Tricks of the Trade: Notes on Envisioning Organization

I attended a conference at the Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture last month titled Envisioning Organization, and athough it fell short of my high expectations, it’s worth commenting in depth.

It was difficult to discern a curatorial position, but the conference seemed to be about the instrumentalization of graphic design and architecture, interrogating the efficacy of architectural research and graphic design at producing what one could call “knowledge effects.” These effects produce spontaneous common beliefs and conventions within constituencies based on a shared data intake. Many presentations made prodigious use of statistics, presuming to tell everybody what they’re doing wrong, and how they can do better. The conference suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, not sure whether to come down in support of data use in architecture or to outline a critique of such data use. For certain of the presenters, data was a useful tool for producing architecture. For others, data was the proverbial monkey on their back, something to be tossed aside in order to open themselves to conditions on the ground. Is data mining and fact-finding, the search for architectural or programmatic truths, still a valid modus operandi or a burden to be overcome? The question remains open.

More importantly for this conference, what is the relation between the producer/collector of data and their audience? This question was on my mind because of a report I heard on National Public Radio on the way to the conference. This will seem a bit of a digression, but bear with me for a moment. Concerning the recent suspension of Keith Olberman from MSNBC, the report brought about a discussion of objectivity in journalism. It is more effective to expect an untenable level of journalistic detachment, or to make one’s bias transparent? This is one case, perhaps the only, where I side with Fox News. Instead of reprimanding a concerned commentator for expressing said concern financially, wouldn’t an audience be better served by a full disclosure of such contributions? Could one produce content exposing bias rather than dishonestly cloaking the unavoidable taking of sides? When architects, for example, research the American suburb, they’re bound to find themselves in conflict with their subject. Must they attempt to remain objective or can bias become a part of their critique?

The presenters at Envisioning Organization seemed to be swept up in the presumed objectivity of their stats, and used them as a jumping off point to produce architectures both true and fictional. To me it seemed many of the presenters were making prodigious use of what might be called fuzzy logic, the belief that architecture is a problem solving enterprise, and that if we can only find the right problem, everything is easy. I have outlined my position on this question previously in my piece on the Mountain Dwellings by Bjarke Ingels Group and Julien de Smedt.

Among the strongest presentations was that of Jimenez Lai from Bureau Spectacular, whose manga narratives explore the possibilities and affordances of architectural convention. Decontextualizing the plan/section dichotomy to zero gravity, or reversing the figure/ground relationship of New York and Central Park, he enables new effects while maintaining the narrative of architectural disciplinarity. Can such “fictions” become instrumentalized in the same way the “truths” of statistics are?

Instead of overwhelming one’s audience with oversimplified representations of complexity, what if we made concepts more general and transferrable, less particular and less hermetic? Might ideological and aesthetic programs be easier to explain? “It takes a lot of work to say something obvious,” Lai said during discussion, and keep it compelling I might add. Lai and others seem to be tired of exploring the margins. Maybe it’s time to refocus on the conventions of architecture, to stop inventing new ways to expand our thinking. Maybe all that is outside “the box” (in other words, convention) are more boxes. The one we’ve got is pretty darn compelling. What can we do with it?

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