The Age of the Pavilion?
Netscape Pavilion by Oyler Wu Collaborative, 2011
Every design field has its version of racing. In the automotive industry, racing plays an important role not only in providing a venue for competition, but also in testing bleeding-edge ideas. The catwalk is the fashion industry's form of racing, for example. In architecture, it's the pavilion.
This realization was clearly evident at a recent symposium called Digital Provocations, which was held at the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture on April 12-14. The purpose of the event, as envisioned by faculty coordinator Adam Marcus, was to provide a venue for reevaluating digital tools and their capacities in both practice and pedagogy. Monica Ponce de Leon, Jenny Wu, Jason Kelly Johnson, Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny, and others navigated the pros and cons of digital fabrication—discussing the capabilities and limits of tools like Grasshopper and Maya. In addition to the digital focus, another similarity between the lecturers became clear: to a large extent, their careers have all been shaped by a practice of pavilion-making.
As small-scale, temporary structures that are often unconditioned (some don't even provide shelter), pavilions are model platforms for taking risks, unencumbered from most of the responsibilities required of buildings. I personally am a fan of pavilion architecture, due to its high degree of material experimentation, and to the high visibility (usually positive) it can bring to the field of architecture for relatively little investment.
Something seems amiss today, though, in the larger framework of architectural praxis. In the automotive arena, car companies invest in racing in order to push experimental technologies with the eventual goal of bringing new ideas to the general marketplace. In architecture, however, much of the experimentation exhibited in pavilions seems to stagnate there—digital tools or no—rather than translate into the broader spectrum of construction. Moreover, many pavilion architects, such as the individuals listed above, have few actual buildings in their portfolios, and seem to struggle in transferring their ideas to building commissions. This is not a critique of these practices; rather, I place the blame on our risk-averse society and conservative client base here in the West. (In Asia, by contrast, there are many architects who have become successful transitioning from designing small, temporary structures to large buildings—Toyo Ito and Wang Shu are just two examples—but in the U.S. in particular, this career-building bridge is not so evident.)
I have no critique of pavilions. They are often impressive sources of creative inspiration and much-needed experimentation in today's still-lagging economy. But when this inspiration exerts little or no influence the broader sphere of building, we miss a tremendous opportunity to realize the full value of design.