Interview between two architects—one with an interest in envelopes—circa 06.
P1: What is an envelope in architecture?
P2: The building envelope is an agent of political action—simultaneously that of image, as well as the autocritique of its own mode of production and assembly—allows us to understand a major component of architectural expression as both representational effect and construct of political formations. Coalescing image with the physical organization of political networks approximates a change in debate that includes the conflation of older modes of production and design—façade, elevation, roof—and attempts to establish a new set of terms that might reflect a digital aegis of the architect.
P1: What is autocritique?
P2: Umm.. its.. well..
P1: You really think the envelope of a building can do all that?
P2: Sure. Absolutely. Today the development of the building envelope confronts an extensive level of technological development with which we can control, author and develop its potential. This potential it seems is no longer merely imagistic or simply material. The immaterial properties of economic market conditions—conditions which mobilize complex networks of disciplines and various levels of institutionalized controls—positions the envelope at a unique crossroads of the architect’s development as political subject and professional.
P1: You mean, like, architects can be better professionals while acting as political agents?
P2: Absolutely, labor is agency. Its 2006, architects must first learn to be fruitful players within the new regime. That means getting over this idea that development and free markets are somehow unsavory.
P1: So, like, we can be political while getting paid well?
P2: That’s the idea. We’ve been brainwashed to think those two points of view are mutually exclusive. The more we let so-called “criticism” remove us from the action, the more irrelevant we become.
P1: Is history dead?
P2: Haha.. well, I wouldn't go that far. I'd say its on life-support.
P1: So what would you recommend to architects who want to confront this challenge?
P2: The transformative political potential inherent in the nature of the envelope today speaks to the architects need to further his place as both practitioner and technician—to evince understanding of possible economic outcomes from within “the budget” and to exhibit a grasp of the flows of production, while taking on the challenges of various economies of scale. The envelope materializes the buildings mode of production and design; it is both the structure and representational strategy, while also the way we can curate new economies and flows of information.
P1: I have no idea what you’re saying.
P2: Look, the contemporary building envelope forcefully breaks from old ideas of “regulating lines” and the antediluvian planimetric paradigms and presents a new surface of architectural modulation; not just image, but a fundamental exploration of material economy. Despite the radical promises of technology and dynamic building modeling software the old conventions persist—lingering expectations of corresponding plan with section, of distinguishing roof from elevation and insisting on the façade as a modulated part-to-whole of assembly of outcomes the ostensible result of plan organization. We have to embrace the new technological paradigm and overcome our old methods!
P1: So it seems like you’re insisting that the envelope must be conceived as integral to a buildings design and not just the byproduct of other methods.
P2: Exactly. The breakdown in preexisting conventions—cornice, window, roof, balustrade; delineating syntactical and physical conditions which stand in the way of our rethinking the envelopes socio-political role in today’s culture—are now made possible with new programs and require us to reconsider all the tropes and figures that persist in architecture. When Le Corbusier beckoned our attention with “three reminders” he was writing to signal a revolution, the force of which he saw bound up in a world of industrial change; a change that had the potential to turn all the inherited codes and conventions on their head. Similarly, today we’re confronted by changes in the nature of architectural design and production that call for the building envelope as the new locus of political economies. Corbs second reminder was actually that: “A mass is enveloped in its surface, a surface which is divided up according to the directing and generating lines of the mass; and this gives the mass individuality.”
P1: So we must never use the word balustrade again?
P2: That’s up to you. I haven’t used that word since an art history examination in the early 90’s. Look, what’s important is, the surface still persists, but its relationship to stable conventional forms of derivation has largely eroded. The virtual reality of a designs manipulation and development, proprietary systems of controlling and systematizing constituent building parts through the computer, have irreversibly shifted the secondary nature of the building envelope and have positioned it as a powerful accumulation of material and meaning; concept and intent; rational and expression.
P1: Seems like the envelope can do a lot.
P2: It can do, almost anything. So we must make sure we control the outcome. The building envelope conflates geometric, structural, and tectonic logics resulting in rhetorical effects which act as architectures single and irreducible characteristic—an effect specific to the discipline. Also, when Aureli talks about making clear the presence of borders he’s talking about the building envelope as the formal materialization of complex economic systems of production—“the way it is materially fabricated and inserted into the operative sphere of use.”
P1: It seems like Aureli has a very different idea of the political in architecture.
P2: That’s true. Ostensibly we’re on different sides of the fence. These new forms of understanding the building envelope suggest a new level of responsibility for its many units of production—precise responses to problems of a technical and pragmatic nature, which result in a representation of space. The building envelope must account for its intent; must register difference in new ways and clearly develop beyond empty signifiers and arbitrary signs. The idea of building envelope as a new form of agency is a way to logically understand a larger, seemingly diffuse cultural schema, while at the same time insinuating the architect into larger debates of ownership, capitalization and thus freedom...
P1: Wow, thanks for taking the time to talk about the envelope.