The following are excerpts from course descriptions of advanced design studios Jim Moses and Adam Mitchell have run together since 1998 at the Boston Architectural College. Each is intended as a provocation that serves as the basis for a semester-long (and one hopes more enduring) conversation.

 

Tolerance (2016) Much contemporary architectural practice is a celebration of the spectacular: pyramid as opposed to labyrinth. This has not always been true, of course. Spectacle was once reserved for institutions of control: government (the Ducal Palace) and religion (St. Mark’s Basilica). With the rise of the merchant class, businesses were family owned and operated out of multigenerational homes. A modesty of expression prevailed: in Holland, Vermeer’s paintings of 16th century domestic Dutch life document a culture of simplicity, propriety and order. Yet the same cultural urges celebrated in Vermeer’s work, were allowed to concentrate great wealth among elites: Pieter Rubens’s life’s work of painting the Dutch upper class illustrate the complexity of a culture that honored both the milkmaid and Anna of Austria. In America today, the contradictory urge to be wealthy and middle class is ubiquitous.  The digitization of spatial practice, from visualization to fabrication, has meant, on the one hand, a level of precision that could not have previously be imagined, and on the other hand, the ability to envision and realize forms perhaps not even dreamed of before 1995, except by Archigram. The metier of many architects in global practice has become one of formal manipulation, where the interest is primarily in the self-referential object. These ‘avant-garde’ practices are hermetic, producing architecture for architects and baubles for corporations and institutions. The cult of digital fabrication dominates contemporary discourse. It is almost impossible to be considered a ‘progressive’ practitioner without having access to and profess interest in these tools and their products. The idea of the autonomy of architecture is problematic: unlike with sculpture, meaning is contingent and related to use.  Still, most of us practicing architects work in the realm of what we might call the background building. Indeed, most of the built environment, whether designed by architects or not, consists of this type of building: it forms the armature of our everyday lives. Budget and client pragmatism are powerful motives for economy of means. The question for us is how can a built environment comprised mainly of background buildings have a distinctive character? How can it embody and enhance the essence or atmosphere of a place? So, what do we mean by tolerance? For us tolerance has a number of connotations. In the sense of willingness to tolerate something, the tension between individual expression and the need for shared understanding is salient. Tolerance is not a matter of political correctness, but a model of accommodation in a diverse society. In the sense of an allowable amount of variation, accommodation might be thought of as a loose fit, one that allows for change over time, of use and meaning. In this view, accuracy is more important than precision. Architecture is a slow art, but might that not be a disadvantage? Zeitgeists are fleeting.

Tolerance (2016)

Much contemporary architectural practice is a celebration of the spectacular: pyramid as opposed to labyrinth. This has not always been true, of course. Spectacle was once reserved for institutions of control: government (the Ducal Palace) and religion (St. Mark’s Basilica). With the rise of the merchant class, businesses were family owned and operated out of multigenerational homes. A modesty of expression prevailed: in Holland, Vermeer’s paintings of 16th century domestic Dutch life document a culture of simplicity, propriety and order.

Yet the same cultural urges celebrated in Vermeer’s work, were allowed to concentrate great wealth among elites: Pieter Rubens’s life’s work of painting the Dutch upper class illustrate the complexity of a culture that honored both the milkmaid and Anna of Austria. In America today, the contradictory urge to be wealthy and middle class is ubiquitous. 

The digitization of spatial practice, from visualization to fabrication, has meant, on the one hand, a level of precision that could not have previously be imagined, and on the other hand, the ability to envision and realize forms perhaps not even dreamed of before 1995, except by Archigram. The metier of many architects in global practice has become one of formal manipulation, where the interest is primarily in the self-referential object. These ‘avant-garde’ practices are hermetic, producing architecture for architects and baubles for corporations and institutions. The cult of digital fabrication dominates contemporary discourse. It is almost impossible to be considered a ‘progressive’ practitioner without having access to and profess interest in these tools and their products. The idea of the autonomy of architecture is problematic: unlike with sculpture, meaning is contingent and related to use. 

Still, most of us practicing architects work in the realm of what we might call the background building. Indeed, most of the built environment, whether designed by architects or not, consists of this type of building: it forms the armature of our everyday lives. Budget and client pragmatism are powerful motives for economy of means. The question for us is how can a built environment comprised mainly of background buildings have a distinctive character? How can it embody and enhance the essence or atmosphere of a place?

So, what do we mean by tolerance? For us tolerance has a number of connotations. In the sense of willingness to tolerate something, the tension between individual expression and the need for shared understanding is salient. Tolerance is not a matter of political correctness, but a model of accommodation in a diverse society. In the sense of an allowable amount of variation, accommodation might be thought of as a loose fit, one that allows for change over time, of use and meaning. In this view, accuracy is more important than precision. Architecture is a slow art, but might that not be a disadvantage? Zeitgeists are fleeting.

True North (2015) As we enter what seems to be an epoch of more intense, often extreme, weather patterns, we may see commensurate shifts in the strength and frequency of our winter storms, as in the first months of this year. If you shoveled your roof, you may appreciate the effects of deflection. This climatic shift may spawn corresponding changes in fashion and furnishings, as well.  Is an invigorated Nordic sensibility just over the horizon? While the Danish coffee table has already made its way back into our ‘living space’ as ‘mid-century modern’ is now the rage in home decor, the Icelandic sweater craze may be just around the corner. Are we destined to wear Marimekko? Personal cladding and the appearance of the Northern will not address the grave tectonic changes facing our culture. The USGBC’s version of sustainable design is entrenched, but is only one manifestation of a culture grappling with anthropogenic climate change.  While it clearly serves a purpose in raising awareness, one wonders if it isn’t a blunt instrument that tends toward the superficial. Surely the domestic PV and sauna are not the only environmental implication of an altered climate in which Boston and Reykjavik share climatic character. While increasing northerliness may modify our sartorial and interior design sensibilities, likewise, our architecture may begin to take on a different appearance as transferred forces become evident. Gravity, snow, and wind are earthly realities that will transcend the mere appearance of change. We propose to place structure in relief in this term’s work, allowing the needs of support and span to inform, if not dictate, early decisions, exploring the ways in which structure might become manifest in plan, section and elevation. Equally urgent is the selection of a structural system.  Concrete, steel, and lumber each have distinct requirements and potential. In the context of this studio, our decision-making will revolve around those of lumber or, more specifically, engineered lumber.  We will engage professionals from the local design community to introduce us to the range of possibilities and help us navigate the technical demands of these systems. Our hope is to take first steps in visualizing the epoch we currently feel but do not see. Finally, will the lasting legacy of a more Northern culture, with its heftier members resisting wind and snow, be an acceptance of an equitable culture?  What is the architectural expression of that culture?

