Tom Wiscombe

Interviewed by Zachary Tate Porter

Zachary Tate Porter (ZTP): It appears to me that one of the major themes throughout your entire body of work is an interrogation of how buildings meet the ground. This interest in ground is present in earlier projects like the P.S.1 Urban Beach, as well as more recent works like Guggenheim Helsinki competition entry. Can you describe how your conceptualization of “ground” has developed throughout your career?

Tom Wiscombe (TW): Yes. At first it was an intuition about severing and drawing out the connection between a building and its landing, but now I have begun to see it as crucial to a larger framework of thought. I think of buildings as worlds, not as extensions of World or Nature, terms I find to be a very slippery subject at this point in time. Those terms too often generalize and reduce the huge variety in form, scale, and agency of entities that make them up, favoring a kind of ontological lump. If architecture itself is a world, that means it might have a continuous boundary, like a planet let’s say, versus a landscape. While those two things may sound related, one is a circle that has an inside and an outside, and the other is a line that implies surface and goes on forever. I think that the idea of architecture as landscape is now exhausted, and I think the conflation of the two actually degrades both and kills their specificity as concrete entities.

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National Center for Contemporary Art, Moscow, TWA, 2015. Courtesy of TWA.

If architecture has a boundary, then how it is oriented and how it is attracted to, repulsed by, or blind to a given datum becomes intriguing. In the office, when we design a project, we bracket out ground altogether, at least initially. We don’t index the ground, manipulate it, or even talk about it — it remains in a state of deferral. I like the idea of deferral, of something landing both theoretically and also in terms of developing a design method that does not begin with earth-relations but rather ends with them. We begin with things that have continuous boundaries — I call them containers — characterized by their indeterminate orientation in three dimensional space. We focus instead on models that could be imagined at any number of scales and orientations. That means that our approach to ground needs to be constantly reinvented. It is never foundational.

Sometimes a building just sits there on a glass-like, flat plane, indifferent to the world. Sometimes it presses into the earth, leaving a loose-fit, or mis-fit, hole with joints and gaps around its perimeter. This approach sometimes allows for entry into the building at mid-level, which I like because ground as we know it, and foundation, are undermined and can literally drop out from under your feet upon entry. Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum operates that way. Sometimes a building’s connection to the earth is interrupted by what I have in the past called a ground-object, which is really just my way of promoting the architecturalization of ground over its demotion to acting as a receiver of a building mass. A ground-object, although related to a plinth, is not a plinth. Plinths often either extrude or deform the earth, or they float over an idealized Nature. In either case, this implies the nobility of the human. A ground-object may have gaps and undercuts to the earth, and it may be oblique or otherwise uneven. It may contain its own artificial ‘nature’, it may be partially inaccessible, it may even be a constructed hole rather than a thing per se (as in Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s House of the Gardener). A ground-object is neither part of the topological formal project in architecture nor is it an ideological or anthropocentric ground.

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Snow-globes and Dioramas as discrete worlds containing their own ground, Alternate Physics of the Naica Cave of the Crystals, Mexico

This idea of containers has become quite important in my work, not only because it implies an independence from World and a path away from the homogenizing fusion of specific entities, but even moreso, because it leads to a new focus on interiority. If a building is a container, the implication is that it contains things. If a building is a world, then these things can be deployed at any number of scales and orientation, and, if taken to a logical extreme, they can begin to follow new (and fictional) physical laws. In this regard I always think of snow globes and dioramas and aquariums, worlds nested within worlds. Inside a snow-globe, you can have an upside-down city or a snow storm or a galaxy! Anyway, to go back to ground for a second in this context, it seems that there is another possibility for ground, namely no ground.

