It has taken a few decades, but we are finally coming to the point where theoretical evaluations of the effects of computer and communications technology are becoming more thorough. These examinations are now gaining the depth of historical perspective, not only by focusing on both the effects devices and ways of communicating have on design practice, but also the role that the architect is perpetually trying to carve out for themselves, to define an activity that uses their skills and knowledge for something other than fulfilling the client’s needs.
It took several decades of semiotics, cybernetics, and other modes of analysis of the tools of the Second Industrial Revolution of electronics and consumerism to give us Postmodernism in all its forms. Now we are moving beyond object-oriented ontology, post-orthographics, and earlier attempts to codify Blobism and parametrics to find the continuities and the developments of architectural practices. If one important development in architecture has been the opening up of the discussion to a wider history and a greater concern for social justice, which the editor-in-chief of this magazine just lauded, the new perspectives on the processes of design are equally important.
A case in point is Dutch architect and theorist Lars Spuybroek’s masterful, if idiosyncratic reading of this age as a new Rococo, which I reviewed recently. Another is a forthcoming essay by designer Hans Tursack which, judging from a few excerpts I have read, promises to be the first serious analysis of the effect of gaming aesthetics, and the development of its ways of looking and making, are having on architecture. Add to this list Reality Modeled After Images (Routledge, 2021) by architect and theoretician Michael Young. A partner in the bi-coastal firm Young + Ayata, he has already produced essays as well as designs that probe the contours of a post-parametric Postmodernism. In the current book, he unearths a surprising continuity of several aspects of architectural design rooted in the teachings of the École des Beaux-Arts and even the Renaissance within the decorative aspects of his practice. He also casts his gaze on the effects of scanning, LIDAR technology, and other modes of documenting, communicating, and analyzing built form.
Young is particularly enamored of the both historic and current potential of poche, which is to say both the dark stuff of thick, loading-bearing walls and the black smudges between articulated spaces in designers’ drawings. To Young, poche is first of all intellectual construct:
“The aesthetics of poche shifted attention from material craft to intellectual concept. It is part of how the emerging discipline of architecture legitimized its expertise, claiming social distance from manual layers …The architect came to be defined as one who works through representations, who could pass judgment regarding architecture through drawings rather than by participating in physical construction.”
How things were built, the materiality of building, and all the work that the structure’s appearance necessitated were suppressed and hidden:
“Poche conceals both the labor of material construction and the labor of geometric underdrawings, it does this in order to shift an audience’s engagement with the representation … Its statement is not one of process, of becoming; instead, it solidifies a design idea as an image.”
In the modern age, he goes on to say:
“[t]he Renaissance poche as concealed construction labor thus transformed into the Modernist concealment of building-performance systems, pipes, ducts, and wires were now hidden in the poche. These technologies lay outside an ideal for architectural expression, even as they were crucial components allowing that expression to take place.”
By that very same practice, poche also became a place of resistance:
“There is a power in occupying the poche, as pockets of freedom outside a dominant eye allow opportunities for the development of alternative expressions. These spaces, concealed between interiority and exteriority, are where resistance develops in a lacuna from the gaze of the public and the gaze of the 'master,' it is where experimentation can ferment, where the repressed festers in wait for a return of the real. In many ways, we consider what is in these spaces as 'real' precisely because it is hidden, withdrawn inside gaps outside cultural control.”
I wish Young had given some concrete models of what he is talking about; the text evokes arguments similar to those made during the height of Deconstructivism by Anthony Vidler, Mark Wigley, and the like, about the “unhomely” and the shadowy crypts of buildings as potential forms and places of resistance. However, the whole point turned out to be that these shadow plays could and, perhaps, can only exist exactly as theoretical positions. As soon as they are exposed, they lose their life as poche and become part of the masterful play of form in light that is the bread and butter of Modernist representation.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Young delves into another aspect of Beaux-Arts architecture: the “mosaique” or decoration that brought to life the formal axes and grand orders of this mode of Neoclassical architecture. Though Modernists taught us to think of that as an added element to architecture, to the Beaux-Arts architecture, it was as important as the other, more structural elements of buildings. Young makes the transition to the value of decoration by turning to scanning technology, which is becoming a manner of producing the building blocks of architecture for both Young + Ayata and many of their colleagues. Instead of either drawing abstractions or spinning out forms on their computers, they start their designs from scans of existing conditions or types of interest. In so doing, they produce a different kind of poche in a semi-automatic fashion:
“In its attempts to record surfaces, scanning technology does not differentiate between the articulated layers of decoration (mosaique); transitory objects such as people, cars, furniture, and vegetation (entourage); or the solidity of architectural mass (poche). These are all smushed together into a thin, glitchy body of surface topology floating in three-dimensional space, absent of thickness and solidity.”
The result is an expansion of architecture into its surroundings, its contents, and the images they bring with them. The scanner–or, for that matter, the avid collector of images from Google, Instagram, and other digital tools, or their own restless mobile phone camera—snarfs all of it up, noting specific elements that range from the interesting to the meme-worthy, without the usual hierarchy of judgement, but with all the messages inherent in that stuff. As a result:
“Furniture, dinnerware, lighting fixtures, trees, plants, artwork, hats, ashtrays, and even things like automobiles and airplanes—commodities, in short—are asked to carry the significance formerly conveyed by architectural ornament. By borrowing images of objects that are also, thanks to advertising, encoded as signifiers of social aspirations, architectural renderings also adopt the lifestyle aspirations attributed to these objects.”
As Young himself notes, these techniques have all the attraction to popular culture of Pop Art and some aspects of Postmodernism, but he is less interested in foregrounding the aesthetics and value of those mass-produced objects and images than in creating a new normal in which the poche has exploded out from the wall; decoration has wandered off the surface of the building and become furniture and fashion; and the building becomes a montage of all of that stuff in its stuff-ness.
Young traces Payne's description of the rising interest in the mass-produced artifacts of daily life as the modern sources of "mosaique" or decoration, with interior design or the arrangement of artifacts forming a manner in which buildings are connected to the human body and aesthetic systems, He finds that, a century after the development of that interest in the typical and the meaning of everyday artifacts, which Payne traces back to 19th century aesthetics and ethnographic and psychological studies blossomed into the Bauhaus, architecture has now gone a step further to integrating daily life and its elements by eliminating abstraction and standardization to directly scan and assemble all of our daily reality in buildings such as, for instance, he, his Young & Ayata cofounder Kutan Ayata, Ruy Klein, and Mark Foster Gage design.
That this liberated and atomized poche coursing through architectural proposals has not found much residue in actual, old-fashioned building is either telling or, to be more charitable, just a question of time. In the Age of the Socials, there are few shadows, let alone solidity and thus poche, but also little value in fixed construction. Perhaps what Young has really discovered is that actually building on all the tradition, labor, and technology needed to make a building is just so last millennium. Architecture is there in the scan, the noise, and the leftovers of human lives, a liberated poche waiting to be scanned, represented, and assembled into not buildings, but an unstable and ephemeral architecture.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.