WASH: We were intrigued that during the entirety of your lecture at the School of Architecture at Taliesin the word ‘parametric’ was not mentioned once. How you would define this term and how does it differ from what you do; it seems like you don’t want to call it parametric for one reason or another.
Interview with Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch
Interview with Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch
ARANDA/LASCH: Parametric is a technical term, it’s a way of organizing relationships, a way of organizing models, a way of organizing design information which is essentially, for us, a technique. It is not a reason for doing what you do and it is not theory for us like it is for Patrik Schumacher. We may use parametric design, we might use line weights, simulation, etc., but for our practice, those are things that help us concoct the work. It is not what the practice is built on, it is not what drives the work. It is not central behind what we do.
We also just do not think the word is particularly meaningful anymore. It is often associated with technology and the idea that technology is changing. We experienced a terrible economic crisis ten years ago. We had a collapse of markets and then nothing really changed. Now the markets are largely driven by algorithms, so there is no way you could trade on the stock market as a human being anymore… transactions have become infinitesimally small and fast. The world has moved in this direction where we don’t really know what our place is. Humanity finds itself overwhelmed by new technologies and it is hard to know what it means to be ‘human’ in these times.
But to your question, we don’t think of ourselves as parametric. We take on technology just like anyone else. We would say we are less jaded than some other architects. We like to use Parametricism, but we definitely enjoy exposing its ragged edges. We like to expose how it’s not a panacea, or how it produces complexity but how complexity is not always a good thing. It is a double-edged sword. That is what interests us: architecture as a vehicle for exploration. Also, I don’t think anybody is non-parametric in the 21st century, as anyone walking around with a phone is parametric. You can’t really be free from the totalizing atmosphere that we work in.
We should also make a distinction between parametric systems and Parametricism. The former is a sort of a pervasive technology that informs many aspects of our lives and quarters of our culture. For us it is a means to an end. Parametrics is a bridge, a way to open new kinds of collaboration, a way to access scientific knowledge, history, and interactions with other cultures. Whereas Parametricism, as a style and theory, well to be honest, we just don’t recognise that. Today that theory has become associated with a neoliberal attitude towards culture and a type of shallow expressionism. For us, algorithmic systems are more of a means to an end, rather than a defining theory around which a practice should be organized.
You mentioned that you are interested in corroding the panacea of Parametricism, but this makes us wonder whether it is too soon to write it of as a theory?—
To preach it as a model for solving all the world’s problems is uninteresting and corrupt. To reject the notion that we are complicit or to say that we are living in a post-parametric time in architecture is equally uninteresting, because both are forms of denial. Instead we have always been interested in accepting the world that we live in while sill being critical of it. Our book, Trace Elements, is about exposing this middle ground that is rough and rugged; it accepts complexity for what it is and doesn’t try to smooth it out, but we are not preachers, we do not believe there is only one way to practice architecture.
Skepticism is good, criticality is good, and suspicion of reactionary movements is good. Ideas and practices that are defined only in opposition to something do not seem particularly productive. There must be a way to move forward with skepticism and criticality, while still being open and inclusive to the complexity of the world and its history.
Another Circle, Parametric Diagram, Columbus, IN
This may be an oversimplification, but it seems like the discourse you’re proposing could be misinterpreted as banal or overly romantic. How do you navigate and articulate this middle ground?
I don’t know if we are consciously trying to find the middle way. We’re certainly rejecting the simple notion of having to choose one way or another.
The issue is the project pendulum is swinging very hard and fast and it is easy to get caught up in its wake. You could spend a lot of time redefining yourself based on how the pendulum is swinging, but it is a pendulum so one thing you can be assured of, is that it will come back in the other direction. This wavering occurs both on the sociopolitical level as well as in sphere of architectural practice. We have always loved
architecture for how it works within a lifespan of an architect. It is a long project, it takes decades to figure out. If you were to spend those decades reacting to the pendulum, it would just be exhausting. You would either become collateral damage or you would get whiplash.
We are interested in this dialectic between the ‘computer age’ and the ‘hand-drawn age’ and how maybe choosing one over the other isn’t better. When we interviewed Wolf D. Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au he explained his hands-on design approach of making little sculptures which are then thrown into the computer which spits something back out, and then this digital product is fiddled with by hand and so forth. Bearing this approach in mind, it seems like a time when the relationship between the two is pertinent for students coming out of school. We are curious to know what the practice was like when you finished your architectural education and how has computerization changed things?
There were certainly different tools, but it was not the Stone Age either. There was a very sophisticated culture in architecture; however, some would say there was a little too much navel-gazing while others were too theoretical. Overall the discipline was highly sophisticated in terms of discourse. It seems that the discipline has spent the last ten years ramping up its toolkit and revisiting many discourses that are quite critical. In the end we think there are a lot of ways of practicing. We do not think it is a choice between one or the other like you’re implying. There are different kinds of approaches that are all quite valid and for a student entering the field right now: it’s quite flat. Your generation has some amazing opportunities and there simply is no single way of doing things. With this freedom you can skate between a lot of approaches; you can mix-and-match which is something a lot of young practices are doing now. Digital technology and readily available information flattens our relationship to history. There are lot of emerging practices that have recognized certain pockets in history that are very interesting but aren’t fully fleshed out. These pockets are being reinvestigated with an entirely new set of eyes, tools, and methodologies.
