Sunday, November 16, 2008

KRob 08- The changing landscape of architectural drawing

In the last few years, I've tried to bring forth timely topics that currently affect the architectural profession. From writing about sustainability and urbanism, to technological and market trends changing the practice, it is apparent that there is a cornucopia of issues young designers can engage in. Certain issues have a particular appeal to young professionals because they offer a mission worth pursuing--making the world a better place by pushing more environmentally-friendly construction, or helping to making cities more healthy and enjoyable and improving society as a result. Other issues with a more technical emphasis, such as experimenting with computers and other technologies, appeal to those who want to expand the definition of what it is to be an architect the twenty-first century. There are countless organizations that address all these interests and that offer ways for like-minded professionals to share ideas with each other as well as to coordinate with communities from the local to federal levels.

With all these choices and all of the activities that can take an architect's meager amount of extra time, it is all too easy to forget an essential component that should inform what architects do over any other building-related profession: visceral beauty. Certainly beauty is always on our minds when we work, but rarely do we think about it on its own, detached from function, technical logic, budgets or what the client has specifically requested. Remove an object from the context that helped make it, and what meaning or significance is left? Does the object express intangible qualities that are unique to the individual that created it?

These are important questions we should always consider, even if they are too abstract for people who would rather make a 'real' difference. That is why I have been fortunate to be involved during the last few years in the longest running architectural drawing competition-the KRob. The Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition poses precisely these questions and stimulates a rich discussion on why a drawing moves us, and the infinite number of thoughtful and beautiful ways we communicate ideas graphically. Many of us who have gone through schools are indeed mindful of this, but it always was seen as supporting larger architectural idea, not as a thing of value in and of itself. The irony is made clear when the invited jurors every year try to remind themselves what the basis of the judging will be, as it is quite different from the typical architecture competition in which winners are judged by how well they respond to a given program and not to the beauty of the drawings (though it helps).

The 320 entries submitted this year really brought into focus more clearly than ever how the definition of the architectural drawing has expanded and changed. The winners of the hand-drawn categories recall the original and most intuitive method of delineation, while those of the digital-hybrid media categories demonstrate how the computer has allowed drawings to transcend the two-dimensional plane and incorporate multiple layers of information and detail. Although technique was vital in judging entries, what put some over others was in what it had to say (...or what it was trying have us guess what it way trying to say). Although it may not surprise those who did go to architecture school, the submissions from students was overall a bit stronger than the professionals. Given the amount of time and the encouragement by their teachers to experiment and explore, their work often outshined the professionals who are pressed for time and pressured by commercial obligations to please clients.

This was the first year that KRob accepted international entries. Jungsoo Kim of South Korea won the ignaugural International prize with his series of renderings depicting an enormous fissure breaking open the ground plane to reveal an oversized man-made canyon. Some of the perspectives inside the fissure remind me of the parting of the red sea in the film "The Ten Commandments" only with more haze and and softer light. If you look at the top left corner of the drawing there is a temple complex at the end of the fissure's axis, indicating the space's function as a part of a spiritual procession. The earth is rendered powerfully here, and reminds us of our inevitable becoming a part of it upon our deaths. Glowing lights beaming out of from the surface add a magical quality to the drawing's overall expression.

In the hand-drawing category, the jurors were impressed by the winning professional entry by Scott Tulay which interprets the phenomena of light, shade and structure. The blue, black and grey charcoal palette helped emphasize the contrast light and mass, while the composition of intersecting beams and framing elements abstracted the reality of the interior of a barn or warehouse into a rich yet haunting spatial pattern. Tulay's drawing does recall in my mind the Cubist paintings of the early twentieth century, which attempted to reveal a more abstract and universal reality.

This was quite different from the winner of the hand-drawing student category. Matthew Sander's axonometric drawing of a mechanical tower along with an illustration of a shed in successive phases of construction (and a dog house!) won over the jury partly due to its mystery. The drawing selectively cuts sections of various elements, revealing the inner workings of the tower, the depth of the ground below and repeats one building over and over to give the drawing a sense of time in space. The smeared graphite sprinkled over the page (likely the result of dirty parallel bar wheels) is evidence of Mr. Sander's patient yet positively 'fussy' attempt put seemingly disparate elements into a whole. What the relationship was between the sheds and the tower (and that dog!) spurred lengthy debate , and made the drawing and example of how the story or its ambiguous meanings gave it special meaning beyond its common technique.

