Book Review: The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

This book is a fleet-footed and exhaustive survey of the role of Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and many others in the IBM Design Program. Though ostensibly focused on architecture, author John Harwood effectively integrates industrial, graphics, and exhibition design through a series of chapters that explore their roles in the development of both the computer and the multinational corporation. Harwood argues that these designers, Noyes in particular, were essential in assessing the importance of interfaces on both fronts. In outlining the division between “parlor and coal cellar” in the design of computers, and naturalizing the increasingly prominent role of computers and other teletechnologies in daily life through exhibitions and architecture, the IBM Design Program transformed the role of design in both realms.

The strongest and most engrossing of Harwood’s chapters for me is his third, which deals with IBM’s architecture. Not only did Noyes’ firm complete a series of buildings for IBM on their own, Noyes hand selected the architects for most major commissions. The results, though typologically (and topologically) similar, speak to the diversity of thought on modern architecture during the mid to late 20th Century. For Harwood, what makes these buildings important is not just their aesthetic diversity, but the integration of their technological function with their organization. Many of these buildings were either inward-facing or entirely isolated, though their control on the surrounding environment belied this isolation. The further inward these buildings focused, the more command they embodied.

Harwood’s concluding observations have to contend with the recent trajectory of corporate design (1976-Present) and this presents some difficulty. Noyes, through his prominent role as design consultant, seems to have designed and managed his way out of the process, to have made his role redundant. Today’s corporate design culture is much different and more resistant to outside influence (for more see my recent article on Apple’s architectural patronage in CLOG: Apple).

Harwood sees methodological transformation in the research at hand, specifically progress toward the removal of aestheticization from histories of architecture and technology. The appearance of things can no longer be the only way of assessing their significance. The world that present-day historians have to contend with is dramatically different from that even a generation ago, and their methods must change in response. Harwood has provided an elegant model.

A Quadrant Book, University of Minnesota Press, 2011

All You Can Eat: A Buffet of Architectural Ideas for Cleveland

MayCo Billboard Tall

What is Cleveland’s recommended daily intake of architecture?

All You Can Eat posits that Cleveland is of a high metabolic rate, that it burns through ideas faster than they can be generated. In response, All You Can Eat presents a binge of possible futures excessive in scale and exhaustive in scope, ideas both raw and cooked, half-baked and hair-brained. All You Can Eat is a an event/exhibition to be held at The Sculpture Center in Fall 2009. A formal announcement and call for entries is forthcoming.

More information, in addition to the call for entries and a press release are available at:

Beyond the Blue(s): Wolf Prix in Columbus

Last night I attended the opening of Coop Himmelb(l)au‘s Beyond the Blue exhibition at the Wexner Center in Columbus, a retrospective of forty years of work by Wolf Prix and his firm taking the form of a large model collection and detailed displays on the Akron Art Museum and Musee de Confluences in Lyon, France. It was a nice distraction from much current architectural discussion uncomfortably dominated by the economy. 

Musee de Confluences, Lyon

Musee de Confluences, Lyon. Rendering: Coop Himmelb(l)au

While it’s always nice to see projects in detail, Coop’s model collection was the heart of the exhibition, encapsulating a position statement I’ve not heard Prix make before, namely that his work isn’t about sculptural form, but creating public space. This point was underlined by placing the models not at a normal level, but on a pair of oversized pedestals to force viewing them as a city all their own. It made a convincing case, but unfortunately the models I was personally most interested in seeing (specifically those from the mid-80s) were near the center of these tables, out of effective viewing range. This “model city” was accompanied by a video of interviews with Prix, highlighting the projects in the show and some of his process. 

Though it seems a bit ridiculous for Prix to suggest that projects as ostentatious as the Musee de Confluences or the BMW Welt in Munich are driven by public space rather than form, the exhibition aims to convince us. The models show that they do indeed provide such space, but the question of ownership is overlooked. Can a corporate-owned indoor space really provide the kind of interactions and surprise as a Viennese platz? I’m hardly convinced. 

BMW Welt, Munich. Photo: Abitare

BMW Welt, Munich. Photo: Abitare

The opening was marked by a conversation between Prix and consulting curator Jeff Kipnis. Their discussion ranged from softball questions — who his biggest inspirations were (Keith Richards) and the reasons for the firm’s name (a plane ride in 1968, and lots of drinks) — to more poignant and unanswerable ones, cutting to the depths of the now decade-long debate around “starchitecture.” 

Perhaps the most interesting thing Prix said concerned his process. “The most vulnerable moment in architecture is the moment of design,” he said, and in order to transform architecture, one must open up that moment to forces outside architecture. This realization led to things like the blindfolded sketching he used in the eighties. Though unsuccessful in producing an architecture that changes as rapidly and easily as clouds (his stated intent), Prix has produced some highly unconventional forms since this transformation. The versatility of his language is another question, however.

Often diagnosed as a peculiarly Viennese architect, a product of the milieu that also shaped Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, Prix was also asked how well such a specific language travelled, specifically to Akron. What, after all, can a contextually-uninformed Austrian contribute to Northeast Ohio? Prix had no answer.

This seems to me to be the central problem of the kind of cultural imperialism architects have proffered since Bilbao. We’ve been blind to the emptiness of the stars, content to merely import architecture rather than fostering it at home. This has to change, and it will. For now, however, I’m content with the occasional ostentatious distraction such as this exhibition provided, a respite from the recession blues.

Beyond the Blue is on view at the Wexner Center through the end of July.

Hans Hollein’s Rudimentary Effects


Entry to the Austriennale

I’ve gotten a few questions about my header photo, so I’ll explain. It’s a photo of visitors to Hans Hollein’s Austrian Pavilion at the ill-fated ’68 Milan Triennale. The installation consisted of a series of hallways, each of a different length and exploring a different spatial or conceptual effect: a catalogue of environments, some pleasurable, others off-putting. It falls right in line with Hollein’s earlier projects for underground environments and his faith in modern technology’s ability at simulation. He was preoccupied in this period with the possibilities of environmental control. Instead of creating real environments, why not simulate them? Architecture then dissolves into the production of special (or spatial) effects.

Plan of the Austiennale

Plan of the Austriennale

Speculating on these architectural effects, Hollein created such absurd and obtuse concepts as environments in aerosol and pill form. While clearly ironic, these proposals stem from Hollein’s previous engagements with mimetic underground environments with Walter Pichler and his early “floating stones” collages. He also produced a series of designs for sunglasses, in which framing and coloration are explored as rudimentary architectural effects. These “virtual realities” are perhaps the lowest or most basic form of architecture: a change of environment through augmentation. These experiments proved, for Hollein, to be dead ends. One wonders, however, what form they would have taken had Hollein been born thirty years later. His radical speculations on this subject could easily have come to a higher level of development in today’s intellectual and technological climate.

Hollein’s primitive experiments with the possibilities of effect and simulation have been mostly forgotten, but their trajectories seem to predate to some of today’s most pressing concerns and speculations. These projects imply much more than the ironic detachment from disciplinary issues others have attributed to them. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the architectural possibilities of such rudimentary effects.

Strange sunglasses distributed at the exhibition

Strange sunglasses distributed at the exhibition