Adam Fure "Rocks" by Adam Fure "are digital rocks designed to look photorealistic."

Theory has seemed so last millennium for so long that I am happy to report that it is back. For the first time this century, architecture theory is coalescing into a semblance of coherence. While this is a “discourse” that might not be unified (and, in fact, is against any such unity) and might not yet have a great deal of impact on practice, it does make sense of how and why we design in a manner that is appropriate to what is happening in our culture and our society.

The New Normal proper distinguishes itself from, but also contains elements of, Triple O (Object-Oriented Ontology), which has captured the minds of theory-oriented designers across the country. It also answers to a wider interest in looking beyond monuments and traditional aesthetics and to the everyday and even the ugly as characteristics that might be appropriate for our social-media-fueled diverse age. And it justifies its work not so much through abstract theories as it does with storytelling, fairy tales, and other “fake” realities.

In appearance, the New Normal looks remarkably like a revival of both the Postmodernism of the collage (think James Stirling and Michael Graves) and the narrative variety (John Hejduk and Bernard Tschumi, FAIA), as well as the first experiments in blobs that appeared in the 1990s. As such, it also revives a debate between whether architecture is about abstract orders and forms that you impose on the world or if it is instead about the registering and critical elaboration of the existing world.

SPORTS "Rounds" by SPORTS "is a continuous, closed line constructed as a thick ribbon and doubles as a place to sit or lie down."

This is how the authors of Possible Mediums (Actar Publishers, 2018), a book that seeks to serve as the handbook for these approaches, describe the emergence of this school:

The dissolution of a steady ground upon which things can be ordered resonated with us. The delightfully weird work of our colleagues challenged preconceived notions of order. … [We] saw computationally-derived topological forms assessed in classical aesthetic terms—such a beauty, elegance, or the grotesque, while the former veered towards scientific research. The “Digital Turn” that once dominated the 1990s and early 2000s started to dissolve, and the fragments of new orders and things emerged in its wake.

The authors of the book (Kelly Bair, Kristy Balliet, Adam Fure, and Kyle Miller) were students at UCLA during the first decade of this century and started discussing these issues among themselves. With the encouragement of then-dean Sylvia Lavin, they developed and formalized their debates, which led to a 2013 Ohio State University symposium with the same title as the book—and formed the basis for the book. The original participants have now spread throughout the country, taking teaching jobs to support their nascent practices, and the group has grown to about two dozen “project contributors,” as the authors call the participants.

Possible Mediums does not propose a style or unified theory. Rather, the authors are interested in what they call “agency,” or how architecture has an effect. As they put it:

The agency of architecture, its capacity to impact economic, cultural, and ecological conditions, derives primarily from its status as a physical object. This places great importance on the design of formal and material traits, which are understood not as isolated aesthetic phenomena, but as a means of establishing meaningful connections to broader contexts. This leads to “mediums” as a focal point. We are interested in how architects work, what they choose to work on, and what their efforts yield. … "[M]ediums" implicates a broad range of working methods, both material and abstract.

Jimenez Lai "Beachside Lonely Hearts" from Jiminez Lai's Bureau Spectacular "treats the gallery walls like a canvas."
Andrew Kovacs "Architectural Cliff" by Andrew Kovacs, which, according to the authors, "prolongs the legibility of an individual artifact through complimentary-colored [sic] objects."
Andrew Kovacs "The model" in Kovacs' "Architectural Cliff" "is littered with small-scale figures to destabilize the familiarity of the found object turned architectural artifact."

The diversity of possibilities, yet with a coherence around something you might still call “architecture,” is the point. To discipline the range of “mediums,” the author concentrated on categories that, true to their outline, cross boundaries. They include both “Bodies” and “Narratives,” “Plastic” and “Plans,” Furniture” and “Grids.” A lot of projects they assemble are aggregates or collages, ranging from Jimenez Lai’s assembly of existing or recognizable building parts (pieces of temples or houses) to Andrew Kovacs’ Architectural Cliff, which presents a computer-manipulated amalgam of barely recognizable pieces.