The strength in which a drawing tells a story also characterizes the winner of the digital-hybrid prize in the professional category. While the technical mastery of the drawing is evident, Aleksander Novak-Zemplinski's depiction of Los Angeles in a distant and greener future demonstrates the power a drawing has in transporting us into another believable reality. There is a multiplicity of scales, a high level of detail and a dramatic use of color and atmosphere. The futuristic blimps, the hive-like vegetated hillsides of densely packed dwellings and the buzzing human activity at the landing strips are just a few of many different elements that encourages the viewer to immerse themselves in another reality. Influences from science-fiction movies are obvious, and it turns out that the drawing is part of a visulization for a film project. It reminds us that one of the major objectives of an architectural rendering is not necessarily to depict a future building as realistically as possible in its given context, but rather to offer a glimpse of a more inspiring reality once the building is fully realized.
And yet, the winner of the best digital-hybrid drawing in the student category departs from visualisations of alternate realities to something altogether more abstract. Brandon Shigeta's winning entry is a handsome concept diagram that describes the transformation of an existing pattern of urban blocks. A greyscale aerial view of a portion of a city is overlayed with colors and graphic elements to communicate the idea of a park space that serves as buffer between two areas of the city. The drawing's composition of fading pixels, arrows and chaotic curvilinear lines gives it an aspect of motion and highlights the notion that the design cities are guided by many unseen though evident forces. They culminate at the green space, which in turn explodes outward in a perpendicular direction. Very little traditional drawing or figurative illustration is present. Instead, Mr. Shigeta likely used software that allows unlimited modulation of layers and vector-based linework. Such modern techniques that are becoming ever more commonplace, and the drawing represented to the juror's a striking example of the changing definition of the art of the architectural delineation. Concepts can be communicated with new tools that allow for an ever expanded range of meanings. Initially, Mr. Shigeta's entry was noticed for its elegant composition. But it was upon closer inspection that the jurors uncovered and were impressed by the drawing's complexity of information. With the manyfold effects of this drawing revealing itself with each glance, and from the breadth of discussion it stimulated among the jurors, Mr. Shigeta's urban diagram was awarded the KRob's Best of Show.

The result did not necessarily mean that the jurors decided to embrace the new. Each of the three jurors could choose a personal citation of a work that they felt strongly about. Two of the jurors selected works especially for their deference to traditional delineation. Dawn Carlson's watercolor of a Gothic church harkens back to the refined compositional drawings of the Beaux-Arts curriculum that were prevalent in all architecture schools before the onset of Modernism. The flat, non-perspectival picture of a city by J. Arthur Liu emulates the Oriental artistic tradition of depicting cities from above, which functioned as a sort of map of the area, and were featured in books, murals, and tapestries. For its incorporation of a technology unrelated to architectural drawing, Richie Gelles' entry showing a series of X-Ray slides describing his concept for a hospital won the admiration of the jury.

Overall, the winners of this year's competition were a diverse group. The jury was often split on many of the selected finalists, and often the debates about why they chose one over another were passionate. The value of these debates can not be overstated, and it is the desire of the organizers of the competition to create a more accessible forum for all to participate in the dialogue regarding the changes affecting architectural drawing. The success of the Ken Roberts Competition is critical to the continuation of this dialogue, and it invites all students and professionals to contribute.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I'm a Winner! Bobos, Millennials, and Obama: Why Conservatism is So Un-Cool

This past election put two different personalities and two different generations on a stage for all to see. On the one hand was the old-school John McCain, the grumpy maverick who seemed glaringly inflexible and at times repetitive. On the other was the "coolest" politician since JFK, someone who appealed to young voters and monopolize the issue of change. Barrack Obama epitomizes, and personifies, so many of the values that have come to define almost two generations: flexibility, open-minded, post-racial, post-partisan, maybe even post-American. Scores of Americans are over the past, over history, or at least over a sense of history. Since American history is mostly negative, they might say, it's time to move on to bigger and brighter things. In that regard, McCain never had a chance. Even though he has been a rare individual among the groupthink in D.C., he was a product of a bygone generation that most young Americans would prefer stay that way: gone.

