“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” —Lao Tzu

The Architecture of Thought


A Think-Tank Policy Retreat for the Brookings Institution

The title, “The Architecture of Thought,” has many possible meanings, all of which will be explored throughout the semester to better inform the act of architectural design. This slippery title can simultaneously refer to the design of physical buildings that themselves are locations for, or encourage reflection and thought—or it can refer to developments within architectural theory that have acted as prompts to change the course of architecture throughout its history—lastly it can call one’s attention to the very structures of the human mind itself where thoughts are developed, thereby encouraging larger questions regarding the nature of being, existence and the status of reality. This is a unique design studio in that in it students will consider of all of these readings through the medium of a single architectural design problem—an actual building or small complex of buildings. So while the intellectual context of the course will be broad, the design agenda will be focused in particular on a rather new and singular building typology—a think-tank policy retreat for the Brookings Institution that will specialize in addressing issues that impact the Trans-Himalayan region.

The program of a think-tank offers an interesting problem for architecture, as universities and their building types have been largely established, there exists almost no examples of a purpose-built typology for the activities specific to a think-tank. And so the question exists—is architecture able to produce environments other than generic office spaces that are more conducive to contemplation, thought, and the collaborative exchange of opinions and ideas between people? - In particular ideas that are not abstract but often result in the active production of national and international policies that impact us all? What might an architecture solely dedicated to intentional, collaborative, and political thinking be like? There is no correct singular answer to this question expected by the studio but rather it is posed in the spirit of an invitation to curiosity and speculation. As such it is expected that each project in the studio project will be different in its philosophical assumptions, relationship to the site and formal ambitions. In short, the studio will be extremely biodiverse.

Physical Context

There exist very few buildings within the history of architecture dedicated exclusively to the act of thinking and focused communal deliberation. The closest historical match to such a typology might be that of the monastery. In particular, Tibetan monasteries, nearly all of which were purpose-built for their program and have been in continuous use for centuries, offer the closest typological precedent to the program of the studio. As such the studio will be spending six days in Tibet studying the architecture of some of the most significant Buddhist monasteries in the world, including those of Jokhang, Sera, Palcho, Tashilhunpo and Drepung- which at one time housed over 10,000 monks. Interspersed into these visits will be equally informative visits to the historic retreat buildings used for centuries including Portola, and Norbulinka. Part of the success of such an intellectual retreat requires an absence of distraction, and the opportunity to immerse oneself within the intricacies of thought and deliberation, undisturbed by the invasions of everyday and urban life. The precise site of the project, therefore, will be a relatively remote location that will be selected during the trip and pending further collective discussion.

Intellectual Context

This studio, given its emphasis on thought, will endeavor to consider the architectural design problem in a larger context of philosophy, and will be interdisciplinary in the truest sense of the word—being co-taught by a philosopher, Graham Harman, and an architect, Mark Foster Gage. Graham Harman is the founder of the influential philosophical movement of Object-Oriented Ontology and in the last several years has been ranked as one of the world’s most influential living philosophers as well as one of the most influential figures in the arts. Over the past decade Professor Harman has developed particularly close ties with the architecture community, continuing a long line of historic philosophical/architectural affiliations that have proven highly influential in the profession dating as far back as the infamous relationship between architect Filippo Brunelleschi and humanitarian theorist Leon Battista Alberti and continuing through more recent 20th century engagements with philosophers Christian Norberg-Schultz, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze. Professor Harman’s role in the studio will be not only introduce students to these pivotal moments in architectures own history through the eyes of an expert, but to help students to develop their own personal intellectual frameworks for positioning their design projects in broader and better- informed intellectual contexts than student projects typically reside.

Think-Tank: A New Typology for the 21st Century

While spending significant amounts of time within their context it is easy to believe that universities are the engines that power the intellectual trajectory of our culture. While this has certainly been true in various historic eras, the 20th century saw the emergence of another type of institution more specifically dedicated to the activity of thinking and its subsequent influence on governmental policy, and therefore directly upon society—the think tank. Think-tanks are the cauldrons in which new ideas are developed across a vast spectrum of human endeavors. They are where new ideas are developed and feed directly into the policy-making systems of government that can immediately impact people’s lives. Today there are over 1800 registered think-tanks in the United States alone ranging from single-cause institutions, to both left- and right-wing funded behemoths, often funded from nefarious sources and with sometimes questionable goals. These entities largely go unnoticed, especially to the architectural community, lodged as they are in generic office spaces and operating under the radar of flashier, tawdrier, headlines. Yet such think tanks have an immeasurable impact on public policy and therefore the way we all live, especially as lines between international governments, corporate interests, and private think tank funding sources are increasingly blurred.

