Critical Spatial Design,
Architecture, Art & Discourse
In the course of nOffice’s one-year existence we have completed several projects in different countries, on different continents and of varying scales. The common denominator for all these projects is that they were completed under difficult conditions: no money, little time for design and construction, ever-changing design briefs and no possibility for site inspection.
Looking back, it struck us that we tend to approach our projects almost in the form of urban design: a large gesture complemented by a set of precise micro-scale relations. What in architecture typically is understood to be the operative scale – i.e. the middle-ground – tends to be left untouched.
“The most defining feature of architectural praxis is not the finished building, but rather the ability to simultaneously juggle
micro and macro scales in an unstable climate.”
(nOffice, Conditions #1)
One could ask oneself whether this seemingly conscious neglect of the middle-scale represents a retreat from what is typically understood to be a core architectural concern. Or should it be understood as a strategic realignment of the position of the architect in order to deal with changing conditions in which architecture exists today? Surely it could be understood to be a form of compromise, but we prefer to say that it is a strategic response to deal with the nebulous environment in which architecture is conceived, but more importantly: it is a regained focus on content.
What content exactly? What do we think this content really is?
There are several aspects as to what content can be. The most obvious is a focus not so much on what architecture is, but what it can do. In other words, an architecture that enables, rather than asserts itself as a self-satisfied object. At a more structural level, the notion of content has also to do with a conscious strategic placement of the practice as it distances it both from previous overly critical and more recent almost anti-theoretical nearly opportunistic modes of praxis. It puts theory and praxis in a more relaxed relation to each other, forming a more productive symbiosis.
On the other hand, content might very well be overrated. We sometimes feel that it is simply another name for somewhat self-satisfied and overly theoretical projects that never reach out beyond the predefined and all-too-well-known boundaries of the discursive bubble. Therefore, we are happy that, this year (2009), we could cross over into the realm of the real, i.e. building or producing physical content that had to prove itself beyond the safety and self-satisfaction of elaborate drawings and lofty words. In that sense the Performa Hub was quite successful. It stood up as a physical structure with a certain integrity and enabled beyond its own good. All those things meant to happen in the space would have happened totally differently, or would not have happened at all without it as a form of physical guidance or backdrop.
Typically it is said that knowledge is money, but oddly enough in architecture content is generally very poorly paid. Perhaps we are naïve to insist on being a content-driven practice. Maybe we should just accept architecture as service providing like accountancy. Or should we entirely abandon seeing nOffice as a vaguely traditional architectural practice and think of ourselves as a spatial agency, or better still: an agency for ideas?
Related to this seeming neglect for what is understood to be typical architectural concerns is that we have a somewhat awkward design process. We do not really explore ideas by drawing them through. Instead, we
tend to talk a lot – a design process informed by and through discussion. In this sense, the importance of drawing is minimised and acts almost purely as a support for discussion. We only start to draw when we know what we want to do. It’s a very light and malleable process where ideas can easily be adjusted.
This design methodology might stem from the fact that we – at least for now – seem to prefer nOffice to be of a more ephemeral nature. We have a fixed office space, but as a practice we rather go for walks, or have our nOffice meetings and design sessions in bars and cafés; and we never sit and work together on a 9-to-5 basis. We also very rarely pin up ideas and drawings. This kind of practice forces us to adopt an almost immaterial design process that is easy to carry with you wherever you go.
Sometimes, we wonder whether we are driven by some form of aggression against architecture.
A consequence of this concentration on the macro and micro scales is that we tend to develop systems that reduce the design; i.e. the formal content to a minimum. But, nOfficers, how much glamour is left in a zero-degree-architecture? Just because the system is logical does not automatically mean the result is good architecture. It is very easy to become slaves to a system, and in the end actually write oneself out of the equation. As an example: If we, at the moment, would have to design a candle
holder, all we would propose would be to pour some wax on the table and stick the candle in it. Easy, simple, inexpensive and somehow beautiful; if not an objet trouvé then an action trouvé. What about designing the actual holder? Currently, there is a slight lack of patience to really sit down and design and refine something.
Much of this is a direct result, or perhaps a compromise because the nature of the projects we have done so far and the specific conditions in which they have been conceived. Most of the projects are interior jobs of a relatively small scale and very modest budgets. Most certainly our design method would be adjusted accordingly, if we were to get projects of a different kind.
nOffice consists of three individuals with somewhat different ideas and obsessions. As our current design method is discussion-based rather than driven by drawing, we – very early in the process – are able to identify our differences and consequently come to a general agreement. Sometimes it is worrying that we too easily come to a common understanding; that we are among ourselves too consensus-driven and too happy to compromise. Or is it so that we think our personal differences and preferences are bigger than they actually are?
Practicing architecture inevitably means one needs to compromise. We do not think there is any way around that. Architecture
very rarely happens in ideal conditions. It is therefore smart to make the very notion of compromise and conflict part of the design process. Thus, we prefer to make most of the compromises among us.
In a sense, the discursive design methodology pre-empts later compromises with, for example, clients as their objections and concerns early on become embedded or rejected.