True North (2015)

As we enter what seems to be an epoch of more intense, often extreme, weather patterns, we may see commensurate shifts in the strength and frequency of our winter storms, as in the first months of this year. If you shoveled your roof, you may appreciate the effects of deflection. This climatic shift may spawn corresponding changes in fashion and furnishings, as well.  Is an invigorated Nordic sensibility just over the horizon? While the Danish coffee table has already made its way back into our ‘living space’ as ‘mid-century modern’ is now the rage in home decor, the Icelandic sweater craze may be just around the corner. Are we destined to wear Marimekko? Personal cladding and the appearance of the Northern will not address the grave tectonic changes facing our culture.

The USGBC’s version of sustainable design is entrenched, but is only one manifestation of a culture grappling with anthropogenic climate change.  While it clearly serves a purpose in raising awareness, one wonders if it isn’t a blunt instrument that tends toward the superficial. Surely the domestic PV and sauna are not the only environmental implication of an altered climate in which Boston and Reykjavik share climatic character.

While increasing northerliness may modify our sartorial and interior design sensibilities, likewise, our architecture may begin to take on a different appearance as transferred forces become evident. Gravity, snow, and wind are earthly realities that will transcend the mere appearance of change.

We propose to place structure in relief in this term’s work, allowing the needs of support and span to inform, if not dictate, early decisions, exploring the ways in which structure might become manifest in plan, section and elevation. Equally urgent is the selection of a structural system.  Concrete, steel, and lumber each have distinct requirements and potential. In the context of this studio, our decision-making will revolve around those of lumber or, more specifically, engineered lumber.  We will engage professionals from the local design community to introduce us to the range of possibilities and help us navigate the technical demands of these systems. Our hope is to take first steps in visualizing the epoch we currently feel but do not see.

Finally, will the lasting legacy of a more Northern culture, with its heftier members resisting wind and snow, be an acceptance of an equitable culture?  What is the architectural expression of that culture?

Settling (2014) As Kenneth Frampton has observed, architects have since the 1960s released responsibility for large scale urban design to specialists, preferring to focus efforts on the small scale: the building, the object.  This is perhaps an expected reaction to backlash against so-called ‘slum clearing’ projects of that era and the resultant, often inhumane conditions that replaced them. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe did not end Modernism nor our urge to better the world. The skills and sensibilities of the architect are manifestly absent from discourse regarding urban form.  The laissez-faire approach to land use is obviously problematic.  You don’t need to look far afield to understand why that is: ride your single-speed out to Framingham one Saturday morning.  At the same time, the enervating effects of restrictive zoning are, at the opposite end of the spectrum, equally fraught. Meanwhile, we work in, and perhaps contribute to, an architectural culture that celebrates the finely wrought digitally designed and fabricated object, whilst simultaneously gnashing teeth about sea-level rise. Recreating the Venetian piano nobile may be one solution, but it seems a broader view of settlement patterns might be warranted. Is there potential for a way of operating that respects our firmly held individual rights while recognizing the importance of a common vision?  So-called New Urbanism is a distinctly unsatisfying version that tends to emit a nostalgic image of a non-existent past.  Is there a more sophisticated approach that accounts for the realities of our world?  It is rare for our discipline to be involved in planning areas of the earth’s crust larger than the singular building site.  When we are, today, they tend to be rhetorical proposals, aimed at prompting discussion.  Even Le Corbusier’s plans, with some remarkable exceptions (Chandigarh, for example), which even today are subject of intense argument, were more about provocation than solution.  But how would we respond if given the opportunity? Can we develop a planning model that is open, evocative and dynamic that can accrue meaning over time as the resultant work catalyzes with the ambitions of occupation? Underlying all of these questions is an interest in uncovering alternative ways of living in the city.  As our cities become ever more diverse, how are the variety of cultures - ways of being in the world - accommodated such that a shared understanding might be more likely?  Architecture is, of course, a notoriously optimistic pursuit, despite the recent suggestion to provide separate entrances into mixed income housing for less fortunate neighbors.

Settling (2014)

As Kenneth Frampton has observed, architects have since the 1960s released responsibility for large scale urban design to specialists, preferring to focus efforts on the small scale: the building, the object.  This is perhaps an expected reaction to backlash against so-called ‘slum clearing’ projects of that era and the resultant, often inhumane conditions that replaced them. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe did not end Modernism nor our urge to better the world.

The skills and sensibilities of the architect are manifestly absent from discourse regarding urban form.  The laissez-faire approach to land use is obviously problematic.  You don’t need to look far afield to understand why that is: ride your single-speed out to Framingham one Saturday morning.  At the same time, the enervating effects of restrictive zoning are, at the opposite end of the spectrum, equally fraught.

Meanwhile, we work in, and perhaps contribute to, an architectural culture that celebrates the finely wrought digitally designed and fabricated object, whilst simultaneously gnashing teeth about sea-level rise. Recreating the Venetian piano nobile may be one solution, but it seems a broader view of settlement patterns might be warranted.

