The Exploratory turn ı Knowledge-based practices 1

The classical conception of the architect as a solver, as Jeremy Till puts it in his Architecture Depends, seems outdated. The reason of this erosion can be explained within a set of complexities that we will sum up into one: crisis. Put the point differently, this erosion however can be mere productive for the profession. But what outcomes might erosion produce? In what extent can erosion be creative for architecture? This question will be partially remained unsolved in this post. Let me take an example of outcomes that the erosion of the architect's traditional role can produce: knowledge.
My interest in the place of knowledge within the architectural sphere, first, departs from two projects by Canadian Lateral Office: (1) a recent project entitled Knowledge Clouds designed in the framework of an exhibition titled Deep Freeze Exhibition at the Habourfront Centre for Arts, in Toronto that gathers a series of projects regarding the North Canadian region; (2) The Arctic Food Networks that reveals a anthropological approach to design. Another position, if I can qualify as such, that invites me to develop a research on knowledge production is urban expedition ranging from the same Lateral Office, MAP ArchitectsUnknown Fields Division, to Vanishing Point (founded by photographer and urban explorer Michael Cook) and the recent BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography's project Venue Project. My ambition is not to discuss the historical relation of architecture and expedition but to look at (1) if and how expedition can be a form of knowledge production for architecture; (2) what kind of outcomes expedition can afford for the architect; and (3) what kind of knowledge these research-based practices generate. Second I am particularly interested in the shifting paradigm of architecture, namely that architecture is becoming contingent. And I take the risk of associating the growing interest for expedition with the validation or integration of contingency within the architecture sphere. But a first remark is that expedition, as we will see, is forcing architecture to break the however solid ramparts of its ivory tower. In other words, it participates in the shift of the architect's role into a facilitator.
Iceland Expedition | Courtesy of MAP Architects and the Bartlett School of Architecture Unit 3, 2012

Third, I assume that knowledge production entails a detailed analysis that includes education. Rather education should be placed at top in the preoccupation as knowledge means, among others, teaching. Indeed, there is a vast but important debate on reforming architectural education — I will merely cite these two examples here and here to limit to the UK.
My point, however, is far beyond teaching. Thus, what interests me resides not necessarily in these new economies of practices but much more in their articulation, their engagement in reality. For this matter, I will merely talk about a part of knowledge production. It seems to me that expeditions is a good method to be engaged with the world since expedition is articulable. It can provide a set of tools, skills for the architect not necessarily limited to this one whose preoccupation or field of interest concerns certain regions — hostile regions, sick regions (I am referring to these regions threatened by ecological crises such as flooding, or drought). It also encompasses this one whose field of intervention is located in his/her surrounding, namely local communities, and so on.
Workshop in Ilulissat, Greenland | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2012

I will limit the question of expedition to two examples: extreme environments — I confess that this choice is dictated by my interest for the scale of landscape-infrastructure — and another but quite similar in terms of scale: Venue as it addresses the geographical scale. I let aside the other urban expeditions for another post as the field is too rich to be reduced into one post.
Mylar Resilience Test in Greenland | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2012

As has been said, growing articles, lectures, events and books announce, debate the emergence of new economies of practices. These practices articulate a series of examples of practices ranging from the community enabler, the generalist, the historian to the educator. Two examples of books are Future Practice by Rory Hyde and Till's already mentioned Architecture Depends. Both, written in the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century — respectively 2012 and 2009 —, stress the shifting status and position of architecture as facilitator, community enabler and interface.
Greenland Migrating | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2010

That architecture today — its current form of practice and thinking — is not adapted to the multiple challenges we are facing with. Hence the important task of redefining the architecture's business model, as Dan Hill of City of Sound/Fabrica puts it in his preface for Future PracticeFuture Practice and Architecture Depends highlight that architecture has become a discipline not only of innovation, creativity but also of opportunities, of exchange between experts and non-experts. Architecture has become a contingent, crossbench discipline, a discipline that dialogues with other fields. But not only, it also dialogues with those for whom it builds — the people. Consequently, architecture is forced — by all means and at all costs — to emerge from its isolation with the risk of putting its status as expert, as solver in jeopardy. Citing Peter SloterdijkMarkus Miessen writes:
[T]he individual designer needs to attempt to mount a certain universe of competency, a territory in which one can exist as a sovereign individual, not in the sense of relative specialization, but rather, the reverse: the contemporary "expert" needs to become not a more specified master of a singular terrain, but an incompetent master navigating the ocean of practices. For [Peter] Sloterdijk, design is the skillful mastering of incompetence. Skillful in enables a type of neutral gear, a parallel reality, in which practice, even in the presence of those who attempt to render themselves unconscious, can be sustained in an optimistic mode of production.
Indeed, as Miessen argues, a collaboration with other actors will be providing new possibilities, new perspectives, new modes of engagement for the architect. His idea of building a discipline that will provide 'constructive critical productivity' can be an innovative force for a profession in crisis. The concept of 'crossbench' is defined as a "structural component that is designed to leave space for those who want to remain disassociated in order to provoke, motivate, and eventually stir change." The 'crossbench architect' could be an architect who is involved outside of the market. An architect who does not necessarily build but whose practice, research, or discourse contributes to the discourse, to the evolution, the transformation of the profession and the world with which he/she is engaged. An architect who positions his/herself as a strategic outsider. 
Greenland Migrating | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2010

