Neyran Turan is ambitious. “I belong to that group of architects who are eager to search for radical and experimental ways to redefine architecture’s capacity to engage with the world,” she writes in the introduction to her monograph-cum-position statement, Architecture as Measure (Actar Publishers, 2020). She wants to do that “through the critical and rigorous redefinition of the disciplinary specifities” (she is an academic, after all, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley), but she also wants to “shak[e] the discipline and the world” through her work.
She aims to do so neither through the production of utopias or dystopias, nor by proposing incremental improvements to building types, technologies, or styles—the approach most critical architects take if they want to change the world—but rather by creating exhibits of what she sees as the facts at hand. Through models and drawings that are both hyper-realistic and disturbingly dreamlike, Turan and her San Francisco-based firm, NemeStudio, create displays of existing building types deformed, distorted to reveal their origins in extractive industries, or combined to construct narratives of the violence we are perpetuating on this planet.
The book showcases nine projects NemeStudio has completed, which is to say, nine bodies of work Turan considers finished or has exhibited. This is speculative architecture that, as the book's title implies, seeks to measure the possibilities inherent in the discipline’s building blocks. These elements include basic shapes, such as peaked roofs and other attributes of housing in the Western world, but also the generic geometries of office layouts. But Turan also focuses on architecture’s scenographic capabilities, such as the way built shapes can exhibit their own materiality or structure, or can form a stage set that enables us to see other objects more clearly.
It is no surprise that Turan is fascinated by dioramas, the once-popular way of placing historic or natural artifacts in a scene so detailed and large it swallows us up in its conceit. In "Middle Earth: Dioramas for the Planet," she proposes “dioramas of a post-natural history museum of the Anthropocene” that would be located off the coast of Sierra Leone (at zero degrees longitude and latitude) and would contain evocations of the icebergs we will someday soon lose, as well as artful piles of plastic from the great Great Pacific Garbage Patch and a “Theater of Deforestation.” The images do not attempt to be realistic, but rather they evoke games children play with toy trucks and soldiers, as well as the models architects produced before the age of digital renderings, even if the images themselves are produced by that new technology.
A certain nostalgia for earlier forms of representation, which help evoke what we are in the process of losing, pervades Turan’s work. In "Our Junk, Their Ruin," exhibited at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2018, she created a complete “Wunderkammer,” or collection of curiosities, that combines elements from her other projects with NemeStudio’s portfolio of houses and other small fragments of existing buildings, which seem to be the architect’s doodles. The relation between the proposals for “real” buildings, which if constructed would use up natural resources and contribute to the sort of climate catastrophe Turan warns us about in her other work, and her purposefully theoretical designs, is never quite clear. Do the elements of her Wunderkammer serve as building blocks for work that will exist some day, or are they just memorial art work and rhetorical devices to be displayed in never-to-be-constructed dioramas?
The most poignant work in this book is "As Built–As Lived," a collection of six models commissioned by the New York-based Storefront for Art and Architecture in 2017. The models, which Turan executed in wood, appear to be laser cut and are painted a pale red; they depict a collage of elements from apartment buildings in Brooklyn. Computer-drawn isometrics, presented in a lighter pink, home in on some of the details. Awnings, grids of windows, fire escapes, and brooms mix together to create vignettes of everyday life that the architect has abstracted into proposals for some new form of assemblage, much like the construction of a building but not actually that.
At least, that’s my assumption. Turan holds that these are mere representations of parts of the city as “a pile of material accumulation and a set of incongruous subtlety.” The pieces are, as one of her other projects is called, “New Ruins,” which is to say, memorials to the fall of our civilization that we can regard at a critical or reverent distance. They are not proposals for a new form of architecture.
That is both the beauty and the limitation of this work. Like almost all architects, Turan obviously loves the practice of making buildings, and I sense she would be happy to execute work based on her highly refined visual sensibilities and clear understanding of contemporary construction. At the same time, her ability to build so far has been restricted to theoretical proposals and exhibitions, and her ideological argument posits the importance of representation, or what we these days call “critical practice,” over construction.
For the last decade or so, I have watched the emergence of a group of young designers and thinkers of immense talent and critical insight. Some of these architects have been influenced by Object Oriented Technology, others are interested in “postorthography.” Their work has been displayed in exhibits and books with titles like Possible Mediums and Narrative Architecture. Some of these designers have even managed to keep their images out of media, preserving them as tantalizing reminders of our pre-Internet age. All have moved beyond the thrill of computer-enabled design without succumbing to nostalgia. All are acutely aware of the central problem of architecture today: building something is almost always an ecological crime that helps further social and economic injustice. As a result, all have concentrated on theoretical work, including performances and temporary installations. Neyran Turan proves herself, in Architecture as Measure, to be one of the most talented and promising architects of this group.
When I point out to curmudgeonly colleagues of my age how excited I am about all this ferment and formal exploration animated by a profound social and ecological consciousness, which follows several decades of stasis devoted to churning out big, badly built homages to Postmodernism and Deconstructivism, they sneer: “Yeah, but where are the buildings?” That is exactly the point. Architects such as Turan are important not because of what they build, but because of how they practice. In other words, they are architects in the profoundest and most effective way possible.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.