Birdhouses

In the archives the other day, going through old studio statements, I came across a short exercise: to design a house for Mr. and Mrs. White-Breasted Nuthatch. The brief stipulated room for an expanding family, and required dimensions in inches instead of feet.

I was surprised, and not surprised, to find something like this in 1963; not surprised, because a conceit like this seems too twee for an architect to attempt at any other time, and surprised, because I would have thought that the premises of the studios of the time would have been entirely restricted to the pragmatic and the phlegmatic. 

Compare this to recent studios I have sat on reviews for. One asked students to forecast futures of the Mexico/United States border regions, with students making interventions to help migrants and mitigate arms testing. One asked students to make museums for a unified Europe using assemblages of open-source digital models. Certainly these studios join an unobjectionable goal for architecture – to envision, to project, to forecast – with a set of unobjectionable subjects – test sites, digital models, museums, borders. 

Work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster
Gissing back for work by Tim Noble and Sue Webster.

Where the interest comes in is in aiming the projection at the right angle through the jumble of reasonably pertinent things, in order to form an uncanny and recognizable picture. 

The benefits of projecting into ficitional space in such contemporary cases reflects the more modest uses of the Nuthatch House. The Nuthatch House uses a fiction to meet the needs of the student – a small, physical project with program nonetheless baked in – with little expectation of being tested with actual nuthatches. It is safe to fail; it lightens the mood. The future project similarly will not be tested in practice, but it can cultivate a habit of mind in the student – seeing architecture as instrumental, as having agency. It is safe to fail; it appropriately darkens the mood. The work of instruction here is meant to turn aside the student from what can safely be assumed as their initial default – of architecture as a spectacular object and image.

Dealing with the future project, it will be habitually objected that the constraints of use, of fundability, of statics are the necessary grounds for spatial design, a partner in a pertinent dialogue. To neglect these things any longer than a short interval is to deny their essential nature in spatial design practice. The standard retort to this would be that in practice each of these factors is a convention, something subject to renegotiation – if we are not likely to reinvent statics, we will certainly not think of unlikely propositions with regard to statics without either temporarily disregarding them, or trying pointedly to challenge them from inside. Speaking instrumentally, then, the major benefit of fiction as an architectural mode is to change the angle of approach of the architect and their audience – to torque away at what is allowable and what is not allowable. Again, this is all familiar. Make it new.

Innovation must be valorized to incentivize a continual movement toward better ecological and social outcomes. Sure! But it is something I have little interest in, and something that tends toward inert genealogy when written about. Much of innovation, seeking at least to cater to needs previously unmet, serves only to rule the lines between generations on the family tree. So I am not concerned with the fictional in spatial design as something new – its newness is of degree and not kind – nor its ability to produce newness or contemporaneity.

Instead, I want to draw out two features of the fiction for spatial design. The first relates to the Nuthatch House, and my discovery of it; which is that the more elaborate and separated from standard design practice the fiction is, the more immediately it explains the mores and means of design practice. The second relates to studios that forecast the future; which is that such fictions can, if they choose to, operate without design’s perennial companion, applied morality.    

Spatial design is, in one sense, a bundle of tools that can be applied to any aim (In the academy, we like to hedge our promises to students as to employability with this fact). We pull away the collective grounds of usual practice, and then see how the same tools work on new grounds. But the tools themselves are contaminated. A culture’s approach to art is necessarily partial and conditioned by its accepted universe of art, meaning not just forms but lines of communication and ways of making. Plan, section, and perspective cannot be isolated as ways of understanding or generating form, but must be understood as ways to instruct workers or convince clients. This, I think, is the tacit understanding for designers and onlookers when these conventions are employed.

Architectural tools taint their objects with specks of architecture – architecture here being understood as a standard way of proceeding, encoded in the career of an Eisenman or a Diller and Scofidio – that buildings will always out, that any theory-work must at some point excrete projects. It must be tested in the workflow of normative architecture, which will buffet the little theoretical boat; it must demonstrate a family resemblance to normative architecture, sharing its drawing tools, its forms, its values. To be more precise: architecture is composed of practices, but the practices do not always cleave neatly from one another. Systems of practices may at times be severed, may be resutured, may be removed entirely, but will as likely refuse to be separated.

Studying a design fiction, one finds a working model of a particular segment of this architectural constellation of practices. Like a plastic set of cutaway kidneys in a urologist’s office, this model discards most of design’s entailments and responsibilities, removing the obscuring tissue of this vast system of if-thens. The least overtly fictional speculations and prompts are the ones least likely to show us something we don’t already know about these systems. What is the value of the Nuthatch Prompt? Most obviously, that it reduces the architectural project to something small and manageable for beginning students, a safe space for play. But it also lays out a sub-system of existing cultural relationships – between the form of the birdhouse and that of the personhouse, between those forms and the families of birds and people. At one remove out, it does something further – the fiction it lays out somes something particular to me about the values and culture in my institution’s history that is more difficult to discern in a course listing for Architecture I, or an assignment sheet for a short problem in residential design. It is a richer text to leave for the future.

That is not, and probably should not be, a conscious goal of the educator, themselves deep in the architecture-system, the system of what is likely, or what is possible. Within this system, a fiction is also a way to do what is otherwise unjustifiable – a way to temporarily avoid that web of constraints. Only within the alternate set of rules of a “story” can you set forth something analogous to but estranged from the standard “story” of whatever design’s bounds happen to be at the moment. It is precisely not an allegory, which would repeat the larger story in miniature.

High design is suspected with ample reason of proceeding as though context was not there. In fictions, it shows itself as capable of acting as though a different context was there – in the cases of the future studios above, contexts that are more socially pertinent but not amenable to funding through the usual channels. We tend to think of these speculations as moral imperatives. How could we, how will we, do better than we do, for a still greater good? What could the techniques of architecture do to abet and comfort the refugee? That the most direct ways for architectural tools to do this are among the least probable only, at best, spurs the architect to find a possible way within the system.

But design fictions could as easily be made to show a professional reality that is in no way intrinsically moral, that is bound up in biological, physical, cultural, and financial constraints to the point where it does not and cannot operate as a rationally moral venture. In my own studio, last semester, my co-instructor and I taught through the fiction of a landscape-making corporation that was progressively revealed as being not only venal, but delusional. Their own well-designed and reasonably sustainable landscapes were being turned out under a badly-designed urban strategy and an unsustainable financial model. This allowed our students to consider the possibility that landscape can be made with bad intentions – and still worse, that good landscape architecture could be generated by a bad actor. If we were explicit about the badness here, did we run any greater risk of the students becoming jaded? Did we deprive them of valuable practice in doing the best thing for the best reason? At very least, we were simulating a condition that we believe they will encounter in another form down the road, one where likely they will not do the best thing. They might know, at that point, that they are not doing the best thing; and they might start to know why.

(August 2016)