L to R: Robert Kocik's Prosody Building; Quasi Table by Aranda Lasch; World Trade Center by Acconci Studio
My Poetry and Architecture event for Segue this past weekend – featuring Vito Acconci, Benjamin Aranda, and Robert Kocik -- was a surprising success. People really turned out for this event: I counted over 70 in the audience including David Antin, Ellen Zweig, Gail Scott, Wystan Curnow, Eileen Myles, Andrew Levy, Abigail Child, Walter Lew, Jonathan Skinner, Jennifer Scappetone, Andy Fitch, and many Segue regulars. But a portion of the audience was people I had never seen before, people connected with architecture who would otherwise perhaps not have the experience of attending a poetry event. Why wouldn’t they have had that experience? This phenomenon was hilariously demonstrated in a slide during Robert Kocik’s presentation in which he showed a "cattle egret" standing under the legs of an enormous cow – this, he said, represents poetry’s relationship to the larger culture:
It’s a relationship I also addressed in my intro, where I was trying to create a bridge by using terms like “interdisciplinarity,” which is used in both architecture and literature but which has a very different and specific meaning in architecture, tied to the debate between critical and post-critical approaches, and the question of whether one can do social critique by making buildings or whether one needs to be, as Dwell Magazine calls it, a “Nice Modernist”:
At first glance, poetry and architecture seem to have little in common, and this is due to a few mutual misunderstandings. Since Ruskin’s time, architects have often perceived “poetry” or “poetics” as meaning a building with a little something extra non-scientific, a little je ne sais quois, rather than a building which is inspired by or in dialogue with an actual poem. Contrast this with the situation of poets, particularly the avant-garde ones, who it seems sometimes perceive architects as responsible for a kind of staid or institutional modernity, as if architects were merely creators of delimiting structures which writers strive to be free from, to move around or through. In this scheme of misunderstandings, architects appear better at building, poets perhaps better at dismantling.
But an understanding of both disciplines, be it critical or post-critical, need not reinforce such a distinction. We can reach across the strange gap between them and attempt a conversation with interdisciplinarity as a mutually resonant theme.
Indeed, how appropriate that “design” and “poetry” seem to have an equally hazy status as potential disciplines. In architecture this idea emerges as the attempt to reclaim authority for the design activity in conversation with other disciplines such as engineering. The ontological status of poetry is just as fuzzy, and it offers by comparison fewer examples of interdisciplinarity in the architectural sense of the term, with the possible exception of the poet-painter collaborative tradition on the one hand, and the foray into mathematics and procedural constraints on the other (as in Oulipo or Mac Low).
Can poets be said to build structures made of language? Often in the history of literature, this group of metaphors has characterized a retrograde group toiling away at multiple revisions of their sestinas and sweating heavily over their anthologies. But other notions of poetic structure, from sonic repetition to rhetorical form, from procedural operations to the potentially tectonic theory of proprioception, persist as more relevant options. And perhaps in some ways the architect can be said to think with a building as the poet thinks with a poem. But let’s not overdetermine the metaphor and conflate things prematurely: most poems are not going to shelter you from the elements, support the weight of your body, or provide easy access for your MEP services.
Perhaps a more compelling ground for comparison here is social use. Just as Wittgenstein suggests the notion that philosophy can be useful as a kind of therapy, perhaps one notion that poetry and architecture share is their mutual potential for active participation on the part of the reader, viewer, or inhabitant. When activated in this way, they are both useful and take on new meanings specifically in relation to the user.
I’m very pleased to present to you today Vito Acconci, Benjamin Aranda, and Robert Kocik, who are each involved with a conversation between these disciplines in slightly different ways.
Robert Kocik’s presentation came first. He began with a schematic floor plan of the Prosody Building, a building designed specifically for poets, then cycled back through his process and how he got to that point. He talked about the notion of business as a medium and argued that the form of a building constitutes only a use or a decoration – asserting that creativity must also be given to questions of the building’s function, the organization of labor, and who benefits. Kocik combines architecture and writing through “non-dual construction” which engages such issues as part of the construction process, in some cases inventing “missing services” for the construction of a particular building. As someone with much experience in the practical aspects of architecture as well as an acute awareness of language, Kocik understands like hardly anyone else the extent to which the "transparent" or functional procedures of building are themselves a function of language.
Central to this investigation is the question of why there are not more buildings dedicated to poetry, and how this is related to the inconsequence of poetry in the larger cultural sense: “Is poets’ architectural status as interlopers in provisional spaces (bars, coffee shops, living rooms, etc) related to a freely chosen lack of regard for design, or is this condition a consequence of their inconsequence?” The two buildings dedicated to poetry that Kocik used as examples were the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the new Poets’ House location in Battery City. From here, Kocik explored a more concrete example of what happens when you try to combine the disciplines in a more literal way, ie through building plans composed entirely of words such as his Stress Response building designed for the Environmental Art Department at the University of Art and Architecture in Helsinki.
Kocik’s hands-on experience as a builder was demonstrated through a number of idiosyncratic instances of problem-solving, as for example in the case of a round log he joined to a square timber in a tension truss, while still managing to pass the building code. Other creative approaches which combine the design indifference of poets with an architect’s understanding of the profession included the notion of “prefunctioning architecture,” ie the idea that whatever you envision the building needing to do, you start it within an existing building. Under this rubric, every act of conversation is design specification. Toward the end of his talk Kocik raised the question: what would happen if poets were fully facilitated? Would they freak out and be unable to function, or would it be helpful to them?
