Our cultural moment might be described as one of intense self-reflection. Concerns of what it means to belong and what exactly an identity is have recently, more so than ever, foregrounded themselves as questions paramount to, if not at times even more bombastic than, the very definition of such terms in a given situation. Consequently, this problematizes the architectural practice as a transcriptive discipline for identifying, materializing and, most importantly, defining the ideological conditions of given contexts, cultures and programs.
In particular terms, this extension to an existing art museum takes to task preservation for its immediate engagement with identity. Thus, questions of institution, context and even the literal tectonic manifestation of a building become crucial in understanding how a building might in itself establish the possibility of productively estranging what we take for granted. This opens a working ground on which the architectural formation of the project is constantly defined by its efficacy to unsettle (though not persistently to resist or to undermine) presumed tropes, values and institutional underpinnings.
This process begins first in the demands of a competition brief that places heavy cultural worth in the elevations of the existing Neoclassical structure onsite. Rather than conforming below grade or offer a building which disappears in retreat, the project literally exercises the original structure of its west façade and moves the amputated face 40 meters towards curbside. The leftover negative space of this operation provides the working room for the new contemporary art wing to infill the space between the original structure and its severed street-side face.The leftover negative space of this operation provides the working room for the new contemporary art wing to infill the space between the original structure and its severed street-side face.The leftover negative space of this operation provides the working room for the new contemporary art wing to infill the space between the original structure and its severed street-side face.
This operation creates a somewhat sinuous space not only between the extension of the new building and the original wing of the museum but from the overall complex to its surrounding complex. In the passageway beneath this new wing, a variety of constituencies are compelled to collision. Visitors, those headed for the subway and park visitors simply traversing beneath the street alike are briefly rendered equivocal in a tight, horizontal space which compresses them between the undulating ground of the site and the architectural space of the museum's entry.
From the exterior, this elevational relationship is further challenged by the intermittent construction of a glass skin wrapping between the existing and new wings of the building. Fritted with an mere image of the original building, the misregistration of this surface from its literal material referent below problematizes the orthographic elevation for which the project brief places such implication in favor of an oblique.
Likewise, a perforated metal cladding around the volume of the extension mimics traditional architectural materiality in its faux travertine patterns, further enlivening this sometimes-graphic, sometimes-spatial depth. Whatever sense of depth offered in the filigree ornament of the original building offered is both highlighted and contested in the visually uncertain contradiction between the absolute flatness yet experiential dimensionality of the screen and cladding.
Moving into the building, the museum consumes the site’s demand for a pedestrian underpass across a heavily trafficked thoroughfare as well as a subway entrance by gently, slightly pulling patrons, passersby, metro riders, delivery trucks and flaneurs alike below the masses of both structures through a crevice between the ground and the perceptual weight (something ostensibly of stone with a certain heaviness) of the museum extension. This circulatory flattening of the presumed hierarchy between museum lobby, public concourse and delivery dock challenges the institutional parameters of the architecture from its very moment of entry.
From here, visitor circulation branches off and ascends to a lobby space at grade with the street, pinched between a fragment of the original structure’s façade, the metal-as-stone cladding and an interstitial space, framed in glass, between the two which houses a café. Program becomes performance as the circulatory pathways of the build leverage their architectural intensity (as opposed to a more pragmatically blank space such as an office or gallery) to focus the experience of traversing the building.
These subtle shifts in the relationships between floorplates and walls provide spaces of “betweenness” through which several stairways and elevators slip between levels to provide different rates of passage between the building. The primary visitor route of these becomes a central core, inhabiting the interstitial space of the section between the lobby and the galleries, itself bisecting the conservation and storage areas of the museum as it bridges between the ground and second floors. Moments of interstitiality create inhabitation in the sectional gray space typically reserved for institutional program, storage or mechanical space.
As one passes through this space, the museum as a curatorial and collecting space is opened up, framing the experience of the art viewer not merely as one of passivity but as one of a kind of active transience (the art not on exhibition nevertheless becomes in a way public but the spatial positioning of its enclosure in relation to the pathway of circulation infers a kind of reverse performance on the part of visitors in a kind of institutional voyeurism). Opportunities for transparency engage new axial relationships with the surrounding park and its various structures while enframing the context of the experience of vertically moving through the museum.