We are working on that possibility in my SCI-Arc studio right now. We work with the substitution of circulation for ground and the total removal of a fixed anthropocentric ground-referent. We are embedding circulation in walls encircling vast interior spaces, creating circulation that sometimes leaps between figures and compartments. We are also attempting to suppress the human scale in the execution of these circulation pathways, such that their scale remains indeterminate. This means we have to be very careful with things like steps and railings, things that always chain architecture to the size of a human body. The result is a fully three dimensional world that is scale-indeterminate and maybe more like a space station than a building. No doubt these subjects are not new to the discipline — of course they make us think of Piranesi’s Carceri and Claude Parent’s oblique, and so on. I think that what we are doing is different in the sense that it engages the posthuman turn in architecture through scale ambiguity, which is one of the most powerful effects I think architecture can produce. Is it a toy? Is it a black hole? Suddenly, you are in a realm where the very tiny and the supermassive exist equally, but differently. This is a fascinating world, free of the inadvertent homogeneity that is produced when objects around us are all scaled “for us.”

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Guggenheim Helsinki, TWA, 2015. Courtesy of TWA.

So, to circle back to your question, yes, ground is crucial for my work but it is part of a larger framework of severing conventional relations between architectural elements, and setting them on a non-hierarchical, flat ontological plane in order to give them new and specific life. I think that this is a path to true difference in kind rather than difference in degree that architecture has been obsessed with for so long. Continuous variability is an attempt to create difference in kind but it never gets there, it always ends up either stretching a thing to a limit or destroying a thing. I like to think of the world instead as a cornucopia of discrete entities that resonate with one another but are best when not fused or lumped together. And by the way, a cornucopia is itself a container but it is also its contents, simultaneously. You don’t think of the horn-thing as being hierarchically ‘above’ the pumpkins and squash and corn parts, you think of all of the things as parts. So ground is not a foundation, or a “grund” from the old English, but it is one part among many, resonating but never fusing with other elements of architecture or the earth itself.

ZTP: Curiously, your interest in architecture as a world unto itself aligns you with Pier Vittorio Aureli’s case for an “absolute architecture.” While you take very different paths of thought, it seems like you both end up in the same place: arguing for discreteness over continuity. For Aureli, this strategy has political implications related to architecture’s role within the city. However, your approach seems to hinge on other intellectual lineages. Can you talk about the specific philosophical frameworks that are shaping your design thinking?

TW: Yes I am aware of that connection and I appreciate his work very much as a defense of architecture, but certainly there are differences. For one, in his theory of the “archipelago”, which is ultimately about the ontological status of architecture in cities, he imagines that the parts, or islands, are linked by the “common ground” of the city. While I am in basic agreement that architecture can only happen in a state of separation, and I share his desire to carve out space for architecture by refusing the generalizing smoothness of the modern city and its smooth capital exchanges, I do not think that there is such a thing as a common ground that ultimately unites all of the islands. Whether this is meant literally, as in the political land underneath the city, or figuratively, in terms of public and private social systems that connect things, I want to avoid presuming the existence of a real connective entity where none is present.

I know it is difficult in this age of information to even imagine that things can exist without being part of a deeper flow, but all you have to do is glance for two seconds at the multiverse theory currently on the table in theoretical physics to see how different and discrete things might actually be. I’m definitely attracted to idea of things existing discreetly but signaling to one another without touching or fusing together — this provides the basis for a new, non-literal coherence of things while also avoiding superposition and collage.

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Left: "City 1000," Mike Kelly / Right: Google Earth's rendering of "nature"

I think it’s productive to re-examine terms we use so loosely these days such as ground, or world, or nature. I discussed that the other day with Tim Morton, how words can do such violence to ideas. For Tim, deep violence is done to ecologies of the earth and beyond because of the word “nature”. Nature is the great generalizer. You say it, and you think you mean something but when you take it apart, and remove sentimentality, you really have so much vapor. Is anything really natural in the age of the anthropocene when humans have transformed the crust of the earth? Was nature ever natural? Anyway, the point is that we assume that such words have a strong foundation, and that we can build on them but maybe they are sheets of thin ice.

I was just looking up the etymology of ground and was surprised to see that the proto-Germanic “grundus” meant “deep place” and possibly also abyss, or bottom of the sea. So is ground a concrete thing? No. There is no original foundation. Also, there is no foundational scale to things. Again, as Morton argues in his theory of “hyperobjects,” this is a time of re-orienting ourselves to massive things and, as I mentioned earlier, I would add to that very tiny things, things that seem alien or out of reach to the medium-scale of human presencing of things. I think that the dance that architecture has had with the scale of the human body is a long and tortured one, from the literal depiction of humans on buildings in ancient architecture, to Le Corbusier’s Modular, all the way to the little pieces of human-scaled material we still use to build with. In my eyes it is a form of self-worship that is also rampant in continental philosophy, where there can be no world outside of the mind-world correlation. I am more interested in architecture that can cut through all of these relational ontologies that mirror the world we know, and can instead focus on creating new, unfamiliar realities that make us stop, look, and think.

