Jason PAYNE speaks on his recent studios and seminars at UCLA A.UD; history, precedent, and “contamination”; the “affect” project and the return to formalism; and much more.
* image courtesy the author. “Space Oddities: or, Variations on the Disco Ball,” Technology Seminar, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Assistant Professor Jason PAYNE, instructor.
images, clockwise from top left: Yuna KUBOTA & David VUONG; Danae LEDGERWOOD, Celene LEHRER, & Lauren RATH; installation view, various students; Yuna KUBOTA & David VUONG. All work completed as part of “Space Oddities: or, Variations on the Disco Ball,” Technology Seminar, UCLA. Assistant Professor Jason Payne, instructor. All images courtesy the author.
suckerPUNCH: To start could you tell us a little bit about the recent studios and seminars that you’ve been teaching.
Jason PAYNE: At University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) I do two things. One, I teach design studios—typically they’re research studios or option studios (research studios being the same as option studios only they go on for a year instead of a quarter). And then I teach technology, or tech seminars, which are what I will talk about more. Sylvia Lavin created the technology seminar at UCLA when she was chair. I was hired shortly after she became chair and have been teaching technology seminars at least once a year, every year since. The seminars started out being classes that were meant to capitalize on our emerging technologies shop at UCLA and developed out of a growing interest in fabrication on the part of us practitioners, as well as the student population. You’re trying, essentially, to move things from digital technology on paper—a paperless studio, or the Columbia [University] model of the ’90s—into a more materialized realm. These are really great classes because I’m able to focus on a very discrete problem. I don’t have to deal with the issues of comprehensive design studio, where we have to work everything out. The last technology seminar I taught is deeply rooted in, or deeply related to, the work which I’ve been doing for about a year now in the office. For lack of a better way to put it, it was a disco ball technology seminar. For the seminar the students basically made a series of disco balls that were ultimately amorphous and which were based on minerals. So it was a lot of fun. Basically all of my tech seminars for the last 10 years have been like that. As I said, this last one reimagined the disco ball, crossing it with minerals and seeing what comes out. For the one before that, we took the skateboard, or rather the skate deck, and cross-contaminated it with the Eames splint. And so it became an exercise in bent plywood, either a perversion of a skateboard or a perversion of the Eames splint, whichever one you like. Another cool one was a mushroom-growing chamber.
JP: You’ve got to watch that with college students, but they were all pretty good about what they grew. So that was terrariums for mushroom growing, which had to be fully functional and so on. The fundamental objective of all these classes has been to look outside of our discipline for models for practice or models for objects, whichever, and to contaminate the interiority of our discipline with exterior principles or practices that seem friendly to architecture. And those classes—like I said, there have been 10 or 12 of them—have been remarkably successful and remarkably popular, which maybe gets to more of what you want to know about. The popularity of these classes has been really surprising, not just to me but to the school. And I often wonder if it signals some sort of a generational . . . sea change is probably too big of a word, but it may signal some sort of generational proclivity, or at least comfort with looking outside of our discipline to capture other principles and bring them in. I’m as old as I am, so I don’t know, if I would have done these things 20 years ago as opposed to 10, if they would have been so popular. I’m betting if I had done them 30 or 40 years ago it would have seemed almost heretical. Frankly, they’re some of the most popular courses at UCLA, and I have to attribute some of that popularity to a kind of intelligence which is coming from students. I bring as much as I can to bear on the problem statement, syllabus, supporting readings, and so on, but I often attribute half of the intelligence of any given class to the student population. Pedagogically speaking, that has been the most exciting stuff which I’ve been up to in the past decade.
