Interview by Ryan Scavnicky
Ryan Scavnicky (RS): I recently recall a description of your work as an exploration of the 'picture' vs the 'drawing' and the unclear dichotomy that is created. Could you define those terms and describe that dichotomy?
Elena Manferdini (EM): The medium of architecture is by definition a fully built object - usually larger than its form of graphic representation. Therefore the working space of a drawing is a disciplinary playground where architects create forms of memory, not the work itself. This scalar documentation (bi or three dimensional) can manifest itself as a set of instructions on how to build in the real architectural medium, or as intuitions of what the fully formed architectural object could look like. On the contrary, pictures are usually representation of a real finished architectural object, and they exist only after the architectural object is in place.
In the past 30 years digital tools have introduced another set of unprecedented possibilities to represent architecture: rendering and scanning. With them the realm of the architectural medium unexpectedly entered the architectural drawing through the fast advancement of digital photorealistic renderings, three dimensional data collection, and material simulation.
The intuition behind my exploration of drawings versus pictures is that we are at the point in architecture where these two forms of representation can begin to converge. Additionally, these representations aren’t beholden to the built medium of architecture: one does not need a building to have a picture of a building, and one does not need a drawing to precede the building.
RS: How then do we explore the relationship they have to one another and exploit this dichotomy? Can we constantly bounce between picture and drawing?
EM: By nature, graphic representation is mutable and resistant to strict codifications; drawings have the ability to change in scale, style, form, accuracy, pictorial and technical resonance. They easily jump from field to field, often acquiring new potentials or losing their original meaning. They can be armatures for geometrical descriptions or mere vessels of communication. Drawings and pictures are the quintessential visualization of the tension between foresight and reflection, between concreteness and abstraction. In other words, they themselves oscillate between being a way to imagine a plausible reality, or simply a means to an end.
RS: So far we have considered the breakdown of the duality of picture and drawing in architecture as a disciplinary goal, and I am curious how we begin to navigate that territory in terms of practice. Could you divulge a bit about how you’ve explored this notion?
EM: In my practice we spent a few years working on scanning technologies and the production of hyper-realistic renderings because we wanted to understand how literal representation could be used as a beginning creative process rather than a commercial faithful view of what a building would look like. This exploration started as a silent protest against the hegemonic snobbery of drawings and the commercial flatness of renderings. I clearly remember the early opposition of some of my university colleagues to the idea that pictures could be relevant for architecture. But my intuition 8 years ago was that familiar pictures were neglected as non-architectural for too long, and that because of the drastic shift that scanning technologies and high polygon count modeling software brought to our common desktops, hyper realistic pictures were bound to be interesting again.
On the other end of the spectrum abstract drawings seemed to have lost their ability to be evocative, while literal figuration seemed to offer a powerful relationship with an audience. When I started this research I wanted to explore other ways to create a connection with the viewer, a familiarity if you will. I did not want to use the minimalist trick of the ambiguity, which seemed a well-rehearsed formula that in time lost its efficacy.
The latest research done in my office revolves around a specific relationship between digital scripted drawings and analogue pictures of the architectural medium. The hope behind choosing these two points of departure is to work out ways in which an analogue architectural medium - a picture of a real building - can enter the abstract space of the architectural drawing. This body of work makes the case that scripted drawings have the ability to carry an enormous amount of data; therefore the gap is closing between the analogue medium of architecture and drawings. These intricate, scripted line drawings strive for a pictorial effect. Digital intricacy has drastically changed the potential of drawings and renderings.
RS: In addition to that potential, technological advancements have, and will continue to allow for, a finer and finer degree of precision previously unattainable. However, would you believe the eye craves a bit of the indeterminate, or the imperfect?
EM: I think the eye craves a sense of order; we always look to find a way to make sense of things. However I agree with you that indeterminacy is a percentage of that very order. Therefore a sense of order is not necessarily organized by one rule but a place where one can invent a rule. Meaning that there is enough information to find some order but not everything follows that order, so we require both. Humans are moved by a desire to understand the things around them. We may comprehend intellectually or sensorially, but our reality is composed by a complex multiplicity of orders.
RS: When it comes to the mindset of the practicing designer there are two clear approaches of dealing with this ambiguity within the design process: a heightened sense of control, or an anticipation of a certain degree of looseness. Would you argue that either is a more appropriate approach?
EM: Both pictures and drawings are useful and both might be adopted at different times in the duration of one project. Certain ambiguity can be a healthy habit in order to avoid the risks of looking at architectural projects as a one-liner. On the other hand, it is desirable for interpretation to be kept to a minimum during the construction phase of a building. I’m not arguing that a rendering shows mood and a drawing controls geometries; I’m saying that both media can carry both attitudes. This is an issue of technical skills and their opportunity.
RS: In your Hermitage Parking Facade project in Florida, there was already an existing parking garage on the site and you were asked to create a ‘public face’ for the structure. In the LA Metro project you masked the existing. What is the significance of these types of projects for you where it might not always be a clean slate but instead you must integrate your design into existing constraints?
