The chicken was the best project. It was not the computer-generating blobs oozing over Paris’ Tuileries Garden (though that one was pretty sexy), not the parade of postmodern pastiches, not the earnest incisions in landscape that unearthed lines extending and broadening into cantilevered bravura, and certainly not the cemetery based on emoticons, which sent me into a self-righteous rage on seeing its affectless and just poorly designed forms. It was the chicken that to me was the best project I saw at the thesis reviews at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) this fall.
I am not sure what the chicken project meant, and I am not sure the student who created it, Feiran Wang, did either. She made references to surrealism and absurdism—and there was a sense that she was using the visual language of cheap restaurants and advertising that infuses so much of China’s popular culture—but the project’s success came from her single-minded pursuit of her vision, from entrance gates dripping in black feathers to chicken bacon façades to the staircase of golden chicken legs. The design had a function, to whit a house for her grandmother in a small town in China, a site, and a sequence of spaces that more or less made sense, but mainly it was a celebration of the designer’s skill in creating a fully realized vision. Weird and wonderful, Wang’s project defied analysis and criticism. All we could do as a jury was to grin, shake our heads, and enjoy the ride.
So what does this have to do with architecture? Everything and nothing.
On the one hand, Wang’s project was a fully realized thesis design in the best sense of the idea. It was a speculation on home, tradition, popular culture, and, if you let your mind go, many other issues, carried out not through a written analysis, but through the medium of design. It did not solve any problems, but developed a working method and a visual system the designer will be able to apply to her “real,” post-academy work. It did so in a fully integrated and presented manner—even if there were no floor plans and sections.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine how such an approach could ever become architecture in the sense of a thorough development of a building into a conscious organization and representation of the basic elements of shelter, social framing, and site development. Eccentric and hermetic, Wang’s design seems to stand on its own.
And yet … given both the development of technology and the emergence of a culture of spectacle that combines techniques and sensibilities developed in theater, film, television, theme parks, and the gaming world with the ambitions of art to awe, shock, and offer a critical alternative to such theater of effects, it is entirely plausible that Wang could go on to build the chicken house and many others of that ilk. It is also possible that such work could have a popular success and contribute to the development of architecture.
Everywhere around the world, artists now work in large teams that produce effects at a grand scale. Whether it is Olafur Eliasson or Ai Weiwei, Elmgreen & Dragset or Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor or James Turrell, artists amaze us with the ability to create inhabitable stage sets or effects. Architecture, as usual, is lagging far behind, and I have been waiting for more than a decade to see these developments enter into the field in a meaningful way.
Some of my fellow critics at the thesis reviews were quick to dismiss the chicken as “just an art project,” not worthy of the serious concerns of architecture and its criticism. Yet, if architecture—as opposed to building—is to be a way that we can understand, represent, plan and plot, and discuss the act or fact of building, then the chicken house was successful. It was akin to Marcel Duchamp placing a urinal in a gallery, but also to Le Corbusier elevating a white slab on stilts. Though I by no means want to claim that Wang is that good, she certainly knows how to make us reconsider the discipline’s truisms. She can because her house showed spaces and forms that were intriguing and fully developed, but in a manner that threatened to divorce us from what we thought was right and true at every twist of a thigh or waft of a feather.
SCI-Arc has long thrived on giving students (and faculty) a chance to experiment, and has written itself an outsized place in recent architecture history as a result. This project is no exception (although I thought the quality of experimentation this year was depressingly low), but SCI-Arc and other institutions that pursue architecture’s limits often don’t seem to know what do with what they have birthed. So it was certainly with this project, which was not the faculty’s favorite. I hope the students there looked long and hard at what Wang achieved. I hope they do not copy it, which is often the easiest route. I hope instead they take from it the freedom to push architecture beyond accepted norms with rigor, discipline, and skill. Then SCI-Arc would have something to … crow about.