Domesticating Architecture

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Domesticating Architecture

Leonardo Leiva Rivera @ Tulane School of Architecture

 

Project

The project explores the concept of dwelling; of appropriating a space through tools and rituals, of the limits of architecture and of the power of inhabitants.

The thesis  trusts that homes per se – to the vast majority of nomadic inhabitants – have lost their power as objects imbued with personal meaning. This role has passed on to our objects, with which we fill spaces and volumes to claim them as ours, if only for temporary moments.

One dimension is that of the architect through his/her tools; this is reflected in a series of constructed drawings of a volume to dwell in – one deployed in a rural site and another in an urban site. The ‘architecture’ – detailing – is absent and the drawings only allude to it in an elemental way or configuration that corresponds to the elemental building of the house. Economy of line (there is only 2d line work)is equivalent to economy of building and materiality in actual construction.

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A second dimension begins where the reach of the architect stops, when occupation occurs. This is what a series of intaglio and collograph prints are all about. In them the constructed digital drawings are a base that is thoroughly transformed to become a single imbued object altogether, further than a digital and repeatable file. The digital drawings are etched on a plate prepared with gesso on which images and textures are applied on to, relief and intaglio inked, and pressed. The result is akin to the occupation of a space, the transformation of shelter into a home and of an otherwise common and streamlined drawing into a single object of personal meaning reflecting physical process and memory.

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Interview

What is the architect’s most important tool?

“Domesticating Architecture” addresses tools in both poetry/ritual and technology as existential mediums – the atemporal and the temporal/chronological respectively, as described by Massimo Scolari. Therefore, any tool ought to operate in both realms and furthermore be synergetic between them. The nature/premise of a tool is to be appropriate and instrumental (if not indispensable) in achieving a result or in a pursuit, a movement from one stage of a process to the next facilitated by such an object/concept. In this case the architect’s and a person’s most important tool is discernment.

Discernment operates at various levels and in different contexts: personal thoughts, attitudes, actions and reactions, i.e. attunement; professional development, design strategies, applications of technology tools and resources, i.e. innovation. In a personal context it accounts for deciding what content our minds are filled with and how, and with our actions and operations in the world. These operations include how we occupy, inhabit, and identify with space through rituals and objects. And it is also manifested in discourse and is realized in the build environment through the act of composition and construction, and building.

Yet, is discernment, instead, a quality and not a tool? Our arms, legs, and fingers (phalanges) are a quality of our morphology. They are part of our bodies and hence – by extension – we identify them as ourselves from a self-centered perspective, yet from a broader biological perspective they are evolutionary tools. Discernment is a quality and an exercise. It is a quality and an action that involves physical/mental activity in operating, just like a tool, and which can be mastered with practice/training. Discernment is a tool amongst tools in that its appropriateness is inherent. Whereas a tool may be suitable for one task and unsuitable for others, the nature of discernment as a tool deals with and delivers appropriateness to every situation. This implies a category of tools in which, discernment is a conceptual tool that allows us to operate other concrete or programmatic tools.

Decision-making and selection permeate the practice of architecture. Selection is a basic act of omission or inclusion; judgment adds a value category that is biased; discernment is about what is appropriate for the entire scenario. In architecture this includes design strategies, concepts, assemblage, performance, resources, and ethics, as well as the tools used to communicate, develop, and construct a project. Discernment is an imperative towards creating an authentic architectural project.

Cedric Price said that architecture cannot solve problems, that it is too slow to do so. His ideas on the flexibility of architecture are directly tied to the concepts of time and chronology, and through his analysis on appropriateness – discerning – he was able to propose projects that exist in a space and time in flux.

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What drew you to reflect in the contemporary notion of dwelling?

My personal living situation and trajectory drove my contemplation of dwelling and its meaning. Since I left my family home as a teenager I have lived in seven different cities and moved within them several times. At this moment I don’t have a home, and such is the situation for millions of people around the globe. Within this nomadic situation the spectrum is broad: from the jet-set to the refugee. Issues of migration and the legality of being in a territory, which I also have experienced, made me consider the idea of deracinationin dwelling and question where and how you can find it. The ‘Dwelling Situations’ diagram and symbols is a way to categorize and understand how we may end up living.

