Second Nature in the Third City Justin Petersen
Master of Architecture Thesis 2009 Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning The University of Michigan
Second Nature in the Third City Justin Petersen
Submitted on June 12, 2009
Perry Kulper, Faculty Advisor Neal Robinson, Faculty Advisor Morning Dear at Foster Beach: A found photograph of a dear wondering along the lake front at Foster St. and Sheridan Road, about five miles north of downtown. One morning, in the late spring of 2005, I discovered an entire family of dear in the courtyard of my apartment, about six blocks from where this photograph was taken. In 2007 a coyote was discovered at Quiznoâ€™s sub shop in downtown Chicago. In the spring of 2008 two cougars where shot and killed in the Ravenswood neighborhood of the Cityâ€™s Northside.
Abstract American culture has consistently forsaken urban social life for romantic visions of wilderness and myths of the self-made individual. At best these dreams have produced innovation and flexibility. At worst they have facilitated a festering desire to flee the weight of history and the responsibilities of living in a society. When the going gets tough, Americans pick up and leave. Today we witness the consequences of an economy that for sixty years was based on expansion, dispersal, obsolescence and the fantasy of domestic bliss. This work begins with an acceptance of our present reality. There is no place on this planet that has not been effected by the presence of human beings. We are a geological force of 7 billion and counting. There is no escape from each other. There is no frontier. Nothing is pure. We cannot start over. We cannot expand. We must figure out a way to make a home where we are, right next to each other. For too long weâ€™ve imagined ourselves in conflict with nature. Its us or earth, a zero sum game. We survive and prosper by consuming nature or we sacrifice ourselves to safe the earth. This dichotomy is false. It is the product of a patriarchal culture that sees the world in black and white terms. Nature is idealized as either pure or polluted. Women are either saints or whores, domesticated or wild. This perception is outdated. It reveals an inability to establish a true relationship with our social and physical environment, to accept its adversity, its layered complexities and its contradictions. It is the hope of this thesis to inspire an appreciation and dedication to American urban society by presenting the city as our second nature, the garden in the broken machine. If the first city was pre-modern and the second was industrial, the third city will be uncanny.
Introduction: Intent Pleasure is not like sexual excitement, which involves an arousing disturbance of the senses; pleasure instead seeks to return to a state which Freud imagined ultimately to be like the comfort of a fetus in the womb, safe and unknowing of the world [â€Ś] If protection rules, if the body is not open to periodic crises, eventually the organism sickens for lack of stimulation. Richard Sennett
The purpose of this work is to facilitate the development of people as highly responsive, sentient beings that engage the world around them. It should be clear that this aspiration is very different than popular notions of progress or growth - which tend to value the advancement of technology and accumulation of wealth over more qualitative measures of life. Health, in other words, is more important to the values of this thesis than comfort or amusement. In this context it is understood that one of the great tragedies of progress is that it ultimately allows individuals to digress into a state of passive, disembodied observation by â€œliberatingâ€? them from the basic concerns of physical health and survival. In other words, total freedom easily leads to disorientation and paralysis. Human beings need stories to give them a sense of direction and purpose. Perhaps the most important question is not whether a story is accurate or true, but whether or not we can live with the consequences of believing it. I do not believe that our civilization can survive under current paradigms and value systems. As a guiding myth fragmentation, acceleration and perpetual movement are exhausting and unsustainable. Our way of life has reached an inflection point of diminishing returns. Consumed by distraction we have become lethargic, obese and impotent in our response to the problems of our day. We have forgotten too much history and become too dependent on unsustainable dreams. We are intoxicated and in need of a new dream. Throughout history civilization has been defined by its ongoing attempt to escape the limitations of this world and ascend to higher states of impunity. In most cases the civilized person has been progressively encouraged to seek fraternity in something much greater than themself by forsaking and devaluing that which they are inescapably related to - the immediate, natural world. At the
very center of this value system is an eternal desire for the complete liberation of the mind from the body, which reached new levels of sophistication during the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes famously argued that he could disbelieve everything except his own disbelief. He therefore concluded that we exist primarily through our ability to think abstractly. “I think, therefore I am.” According to this view the body, and by extension the earth from which it came, has been increasingly devalued as a vessel of sin, limitation and suffering. Thus, the tangible world is rendered as a commodity; something to be used and discarded without regard. These disembodied impulses, which would seem insane to anyone engaged in a sporting event, sexual act or physical confrontation, continue to determine our attitude toward the world and our place within it. At a primitive level the drive for liberation is perfectly understandable. The great majority of our collective experience has been little more than a story of survival among the indifferent forces of nature. It is only within the last 150 years that human innovation and power have reached such a scale that it threatens to completely destroy the natural systems upon which it relies. Everything is are different now. For the first time in history our anxieties are derived not from an inability to control our environment but from our continued drive to alienate, objectify and destroy it. The characteristics that we once relied on for survival growth, expansion, power - are now the very instincts that threaten to destroy us. For my purposes, contemporary estrangement is more thoroughly understood among anxieties related to perception, attention and over-exposure in both natural and man-made environments. My work begins with an acknowledgment that 400,000 years of human development have preceded the last 200 years of modern living. What contemporary conditions others take for granted I consider lightly in proportion to the weight of our collective knowledge and experience. Meaning and content are more important for my purposes than novel possibility. I do not seek to be “cutting edge” or avant garde. Such ambitions elevate timely expression at the expense of competency, depth and authenticity. I intend to create timeless architecture through a synthesis of hybrid forms and deep structural archetypes. The work that I produce will be both old and new. It will be familiar enough to trigger associations but strange enough to inspire imaginations. My project is an admitted work of fiction. It should be evaluated not by the processes through which it was generated, but by the relationships that it inspires and the responses that it evokes. Though not intentionally utopian (or dystopian), my work projects an alternative value system from which architecture can be generated. It is fundamentally concerned as much with what we pay attention to as it is with what we create. The project is not an aggressive attempt to change the world, but it does anticipate that the world will change.
Part One: Circumstance
1: Frontier Mythology
The Boarder from Tijuana: This image is composed from two photographs that were taken at the Pacific Ocean looking north to the boarder between Mexico and the United States. At center the artificial political boundary disintegrates into the water as a series of reclaimed train rails.