Is there potential for a way of operating that respects our firmly held individual rights while recognizing the importance of a common vision?  So-called New Urbanism is a distinctly unsatisfying version that tends to emit a nostalgic image of a non-existent past.  Is there a more sophisticated approach that accounts for the realities of our world?  It is rare for our discipline to be involved in planning areas of the earth’s crust larger than the singular building site.  When we are, today, they tend to be rhetorical proposals, aimed at prompting discussion.  Even Le Corbusier’s plans, with some remarkable exceptions (Chandigarh, for example), which even today are subject of intense argument, were more about provocation than solution.  But how would we respond if given the opportunity? Can we develop a planning model that is open, evocative and dynamic that can accrue meaning over time as the resultant work catalyzes with the ambitions of occupation?

Underlying all of these questions is an interest in uncovering alternative ways of living in the city.  As our cities become ever more diverse, how are the variety of cultures - ways of being in the world - accommodated such that a shared understanding might be more likely?  Architecture is, of course, a notoriously optimistic pursuit, despite the recent suggestion to provide separate entrances into mixed income housing for less fortunate neighbors.

Uncertainty Principles (2013) We are leaving the ground.  Our skyward expansion is transforming the city from what was a densely settled four-story metropolis centered on the financial district and Beacon Hill into global hub with de-centralized zones of high rise towers.  Might our skyline become as iconic as New York’s or Chicago’s?  The urban realm is under the influence of suburban spectacle, privileging the overt over the nuanced (‘pyramid’ over ‘labyrinth’).  As our urban form is tailored by consumption and the market and curated by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the pre-modern city leaves just traces. We citizens live in the shadow of new towers.  While we may lament the loss of the low rise city, ironically the new vertical landscape invites us to explore the ground. It is trite yet true to say that we live in a rapidly changing world, that the only constant is change. Climate, political economies, social relations, technology, mass migration/urbanization are just a few areas with global impacts.  And each affects the disciplines of spatial practice, our bailiwick, as well.  Urbanization is driven by both desire and necessity, as the potential for meaningful, or at least sustainable, work shifts from rural agriculture to the service industries of urban centers and production of the urban peripheries.  The notion of ‘critical mass’ is very much at work here.  And any useful discussion of urbanization must include housing.  Everyday existence is difficult, to be sure.  Arguably, the most important work of the architect is in trying to imbue life with a sense of generosity and grace.  This is perhaps most succinctly expressed by the Vitruvian triad.   The complexity of the world is daunting.  Contemporary architects attempt to mirror this condition with tectonic razzle-dazzle.  In the middle of the last century only twenty-eight sheets of architectural working drawings were required to describe a new aquarium on Central Wharf.  Today, a similar building demands at least five hundred.  REVIT has allowed architects the conceit that precision is but a click away.  Yet, and still, a building is not a chair. Modern Boston exists and thrives because of the Charles River dam which enabled the reclamation of the Back Bay.  As we face what now appears to be inevitable environmental change, will similar interventions be required to mitigate the impacts of an increasingly harsh climate?  As a low lying metropolis, are there physical and morphological changes that will need to be made so that we remain a viable city? The sun will rise and set and the tides will ebb and flow.  Little else associated with our occupation of the crust of the earth is predictable.  It is well to remember that architecture is contingent on our relationship with the natural world.

Uncertainty Principles (2013)

We are leaving the ground.  Our skyward expansion is transforming the city from what was a densely settled four-story metropolis centered on the financial district and Beacon Hill into global hub with de-centralized zones of high rise towers.  Might our skyline become as iconic as New York’s or Chicago’s?  The urban realm is under the influence of suburban spectacle, privileging the overt over the nuanced (‘pyramid’ over ‘labyrinth’).  As our urban form is tailored by consumption and the market and curated by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the pre-modern city leaves just traces. We citizens live in the shadow of new towers.  While we may lament the loss of the low rise city, ironically the new vertical landscape invites us to explore the ground.

It is trite yet true to say that we live in a rapidly changing world, that the only constant is change. Climate, political economies, social relations, technology, mass migration/urbanization are just a few areas with global impacts.  And each affects the disciplines of spatial practice, our bailiwick, as well.  Urbanization is driven by both desire and necessity, as the potential for meaningful, or at least sustainable, work shifts from rural agriculture to the service industries of urban centers and production of the urban peripheries.  The notion of ‘critical mass’ is very much at work here.  And any useful discussion of urbanization must include housing.  Everyday existence is difficult, to be sure.  Arguably, the most important work of the architect is in trying to imbue life with a sense of generosity and grace.  This is perhaps most succinctly expressed by the Vitruvian triad.  

The complexity of the world is daunting.  Contemporary architects attempt to mirror this condition with tectonic razzle-dazzle.  In the middle of the last century only twenty-eight sheets of architectural working drawings were required to describe a new aquarium on Central Wharf.  Today, a similar building demands at least five hundred.  REVIT has allowed architects the conceit that precision is but a click away.  Yet, and still, a building is not a chair.

Modern Boston exists and thrives because of the Charles River dam which enabled the reclamation of the Back Bay.  As we face what now appears to be inevitable environmental change, will similar interventions be required to mitigate the impacts of an increasingly harsh climate?  As a low lying metropolis, are there physical and morphological changes that will need to be made so that we remain a viable city? The sun will rise and set and the tides will ebb and flow.  Little else associated with our occupation of the crust of the earth is predictable.  It is well to remember that architecture is contingent on our relationship with the natural world.