EM: It is true that I am often held to the facades in the form of an existing grid or volume. It is challenging; not limiting. For other architects this might be a limitation but I find having a 3 ft depth in a façade an incredible and powerful place to express my work. The existing structure is only the beginning of something more interesting that I can bring to the table. This is where my work, in fact, comes to its full fruition.
A generic project - like a maintenance facility for LA METRO - is what I call a mute mass. Mute in that it is not occupied by human interaction. There are no windows to what is going on inside; it is a facility for trains lacking a human presence. The mute mass is thus perceived as out of scale. The question then becomes how do you bring it back to the city and give it a sense of inhabitation. These masses need to be given life with new facades. Not to mention these industrial projects might be in the middle of a residential area. There is a real concern with how these facilities integrate with the real estate around them. Industrial buildings contain activity void of human routines and scale; therefore the mass is suddenly understood as mute. How do you create a structure for LA METRO that will be required to project the amount of life the Art’s District neighborhood is starting to have? Same with the Hermitage; this parking lot is next to a residential complex. How do you visually inhabit a building that is 8 stories high and mute?
RS: The architectural discourse changes as it reacts to other disciplines such as art or philosophy. A different definition of tolerance relative to architecture emerges; it can be understood as an ability to resist intoxication - which can be beneficial to those trying to have a conversation in the midst of the excess communication in contemporary society.
EM: As architects, we often adopt technologies from other industries quickly and with the intention of implementing them in original ways. That isn’t because we are hesitant; we actually want to re-invent the wheel quite often. These kinds of advancements are usually carried on by industries that have massive research funds because their applications are individually profitable and widely used. For instance a cell phone is designed for millions of users, justifying the research needed to create the product. The automotive industry is equivalently profitable; one vehicle responds to many consumers. Advancements are made so that the objects can be widely distributed and commercialized. That can be said for many industries, but architecture is almost always one-off. It is highly customized so we tend to rely on advancements stemming from other industries in order to make something new. It is a practice of componentry; it is how you put them together that makes the difference.
Any design practice can draw inspirations that are external to one's specific field. My practice uses history to learn, not necessarily to validate new versus old or the original versus copy. If you have to paint an apple, you can approach the problem in several ways. You can look at an apple and study its biology; you can eat it, or look at other paintings of apples. In my practice, if I need to paint an apple I will start looking at how other painters painted an apple before me, so that we can add to that conversation.
I always find it amusing that architects research a kind of scientific rigor in their projects to prove meaningfulness - it is an earnest but misplaced way to tackle an architectural topic. You aren’t going to paint a better apple because you ate one, or because you know everything about the biology of that apple. You have to understand the apple as a model of the stylistic dialogue between one artist versus another and that by painting a simple apple is confronting a body of work of centuries old. Being able to choose what to respond to is what creates a distinction between someone who is trying to enter into a conversation and those who simply are not.
RS: Up to this point we have been discussing your work in regards to tolerance as an architectural definition. However, I couldn’t end without asking about tolerance as it relates to the current political climate. As architecture is faced with having to engage power structure to exist, what kind of role can we play in shaping our relationship to those structures?
EM: There are two architects -Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi- who have influenced my view on the role of politics in architecture since they wrote “The politics of the envelope” eight years ago. Their text was important because they stated the difference between being political by having a social agenda and being political in understanding the consequences that architectural effects have on people. Architecture has often considered the social agenda as the subject matter itself. I consider it as a necessary and important responsibility but I do not misunderstand social responsibility as architectural subject matter.
My sense is that every architect needs to comply with these professional responsibilities - it is part of being a practicing licensed architect - but they aren’t necessarily the drivers of the political experience of the project. The political experience is the effect of the tectonic on the users, which to me is where architecture can create the most political and powerful effect and set of consequences on our reality.
Elena Manferdini contributes more than fifteen years of professional experience to her role as SCI-Arc Graduate Program Chair. She has been teaching design studios and visual studies seminars at SCI-Arc since 2003, serving most recently as coordinator of graduate thesis. Manferdini graduated from the University of Civil Engineering in Bologna, Italy and later received her Master's of Architecture and Urban Design from the University of California Los Angeles. In 2004 she founded Atelier Manferdini in Venice, CA where she is principal. In 2011, she was one of the recipients of the prestigious annual grants from the United States Artists (USA) in the category of architecture and design. Manferdini was awarded the 2013 COLA Fellowship given by City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to support the production of original artwork. That same year, she received a Graham Award for architecture, the 2013 ACADIA Innovative Research Award of Excellence, and was selected as recipient for the Educator of the Year presidential award given by the AIA Los Angeles.
Ryan Scavnicky is a designer, educator, and writer based in Los Angeles. He is a candidate in the Masters of Science in Design Theory and Pedagogy program at SCI-Arc, the first education model offered to train architects specifically for a hybrid career in academia.
He completed both his Bachelors of Science in Architecture and Master of Architecture degrees at the University of Cincinnati DAAP which included a semester attending l'Ecole Spéciale d'Architecture in Paris, France. Previously he worked for studio TECHNE Architects in Cleveland, while instructing 2nd year design studio at Kent State University.