Paul Preissner is a founding partner of Paul Preissner Architects and an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. With his early work grounded in the emerging computer technologies of the late ’90s and early 2000s Preissner’s current practice experiments with how this maturing medium can produce characteristics such as bluntness, clumsiness, and awkwardness to produce new architectural possibilities. In the following, Preissner responds to a letter from Andrew Holder printed in FMVII: Collage in which he addressed a large cohort of contemporaries to contemplate their moment in the architectural discipline and where it might lead.
This FM Conversation was originally published in FMVIII Of the City. All rights reserved to Fresh Meat Journal.
A Letter to Andrew Holder
I must admit that when I first read your letter, I presumed the “Paul” in the greeting was not me. So the first time I read your letter, I kind of just read it like I do most things; I skimmed it. But then I was informed that that “Paul” was actually me Paul, and so I then read it a second time and this time skimmed it more closely, and decided to write you a letter in return, and I think I get what you're after.
To recap for the new readers:
There’s this thing people are doing now, which is collage. The reason they’re doing it is because it’s a way to advertise their disciplinary smarts.
You think it has some faults.
There’s this other thing people are doing now which is all shape and cartoony. The reason they’re doing it is because it’s communal and easy to access. You think it has some faults.
Then there’s this thing you're doing, which is sophisticated formalism and unable to be identified as either from history, or from shapes and is somehow newly geometric.
You think that’s the way forward.
As you anticipated, I’m not so sure I’m exactly what you're talking about. I mean, my work is not really collage-y at all, and it’s hardly cartoon. It’s more kind of just boring, somewhat messy, and aesthetically dumb, and indifferent. But anyhow, I like what you’re trying to get going, and in that spirit, here are some thoughts I have in response. I’ll keep it brief, and then maybe this can be some kind of extended back and forth thing or whatever.
I think the reason that the first two ideas of architecture you identified came to be popular today can be easily seen as a reaction against the previous decade of digital formalism, parametricism, computational architecture, or whatever it’s called now (there’s always a new term for it, and whenever you call it one thing the wizards practicing it always correct you that it’s not the term you use but instead is called something else). This kind of work was initially a reaction adjacent to architecture that needed an overt reference, and assisted by newly cheap (relatively) workstation computers and software surface and particle experimentation was made available to individuals (or at least universities). The work was wild, a bit ferocious, antagonistically formal, animalistic, and unlike what we’re accustomed to with what architecture should or could be. (As disclosure, I was fortunate to be a part of this while in graduate studies at Columbia University, and later went on to add my own super tiny contribution to this effort with a few projects a few people published and stuff. So, I’m a fan of it even though I no longer like it.) Anyhow, after a while, what started as a kind of alternative trajectory was not surprisingly absorbed by every university, and every major architectural corporation, and the work was made acceptable by the breakthrough project contributions of those people we all know the names of: Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, UN Studio, Asymptote, Greg Lynn, etc. The SOMs and NBBJs and Genslers and so on all jumped on board, and because this work involved software to design was of course well liked by the booming tech industry and became a kind of house-style for clients as a way to advertise how forward-thinking™ they were. So, it’s of course, entirely unsurprising that the patrons for this architecture are almost entirely rich dictatorships and global corporations. I think this kind of adoption rightfully turned some people off to what was going on (it did for me), and so people started looking for something else; some other way to conceptualize a future architecture, that maybe didn't rely so heavily on the generosity of rich people, or companies, or dictators. A lot of other things were happening culturally at that moment, with music, and how people dressed, and China, and the art market and stuff and there wasn't any clear path forward. So a few people started tinkering around with collage again, and also cartoons and since most of the architects experimenting with these things were around thirty, that meant that most of the references existed outside their own lived history and therefore felt archaic enough that they could be new again. And there were also some actual new things added to the efforts that made them not flat out lifts, but kind of new versions of yesterday’s things. And this kind of work spread pretty fast within schools, because it was also kind of easy to teach, and easy to immediately get some good results (as evidenced by how similar the studio students’ work looked in competency and quality to the people teaching it) and also it’s worth noting that the digital folks have the same weird issue, where the work coming out of the studies they teach looks no different in competency than the work coming out of their expert practices. This kind of bothers me or at least seems alarming that students could make work that looks as good as their instructors, but it apparently doesn’t bother those Catholics invested in the religion. Anyhow, because both styles relied on previous styles (whether the language of narrative cartoon, or the references of history), they also pretty rapidly appeared as fully formed ideas of architecture, since most of the issues were resolved over thirty years ago. There are a number of people currently being rewarded for their work within this style, but it’s hard to really distinguish any of their actual work from each other; which, is the nature (and kind of the point) of something, which liberally uses existing models to create more models. There aren’t really any authors for cartoon or “normal” or new postmodernism, just its vessels; which is also why its vessels spend so much time marketing their personality over their project, since that’s what distinguishes them.
Anyhow, if you’re worried about those two forms of design, my guess is they’ll pass at some point soon, since they both seem to be levers to get away from the disappointing capitalistic project that parametricism became.
But then there’s the question of what it is you think you’re doing? This was (I’m presuming) the ultimate point of the letter. I’m not a fan of either of the two identified foils you describe, but situating oneself between the two seems to me like a strange holding pattern to fly. The other two pursuits at least tap into some common cultural spirit to find an architectural analogue that is cheap, fast, and asks little other than to participate.
Anyhow, you asked a question about duration at the end though and I want to respond to that as best I can with my guesses. “When can we expect it to end?” I think pretty soon. It’s already feeling a bit stale, and its amazingly rapid ascension to convention should also somewhat be a prediction for an equally fast decline in popularity. “At what point does possibility yield to a choice?” There have always been choices. It’s just very easy to choose what gets applause and avoids the feeling of being alone.
Unlike the revolting direction that algorithmic design took though, I don’t think these two projects will have such disappointing ends, as everyone involved seems more concerned with architecture than cults and are young enough to move the work away from its necessary origin into something unknown. To that end, I wish I was deserving of being in your letter’s salutation, rather than someone who's just older, cranky, and interested in smaller, dumber, fuzzier, and maybe more boring things. I wouldn’t worry too much though about the future of architecture as it always works itself out somehow, and often better when we don’t fuss about it.
18 August 2016