Commonplace Civilization  (2012)   Our common life is at risk.    Do you buy a newspaper?  If so, from whom? The corner shop, long a center of neighborhood gossip and commerce, may disappear in the age of Facebook and Amazon.  If the corner shop goes, what is left to bring people together?  Is there a 21st century version of the corner shop where human connection can occur?  Are these types of transactions even relevant anymore?    As human connection moves increasingly toward an exchange of electrons and away from direct contact between neighbors, we may lose the essence of our polity: the neighborhood.  How will we know our neighbors?  What will define our communities?  We would argue that all community starts at the local level:  If it doesn’t exist where you live, you cannot have it nationally.  This may, in fact, be the defining problem of 21st century United States as we seek common ground, or at least civil discourse: if we cannot find common cause with our fellow Bostonians, how can we find shared values with Alabamans?    North American culture has been moving inexorably toward fragmentation and privatization since at least the 1950s. Not accidentally, The Cowboy and Ayn Rand were great icons of that period, symbolizing and espousing individualism against the power of centralized authority. The myth of unbridled freedom thwarted by neither government nor community won the West and vanquished the many isms of Europe. Deadwood.   Yet unlimited personal freedom cannot sustain a functioning democracy. Institutions, either public or private, control the excesses of freedom and its expression in the economy.  They are the structures or mechanisms that serve not only the collective interests of society, but also the unmet needs of the individual.  They are aimed at encouraging behavior that engenders our ability to live together in a more or less harmonious way.  In this country, where the individual is ostensibly the superior entity, at least in the eyes of the law, such systems are viewed with circumspection, if not suspicion.  Yet they are even here, perhaps especially here, vitally important to our democracy and our 'commonplace civilization'. The parish church may be the single most important institution that shaped local American culture.  In an era of declining participation in organized religion, what stands in place of the church today?    ‘Neighborhood’ connotes not only shared geography, but also the potential for collective interests among a diverse populace.  After the family, the next unit of society, depending upon dominant settlement patterns, might be considered the neighborhood. The American tradition of social and geographic mobility has created a rootless culture: We all come from somewhere else and we are here today and gone tomorrow.  Architects may have a unique role in creating places that enable and foster neighborliness for our dynamic culture.  

Commonplace Civilization  (2012)
 
Our common life is at risk.   

Do you buy a newspaper?  If so, from whom? The corner shop, long a center of neighborhood gossip and commerce, may disappear in the age of Facebook and Amazon.  If the corner shop goes, what is left to bring people together?  Is there a 21st century version of the corner shop where human connection can occur?  Are these types of transactions even relevant anymore? 
 
As human connection moves increasingly toward an exchange of electrons and away from direct contact between neighbors, we may lose the essence of our polity: the neighborhood.  How will we know our neighbors?  What will define our communities?  We would argue that all community starts at the local level:  If it doesn’t exist where you live, you cannot have it nationally.  This may, in fact, be the defining problem of 21st century United States as we seek common ground, or at least civil discourse: if we cannot find common cause with our fellow Bostonians, how can we find shared values with Alabamans? 
 
North American culture has been moving inexorably toward fragmentation and privatization since at least the 1950s. Not accidentally, The Cowboy and Ayn Rand were great icons of that period, symbolizing and espousing individualism against the power of centralized authority. The myth of unbridled freedom thwarted by neither government nor community won the West and vanquished the many isms of Europe. Deadwood.
 
Yet unlimited personal freedom cannot sustain a functioning democracy. Institutions, either public or private, control the excesses of freedom and its expression in the economy.  They are the structures or mechanisms that serve not only the collective interests of society, but also the unmet needs of the individual.  They are aimed at encouraging behavior that engenders our ability to live together in a more or less harmonious way.  In this country, where the individual is ostensibly the superior entity, at least in the eyes of the law, such systems are viewed with circumspection, if not suspicion.  Yet they are even here, perhaps especially here, vitally important to our democracy and our 'commonplace civilization'. The parish church may be the single most important institution that shaped local American culture.  In an era of declining participation in organized religion, what stands in place of the church today? 
 
‘Neighborhood’ connotes not only shared geography, but also the potential for collective interests among a diverse populace.  After the family, the next unit of society, depending upon dominant settlement patterns, might be considered the neighborhood. The American tradition of social and geographic mobility has created a rootless culture: We all come from somewhere else and we are here today and gone tomorrow.  Architects may have a unique role in creating places that enable and foster neighborliness for our dynamic culture.  

Soundings (2011) The era of the daily shower is concluding.  Our dependence on plentiful, cheap drinking water continuously pumped from a seemingly bottomless aquifer has yielded to the reality of the onsite retention pond and the waterless urinal.  Do you know where your glass of ice water comes from and where it goes when you have finished it?  The water you use for a load of laundry will likely be your grandchildren’s lemonade.  As water supplants oil as our most precious resource, the Colorado River watershed could replace the Arabian Peninsula as the planet’s richest, most politically unstable region.  One percent of Earth’s water is potable. Water is perhaps so fundamental to our existence, and our humanity, that we tend not to think about it.  A roof keeps it out, an underground aqueduct brings it in, a dam holds it back, a bridge crosses it. Only when a disruption in the system occurs does its criticality come into relief.  Of late, such disruptions seem to be occurring more frequently: we have witnessed with increased frequency flooding, violent tornadoes, drought, tsunamis, and hurricanes.  Rising sea levels and desertification is shrinking the landmass available for human habitation.  All these events and processes have a very specific relationship with water.  As architects, a not insignificant proportion of our professional responsibility has been devoted to maintaining dry building interiors.  These concerns are now evolving, as the primary issue is no longer limited to the shedding of water but also the comprehensive planning of where it goes after it has been shed from our buildings. The grey water system may be the 21st century’s greatest contribution to building technology in the same way that the curtainwall was in the last:  the curtainwall has been replaced by the rainscreen.  This term we will take the opportunity offered by water’s more overt presence in our lives to investigate the relationship of water and architecture.  Beyond, but not blind to, the technical and stewardship obligations implied by the connection, what expressive, even poetic, qualities might be discovered here?  Is the rain-chain the best we have to offer?

