ESSAY:
MICHAEL MALTZAN /
ARCHITECTURE AS CRAFT:
AFTER NARRATIVE, BEYOND MIMESIS

Our design process, and by extension, our work and practice, is one that is best understood in relationship to the model. The model forms, in and of itself, the basis for our design process. Yet more importantly, the practice of model making is at its heart about producing form: both the physical forms, and forms of inquiry that characterize our practice. These models employ technique, skill, technology, and experience–these are all characterizations of craft–but they likewise, and more importantly, also characterize ideas.

Models are often meant as mimetic objects, and have been meant as the representation of many elements of architectural practice: form, space, materiality, structure, detail, and programmatic and contextual relationships. Historically, the primary role and responsibility for the model was to point to, to represent, the culmination of the architectural process, the built form. Often these models are a part of a continuous narrative which unfolds on the way to the ultimate object. While often beautiful, these models are ultimately subservient to the “real” building, signifiers of the project’s final, built, reality. In this way, they serve as stand-ins for the ultimate actor, the building itself, and their construction and the ideas which characterize them share this direct, mimetic relationship to a final conclusion. In our process, while the model often acts in service of pointing the way to that final design, to creating and describing a trajectory, we are also interested in the model as something on its own, not only as a representation, but that the model is–in and of itself.

In this way, one of the most devastating moments for the life of a model is if a building is not built. Ours is an architectural practice, so this of course does occur–and when it does, the model is left to stand on its own, representing that final unrealized form. It is at this moment that the model loses a kind of autonomy, and sacrifices its range of expanded possibilities and expanded trajectories, instead becoming bound by its mimetic role. In contrast, models of completed projects are paradoxically freed from this burden of verisimilitude to ambition or desire, and are thus open to other uses, other relationships, other interpretations.

This process, and belief, in the role of the model, is represented in the totality of our practice and its projects: beyond the thread of a single project, this idea is represented across multiple projects, and often extends from one to the next. This approach is one in contrast to the chronological development of a single project–especially as the single narrative of models leading inexorably to the ultimate outcome of a building is precisely the methodology that our work positions itself as an alternative to. Instead, these themes play out across multiple projects, looping back to extend beyond a fixed, synchronic chronology; in this light, the model can be seen as a project in and of itself.

The primary considerations, or inquiries, which organize this work are threefold: space/time, movement, and perception, or effect. A primary concern in our work is space, its form, politics, characteristics, and its social or public potential. Movement, or the temporal, especially as it relates to the viewer or user, is the primary animating principle as our office engages this context through our work. The artist Olafur Eliasson has argued for a more fundamental connection and interplay between space, time, and ourselves, describing a similar set of relationships our designs address, as well as one of the central responsibilities that the models themselves must describe. In looking to forms that allow for real inquiry into these interrelated issues into space and movement, models are an essential, invaluable means to explore and expand this evolving conversation within our design practice and vis-a-vis a larger architectural context. In our practice’s earlier work, movement was choreographed in a more narrative fashion; over the past decade, our interests increasingly lie in a type of contemporary space which is characterized by the non-narrative, the negotiable, and the simultaneous.

At the smallest scale, the Pittman Dowell Residence and its models directly engage this issue of simultaneity. The project, a residence for two artists located north of Los Angeles, is located directly adjacent to Richard Neutra’s 1952 Serulnic Residence, circumscribed by the sole winding road which ends at the Neutra residence, now the artist’s studio, above. Inspired by geometric arrangements of interlocking polygons, this new residence takes the form of a eidetic heptagon whose overall clarity is the sum of its individual, idiosyncratic parts, each informed by local contingencies of program, function, and experience. The product of this layered, interwoven moiré of shifting perspective is a new kind of simultaneous experience, where individual spaces are characterized by a expanding set of visual and physical relationships. In a series of centrifugal trajectories extending from the void at its center, space and movement is blurred into continuous network of movement and perspective, dissolving the boundary between the individual domestic territories of the home and its site and context.

At a similar scale, Ministructure No. 16, a pavilion constructed in Jinhua, China, further develops ideas of simultaneity and the role of the model through the lens of optics and effect. The project expands on the important confluence between the book and architecture in Chinese culture: the pavilion’s form extends from its center into two unequal, cantilevered arms, housing a bookstore and cafe, respectively. The pavilion’s form as it extends from small-scale studies, digital models, and structural models at scales as large as 1:20 concatenate a series of visual relationships, perspectival projection, and a continuously shifting environment of light above the surrounding landscape. As visitors move toward, into, and through this labyrinth of reciprocal visual relationships, the pavilion reveals itself, its tapered form expanding and contracting in an ever-changing montage of space and light.

This investigation extends to include both the performative surface of the building facade and the broader urban fabric at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, a hybrid museum for science and art lifted above the surrounding landscape of the city and California’s Central Valley. The museum’s levitated form transposes the open, boundless grid of the agricultural plots beyond the city’s limits to create a multidirectional network of galleries and learning environments beneath the sheltering expanse of the building’s primary and fifth facade, its roof. Through digital and analogue models at a range of scales, this surface emerges as a series of oscillating frequencies of light and texture above the cityscape below. From the open-air amphitheater at the building’s apex, where this abstracted roofscape of skylights are collapsed into the horizon beyond, visitors can begin to understand the institution’s position within the city and its regional context.

At a much larger scale, a similar network of experience stretches across the three phases of San Francisco State’s Center for the Creative Arts. Here, an incredibly rich range of spaces for performance and learning are bound together into a network of programmatic, visual, and haptic links, creating a space of extraordinary experience which extends across the project in its entirety, creating a new datum for movement, connection, and collaboration. This texture of experience is found as much in the void spaces which inscribe the project’s plan and section, creating new relationships between building and campus, artist and audience, between the network within and the city beyond.

To a large extent, models that study effort and perception are models of engagement. They model and investigate the characteristics of a project, a site, a natural or urban context, whether they are physical or ideological, concrete or abstract. They are the basis for a deep, ongoing connection between ourselves and a building, the foundation for our practice and our work.

This relationship and role that the model plays in our practice is perhaps most clear in the recently completed Benedict Canyon Residence, where a methodology of models and making extends to full-scale mockups which are invaluable at engaging issues of effect and experience most directly. The project is defined by the sinuous, elevated line along which the residence is approached, tracing the length of the site before reversing itself, to reveal the residence, the site, and the 180-degree view of the Los Angeles basin beyond. This trajectory continues through the entirety of the project, linking its multiplicity of programmatic and experiential environments and the three platonic volumes which levitate above the network of movement below. Here, models track an ongoing line of inquiry into the relationship between materiality, optics, and context, a shifting moiré of perforated and reflective panels creating a dynamic, direct relationship between the project, the surface of its facade, and the surrounding topography of its context.

Beyond the individual project, the model finally has a specific power in its articulated form, extending far beyond what is traditionally thought of as the “useful” life of an object or project. Within the practice, within the office, these models are artifacts, multiplied about the office in many materials, version, scales and sizes, arrayed in a diversity of relationships, adjacencies, and contexts. Stacked around the studio, they begin to create a fictive landscape open to reading, misreading, perception, and misperception. In this way, they advance an argument for their non-narrative, non-mimetic role and their related forms of inquiry. In this form, the models have yet another role, beyond their creation, or their relationship to a specific building or design process. Beyond, it is their autonomous potential, their relationship to a possibility of making and to the potential of a future landscape, city, or building that has not yet emerged which is both important and exciting.

Originally published in Architecture As Craft
Michiel Riedijk (Ed.), SUN architecture, 2011