The studios are similar in that they too always reach out to other disciplines or other practices which I feel could be allied with architecture. The difference, of course, is they’re much more comprehensive—the projects that we make are bigger, more complicated, and so on. The disciplines that I’ve reached out to in the studios have been things like hairstyling, where we went to Vidal Sassoon to take classes and then brought those principles back to the studio; botany, where we took trips to botanical reserves in Hawaii, for example, studied with plant taxonomists and so on, then brought that back to the studio; thatching—which is kind of quasi-architectural at this point—where we looked at Irish and Japanese methods for very high-end thatching and brought that back to the studio. Thatching is, of course, related to hairstyling. The studios, too, are always about dragging in extradisciplinary things. I don’t know if this is why it has worked or if this is why it’s intriguing, but I have a deep belief in the autonomy of architecture; I would consider myself a kind of post-Eisenmanian person. So I believe in the “autonomy” project. Whether it’s dead or not is for theorists and historians to debate, but I’m deeply indebted to that project. The autonomy project per definition is that you don’t go outside the discipline, that the discipline is sufficient unto itself. Which on some level I believe, perhaps after a fact. But with my work, at least in the schools, I always go outside the discipline, find the principles that are friendly to architecture, bring them inside, and then become autonomous once again.
sP: At the end of your piece in Log, “Hair and Makeup,” you brought up that there had been a shift, that previously, certainly in the ’80s academic setting, the words we use today were taboo and wouldn’t have been brought up; they would have been thought of as silly and outside of the discussion. In the last decade, just looking at the syllabi sent to us, the words have changed. Whether it’s energies, sensations, or moods, you see mention of these intangibles that you wouldn’t have seen even on many early-’90s syllabi and which wouldn’t have been in the crosshairs or part of the discussion. A big part of the ’70s and ’80s discussion was formulated by journals, by certain academic centers, and by key figures. But these things weren’t something being talked about. They weren’t part of Peter Eisenman’s discussion, certainly. So there’s something that has opened up at certain schools in the last decade. And we think now, as certain offices are taking these things on and that discussion is kind of bubbling up, in some places people remain uncomfortable with it; to them it seems superficial and so on. You kind of already touched on it, but how do you deal with that switch? And even the attitude change, that these things are more fast and loose, and have a kind of coolness about them which you wouldn’t have seen in ’80s academic circles.
JP: That question, honestly, strikes at the core of a shift in my own, not thinking, but speaking. These terms that you’re referring to really excited me about 10, even five years ago. And for a few of those terms, I hope I had something to do with bringing them on board—but not all of them, certainly. Where I’m at now, though, is a different place. I struggled for 10 years to make a very explicit, very structured, and general project. And frankly, theory (as far as designers produce theory; we produce theory differently than the historians and theorists do). I thought that it might be possible to produce a general theory of affect or a general theory of sensation. A year or so ago, I decided or realized that, at least for me, a general theory of affect isn’t possible. I think it may be possible if you’re a theorist or historian, but as a designer I don’t know if it’s possible to construct that theory. More importantly, I think that it’s probably not healthy. And so my current writing has less and less to do with that. Which isn’t to say that I don’t believe in it anymore; I actually believe in it more fundamentally now than I did then. What I don’t believe in is the effort to explicitly define it. I think that it’s present in the work, and with any strong designer it must be present both in the work and at least somehow qualitatively definable—never quantitatively definable; that’s impossible. My current writing is less and less overtly sensate and less and less overtly affective, even though I still hope it’s powerful in its affect and powerful in its sensation.
If you read what I wrote for the disco balls, you’ll see me speaking about their affect and about their sensation but not saying here is their affect or here is their sensation. It’s much more oblique than that. Instead, the texts deal more explicitly, and I think more rigorously, with more fundamental things like form, geometry, figure, or posture. It’s a funny return to formalism for me. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m quite excited right now, both in my own practice but especially in the larger culture of 40-somethings and younger. I think that the “affect” project, if there ever was one, is still in play and is still vital, but it’s not what we thought it was. I don’t think that it’s somehow theoretically quantifiable in the way that, for example, the “folding” project was in the early ’90s. Whatever you may think of it, that project was different in terms of our ability to define it textually or with language. The affect project is different. And it seems so central to younger people that it’s not at all a dead project. It’s exciting because it’s a live project, but it’s so hard to pin down. So we have to figure out what we’re going to do with it.
sP: I know you use the word contamination a lot, which we love. That’s an interest of ours as well: how we take our own interests, move them into architecture, and watch the two rub up against each other. You talked a little bit about bringing extradisciplinary knowledge into the studios, but we wondered if there’s something about pop culture that is also part of the last decade’s shift and which informs the work as well. I know for you, clearly even with the names of your seminars—for example, “The Bends” or “Space Oddities”—there are always little cues and clues pushing that dialogue back and forth. Can you tell us how that brings certain attitudes into the classroom or how that informs the work?