The United States of America has always defined itself by the promise of a better life for the worldâ€™s poor; the tired and the huddled masses that longed to be free. The Nation has drawn its strength from the diversity of its people and the innovation of its immigrants. Despite its imperfections, the Union has led the world in a way that no other nation of more entrenched tradition could. Throughout its short history the supremacy of America has been forged places like New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angles. Cities like these are unique in their diversity. They are possible only in America. They are the places that truly define our culture. And yet the United States has never popularly considered itself an urban nation. Instead American folklore has traditionally romanticized an escape from urbanity, an idealization of the individual and a retreat to a mythical Western Frontier. Perhaps the frontier was necessary in the imagination of America. Perhaps it allowed the oppressed and the frustrated to project hope and the pursuit of happiness into a void of possibility. We cannot discount the importance of this promise, or the hope and the dreams that it has facilitated. Yet too often the frontier has become more than the promise of possibility, it has been promoted to an impossibly selfish mythology. At its religious extreme frontier mythology promises the individualist both a transcendent escape from the responsibilities of living in a society and a return to an idealized state of purity not unlike biblical portrayals of Eden. Indeed, frontier mythologies contradict themselves. On the one hand the wilderness is supposedly the place where man is most human, where he is able to cultivate his survival skills and his divine independence. On the other hand, the frontier is often imagined as space of domestication, like the original garden, where the fruits of
the world are unquestionably bestowed upon man and woman. The frontier is, thus, simultaneously the place where man derives value through adversity and is also rewarded with supreme bounty, comfort and simplicity. The frontier, in other words, is a romantic image, an idealization of the individual unburdened by limitation, as the master of his universe. It is the social abyss where he is king, the empty space where he embodies the image of a monotheist God. The problem, of course, is that there never was a void. There never was a frontier. The continent was not pure. The land was not an untouched virgin. Some estimates put the native population of North America at close to twenty million before Columbus arrived. The demonization of those people, their near eradication, and the systematic enslavement of another 20 million Africans has always been the skeleton in the closet of American Folklore. It is the truth that uncomfortably exposes an undercurrent of imperialism in an ostensibly democratic society. It is the history that contextualizes frontier mythology and individualism within a pursuit of manifest destiny and power. To this day the near religious promise of the individualist dream, of wealth, stardom and total escape from society, prohibits an investment in civilization. Pushed to its extreme, that dream and the divestment that it encourages will ultimately tear the Union apart and render human society incapable of collective survival. Frontier mythologies ultimately perceive the environment only as a romantic image, an ideal that exists outside of human beings and, thus, affords us no place within nature. It suggests that for nature to survive human society and the project of civilization must perish. America has always been special not because it provided people a wide-open space to escape from society, but because it recombined all elements of human experience from around the world in a new, potent social mixture. This potent mixture of people and ideas occurred not on the plains or in the mountains, or the desert or the isolated Pacific cliff. It has and will always occur in the city. If humanity has any hope of surviving at a sophisticated level, if we wish to solve our environmental and resource crisis, if we will ever feel truly at home with nature - we will do it together in a new kind of city.
2: Disintegration We shall solve the problem of the city by leaving the city. Henry Ford
With an explosion of urbanization in the 19th century human settlements grew to a scale and intensity no longer comprehensible by traditional experience. The mass anxiety that resulted from industrialization and the role that architecture played in societal attempts to ameliorate the overwhelming conditions of the city has been well studied and documented.
Ogden Avenue; Rainy Day: an early concept image conflating Caillebotteâ€™s classic painting of the Parisian bourgeoise with a contemporary photograph taken from the intersection of Ogden Avenue and Central Park in Chicagoâ€™s impoverished North Lawndale neighborhood. Ogden is the beginning of Historic Route 66, the highway that epitomizes Americaâ€™s romantic pilgrimage to the Western Frontier. This image represents the flight of the middle class from industrial cities of the north and reveals a feral urban landscape that challenges traditional bourgeois of domesticity.
For 150 years the city has been popularly perceived as a place that physically and mentally corrupts individuals. Since its beginning the discipline of urban planning was thus largely defined by two social conditions; a fear of exposure and a prioritization of traffic movement. Negative stereotypes of the city are true to the extent that urban areas are often characterized by pollution, overcrowding and horrific working conditions. Under such circumstances a desire to escape the metropolitan labyrinth of human tragedy for the salubrious isolation of country living was easily romanticized to the point of becoming a cultural imperative during the Twentieth Century. The city was thus increasingly abandoned and replaced by a metropolitan vision that attempted to obfuscate the contradictions of modernity while protecting people from the consequences of industrialization. In a climate of great change architecture and planning were utilized as a means of reforming society to the demands of modern work and leisure by rationally isolating an immense variety of urban functions while segregating people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and economic fortunes. The industrial city, in other words, exploded, splitting along the most obvious seems in its fabric - pushed from the inside by a combustion of cultures and pollution and pulled from the outside by the promise of open space, purity
and control. The public realm - the streets and the urban spaces that facilitate the mixing of diverse peoples and ideas - were abandoned in favor of individualized domestic spheres. All of this was not without its economic benefit of course. With energy and infrastructure subsidized by the Federal Government, the unprecedented inefficiencies of sprawling private realms facilitated the creation of a consumer society based on the principles of planned6 obsolescence. Movement and individualist escape remained the driving paradigm of (sub) urbanization, even as the myths that inspired this dream collapsed. While technologies improved and city life become more sanitary, generations continued to flee public life for the private enclaves of therapeutic consumption. While planners spoke of the city as a living organism that required an efficient circulation system for the even flow of blood, the organic urbanite who walked and used various forms of public transportation was replaced by the strict requirements of automobile traffic. While the middle-class continued to pursue a healthy frontier lifestyle, families perpetually found themselves surrounded not by the bucolic scenes of nature, but the homogeneity of tract housing, strip malls and endless concrete. Though media technology ostensibly reconnected a segregated populace through the shared consumption of pop-cultural imagery, America became the most sedentary and obese society in history. Within all natural systems, civilizations, organizations and technologies there exists an inflection point of diminishing returns. Past such a point increased complexity and energy investment yield little if any actual developmental progress. Scale and proportion are fundamental criteria by which to understand the health of these systems. Presently we find ourselves in an obese society, at an inflection point of diminishing returns. In the United States there is growing evidence to suggest that instead of prolonged growth, accelerated innovation and a greater â€œflatteningâ€? of the world, our near future will likely entail significant conflict, exhaustion and contraction. After 60 years of grossly unsustainable energy and financial practices Americaâ€™s experiment with mass suburbanization may have reached its logical conclusion. What paradigm will emerge to take its place? The work of this thesis is fundamentally situated within a moment of contraction, when the cultural landscape of America has begun to fold back on itself, when the city is our only hope.
3: Out of Touch or â€œThe World is Flatâ€? Peripheral Vision integrates us with space, while focused vision pushes us out of the space, making us mere spectators. Juhani Pallasmaa
Of our primary senses, vision is the most susceptible to alienation because we are capable of perceiving its stimulus from farthest away. Our ability to perceive a sound or to smell, touch and taste something requires increasing levels of intimacy with the stimulant itself. Vision is also the easiest to turn-off, divert or distract. We need only close our eyes to eliminate a view. For these reasons vision is unique among the senses in its ability to receive the accelerated rate of stimulation of a technologically advanced world. It is often said that the average person alive today receives more information in a single day than a person two hundred years ago encountered in an entire lifetime. It is no surprise that the vast majority of this information is received as visual stimulus and digital mediation rather than direct experience. One individual might be exposed to literally thousands of advertisements, icons and instances of visual noise in a single day. Our senses of smell, touch and taste are rarely engaged by comparison, especially in the sterilized spaces of modernity. Indeed, popular technologies like television screens and hand-held computing devices typically require a degree of focused attention that often compromises our situational awareness. In this context, vision is utilized not to confirm our physical situation but to isolate us from our actual location through a transference of our minds to a virtual-digital realm. As a result of the apotheosis of vision, and particularly our capacity to be distracted, our other sense modalities are often neglected to the point of atrophy. The scale of abstracted experience that our technology allows us is grossly out of proportion with our capacity to actually relate to environmental information. In other words, our technological ability has out-paced our organic sensibility. Too often we consume the world as spectators in front of a flattened display rather than agents or actors on a playing field.
