Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Hadley Fruits for Exhibit Columbus The Republic building, designed by Myron Goldsmith, is one of the installation sites for Exhibit Columbus.

When did the fabricators take over the avant-garde? It seems that to be hip and cool in architecture these days, you have to work with six-axis robots, weaving pavilions out of carbon fiber, fiber, or even concrete in shapes that highlight the weirdness of the materials. You have to make forms that are odd in appearance, not only because they reject centuries of how we use form and structure to shelter ourselves, but because the logic of your distributed stresses and algorithmically defined planes dictate such apparitions. If you want to consider yourself as fighting on the barricades of new architecture without engaging in throwing parametric bombs, your only alternative is to create spaces that are meant to attract performances and social actions the likes of which you can’t quite define but that will happen exactly because your architecture is so open and loosely defined.

I had not realized how far the fabricators had gotten in taking over what I always thought was the fun part of architecture until I attended a symposium in Columbus, Ind., recently. That home to decades of experimentation in architecture, many of whose masterpieces were made possible through the patronage of the late J. Irwin Miller, has hosted only mediocrity in recent years, at least in terms of permanent and functioning buildings. On the other hand, Columbus is now the site for a biennial set of installations festooned mainly around the downtown landmarks. The conference I attended was a presentation of the designs that the organizers, Exhibit Columbus, will work to construct towards an August 2019 opening of the latest presentation.

There will be several groups of designs to see when the exhibition opens, the most prominent of which are six projects by academics who work with their students—and labs—to create site-specific installations. These are stringiest, swoopiest, and most bizarrely made of the lot. The other main category of installations consists of five J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize winners, who receive larger budgets to create designs that tended more towards the stage-set end of things.

Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Daniel Luis Martinez and Etien Santiago University Design Research Fellowship winner for the Republic Building by Daniel Luis Martinez and Etien Santiago at the Indiana University
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Marshall Prado University Design Research Fellowship winner Filament Tower by Marshall Prado of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Christopher Battaglia University Design Research Fellowship winner by Christopher Battaglia of Ball State University

The obsession with advanced structure is not necessarily new, but its prominence in the field is. Material and structural experimentation was once the province of academic geeks who seemed to have escaped from the engineering labs at the other end of campus. At the time, concerns like this were shared only by those who saw themselves as questioning and redefining the ways in which architecture was practiced. They are the ones who argued not for the new but for a return to old ways of making—“letting the brick be what it wanted to be,” to paraphrase Louis Kahn’s oft-quoted comment on asking the brick what it wanted to be—or who wanted to express structure such that everybody could see how a building stood up.

The big change came with the advent of computer modeling and drawing, which let architects draw forms that they could only imagine before. The quickly rendered justification to use this new technology was that this was a more organic way of building, one that distributed forces and material in a more efficient manner. To be able to model and build such forms, architecture schools and firms invested in equipment. To get these labs up and running, the researchers often needed to justify the expenditure. Engaging in material and structure research was a convenient way to do that.

Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Sean Lally and Matthew Wizinsky University Design Research Fellowship winner by Sean Lally and Matthew Wizinsky of the University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Cincinnati
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Viola Ago and Hans Tursack University Design Research Fellowship winner Understorey by Viola Ago and Hans Tursack of Ohio State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Sean Ahlquist University Design Research Fellowship winner for individuals with autism spectrum disorder by Sean Ahlquist of the University of Michigan

I speculate that the presence of all those new toys, and the fact that architects felt they had to justify having them, created a strong focus and draw for the most ambitious young designers. If students and junior designers went full geek, they could obtain grants to play with all those tools. It is easy to forget that the early pioneers of “blobism,” “parametricism,” and “paper architecture” had very little interest in structure and form for its own sake. Greg Lynn, Hani Rashid, and Lise Anne Couture in the United States or Lars Spuybroek and Patrik Schumacher in Europe had strong cultural and social justifications for their forms, while architects such as Frank Gehry, FAIA, saw the tools as a liberating force to make the shapes they had always wanted to build.

About two generations later, we have architects such as Marshall Prado and Christopher Battaglia, to name two of the presenters in Columbus, who program robots to print layers of concrete on sand and spin forms into tent-like structures and towers. The results have little to nothing to do with their functions, their surroundings, or the human body—to name just three ways in which some of us still think architecture justifies itself. Only in one case—that of Sean Ahlquist’s woven labyrinth that addresses the need of certain autistic children for an environment to explore that is both stimulating and focused, enveloping and inviting—does the design seem to have a logic beyond the process of semi-scientific exploration in which all of the participants engaged. It was refreshing to see Viola Ago and Hans Tursack present a design made out of repurposed metal tubes, but they also had no clear reason for their pavilion other than to facilitate “social interaction,” which they hope to achieve by placing a table in the middle of their greenhouse structure.

Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Agency Landscape + Planning J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize winner XX by Agency Landscape + Planning
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Hadley Fruits for Exhibit Columbus AT&T/SBC Switching Center, designed by Paul Kennon of Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS)

That same lack of a compelling reason to do something pervaded the work of the Miller Prize winners. My favorite moment was when Agency Landscape + Planning presented a thorough analysis of their site, the old telephone switching station that CRS had designed in 1976, in which they pointed out that the building has never been the same since the trellis, which supported wisteria, was removed. I fully expected them to then propose rebuilding that structure, but instead they want to create a small stage so that—and I am not making this up—people can tell each other stories. It was disappointing to me that Frida Escobedo and Bryony Roberts also restricted themselves to designing stages hoping for a purpose.

Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Bryony Roberts Studio J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize winner Soft Civic by Bryony Roberts Studio
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy Frida Escobedo Studio J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize winning project design by Frida Escobedo Studio

The only Miller Prize–winning firm to escape this formal flailing around was Boston-based MASS Design Group, who used an analysis of the problems of “food consciousness” (an understanding of where food comes from and its meaning, from the ecological to the culinary) and the fact that Columbus sits in the middle of corn fields to design a corn field. Complete with a maze, the firm’s site in front of the Perkins+Will-designed Central Middle School was planted to show off different aspects and types of corn growing. Even MASS succumbed to the notion that they needed a space of gathering at the field’s center, but at least they justified it as a center for celebratory and educational meals.

Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy MASS Design Group J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize winner Setting the Table by MASS Design Group
Exhibit Columbus 2019
Courtesy SO-IL J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize winner Into the Hedge by SO-IL

Don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by some of the strange forms these architects have produced, but I enjoy weirdness even more when it has some justification. It does seem a particular kind of navel-gazing to justify formal experimentation and exploration solely on the basis of research into the elements of architecture, whether they be structure, material, or (social) space. One of these days, architecture will have to dare to recapture the social, aesthetic, and even political agendas that once drove a desire to make something new.