One must be very strategic in regards to which compromises are acceptable and which are not. The other thing is that the concept must be either slack or robust enough to withstand inevitable compromises that occur throughout the oftentimes lengthy process of trying to get something built. This is another strength of our system, as it enables us to compromise without weakening the initial idea.
This relates to one of our ongoing concerns, namely the fear of simply becoming service providers. Although this might sound cheesy, we do not think it is necessarily problematic to be client-oriented. The difference, however, between us and what is typically understood to be more corporate firms is that they simply give the client what they want, whereas we try to give the client what they did not know they wanted. In that sense, we see it as our task to provide something that is unpredictable, not necessarily beautiful, and enables the user to produce further layers of space.
In academia, dealing with reality tends to be seen as something almost perverse. Is it not weird how one sits totally isolated in the studio, making up one’s own client and brief? It is a total mind-fuck. There is such a schizophrenic relation between academia and the practicing side of architecture, or should one say bipolar disorder to describe this condition? And when you graduate you are nearly handicapped and unable to deal with what is called reality. Too us, it was a shock; and we are still involved in the process of acclimatisation.
We also should be aware that we are in a bit of a comfortable bubble. Our clients are all really interesting and keen on ideas, but what would happen if we were to work with a hardcore developer? We are pretty ambivalent about this. Before we started nOffice, some of us worked quite a lot with property developers and we were totally appalled by their ruthlessness and complete lack of any form of responsibility beyond profit. It would be difficult to see nOffice catering to that type of client.
Does that mean the architect has some form of larger societal responsibility? Can the architect even take on that role? In our discussions we often refer to Cedric Price and Ludwig Leo. Are they still a model for a practicing architect, or is that just another form of idealistic escapism devoid of any form of current relevance? Although they both could be described – at least in relatively simplistic terms – as hyper-
Practice Inventory #1
pragmatists and rather system-based architects, we would never say they never did zero-degree-architecture. On the contrary, we would argue their work is totally intense.
Markus is the one of us, who has dealt the most with socio-political aspects. We are thinking here in particular on the soon to be completed trilogy on participation, which is relevant in this discussion in terms of whether the architect can or should have a more prominent societal position. Markus and Ralf, during the Lyon Biennial, used the term ‘the violence of participation’ in order to describe an agent within a set of protocols that violates the status quo – an alien agent in a foreign set of protocols. Can the architect possess this role of the alien agent within a larger societal context?
Over the last decade, there has been an increasing overuse of the term Participation. When everyone has been turned into a ‘participant’, the often uncritical, innocent and romantic use of the term has become frightening. Supported by an often nostalgic veneer of worthiness, phoney solidarity and political correctness, participation has become the default mode for politicians to withdraw from responsibly. Similar to the notion of an independent politician not associated with a specific party, this third part of Markus’ ‘Participation Trilogy’ (The Nightmare of Participation, Sternberg Press, 2010) encourages the role of the
“uninterested outsider”, an “uncalled participator” that is not limited by existing protocols, entering the arena with nothing but creative intellect and the will to generate change. He argues for an urgent inversion of Participation that takes as a starting point a model beyond modes of consensus. Instead of reading Participation as the good-doing saviour from political struggle, he reflects on the limits and traps of its real motivations, a sort of behind the scenes. Instead of breading the next generation of consensual facilitators and mediators, he argues for conflict as an enabling rather than disabling force. The book calls for a format of “conflictual participation” – no longer as a process by which others are invited “in”, but as a means of acting without mandate, as uninvited irritant: a forced entry into fields of knowledge that arguably benefit from exterior thinking. Sometimes, democracy has to be avoided to all cost.
To a certain extent, we would argue that the architect in fact is an alien agent even within the field of architecture. Somehow, everyone thinks they are architects. The current plethora of home improvement programs on TV might be part of this phenomenon. The other thing is the utterly conservative nature of much of the building industry. Typically one does a thing simply because that is what one typically does. One bizarre recent example is that a builder told one of our clients that it is wrong – as we suggested – to put tiles from floor to ceiling in the bathroom
and that they only should be put up to approximately eye-level, not realising that at one point that was done only as a cost-saving measure. Now the cost-saving solution apparently has become the norm and if one wants to do as what was typically done before, it is now considered abnormal and in fact wrong.
We have nothing against participation when formulating the concept. Although we think that we, as architects, must maintain the leading role in formulating spatial concepts and ideas. After the concept is generated, there is little room for further discussion. We might sound fascist, but good architecture is rarely generated by the involvement of too many stakeholders. It will just end up being a lame compromise. A more system-based design methodology with built in slack is, however, key in enabling participation and change.
This whole notion of participatory architecture is just another fad. It is not a surprise that after the formalist excesses where the architect became a megalomaniac monster comes the diametrically opposite. It was to be expected. This is how architectural ‘theory’ works: reaction and anti-reaction. For some reason architects continuously have the need to act out their oedipal obsessions. Architects are such slaves to dichotomies. It is always either/or, good/bad, black/white ad infinitum. We might be wrong, but we do not think
architects will ever be able to take on a more important role unless they shed this pre-historical fur of stupidity.
nOffice (Miessen Pflugfelder Nilsson)