4: Escape Velocity or The Fate of Icarus The traveler, like the television viewer, experiences the world in narcotic terms; the body moves passively, desensitized in space, to destinations set in a fragmented and discontinuous urban geography. Richard Sennett
Modern dreams of absolute freedom are essentially equivalent to the pursuit of an escape velocity - a rate of speed at which one becomes isolated from the relationships that define their environment. At its extreme, movement is as much a means of self-imprisonment as liberation. Speed works symbiotically with the prioritization of visual attention to flatten our experience of the world. Traveling at a certain velocity the entire world is reduced to a projection on the surface of a windshield. In these instances what we see is no more real to us (corroborated by the other sense) than images received through a television screen. Inside an automobile temperature, sound, smell and touch are artificially controlled. The projectile becomes a capsule through space and time. By facilitating an overwhelming amount of visual stimulus while simultaneously protecting the body, speed produces an intoxicating release. At escape velocity our minds are easily disengaged from our bodies. With full appreciation for the pleasure that acceleration and speed produce we cannot ignore the fact our pursuit of an escape velocity is directly connected to the major crisis of our time. Climate change, for example, is essentially an imbalance between the rate at which human beings are burning fossil fuels and the rate at which the Earth can absorb the ensuing waste gases. Fossil fuels represent literally millions of years of stored solar energy which industrial civilization will have completely released within a total time span of about 250 â€“ 300 years. The problem is not necessarily that we are burning oil or coal, but that we are doing it too quickly.
With regard to settlement patterns, our culture’s absolute prioritization of automobile travel has physically destroyed hundreds of cities in order to produce an instantaneous landscape of temporary convenience that will almost certainly become obsolete even more quickly than it was carelessly constructed. The problem is not that we drive, but that we have made this the primary means by which modern people navigate and experience the world. Instead of designing communities for the long-term benefit of human beings we have engineered a perpetual movement system according to the parameters of a 3,000 pound piece of steel and plastic travelling 55 miles per hour. Not enough attention has been paid to the perceptual effects of a life spent encased in an environmentally controlled capsule, travelling through space and receiving the world as image rather than an experience. Unlike automobiles, boats, trains, airplanes, spaceships and other machinery, various media technologies, human beings, animals and other forms of life; architecture does not move. Architecture is essentially static, even when it is designed to appear dynamic. Unfortunately the discipline has been so affected by contemporary experiences of high-speed travel, visual stimulus, entertainment and information streaming that it continues to mimic the form, impressions and strategies of these media, perhaps in fear that its own stationary condition will otherwise render it obsolete. At its best this form of motion sickness produces visually stimulating structures that leave the other sense modalities so impoverished that one feels compelled to move through space quickly. At its worst, an obsession with the appearance of movement or “animation” generates overly literal mimicry of other dynamic models, diagrams or ‘frozen moments’ of an iterative process.
In Goethe’s Faust the most valuable commodity from Mephisto’s perspective is speed. Anyone who wants to do great things in the world will need to move around it quickly. Speed generates a distinctively sexual aura: the faster Faust can race along, the more of a real man – the more masculine, the more sexy – he can be. The equation of money, speed, sex and power is universally modern.
5: Confusions of Scale or The Attack of the 50 foot Woman The flattening of experience into a series of images naturally prioritizes visual iconography that is often wildly out of proportion with our other sense modalities. When vision integrates us with our surroundings it adds to a total body experience by allowing us to anticipate the stimulation of other senses. Thus we anticipate touching something that appears smooth or coarse just as we await the smell of a flower or the taste of a certain kind of food. Color and lighting conditions may encourage us to feel warm or cold. The interplay of light and shadow may make us feel exposed, protected or intrigued. Indeed the reading of light, color, texture and materiality are perhaps the most important function of vision in our attempt to gain an overall sense of an object. Our eyes are essential as a means of anticipating our physical contact with the world.
Zaha Hadid’s Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center: Reconsidered.
Contemporary (flattened) imagery often neglects the symbiotic connection between vision and the other sense modalities. The result is a gross manipulation of associations related to scale. For example; a bird’s eye rendering of Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center in Abu Dhabi gives us the visual impression of a delicate, seamless piece that we are meant to understand in its totality as an object. Through the use of elegant forms and natural languages Hadid’s design primarily attempts to appeal to what Edmund Burke would understand as a sense of beauty. In reality the image of a beautiful object that we have been presented would be constructed at such a gargantuan scale that our impression of it would be completely transformed. A 20’ x 100’ window that mimics the natural patterning of a leaf cannot possibly produce the same sense of perfect delicacy that characterizes the natural object. Due to the realities of both construction and weathering long sinuous forms cannot possibly maintain the same seamless quality as a small molded object. While it is understood that there are no straight lines in nature it is equally true that the world produces no seamless curvilinear forms at any significant scale.
Ultimately this confusion of scale produces a kind of ambiguous thing, neither as beautiful as the object that inspired it nor stimulating as a total sensory environment. Hadidâ€™s Performing Arts Center is only one instance in a long line of contemporary confusions of scale. In another example, Foreign Office Architects barrow the nearly microscopic imagery of grass blades or twine as inspiration for their reconstruction of Ground Zero. In this case the image of an object that is only perhaps inches long has been blown up to a series of towers over Âź of a mile in height. Once again, associations of delicacy cannot possibly be maintained at such a large scale. The image is thus alienated from this world. The object, should it ever be built, would be dehumanized as a kind of horrific, disorienting monster. In either of these examples the concern is not that the architect manipulates associations of scale, for this has been part of our discipline from the beginning. The question is whether the alienation of an image from its implied reality is an intentional commentary or an unconscious symptom of a flattened world.
Foreign Office Architects: Ground Zero Competition Entry, a magnification of grass blades.