Notions of fluidity and smoothness in this age of connectivity are problematic in terms of how they have been literally reified in certain threads of contemporary architecture. While the social world is obsessed with information consumption and social media, I do not think that social media is a good model for architecture. Frankly, I don’t think that good architecture is ever fully consumable. I don’t think that architecture should be telling us what to do either. The recent resurgence of semiotics in architecture — in the sense of promoting architecture that broadcasts specific societal functions — is, in my mind, another form of anthropocentrism. I prefer instead to focus on making architecture more mysterious and vexing, that has “something in reserve”(Harman), and that serves humanity in a different way, by “advancing the public imagination” (Gannon). One way I have discussed this before is as the difference between terminals and conduits. I think that the time of conduits, where we align form with flows of information, human bodies, infrastructure, and so on, is past. A terminal is a stoppage, even though it might be dead in the heart of a city. A terminal gives a glimpse of another reality and doesn’t instrumentalize architecture as the tool of everyday reality or known social systems. It is not extended along lines; as I mentioned before, it is based on circles, and ever-deeper nested circles, implying a kind of infinity of depth and speculation.

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I know I haven’t answered your question. I think you want to hear about object-oriented ontology, which I am happy to talk about but I want to make it clear from the get-go that my work is not “based” on OOO. I will say that it resonates strongly for me in terms of the discourse of ‘parts’ and the idea that things can be part of something else but not be subsumed by that thing. This is a very weird idea actually, one that I think takes a very long time to absorb. I think that ontological and part-to-whole theories are really fundamental to architectural thinking, and OOO brings a fresh light to thinking about how things can be separate and specific but still have non-literal relations. A criticism I often hear about OOO is that it explodes the world into things without relations. But this is not true, it simply attempts to give primacy to specific things and ultimately their aesthetics over the foregrounding of generalizing relational networks in contemporary thought.

ZTP: Let’s switch gears in order to unpack these concepts through specific works. You’re currently working on a project called the Main Museum of Los Angeles. Can you describe the background of this project and how you’ve been approaching the design?

TW: The Main Museum design is based on this idea of non-literal coherence we were just discussing. Rather than attempting to re-surface floors, walls, and ceilings throughout to create an image of literal continuity, the project is organized around nine entities that have a loose, serial relation with one another. From any point in the museum you can sense the entities signalling to one another, and you can always see more than one. They are, in no particular order: the Gateway, the Void, the Infinity Chamber, the Multi-jack, the Fake Shadow, the Poche-wall, the Amphitheater, the Cafe, and the Promenade. What I’ve realized in working on the project is that there are many more than these nine objects — as we delve deeper into the hidden worlds of the historical buildings we are operating in and on, we keep finding new ones: bank vaults with intricate mechanisms, atomic-proof rooms, ancient furnaces, and abysses without obvious function. So the menagerie of things includes historical and contemporary entities, which I like very much.

The entities themselves are near-figural, meaning that they often include strong silhouettes and partially legible shapes nested inside of things. We’ve deployed jacks, ziggurats, and other chunky, low-res forms in strange orientations and different scales, which helps maintain a loose formal affinity across the project. The Sculpture Garden on the roof of the Bankhouse Garage is a key aspect of the project because it establishes a new urban ground, complete with a not-quite-familiar set of buildings, sidewalks, and streetlamps. Frankly though, the entire project is a play on ground, since we really are operating in the basements and sub-basements of existing buildings, saw-cutting floors out to connect multiple levels (as in the Void object), and linking all the way up to the roof. Ultimately, very little of the project exists at street level except the entry zones. So we are designing a fully three-dimensional world that breaks the notion of city street as the baseline for human civilization.

