(Small) Theses?

As I write this post, I’m frazzled and in a multitask fog. But there are so many exciting things coming across my screen that I thought I had to share and at the very least register before I lose track. I started with the title “theses” because most of these loosely related items hinge upon some kind of thesis in one way or another. But the title is really just suggestive.

The state of craziness right now has to do with the fact that I have just finished an intense semester at Cornell’s architecture department, where I co-taught an MArch I (second year) studio, and a nifty little seminar on what I like to talk about as “everyday architectures”, or the in-between states where design comes into play materially as part of a larger political and social millieu. Anyway, if I can get around to it, I might post a syllabus. Finishing a semester usually means doing the usual grading madness, and returning books, but for me it also means, once again, packing up my belongings and sending ’em off to California, where they will await their owner’s return in August. Tomorrow morning I’ll jump on a bus to NYC, where more craziness awaits. Lots and lots of people to see and shows to catch…. (Columbia architecture show, Ernesto Neto’s Armory installation, ICFF-related stuff, 49 cities at Storefront, Dwell party?, Pin Up … It might be interesting to see how many things I can do in two days).

But lately I’ve been pondering many issues related to the dreaded architecture thesis. Oh yes. That one. The so-called capstone to design where you prove you’ve made your bones. This past semester was an intriguing one, being my first seeing thesis reviews at Cornell–from the other side of the range, that is (thank god). It was mighty interesting and saw some good projects. Others, mmm, not so good, perhaps, though usually some salvageable ideas.

Well, here is an image from one of the better ones (just cus this student has posted it online and others haven’t, that I know of… I wasn’t on this review but got to see the project after). This was in intriguing proposal to design the ruination and occupation of the decaying space of a post-military landscape (surely a topic close to my heart!)

By Garyhe33
By Garyhe33. click image for more.

Surely this student sticks to some Platonic forms in the landscape and perhaps consciously avoids prevalent trends in architecture (good for him!). Aside from the issue of vocabulary, it was also speculative –and detailed– at various scales, which was refreshing to see. Click the image for more.

But what worries me now is not so much an issue like the all-too-common incompleteness that made many potentially good projects not-so-good, in my opinion. For instance, if a student decides to design a building, then there’s gotta be some consistency from drawings to models and on to renderings. Perforations should be consistent throughout (not change in relative size from one mode of representation to the next), to name just one basic issue. And it’s galling what some get away with. But that happens every year.

What’s more serious is that I think we’ve gotten to a point, and Cornell is not the only one, where students have no position on what thesis itself can be. Maybe I am being romantic, but I think students should be able to explain why they had to do what they did. The thesis project would thus plumb the depths of a problem they conceptually should be able to frame. Yet there seem to be a series of trends going around — decoys, in a way. These are ways of getting away from justifying the scale(s) that the project intercedes in and the formats that were called upon to test the problem framed, if the student can frame it that is.

Another issue is a raft of quasi-scientific and “parametricized” projects shown unassailably as a thesis, just because of their seeming rigor. Also, then you have theses that show a building as a fait accompli… As if doing a building is automatically a thesis. Would the general spatial experience promised been accomplished with a few changes in grade or some kind of circulation system? Yes? Then why have a gigantic structure merely to “connect” portions of the city? That’s merely a simulation of a test, a test that actually has no strong variables.

But then on the other hand, there is also the issue of projects that promise to shift the very premises of architecture, only to then leave the jury deflated when there is no push to test it in some site or at the level of complexity of a program. Surely it seems the students can’t win no matter what, eh?… But then again, they can, if they take possession of what premises the thesis answers to and what it tests.

Philippe Rahm’s Archimedes House, a thesis-building if there ever was one. click for related Metropolis article.
Philippe Rahm’s Archimedes House, a thesis-building if there ever was one. click for related Metropolis article.

Somehow somewhere we need to discuss theses again. Maybe part of the problem is that the technology at the level of computation and at the level of outputs (laser-cutting, cnc milling) has made testing so easy, that it is even easier to forget, once again, these matters of the architectural scale of work. The multiples are so vast and the tests so endless that any size is seemingly possible. The screen space itself is subject to such a spectrum of scales of immersion (although often the students don’t understand them as such) that there is no longer a challenge of the basic assumptions. So, not to resolve the tensions brought up here… (no time for this today!)… But I just wanted to quickly scan a few projects that are small and have hit my inbox lately. just cus…

Alex Mergold and Jason Austin’s House in a can

The small, as a thesis or as part of one, need not mean the ‘final’ or the complete somehow, but a scale all-too-often overlooked. The scale of this next project is also a means to succinctly test larger ideas of nature and sociability…

A bird house where birds must work as a team to get into the food, by Chris Woebken

A bird house...where birds must work as a team to get into the food (by Nathalie Jeremijenko with Chris Woebken) one opening the latch while the other eats...or traps the other inside(!) Photo by CW.

Another interesting project is this award-winner spotted on Pruned. So simple… and yet, it’s the kind of thing you could imagine a thesis student doing on the fly, in the dead of night… to take an idea to its limits…

The Crack Garden, by CMG Landscape Architecture. Photo by Tom Fox.

The Crack Garden, by CMG Landscape Architecture. Photo by Tom Fox.

Another aspect that really intrigues me about the small scale (of course, the important question is how small), is its possibilities to evade capture, it’s stealth potential… It can be a scale to be manipulated for maximum spatial effect, but operating at a scale that many-a-times might be increasingly unimportant to the capitalist, and therefore pregnant with opportunities for lateral movement, invading sites, or registering landscape from an angle not commonly allowed by hegemony (also a key part of the CCA Actions show). In that sense, I am reminded of another recent small project by Austin + Mergold…

A good reuse for insulation... A CNC Kite, a nifty and evasive scale to work at.

A good reuse for insulation... A CNC Kite, a nifty and evasive, stealthy scale to work at.

Total tangential relation to that kite, but thought I would just point you to an awesome pirate music vid: Windsurf – Weird Energy. Maybe it has nothing to do with the rest of this post, but it could…At least it’s representations of architecture with sound, and speaking of sound, I might as well also bring into this post what Nick Sower’s has been doing as a mode of spatial investigation: audio recording, which could very well fit into this theme of smallness. Check out his blog soundscrapers for samples…

One more example, just for the hell of it… The park cycle by Rebar:

An elusive park

An elusive park. Photo: Rebar

And finally, I thought I would also point you to what looks to be a very intriguing book going to press right now, though probably misplaced here, as it certainly may not be a small thesis: Subnature, by a frequent conversation partner, David Gissen. Check it out. Put it on your shopping list. More stuff to come soon…

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One thought on “(Small) Theses?

  1. Jav, I like the idea of taking on scale–the smallness allows the big ideas to emerge. As a thesis student, I struggle with the enormity of all things I want to research and make the thesis about. But it’s a very limited sphere that I will be able to test. This reinforces my belief that it’s about learning ‘just say no’ to all the distractions.

    It’s also about the quickness of the thesis media. A good thesis is able to translate research into form without suffering a disconnect. The birdfeeder is a great example–a quick model, small, and perhaps produced in a series, it becomes about a way of looking. Great post man, and of course thanks for the plug.

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