This raises three questions: How to rethink architecture vis-à-vis the unstable, uncertain disturbances? What is the role of the architect presently and potentially? Is architecture equipped enough for these challenges? I could not agree more with Jeremy Till who calls for profiting from crisis to redefine the discipline, to put architecture at risk. Peter Sloterdijk claims that the expert needs to become an incompetent master navigating the ocean of practices. What does he mean with incompetent master? He only posits that the architect as expert can no longer have the solutions for all the problems. Or, the practitioner needs new design protocols, new methods to approach to challenging contexts. This obviously poses the question of the understanding of 'expert'. What is an expert today? 
Greenland Migrating | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2010

A description commonly accepted presents the expert as the one who analyzes the terrain, evaluates and proposes solutions. This is the commonly validated understanding of today's expert. In the face of the multi-format, multi-scale crises, the architect now problem-forms; he speculates; he elaborates scenarios that might or might not be built. In doing so he goes beyond architecture, beyond the simple act of building in search for new skillset, new expertise. These new forms of expertise, however, must remain scalable, mutable, responsive, as Lola Sheppard and Neeraj Bhatia write in the second volume of Bracket [Goes Soft]
Svalbard Architectural Expedition | © MAP Architects, 2013

The complexities of external conditions, as has been said, are deeply transforming the profession. This resonates with a form of practice that is not new but reflects a re-interest for knowledge production. Let me take the risk of summarizing this into knowledge-based practice — or research-as-practice. This form of practice, accordingly, requires specific tools, methodology, new protocols, new approach to practising and thinking. The architect as facilitator. This, with a strong evidence, supposes this following question: to what degree might architecture be not just the engineering material of life but also a facilitator, an active agent? This question presently animates a set of research, discourse, events.
Bio Mimicry of Polar Plants | Courtesy of Clemens Hochreiter || MAP Architects, 2013
> "Based on the mechanisms of plants to increase the temperature in their flowers for growing their seeds in the very short reproductive periods in polar regions, this device is a reconstruction of different flower shapes. Therefore the flowers of three different on Svalbard domestic plants were researched and got translated into the technical device, aiming to evaluate which typology of flower is able generate the highest temperature within the flower. Beside a reconstruction close to the natural example modified test series with different materials got used. This should clarify if it possible to improve the microclimate within the flower shaped volumes by using transparent, light absorbing or light reflecting materials. Every single volume got a thermometer to measure the temperature inside and outside, completely independent from the other test set-up to get comparable results. On site the device got positioned in the open landscape of Svalbard to gather as much natural light as possible in between the steep mountains surrounding Longyearbyen." - Clemens Hochreiter 

Let me, now, limit to two questions related to what we are concerned: Is knowledge a question of scale? What is knowledge production? Knowledge is power, both been intricately interconnected as Michel Foucault forthrightly stated. As known, knowledge production can serve to re-empower architecture. Allow me to look at the art area that has long addressed the question of knowledge production under the pen of Irit Rogoff, Stephen Wright or Simon Sheikh. Related questions are presently discussed in the art area that include the present status of artwork, the traditional role of the artist, and the decline of the artistic education, among other issues. Like the discipline of architecture, art must be re-empowered. According to art theorist Simon Sheikh "the notion of knowledge production implies a certain placement of thinking, of ideas, within the present knowledge economy, i.e., the dematerialized production of current post-Fordist capitalism." What kind of knowledge can architecture produce? How to relate knowledge production to architecture to offer new possibilities for design? I am particularly interested in a form of knowledge production: architectural expedition. What kind of knowledge production might expedition bring to architecture?
Ice Tiles: A Study on Insulation Properties and Light Transmission | Courtesy of Daniela Miller || MAP Architects, 2013
> "If we think about appropriate ways of construction in extreme environments it is always useful and relevant to reflect upon the vernacular. That means for the Arctic regions of our world the image of an igloo often appears in our mind. One study in particular focused on the insulation resistance of the different ice and snow tiles. The tiles are produced in different thicknesses and some of them encase different kinds of material. Using a heat source within the box, the insulation properties of the tiles can be measured with a thermometer. The other series of studies deals with the translucency of the tiles. A light source is placed inside the box and the light intensity and quality crossing through the tile can be measured with a luxmeter. Designing in synergy with natural environmental conditions is an essential goal of the ice-box project. The idea of the ice-box was to look into the potential of benefiting from ice and snow in architecture. Therefore different ice and snow plates were produced by use of a mould system. These tiles have been registered and analysed to quantify the most relevant data." - Daniela Miller

