Andrew Zago and Office dA: Literary Modernists 2005admin
Ambiguity and Blurred Boundaries; The work of Andrew Zago and Office dA.
Unlike many of their generation, whose work is interested in the application of new technologies to the production of architecture, or in architecture as media, the work of Office dA and Andrew Zago can be termed literary in as much as they deal in meaning and ideas. Their approach can be allied specifically to that of two early modernist/symbolist poets Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rainer Maria Rilke, who had a heightened awareness of language and the way it affects our relationship to the world and to poetry. Andrew Zago and Office dA share a similar interest in the language of architecture and space, and ways in which the dichotomies it sets up can be dismantled, or played with, to produce complexity and ambiguity in architecture.
Human beings all make the mistake of distinguishing too sharply.”
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies.
Among the insights that most deeply affected Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was that the boundaries between concepts are arbitrary and man-made. Inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche among others, he sees existence as an ‘eternal flow’ of energy, between the inner world of the poet and the outside world, between life and death. While the blurring of boundaries between disciplines and professions has been much talked about in recent years, Andrew Zago takes to task conceptual boundaries at their root. Andrew Zago sees only degrees of differentiation where others see form, skin and difference. Where others ‘distinguish too sharply’ with dichotomies such as permanence and impermanence, Zago sees only degrees of permanence, and expresses this in works such as the Greening of Detroit Pavilion, in which there is no impermeable skin, no clear distinction between solid and void, just degrees of density. He writes:
If our conception of objects is a cultural inheritance, then our notions of difference and autonomy are inherited perceptions, ones that the mechanisms of space very much try to perpetuate. One could instead consider difference as degrees of differentiation; one thing differentiating itself into multiple and simultaneous conditions…In my work, I attempt to make conditions that hover between being different and being the same thing, whether the difference is two geometric projections, two geometric states of the same thing coexisting, two different material states, or a confounding of the dichotomy of form and function.
Andrew Zago embraces density and ephemerality—both conditions which deny fixed boundaries – as his spheres of interest. He creates a “fuzzy” zone around the Fine Venture Office Tower by sheathing it in a sleeve of stainless steel wires and ropes, and wrote of his SCI-Arc gallery installation, Cipher, that “the project seeks a condition in which one can contemplate form as a seamless continuum from action to being.” Zago attempts to create buildings which are impossible to view as a whole: you could not make sense of Cipher as an object. The objective view denied, the architecture was distilled to the subjective experience of entering a dense mass of material.
This approach was inspired by Moby Dick, in which Melville makes the point that it is impossible to get a clear picture of the whale. The SCI-Arc exhibit, since he was not creating an exterior, gave him the best opportunity for this. But he also played with the idea in the tower of the Korean Presbyterian Church of Metropolitan Detroit, which granted clarity only in fragments: by juxtaposing the tower and the cross, the cross is experienced as a spatial presence rather than as a clear visual symbol.
As a new structure, the Greening of Detroit Park Education Pavilion cannot avoid being seen as an object. But it does deny clear boundary in favour of degrees of density. Instead of protecting from the rain through an impermeable skin, the pavilion is composed of a mass of twelve rows of suspended 5” diameter polycarbonate tubes. It is inspired by a tree-canopy—a homage to the city’s former life as the “city of trees” before the greenery fell victim to Dutch Elm disease and urban blight. Like a tree, it provides shelter from the rain through a dense mass of matter. The cloud of material acts as a solid although it is not a solid.
Paradox recurs in the work. In Cipher, he looks for “both a large degree of freedom of movement and the constrictions of a labyrinth.” He attempts to confound form and function by combining the geometry of his buildings with their occupation. Conventional dichotomies are not safe even within the program: Cipher takes the performer and the audience and mixes them up three-dimensionally in the space of the installation, fostering an entirely new reading of the relationship between the two.
While Andrew Zago’s architecture can be compared to modernist poetry in its radical approach to both the formal and conceptual language of architecture, in other ways, his intentions are more allied to the modernist tradition in 20th Century architecture. His view of the discipline is tinged with nostalgia for a time when architects took their perceived roles as shapers of society extremely seriously, and when the design of buildings was raised above other design disciplines by its deeper links to the political and sociological aspects of modern life.
At the same time as being acutely aware of architecture’s practical, political and social roles, Zago is insistent that architecture is an art, and much of his work has the resonance of art. With Mark Anderson, he proposed to reassemble the charred remnants of a single family home for the community pavilion scheme for a run-down area of Detroit, referring to the burnt-out structures around the site, the results of desperate acts, and recalling Cornelia Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. Where Parker suspends the fragments of an exploded shed in ordered chaos, Zago brings new order to the ruins of the house, creating use as well as meaning meaning from destruction.
