Alfie Koetter and Emmett Zeifman

Notes on Use and Uselessness

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Sienna, Detroit. Proposed Installation. Detroit, Michigan. 2015. Animation.
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Sienna, Detroit. Proposed Installation. Detroit, Michigan. 2015. Plan.

ARCHITECTURE (What We Do)

To discuss what is useless in architecture, it is necessary to define what is useful.

We are familiar with definitions of architecture as that which is supplemental to the essential uses associated with building, such as the provision of environmental enclosure, appropriate space for given functions and structural integrity. Among these definitions, we might note the pronouncement that has often been attributed to Philip Johnson, “architecture is the art of how to waste space;” or the idea, attributed to Le Corbusier, that architecture occurs when a window is either too big or too small.1 A negative definition of architecture as lacking (use-less) relative to the essential uses of building is reformulated as a positive definition, in which architecture is described as an excessive (supplemental) act.

These definitions of architecture as useless rely on the assumption that there is a distinction between a creative and intellectual discipline of architecture, expressed through discourse, representation and form, and a professional practice of architecture, constituted by the conventions, functions and practices of building that have been established by regulatory agencies, practicing architects, engineers, builders, users and clients, and the vernacular and industrial development of building technologies, typologies and features over time.

These definitions suggest, implicitly or explicitly, that architecture produced by those who consider themselves to be within the discipline is a form of art, to be distinguished from the broader category of buildings as such, which are produced by architects as a professional service.

This distinction relates to a value proposition borrowed from art, particularly visual art. This proposition would go something like this: art (or, here, architecture) has no specific social or economic function reducible to questions of efficiency or measurable effectiveness, but constitutes an unquantifiable, inessential and nonetheless persistent form of cultural expression. Art (architecture) has value, made evident by the fact that cultures have continually produced and consumed it, both of the artist (architect)’s own volition and in the service of those constituencies that commission and celebrate it to various ends, yet it does not have a use value that is defined by some measurable, or regulated, social or economic necessity. Where we can say the uses of building (shelter, function, comfort) remain fixed over time, the uses of architecture as a form of cultural expression fluctuate with the cultures that produce it.

Architecture is, however, fundamentally distinguished from the arts by its dual status as a discipline and a professional practice. The uses that are provided by practicing architects, enforced by regulatory frameworks, industry conventions and standards and constrained by technologies and economies, condition the possibilities of what those in the discipline might consider useless. In the terms of art, the useful (shelter, function, comfort) is the condition of architecture’s medium specificity; the useless can only be measured against it. The common medium of both the discipline and the practice is building, comprised of the same set of elements. If it is not a window it cannot be too big or too small, and if it is not an enclosed and structurally integral space, it cannot be wasted. In this regard, architecture has no counterpart in the arts (visual, musical, etc.) or the professions (legal, medical, etc.), each of which can otherwise be understood to be autonomous as such in their provision of either works of art or regulated professional services. Those who do not, in the production of their work, address (however radically) the elements of building elaborated above (structure, enclosure, space for function and circulation), cannot be considered to be producing architecture. All architects are trained within the same accredited institutions, and their common expertise and medium is building and its constituent elements, as expressed through the various mediums that describe buildings, whether those buildings are speculative, commissioned to be built or built.

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Prototype Housing. Study. 2015-present. Model.

MEDIUMS (What We Make)

The work of both the discipline and the professional practice of architecture is manifest in multiple mediums that describe buildings, including orthographic drawings, rendered images and written texts. In the case of the discipline, the primary use of these mediums of representation is not the production of buildings (even when they result in the production of a building), but the production of ideas about buildings. In the case of the professional practice, the primary use of these mediums is the production of buildings as a professional service.

Though they still constitute the necessary medium of exchange for professional practice, orthographic line drawings can no longer be considered the only, or even primary, indexical description of buildings. Therefore, let’s here use the word drawing to represent the broad set of activities that today constitute the production of architecture, including the making of digital and physical models, animations and various two-dimensional mediums of representation, such as orthographic line drawings, rendered images and model photographs.

What we draw sometimes has use in the conventional terms of practice. When we produce drawings of a house that may be built, we consider the provision of comfortable, functional spaces for dwelling, of structural stability and environmental enclosure, of the resolution of certain topographical, climatological and cultural issues present on the site, all within a budget and schedule defined in discussions with a client and consultants.