The house – the elemental building- clearly reveals a relationship between rituals/poetry and technology. Our human (biological, social, psychological) needs have evolved very little compared to our technological progress. Our homes as living artifacts manifest this in that the typology’s program has changed very little, while its construction and assemblage has changed a lot from the primitive hut to supertallscoexisting simultaneously.

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How and to what extent has your personal experience influenced the project?

One layer reflects my professional interest while the other is more related to my personal life experience. Having a background and interest in product design I initially considered the responses architecture has had towards housing from the perspective of a market product tied to technological production methods, economies, and resources, and how these could be used to come closer to the ritualistic and poetic aspects of dwelling and building. The shift of how housing is built and deployed is a shift of civilization overall- social, political, and existential.

With a focus on nomadism, a housing unit that accompanied the user (at least in part) that would still retain the object-power of the traditional static house as dwelling was proposed (here the notion is that a direct temporal relationship between object and user empowers both parties in meaning and value). The deployment of the unit in different sites (both sites exist) and in various configurations is meant to be the simplest script for a likely and actual housing product and future project.

The next layer of occupying, transforming, and appropriating this scenario is also done through items of personal importance. I relate occupying the drawings to occupying a space: this is most affectivewhen the items are of value and importance. The selection of images reflects personal interests related to the research and to personal narratives. Thinking about, researching, and producing the project was also a cathartic opportunity to come to terms with my personal situation; incorporating architecture in this process is for me the success of the project.

How important is the act of drawing as means through which to first develop and then articulate a project?

Drawing as thinking process, as a form of expression, and as a tool that transmits accurate information was integral to a project concerned with technology and poetry. The importance of a construction/building process as related to dwelling also played a role in the drawing process; here Heidegger was a source to look back to and re-evaluate. So the intentionality of identifying and using drawing construction techniques was central to developing the project as I would analogously develop a prototype for a housing product. This development took into account issues of construction/building such as scarcity (of time, materials, and elements) and the idea of  “economy as ethics”; the title of a recent publication on the work of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects and also in continuation with The Ethical Function of Architectureby Karsten Harries, which are included in the project’s bibliography. Therefore, 2D constructed drawings exemplify this economic ideal by using only the lines (digital information) necessary to express an idea/view, a measurable scenario, and information to translate onto other machines i.e. laser cutter.

Early on, the workflow of translating digital models into digital drawings was problematic toward the project’s intention, and I decided to completely abandon it. Flying around in 3D space, selecting arbitrary and distorted views and angles, cleaning up exported linework, adding texture, and keeping the entire creative process machine-based seemed redundant. I wanted to be closer to an essential form of design and construction (drawings and houses). In producing the drawing bases for drawings and laser paths I used the computer to add speed and precision to a process that I could have done, otherwise, completely by hand; and as a platform from which to migrate information across platforms (from idea to vector to a cut/etch path).

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Drawing in this manner was a way to uphold and reconnect to basic drawing techniques of the trade that are reality-based (representing physical space in an accurate and measurable way), and to add intentionality and commitment to the articulation of the project. Having been constructed together, the drawings form a cohesive vision.

How integral was the notion of representation to this project? Is this an area you are interested in exploring further?

It was central to transcend representation and arrive at a unique and imbued object, an object imbued with traces and memory of a specific process and time, and which also retains the potential to simultaneously represent and bethat which it has become through a process of transformation. This is very elusive, and I believe there are many such processes/rituals of transformation other than the ones I used. But the quest and indagationis very real and relatable to dwelling and what it entails. The analogous relationship between the representation of a project not necessarily being the project, and that of a house not necessarily being the dwelling reveal the elusiveness of the subject matter. If shelter is not necessarily a dwelling and a representation is not the project, then how can I get the closest to the end itself, not to specifics but to the essence of it and how do I capture that essence in an object? That is what a ‘shell’ (be it shelter or a drawing) does when it captures life; it becomes a place of dwelling.

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What is your take on the shift from analogue to digital methods and means of representation?

The shift is something you experience as a student as a micro-sample of the historical one. It is hard to notice it unless your environment facilitates it or you are purposeful about it. I think it is worth noticing, and the relationship to time and economy here is also important. I remember first year, which is heavy on hand drawing, required many hours to advance, but often the conceptual progress was richer than numerous iterations within digital methods. Again, I think that knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your tools is essential. Looking back, some of the people I looked to for this project as conceptual cues had rich hand-drawn representation i.e. Douglas Darden’s Condemned Buildings, John Hejduk’s Mask of Medusa, Cedric Price, and Superstudio. I wanted to find a way to utilize some of the strengths of both analogue (thinking, intentionality, control) and digital (speed, precision, translation) to produce representations (not form generation as opposed to projects like Greg Lynn’s Embryo House).

