Humans of [Name Your City]

“We’re all victims of the architect. Architecture is the only art that you can’t help but feel. You can avoid paintings, you can avoid music, and you can even avoid history. But good luck getting away from architecture.”

Phillipe Devario and companion

Phillipe Devario and companion, as featured on Humans of New York

Last night my brother pointed me to the Facebook page for Humans of New York, a popular photo-blog by Brandon Stanton who has set about to document the people he encounters on the streets of NYC.  In particular, my brother indicated the above photo and quote, which turn out (thanks to the recognition of Facebook users) to be of/by Philippe Devario, an expert on Italian art and history.

Devario’s comment is a reminder of the significance of the built environment and its impact on our daily lives.  Architecture, big “A” or not, is ubiquitous and essential.  To many, it may seem to be a force of its own, out of the hands of the average person.  Considering that architecture often seems to be out of the hands of architects in today’s economic and legislative environment, the average person is in dire straits indeed.

Even so, the idea that architecture is an art you can’t help but feel is a compelling one–it calls us to consider our work at a visceral level that can certainly be lost in the midst of design development and detailing.  It is an unusual case, especially one involving an architect, in which a building will not be occupied to some degree by someone.  How do we make sure we do not lose sight of the human experience element of our designs?

As the editors of the current issue of Architectural Design (AD) note, this issue is of special concern in the context of computational design.  Algorithmic design approaches have typically focused on form generation or on the optimization of various performance factors; however, there is now renewed interest in addressing the need for human-centric architecture.

Christian Derix, architectural computation researcher/practitioner and guest editor, describes how in contrast to the urban and building planning professions, design computation in architecture has been less focused on spatial design as much as it has been on parametric optimization and on efficiencies that support construction.  While I would disagree with his assessment of parametric design resulting only in “decorative additions wrapping conventional spatial organisation” (Derix 2014), he does make a valid point about the lack of spatial complexity in the work being produced by academia as demonstration of computational design approaches.

Given that my thesis is taking shape around abstract concepts such as morphogenesis and emergence, it is interesting to consider how to stay connected to the human experience.  It is appropriate in academia to eliminate important factors in design in order to explore a specific subset in great depth.  Even so, if I cannot frame my explorations in such a way as to relate to our experience and to the humans of my city, I have perhaps impoverished my findings.


Derix, C. (2014). The space of people in computation. Architectural Design, 84(5), 14-23.


Challenge vs. Comfort

In light of Frank Gehry’s much talked about interchange with a reporter in Spain this last week, Rem Koolhaas’ perspective on Challenge vs. Comfort seems like a relevant discussion.  To some, Gehry’s work might qualify as challenging since it is certainly not the norm and because it challenges us to re-evaluate the architecture to which we have become accustomed.  It challenges the idea of form following function and asks whether architecture can be sculpture. But has Gehry fallen prey to what is comfortable for himself?  Where is his recent defensiveness coming from?

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Koolhaas, in his talk on Challenge vs. Comfort, posits that we have lost a sense of adventure, mystery and daring in art and architecture.  Instead we have conformed what is popular, what is easiest and most predicable.  When presenting this talk in Milan, he presented a number of his projects that highlight unpredictable and more challenging moves, such as the unmarked Prada store in Beverly Hills (since altered).  It creates mystery and interest by challenging expectations for retail establishments, particularly those on Rodeo Drive.

I recently traveled to Boston during our “field trip week”, where I toured the campuses of Harvard and MIT and encountered Gehry’s Stata Center.  It is unquestionably Gehry.  It could have been situated anywhere.  Maybe I didn’t give it much of a chance, but it certainly didn’t awe me as Charles Correa’s building across the street did.  It felt hulking and awkward, like a relative with uncomfortably poor hygiene that has forced its way into a more refined gathering.  It drew attention only because of its flamboyance, as if insecure across from the repose and elegance of the Correa piece.

Gehry's Stata Center at MIT

Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT

While I am pleasantly surprised by aspects of Gehry’s latest work in France (criticism of which prompted his outburst), I can’t help but feel that he has made his point.  His Guggenheim in Bilbao was a huge success–I would love to visit it someday (okay, the fact that it’s in Spain is a part of that)–as was the Disney Concert Hall.  But now that he has developed a style such that his buildings are unmistakably his, is he really challenging anything?  Is he challenging himself?

In the documentary Sketches of Gehry, Gehry is questioned about his response to criticism of his work.  How does he take it?  He says that he pays no attention.  He moves on.  I give him props for believing in what he is doing, but in my mind you have to do better than that.  His reaction in Spain only reinforces this–if you have something to contribute to the conversation, at least articulate it to us rather than deriding everyone else.  If 98 percent of architecture is “pure shit”, why call it architecture in the first place?


In architecture…

In architecture considered as a material practice, materialization as a concept is transformed from its traditional meaning as the translation of an a priori design representation to its material condition; it is now transformed to become one of the sources of the inception of designs. The rediscovery that we can design in material has been a source of the reformulation of a digital praxis in the last decade. What traditionally was the material terminus of the design process has become a new beginning.

–Rivka and Robert Oxman in Theories of the Digital in Architecture