Where the original building provided a direct, axial Beaux-Arts scheme centered around a courtyard, the rearrangement of the museum spaces in this project creates a charged and ideologically less certain choreography. Where one wing’s courtyard fetishizes centrality and the subject’s subordination to a panoptic condition of architecture, the other willfully enforces a constant state of peripheralization. The core of the new building is something unable to be experienced all at once, something that at times faces the visitor with abstraction and at other times with intense literality (such as in the storage spaces) but involved in a constancy of otherness.
This does not infer a constant subordination of the existing architecture or promote a fetishistic hierarchy between old and new, but instead proposes that the careful consideration of one might inform the capacity of the other to engage the cultural conversation at hand. For instance, the repetition of enfilade gallery spaces in the existing building repeats across the top level and makes impetus for skylights.
Providing a wide, open space both performs the curatorial expectations of the exhibition spaces and engages the architectural ambition to establish (in this case through these skylights) a productively conversive and uneasy posture between old and new. It is this very formal repetition of the poché inferred in the enfilade through which one pops into the galleries from below.
A constancy of interruption between spaces reminds one in each moment of an imminent “otherness”. Not always the primary focus of a space, there remains throughout the building slippages of space, both literally and figuratively that challenge the assumed boundary conditions between programmatic, material and formal conditions. These posit a state of belonging between old and new, and within the new itself, that is not necessarily binaristic. Architecture begins to blend in for the sake of standing out.
In these terms, the project probes architecture as a method for producing alternative means of belonging beyond an outdated dichotomy between traditional vernacular and building as something we might call “object-gift” to the city. Settling into its situation in a gesture of perhaps unsettled belonging, it establishes a series of conversations which reframe its context, both literally in terms of a neighborhood and a park and more figuratively in terms of a culture and a value system. These concerns highlight the performative quality of architecture the contemporary cultural field as a method only for establishing value but for questioning it through tightly choreographed interventions, subtle adjacencies and their consequent conversational possibilities.
The circulation “core” does only a few things, but ponders an execution of such things in terms of extreme exactitude. Where sectional variability between the entrance, storage and exhibition spaces of the museum reveals only slight dimensional differences when regarded against the overall size of the museum itself, these very minor differences in level pose extreme problems for the articulation architectural elements with such finite requirements as stairs and ramps, whether those issues be the result of building codes, ergonomics or otherwise aesthetic considerations. This represents a moment of strange efficacy in terms of generic architectural elements around the possibility of an immediate adjacency between basal architectural prerogatives (such as circulation or code-conformation) and the very problem of conceiving (and realizing) an architecture.
A series of alignments and level considerations become the primary drivers of the core’s articulation. While these may be banal in the overall summation of an architectural work, their manifestation is directly tied both to the experience of a building and the general set of possible influences for its very generation. A stair or a ramp have within themselves an entire accompaniment of geometries governing rise, run, angles, permissible head heights and widths. These values are in some sense more than enough in their combining to produce a believable building, but moreover in their confabulation they acquire the ability to produce an architecture.
If a confabulation is the “disturbance of memory, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive” (Wikipedia), then the arbitration of these architectural standards (the widths, heights, spacings and rises-over-runs) must be the most ubiquitous confabulation imaginable. They are a confabulation whose character is completely unavoidable for the fact that architecture has no baseline concept of reality against which to attest a deviation. The first instantiation of any building is blankness, the utter absence of constructed material, and yet the architectural process could be thought of as standing to compensate that void.
Moving outside, as the subtly shifted bars which define the interior project out into the park, their slight misalignments begin to consume the disorganization or the park and justify the immense variety of local conditions throughout the block. This aren’t okay when misaligned if there’s a clear, orthogonal system, against which everything must answer for itself constantly. But, if that system embraces the variability of everything, then the disorder of the park itself becomes an asset.
There should be two nearly distinct yet intertwined circulatory systems. The main system is a series of roughly 4-meter wide ramps which wind down through the galleries, bisecting the storage space and administrative areas as they trudge down through the tertiary core (a lightwell, of sorts) of the building. Somewhat intertwined yet in more intimate spaces, 2-meter stairs offer short cuts between spaces, bridging the further removed programmatic areas, such as education to administration. One set of spaces offers the “public” experience of the institution as a singular, communal place in all its ‘placyness’, while the second provides for more solipsistic, individuated experiences by virtue of its more intimate scale and more expedient circulatory routes. The contemporary art museum is architecturally a space expected to deliver somewhat paradoxically on these distinct levels of experience. Where circulation can come to underline this capacity of architecture
We expect certain standards of our democratic instructions, such as universal treatment standards and bureaucratic transparency. Such exulting expectations of public institutions have in a way become aestheticized into a series of rather representational maneuvers, extending all the way into architecture. A prognosis of contemporary design in the public realm reveals a ubiquitous, yet unspoken, cadaver of material, organizational and infrastructural tendencies that proclaim the democratic values of our buildings. Far from truly denoting the internalized veneration of democracy that a building’s occupants might stand for, these are often a top-level gloss that merely performs its support for liberatory politics. That bureaucratic office buildings in China, Russia, the United States and Germany might all look rather similar only proves the fallacy that we can indicate the progressiveness of a society in stone, metal and glass.