From Critique (Analysis) to Assertion (Synthesis) Thus concludes the critique of the thesis and begins the assertion of its own architecture. This is not a project of total design. There is no pretension about the effectiveness of the following principles in stimulating a more authentic, embodied experience for a commonly distracted populace. The architecture will not deliberately scream for attention, compete with the spectacle of latecapitalism or attempt to impart its brand of environmental determinism. The project will simply be and remain confident in its own right. My work does assume a very basic level of commonality when it comes to sensation. Every - body is different and yet the same. To some degree each of us knows what it feels like to be warm or cold, to experience pain, to be surprised, disappointed or sexually aroused. Each of us knows what feels like to fear something. Our stimulants and responses may be different, but our feelings are the same. If there is any hope of establishing a common ground of understanding and empathy across the various cultural barriers that divide our world, it must come through an acknowledgment of our common experience as human beings. No matter how fragmented we have become, there still exists a primitive base upon which we can stand together. It is that base that makes us human. To the degree that this project attempts to influence people it does so unapologetically. Advertising executives and media pundits continue to make their careers (and profits) through their ability to tap, articulate and manipulate the desires and fears of their patrons. That architects would have such a hard time admitting the deterministic potentials of their work speaks readily to our professionâ€™s anxiety of authorship and responsibility. This project has no such anxiety. What follows is an articulation of principles by which I intend to create an architecture that is conscious of itself as an environment of embedded histories, associations and emotions.
Part Two: Methods
1: Form As a visual, material and tectonic condition form is of primary concern to the development of this project. The work will concern itself with issues of scale as they relate to and project certain combinations and strategies of geometry and materiality. Considerations of form will begin with an acceptance of difference, contradiction and juxtaposition at a tectonic scale and an acknowledgment of cultural and structural archetypes at an organizational level. The architecture will avoid a strict adherence to gestural moves and overly specific geometries that inevitably produce a closed, inflexible system. The architecture will not be conceived as an object at a final end state, but an environment that will remain open to external input and manipulation. The contemporary metropolis is understood to be an environment of continuous flow, blurred movement and incessant visual distraction. Rather than confirm this condition, the large-scale moves of my work will aspire to a form that balances profoundly static or stable elements with a latent sense of potential energy. At a human scale the work will become more delicate and sensitive to the requirements of the body.
The Black Square, 1915: Kasimir Malevich created the Black Square as the quintessential work of Suprematism, which he defined as the prioritization of supreme feeling over representation or form. The Black Square was supposedly a work of instantaneous inspiration. Malevich, however, was known to resign his work and retroactively date certain paintings before they were actually created in order to rewrite the history of his development. In this image we see that something clearly existed on the canvas before The Black Square was painted. Age now exposes its form through the supposed purity of the black paint to reveal a mysterious but unknowable history.
With full acknowledgment of the limitations and shortcomings of his ideas Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime & Beautiful will remain a primary influence on the consideration of form and its relationship to scale in this project. It is fully understood, of course, that broad terms such as “Beauty” maybe considered inherently subjective. It is therefore extremely important to begin more rigidly defining a set of terms or assumptions that provide enough consistency for the continuation of the argument.
Beauty Happiness is sought through the enjoyment of beauty, which has a peculiar, intoxicating quality ... beauty has no obvious use, nor is there any cultural necessity for it, yet civilization could not do without it. Sigmund Freud
For these purposes, that which is considered beautiful must include those properties that inspire a sense of tenderness and affection. In general beautiful objects are small, smooth, graceful, elegant and exhibit a kind of delicacy, fragility and transience. According to Burke beautiful objects do not vary by sharpness. They are not rugged or clumsily composed. Beautiful objects are often infused with the form of motion or fluidity. Under these terms, beauty will be generalized as objects with closed formal systems that are easily distinguishable from a surrounding environment. Beauty will be primarily sought in small-scale elements of the project, tectonic details and moments where the human body (especially the hand) interacts with the architecture itself. For these reasons beautiful form should be reserved for interior spaces, elements that are more frequently replaced and objects that resist the natural decay of time.
The Sublime For my purposes the properties of the sublime are understood to derive from the passions of self-preservation, danger and mystery. In order to inspire sublime associations a level of obscurity must be maintained for it is understood that, in general, we are more curious and attentive to that which is not immediately clear to us. According to Burke, the sublime takes its inspiration from that which seems powerful and awesome in scale or force. The sublime characterizes what is beyond our reach and out of our control. We would thus describe the ocean or a mountain as sublime - at once alienating yet infinitely intriguing and inspiring. Sublime objects often appear at rest, or in a state of permanence that transcends the lifespan of human beings. Ultimately the sublime orients us in space and time by making us aware of our limitations. Due to necessary considerations of scale the sublime is primarily an environmental characteristic. In this case a large-scale formal strategy will aspire to a mostly sublime characterization. This will likely be achieved through the artful use of relatively simple, abstract geometry with an extremely careful attention to materiality. The overall form of the architecture will likely include sharp or rugged elements. It will appear mostly solid but will at some point begin to reveal a more delicate hybrid condition of graceful detailing.
A sense of melancholy lies beneath all moving experiences of art; this is the sorrow of beautyâ€™s immaterial temporality. Art projects an unattainable ideal, the ideal of beauty that momentarily touches the eternal. Juhani Pallasmaa
Permanence & Ephemerality If beauty is understood to exhibit the characteristics that we have defined it by, and if, as Freud suggests, it is naturally connected to a sense of pleasure and happiness, it must be accepted that it can only exist as a temporary phenomenon. Beauty inevitably and uncontrollably fades precisely because its elegance, purity and delicacy cannot stand up to the forces of time and environment. That which is beautiful is almost always by its nature novel, youthful and temporary. Most high-end architecture attempts to avoid this truth by conceiving of the work in a state of permanent perfection. In these cases the designer does not anticipate the process of aging or long-term change. By refusing to acknowledge what must be, such architects forfeit an opportunity to engage the environment and inevitably compromise the intentions of their project. Architecture conceived primarily through the lens of beauty must always exist in an antagonistic state with nature, for it is perpetually attempting to avoid what is natural, the process of its own decay. Under the conditions by which we have defined it, form that aspires to sublime associations is a more appropriate choice for large-scale exterior elements. Rusticated, heavy materials are naturally more stable and resilient than delicate surfaces and thus convey a greater sense of permanence.
Deep shadows and darkness are essential, because they dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance ambiguous, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy. Juhani Pallasmaa
Weight & Lightness Principles of the sublime and beautiful naturally correspond to a general sense of heaviness and lightness. That which is heavy or draws weight is generally understood to be powerful in a direct sense, such as the immediate application of force. Heaviness is often unavoidable, uncontrollable, timeless and inevitable. Heaviness has a momentum that is not easily manipulated or redirected. That which is light often brings relief from that which is heavy but can only do so temporarily, for it is by nature fragile and momentary. Light objects are easier to manipulate and thus allow us an illusion of control or determination. It is perhaps for this reason that beautiful (light) things provide a sense of pleasure or satisfaction. It should be noted, however, that lightness maybe equally as elusive or uncontrollable as heaviness due its inherent ephemerality.
