Experimentation in Architecture: A Manifesto

Architecture as an art has fallen far behind the others.  Why has architecture not shared in the freedom of expression and experimentation that music or painting has enjoyed?  Of course, architecture is heavy, complex, slow and expensive, but it does not always need to be.  We need a greater experimentation in architecture.  We need more architects taking their ideas to full experimentation.  We need to experiment and challenge the prevalent ideas in architecture.  I will label these prevalent ideas as facts, and have defined the following list of architectural facts as a starting point to challenge historical thought and push the art to new boundaries.

Architecture is permanent or long-lasting.

This is true from a western point of view, but historically, architecture has been shelter that was discovered (caves) or temporary and mobile (yurts).  The notion that architecture is permanent leads to the idea that architecture is solid and thus should use solid materials (stone, concrete, steel…).  Is this really necessary?  Why aren’t we building more temporary structures with textile walls and no doors or windows?  New textile technologies could allow for flexible architecture that could respond to environmental and functional variations, constantly changing form.  Shigeru Ban’s cardboard tube architecture has led to the development of cardboard emergency shelters that can be shipped in extremely dense flat-pack style packages, allowing for more shelters in fewer shipments to remote areas devastated by disaster.  This is possible because he stopped thinking of architecture as solid.

Architecture is private.

Ownership is a powerful concept.  You control what you own, and most architecture is very tightly controlled.  Almost all architecture is private because someone must fund a project, but even ‘public’ projects are controlled and limited.  What if architecture was truly public?  What if buildings were shared and changed hands throughout the day/month/year?  If function constantly changed, new creative solutions would need to be discovered and experimented upon, pushing architecture to new extremes.  Architectural elements might need to become moveable and interchangeable, manipulating form and space in reaction to new functions.  As urban density increases, space sharing will become a necessity and these new solutions will become a crucial part of successful architecture responding to society’s needs.

Architecture is expensive.

Most people are under the impression that hiring an architect means paying significant amounts of money for services that their nephew could provide for much less.  What people do not realize is that architecture does not need to be expensive.  With enough thought and planning, impressive designs can be built from free or inexpensive materials (construction waste, recycling, repurposing, bare plywood, waferboard, cinderblock).  This architectural fact is starting to be challenged today, but it needs more experimentation.  Samuel Mockbee of Rural Studio has made ‘recycled’ architecture popular, but there is so much more that can be done.  Recently a temporary house was built in Seattle as part of an exhibition of recycled architecture.  The house had walls of telephone books and cladding made of leftover traffic signs.  This style of architecture produces an extremely unique and varied form that is derived more from the pieces being used and less from the architect’s own formal desires.

Architecture is functional.

Of all architectural facts, this one has to be the most widely held belief, especially in the Modern movement.  Architecture must function.  It has to perform.  It needs a reason.  Why?  When modern architecture has stripped classical architecture down to solely the idea of function, why are there not more practices questioning this?  I believe that this attitude that architecture must and always should be functional is why it has failed to keep up with the Fine Arts.  Why not build something simply for the sake of building something?  Thomas Heatherwick’s Sitooterie is a great example of functionless architecture.  It is more of a sculptural investigation than traditional architecture.  He is pushing traditional ideas of spatial experience.

Architecture is beautiful.

This is a powerful argument for architecture as an art.  Architects are really artists; taking function and making it beautiful.  This notion is inherently problematic.  Philosophers still cannot decide what makes something beautiful, and scientists have tried their best to figure it out.  Architecture should stop worrying about what it looks like and maybe then we will discover something truly worthy of study.  If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then why are we trying to tell people what is beautiful?  I love brutalist architecture.  I think it is among the most pure, beautiful forms that exist.  My family (mother, in particular) thinks that brutalist architecture makes everything look like a prison, and should be reserved for a few select functions.  We should stop concerning ourselves with aesthetic consensus and focus on the concept.

Robert Venturi argues for greater complexity in architecture, I argue for more indifference.  We need to stop caring about what architecture is or does or costs or looks like, and start experimenting in real-time.  Architects should dedicate more time to experimental projects.  We need to think more.  We need to push ourselves.  Digital technology allows us to explore new forms of experimentation, but that is not enough.  We ought to think, study, draw, draft, illustrate, sculpt, render, simulate, compose and ultimately build these experiments to truly understand and progress them.

An experimental project does little good trapped inside a computer.  Simulations are often wrong and reality is not always predictable.  There should be acres and acres full of experimental details, materials, structures, compositions and forms.  We must experiment and build until the concepts being tested, challenged or investigated have been taken to the Nth degree, and only then can we really say whether a concept is true or false, success or failure, fact or fiction.

We need a greater experimentation in architecture.

– Seth Ellsworth