As we navigate a global pandemic emerging in the context of an existential climate crisis, exacerbating long standing systemic inequities of race and class, it is easy to feel that we are living through a time of unprecedented volatility and radical instability. Where crisis seems to follow on crisis, each apparently unforeseen, uncertainty becomes the rule rather than the exception. When every bird is a black swan, architecture, given its conventional associations with stability, permanence and duration, on the long term, the strategic plan, the monument, seems inadequate to the tasks at hand. While other disciplinary fields have developed concepts, from productive ambiguity to antifragility, that seek to anticipate, mitigate or even benefit from ongoing changes in systems, resources and economies, architecture, like the proverbial battleship asked to turn on a dime, appears far too unwieldy, slow and inertially bound to provide responses in a world that seems to shift around us with increasing speed and unpredictability. At the same time, architecture’s flat footedness in response to change has rendered it one more disposable commodity in a destructive cycle of consumption, waste and environmental degradation.
This fundamental paradox of uncertainty for a discipline based on projection, of impermanence for a practice predicated on permanence, will define the studio. We will ask how the material conditions of architecture might engage with the increasing volatility that characterizes our collective relationship to emergent environmental, climatological, biological, political and social conditions. Extending beyond the immediate crises, we will seek to interrogate architecture’s intersection with notions of adaptability, transformation, resiliency and productive indeterminacy. We will ask how do we navigate the impossibility of futureproofing on the one hand and the inevitability of obsolescence on the other? How do we avoid the trap of designing for the last crisis while allowing for the emergence of the unforeseeable? What would it mean to understand impermanence and instability as a site in which fundamental conditions of architecture, notions of structure, inhabitation, program, and environmental control could be challenged, reconfigured and rethought in new and productive ways? What if architecture’s inherent slowness is in fact the very countermeasure required in a world that has always been essentially unstable and precarious, a point of resistance in a milieu of change and instability?
To engage these questions will require examining a counter narrative within architectural discourse and history, much of it non-western in origin, that entangles questions of temporality and transformation: from the Shikinen Sengu, the cyclical rebuilding of the Ise Shrine, to the indigenous traditions of nomadic architectures, to the remaking of urban space by mass festivals. In addition, the modernist fascination with transformability, from Universal Space to the Metabolists, from Archigram to the various incarnations of responsive structures, pneumatics, and open systems as well as contemporary practices that instrumentalize reuse and resiliency will be considered. This initial research will form the basis and initial period of our work, setting out the terms and opening up potentials for further investigation.
Subsequently, each student or student group, will examine these broader concerns in relation to an architectural territory: 1. membrane/envelope, 2. structure, 3. environmental systems and thermal performance, 4 program and interior organizations. While acknowledging the overlapping nature of these categories, their tendency to blur one into another, they will nevertheless provide a scaffolding in which students will identify zones of research on which their projects will be based. Working from these initial researches, each student will define a hypothesis to be tested in architectural form and ultimately translated into specific programmatic and site proposals during the course of the semester. While the studio will allow, in the manner of a directed research, a high degree of self-determination on the part of the student, New York City will function as a limiting condition for our investigations and a number of default sites will be identified as potential territories for intervention. Once initial investigations are complete, a number of programmatic spurs will be provided for students to elect ranging from the predictable to the contradictory.
While the above outlines the architectural problem at hand, the social, cultural and inter-subjective dimensions of radical instability will also be considered by the studio. To the extent that our perceived precarity extends to all aspects of our personal and communal experiences, our investigations will also examine this collective anxiety as a means to assess possible spatial and programmatic implications. How can an awareness of the traumas of the moment lead to a more holistic understanding of the needs, interpersonal and social, our projects might address? Beyond temporary responses to the current crisis, how do we reimagine the future of the city relative to this heightened sense of volatility. To this end, students will identify and examine vulnerabilities within current urban systems: access to resources, care, sustenance, social interaction, to inform the identification of sites for architectural and programmatic intervention, transforming and augmenting existing systems or inventing new formats that address both emergent communal insecurities and longer range challenges of environmental change.
Finally, the studio will encourage an imaginative engagement with uncertainty. Rather than seeking the elimination of uncertainty, we will embrace it as a catalyst for productive possibilities, navigating between the anxieties of the present moment and the projection of an unknowable but still possible future.