Compression & Release Extending metaphors of the sublime and the beautiful, this project aspires to produce a general condition of heightened tension punctured by moments of release. The principles of compression and release are demonstrated by an oscillation of potential and kinetic energies. In Physics the First Law of Thermodynamics states that “energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms.” In any system the total energy equals the sum of
potential energy, that which is compressed or held in static form, and kinetic energy, the energy of a dynamic or moving state. For these purposes, a sense of compression, heightened tension and sublime form correspond to potential, stored or embodied energy. Kinetic energy, by contrast, is understood as a release of potential energy. In this case beauty is a release of pressure or a momentary catharsis amid our perpetual struggle against gravity (compression). Beauty is a moment of purity in a naturally impure world. It is a necessarily escape. Compression and release are obvious euphemisms for the progression of the sexual act. The orgasm is a transcendent moment made possible by a heightening of tension through stimulus. In this case the distinction between stimulus and release is of primary importance. One predicts or makes necessary the other. In general an orgasm is only possible within the context of compression. It is worth noting that the orgasm is considered transcendent and cathartic precisely because it is a moment of non-thinking and absolute being (embodiment). To experience an orgasm is to be nothing but where you are. It is one of the few inescapable experiences of our lives - the only moment when we cannot possibly think of anything else or project ourselves to another place. It is for this reason that the French refer to the orgasm as the Le Petite Mort, or “The Little Death.”
2: The Uncanny
Gansevoort Market: In the last 15 years Manhattanâ€™s Meat-Packing district was transformed from a gritty neighborhood of roughly 250 slaughterhouses into the most fashionable area of the city. Parts of this district, where meat hooks still hang above the sidewalk, provide visuals as visceral as anything in Detroit or Cleveland, yet less than a block away one might wonder into any number of high-end luxury boutiques showcasing the most notable designers from around the world. By night the former slaughterhouses are filled not with the squeals of livestock or machinery but the panting and screaming of a young and restless crowd of party goers. The meat hooks that remain above the sidewalk stand as uncanny reminders of the dangerous processes that used to take place in this area but, in this case, the meat has been packaged. Its imagery is safe to consume by the gentrifying masses because their bodies are no longer assailed with the sensory experiences that traditionally accompanied these forms. This strange contradiction of environmental appearance and cultural reality allows people who would never skin a pig or venture into the seediest parts of the city to consume the impression of an authentic urban experience.
Sigmund Freud defined the unheimlich, or â€œuncanny,â€? as a strange and slightly uncomfortable feeling that something is both familiar and foreign at the same time. In the original German heimlich, or homely, implies something that is concealed or secretive. Unheimlich or uncanny feelings thus occur with the exposure or reappearance of that which was supposed to remain protected or hidden. Freud attributed the uncanny to repressed impulses, desires and fears. For the purpose of this thesis, the uncanny will be understood with specific attention to moments where something seems slightly familiar but whose origins or purpose is unknown. This phenomenon is especially strong when experienced unexpectedly and in relation to some hidden quality of a particular place. In the context of this work the uncanny is conceptually related to the dialectic of domesticity and wilderness, interior and exterior or control and chaos. Architecturally the uncanny will be created by bringing some aspect of a feral, exterior or uncontrollable element inside a seemingly domesticated space. Such tactics may work at multiple scales. As strategy for operating on the entire metropolis, the city itself is re-framed as a sort of haunted house; a place where layered relationships, histories and infrastructures are continuously being revealed and repressed.
3: Site Chicago Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world. Frank Lloyd Wright
In less that two hundred years Chicago has transformed itself from a barely inhabitable swampland to perhaps the most profound and richly layered laboratory of urban experience in America. Chicago was the quintessential industrial metropolis of the late 19th and early 20th Century. It was the city that unabashedly exploited nature by domesticating the western frontier, consuming its wealth, slaughtering its livestock and reversing its rivers. It was, by many accounts, the most horrifically polluted and violent urban creation that man had ever produced. Perhaps for this reason it was also the metropolis that gave birth the City Beautiful Movement and invented American Architecture. Today Chicago is the quintessential example of a once failing city that has resurrected itself as a young and vibrant urban environment.
Chicago has always been a city of extremes. It is a place of economic disparity, cultural contrast and social conflict. As an environment of radical weather and politics it has produced one of the most richly layered social histories of any place in the world. It is the city of big shoulders, a place for the tough and the resilient, not the fragile, pretentious or weak of heart. Chicago is a town that works before it talks, a place that invents rather than promotes. What advantages the city now enjoys it owes not to the temperance of its climate, the necessities of its geographic location or the beauty of its natural surroundings, but to the will and ingenuity of its people. It is the most thoroughly artificial and transparently architectural city in America. The city does not borrow its sublime visual power from a surrounding landscape, it constructs it by design. Chicago, in other words, is the unabashed product of civilization. It is the epitome of the best and worst we have to offer each other. Few cities of the world are now as well positioned as Chicago to endure and flourish in a future of environmental degradation and resource scarcity. Underneath the new global image, the city remains intimately tied to the rich hinterland of farms that fueled its growth. The fertile soil of the Midwest spreads for hundreds of miles to the west and south. To the east sits the largest concentration of fresh water in the world, to the north the regenerating forests of the Upper Midwest and Northeast. Chicago is blessed with a wealth of underutilized infrastructure that, with the right modifications, could conceivably support a city twice its population. The mixture of both densely populated and abandoned or atrophied spaces that characterize Chicago makes it an ideal laboratory to profoundly revolutionize both the city and the American way of life. If any single place can change Americaâ€™s perception of nature our place within the environment, it will be Chicago.
North America: This map depicts the unique position that Chicago occupies at the center of the North American Continent.
Part Three: Proposal
The Status of the Image
Isle of the Dead, 1883: Arnold Bocklin was a Swiss painter of the late Nineteenth Century. His most famous work depicts a rocky island widely interpreted as a funerary site that potentially represents the passage to the underworld as described in Greek Mythology.
The early research of this thesis focused largely on the apotheosis of vision, contemporary image culture and the subsequent flattening of modern experience through mediating technology. It has been argued that architecture becomes easily divorced from the fundamental concerns of human experience if it is reduced to a mere image of itself or its process. This conviction is rooted in a belief that architecture is most potent, meaningful and invaluable when it functions as an environment that comprehensively engages the sensory experience of human beings. Without attention to the actual realities of all sense modalities our work degenerates into frivolity or dangerous incompetence. These convictions are still prominent in the thesis. But while my early research anticipated a strict attention to materiality and a high degree of design specificity, it was soon realized such resolution would only possible in construction and that a myopic approach would lack the rhetorical strength of a true thesis. Whereas the early work of the thesis may have prioritized a physical product above the broader network cultural relationships that it might belong to, imagery is now directly engaged in order to envision works of architecture that are fundamentally concerned with experience on both a physical and metaphysical level. The work, in other words, is intended to be both real, as in absolutely possible, and surreal, as in totally fantastic. The final images range from hyper-realistic renderings to an almost painterly prioritization of referential relationships. As such, some images aspire to be realized as architecture while others function more as rhetorical structures that represent the relationships that frame the conception of the architecture. In the end, each image, real or surreal, supports the creation of a city that is fundamentally attentive to both physical experience and metaphysical imagination. The work thus aspires to produce an architecture that is both familiar or knowable and yet entirely mysterious and, often, unpredictable.