Iceberg Living Station | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2010

As has been said, there is a growing interest for urban expedition — practitioners and non-practitioners exploring the world to survey the transformation of our society. This is evidently not new. History has demonstrated architects' interest for expedition, the Grand European Tour in the 17th- and 18th-century constituting the illustrative example. For the most, these not yet established architects traveled to survey art, language, geography and architecture in Europe. As a result, for the architects, upon their return from their continental travel, the purpose of this long expedition was to improve architecture and culture. 
Iceberg Living Station | Courtesy of MAP Architects, 2010

Today's architects' ambition, however, is far from the only desire of crossing the world to study architecture, art and geography. Their ambition resides in the investigation of the world's complexities at the territorial scale, the interaction of the human scale, the scale of the built environment and the scale of the natural environment. Denmark-based MAP Architects' founder David Garcia recent trip drove him and his students of the Lund University's Extreme Environments & Future Landscapes program to the hostile environment of the far North, to Svalbard, a 61,022-square-kilometer (21,561-square-mile) isolated landmass located in the Norwegian part of the Arctic Ocean. There, David Garcia and his students study the "growing communities affected by the melting ice cap and the large opportunities for transportation and resources that the northeast passage now offers." Not that MAP Architects are specialized in urban structures in the extreme cold. The reason of MAP Architects' interest, rather, lies in the study of opportunities for architectural design in these extreme situations using adaptive instruments designed for these environments. Furthermore, MAP Architects' architectural investigation resides at the heart of the question of process, namely, how spatial formats came about and how they will evolve. Their folded, recto-verso-A1 publication MAP (Manual of Architectural Possibilitiescollects research data of their architectural investigation on the recto and speculative project on the verso into now six issues. Extreme environments entail specific, adaptive knowledge. Concerning their regular investigation in the North Canadian part of the Arctic region, Canadian Lateral Office, for whom expedition plays an important role, describe their motivation as follows
We're looking at what kinds of architecture might come out of that region, if it were treated not as the globe's for northern attic condition but as its own local context.
Architects are not the exclusive explorers. Architectural expedition is of high importance for non-practitioners too. Their motivation is quite similar to that of architects: they investigate the built/natural environment-population nexus. Put it simply, they attempt at unfolding the intricately anthropogenic impact on the landscape. Many of these non-practitioners carry on fruitful exchanges with architects throughout expeditions, workshops, lectures or exhibitions. Take Venue, a sixteen-month curatorial-based project launched by BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh and Edible Geography's Nicola Twilley in collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art's Center for Art and Environment, Future Plural and Columbia University's Studio-X NYC, and Preservation (GSAPP). Within Venue, both Manaugh and Twilley traverse the United States to document existing landscape "through the eyes of the innovators, trendsetters, entrepeneurs and designers at the forefront of ideas today" on a series of different expeditions. Topography, speculative landscapes, landscape-infrastructure, geography, but also military devices, video games, human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments are amid the topics that will be surveyed during this long tour. Nicola Twilley defines Venue as follows:
Mount Angeles | Image courtesy of © Venue, 2012-13

Physically, Venue is a collection of measuring tools and recording devices mounted on surveying tripods and a custom-designed pop interview desk. In addition to standard video, audio, and still photography, we'll also be deploying a range of more whimsical, poetic, and obscure instrument to reveal invisible forces and impose alternate perceptual frameworks on the landscape. I'm particularly excited about this part of the project, as part of a longstanding interest in exploring how the technologies we use to explore and describe the landscape both shape and are shaped by the way we understand it.
Manaugh and Twilley are fascinated by these Grand Tours dated of the 17th and 18th-centuries. While, in particular, in the United Kingdom, the Grand Tour was regarded as an obligation, or rite of passage, architects, artists and writers enthusiastically participated in these expeditions with the aim of expanding their knowledge of the world. Manaugh and Twilley share the same desire and interest. They define Venue as a mobile interview studio, a multi-format event platform, better: "surveying expedition and forward-operating landscape research base, a DIY interview booth and media rig". These expeditions — Venue, urban exploration, and so on — require adapted equipment and instruments such as camera, robotic devices equipped with camera. 
Mount Angeles | Image courtesy of © Venue, 2012-13