Soundings (2011)

The era of the daily shower is concluding.  Our dependence on plentiful, cheap drinking water continuously pumped from a seemingly bottomless aquifer has yielded to the reality of the onsite retention pond and the waterless urinal.  Do you know where your glass of ice water comes from and where it goes when you have finished it?  The water you use for a load of laundry will likely be your grandchildren’s lemonade.  As water supplants oil as our most precious resource, the Colorado River watershed could replace the Arabian Peninsula as the planet’s richest, most politically unstable region.  One percent of Earth’s water is potable.

Water is perhaps so fundamental to our existence, and our humanity, that we tend not to think about it.  A roof keeps it out, an underground aqueduct brings it in, a dam holds it back, a bridge crosses it. Only when a disruption in the system occurs does its criticality come into relief.  Of late, such disruptions seem to be occurring more frequently: we have witnessed with increased frequency flooding, violent tornadoes, drought, tsunamis, and hurricanes.  Rising sea levels and desertification is shrinking the landmass available for human habitation.  All these events and processes have a very specific relationship with water. 

As architects, a not insignificant proportion of our professional responsibility has been devoted to maintaining dry building interiors.  These concerns are now evolving, as the primary issue is no longer limited to the shedding of water but also the comprehensive planning of where it goes after it has been shed from our buildings. The grey water system may be the 21st century’s greatest contribution to building technology in the same way that the curtainwall was in the last:  the curtainwall has been replaced by the rainscreen. 

This term we will take the opportunity offered by water’s more overt presence in our lives to investigate the relationship of water and architecture.  Beyond, but not blind to, the technical and stewardship obligations implied by the connection, what expressive, even poetic, qualities might be discovered here?  Is the rain-chain the best we have to offer?

Girth (2010) Suburbia is on life support.  In our lifetime, the unfettered, diffusion of American cities outwards may reach its limit as sources of cheap oil and bountiful land are exhausted and our commuter-consumer culture is priced out of the market.  We are on the verge of an urban renaissance. In 2008, for the first time more than half of the world's population lived in cities.  The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects that by 2030, 5 billion people, or 60% to 65% of the world, will be urbanized.  Necessarily, the impact on cities will be both increased density and growth of urbanized landmass: this of course in the context of scarce and diminishing resources. While some regions of the world are declining in population, North America is among the places that will continue to receive new citizenry.  The renaissance may be an inward migration back into city centers where the convenience of the walkable block becomes once again desirable.  Most American cities could easily accommodate more people. Already we see a significant implication of this urbanization as roadways of various scales increasingly dominate the urban experience, enabling movement of vast numbers of people and material goods into cities.  Indeed, as cities grow in places like the Arabian Peninsula and Asia, the first planning consideration is not buildings, but roads, and other elements at the scale of infrastructure.  Here in North America the planning has been in the opposite direction where the destruction of freeways has become essential as planners re-imagine the city without the car.  In Detroit, city officials are pursuing a plan to reduce the physical dimensions of a shrinking city in order to concentrate the remaining viable neighborhoods into a form that can be sustained. How is mere architecture to be measured in this scene? Already in the late 1980’s, only about twenty percent of construction was subject to input from our profession (Frampton).  With two wars and an economy in pain, we are learning the limits of American hegemony.  What are the implications of these limits for our discipline?  For architects the opportunity may lie in our understanding of urban occupation and our interest in finding ways to make the contemporary city more equitable: home not only to the very rich and the very poor, but also the rest of us. It is in this context that we want to offer for consideration the typology of the Big Building, under whose aegis fall a number of ‘subtypes’.  The urban block of the early 20th century city achieved a continuous texture by suppressing expression of private interest in favor of the shared, and was the culmination of 19th century urban reform efforts. The variation of this form described an ensemble, combining individual buildings within the boundary of a perimeter block, to achieve a smaller-grain scale and flexibility. Facades appear simultaneously individual, yet parts of a larger whole.  The end result was more housing for burgeoning urban populations and the clearance of decrepit urban slums.  Indoor plumbing is inarguably a public good.  Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse is credited with (or blamed for) providing the intellectual underpinning for the large-scale slabs, high-rises, and free-standing buildings of the post-war period, which sought to generate an architecture of the Metropolis. Today, megaform, has the potential to inflect the urban condition through a powerful large-scale presence. This type retains the ambitions of 20th century buildings to offer a model for urban living, with an essential difference being that they have entered into a clearer dialogue with context, taking on a strongly topographic quality.  Site, program, and the designer’s speculation on daily use are forces that shape the design.  Globally, examples range from Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers to Arthur Ericson’s Robson Square in Vancouver.  Locally, one only has to look at Boston’s new Convention Center, Boston City Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, MIT’s ‘infinite corridor’, Widener Library, Massachusetts General Hospital, and many other examples of large urban projects that have set the stage for local development.  Any of these typologies has the potential to be relevant in the contemporary city on the condition that they engage with the needs, expectations, and values of users and that they contribute to the public realm.

Girth (2010)

Suburbia is on life support.  In our lifetime, the unfettered, diffusion of American cities outwards may reach its limit as sources of cheap oil and bountiful land are exhausted and our commuter-consumer culture is priced out of the market.  We are on the verge of an urban renaissance. In 2008, for the first time more than half of the world's population lived in cities.  The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) projects that by 2030, 5 billion people, or 60% to 65% of the world, will be urbanized.  Necessarily, the impact on cities will be both increased density and growth of urbanized landmass: this of course in the context of scarce and diminishing resources. While some regions of the world are declining in population, North America is among the places that will continue to receive new citizenry.  The renaissance may be an inward migration back into city centers where the convenience of the walkable block becomes once again desirable.  Most American cities could easily accommodate more people.