While it may seem contradictory, this is not to undermine the innumerable investments made by certain architectural movements in the name of progressive architecture, particularly the Modernists. A great many Modern buildings do indeed (or rather did indeed in their prospective times) successfully align the materiality and organizational qualities of their architecture with political trends. This eloquent complexity can be found in Modernism’s dual capacity to represent in nearly identical maneuvers at once the transparency and freedom of Neimeyer’s work in Brasilia and Terragni’s work for the Italian Fascists. The problem contemporary architecture runs into which is successfully avoided in these examples is a misalignment between expressed political intent and the actuality of a building’s situation.
A glass façade’s ability to express transparency makes only pathetic ripples in its wake if the institution behind its curtain wall is the American government’s National Security Agency. Until actual political change can take place, the architectural intent of this element is merely ironic and consequentially unsuccessful. This contextuality is precisely the reason why a fairly elected Italian city council can adequately perform its expected democratic functions in a building the origins of which hail from the wartime Fascist construction campaign. It is the reason for which one might have a picnic at the Nuremburg Rally Grounds without indulging in the politics of the Nazi Party. A building is only as valuable as its political underpinnings, or rather the extent to which its continued inhabitation repudiates those foundations (such as in the case of the Rally Grounds or the civic buildings of Mussolini’s Italy).
We must at once hold steadfast the trial by which architecture is kept to a strict moral code and allow for the slippage of this code to the extent that we might question the presumed expectations this forces us to enact on an architecture. Why do we continue to create building which so thoroughly fail to represent the progressive values of our age? Conversely, why do we expect architecture to free us? This is surely too tall an order and identifies the ultimate irony that proclaimed the downfall of High Modernism. If the sheer starkness of the difference between the Barbican’s tumultuous exaltation into architectural stardom and nearby Robin Hood Garden’s dilapidation alongside London’s docklands does not elucidate the point clearly enough, we must look harder to realize that architecture is ultimately subservient to the respective capabilities of its financers to provide for the proper services, maintenance and larger democratic ideals by which it thrives or in the lack of which it ruinates.
Presumption frames everything in the field of one’s experience. In the same way, each architectural element comes alongside a series of expected functions, aesthetics and positions relative to the other systems which define a building. These ingrained complacencies of circumstance dictate a great deal of how we perceive the built environment, a stalemate status quo against which “radical” architecture has spent the majority of the last half century resisting, undermining and perverting in the name of producing a truly new architecture. This precipice has, time and time again, proven reticent to be crossed. Ostensibly radical architecture has focused almost solely on the foreground of human perception, at once ignoring the subtleties of the periphery and overwhelmingly failing to undertake the task of addressing political, economic and social concerns.
Perhaps the thesis isn’t so much about overall subtlety, but an approach which takes each architectural element into account on its own scale. What would be the subtle manipulations of the standard architectural elements (a floor, a wall or a column) which would gently push them far enough beyond the typical boundaries of normative perception but within the borders of reconcilability as their own distinct elements? E.g. one needs to recognize something as a column prior to one’s recognition that it is a strange, unfamiliar or otherwise distinct column.
Speaking economically, to what extent does this undermine or substantiate the value claim for expensive design? Political stances would presume that luxurious design is unsavory, but to what extent do expense and luxury as uncommon characteristic to an architecture deviate it from the norm? Where is the border between a normative, but expensive, building by Annabelle Selldorf and one is both abnormal and expensive, such as the more innovative sides of Zaha Hadid’s work?
We often think of architecture as paradoxically lodged between immediate and hinesight states of perception, creating totalizing environments and yet obfuscated to the pedestrian act providing inhabitable space. Always either battle cry or whisper, architecture seldom ‘just barely’ positions itself within the world. This unexplored territory could be described as a subtle posture towards existence. While clearly demarcated identities are productive in their distinguishability, subtlety allows the simultaneous existence of two conditions within immediate self-adjacency to the extent that they engage a delicate contrapposto without flattening or laminating into a new whole.
