TED talks architecture – mammoth // building nothing out of something

TED talks architecture

I’m loving the architecture series of TED talks – 20 minutes seems to be the perfect amount of time to get a handle on the key driving forces behind an architect’s practice. Also, the TED audience (which as far as I can tell is comprised mainly of brilliant non-architects) forces architects to talk about their work differently than is the norm. Even for someone who stays reasonably current on architectural theory through various books, journals, blogs, and school publications, high-level discussion about an architect or project can often feel like stepping into the middle of a conversation (because you are). Here, however, they don’t presume everyone in the audience is already familiar with their work and approach. Because of this, most attempt to paint in broad strokes their practice before delving into any particular instantiation. Even though we might not be surprised by what they say, listening to an architect talk for a few minutes in a very explicit way about the fundamentals of their approach to architecture is a wonderful check on the implicit understanding of ‘what they are doing’ developed piecemeal over time. Because of this, these talks are great way to look comparatively at several firms.

The following videos show wildly different approaches; particularly between the first two (REX and BIG) and the second two (Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Thom Mayne). I’ll say at the outset I’m a whole lot more convinced by the former, and thus found their talks a lot more compelling – though all four are undeniably interesting.  UPDATE:  I expanded on this a bit more in the comments.

As I watched this talk, I couldn’t help but think that it is a great example of why people hate starchitects. But maybe I’m overreacting.

5 Responses to “TED talks architecture”

  1. I like the Mayne presentation. TED really troubles me and one of the main reasons is I don’t know what a speaker can *really* accomplish in 20 min. Truth be told I found the Bjarke Ingels talk considerably more maddening. I’ve always thought of Mayne in the same realm as Piano – deserving of the accolades and (re)earning them on a project by project basis.

  2. [...] TED talks architecture – mammoth // building nothing out of something m.ammoth.us/blog/2009/10/ted-talks-architecture – view page – cached I’m loving the architecture series of TED talks – 20 minutes seems to be the perfect amount of time to get a handle on the key driving forces behind an architect’s practice. Also, the TED… (Read more)I’m loving the architecture series of TED talks – 20 minutes seems to be the perfect amount of time to get a handle on the key driving forces behind an architect’s practice. Also, the TED audience (which as far as I can tell is comprised mainly of brilliant non-architects) forces architects to talk about their work differently than is the norm. Even for someone who stays reasonably current on architectural theory through various books, journals, blogs, and school publications, high-level discussion about an architect or project can often feel like stepping into the middle of a conversation (because you are). Here, however, they don’t presume everyone in the audience is already familiar with their work and approach. Because of this, most attempt to paint in broad strokes their practice before delving into any particular instantiation. Even though we might not be surprised by what they say, listening to an architect talk for a few minutes in a very explicit way about the fundamentals of their approach to architecture is a wonderful check on the implicit understanding of ‘what they are doing’ developed piecemeal over time. Because of this, these talks are great way to look comparatively at several firms. (Read less) — From the page [...]

  3. faslanyc says:

    I agree that Thom Mayne earns it, that he’s good. But, man, that talk was brutal- comes across as a pedantic full of jargon and preachy in manner. Really Thom? “Architecture has a tissue of connectivity to everything”. Really? That is true of everything and nothing. Not nearly as interesting a talk as Princ-Ramus.

  4. Stephen says:

    Greg –

    Interesting that we reacted to the talks in almost totally opposite ways. I’d be really interested in hearing what you were troubled by in the Ingels talk. I liked it, though Prince-Ramus had me nodding my head more than the others. Mayne frustrated me.

    He seems to buy into the notion that you can account for the enormous complexity of ever larger chunks of the city by modeling the forces which occur within and around it, and that this modeling and meshing of systems can somehow produce a pattern by which he can organize his inert matter – what he calls extremely complicated, large scale organisms. But really, isn’t this is just formalism with a veneer of response to context (as Rob argued well here)?

    When he says “[Architecture] is a negotiation between one’s private world, one’s conceptual world, the world of ideas, of aspirations, or inventions; with the relationship of the exterior world, with all the limitations” I believe him, but I think he means ‘struggle,’ not ‘negotiation’. The various particular programmatic, cultural, and financial requirements of a project (two example Prince-Ramus gave were the analysis of what Librarians actually do, and capital costs vs operational costs) provide a rich context for architects. No doubt Thom Mayne and Liz Diller understand and incorporate this, but for them it is a struggle between those concerns, and What They Really Want To Do. What Mayne really wants to do seems to be: play around with the envelope and materiality within certain aesthetic boundaries, while exploring the affects on performance. And this is interesting! I just wish he would come out and say it. Liz Diller pretty much did: “Aside from keeping rain out and producing some usable space, architecture is nothing but a special effects machine that delights and disturbs the senses.” Basically, ‘we make the space you want, we make sure it’s dry and warm, within that we are free to experiment.’

    With REX and BIG, responding precisely and opportunistically to contextual and programmatic considerations are What They Really Want To Do. I believe Prince-Ramus when he argues their work challenges the high modernist notion of pure functionality, as driven by shifts in operational costs and a shift away from generic buildings which dont really work well for anything. Their notion of compartmentalized flexibility, where boundaries and potentials are defined by context, then diagrammed and built, is maybe the defining feature of their work. It interests me more than either what Mayne is actually working on, or what he claims to be working on. This is not to say that their work doesn’t have issues, it certainly does (often poor detailing; sometimes questionable relationship to site; a seeming disinterest in exploring beyond the aesthetic composition of materials, to a phenomenological one – three things that Mayne generally does pretty well). But the foundation of their approach to architecture is pretty compelling, in my mind.

    Or, what Faslanyc said.

  5. Hi Stephen,

    I can’t comment on the Prince-Ramus talk that much because I don’t actually remember it (I watched it months ago). I definitely respect REX though.

    The Bjarke Ingels talk was frustrating to me because I just didn’t find much traction in the way they set up the projects they presented. I appreciate their optimism and their BIG thinking (haha) but their “artificial landscapes”, however carbon neutral just don’t resonate with me. The mountain island just seems tacky to me. At the risk of sounding petty, while the project seems very well engineered the form of these structures is too cutesy for me to take seriously. It is too literal, and not that far removed from The World archipelago in Dubai.

    So why am I willing to be so anal-retentive about BIG and let Mayne get away with his language? I really believe that Morphosis is one of those “once in a generation” studio, you’d be hard pressed to find a studio that has developed such a unique and nuanced form language and it is great to see how it has survived the leap from “paper architecture” to complex masterplans. To me, Mayne validates the entire L.A. school and his investment in integrating exploratory design with an interest in sustainability is sincere and nuanced. To be frank, I don’t care how he talks.. If any architect has earned the right to speak “his own language” it is Mayne. I buy those conversations about skin and epidermal layers, I can see a direct translation between the generative strategies employed by the studio and their urban thinking. Many of the experimental software driven practices out there could probably stand to step away from the lasercutter for 5 minutes and check out some of the larger-scale Morphosis projects and then do some serious thinking about context.

    I totally acknowledge the subjective nature of this conversation, I just wanted to chime in with a vote of confidence for Mayne’s language. I really do feel he wears the “starchitect” title quite well, without ever resorting to irony, kitsch or pretending he is a quasi-celebrity.

    I don’t know if I’ve really addressed a lot of your points but this is where I’m coming from.

    Anyways, in the next conversation lets try to evaluate the praxis and formal strategies employed by the Sharks and the Jets ;)