JP: Well, there are two answers to that. One is very personal to me and one is much more general. I think the general one is more interesting to talk about, but the personal one is that, as you well know, all designers draw on their own reserves of experience, memories, and so on—their upbringing, basically. I’m a guy who, for better or worse, wasn’t trained in classical musical composition. I wasn’t trained in the history and theory of fine art—unfortunately, since I have a deep interest in it—and a variety of other things that are understood to be the high arts. This is not where I come from. My personal background, to put it bluntly, would align more with the low arts. So rock music as opposed to classical music. For example, I feel like I’m a reasonably good connoisseur of rock music but a hopelessly inept connoisseur of classical music. Fine arts too. Despite my appreciation, I don’t have the proper education in those things to write about them legitimately, whereas hairstyle I have studied and feel like I have a certain confidence as to where I can write about or deal with it in my own work. So that’s the personal thing—that’s where I’m from so that’s what I have to draw on. But more interestingly . . . I don’t know, I always hesitate to generalize for whole generations. So I’m a member of Generation X, and I guess you guys are Generation Y or Z, and now there’s Generation Zero and the rest. But, frankly, I think it’s safe to say that we listen to more pop music than we do classical music, whereas my friends in their fifties, sixties, and seventies actually listened to classical music growing up. In some cases they actually trained to be classical pianists for a while, or classical guitarists, or whatever. But I think there are less and less people, as we get younger and younger, who have that kind of training. And instead more and more of us have this other kind of training. Because rock and roll is every bit as much a kind of training as classical music—it’s just a different genre with a shorter history. And so it seems to me, whereas in the years past, if, for example, you were in architecture school in the ’60s or ’70s, or even in the ’80s, and your professor brought to the studio a certain period in painting, you could connect with that, and if you couldn’t you could quickly get up to speed. I don’t know if that’s possible with most people anymore. On the contrary, if a professor today brings a certain genre of rock music into the studio as some sort of point of departure, I find that very easy. As a teacher, even if the students don’t know the particular genre—and I’m older than the students, so most of them don’t—I can quickly get them up to speed on what the important hallmarks of that genre are, the structures that are associated with it, and so forth. I don’t know what that means in the long arc of history, but I know that in the short arc of history, and in my own teaching, it has been remarkably productive to have those low benchmarks to draw from, as opposed to feeling as if I have to, as I think my teachers and their teachers felt they had to, draw on the fine arts or on some form of high aesthetic as opposed to a low aesthetic, or a high practice as opposed to a low practice. The low practices, in my view, are on the table more.
sP: What kind of baggage do you see students having today? That could be either positive or negative, in terms of popular culture and beyond. Is there a resistance to certain projects that you have to get the students over? Or is there a positive body of influence that they bring?