Rejecting forthright coherence, this tension between dichotomy and sameness allows architecture to stage conversions between things about identity and comparative value. This methodology undermines the simplicity of mere binary juxtapositions to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguity in conditions of subtle difference, arguably more attuned to our contemporary perceptions of identity. As early explorations employ slight adjustments on a grid to problematize conditions of joinery and coincidence between parts, the subsequent prerogative of this thesis shifts focus towards an interrogation of new readings found in the resultant subtleties of the forms through abstractions inherent to the process of representation, such as lighting exposure and blurriness.
These new almost-wholes obfuscate singular reading to refute the demand that they assemble into cathartic objects — that is, they refuse to provide the viewer the traditionally clear or uncluttered comprehension in how they perceive the object. Part-to-part relationships taper to precarious tangencies rather than clear resolutions so that the reading of the object itself is constantly held at a distance, just beyond immediacy but within a blurry margin of error for ossifying one’s understanding of the object.
What is it? The current exposition hall that houses the Lima Museum of Art is a standard, rather generic late nineteenth century structure. It’s architecture is one positioned midway between sheer industrial efficiency and late neoclassical ornamentation, as evidenced in the strange coexistence of its rigid (yet heavily ornamented) iron column structural grid alongside a series of more traditional gallery spaces secured between the columns by permanent yet mostly superfluous, in terms of structural capacity, dividing walls. This condition produces an odd relationship in the existing structure between underlying structural strategies and more architecturally considered spaces. These two languages are not quite indifferent from one another yet retain a certain kind of ambivalence. Iron columns puncture dramatically through spaces typically reserved for a higher degree of spatial independence, such as circulatory hallways and entrance lobbies. For the most part, columns fail to align to walls not in an act of sheer ambivalence but remain uncomfortably nearby, as if set to a grid accidentally placed in slight disposition. More aptly described as siblings than mere neighbors, the two systems function as if they were Spanish and Italian, retaining a certain degree of mutual intelligibility while pronouncing distinct characteristics that are, in themselves, defined by their almost-but-not-quite perfect adjacency.
Where is it? This mutual condition of strangely contingent ambivalence is in no way unfamiliar to Lima, a city startled between a series of seemingly oppositional forces. Such dichotomies as mountains and sea, wealth and poverty or Pre-Columbian and Colonial are the innate foundations of cultural identity for the city, predisposing its urbanity to become a cacophony of qualities, much akin to various other Latin American cities. Unlike its counterparts, Lima’s urbanistic history produces a variety of adjacency between different eras that runs horizontally, rather than along the vertical axis. While a place of considerable wealth and influence, Pre-Columbian settlements throughout the valleys currently woven with Lima’s sprawling suburbs primarily relied on irrigation systems to feed wide swaths of crops, focusing urban development less on clustered places of inhabitation than on singular religious sites to unite people located somewhat sparsely across farmlands. The city that became the Lima one currently understands was established among, not above, this situation in 1535. Because the city came to contend for space horizontally, rather than through the more typical process of vertical overlay witnessed in Mexico City or Paris, Lima retains a certain degree of heterogeneous sprawl. Ancient sites, both those celebrated culturally and neglected, dot the city’s landscape and intertwine between more recent architectural interventions. Many of the original Pre-Incan waterways were either filled in or forgotten historically to become geological ghosts in a forgotten lineage of seemingly prehistoric conception.
What does it want to be? You’re unsure what space you’re in… so what? How does this spatial experience correspond the contemporary art gallery in a way that undermines the less progressive tendencies of the commercial art endeavor in a gallery context?
Grammar absolves language from the burden of structure, leaving it instead to address purely the production of meaning. That is, a grammatical set of inflections defines for the speaker the precise intention of every word in a sentence. A particular examination of the nominal declensions of the Indo-European variety exemplifies this point:
Ich sehe den Mann.
Der Mann sieht mich.
Above, the German language specifically annotates the declension of the noun “den Mann” (“the man”) as to be object of the sentence by changing its definite article from “der”, which denotes the nominative, or subject, of the sentence, to “den”, marking the accusative, or object. Thus, the sentence subtly differentiates the meanings of “I see than man” from “the man sees me” using, among other things, acute inflections of the grammatical syntax and vocabulary to deliver a point to be understood. Consider the Latin sentences for “I see the girl” and “the girl sees me”:
Ego puellam video.