The worlds most cited, most prestigious and most highly ranked think tank in terms of influence is the non-partisan Brookings Institution. The Brookings institution was founded in 1916 as the U.S. Institute for Government Research (IGR) and was originally tasked with providing unbiased research on a vast range of topics with the express goal of better informing the making of public policy. After the Great Depression the Brookings Institution was commissioned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with researching and determining its causes. During World War II Brookings developed research recommending, and seeing implemented, everything from domestic price controls to strategic military mobilization in areas of Europe. As America’s Space Program developed it was the Brookings institution that researched the social, economic, political, legal and international implications of the human infiltration of space. Even more recently Brookings was tasked with determining the impact of 9/11 on the country’s intelligence and security apparatus, and in 2009 President Barack Obama chose the Brookings Institution as the location for his announcement of the post-recession economic package for promoting economic growth. Currently the institution is involved in conducting research and recommendations for broader international use on topics including energy security and climate crisis, arms control, the digital economy, racial prosperity, international privacy and human rights.

For this studio we will be developing a new type of think-tank complex. This architecture will not be designed for teaching, learning, collecting information, entertainment, leisure, or any use not directly supporting the focused thought and the collaborative deliberation that defines the work of a think-tank. This will be done in collaboration with executives from the Brookings Institution who will further explain the institutions unique role in global politics and how that intersects with their current use of physical space—and how such considerations of space, technology and architecture might be dramatically reconsidered for a new millennium of use.

The Program

The Brookings Institution is currently headquartered in Washington DC in is what is essentially a rather nondescript office building. They also have international locations in Beijing, China New Delhi, India and Doha, Qatar. Instead of designing a new building within yet another large metropolis, the program for this studio will be for a building or small complex of buildings more akin to a retreat - one where experts are more isolated and detached from the distractions of everyday life and are able to be more focus more directly and collaboratively on the particular policy questions at hand. This will be done in the tradition of locations such as Camp David, which the U.S. Presidency uses for longer-term meetings, summits, and increased contact, both formal and casual, between participants involved in the solving of difficult problems. As such this might be thought of as a very, very small-scale resort, with meeting areas or rooms (casual and formal, indoor and outdoor) recreation facilities, a research center, library and dining areas- all existing to support the bringing together people for the purpose of intentional and focused thought and deliberation. Unless otherwise required the building or small complex will be limited to housing roughly 12-14 experts at a time, with an average stay of 7-21 days, where they will be engaged in intensive discussion, research, deliberation and collaborative production. There will be a staff of roughly five full time people who permanently reside at or near the site and are responsible primarily for maintenance, scheduling and support functions.

The Philosophy Workshop

In order to better inform the intellectual framework of the course and think-tank program, we will be looking to the past to understanding more about the historical and often pivotal relationships between architecture and philosophy. Much of this work will be focused in a week-long “philosophy workshop” to follow midterm reviews. During this time students will study the strong influence in architecture of three European philosophers, one after the other: Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze. During this workshop students will better understand their own developing design projects through a more in-depth look at three of these three aforementioned cases, and by pairing a work by each philosopher with at least one piece of evidence showing their direct influence on architecture. We will then discuss the most influential philosophical positions in architecture today as a continuation of this type of continued interdisciplinary exchange between the two areas of study. The first of the three cases considered will be Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” and “Genius Loci” by Christian Norberg-Schulz. The second is Jacques Derrida’s “Différance,” and the third case studied will be Gilles Deleuze’s “The Fold” with Sanford Kwinter’s “Far from Equilibrium,”- and its impact on the digital formalist movement of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The studio will also explore the philosophical traditions of Buddhism and eastern philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu. By studying these historic positions and relationships between philosophy and architecture, it is the hope that students will be able to better situate their own projects within more contemporary contexts as they explore how architecture impacts how we think, and how forms of thought, in-turn impact the very design of our buildings and cities.