Architecture is dead. Long live architecture.

conflictNo 11/15/2003  

Architectural mathematics.
“Architecture is dead. Long live architecture.” That’s the opening line of the lecture that I’ll present someday at a prestigious university. It’s also the closing line, and after I slam the microphone down and throw a chair into the crowd, I’ll be on my way to Taschen to sign a book deal for USD $4 million. You can go very far in this profession without saying much of anything, and I may as well begin now during a time when the economy has more or less crippled the industry. Don’t misunderstand my ferocious, beast-like musings simply for naïve delusion; this little flame I’ve got is what’s going to keep me warm at night, or, alternatively, keep my step light enough to avoid setting off deadly, snake-filled landmines. And get this: I’m not even speaking metaphorically.

Ideally, this article would be 800 pages long and contain as many words, all of them in huge fonts. That’s the key to importance in the world of contemporary architectural theory: few words in BIG FONTS. Example: pg. 118 of Mutations by Rem Koolhaas, et al, equates modern airports to shopping malls by typing “Airport” with an “=” below and “Mall” below that. That’s it. The next five pages equate churches to malls and government, education, museums and the military to shopping in exactly the same fashion. I’ve gotten used to such concision and I prefer it to the alternative of postmodern turtleneckery, but it's all self-important. Incidentally, my $50 copy of Mutations has just now started to come loose from its bindings -- cataclysmic foreshadowing?

Koolhaas translates to "Cabbage Hare" in Dutch.
Rem Koolhaas has years of experience, a Pritzker prize (architecture’s Nobel) and an international following unrivaled by that of any other architect today. Here’s what I bring to the table: irrational rage. While Rem uses brevity as a way of presenting simple -- if repetitive -- points, I’m going to use it as a vehicle to deliver my contempt efficiently. I want to take the whole industry down, and I want to do it with equal signs. By not hiring me, most firms have already signed their own explosive death warrants, so most of the work is done. Skidmore Owings & Merrill as well as Norman Foster & Partners both lost the new World Trade Center competition. Coincidence? No.

Let me put it this way:


At this point, they can’t even redeem themselves by deciding to hire me. I’m gone, baby. I’m forbidden fruit. That doesn’t just go for top firms, either, as this is an eight-pronged, five-dimensional attack aimed at everyone. I called all of the small firms in my hometown, and an architect at the one with the best use of the word “Architect” in the name told me that they weren’t currently hiring anyone because they had “hired someone two years ago”. ONLY TWO YEARS AGO YOU SAY? As long as you’re taking me for a stroll down memory lane, why not entertain me with the story about how that was the same year that we all lost our innocence and then after your wife left you, your last hire became more like a companion than an employee to you.

*SPECIAL SURPRISE UPDATE* With a little perseverance, you can land an interview with a firm that is not actually hiring. Does that happen in other professions?

You’d better swap out your normal keyboard for your screechy keyboard now, because it’s going to blow your layman’s mind to find out that I haven’t read The Fountainhead. That a fictional story about an architect is somehow important to us is probably the #2 misconception that exists about architects. #1 is that to be an architect requires a mastery of mathematics. Do this right now: step outside your door and take a look around at your neighborhood/city block. Do you see any evidence of complicated math? The life-or-death structural calculations are typically done by our higher-paid friend, the engineer. Anyway, I did know a girl who declared The Fountainhead to be the most important book ever, and though she was quite smart and did decent work I found her to be rather weak-willed and improper. There is no must-read architecture book; if there was it certainly wouldn’t be one penned by a woman who once blew smoke into the face of Frank Lloyd Wright, may he rest in peace.

Frank Lloyd Wright is the only American architect anyone should know about. If nothing else, the chef at his residence/studio went crazy and murdered his mistress, her two children and Wright’s mother with an ax while Wright was away. That’s about the most sensational story we, as a people, have to offer. I’ve got some dirt on Zaha Hadid, but that story I keep just for me (next to my bag of rampage!). Not as sexy, but more relevant to me, is an article about Mr. Koolhaas that tells of how he went up to his studio one night around midnight and became very angry that no one was there working. I want to be like that, but with less overworking-themed rage and more unpredictable, trivial rage. I’ll have to compensate for his bilingual profanity with the Thinking Man’s swearing: physical violence. Most of my questions to fellow employees will be asked as I sprint towards them at maximum speed with malevolent intent. In a sort of avant-garde Choose Your Own Adventure, a correct and timely answer will be the difference between a bone-crunching impact and a harmless but dramatic cartwheel.

Trading Spaces: Afghanistan. You should have seen the look on the other guy's face after they moved all of the RPGs into the corner!
The frustration that some of the less boring architects feel is fairly evident in the fact that CARGO SHIPPING CONTAINERS are becoming a not-so-outrageous solution to certain housing problems; you know them as Afghanistani Murder Boxes, but your children may call them home. The idea of using prefabricated items in architecture is not new, but we’re basically fresh out of any other sort of innovation. Most of this is happening in obscurity, so you can put down that phone to the Department of Homeland Security for now. But you’d better believe that the Dutch -- our allies -- are all over this, and whether or not MVRDV’s fantastic Container City project is completed will be a huge factor in how mainstream “container architecture” becomes. My message to the people: DON’T TAKE THIS AWAY FROM US.

If you want to go beyond metal boxes, architecture’s endgame is a combination of genetic algorithms and some sort of advanced nanotechnology or artificial atoms: buildings that grow themselves. I wrote a paper on this hot topic during my Junior year, so I think I’m now one of the leading experts in the field. I didn’t get into too much detail or even solve anything, but the curious lack of feedback from fellow students meant that I was onto something -- something big. I’m waiting for the American Institute of Architects either to officially condemn me or give me a little thinking money until I take everything to the next level. In the meantime, if you aren’t busy pretending it’s still 1970 in your own profession, imagine a tree or a nautilus or a turtle shell and then merge its form with your own house or office. Done? Congratulations, you’re an elite architectural visionary! Now, quickly call all of the architects in your phone book and tell them that THEY LOSE! Alternatively, hire them and then immediately fire them.

Dutch baby-thieves experiencing the joys of homeownership.
Sometime before the golden age, we’ll have “smart” buildings that can reconfigure themselves based on usage and environmental factors, but this will probably only happen on a limited scale and the innovations will be credited to engineers and scientists that develop the necessary tech. Once someone -- and for the sake of this article let’s just say that it’s me with help, of course, from a ragtag interdisciplinary super team -- figures out an architecturally-sound adaptation of evolutionary code, we’ll be closer to a horrific bio-mechanical world than the gothiest-goth could ever hope for. This “Supreme Architect”, terrible to behold, will have the ability to create a new landscape -- a new WORLDSCAPE™ -- that reflects his/her own inner self, much like using the power of the TriForce.

So what’s my strategy for rising to the top of this tiny ivory tower? First of all, you’ve got to infect the minds of architecture students, possibly by getting close enough to infect their bloodstreams with some sort of injector. Land a speaking gig, somehow, somewhere. You don’t have to throw any chairs, but you do have to show up. Mingle. Be accessible. I saw a promotional photo of a group of young Finnish architects once that would have opened up a wormhole to the Encyclopedia Britannica shelf of the local library if I had looked at it for much longer or touched it. Don’t go so crazy with the cosmopolitan fashion and the heroin! The remaining step, which I hope has already become clear by now, is to make sure and say ridiculous things. Doesn’t make sense? Doesn’t matter! If you manage to work in some reasonably palatable concept like “buildings that grow themselves”, you have secured your professional immortality against all odds!