JP: That’s interesting. Let’s start with the negative, because we always want to start there. The big negative thing, the big thing that really worries me and really creates a challenge in the studio, in the seminar, and in the school, would seem to contradict what I just said about the low arts. But the main worry for me is an increasing lack of liberal arts education in architecture. I see students coming in now who haven’t even read basic books. Their knowledge of literature, for example, which is outside of architecture but informs it, is less than my knowledge of literature was. And I wouldn’t consider my knowledge of literature the best in the world, but it was better than what I’m seeing. Their knowledge of language, languages, or linguistics is very poor. For my own pedagogical project, I rely on drawing in outside influences, and most of those come from liberal arts locations. So if that’s baggage, it’s a big ugly suitcase. And it’s a problem. But, on a more positive note, I find the willingness of students to accept with very little hesitation my desire to draw in what have been understood historically as low aesthetics to be very high. I think that’s fantastic and I think it’s utterly generational. Say, for example, I bring some genre of rock and roll into my studios and seminars. Let’s say post-punk, which I’ve brought into the studio a few times. On the one hand, I find the students immediately willing to deal with it. They don’t question me and they don’t think, “This professor is esoteric or ultrapersonal,” or “He’s pursuing a path that will be of no value to us.” They immediately want to understand the value of that for architecture, and they believe that it will be valuable—and they’re absolutely right about that. The problem is there seems to be a kind of short-term memory, in that the students don’t know what post-punk is or was and they’re only willing to pursue it in a cursory way. So they’re willing to Google Joy Division, but not to go and buy a Joy Division album. And I think that’s part of a problem of the very young right now, a kind of “blog” mentality as opposed to a library mentality. In the past we would go to the library and look up a book on Joy Division, and we’d also go to a record store and buy a Joy Division album. Now you can avoid doing that and get away with it—you can still get a B-plus or even an A-minus without doing that. So it’s a little bit of a mixed bag.
sP: On a side note, that’s similar to a discussion we’ve been having recently. We taught a seminar called “Curated Consumption” that dealt with a lot of those issues—not only how you take your own interests and inform your work with them, but also how you even start collecting influences. In the ’80s and ’90s it was really easy to get a VHS; if someone mentioned a movie you could now go to a movie store and get it. You could finally get ahold of stuff. And then you get to 2000 and it breaks wide open, where now you can get everything digitally and online. But we think that people now go less deep. We notice a lot with our students, if we give them a movie to watch to get going with studio, despite being able to bring it up on Netflix or whatever, oftentimes they’ll say, “I watched a scene on YouTube.” They can’t even sit through the whole movie, even though it’s so easy to get a hold of now. That’s the one strange thing we’ve noticed with the younger generation: where you would think Google would make things easier, some students don’t even remember to Google something. Students today want it given to them, whereas, in the past, there used to be something about the hunt.
JP: Right. It’s the difference between Pandora and actually listening to an album. Or books, for that matter. If, for example, you’re trying to figure out who Aldo Rossi is, the way to really do it is to read one or more of the books he has produced from front to back. But you don’t have to do that now. Or if your professor mentions Pink Floyd, the only way to really deal with that is to listen to an album from front to back. But very few students will do that at this point. I don’t know what that means. I’m not necessarily saying it’s bad; I am saying that I fear it and I worry about it. But who knows? Maybe listening to Pink Floyd in the wrong way winds up producing something really great. I really don’t know.
sP: We’re always interested in what people are listening to or absorbing, even subconsciously, around their work. We see students go from a music video on loop, all of the sudden into a scene from a movie, and then into audio from a radio show. It’s this kind of crazy, eclectic set of influences pulsing at them. Either something really bad will come out of it or some really great work will creep out of their subconscious. To look at a different kind of contaminant, what do you think about the current role of history and theory in academia, and even in your own work?
JP: Well, that’s where I become more of a fundamentalist and less prone to waxing positive about some sort of a loss. I really worry about it. I have to say that the most important influences on my own work, with only two exceptions that I can think of, have been theorists not designers. So, in my own education and in my own continuing development as a student, as a professor, and as a practitioner, theorists are absolutely fundamental to me and other designers are decreasingly so. And that’s something I’m almost religious about. I can’t see an upside to the loss of theory or the loss of history. I just can’t. So when programs are light on theory, at whatever colleges or whatever universities, I think that’s a problem. I find that absolutely unacceptable. UCLA’s program has historically been deeply indebted to critical theory, and continues to be so. And I have to say, in the day-to-day administrative activities I do at UCLA, I’m constantly on guard for anything that’s going to undermine the role and the relevance of theory, history, and criticism in our program. That’s my number one concern. I’m not part of our theory, history, and criticism faculty—I’m design faculty—but when that goes I think you’re on really thin ice.
sP: We come from backgrounds that were very precedent influenced, with a lot Eisenmanian influence, so it’s strange to see that history is one class in a lot of programs, that it’s either lumped all together into a survey or the classes leave off at 1920. It’s very strange, because we don’t know how you can move forward without that. Classes leave off in the 1950s and ’60s and then the students see something from the last six months on a blog, and there’s no way of knowing the in-between.
