KERNEL: Our experience of immaterial forms and structures that relate to the concept of the ‘network’ has been perpetuating during the last years. A significant aspect of such condition is an inevitably new—perhaps more broad—awareness in the way we perceive space and physical reality, one that comes with a number of new means that enable social analysis, among others. Seen from a different perspective, the idea and reality of networks could also be considered as the main factor that brought to an unprecedented limit the domination of abstraction over the different facets of everyday reality, rendering even more complex and obscure the operations of contemporary economy and policy. How do you think architecture could navigate and respond today within this field of possible understandings?
mammoth: In Kazys Varnelis’s introduction to The Infrastructural City, a guide to the urban and architectural condition of Los Angeles which uses Los Angeles as a proxy for the state of contemporary urbanism more generally, Varnelis describes the city as a composite of what he calls “networked ecologies”: “hypercomplex systems produced by technology, laws, political pressures, disciplinary desires, environmental constraints and a myriad other pressures, tied together with feedback mechanisms”. By virtue of their complexity, these networked ecologies serve to obscure the processes by which cities are generated and maintained, as you have pointed out with your question. Bruno Latour refers to such entities as “black boxes”; in Graham Harman’s paraphrase, a black box is an object whose “internal properties…do not count…as we are concerned only with its input and output.” The black boxing of networked ecologies presents several serious problems for democratic societies, including the difficulty of marshaling resources to support the maintenance or construction of infrastructures whose function and necessity is not well-understood and ignorance of the potential of those networked ecologies to generate alternative spatial, material, and social configurations (the possibility that things might be other than the way that they are). One of the key roles that we see for architecture within the contemporary city is the exploration and translation of these networks; and that activity lends itself to the construction of understandings and relations (themselves networks) that can serve as foundations for intervention. We think, for instance, of the American landscape architect Kate Orff’s Petrochemical America, a collaboration with landscape photographer Richard Misrach that describes and sorts the dense web of relationships that bind together the American thirst for petrochemicals and a particular stretch of heavily industrialized alluvial territory along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans known colloquially as ‘Cancer Alley’. By revealing the connections between commonplace petrochemical products like plastic grocery bags and the heavily polluted towns, refineries, and waterways of Cancer Alley, Petrochemical America permits a reading of consequences across wildly divergent scales whose dissimilarity typically inhibits understanding. Another excellent example is Roger Sherman’s L.A. Under the Influence, which formalizes the logic of legal and financial trading around urban property in a manner that permits those activities to be drawn into the architectural design process. We’ve also made this a focus of mammoth’s work. Our study of the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, DC explains the inner-workings of a black box infrastructure which takes wastewater and sewage inputs and produces clean water, and frames this event within the global anthropogenically-influenced water cycle. “Atlas of iPhone Landscapes” read the iPhone not as a discrete object held complete in the hand, but as an extract from and product of a large set of globally-networked landscapes, from enormous zinc mines in the Australian Outback to the surprisingly physical architecture of the internet. And an on-going study with the Ex-Ex research collaborative, Isthmus, is exploring the spatial ramifications of the in-progress expansion of the Panama Canal, both within the Panamanian Isthmus itself and in ports up and down the Atlantic Coast of the Americas, readying themselves for post-expansion increases in traffic.
KERNEL: When looking at the architect as a subject of ethical responsibility, we could acknowledge the importance of her potential to shape and reverse engineer those spatial forms and relations that enable either the configuration or the revelation of power structures and activities. Considering architectural design as a practice strongly interrelated and often restricted by policy and economic-logistical resources, what could be the processes that effectively translate design into action?
mammoth: Within the context of a site, brief, and client, the architect is often radically constrained, in the position of providing a service for fees, and easily replaceable, which limits the potential of the contracted architect to hack “those spatial forms and relations” to hacks that the client can be convinced to implement or (perhaps more perniciously) prevented from noticing. This is part of the reason that we have always argued for the importance of expanding architectural thinking and agency outside the scope of received site, brief, and client, towards an architect who locates and constructs sites, who invents briefs, who designs clients or even subverts the need for a client altogether through the location of alternative funding streams. In particular, this suggests the importance of recognizing the bundle of organizational structures, financial practices, and repeated design tactics employed by architects as a designed object which can and should be subject to redesign, instead of viewing that bundle as mere background and context, to be dutifully repeated from firm to firm and situation to situation, like so many suburban tract houses. An excellent example demonstrating the design of the firm (as opposed to describing the design of the projects of the firm) is Bryan Boyer’s “Brute Force Architecture”. Boyer shows how, at OMA, theory, design methodology, and business practice interact as a unified whole, in which theory determines the possibility space for design and design methodology determines the possibility space for business practices and business practices determine the possibility space for design (and so on, in repetitive feedback), instead of (falsely) bifurcating business decisions from design decisions. This integration, of course, is in fact present in every firm, but the cliche understanding of the atelier studio model, which characterizes business decisions as a distraction from the real work of the architect, obfuscates that integration. The implication of Boyer’s argument is that the operations of a firm (any firm) can and should themselves be designed, and in fact are — whether consciously or unconsciously. This is the sort of critical thinking about business models and practice methodology which will make expanding the agency of architecture firms beyond received-design-briefs possible We don’t think that there is any single process or change in design strategies that is likely to accomplish this expansion on its own, but, rather, would argue for tentacular expansion of agency along every available route: a messy reconstruction of architectural practice through the exploration of a multitude of advances. We see explicitly capitalist architect-developers who use their financial savvy, strong balance sheets and excellent credit ratings to finance projects that no traditional developer could conceive; architects laboring within the context of public policy and labyrinthine public bureaucracies (Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses being an excellent starting point for this task); architects operating at the margins and, where appropriate, outside the boundaries of legal processes (Santiago Cirugeda’s “Recetas Urbanas” and confrontational, tactical “antidotes to capitalist and commodified space” come to mind, and the website “Spatial Agency” maintains an excellent archive of such practices); architects designing at scales and within territories that have rarely been recognized as lying within the domain of architecture, such as large-scale infrastructural networks (we think of Canada’s Lateral Office and Infranetlab, for instance, as well as much of the most interesting recent work within North American landscape architecture, such as Pierre Bélanger or Chris Reed). And so on. While many of these advances will likely prove evolutionary dead-ends, we would hope others will thrive and continue to evolve. As a guidebook to what this begins to look like, we highly recommend Rory Hyde’s recent book Future Practice, which uses interviews to explore such advances in and around architecture, ranging across a variety of practices and practitioners like OMA’s research arm AMO or Indy Johar of the “strategy and design practice” 00:/.
mammoth (Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes) is a roving pair of unlicensed architects operating out of motel rooms, sketching indecipherable plans while drinking moderately expensive whiskey out of wax-paper cups.