Already we see a significant implication of this urbanization as roadways of various scales increasingly dominate the urban experience, enabling movement of vast numbers of people and material goods into cities.  Indeed, as cities grow in places like the Arabian Peninsula and Asia, the first planning consideration is not buildings, but roads, and other elements at the scale of infrastructure.  Here in North America the planning has been in the opposite direction where the destruction of freeways has become essential as planners re-imagine the city without the car.  In Detroit, city officials are pursuing a plan to reduce the physical dimensions of a shrinking city in order to concentrate the remaining viable neighborhoods into a form that can be sustained.

How is mere architecture to be measured in this scene? Already in the late 1980’s, only about twenty percent of construction was subject to input from our profession (Frampton).  With two wars and an economy in pain, we are learning the limits of American hegemony.  What are the implications of these limits for our discipline?  For architects the opportunity may lie in our understanding of urban occupation and our interest in finding ways to make the contemporary city more equitable: home not only to the very rich and the very poor, but also the rest of us.

It is in this context that we want to offer for consideration the typology of the Big Building, under whose aegis fall a number of ‘subtypes’.  The urban block of the early 20th century city achieved a continuous texture by suppressing expression of private interest in favor of the shared, and was the culmination of 19th century urban reform efforts. The variation of this form described an ensemble, combining individual buildings within the boundary of a perimeter block, to achieve a smaller-grain scale and flexibility. Facades appear simultaneously individual, yet parts of a larger whole.  The end result was more housing for burgeoning urban populations and the clearance of decrepit urban slums.  Indoor plumbing is inarguably a public good.  Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse is credited with (or blamed for) providing the intellectual underpinning for the large-scale slabs, high-rises, and free-standing buildings of the post-war period, which sought to generate an architecture of the Metropolis. Today, megaform, has the potential to inflect the urban condition through a powerful large-scale presence. This type retains the ambitions of 20th century buildings to offer a model for urban living, with an essential difference being that they have entered into a clearer dialogue with context, taking on a strongly topographic quality.  Site, program, and the designer’s speculation on daily use are forces that shape the design.  Globally, examples range from Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers to Arthur Ericson’s Robson Square in Vancouver.  Locally, one only has to look at Boston’s new Convention Center, Boston City Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, MIT’s ‘infinite corridor’, Widener Library, Massachusetts General Hospital, and many other examples of large urban projects that have set the stage for local development.  Any of these typologies has the potential to be relevant in the contemporary city on the condition that they engage with the needs, expectations, and values of users and that they contribute to the public realm.

Primitive (2009) The house is no longer a machine for living in.  What was once a powerful inspiration for architects that urged a new social dimension to architectural production has become a fetish.  We do not live in the machine: we gaze on it, admiring its perfection and autonomy.  In this view, architecture and life are divorced.   Hugo theorized Literature’s usurpation of Architecture’s dominant communicative role; our devotion to the cathedral became a love of the printed word.  Today Victor would be blogging on le-flaneur.com, advocating the Personal Digital Soundtrack. As a culture, our interest in the ‘primitive’ ebbs and flows. The history of the industrialized world can be read as a series of technological advances in most realms of life.  Although curiosity about the world and the drive for survival in it had led to inventions that ostensibly made life qualitatively better and easier to live, the so-called Industrial Revolution began a trajectory of accelerated discovery. Imagine life without penicillin, air conditioning, motor vehicles, and the Internet.  A span of three or four generations has witnessed these transformations.  Inextricably tied to these changes is the ability to sell them as commodities and with it the idea that we cannot do without them.   But many of these advances have come at a cost.  Global warming, pollution, resource depletion, and over-population are but a few of the side effects of technological innovation.  Perhaps one of the most profound effects of our relationship to technology has been to alienate us from the natural world, to the point where a critical imbalance has occurred.  We place great faith in science and technology, and the belief that they will deliver humanity from the predicted collapse (note the number of LEED credits that suggest technological solutions and the interest in 'high performance' building).  Yet proof of technology's redemptive capacity is decidedly mixed. (What will happen to all of the discarded Prius batteries?)  Still, to deny the critical role technology plays in the search for positive resolution would be stunningly naïve. Before modern architecture was triumphant, early theorists mined our collective human history in search of rationales for an alternative tectonics.  Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier, and Semper, did seminal work in this area.  As modernism became the dominant mode, Ruskin, Le Corbusier, the Smithsons, and Sergison Bates, among others, all investigated some aspect of what we might refer to as ‘primitive’ as a source of truth or inspiration for a critical practice.   We recall with some sentimentality the ‘noble savage’ and pine for a state of nature away from the din. Granted, some degree of separation from nature is desirable and necessary to the survival of the species.  In this pursuit, architecture is the artful expression of a biological imperative: shelter. The intent of this studio is not to romanticize an anthropological-historical past, but to search for an alternative impetus for today: our knowledge of the primitive is speculative and generic.  Our hope is to discover a critical position with which to interrogate any number of operative orthodoxies of contemporary architectural practice.  The modus operandi of the studio will emphasize material, craft, and a robust response to need (both present and future).

Primitive (2009)

The house is no longer a machine for living in.  What was once a powerful inspiration for architects that urged a new social dimension to architectural production has become a fetish.  We do not live in the machine: we gaze on it, admiring its perfection and autonomy.  In this view, architecture and life are divorced.   Hugo theorized Literature’s usurpation of Architecture’s dominant communicative role; our devotion to the cathedral became a love of the printed word.  Today Victor would be blogging on le-flaneur.com, advocating the Personal Digital Soundtrack.