Puella me videt.
Inflecting the noun itself, Latin annotates the girl’s position as either direct object or subject through an inflectional morphing of the very noun itself. Nonetheless, the root word retains its legibility as “girl”. We might say that “girl”, in an abstractly distant sense, linguistically stands ready to take on its meaning. It is a kind of empty signifier awaiting its delegated position within the semiotic context of a sentence. This pattern of inflectional morphologies permeates all languages, be they Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan or Semitic. Their significance relies on the simultaneous recognition of basic abstract units (“girl”) and complex morphological alterations (“puella” to “puellam”). Far from foreign to the production of cultural meaning in architecture, art and
This quality resounds rather akin to the semiotic implications of both architectural elements (doors, windows, thresholds) and their derived spaces. The arousal of the architectural diagram and projective space alike over the past few decades only further elude this point. Descriptive geometry is its own kind of grammar, a conceptually subterranean structure to which the justification of a space is beholden.
Precisely for this reason, a grammatical understanding of architecture’s creation benefits the discourse of the profession by loosening the perhaps selfish will towards intuitively and by advocating for the establishment a framework of abstract bases (think “girl”) from which more complex and appropriate spaces can be derived. Each of these qualities inherently equip architecture with a political stance by which to address the challenges of design and building in the early to mid 21st century.
Addressing the first condition, we must accept that we have arrived at this period of architectural discourse in the wake of a violent acceleration in design. The skyrocketing success of a minority of practitioners in the second half of the 20th century fueled a fantasy of the “starchitect”, specifically rooted in the notion that he was one who had reached the apotheosis of his work. The pronouns of this exclamation are italicized to contest the patriarchal tendencies that this incredulous behavior lauded.
With a handful of exceptions, the rise of the starchitect’s intuitive and individualistic approach to design, the notion that only he could deliver a project of such caliber and expertise, benefitted merely a class of privileged male architects who represented overwhelmingly the at times oppressive majorities of their respective nationalities. Their projects found themselves equally at home under oppressive regimes across vast swaths of humanity and in the high fashion boutiques that service the elite few with unaffordable, albeit well designed, luxury commodities.
Starchitecture is parallel to the will of enforcing one’s vision onto others. The branding of architecture by firms’ recognizable brand identities and myopic prerogatives has lead the field unknowingly into the esoteric grumbling of irrelevance.
Though these characteristics specifically indict neither intuitively nor artistry in design as the perpetrators of these trends, it casts them as willing accomplices to the criminals. There is therefore a political necessity to move away from the “finding one’s voice” model of architectural practice towards a more abstract, universal theology, if we might call it that, of design that stresses nuanced intention and restrained evocation on the part of the designer. Subtly is the design language of humility, and a grammar of architecture is the method by which this is calibrated.
These injunctions against architecture seek the foundation of a new architectural project aligned with the universalist attitudes once exulted by the industry’s foremost figures. An inclination towards a grammatical understanding of the construction of space is the first step in the proposition of this framework. It is a provocation to democratize the conception of space into a process-based series of morphological permutations on basic elements (as any grammar does to its constituent parts) so that neither the basal unit nor its derived offspring wander too far from familiar comprehension.
Both “puella” and “puellam” function to deliver their meanings to the reader or listener, yet both respect the basic premise that those who understand the language ought to hold the tools for deriving the meaning of the sentence. A stance towards grammar for architecture sees the developments of the past few decades as less of a language and more of a barbaric shouting match between unfamiliar adversaries. Unfortunately, architecture has foregone the semiotic commonalities of previous eras’ styles for a cacophony individual expression.
The communities of design expression that we find in turn-of-the-century Chicago or postwar Japanese metabolism are indicative of collaborative practices establishing grammars of their own. These syntactical playbooks are thus introduced as items of cultural production for which a common understanding among both architects and the public can be established. This is their primary mode of communication.
It is therefore absolutely parallel to an architecture affronted by its own impotence that it work steadfastly to reform its mode of expression. The grammatical understanding of basic forms and their repetitively ruled abstractions posits less of a formal answer to this dilemma than a provocation towards one. It is at once the call for an architecture that seeks to matter rather than to express, an architecture that exudes nuance rather than singularity and an architecture that emerges in lieu of cultural production rather than individual recognition.