In school and in the office the analogue process of drawing can be seen as waste of time or at best a luxury, and this also is directly tied to production methods now. Nonetheless, the conceptual and poetic connection of creating using one’s body is undeniable and can be/is the base for machine-driven production.

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How has digital software affected our relationship to the image and the image making process?

Digital software fostered a new economy of image making, changing the time, material, and cost to produce images and the images themselves. Image ‘waste’ or image ‘by-product’ is more abundant since it can also be useful to explore and evaluate results faster, this can yield higher quantity but not necessarily quality. With digital software, image production became separated from materiality in that it is not necessarily a major factor present from the early stages that affects the image making process and final product. Francis Mallgrave in The Architect’s Brain describes the “leveling effect” of software on architectural representation, and this is something I wanted to escape.

A quote by Massimo Scolari was crucial since the beginning, both to think about houses and to think about representation: “…mankind has always been familiar with the transcendent impulses of his soul but not with the workings of his body: Poetry and painting exist in a sphere out of chronological time, where science inevitably progresses. Technology brings improvements almost monthly to computers, but not to poetry” (Constructs, Fall 2006). Technology is not to blame; I think it has to do with integration. Technology can be and is poetic – both in houses and drawings.

What lead you to explore and conceptualize processes and mediums as the intaglio and collagraph prints?

I believe that having a broad knowledge base and a continued investment in interdisciplinaritythat allows you to constantly re-evaluate your work is valuable in any field. Thesis was a great setting to utilize architecture freely in a way that did not have to fulfill a curricular checklist of requirements or market needs of an office. Auditing a printmaking class in the art department was my way to partially step out of architecture and to re-evaluate architectural work from another lens; this was the primary intent. I had general ideas of production, but no specific knowledge or practice with printmaking technique. It was a risk and tension definitely escalated, as such was the case up until mid-semester.

The material production requirements for collographs and intaglio prints have the quality of accommodating machine and handwork –as well as digital and analogue- within a less complicated production process. This was in accordance with the notion of poetry and technology in constructing a house/drawing, and this is the reason I went with it. You can do both using more complicated materials like copper, but I used mat board. The end prints are a result of traditional constructed hand-drawings done in a digital platform, adapted to become instructions (a cut/etch laser path), and hand application of texture, material, and image: a poetic use and expression of technology.

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What other mediums and tools of making are you interested in and why?

I was not familiar with the printmaking techniques we learned during the semester, and I considered several alternative production processes. I thought of routing wood blocks for relief printing or copper plates for intaglio – these would have worked but not for the scope and time constraints of the semester. I think routing copper plates interests me more, copper registers marks better than gesso on paper and you can manipulate them too, drill bit precision goes down to a micron, you can also tint cooper. I think you could get a very exquisite result. Perhaps an updated Piranesi; he was very much aware of the same issues of poetry-technology, mastering a production technique in an intimate manner to both register social/architectural history and to express his take on it, this is the poetry behind his work. While this concerns representation it would be interesting to tie a similar process intimately to form-generation and product-making as well. Le Corbusier, interpreting Vitruvius states that “There is no such thing as primitive man; there are primitive resources” (The Ethical Function of Architectureby Karsten Harries). This goes back to Scolari’s chronologic time, I think they can get closer together through new rituals: poetry and technology.

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About

Leonardo is a Honduran designer interested in multidisciplinary practices. He has worked in several capacities with cultural institutions in the Americas, and most recently completed a Master’s of Architecture in Tulane University in New Orleans. His future work focuses on the dialogue and relationships between technology, poetry, and rituals. Currently, he is an architect with the Perkins+Will Science and Technology team. www.LeoLeivaR.com

Acknowledgements

Professors Scott Bernhard, John Stubbs, Ammar Eloueini at Tulane School of Architecture; Theresa Cole, Casey White, Cora Lautze at Tulane Newcomb Art Department; Christina Buckner at Distrito Fijo Club De Ciclismo; EER & Fundación Leiva Rivera.

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