As a culture, our interest in the ‘primitive’ ebbs and flows. The history of the industrialized world can be read as a series of technological advances in most realms of life.  Although curiosity about the world and the drive for survival in it had led to inventions that ostensibly made life qualitatively better and easier to live, the so-called Industrial Revolution began a trajectory of accelerated discovery. Imagine life without penicillin, air conditioning, motor vehicles, and the Internet.  A span of three or four generations has witnessed these transformations.  Inextricably tied to these changes is the ability to sell them as commodities and with it the idea that we cannot do without them.  

But many of these advances have come at a cost.  Global warming, pollution, resource depletion, and over-population are but a few of the side effects of technological innovation.  Perhaps one of the most profound effects of our relationship to technology has been to alienate us from the natural world, to the point where a critical imbalance has occurred. 

We place great faith in science and technology, and the belief that they will deliver humanity from the predicted collapse (note the number of LEED credits that suggest technological solutions and the interest in 'high performance' building).  Yet proof of technology's redemptive capacity is decidedly mixed. (What will happen to all of the discarded Prius batteries?)  Still, to deny the critical role technology plays in the search for positive resolution would be stunningly naïve.

Before modern architecture was triumphant, early theorists mined our collective human history in search of rationales for an alternative tectonics.  Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier, and Semper, did seminal work in this area.  As modernism became the dominant mode, Ruskin, Le Corbusier, the Smithsons, and Sergison Bates, among others, all investigated some aspect of what we might refer to as ‘primitive’ as a source of truth or inspiration for a critical practice.  

We recall with some sentimentality the ‘noble savage’ and pine for a state of nature away from the din. Granted, some degree of separation from nature is desirable and necessary to the survival of the species.  In this pursuit, architecture is the artful expression of a biological imperative: shelter.

The intent of this studio is not to romanticize an anthropological-historical past, but to search for an alternative impetus for today: our knowledge of the primitive is speculative and generic.  Our hope is to discover a critical position with which to interrogate any number of operative orthodoxies of contemporary architectural practice.  The modus operandi of the studio will emphasize material, craft, and a robust response to need (both present and future).

Invigorating Local: Surveying the Seven Hills (2007) We citizens of the Commonwealth are notoriously provincial, at one time referring to our capital city as the ‘Hub of the Universe’ to convey a sense of import.   Recently we seem to have become more comfortable in our collective skin, acknowledging, implicitly perhaps, that ours is not the New World’s ‘first city’.  But our antique fabric and hallowed institutions still manage to beguile (and frustrate) visitors from throughout the world. Our neighborhoods are central to this charm.  While the urban fabric changes over time, so too people come and go, a testament to expansive mobility and the opportunistic urge.  Our communities have evolved, shifting from a populace of primarily Western European origin to a more diverse, global immigrant culture.  Still, much of the physical geography of this place has, for some time, remained relatively constant, providing a backdrop to the evolution our local culture.  One might argue, for example, that the realities of our seasons – abiding winters, abridged springs, clammy summers, sublime autumns – contribute to a unifying experience that makes us all Yankees. As architects, we look for qualities that give buildings distinction.  The corollary is, we hope, more engaging cities.  In an increasingly universal world, our project becomes problematic.  The desire and ability of the laissez-faire program to adopt imagery that is ostensibly radical, and certainly spectacular, in the service of ‘growth’ is profound.  In this scene, architecture exists photographically, in journals and the tourist’s travelblog.  The subtle sensuality of surfaces and the spaces they contain, and their life in time, resist photographic conveyance.  Those more elusive qualities present themselves at close range, unmediated. A sense of ‘the local’ is often identified as endemic to an authentic architectural expression.  In an age when ethno-religious differences are used to mark and accentuate ideological and spatial boundaries, one must be wary of the potential meanings in the uses of localness.  Distinctiveness, yes, but at what cost?  Is this a desirable pursuit for a democratic society?  The last two centuries offer numerous examples of parochial interests turned murderous. One could argue that these concerns are beyond the scope of our discipline.  But architectural production is fundamentally a collaborative pursuit, and so inherently political.  Architecture, like drama and music, requires the efforts of more than the solitary performer to ensure its fruition.  And once it comes to be in the world, a building, in its full-fledged material glory, resides in an unambiguously shared realm.  Its meanings derive from a conspiracy with real forces.  It is assuredly contingent.

Invigorating Local: Surveying the Seven Hills (2007)

We citizens of the Commonwealth are notoriously provincial, at one time referring to our capital city as the ‘Hub of the Universe’ to convey a sense of import.   Recently we seem to have become more comfortable in our collective skin, acknowledging, implicitly perhaps, that ours is not the New World’s ‘first city’.  But our antique fabric and hallowed institutions still manage to beguile (and frustrate) visitors from throughout the world.

Our neighborhoods are central to this charm.  While the urban fabric changes over time, so too people come and go, a testament to expansive mobility and the opportunistic urge.  Our communities have evolved, shifting from a populace of primarily Western European origin to a more diverse, global immigrant culture.  Still, much of the physical geography of this place has, for some time, remained relatively constant, providing a backdrop to the evolution our local culture.  One might argue, for example, that the realities of our seasons – abiding winters, abridged springs, clammy summers, sublime autumns – contribute to a unifying experience that makes us all Yankees.

As architects, we look for qualities that give buildings distinction.  The corollary is, we hope, more engaging cities.  In an increasingly universal world, our project becomes problematic.  The desire and ability of the laissez-faire program to adopt imagery that is ostensibly radical, and certainly spectacular, in the service of ‘growth’ is profound.  In this scene, architecture exists photographically, in journals and the tourist’s travelblog.  The subtle sensuality of surfaces and the spaces they contain, and their life in time, resist photographic conveyance.  Those more elusive qualities present themselves at close range, unmediated.

A sense of ‘the local’ is often identified as endemic to an authentic architectural expression.  In an age when ethno-religious differences are used to mark and accentuate ideological and spatial boundaries, one must be wary of the potential meanings in the uses of localness.  Distinctiveness, yes, but at what cost?  Is this a desirable pursuit for a democratic society?  The last two centuries offer numerous examples of parochial interests turned murderous.