In the media age, image matters, maybe even more so than policies or governmental philosophy. (At least for now. A return to history could change all of that, and that return could be hurried along by an aggressive Russia or Iran, or a seriously damaged economy.) Obama had a glow, and that image was especially attractive to two groups in particular: Bobos and Millennials. Bobos are the Bourgeois Bohemians so appropriately detailed by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise. Millennials are the Gen Y-ers, the grandchildren of the boomers, gifted with multi-tasking, love of community, and a profound sense of entitlement. Both of these groups, in ways both positive and negative, seek a break with the past.

The Bobos retreated from the elitism of the 1950s, the Donna Reed image where status was king. They desired a society where achievement dominated and trumped past values that championed last names, connections, and diplomas. What they created was a society built on several paradoxes: their achievement mindset led them to overcome the elites, but never be able to rest, lest they lose their prominent positions. They became a generation of reconcilers, who brought together two groups that had historically been at war, bohemians and the bourgeois. They sacrificed the virtues of the past, lest they interfere with the present, and they created a “nice” and “decent” society that stood for very little. They regarded wholesomeness as a newfound value, particular evident in a love affair of nature and all things organic, but rarely created time to actually enjoy such wholesomeness. Obama projects niceness, decentness, wholesomeness, and achievement. Like Bobos, he has earned the future.
The Millennials are the Bobos’ kids, but it doesn’t seem that they’re quite as much into achievement. (I found this 60 Minutes video worth watching.) They are rebelling against the achievement doctrine; after all, they never spent time with mom and dad because mom and dad were busy at the office. Moreover, achievement doesn't mean much to a generation who never grew up losing at anything, from T-ball on up to grade grades in college in part due to calls from helicopter parents. Millennials value friendships, openness and themselves above all other things, and bring a stark sense of entitlement into the workplace and relationships. They will sacrifice achievement for quality of life, and they seem to take the Bobos lack of respect for the past to a whole new level: Millennials are the future and they know it. For a generation used to being coddled, told "You can do it!" and who sincerely believes the future is also theirs (not because they've earned it, but because, well, it just is), the "Yes we can" message must have been familiar and encouraging, even if ridiculously empty.

Lost in all of this is a deeper discussion of principle. “As a matter of practical politics, contemporary liberalism amounts to a coalitional ideology, while conservatism remains an ideological coalition,” writes Jonah Goldberg. If conservatism is about principle, and if it is an ideological coalition, what chance does it have among a majority of Bobos and Millennials? Not much. These are two groups that are among the most narcissistic and self-assured generations in American history, who have never been challenged or rallied to a national cause. Indeed, they were probably laughing at McCain’s motto: “Country first.” I wonder how many Millennials were mortified at such an idea. Country First? Yeah, right after me, my dog, Facebook, and my iPhone.
Maybe I’m being too hard on these generations. Millennials certainly have their gifts, and in many ways they’re a breath of fresh air compared to grungy Gen X. From a religious point-of-view, I hope they will reject the Bobo’s “Flexidoxy” and come to embrace truth as found in the historical Church. But from a political point-of-view, as a conservative, I wonder if this isn’t a lost generation. Peggy Noonan points out that “many of the indices for the GOP are dreadful, especially that they lost the vote of two-thirds of those aged 18 to 29. They lost a generation! If that continues in coming years, it will be a rolling wave of doom.” Time will tell. For now, I’m already quite sure Obama will have serious challenges, and we’ll see how long the Millennial naiveté lasts.
Also, I know making generalizations about generations is a dangerous task. For a differing point-of-view, check this post out. There are great points here. But the voting numbers don’t lie. And it strikes me that there is something about conservatism this generation can’t tolerate. At least, not a majority of them.