1: Plan of Chicago Displayed during the Thesis Review as a 6’x3’ drawing oriented vertically, this map depicts an axis running from the western edge of the city to the fresh waters of Lake Michigan. Interstate 290, known locally as the Eisenhower Expressway, defines an infrastructure spine of the projects proposed by the thesis. One this map each project is demarcated in bright red. The first proposal is a gateway structure that straddles the highway at the western edge of the city, just east of the Des Plains River. The project itself is not yet visualized, but it is loosely conceived as a large residential complex directly connected to the last stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s westbound Blue Line. Within the narrative structure of the thesis this location indicates the boundary of the Great Lakes Watershed. West of the gateway, water eventually flows to the Mississippi River and south to the Gulf of Mexico. East of the gateway, water flows into Lake Michigan. This ecological boundary is considered far more important than the political boarder of Chicago, which is about two miles further east. Traveling east from a closed frontier, the gateway project intentionally recognizes the watershed boundary in order to anticipate the sanctity of the fresh water upon which the city depends.
Left: Full map with supplemental images measuring 3’ x 6.’ Above: Image of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago
Like the projects mentioned, the map itself is considered an early iteration of what will eventually become a far more detailed and comprehensive proposal. In this case the Thesis will inform a new Plan for the City of Chicago. On an infrastructural level the plan will anticipate new ways of layering networks and transportation routes in order to create a poly-nucleated web of high-density centers scattered among various new forms hybrid landscapes. Though in an early stage of development, density of land-use, population and building mass is shown in darker shades of grey. The expansion of the elevated mass-transit system has been depicted in red. The reconstruction of an electric streetcar system has been represented in pink. The city’s existing bucolic park system, as envisioned by Burnham, is shown in green. Large tracts of under-utilized land that may be appropriated for agricultural use are illustrated in yellow. Industrial territories are shown in yellow-green. These areas of the city may become centers for a new industrial economy of “cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing, energy production and sustainable production, or revert to feral corridors of various unplanned uses. Currently impoverished districts of the city are represented by a slight purplish tint. Current wealthy neighborhoods are shown in a slight brown shade. Above the map itself a collage represents the idealization of the desert 2,000 miles southwest of the city. A race car driver stands near the center of the image, immediately adjacent to a car used to break the land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Beyond the race car driver Zaha Hadid’s Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center looms at its intended gargantuan scale. To the right of the Performing Arts Center the Pyramids of Giza rest on the horizon line. To the left of the image are two photos taken from the Tijuana side of International Boarder at the Pacific Ocean.
The second proposal on the Eisenhower Expressway axis is a black cube, roughly 250’ on each side, located at the center of the highway interchange where Interstates 290, 90, and 94 converge just west of downtown. This location happens to be the geographic center of the grand plaza that Daniel Burnham proposed in front of his Civic Center in the 1909 Plan of Chicago. The third proposal on the axis is an artificial rock island three miles of the coast off the coast of Chicago in Lake Michigan. The rock island is a reinterpretation of the islands that Burnham intended in his 1909 plan. A fourth proposal lies off the axis, 1.5 miles northeast of the black cube and highway interchange. This project was part of an earlier phase of the thesis, which called for the appropriation of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green public housing project. All three of these proposals will be discussed in greater detail with further images and text.
2: Artificial Rock Islands Though this project was intended to be built in the early Twentieth Century as both a reinterpretation of Burnham’s recreation islands and a part of the city’s water infrastructure, this rendering shows the proposal as it would it appear today. At its construction, the island would have essentially been a giant steel cage, 300’ feet tall or so, surrounding an intake basin where the City acquires fresh water from the lake before passing it through filtration plants on shore. Five water cribs currently exist off the coast of Chicago. In this proposal each crib is surrounded by a steel cage that originally functioned as a receptacle for the excavated earth from the construction of a ship canal that links the Chicago River to Mississippi River southwest of the City. Over time these cages received earth from other excavation projects as well as debris from demolished buildings. After a century natural plant life has overtaken much of the steel cage, earth and debris to produce the appearance of a series of quasi-natural rock islands two to three miles of the coast of the city. From shore these islands rise as mysterious monoliths, both defining the eastern edge of the city and marking its source of life.
Above: An enlarged view of the rendering depicting the Rock Island from the lake, looking west toward the city.
3: The Black Cube In the 1909 Plan of Chicago Daniel Burnham proposed a grand plaza at Halsted Street and Congress Parkway, just west of the central business district. To the immediate west of the plaza Burnham situated a massive Civic Center that was intended to become the cultural heart of the city. A century later this space is occupied only by a large highway interchange connecting Interstate 290, 90 & 94, locally known as the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Dan Ryan Expressways. This thesis proposes that a black cube, measuring about 250â€™ on each side is to be built at the center of the interchange. The cube is to remain intentionally ambiguous in origin, scale and function. It is intended to be both universal and at once highly specific. Its simplistic shape intentionally removes typical formal analysis in order to reduce the project to a pure presence. Conceived as a sacred object around which the city circumambulates, the cube aspires to a profound silence. It is rigidly static amid the continuous flow of automobile traffic. From a distance and in particular lighting conditions the cube is perceived as a complete solid mass. Its immense weight is elevated above the highway in order to emphasize the potential energy of its mass against gravity. At other times, under the right lighting conditions, the cube appears highly transparent and reveals an extremely delicate internal structure that contradicts its outward solidity and strength. Symbolically the cube represents a potential origin point for the domestication of the frontier through the indiscriminate application of the Jeffersonian Grid across the landscape and the exploitation of the continent to which Chicago owed its initial growth. In this case the cube would be understood to have both an attractive and repulsive role, simultaneously bringing resources and energy into the city and repelling them across the landscape. We might go even further
in imagining the cube as a kind of Prime Object that existed even before the city. Perhaps Chicago was built around it or even because of it. Or perhaps the cube was constructed in parallel with pieces of infrastructure specified by the 1909 Plan. On the other hand it might have been designed as a modernist glass cube to oppose the neoclassicism of Daniel Burnham’s White City. Perhaps it was abandoned and, like the artificial rock islands, has accumulated decades of the city’s atmosphere. In this case the soot of nearby coal-fired power plants and the exhaust of automobiles have rendered its once transparent skin black with age. Ultimately the cube is an emblem of Chicago. It is both an agent of domestication, a machine in the garden, and a Trojan Horse full of wild potential. Like a broken birdcage it now facilitates an escape from domesticity.
The Black Cube at Dawn: This was the primary image of The Black Cube as displayed during the final thesis review. In this view we understand the structure’s proximity and relationship to the Eisenhower Expressway.