Benjamin Aranda’s energetic presentation drew connections between writing, drawing, building, and scripting in architecture. He showed various ways in which a building can be built from language using scripts to generate self-perpetuating forms which have analogies to the way nanotechnology works. Aranda’s discussion captured a fascinating dynamic between building and dismantling, as when he noted that “in architecture, and perhaps also in poetry, you need to break things down and decompose them into their finite parts in order to build them up again.” This analytic activity is related to the analogy of sand piles and the way in which they can model what he calls “aggregate assemblies,” noting with a slightly anthropomorphizing delight that “the parts themselves know how to reproduce or grow into larger structures.” Aranda discussed three projects by his firm Aranda/Lasch, the first of which appeared in the MoMA show Rules of Six, which addressed ways to move computation into the physical realm of construction. These experiments included projects from wall surfaces to independent structures such as a table (shown above), which was randomly generated out of 4,000 rhombic parts, a process which resulted in no exact repetition of elements across the scale of the table.
This technique, which Aranda calls “aperiodic construction,” creates a texture/structure/series of effects which undermines our accustomed ways of seeing and would probably not have been produceable through the human eye alone. There’s something utopian about this discourse, the notion that “through both writing and mathematics you can imagine possibilities that only later can be substantiated.” Aranda then showed a very different kind of project, a giant video billboard connected with the Fresh Direct store in Queens, which Aranda/Lasch had helped convert into a giant algorithm-driven, constantly-shifting color field that changes the colors and feel of the surrounding streetscape.
Finally, he discussed a recent collaboration with artist Matthew Ritchie which drew more literal comparisons between drawing, writing, and construction. In this project, begun with a system tested at the Venice Biennale last year, Aranda/Lasch took a kind of picture-language developed from Matthew Ritchie’s drawings and transformed it into spatial language by way of translation onto a system of tetrahedral structures. As long as the drawing met each shape at one point on each side, Aranda determined, then the drawing could be used “to calculate structural loads” of the resulting forms. Here not only does the drawing double as structure and produce the space, it also shows you how to construct it, as Aranda showed in his images of one structure created at an estate at Seville in October; the picture-language on one surface corresponds to the picture on the face of another shape where they are supposed to join – so the language is also the instructions for building the space.
Vito Acconci gave a stunning presentation that traced the connections between his writing and his architecture over the arc of his career so far. Noting that what he does now is design and architecture and that the primary way he knows how to do it is through words, Acconci read from a mid-eighties essay on housebuilding while showing a background of slides from this same period in which he was exploring architectural games through performance art. One example of such a game would be a seat that the performer sits down in, and this act causes walls to appear, creating a rudimentary house around the person. The text that Acconci paired with these images consisted of a series of “Assignments,” which had a kind of wry humor and a playfulness that we don’t get to hear in writing about architecture very often (he notes that instead of columns, you could simply have four people hold up the roof). This quality was enhanced by Acconci’s habit of reading with iterations and repeated emphases on certain parts of the text:
The odd “you” character here is deployed to evoke architecture as a response to a series of problems. But they seem less to be problems of solving for program or site, and instead more like meandering, quizzically existential reflections in a Beckett-like space.
Acconci then discussed how this method coalesced into the activity of a designer and Acconci Studio formed at the end of the 80s. While they mostly did public art working under the 1% program at first, he found his way in architecture through essays such as “Making public: the writing and reading of public space,” an excerpt of which he read from. This piece, which he showed against a background of some early Acconci Studio works, has an activated ambivalence that refuses easy lyrical platitudes about the importance of public space; instead the discussion is fraught. One of the reasons he gets away with this is that Acconci is such a good writer -- his buildings are held together more by the notion of a powerful linguistic concept than by the transparently vague, inherited vocabulary of public altruism that one sometimes finds in discourse about urban planning or architecture. Other projects that Acconci showed included the twisting, transforming structure of Mur Island in Gratz, a proposal for a museum in Russia, and a 2004 public art project for a performing art center in Memphis which imitates a swathe of liquid flowing out from beneath a roof:
These works feature many of the innovative qualities that Acconci's work is known for in the context of architecture, namely certain kinds of flowing spaces made possible through new ways of using scripting or algorithms. It seems like it would be a great critical project to further explore the nature of the relationship between scripting as an architectural prompt and Acconci's performative written prompts or instructions for buildings.
I was surprised to find that performance did come back in as a concern in Acconci’s work later through an interest in “multipurpose, multifunction design” – particularly a hypothetical invention that Acconci calls the “umbrufflla,” and in this instance the design is quite literally generated by the onomatopoetic and physical sounds of language: “ruffle, verb, to agitate the surface of, ruffles, noun, pleats, folds, ruffle, now, noun, our definition, superfluity, miasma, luxuriance, swarm, swoon.” Another architectural project involving performance that Acconci discussed was a clothing store designed for Tokyo in 2003. The store itself is clothed in a PVC skin, and the description includes the following text which, like the others, is part building description, part instructions for a performance:
If you like how you look and the clothes you might buy, you can have yourself photographed. You activate a device that operates a camera behind the mirror. It’s you who appears on the store façade facing the street. You’re wearing the clothes you want. You’re looking good. You testify for United Bamboo.
It’s difficult to describe the type of slightly deadpan humor being used here, but it works and Acconci’s charisma is unmistakeable. Perhaps my favorite moment in his talk was the discussion of a proposed “pre-exploded” building design for the World Trade Center, a “building full of holes” like a giant hunk of swiss cheese which Acconci claimed would provide “urban camouflage”; “a terrorist flying by above looks down and says ‘we don’t have to bother about this building; it’s already been dealt with.” If we’re wondering what poets bring to architecture and vice versa, one eloquent answer could be as simple as this incisive combination of humor and political awareness.
NOTE: Videos and sound files of this event are now available at PennSound here.