Matt / Boston

An Architect’s Perspective

‘Weiss/Manfredi concept is the best of four options’: a response

WRL_Proposal

On January 26th the architecture critic for the Plain Dealer wrote a piece about the Kent State Architecture Building Competition. I, as a practicing architect, would like to offer an architect’s perspective. First and foremost I am not affiliated in any way with any of the four finalists, and have no motive nor intention of altering a decision by the committee, nor could I.

 

It is true that there are many factors that go into the design and production of a building, however, sometimes in the practice of design, architects and critics alike get distracted from what is, and has always been, the most important aspect of architecture: spatial experience.

 

I am reminded of my fourth year in architecture school. I was in a lecture hall and the professor had asked ‘what are the components of the perfect chair – a three-legged stool?’ At first the obvious answers came pouring in from the students: legs, a seat, and so on. I, however, offered an alternative answer: the empty space for the person to sit. After all, a chair is nothing more than an opportunity to sit. And what about the person to sit in the chair? Without the occupant the chair would be useless, it would have no actual purpose and thus would not be a chair (it would only exist as pieces of wood).

 

It was clear to me that the architecture of the chair would not exist without the space to experience the chair, or the person who sits in it. This is similar to buildings. While experiencing architecture a person is in the real time and space; it is literally happening. The viewer is actually touching the walls and feeling the warmth of the light, rather than merely observing it from the outside. Architecture is our vessel for real experience. Somewhere over the course of the last 100 years, architecture has transformed itself to merely an art of formal expression, losing sight of what is actually the purpose of experiential habitation. Architecture now is talked about more with the plastic arts, such as painting and sculpture, than possibly at any other time in its history. This is not to say that the visual impact of architecture hasn’t been a focus of the past, even during the 19th century the unending debate within architecture circles was about what style to apply to a building, rather than how it should unfold experientially.

 

I, thus, propose we review the competition entries also on their interior spatial merit. While each of the proposals treated communal space differently, each proposal includes large gathering spaces for formal and informal meetings. These ‘break-away’ spaces are located near major circulation paths and the primary studio spaces. Crucial to academic discourse, these spaces function not only for group discussions, but more importantly they are places where students, faculty, and administrators alike can bump into each other and have a quick and informal discussion outside of the standard class environment.

 

Similar to the prestigious Yale School of Architecture, designed by Paul Rudolph, at least three of the entries have a large center space used for exhibitions, pin-ups, and of course the dreadful jury. In particular, the entries from Weiss/Manfredi and Westlake Reed Leskosky showcase a central space surrounded with unique seating, architectural stairs, and studio spaces. With light pouring in from above, these spaces are airy and open, representing the change in educational design over the last 30 years. They are rewarding spaces to inhabit.

 

Whether or not these building are ‘glassy’ or monumental is relatively insignificant, as is the affect of transparency on public perception of the profession in the 21st century. These are esoteric and psychoanalytical guesses. What is truly the most important aspect of a university building, or any piece of architecture for that matter, is the quality of the human experience throughout the building. That is after all how we enjoy architecture, from the inside. This is especially important for the students of the architecture building.

 

Architecture students require a diverse, stimulating, and yet comfortable space to spend the late nights working in studio. In fact, if Kent State is going to ‘regret’ something in the long run, their regret may be not choosing the building that satisfies the core architectural experience for the students and faculty alike. One that not only functions well but is beautiful and pleasant to be in.

 

I think we all should remember that the College of Architecture and Environmental Design is not moving from Taylor Hall because the building is ‘brutalist,’ ‘ugly,’ or opaque. CAED is moving because they have outgrown Taylor with enrollment, and the building no longer functions efficiently as an architecture building in the 21st century. As a former professor at CAED, I know first hand the experience of walking through, and teaching in, Taylor Hall. I am convinced that the selection committee will consider all aspects of the architecture, not just the public perception of a facade.

 

For the original article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer please visit: http://blog.cleveland.com/architecture/2013/01/the_weissmanfredi_concept_is_t.html

WeissManfredi_Proposal

A Conversation With Trees

 

I would like to begin by first giving a brief background on who I am, and more importantly what I am, this will help explain where my conceptions of localogy come from. I am an architect, well not really. I have a degree in architecture and am close to finishing up the requirements for my professional license. I have lived in many different places in the world, places both unique and distinct. Having spent my childhood in the midwest of the North American continent, I consider that region my roots. I have also lived in New York, spent roughly half a year in Italy, and lived in Ireland for three years. Currently I am back in the midwest dwelling in Cleveland, Ohio. But more important than who I am is what I am. I am a human, or better, an animal. I roam this earth like other animals, and similarly dwell with the earth. I have two legs, two arms, two eyes, and a mind that all work in unison together with the environment around me. I dwell.