Like its exterior, the interior of the black cube allows for a projection of diverse relationships and possibilities. Structurally the cube seems light in weight yet shrouded by deep shadows. The effect is intentionally complex and dense. It is an archetypical urban space. It has a labyrinthine quality not unlike Piranesiâ€™s Carceri. Organizationally the building is essentially a large performance, exhibition or warehouse space. It is equally capable of becoming a prison, an arena, a music hall or a cathedral. In plan it opens to the west, framing a view of the horizon that forecasts transcendent desire while simultaneously acting as a receiving space for a homecoming. In this particular view a mannequin stands in a contemplative pose at the interior of the cube. In the surrealist sense she represents the modernist transformation of
Interior Perspective: Displayed behind glass, this interior view of The Black Cube was the primary image of the final thesis review.
the female form into a commodity. For the purposes of the thesis, we understand this process as a possessive domestication. She is an arrested life. Yet in this case the source of her domesticity remains ambiguous. It is suggested that the city, or the cube is not actually the culprit, but that the desire for transcendence from the labyrinth through the institution of marriage ultimately cages her. The mannequin wears a wedding dress. The space is suddenly reinterpreted as a cathedral. She is about to take the leap into western horizon to make a new home in a little house on the prairie. She wears an earring that is an exact replica of Zaha Hadidâ€™s Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center, scaled appropriately as a beautiful piece of jewelry.
Birdâ€™s-eye Perspective Looking Northeast: This image depicts The Black Cube in its larger urban context, surrounded by the highway interchange. The Sears Tower stands behind the Cube. The horizon line of Lake Michigan is visible to the right of the image. This rendering was used for a layered drawing in the final thesis review.
In the central space of the cube a large model of a luxury condominium building hovers above the ghosted towers of the Cabrini Green housing project. The housing project represents the ultimate space of urban fear for the single white female. In this case the luxury condominium building takes the form of a vessel, a train, a boat or phallus. It is unclear whether the vessel has recently arrived or is about to depart to take the mannequin to apparent safety. Perhaps the cube itself is a womb and this, a moment of birth.
On closer inspection we notice that the towers of Cabrini Green stand isolated in a manicured pit of sand, recalling the calm of a Japanese Rock Garden, tombstones in a graveyard, or the artificial rock islands that have been proposed in Lake Michigan. We now discern that Burnhamâ€™s Plan of 1909 has been etched into the floor. Beyond the central space a western opening frames an Egyptian pyramid, whose shape has been interpreted by some to symbolize the road to the afterlife. The density of the cubeâ€™s interior, its adversity, its network of urban relationships and its labyrinth of possibility are now situated in contrast with the simple promise of transcendence. Yet for the afterlife to begin, life must end. The city, in this case, is life. The desire to escape it is now understood as the death.
4: Cabrini Green In the late 1990â€™s the City of Chicago began to systematically demolish its highrise public housing projects. Cabrini Green was perhaps the most notorious of the cityâ€™s intentional ghettos. It was built in the shadow of a former industrial district that traditionally depressed land values in the area despite its close proximity to the central business district. As heavy industry declined or moved south and the center of the city began to redevelop, Cabrini Green suddenly occupied prime real estate between downtown and the affluent neighborhoods of the Northside. In the last ten years the old high-rise projects have almost been completely replaced by a series of low and mid-rise mixed-income developments. At the date of this writing only three of more than twenty original Cabrini Green highrises remain. Many anticipate that the entire district will be gentrified within ten years. Not a trace of the most horrific failure of modern architecture and social policy will remain by 2020. This thesis proposes that the remaining high-rises be saved from demolition and re-appropriated as part of new luxury hotel and condominium development constructed during the speculative housing boom of the early Twenty-First Century. The old high-rise buildings will be stripped down to a skeleton of structure and circulation cores. A series of new buildings will surround the old skeletons, occupying the vast empty spaces that were once a dangerous no-manâ€™s land between the towers. The skeletons of the housing projects will become interior courtyards and framing devices for a series of arcades running through the center of the new development. The juxtaposition between the old housing project and a new luxury development intentionally brings into direct confrontation a space and formal typology popularly associated with urban violence and racial fear with a new typology of urban gated communities. In modernist housing projects poor minorities were
intentionally removed from the social life of the city and imprisoned in isolated developments. In the contemporary global city wealthy urbanites voluntarily imprison themselves in gated condominium developments. Formally or typologically the architecture of these luxury buildings is not so dissimilar from modernist housing projects. They often literally consist of high-rise towers situated in or around a park. The difference, of course, is the constituency. Modernist housing projects warehoused an urban poor that had often recently migrated from rural areas of the south. These communities relied heavily on informal social networks for the provision of daily needs and safety. Contemporary urban elites are not only wealthy enough to pay for their own provisions, private transportation and security forces, but also have smaller families and more dispersed social networks. The yuppie, in other words, is more reliant on fiscal than social capital and is thus more adapted to social isolation. In general, the tragedy of gentrification is not specifically that it brings wealth into a neighborhood, but that those that are wealthy tend to be less invested in the community than those who more directly perceive their reliance on social networks. In the primary image of Cabrini Green displayed during the final review, we notice that the building has arrived in the city in much the same manner as it was situated in the interior perspective of the cube. Here the luxury condominium building is a machine in the garden. It is an isolated object and an agent of domestication
Previous Page: A conceptual drawing of Cabrini Green. Top: Final Image of the Cabrini Green Proposal arriving in the City. Above: â€œPlaytime on the Porchâ€? by Jack Bridges
Concept Model: A conceptual rendering of the massing model created for the Cabrini Green Proposal. This view is hypothetically taken from the southeast corner of the Cabrini site. In this proposal, four former housing project towers have been encased by the new luxury development. The massing of the complex reaches a pinnacle height of 400â€™ at the southern end along Chicago Avenue, to the left of this image.
amid what is perceived by its occupants as wild environment of urban others. In this perspective the city is conflated with a natural landscape. The image represents a return to the city for a generation whose parents forsook the adverse vibrancy of urban life for the pleasurable comfort of what Lewis Mumford called the suburban playpen. This proposal questions whether these new migrants will become integrated into the social life of the city and produce the first broadlybased urban culture that America has ever known. Like long term tourists on a cruise ship anchored just off-shore of an exotic island, this generation of young professionals may simply occupy gated communities near the center of city to enjoy the entertainment and convenience of urbanity without ever becoming truly urbane. Within the narrative of this thesis a proposed development surrounding the skeleton of Cabrini Green attempts to covertly confront a gentrifying class with the memory of housing-projects by setting up a situation in which uncanny identifications might occur within the safe domestic space of luxury condominiums. These moments would most likely occur through unexpected material choices and interior detailing schemes. Such a level of detail has yet to be realized in this proposal but is rhetorically addressed in the following image of a hypothetical penthouse interior.