For those drawings not produced in the immediate service of potential buildings, we have no professional responsibility to address the issues of building listed above. Often we chose to do so anyways. Much as we ask students of architecture to respond to sites and programs as a form of professional training (in that case as regulated by accreditation boards and pedagogical convention and responsibility), we too must train in order to stay in shape as architects. The use of such drawings is, therefore, as a form of both disciplinary and practical training.

Yet there are other cases where we choose not to address issues outside the production of form and the representation of form and mediums of representation as such. In this case, the only constraints placed on the production of the drawings are the methods of production and evaluation that we set for ourselves, as well the limitations of our ability to manipulate the tools and conceptual frameworks that we use. In this case, we can understand the use of these drawings as limited to a form of training related to the production of what we might call disciplinary discourse. If these drawings result in a recognized contribution to this discourse, they have the use of advancing our position within the discipline, resulting in compensation and exposure through teaching appointments, invitations to lecture or publish, or other such markers of disciplinary standing.

Writing, such as this piece, or editing, of the type that we do in our work with Project, falls into a similar category of use as this last type of drawing. Writing is perhaps the most useless medium of architecture when considered in terms of the production of buildings by practicing architects, which it rarely has a substantial impact on, or leads towards commissions for, but it is perhaps the most useful medium when considered in the context of disciplinary advancement.

If the drawings that we produce that are useless in the terms of professional practice were works of visual art, we could produce and exchange them as such. They might be commissioned by gallerists or collectors, purchased by individuals or institutions, increasing (or decreasing) in value as they are sold and re-sold, serving themselves as a medium for the investment of capital, much as buildings, through the real estate market, are a medium for the investment of capital. This would be a different kind of use of drawings, which would, if we were to achieve success in the terms of visual art, result in higher levels of compensation than that received by architects of comparable standing.

It is this that reveals a misunderstanding in the application of terms of value or use derived from art (visual art, particularly) to that work produced by those in the discipline of architecture. The visual arts serve both cultural and commercial purposes (of varying intensity). They have use as both mediums of expression of culture and as mediums of commercial investment and commodity-production in relation to the audiences they attract or are appropriated and directed towards. We can generally say that if one achieves disciplinary success as an artist, one (or at least one’s work) will also achieve a measure of financial success in terms of market valuation of the work and compensation for future work. The persistence of the notion that architecture, as a discipline, rather than a practice, is useless, relates perhaps to the fact that such architecture, as that which is understood to be supplemental to the essential uses of building, does not generally accrue substantial monetary value, irrespective of the disciplinary standing of those who produce it. It is not traded as a commodity that increases in monetary value with demand (speculative or otherwise) in the same manner as the work of art, which can move relatively freely through market of sale and re-sale.

The production of disciplinary works of architecture constitutes only a small subset of architecture, and therefore operates under entirely different economic and socio-cultural conditions than that of art. Unlike the art of artists, or the writing of writers, the drawings or writings of architects do not themselves constitute architecture as such, but rather mediums of intra-disciplinary intellectual exchange or mediums for the provision of extra-disciplinary professional service. They cannot, therefore, be the mediums (and attendant practices) towards which the capital and attention of those outside of the discipline is substantially directed. This attention and capital remains directed towards buildings themselves, which must ultimately be the medium by which architecture, if it is to substantially effect or engage some context outside of its own disciplinary discourse, manifests itself.

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Westport House. Private Commission. Westport, Massachussets. 2014-present. Elevation and Isometric Drawings.
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Westport House. Private Commission. Westport, Massachussets. 2014-present. Elevation and Isometric Drawings.

TOOLS (How We Might Make It)

Throughout much of its recent history, architecture has appropriated tools initially developed for other industries and fields, including industrial design and fabrication, engineering, physics, photography, graphic design and animation. Most of the tools we use today in the production of disciplinary work, as well as the professional practice of architecture--including AutoCAD, Rhino, Maya, CATIA, various rendering softwares, various scripting softwares, the Adobe Creative Suite and various methods of CNC fabrication--were not purpose-built for architects.

We might understand the history of these tools to be one of creative misuse relative to their designed purposes, much as we might consider the appropriation of the philosophical metaphors of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, or more recently Graham Harman and others associated with Object Oriented Ontology, to be the creative misuse of philosophy that was initially developed for purposes other than the production of architectural form and discourse. This creative misuse of non-architectural tools could be understood as a useful form of uselessness in that it, directly or indirectly, extends the possibilities of building.

Putting aside spin-offs such as AutoCAD Architecture or Digital Project, there is one software, Revit, which has been specifically engineered to enable the production of what we recognize to be a primary medium of architecture as it is directed towards buildings: orthographic projections, or elevations and plan and sections of buildings, rendered in black lines on white sheets. It is this medium of drawing—best represented by the construction documents transmitted between architects and various parties engaged in the production of building—that, by both convention and regulation, enables the production of buildings.

