SketchUp Artists: “Experimental Architecture”

Within the context of an “Artist’s Spotlight” piece entitled “Lewis Wadsworth – Google SketchUp and Experimental Architecture”, SketchUpArtists reprinted (re-published? re-world-wide-webbed?) three projects: the Pavilion for Oblivion, the Stormhouse, and WoL.

These are prefaced:

For some time now we have been in contact with Lewis Wadsworth, designer and artist from Boston, and discussed a possible article/interview here at SketchUpArtists. In the meantime we actually met at the Google SketchUp Conference 2010 where he told me he had been invited to do an interview for the popular British magazine 3d Artist. Being great fans of his “Experimental Architecture”, his unique presentation style and narrative we decided to present his three chosen works in their original form. We think that the images and the accompanying text are truly inspirational.

That’s very flattering, indeed. But I feel embarrassed on several levels at the attention.

(Before I go further, I would like to point out that the Stormhouse images that accompany this post have nothing to do with SketchUpArtists or their article.They are only three minor renderings which did not “make the cut” for one reason or another. One could say that I found them, forgotten, at the bottom of a drawer. Is that any different from finding them in a mislabeled subdirectory of a subdirectory of a spare hard-drive?)

Of course, I don’t know why I should feel at all reluctant to find myself associated yet again with Google’s software title. I don’t know why I should take even the slightest exception: Sketchup remains a great tool for design and visualization, and I’m very good at using it by almost every account. I suspect my reluctance to acknowledge my methods is one of those unfortunate holdovers from my formal education in architecture. You could get “in trouble” for using computers – and particularly for using SketchUp – for design projects at “my old school”, and I am aware that students still can get “in trouble”, there and elsewhere. Why? As I have indicated before, I’ve come to believe that the prejudice against computer modeling, and against SketchUp, on the part of the various pedants who believed they had authority over me, reflected solely their own insecurities, self-perceived inadequencies, and outright incompetence as educators who somehow came to imagine that the world (including the world of architecture) stopped the moment they received their degrees.

SketchUp, unlike certain other programs, is inexpensive and easy to learn. As a modeling program – a tool for design and illustrations of design – it forces nothing on the user. It brings nothing to “the design table”, nor takes anything away.

So let’s just nail this down, once for all: I design architecture, I design it almost entirely using computer modeling programs, I design it, almost always, using Google SketchUp. I pick up a pencil only when there isn’t a computer around or the electricity has failed.

I suppose if I become aware of some other program or technology that suits my needs better than SketchUp on a PC, I’ll embrace it. But it’s been ten years, and nothing has proved as useful although I certainly have wasted a great deal of time that I could have used for design in making certain that there are no better means, at least for me.

So now that I have made my apologia for SketchUp, perhaps I should make an apology for what I have brought to the afore-mentioned table.

SketchUpArtists apparently picked up the phrase “experimental architecture” from the earlier post on this website I devoted to my interview for 3D Artist. But where did I pick it up, and why?

(I find this monologue is taking a bit of a dark turn, but to continue:) I’m almost certain I appropriated the tag from some publication by or about Lebbeus Woods. In fact, I have such a book (Lebbeus Woods Experimental Architecture. Myers, Woods, Harries, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2004) in my library. In that text, on page 5 in an interview with Tracy Myers, he explains his decision to apply the designation to his own work:

I adopted the term “experimental” because it has a quite legitimized place in science and technology. Architecture, including experimental architecture, aspires to be in the mainstream. It is confronting difficult ideas and problems in the hope of improving the human condition, both in particular places and, by example, in a general way.

And of course, he has written on the topic more recently.

The task of the experimental architect is to take us to places and spaces we haven’t been before. That is more difficult than it sounds, particularly in this age of hyper-rendering by computer that can also look back over, and exploit ad infinitum, a long history of imaginative and speculative architectural design. It is also an age when many social problems—such as the rapid growth of urban slums and the need of low-cost housing for what used to be called the ‘working class’— remain not only unsolved but unaddressed. So, we might ask, why should we even care to make, let alone support with our interest, more or less abstract speculations about new and unfamiliar kinds of spaces?…

…it may be that the apprehension of beauty in art, music, poetry, even architecture, is necessary to solve the grittier real-world problems. The experience of beauty–especially difficult or ‘terrible’ beauty—is one that gives us a sense of personal connection to a wider world. No doubt this sense of belonging to a world inhabited by a complex multiplicity of people and things inspires us and gives us the desire to concretize our relationships beyond the fleeting moments given by music and art, or, say an experimental architectural drawing. Without art to broaden our world-view we might well stay mired in our narrow personal problems, isolated and apathetic.

I read items like that, or like this from Carnegie Online:

I think architecture is about ideas in the first place. You don’t get to design until you have an idea. That idea has to be somewhat comprehensive. There’s always a client asking for a building. If you’re an architect, you’ll design the building. But if you’re a dutiful architect, you first have to question why the building is required. The architect has to take responsibility to participate in the rationale of the building and not just to design. The architect can either say we don’t need this building and walk away, or maybe we need a different kind of building. That’s why I don’t have a lot of clients. [Chuckle.] Architecture requires the critical questioning of many things—it’s not just a thoughtful carrying out of a client’s wishes.

…or I make a simple Google websearch for the term “experimental architecture”…and I think, How dare I?

I believe, that in my desperation to respond to the original 3D Artist questions in a way that would make me, as a designer, seem more admissible, I appropriated Woods’ terminology. But the truth is that I’m a fantasist, which is probably even more pejorative a description than “visionary.” (Mr. Woods believes “visionary” to be unfavorable as an adjective applied to an architect, as compared to “experimental” – Myers et al., p. 5 again.)

These pretty-picture “works of architecture” are my personal attempts to exorcise melancholy by projecting my personal and not-very-unique preoccupations into some empty dream world. There is no attempt to improve anyone’s particular condition, nor is a client, other than some utterly-imaginary alter ego of myself projected backwards into a world that long ago began to end Not with a bang but a whimper. (I don’t seem to be able to quote even relatively current poets.)

How much more isolated and apathetic (to use Mr. Woods’ adjectives) can one become?

As opposed to being “experimental”, the projects cited in the article are reactionary, retreating, and more akin to the neuroses-filled European Symbolist painting that proceeded the end of the nineteenth century than any exploration of future possibilities carried through by a devotee of digital design such as I just styled myself. I feel today, looking at the renderings through the grey haze of my yearly bout with influenza (which may yet become my bi-yearly bout with pneumonia – my lungs were damaged during my architectural education by the dismal conditions under which I was commanded to work, so much that one day architecture will in fact be the end of me), that the Pavilion was nothing more than an architectural interpretation of Schwabe’s The Death of the Gravedigger in terms vaguely reminiscent of the formal tropes of Deconstructivist “movement” in architecture, with some of my youthful obsession with Stonehenge and Avebury thrown in for that personal touch. WoL is the same thing, on slightly different terms. And the everyone’s favorite – the Stormhouse – is only a comic-book version of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.

March 15th, 2011
Categories: Architecture, Design
Tags: , , ,