sP: What differences do you see from when you were in school, either in pedagogy of your generation to that above you or in topics of discussion?

    PZ: It is a nuanced discussion but, again, I think that since I was student the focus has moved from critique and dedicated research to something like a more positivist design program enabled by technology. I think that a key ambition in our program has been to align contemporary architecture, either as it is expressed formally or technically, with some broader issues: infrastructure, social space, economy, zoning, and so forth. For instance, now we are most interested in the program in computational design as a way to not only to generate novel urban forms, but also to test them against existing conditions—for example, to stress test them against a context. We’re hardly there yet, but I think we’ve made great progress with the help of Satoru Sugihara, who has led our computational design seminars and is developing iGeo, a free and open source 3-D modeling software library in Java for interactive computational design.

    sP: Could you tell us a bit about what makes SCIFI at SCI-Arc unique?

    PZ: As a broad goal for the studio, one objective within the program has been a total remodeling of a historical understanding of the urban topos, in Greek a “common place,” or the Latin locus, a place. We have been pursuing “placemaking,” but without either the language or sentimentality we might associate with the term. I think we’re onto something totally novel, or at least I would say different, at the scale of city making.

    sP: What other schools are you looking at?

    PZ: I think SCI-Arc and SCIFI are definitely unique, but there are also alignments with urban design programs being conducted elsewhere, particularly at the AA DRL (Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory) as led by Theo Spyropoulos and in the Hadid Studio and Urban Strategies studios at the Angewandte (University of Applied Arts, Vienna). I was recently a guest critic in the “Ubiquitous Urbanism” (Hadid) studio at the Angewandte, and it was refreshing to see that much of the work we are conducting really resonates with things I am seeing in other schools. Another academy that is promising is ioud (Institute of Urban Design, University of Innsbruck), led by Peter Trummer. Peter is a visiting faculty member at SCI-Arc and has been teaching specifically in the SCIFI program. Last year he led a studio on suburban aggregations and this term he is taking the studio to Barcelona, where they are working on large-scale super blocks. Finally, David Ruy and I have started a conversation recently around similar urban topics, and I am looking forward to his final at Pratt.

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