In the archives the oth­er day, going through old stu­dio state­ments, I came across a short exer­cise: to design a house for Mr. and Mrs. White-Breast­ed Nuthatch. The brief stip­u­lat­ed room for an expand­ing fam­i­ly, and required dimen­sions in inch­es instead of feet.

I was sur­prised, and not sur­prised, to find some­thing like this in 1963; not sur­prised, because a con­ceit like this seems too twee for an archi­tect to attempt at any oth­er time, and sur­prised, because I would have thought that the premis­es of the stu­dios of the time would have been entire­ly restrict­ed to the prag­mat­ic and the phlegmatic. 

Com­pare this to recent stu­dios I have sat on reviews for. One asked stu­dents to fore­cast futures of the Mexico/​United States bor­der regions, with stu­dents mak­ing inter­ven­tions to help migrants and mit­i­gate arms test­ing. One asked stu­dents to make muse­ums for a uni­fied Europe using assem­blages of open-source dig­i­tal mod­els. Cer­tain­ly these stu­dios join an unob­jec­tion­able goal for archi­tec­ture – to envi­sion, to project, to fore­cast – with a set of unob­jec­tion­able sub­jects – test sites, dig­i­tal mod­els, muse­ums, borders. 

Work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster
Gissing back for work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

Where the inter­est comes in is in aim­ing the pro­jec­tion at the right angle through the jum­ble of rea­son­ably per­ti­nent things, in order to form an uncan­ny and rec­og­niz­able picture. 

The ben­e­fits of pro­ject­ing into fici­tion­al space in such con­tem­po­rary cas­es reflects the more mod­est uses of the Nuthatch House. The Nuthatch House uses a fic­tion to meet the needs of the stu­dent – a small, phys­i­cal project with pro­gram nonethe­less baked in – with lit­tle expec­ta­tion of being test­ed with actu­al nuthatch­es. It is safe to fail; it light­ens the mood. The future project sim­i­lar­ly will not be test­ed in prac­tice, but it can cul­ti­vate a habit of mind in the stu­dent – see­ing archi­tec­ture as instru­men­tal, as hav­ing agency. It is safe to fail; it appro­pri­ate­ly dark­ens the mood. The work of instruc­tion here is meant to turn aside the stu­dent from what can safe­ly be assumed as their ini­tial default – of archi­tec­ture as a spec­tac­u­lar object and image.

Deal­ing with the future project, it will be habit­u­al­ly object­ed that the con­straints of use, of fund­abil­i­ty, of sta­t­ics are the nec­es­sary grounds for spa­tial design, a part­ner in a per­ti­nent dia­logue. To neglect these things any longer than a short inter­val is to deny their essen­tial nature in spa­tial design prac­tice. The stan­dard retort to this would be that in prac­tice each of these fac­tors is a con­ven­tion, some­thing sub­ject to rene­go­ti­a­tion – if we are not like­ly to rein­vent sta­t­ics, we will cer­tain­ly not think of unlike­ly propo­si­tions with regard to sta­t­ics with­out either tem­porar­i­ly dis­re­gard­ing them, or try­ing point­ed­ly to chal­lenge them from inside. Speak­ing instru­men­tal­ly, then, the major ben­e­fit of fic­tion as an archi­tec­tur­al mode is to change the angle of approach of the archi­tect and their audi­ence – to torque away at what is allow­able and what is not allow­able. Again, this is all famil­iar. Make it new.

Inno­va­tion must be val­orized to incen­tivize a con­tin­u­al move­ment toward bet­ter eco­log­i­cal and social out­comes. Sure! But it is some­thing I have lit­tle inter­est in, and some­thing that tends toward inert geneal­o­gy when writ­ten about. Much of inno­va­tion, seek­ing at least to cater to needs pre­vi­ous­ly unmet, serves only to rule the lines between gen­er­a­tions on the fam­i­ly tree. So I am not con­cerned with the fic­tion­al in spa­tial design as some­thing new – its new­ness is of degree and not kind – nor its abil­i­ty to pro­duce new­ness or contemporaneity.

Instead, I want to draw out two fea­tures of the fic­tion for spa­tial design. The first relates to the Nuthatch House, and my dis­cov­ery of it; which is that the more elab­o­rate and sep­a­rat­ed from stan­dard design prac­tice the fic­tion is, the more imme­di­ate­ly it explains the mores and means of design prac­tice. The sec­ond relates to stu­dios that fore­cast the future; which is that such fic­tions can, if they choose to, oper­ate with­out design’s peren­ni­al com­pan­ion, applied morality. 

Spa­tial design is, in one sense, a bun­dle of tools that can be applied to any aim (In the acad­e­my, we like to hedge our promis­es to stu­dents as to employ­a­bil­i­ty with this fact). We pull away the col­lec­tive grounds of usu­al prac­tice, and then see how the same tools work on new grounds. But the tools them­selves are con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed. A culture’s approach to art is nec­es­sar­i­ly par­tial and con­di­tioned by its accept­ed uni­verse of art, mean­ing not just forms but lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ways of mak­ing. Plan, sec­tion, and per­spec­tive can­not be iso­lat­ed as ways of under­stand­ing or gen­er­at­ing form, but must be under­stood as ways to instruct work­ers or con­vince clients. This, I think, is the tac­it under­stand­ing for design­ers and onlook­ers when these con­ven­tions are employed.