One could argue that these concerns are beyond the scope of our discipline.  But architectural production is fundamentally a collaborative pursuit, and so inherently political.  Architecture, like drama and music, requires the efforts of more than the solitary performer to ensure its fruition.  And once it comes to be in the world, a building, in its full-fledged material glory, resides in an unambiguously shared realm.  Its meanings derive from a conspiracy with real forces.  It is assuredly contingent.

Back to the Green: Celebration's End (2006) The idea that a laissez-faire market is the last, best vehicle for shaping our landscape may have disappeared as the swollen waters of Lake Pontchartrain receded into the Gulf of Mexico.  Have we Americans come to realize that the free market is not capable of solving every ill that faces our society?  Given the limits of private development, in the face of natural and economic disaster, to create authentic, sustainable community, we wonder if there are alternative models for imagining our future?  Likewise, are there models that do not embody the ‘control of nature’ practiced by the Army Corps of Engineers, which are, at best, temporary in their capacity?  Is there a mode available to us not unlike the way in which the dance halls of Central Texas were created:  a community getting together, deciding to build a dance hall, and building it? It is possible to imagine a time in the not too distant future when our patterns of settlement and life might be altered by necessity in significant ways.  The effects of war, mass migration, and global warming may conspire to change fundamentally the ways we live.  One reaction is to view these potentials as imminent disasters and hunker down in gated communities.  An alternative is to seize both the latent and manifest opportunities such challenges present and channel our resources to develop new ways of living together.  This might lead us to live more of life in view of others.  Where many of us now move from home to car to work in a series of more or less private moments, we may enter an era in which we more explicitly acknowledge our dependence upon neighbors.  How might the design of the public realm respond to such a possibility?  Can we imagine one that is not first and foremost an opportunity for engaging in commerce?  Where the goal of social engagement is not consumption? Since the late Jane Jacobs's withering critique of modern urban planning and development practices, observers of the urban scene have expressed anxiety about the depletion of public space in the city.  As economic abundance has grown, an inverse movement has occurred relative to the creation and maintenance of public space.  As public space has waned and the privatization of historically public places has accelerated, the private sphere has swelled.  The essence of Jane Jacobs’s critique was to point out the failure of public housing policy, which tended to 'warehouse' people of low income in towers.  This model removed people from terra firma, and denied parents the ability to supervise easily their children at play outside.  In Jacob’s view, the old New York walk-up apartments in Greenwich Village allowed mothers to sit in their living rooms, engaged in private activities, and watch their children as they played out in the street, the public realm.  What might reasserting the priority of public space mean for our understanding and experience of the private? It is important to acknowledge that the discipline and profession of architecture have precious little to say about this condition, and that most remedies exist within the purview of public policy and its practitioners.  The backlash against the supposed alienations of modernist orthodoxy may have delivered a coup de grace to any social agenda held by the profession.  The retreat to a hermetic, aestheticized architecture, on the one hand, or a torpid populism, on the other, has dramatically circumscribed the arena in which spatial practice participates.  Is it time for a more explicitly activist architecture?

Back to the Green: Celebration's End (2006)

The idea that a laissez-faire market is the last, best vehicle for shaping our landscape may have disappeared as the swollen waters of Lake Pontchartrain receded into the Gulf of Mexico.  Have we Americans come to realize that the free market is not capable of solving every ill that faces our society?  Given the limits of private development, in the face of natural and economic disaster, to create authentic, sustainable community, we wonder if there are alternative models for imagining our future?  Likewise, are there models that do not embody the ‘control of nature’ practiced by the Army Corps of Engineers, which are, at best, temporary in their capacity?  Is there a mode available to us not unlike the way in which the dance halls of Central Texas were created:  a community getting together, deciding to build a dance hall, and building it?

It is possible to imagine a time in the not too distant future when our patterns of settlement and life might be altered by necessity in significant ways.  The effects of war, mass migration, and global warming may conspire to change fundamentally the ways we live.  One reaction is to view these potentials as imminent disasters and hunker down in gated communities.  An alternative is to seize both the latent and manifest opportunities such challenges present and channel our resources to develop new ways of living together.  This might lead us to live more of life in view of others.  Where many of us now move from home to car to work in a series of more or less private moments, we may enter an era in which we more explicitly acknowledge our dependence upon neighbors.  How might the design of the public realm respond to such a possibility?  Can we imagine one that is not first and foremost an opportunity for engaging in commerce?  Where the goal of social engagement is not consumption?

Since the late Jane Jacobs's withering critique of modern urban planning and development practices, observers of the urban scene have expressed anxiety about the depletion of public space in the city.  As economic abundance has grown, an inverse movement has occurred relative to the creation and maintenance of public space.  As public space has waned and the privatization of historically public places has accelerated, the private sphere has swelled.  The essence of Jane Jacobs’s critique was to point out the failure of public housing policy, which tended to 'warehouse' people of low income in towers.  This model removed people from terra firma, and denied parents the ability to supervise easily their children at play outside.  In Jacob’s view, the old New York walk-up apartments in Greenwich Village allowed mothers to sit in their living rooms, engaged in private activities, and watch their children as they played out in the street, the public realm.  What might reasserting the priority of public space mean for our understanding and experience of the private?

It is important to acknowledge that the discipline and profession of architecture have precious little to say about this condition, and that most remedies exist within the purview of public policy and its practitioners.  The backlash against the supposed alienations of modernist orthodoxy may have delivered a coup de grace to any social agenda held by the profession.  The retreat to a hermetic, aestheticized architecture, on the one hand, or a torpid populism, on the other, has dramatically circumscribed the arena in which spatial practice participates.  Is it time for a more explicitly activist architecture?