5: Penthouse View In the image of a Penthouse Apartment the three primary architectural proposals of the thesis are reconceived through a new series of relationships. The penthouse functions as a lose stand-in for a unit interior of the Cabrini Green proposal but can be more universally considered as a prototypical luxury highrise. In either case, the architecture is decidedly high modern. The base image is a simple inversion of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. The false promise of purity of the modernist aesthetic is challenged by the decomposition of the ceiling. The female form reappears, lounging seductively in the foreground. In this case it is difficult to decipher whether or not she is real, though a seam in the plastic joint at her hip reveals that this is once again a mannequin. Broken glass covers the bed near the foot of the mannequin. To the rear of the scene the Black Cube reappears as a birdcage sitting on an end table. To the right of the Black Cube a print of Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead hangs above the chair. To the right of the painting the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts center now functions as a wall lamp. The penthouse is afforded with a northeast view up Lakeshore Drive to Lincoln Park. The expanse of the fresh water sea extends north 300 miles to the straights of Mackinac, Michigan. Two of the artificial rock islands are visible in this perspective. In the foreground the island near Oak Street Beach has accumulated a series of boat docks and informal structures. During the summer this area of the lake front, within the breakwater, is known as colloquially as “The Playpen.” It is
lakefront, within the breakwater, is known as colloquially as “The Playpen.” It is where the more flamboyant and promiscuous of Chicago’s boating community come to throw boat parties well into the warm summer nights. This perspective suggests that whatever building the condominium is located in must be at least twice as tall as the massive rock islands. In fact the real photograph was taken from the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center. From this height the rock islands appear less like mysterious outcroppings than the intentionally situated pebbles of a Japanese Rock Garden. This suggests that view, itself, flattens and domesticates the city. Like a modernist house among a mountain landscape, the apartment projects an idolization of nature that paradoxically results in its destruction through suffocation. The Penthouse and the country Villa intentionally alienate themselves from the environment in order to consume it through safe, predictable and well mediated channels. When practiced on a society-wide scale the desire to live close to or among “nature” ultimately destroys the environment by dissecting it into spheres of personalized consumption. This pattern of self-destruction is rooted in alienation an inability to relate to life without possessing and thus destroying it.
6: The Caged Bird Biomorphic form-making has become increasingly popular among contemporary designers since advancements in computer technology have given us the ability mimic natural patterns and complex geometries. These techniques often produce incredibly beautiful objects with little if any critical attention to implications of animate life forms. The desire to make an artificial creation appear “natural” has been present in art and design practice from the very beginning. A long lineage of architects have progressively sought to embody a universal truth through geometry and design. For most of our history these aspirations have been cosmological or overtly religious. During modernism they were based on a faith in humanist rationality and the ultimate promise of improving the design of life itself. The drive to create artificial intelligence, to fabricate life, is difficult to separate from a deep desire to become divine masters of our world. To make animate the inanimate implies total understanding and control. It is to become powerful and god-like. And yet we must learn time and again that life cannot be controlled or predicted. In fact the effort to own life definitively destroys it. A caged bird is the ultimate degradation of our relationship with natural world. It is a humiliating admission that we have become alienated from our environment. It is sign that we have forgotten how to dance with the unpredictability of life or integrate ourselves with other living things. It is ultimately an act of destruction, not creation.
The necrophilous person is driven by a desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things… Memory, rather than experience; having, rather than being, is what counts. The necrophilous person can relate to an object – a flower or a person – only if he possesses it… He loves control, and in the act of controlling he kills life.
Kenneth R. Schneider
Caged Bird: These photographs depict a fragile 3D print within an ornamental birdcage. This model was displayed adjacent to the primary images in the final thesis review.
Biomorphic form is too often symptomatic of this necrophilous impulse. Like the mannequin it easily becomes an empty mimicry of something that we think we understand but are unable to sense or feel. When architecture is pursued only as a personification, or a flattened representation of animation, it produces only a still birth, an imposter, a thing that cannot possibly behave organically because it refuses to accept a continuously adverse relationship with its environment. In order to survive architecture cannot be reduced to an alienated object. It must be understood as a silent canvas that embraces the dynamic change of its natural environment. Our responsibility as designers is not to fabricate an image of animation but to establish a stable background against which animation, movement or change can be registered. Organic architecture may thus be redefined not as a frozen moment of activity (still life), but as evolving relationship of space, materiality, function and experience.
Architecture and the city are alive because they are an environment ...not an animal or a machine.
This was a project about layered perceptions, histories and meaning. It has always been something that accumulates density. As a series of observations and proposals that are intimately tied to the past, present and future of Chicago the work may be difficult to fully appreciate without a familiarity with the city. It was, of course, impossible to communicate the entirety of my thought process, the breadth of my research or the development of my proposals within a short ten or fifteen minute Thesis presentation. I was anxious about putting images on the wall that were far more painterly in nature than typical thesis drawings. I was also concerned with not having thoroughly realized any of the images as actual architectural proposals. As such I attempted to frame the discussion around the basic observations, critique and philosophy that directed my work. I wanted to simplify my considerations and streamline them into a series of projects that were easy to enter into without prior familiarity. Ultimately I was not specific enough about the actual work that I produced. I did not ground the critics in a process or clear reasoning behind the composition of my images and drawings. As a result, I had to backtrack in order to explain the decisions that I made. In other words, I described what my project was about and why I thought it was important without describing exactly how I did it. Thus, there was some confusion or misreading about the intentionality of the work. I was, however, fortunate enough to have some reviewers who were familiar with the subject matter that I was interested in and therefore able to describe aspects of my project more eloquently than I could have articulated. To them I am truly grateful for what turned out to be a very positive and enthusiastic review.
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I would like to thank Perry Kulper, my primary thesis advisor, for his unique dedication, insight and perspective on my project. I am certain that I would not have produced such a layered thesis without his guidance. As a secondary advisor Neal Robinson was also an important and appreciated source of critique and support. It goes without saying that my work is an ongoing process that has been highly influenced by pervious professors and mentors. Coy Howard of Sci Arc has probably had more influence than any single person on the way that perceive the intentions of design and representation. To him I am greatly indebted. Michael Bell of Columbia University is another undoubtedly important influence on my understanding of the role of architecture in society. Michael has a unique ability to synthesize multiple influences and layers of interest and brings a much needed sense of possibility and responsibility to the discipline. Finally, I would like to thank Jim Chaffers. Professor Chaffers has been the most consistent and important mentor on my sense of value and direction in architecture for more than six years. Travelling to Ghana with Professor Chaffers remains one the most profound experiences in my life. I am forever indebted to his wisdom and strength. I must acknowledge the influence of a lifetime worth of experiences in the creation of this thesis, and particularly my relationship with the City of Chicago. No matter the circumstance, no matter where I go, I will always consider this my home. It will always be the place that has shaped my personality and perspective on the world more than any one person could have. For that I am eternally grateful to the City and its people.
Published on Dec 14, 2009
Master of Architecture Thesis 2009 Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning The University of Michigan Justin Petersen Perry Kulper,...