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Familiar / unfamiliar urban rooftop: The Main Museum, TWA 2014 - . Courtesy of TWA.

ZTP: Up to this point, we’ve been discussing ground through ontological frameworks. Yet, if we were to consider ground through the lens of socio-cultural relations, then the idea of site comes into the picture. It seems to me that the unique nature of the Main Museum project required a site-specific (or at least site-oriented) approach. In this case, the site is an existing, historical building. But I’m curious what role “site” plays within your other projects?

TW: I think the assumption that you can draw forth architecture from local contextual information or contingencies is not only a fallacy but at this point is just plain boring. We need new ideas about contextualism that break the sentimental belief that things that came before automatically have some kind of magical primacy, whether they be buildings, so-called “urban tissue”, or geological or organic features. Thinking in terms of a flat ontology might be useful here as well, in terms of time. The duration of things is certainly one of their features, but it is not one that necessarily establishes a hierarchy of one thing over another.

I prefer to allow differences in kind to be fully expressed, and then let features of things drift or leap onto other things, irrespective of time. For instance, in our Kinmen Port Terminal project, we riffed on the maze-like super-patterns we found in the local vernacular buildings to create our figural panel system for the project. It was not something I originally felt comfortable with, since it could so easily detour into po-mo, but in the end I like the result, as subtle as the effect is. I think we expanded our repertoire on that project by bending pure abstraction towards something that can also be imbued with unexpectedly familiar qualities. This is different from a mash-up because it depends upon a careful fusion of alien features into a thing such that they never appear as an index.

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Awkward Ground-orientation of Mega-objects with Maze-like Fujian Pattern: Kinmen Port Terminal, TWA, 2013. Courtesy of TWA.

We did something similar in the Helsinki Guggenheim, which was a slight riff on Norwegian stave-church architecture from the 14th century, in terms of the use of what at first appears to be black wooden slats, but turns out to be sooty-black fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP). I think these moves are probably the most untheorized part of my work, and maybe something I need to grow into, I’m not sure yet. I still feel more comfortable with the idea that the contexts that really matter are non-local and ultimately disciplinary and theoretical.

Now, does The Main Museum deal with site? Of course. It is an absolute pleasure to weave our work through those vastly different and highly specific spaces of those Old Bank District buildings; especially after dealing with many indistinct and desolate sites I’ve worked on in China. But I have no origin story to tell; the new elements are not ‘sourced’ from the old ones. The new elements ‘speak’ to the old ones however, and if you look closely you might see a few of those moments.

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Features that leap from one entity to another: Domino Sugar Factory, Site D, TWA, 2015. Courtesy of TWA.

Tom Wiscombe, AIA is Principal of Tom Wiscombe Architecture, an internationally recognized design practice. His iconic work stands out in terms of its mysterious figural features, its alluring graphic qualities, and its tectonic inventiveness. Wiscombe is currently planning the Main Museum of Los Angeles Art with Developer Tom Gilmore in Downtown LA. He was recently honored with AIA Design Awards for this project as well as for his design for the Kinmen Port Terminal. His work is part of the permanent collection of the FRAC Centre Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA San Francisco, and MoMA New York. Wiscombe is Chair of the B.Arch Program at SCI-Arc, where he has taught for over 10 years, and he has taught at U. Penn and Yale University. He completed his B.A. in Architecture at UC Berkeley and his M.Arch I degree at UCLA. Previously, Wiscombe worked for Coop Himmelb(l)au, where he was Chief Designer for BMW Welt, Munich, the Lyon Museum of Confluences, and the Dresden Cinema Center.

Zachary Tate Porter is an educator, designer, and historian based in Los Angeles. His research focuses primarily on the relationship between building and ground within modern and contemporary architecture. Porter’s PhD dissertation, “Shifting Grounds of Architectural Practice: Boundary Conditions and Field Formations in the U.S. Design Professions,” analyzes the ways in which professional jurisdiction shaped conceptions of landscape and site within American architectural practice during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is the 2015-2016 Design of Theory Fellow at SCI-Arc and founder of OOCA (Office of Contingent Affairs), a laboratory for architectural ideas based in downtown Los Angeles.