JP: Right, right. Things have become ultracontemporary. I wish there were something like a suckerPUNCH . . . What would it mean to have a historical suckerPUNCH? Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a venue for history that, like yours, is so seductive and so much a part of architecture students’ everyday existence? Every architecture student I know goes to your site at least once a day, if not more. Now, wouldn’t it be fantastic if there were a similar site that could somehow capture precedent, prior to yesterday? Or could somehow capture criticism? I don’t know.
sP: We actually have a few ideas that we’ve been working on to make that happen on suckerPUNCH—a kind of database where you could create your own lineages through precedent and history. We’ve been focusing more on the context of the last 30 years, but that’s definitely something that we’ve been talking about. Our big worry is when that means going to the site, picking two projects you like, then taking their styling without any sense of what was going on at the time, what ideas were in play, or what you could question today. The question is how you include more of that lead up and how you look back to all the stuff that has been bubbling up and cycling through for 500 years, not just six months of technique trading back and forth. So someday maybe it will be part of suckerPUNCH.
JP: I think that a historically or critically based Web site, like a suckerPUNCH for precedent, would still have to be fast. It wouldn’t be slow. It’s very intriguing to me to imagine the study of precedent that happens fast and not slow. All I know is to study it slow, because that’s what we do. I don’t know if it’s even possible to construct such a fast, hot medium for precedent, but the slow, cold medium for precedent already exists, so that’s not even what we’re talking about.
sP: Along the same lines, we wonder if you see anything, from when you were in school to now, that speaks to that speed. When we started school you would get the newest monograph, you would check it out and be into it, but really the work that you were looking at was probably produced 10 years earlier and was just then going to press, being lectured, and getting out there. Now a student finishes their thesis and it’s posted online tomorrow. An office finishes a competition and they can have it on the Web 24 or 48 hours later. Today that lag has disappeared. And students are certainly more aware of practice and of the day-to-day goings on. There is both good and bad to that, but there has definitely been a shift or change in terms of speed and the playing field.
JP: Well, in theory I like it. The less lag there is, probably, the better. I’d much rather see things very fast. The downside, and this is obvious, is that with no or very little lag it’s far easier for us to just emulate one another. Say, for example, I’m interested in moving from the “field” problem to the “object” problem. If one of my colleagues posts a solution to that problem tomorrow, I’m much more likely to emulate that. As opposed to, if my colleague can’t post that solution tomorrow and it has to come out in five or 10 years, I have to deal with the problem on my own. And so for the next six months or a year I’m working through it on my own, and my solution will most likely be different from my colleague’s. So there does seem to be a collapse aesthetically. But also, more importantly, there seems to be a collapse conceptually due to the lack of lag. And I worry about that very much.
sP: Lastly, is there anything you’re excited about going into the next academic year? Is there anything in the tech seminars you see coming out of that shift from paper to fabrication which excites you? Or certain movements you see, things you’re excited are coming into focus?
JP: This is barely formulated, and I don’t know if it’s universal or if it’s true at other universities, but I find the students at UCLA, and to some degree at SCI-Arc, have a real interest in hardcore formalism, for lack of a better term—it’s a very general term at this point. For many years formalism was a taboo word and it was out of fashion, and if it was in fashion it was very elitist and defined a kind of political divide. I find a lot of students wanting to know what that word means and what that tradition is and was, and the smartest students wanting to know how to make work that might find itself in that tradition. And I’m absolutely thrilled about that. Generally speaking, that’s probably the most exciting thing that I see on my horizon. Like I say, I don’t know if it’s a general horizon. Maybe it’s only Los Angeles, but I hope not. I hope it’s at least nationwide, if not international. So that’s a big thing, and something I’m very happy about.