Archi­tec­tur­al tools taint their objects with specks of archi­tec­ture – archi­tec­ture here being under­stood as a stan­dard way of pro­ceed­ing, encod­ed in the career of an Eisen­man or a Diller and Scofidio – that build­ings will always out, that any the­o­ry-work must at some point excrete projects. It must be test­ed in the work­flow of nor­ma­tive archi­tec­ture, which will buf­fet the lit­tle the­o­ret­i­cal boat; it must demon­strate a fam­i­ly resem­blance to nor­ma­tive archi­tec­ture, shar­ing its draw­ing tools, its forms, its val­ues. To be more pre­cise: archi­tec­ture is com­posed of prac­tices, but the prac­tices do not always cleave neat­ly from one anoth­er. Sys­tems of prac­tices may at times be sev­ered, may be resu­tured, may be removed entire­ly, but will as like­ly refuse to be separated.

Study­ing a design fic­tion, one finds a work­ing mod­el of a par­tic­u­lar seg­ment of this archi­tec­tur­al con­stel­la­tion of prac­tices. Like a plas­tic set of cut­away kid­neys in a urologist’s office, this mod­el dis­cards most of design’s entail­ments and respon­si­bil­i­ties, remov­ing the obscur­ing tis­sue of this vast sys­tem of if-thens. The least overt­ly fic­tion­al spec­u­la­tions and prompts are the ones least like­ly to show us some­thing we don’t already know about these sys­tems. What is the val­ue of the Nuthatch Prompt? Most obvi­ous­ly, that it reduces the archi­tec­tur­al project to some­thing small and man­age­able for begin­ning stu­dents, a safe space for play. But it also lays out a sub-sys­tem of exist­ing cul­tur­al rela­tion­ships – between the form of the bird­house and that of the per­son­house, between those forms and the fam­i­lies of birds and peo­ple. At one remove out, it does some­thing fur­ther – the fic­tion it lays out somes some­thing par­tic­u­lar to me about the val­ues and cul­ture in my institution’s his­to­ry that is more dif­fi­cult to dis­cern in a course list­ing for Archi­tec­ture I, or an assign­ment sheet for a short prob­lem in res­i­den­tial design. It is a rich­er text to leave for the future.

That is not, and prob­a­bly should not be, a con­scious goal of the edu­ca­tor, them­selves deep in the archi­tec­ture-sys­tem, the sys­tem of what is like­ly, or what is pos­si­ble. With­in this sys­tem, a fic­tion is also a way to do what is oth­er­wise unjus­ti­fi­able – a way to tem­porar­i­ly avoid that web of con­straints. Only with­in the alter­nate set of rules of a sto­ry” can you set forth some­thing anal­o­gous to but estranged from the stan­dard sto­ry” of what­ev­er design’s bounds hap­pen to be at the moment. It is pre­cise­ly not an alle­go­ry, which would repeat the larg­er sto­ry in miniature.

High design is sus­pect­ed with ample rea­son of pro­ceed­ing as though con­text was not there. In fic­tions, it shows itself as capa­ble of act­ing as though a dif­fer­ent con­text was there – in the cas­es of the future stu­dios above, con­texts that are more social­ly per­ti­nent but not amenable to fund­ing through the usu­al chan­nels. We tend to think of these spec­u­la­tions as moral imper­a­tives. How could we, how will we, do bet­ter than we do, for a still greater good? What could the tech­niques of archi­tec­ture do to abet and com­fort the refugee? That the most direct ways for archi­tec­tur­al tools to do this are among the least prob­a­ble only, at best, spurs the archi­tect to find a pos­si­ble way with­in the system.

But design fic­tions could as eas­i­ly be made to show a pro­fes­sion­al real­i­ty that is in no way intrin­si­cal­ly moral, that is bound up in bio­log­i­cal, phys­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and finan­cial con­straints to the point where it does not and can­not oper­ate as a ratio­nal­ly moral ven­ture. In my own stu­dio, last semes­ter, my co-instruc­tor and I taught through the fic­tion of a land­scape-mak­ing cor­po­ra­tion that was pro­gres­sive­ly revealed as being not only venal, but delu­sion­al. Their own well-designed and rea­son­ably sus­tain­able land­scapes were being turned out under a bad­ly-designed urban strat­e­gy and an unsus­tain­able finan­cial mod­el. This allowed our stu­dents to con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that land­scape can be made with bad inten­tions – and still worse, that good land­scape archi­tec­ture could be gen­er­at­ed by a bad actor. If we were explic­it about the bad­ness here, did we run any greater risk of the stu­dents becom­ing jad­ed? Did we deprive them of valu­able prac­tice in doing the best thing for the best rea­son? At very least, we were sim­u­lat­ing a con­di­tion that we believe they will encounter in anoth­er form down the road, one where like­ly they will not do the best thing. They might know, at that point, that they are not doing the best thing; and they might start to know why.

(August 2016)