The common denominator of these knowledge-based practices lies in the attempt at reconfiguring by all means and at all costs the discipline of architecture into a process-based approach. Indeed, these research-based practices, therefore, coincide with the crisis of the discipline arguing that we should go beyond the act of building. Not that building and site do not matter anymore. Rather, there are other preoccupation that architecture should involve with that include scales, dimensions, conditions — infrastructure, territorial mutation as a result of local, regional, global-scale implications, politics, and so on.
Stiltsville | Image courtesy of Venue, 2012-13

Expedition does not necessarily suppose that these architects develop exclusively speculative projects. Most of their proposals are buildable. If many of these explorers-architects are readers of science-fiction like J.G. Ballard, China Mieville or Bruce Sterling their projects can be realized. About his research-based projects, David Garcia states,
We believe that all of the projects that we create would be realized. We do not think that we are doing any science fiction. Even the most radical ones, such as the Iceberg project. All you need is a caterpillar and then start by making a whole into an iceberg technologies.TheZoo for contaminated species is the most radical one, but it's not science fiction, its just a high hole in a ground with a dome. Some of these projects are just the most simple solutions to the problems approached, the 'ready Made Antarctic base Station' for example is a project where you would just land a series of retired air crafts on Antarctica instead of Arizona to to create a work station. For us they are just alternative ways of engaging with the built environment, but I don't think we make any of our buildings float in the air or stand by wishful thinking. I think what we challenge are other aspects, we challenge way of design and building that are not necessarily traditional ones.
The Iceberg Living Station proposal, as David Garcia describes it, ambitions to "design a living station for 100 visitors with minimum environmental impact."
To achieve this, we aim to avoid "building" by traditional means, which would implicate transporting materials foreign to the continent, which never leave Antarctica again. Instead, the 'architecture' is holed out in a super large iceberg (about 2.5 square kilometer area), which would eventually melt in 7 to 10 years time. (…) Caterpillar excavators, traditionally used in the Antarctic to move and clear snow, would cut out the spaces inside the iceberg. The geometric logic of the movement of these machines, now used to 'design and cut' the spaces inside the iceberg. The geometric logic of the movement of these machines, now used to 'design and cut' the spaces, create the curves of the interiors. To access ramps (one for the pedestrians, the other for vehicles) give access t the main hall and canteen, with access to kitchen, medical services, and toilets. From this public area the living station grows into an array of passages, which give access to the sleeping quarters, clustered in groups of eight or nine rooms around a common lounge. A lecture/conference hall allows for cultural activities. Containers would transport food and reusable solar cells and energy equipment, and would be used to store waste and grey water residue, which can be shipped of regularly.
Two projects departed from regularly expeditions to extreme environments are Knowledge Clouds and Arctic Food Network. The list of projects for the Canadian part of the Arctic region is long ranging from Health Hangars, Iceberg Rigging Stations, to Caribou Pivot StationsLateral Office are concerned with the social, economic and ecological drives at play in this landscape. In each project, the aim is to design adaptive architectural propositions for this region.
Knowledge Clouds ı Stills from Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change (2010, Isuma) by © Z. Kunuk and I. Mauro
Originally appeared on Lateral Office

Lateral Office noticed that the creation of a Pan-Arctic university provides a frame for locals to communicate their knowledge of the Arctic, first, to one another, then to the rest of the world. The purpose here is to facilitate "an inclusive common ground for learning and sharing traditional and scientific knowledge" about the region.
Knowledge Clouds | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2013 
An itinerant territorial campus, the proposed aerial movement patterns of classrooms and labs

Knowledge Clouds examines how architecture can engage the scale of geography and tests the possibility of an incremental, expandable, mobile system of education that can serve as seeds of knowledge exchange and production into the North.
This knowledge-based structure consists of a series of lightweight units based on the Arctic airship technology "predicted to supply logistical mobility with a 40-ton capacity." These units "can be shipped by air and remain on sites for varying periods of time." Lateral Office propose responsive forms and materials to climatological conditions. 
Knowledge Clouds ı Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2013
Installation of animated models at Harbourfront Centre showing the 1:200 and 1:75 models