Andrew Zago aims high, stating such intentions as the will to “articulate a profound break with the history of architectural thought” and to “overturn the idea of architecture as the production of aesthetic volume.” His metaphors reflect the intensity of his purpose: “Architecture,” he states, “is in need of powerful heresies to shake it from its lethargic orthodoxy.”
The essence of our age is ambiguity and indeterminacy. It can take its rest only on what is slipping away from under it and is conscious that it is slipping away where other generations believed in what was firm.
Hugo von Hoffmansthal, The Poet and This Age
Although they might express their intentions differently, Office dA are engaged in a quest to dismantle traditional boundaries that is comparable to that of Andrew Zago. Through their work, they perform “a range of operations on materials as a way of breaking down the traditional dichotomy between transparency and opacity”; they attempt to remove the distinction between the top and the legs of a table they design, and to create “a seamless relationship between the landscape and the roof of the building” in their design for a house in Bilbao. Elsewhere, their intention is to create a “sort of synthesis” between spatial operations and operations of skin. In the Witte Project, the Toledo House and the Weston House, they blur the distinction between inside and outside in what Nader Tehrani describes as a “grafting together of inside and outside.” Their work, they say, tests and explores the “dialectical relationship between the way the building is constructed and the actual space.”
They take this even further by questioning the very notion of order itself, which manifests in an architecture that can be read in many different ways. They confess a weakness for the “systematic disorder” of mannerism, and their approach recalls the work of another Austrian poet writing at the turn of the last century, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, whose poetry precisely describes ambiguous states of mind and explores the realm of the indistinct. What Office dA express in architecture could be seen as analogous to the “ambiguity and indeterminacy” described by Hoffmansthal as “essence” of his fin-de-siecle. In some ways, Office dA’s work applies new technologies to an artistic approach that is of that period. The curved, CNC-milled cabinet fronts of the Harvard GSD offices, the black leather floors of the raised eating areas of Mantra, the silks and velvets of the curtains at Joli show that Office dA is not afraid to indulge their penchant for the sensual and tactile, as well as for the conceptual pleasure that arises from ambiguity.
Their work is tinged with guilt: they create conceptual “alibis” to justify their actions: like Andrew Zago, they are aware that their work transgresses modernist dogma on a number of points – (Does this transgression make them the heretics identified by Andrew Zago as necessary to shake up the discipline?)
Office dA prefer to let material explorations rather than function determine form. But their chief point of heresy is their abiding interest in the manipulation of building materials in ways that are deeply “untrue” to the material in question. By building brick walls that disappear and rope installations that are stiff, they are perverting the “natural”, indexical language of architecture, whereby—just as clouds indicate rain—“bricks mean solidity” and “ropes mean floppiness”. But does this supply materials with multiple meanings, or deprive them of meaning altogether? And are such meanings anachronistic anyway in an age when glass can be used structurally and concrete can be made to glow?
Such ambiguities arise all the time in any discussion of this architecture. Clarity is antipathetic to Office dA. They talk about their drawing and computer tools as devices to “thicken the plot”. Like Andrew Zago, Office dA think in terms of unusual metaphors: the glass panels at the entrance to Mantra serve to “cleanse the visual palette”; they imagine the skin of the house in Bilbao to be “shrink-wrapped” around the program; they describe the Tongzian arts community project as a “building on a diet.”
Both Andrew Zago and Office dA discuss their work using poetic terminology, and—possibly as a result of this approach—achieve a poetry in the effect of their work that raises it above mere experimental games. Office dA’s Mill Road House, with its canted clapboards which allow glimpses through the siding, was for one critic “evocative of a farmhouse in disrepair”. The terracotta block east wall of the Casa La Roca has been likened to the “disintegration of rock into a veil”. The latter is allowed to take full effect thanks to the building’s banal west wall. Indeed, for all Office dA’s taste for the mannerist and the sensual, there is at the same time economy and understatement in the work, a sense of modesty, combined with a consistency of conviction and craftsmanship that exonorates it from any frivolity.
Making veils out of terracotta blocks, creating shelters out of transparent tubes that don’t touch: the work Office dA and Andrew Zago rejects architecture as the production of aesthetic objects in favour of an exploratio—both practical and philosophical—and radical reinterpretation of some of the quintessential elements of architecture: material and its assembly for Office dA, and material and boundaries for Andrew Zago. Where comparable explorations in poetry produced some of the greatest works of poetry of the last century, the built works of Office dA and Andew Zago are, and promise to be, testaments to the powerful effects architecture can have when manipulated playfully by architects with serious intentions.