 

It is from these foundations that I would like to discuss a more recent walk in a desolate park in downtown Cleveland. Cleveland is a complicated place, with a history ranging from the banal to the profane. So when i say ‘downtown’ Cleveland I am not necessarily describing a concrete abyss between skyscrapers, although that exists. Immediately to the east of the edifices breaking the horizon, is a small park nestled adjacent to the shore of Lake Erie. To say that the area is desolate cannot be an exaggeration. Strickened with large, and mostly abandoned warehouses, the area is a void in the urban fabric of the city. Centered around this walk are a few thoughts I would like to share about nature, death, urbanity, and presence.

 

Rows of trees surround the perimeter of all sides of the park. Not planted purposefully, rather the trees reveal a void; the park is a void removed from the middle, leaving the emptiness as ‘park’. On my walk, the trees told me this. They also told me another story, a story of the nature of trees, and perhaps all other living things. But before getting into that, I would like to explore the nature of all living things.

 

Many writers, poets, and musicians, to name a few, have reached out to the idea that the natural world is alive. Not alive in the typical sense that we think of trees as being alive – because they grow, move, and change – but rather they are alive, like you and I. To even begin to talk about this I could not, rather I would recommend picking up David Abram’s book, ‘The Spell of the Sensuous,’ to understand the animation of nature. So I would like to broaden the scale and mention mother earth.

 

I have often thought that the earth was alive – a living organism if you will. To best understand what I mean by this I would like to offer two alternative ways of thinking: scale and extraterrestrial organisms. Through reworking the way we think about scale we may rework the way we think of the cosmos. Let us walk into a scale that is almost unfathomable to human kind: the universe.

 

Writer Gaston Bachelard in the ‘Poetics of Space’ describes a writing by Pierre-Maxime Schuhl, about an apple’s core, more importantly its seed, as the sun of the apple: the energy giving entity. By describing it in this way, we are analytically able to apply a scale to a known object of relation to understand the incomprehensible, in a sense allowing our imagination to see a true scale. In doing so we experience the unexperiencable, taken to a scale unknown to ourselves, our imagination takes over and everything becomes real in a moment of clarity.

Platonic dialectics of large and small do not suffice for us to become cognizant of the dynamic virtues of miniature thinking. One must go beyond logic in order to experience what is large in what is small…he entered into a miniature world and right away images began to abound, then grow, then escape.”

Bachelard p. 150,154

Let’s take this a step further. Take our example of the seed of the apple as the sun. In this case, a separate universe is created by a change of scale. Apply this to humans. For a moment, allow yourself to be taken to another place; to suspend all disbelief. This is not to imply that we literally are neurons in the brain of the earth, but rather it offers a new way of thinking. The earth is literally a living organism, albeit different from what the current schools of thought are about life.

 

A change of scale is a change of logic.

 

To better illustrate this point let’s look at extraterrestrial organisms: aliens.

 

If aliens do exist in a place so far away in the universe, it is almost sacrilegious to be so selfish to our life-systems to think that they might breath oxygen, drink water, or have blood. Most scientists agree that if we are to come in contact with an alien species that the organism will seem so different from collective human knowledge and experience that we may not even recognize it as alive. Perhaps the earth is like this. If it is possible, and deemed likely, that ‘life’ in the universe may be so diverse as to almost not comprehend it, why are we as a species so quick to disregard the earth as something ‘living’. The earth moves, it grows, it reacts to outside forces, it defends itself. I believe the earth is alive. I believe that the trees on my walk are merely another living piece of this larger living organism. The trees told me this too.

 

While on my walk I spent some time with the trees, in a barren urban ‘man-made’ environment we call Cleveland, Ohio, in a country we call the United States. The trees appeared lifeless, the whole area looked dead. No birds soared over the lake. No animals climbed the trees. No people walked by. The park, along with the trees appeared to be devoid of life, but they watched me. I felt their presence.

 

As I walked along the surface of the earth and watched these trees, I also became the watchee. They welcomed me, trusted me, and spoke to me. They breath like me. They listen to the weather and climate. They shed their leaves as a direct response to what the weather tells them. Although they looked dark, grim, and even dead, they perhaps were more alive than ever, in their most vulnerable state. Perhaps I offer this first writing as an abstract to say that the world around us is alive and listening, we only need to remember how to speak with it. Even in the industrial wasteland of the lake shore of Cleveland, we still have much we can experience with nature, even on a walk like this. Listen as the trees whisper.

THE PEOPLE SPEAK

  1. Mark says:

    What an interesting entry–after considering it, I have discovered that I have had similar experiences. I find that the urban wilderness connects me to that idea of the earth as the living being quicker than being out in the more obvious wilderness. Seems odd. I guess the glaring juxtaposition of the tree in the urban desert amplifies the otherwise quiet communication it offers. I wonder if that experience happens to most people when they see a tree fighting through the concrete. Either way, thank you for your thoughts, I will certainly be mindful of them today.

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