The second project Arctic Food Network problem-forms the interrelated issues of health, poverty, and loss of culture in the Arctic region. Restructuration of the communities articulated with a productive infrastructure system allows for the Inuit communities to adapt to the changing conditions of their environment and to sustain the growing young population located in northern settlements
Arctic Food Network | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2012
Food Distribution Diagram: 1960 - Present (left) and 2014 - Onward (right)

Lateral Office describe this project as 21st-century arctic snow highway, with arctic rest-stop cabins; a new model for cold climate survival. Arctic Food Networks is composed of
Arctic Food Network | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2012
hubs […] distributed at 160km intervals. [These] hubs occupy varied sites: land, water/ice, or coastal conditions. Each of these sitings offers a specific harvestable food product.
Arctic Food Networks functions as an interface between the communities on the one hand, and the communities and their environment on the other hand. It also unfolds the contingent character of architecture in the face of external contingencies of the location. It also unfolds another aspect of the discipline. 
Arctic Food Network | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2012
Map of indigenous people of the Arctic, percentage that is food insecure, and a comparison cost of 'food baskets' in the north revealing the high costs in Nunavut

There is an anthropological approach in these two projects and more broadly the whole projects concerning the North Canadian region in their way of problem-forming the critical issues relative to this region.
Iceberg Rigging Station | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010
The Iceberg Rigging station combines the industrial and touristic sectors.

Mason White employs the concept of productive, he judges, as more adapted to changing contexts than sustainability. 
Caribou Pivot Stations | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010
Mapping of caribou migration routes and calving grounds, in relation to existing and proposed research stations

The difference between the productive and the sustainable lies in optimizing delicate, intricate interdependencies of inhabited environments and natural ecosystems — thinking at an articulated scale of the human and non-human — with innovative but soft, scalable design protocols envisioned at a territorial scale. 
Caribou Pivot Stations | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010
Studies of required grazing areas and availability, across the seasons.

A productive, he writes, "refers to the capacity for a design surface to generate a usable component — agriculture, renewable energy systems, water harvesting systems, et al." The productive, he continues, "is an extension and evolution of sustainability — without any dubious empirical or technological determinism."
Health Hangar | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010
Proposed new network of air travel and airports for medical care in these Nunavut communities with no roads and insufficient health clinics.
Health Hangar | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010
Entry with ice formation curtainwall system
Caribou Pivot Stations | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010

Lateral Office's possibilities of generating adaptive expertise, and decision-making adapted to these regions, MAP Architects' architectural investigations to afford specific, responsive design decisions once again for these regions, the contribution of non-practitioners like Venue/BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography to question not architecture as such but the interaction of the built and the natural landscape through the scale of geography, are possible in accordance with a knowledge-based practice and thinking that integrates expedition, exchanges and collaboration with local institutions and community actors, lectures, exhibitions and, writing — respectively Bracket and Manual of Architectural Possibilities, and blogs
Caribou Pivot Stations | Courtesy of Lateral Office, 2010
Map showing caribou migration routes, communities, existing research stations, and proposed stations

Expedition of course is not the only method, or the saviour of architecture. This is not its pretensions. It nonetheless can be a tool, a dispositif de pensée (device of thinking) and of practice aimed at rescaling, expanding the profession, the architect's role not as an expert-solver but as an active agent.

to be continued…

Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, The MIT Press, 2009
Rory Hyde, Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, Routledge, 2012
Geoff Manaugh, The BLDGBLOG Book, Chronicle Books, 2009
Geoff Manaugh (ed.), Landscape Futures, Actar Editorial, 2013. Preview in ISSUU.
Markus Miessen, The Nightmare of Participation, Markus Miessen, Sternberg Press, 2011
Peter Sloterdijk, Sven Voelker, Der Welt Über die Strasse Helfen, Fink Wilhelm GmbH + Co.KG, 2010,
Mason White, The Productive Surface, Design Observer, 2011
Simon Sheikh, "Talk Value: Cultural Industry and Knowledge Economy," in On Knowledge Production: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, Maria Hlavajova, Jill Winder, and Binna Choi (eds.), Revolver, Archiv für Aktuelle Kunst, 2008.
Manual of Architectural Possibilities: Antarctica, Quarantine, Archive, Floods, Chernobyl, Greenland
Lola Sheppard, Neeraj Bhatia (ed.), Bracket Goes Soft Almanac 2, Actar Editorial, 2013

No comments:

Pageviews last month