Other projects quote literally, especially in the “Plans” section, where Alex Maymind shows inventive recombinations of the floor plans of well-known masterpieces. Against such a willful set of combinations, which imply gathering and analyzing existing elements that are part of the architecture canon, several other contributors take “blobism” a step further, creating “fetal-like forms of appendages” (the firm Bittertang) or artificial rocks based on scans and computer printing (Adam Fure).

Alex Maymind "Continuous Cruciform" by Alex Maymind "presents a composite figure that is visually more prominent than the features of the individual plans."
Adam Fure Adam Fure's "Rocks" "reveal their synthetic origins" through their "exterior textures and interior volumes" that have "an unnaturally high degree of specificity."

There is, in other words, no coherence here, except in the sense that all of the participants use computers as a matter of course and none produce what you might call “normal” buildings. The result is a wide variety of weirdness, but one that remains based on form and formalism, the twin parts of an architecture that imposes itself on the world. It is both autonomous and developed from a set of rules or formulas.

So how can this be “the New Normal?” Because it proposes architecture as consisting not of the production of a building with a functional structure or floor plan, but of the investigation and use of its formal properties and components. Buildings can be produced by computer and are defined by forces outside of the architect’s control. That much has become increasingly true over the past several decades, but this gang has stopped fighting that reality. Instead, they are proposing other ways to use the skills and knowledge they have to explore the countless possibilities that architecture affords. Others might go into community work or try to go with the computer flow, but these designers love how architecture works and what it is made of, and want to push it further. This volume hints that the production of such experiments is the normal activity of architecture today.

FreelandBuck FreelandBuck's "Parallax Gap" uses pattern over a gallery ceiling "to generate the illusion of a three-dimensional solid."
FreelandBuck As David Freeland and Brennan Buck write in their essay "Six Observations on Pattern," "Pattern is a negotiation between field and figure, expressing both the distinct identity of each part and the collective character of the group."

The question that haunts the book, though, is: To what end? What is that “agency,” finally? None of the participants have yet produced a constructed building of any size (except, perhaps, for FreelandBuck), nor does that appear to be the main focus for any of them. If buildings as the be all and end all of architecture is so last century, what is so this century?

The answer, of a sort, appears in one of the book’s essays, “Myths, Fairy Tales, and Narrations,” by Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer. They argue for the importance of fairy tales: Those “designed constructions that arrange familiar and unfamiliar elements to produce a collision of realities. Fairy Tales exist within our world but present the possibility of other worlds.” To create such fairy tales, architects can use a variety of techniques, such as “unexpected shifts in scale (inside is bigger than the outside), suspensions in time (old things next to new things), over articulation (decorated things next to abstract ones), and nesting interiors.”

Bitterang "Pig Pile" by Bittertang.
Bitterang "Pig Pile consists of fetal-like forms with appendages of various shapes and sizes" that "appear both as four distinct bodies and as a single fused entity."

That still does not answer the question, however, of what good such fairy tales are. The authors, preoccupied as they are with their mediums, never answer that conundrum, but the implication is that to entrance and beguile us, to evoke and intimate, or to weave a spell (sometimes quite literally, as in the netting structures that FreelandBuck and SPORTS, among others, are so fond of) are the real desired end product. That effort might, in turn, allow a magical and mystical world to emerge. Maybe in that world our built environment will look better, climate change will go away, and Donald Trump will no longer be president. Now, that would be quite an agency.

There is, however, a more direct argument for how such mediums might work, and an aesthetic that is even more reductive, without being wholly based on architecture theory. That, I will discuss that in my next column through a reading of Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in Architecture, by Andrew Atwood (Applied Research + Design Publishing, 2018).

"Possible Mediums," published by Actar
Courtesy Actar "Possible Mediums," published by Actar