contemporary discourse

Groundwork panel in Blount Auditorium, WIT. Photo credits: Samantha Altieri
In May I was invited to participate in a panel discussion together with historian Mark Neveu and landscape architect Mark Klopfer, both teaching at WIT as Associate Professors. The panel was organized by the graduate students, some of them currently involved in the launching of .DAT journal. Liem Than and Sam Walusimbi set up a series of dualities embracing the contemporary discourse, like theory/ practice, inter-discipline/ discipline, landscape/ landscape architecture, post-critical/ critical, installation/ architecture. According to Erblin Bucaliu these themes are understood as the "ground" onto which architecture is discussed today (therefore the title of the exhibition: Groundwork). The event gave me an opportunity to think what is my opinion about some of those issues.  Here are some of my notes and thoughts as these evolved as well during the discussion. 

On the architect's career:

It seems that many of the recent graduates have the limited choice of working either for a corporate office or the boutique firm, both of which come together with annoying situations. Pedro Gadanho has a lot of hope for this new generation. In this excerpt from his recent interview with Kazys Varnelis at Domus one can read: 
 KV: Perhaps the current generation's political stance comes out of disgust with that the building boom, and the apolitical, or rather neoliberal approach to architecture associated with it.
PG: Yes, since the new generation was taught right in the midst of the star system, they felt they had to react to that, to architecture as a signature game, a branding device for the corporate world. This generation felt that they would have to do something else. I remember always hearing from people, like my father, outside the profession who saw it as a totally cannibalistic profession that was always backfiring against itself. If you run your offices with unpaid and exploited interns, they will either grow to hate the system or will wind up replicating the system. It's constantly destroying architecture from within because professionals don't seem to have self-esteem towards their own activity. But now young people are refusing the star system and the whole route of working for a star, and instead are working through different channels.
What would it be a more social role of the architect as a professional? I think more and more students are trying to respond to this question. While discussing this topic together with the two Mark(s), Mark Neveu mentioned that architecture becomes more and more a knowledge field and "her" graduates become individuals with great assets (my own interpretation of his statement). 

On Installations:
In my own practice (and pedagogy) I have selected the path of installations/ exhibitions as an alternative path to the profession, independent from the rich client, and even the academic network (if I may say). Not only the installations offer me a testing ground, an experiential event, and engagement with people ("users of architecture"), but it also provides a communication device that aims to intervene and actively alter a "problematic" situation. Could this be an ephemeral (or epheme-real) utopia?
An interesting question regarding installations, asked by Nate Gove, dealt with the distinction between architect (doing representations) versus architect-maker (doing installations). 

On criticism: 

My doctoral dissertation at Harvard GSD, and Picanico experiment are in fact a/my critique on criticism. I developed a theory and a platform where experts meet the public, practice meets theory, and preferences meet needs. If we compare architectural taste to the gastronomical taste, one can quickly identify three categories of people involved: cooks, consumers, and connoisseurs. Petros Tatsopoulos, a Greek fiction writer (currently also politician among other things) writes in his Τιμής ένεκεν novel published in 2004: 
"I can stand anything from someone that knows how to cook... I am fed up with experts for cuisine. I am sick of connoisseurs...i want to listen to the cooks themselves..."
In his S,M,L,XL book published in 1995, Rem Koolhaas, shares his ideas about the the role of the critic in architecture; 
"We are suffering from the inability of the critics to analyze what we are really doing, to show what we are not doing, or to suggest what we should be doing. We need the critics to be our partners, not our alies, and evenless our business representatives."
During the panel, big part of the discussion moved toward the role of the critics in local newspapers. I could not stop thinking of the beloved Folk Museum, now being threatened for demolition. I clearly remember my talk with Sanford Kwinter at Harvard GSD few years ago where he would suggest to me: When thinking the audience, differentiate somehow and peak the most sophisticated one, like for example the audience that reads NYT. I researched all their articles in the Art/ Architecture section for a number of years and extract to some extend some patterns in the language and the approach. Can perhaps this trained audience prevent the disaster? Or is it the Facebook crowd, the so-much-negatively-critiqued-liking-generation, the one to save it? Who knows? Neveu emphasized the need for critics within the public realm (beyond the profession) like Geoff Manaugh. Could these perhaps develop the power to affect public opinion? Neveu referred to the notion of tribes (and trends) where groups develop specific codes of communication and patterns of behavior difficult to be uncoded by the outsiders.

On nature:  

The discussion regarding nature and landscape started from the notion that nature is artificial. Mark Klopfer, landscape architect of the recently awarded (as innovative urban place-making) Steel Yard in Providence, Rhode Island talked about a number of interesting concepts, hard to transfer in the blog without transcripts of the discussion. Myself I am very interested to re-configure the relationship between nature and architecture. An effort where one is not "erasing" the other, but they simply co-exist, can be depicted in my work  for the last 2 years, with Photodotes and Zitofos. Due to this effort, my love for Japanese Architecture, and my recent visit to Tokyo, I become more and more intrigued by the phenomenon of nature becoming fetichization (spatial fetishes) within contemporary lifestyle and architecture. 

As I close this post, I would like to mention Rith Ean, who is a 2nd year undergraduate student from Cambodia, with a remarkable presence through his work and positions in various initiatives and events. He asked about the possibility of form existing without function, which is a brave question to ask, especially within the context of an institution focusing on practice and functionality. All the graduate students involved, worked really hard to produce the Groundwork exhibition, this panel discussion, and to submit their own thesis on time. Their passion and dedication, together with their kind character give some hope. Some special credits to Sam Altieri, and also JT White who were behind this event too.

Mark Neveu, Liem Than, Sam Walusimbi, Mark Klopfer, & ZT. Photo credits: Samantha Altieri

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