Revit has been rapidly adopted by practicing architects as a fundamental tool of production. In Revit, orthographic line drawings are output through Building Information Modeling, which include material quantifications, environmental information, rendered surfaces and other integrated mediums of description of building. We might reasonably expect BIM to supplant orthographic drawing in practice, as well, perhaps in the more distant future, in the discipline, when orthographic drawings no longer constitute a practically necessary medium of communication and are therefore no longer mandated as a part of architectural education. It seems likely that only the persistence of a record of orthographic drawings describing a disciplinary and professional history of architecture (in, for instance, Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture or the archives of regulatory agencies) will preserve the need for familiarity with the techniques of producing and understanding orthographic line drawings in the future. In other words, their use will only be as medium of exchange between the past and the present, akin to the necessity of understanding Latin or Ancient Greek if one wishes to read historical works of literature or philosophy in their original language today.

Given that it has been purpose-built for the production of architecture, we might ask why Revit has not been integrated into the production of disciplinary work. This may be precisely because Revit is engineered to be useful to the practice of architecture, defined as that which those in the discipline define themselves in opposition to, in other words, the usefulness of efficiently producing buildings as a professional service.

Perhaps we can begin to move outside of the seemingly inevitable dichotomy that is continually constructed between the discipline and practice of architecture by using Revit for the production of what are typically understood to be disciplinary, or useless, materials. The discipline and professional practice are each embedded in and generative of the other, sharing tools, conventions, histories and ambitions (the production of possible buildings). Disciplinary research therefore inevitably involves working through the tools of contemporary practice; the question is only of which tools and with what degree of awareness and intention.

What intrigues us about Revit is that the constraints built into the software—constraints drawn from the material economies of the construction industry, a physics that says two masses cannot occupy the same space and the representational conventions of the practice of architecture as codified by professional convention and regulation—relate inherently to both those constraints so often dismissed by the discipline in terms of their usefulness to practice and those celebrated by the discipline for their uselessness in the production of disciplinary projects. The latter is most evident in the recurrent disciplinary interest in the conventions of orthographic projection and their relation to three-dimensional form and material construction.

We could, for instance, use Revit to investigate “the corner problem” through the production of typical interior mock-ups, of the type used to test the details of Class-A office building lobbies. These remarkable artifacts of professional practice and construction are, in effect, miniature buildings composed of only the most materially difficult corners in the proposed project. It may be a productively useless use of Revit to produce a project that has no standardized families of building elements, but only one-off elements that together constitute an exquisite corpse of a project, reduced to its exceptional geometries and material intersections.

Or we could use Revit to research notable disciplinary and extra-disciplinary projects through the manipulation of standardized materials and repetitive elements. What could Revit tell us about Carl Andre’s serial permutations of off-the-shelf materials, Michael Asher’s manipulations and multiplications of typical stud-wall construction, Le Corbusier’s structural archetypes or Peter Eisenman’s algorithmic translations, scaling and rotations of cubic forms?

Or we could use Revit to explore the dissonance that occurs when one designs a project around the nominal dimensions of buildings materials, rather than their actual dimensions, which are preset in the software. Or if one treats the preset material textures and notations embedded in Revit as the finishes of built work. Or, more generally, if one takes the representational space and conventions of BIM, rather than orthographic drawing, to be those in need of productive misuse in disciplinary work.

It is these types of questions that excite us, and others we cross paths with, 2 for whom there is no contradiction in using the tools of professional practice to further disciplinary research. We understand these tools to be fundamental to disciplinary research, if it is to meaningfully engage with the medium of architecture, which is building.

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Misreading [Barcelona]. Study. 2014. Animation of Model.

  1. This statement is recounted by Peter Eisenman in his debate with Christopher Alexander at the Harvard GSD in 1982: “Le Corbusier once defined architecture as having to do with a window which is either too large or too small, but never the right size. Once it was the right size it was no longer functioning [as architecture]. When it is the right size, that building is merely a building.” http://www.katarxis3.com/Alexander_Eisenman_Debate.htm. Accessed November 10, 2015.  

  2. See, for instance: Samuel Stewart-Halevy, “L’Auberge Espanol” Project 4 (Winter 2015); Tyler Survant and Mark Talbot, “Projecting a Regionalist Parametrics” Project 5 (forthcoming, Winter 2016).