We think it’s really exciting to be an architect, a lot has been left to discover. It is open season and you should recognize that the discipline is really in crisis. This notion of a flat history makes everything available at once. This doesn’t produce an apathy in practice, this produces an incredible opportunity for you. This is your time. We can’t wait to see the potential of today’s architectural students.
When we were growing up, the broadcasting and publishing channels were narrower. The way you got your information, the type of projects that were represented, was highly curated. We were presented with canon—interesting architects, what they do, and we how we were to position ourselves relative to them. Now, anybody can publish anything at any time, and they do. I get the feeling now that people are asking themselves, who’s in charge? How do we know what is good and what is bad? How do we make sense of all this stuff?
There’s really no curation going on, so young architects are on their own to figure that out; they don’t have the editor of El Croquis or anyone to tell them what they should think is interesting. Hopefully it is super liberating and it will lead to new practices that no one can foresee. This is the contemporary condition of the discipline.
In a more general sense, students should never have to choose. School is a time when they should be open to all kinds of different approaches, sampling all kinds of different ideas. As architecture students, you don’t have to find your voice before you graduate from school—that just does not make any sense. I think that is a sure way of stunting your growth. We (Ben ArandaChris Lasch) came together because we shared certain predilections in school. It took a while for us to find our voice, and you can only do that through work. You find the ideas through work, not the other way around. It’s remarkable too how work changes you. That’s something you must look forward to, you must have a faith that you will become the architect that you want to be, not by deciding or projecting it, but by working through the projects that life presents. That is the nice thing about architecture; it comes at you in sort of random way, and then you become the combination of all, traveling with a midst of flotsam, just bobbing down the river. It is amazing when you look at the hero architects—you look at first projects by Rem Koolhaas, Toyo Ito, or Herzog and De Meuron—and then you see where they ended up at the pinnacle of their careers, it is like night and day. There are elements that remain from their earlier work, but one can clearly see hoe they were all overwhelmingly transformed by the prospect of really building. The process of really building something is a transformative process. It really does change you, it changes your outlook, and I think that’s something that our generation has held onto. We really wanted to go out there and build, we wanted to see how we would be changed.
You say that you’re interested in history and collecting these various aspects of things and assembling them into narratives that create tension. You remark upon the flattened nature of history. Would you agree that you are influenced by Venturi—namely Complexity and Contradiction?
We think all contemporary architects are influenced by Venturi. He turned architectural research into a project and we think that what Learning from Las Vegas really proposed, is a kind of collecting of information and the analysis of it without priority, without a stance. This approach brought in a breath of fresh air during a time when the discipline was governed by high modernist moralism. A time marked by the sermons of insufferable Kahn disciples who believed that one could only create meaningful architecture by being the high priest of some modernist discipline.
Then Venturi came along and pointed to what is going on out there the ‘real world’. It did not fit into the modernist models prescribed in the discipline. Venturi noticed that the world was much more nuanced, complex, and contradictory. His contribution to the field was saying that just trying to understand it on in its own terms is important. And therefore, we as architects shouldn’t turn a blind eye away from it but rather discover how it can inform the way we build things. This opened many forking paths; one of which was the assembling of architecture from vernacular sources. And there is a whole new generation that is highly interested in that kind of assembly, but we do not partake in that interest, despite sharing a common sensibility.
It is important to note that Complexity and Contradiction completely transformed the studio environment. A large part of what is taught in architecture schools (today) goes back to Venturi’s idea that you can start a project with a research agenda, start it with an open framework, a question, a series of questions or a thesis, and only then, develop the work. Learning from Las Vegas was a studio at Yale—he did not just go to Las Vegas and do what he did; it was a series of studio projects and he learned from other cities too. Venturi deserves credit for transforming the way we teach and learn architecture.
However, there is only so much that architects can recuperate from that project. It is better seen as a radical resistance to the overbearingness of high modernism. Today the whole field is kind of flat as there are no big bogeymen anymore. No enemy to rally resistance against.
You wouldn’t call Parametricism a bogeyman?
Maybe a strong straw man. (everyone laughs)
But you cannot underestimate the power of irony that Venturi leveraged. Humor and irony are powerful tools. Venturi really used irony to bridge the gap between architecture and the world at large, which is a great thing to do instead of just demanding control, this straw man approach, or just walking away in a fit because no one understands you.
When you came out of school neither one of you was doing architecture. One of you was working as a website developer and the other for a mapping start-up—
Google Earth before it was Google Earth—
So how important was that offshoot for you guys, and then when you reunited yourselves with architecture, how did the transition go?
For better or for worse it set the direction of our practice up until now. Our first project was a mapping project: the Brooklyn Pigeon Project.
Can you tell us what that project was about?
The Brooklyn Pigeon Project was about interfacing with these pigeon flyers on the rooftops of Waynesburg and Brooklyn. We endeavored to work with these pigeon flyers to develop our own microsatellite that would look at the city somewhere in between street-level view and satellite view. We were interested in getting a bird’s eye view of the city, or beyond that, getting a flocks’ eye view of the city. We built a recording device an did field observations along with research. Some of that research involved simulation of the classic Craig Reynolds simulation of swarm and flocking behavior, which helped us understand the dynamics of how the birds were interacting and flying. We were interested in the insights that Craig Reynolds had about complex behaviors arising from a very simple set of rules: this notion was revelatory to us at the time. These productive and creative rules summed to be able to describe things in the world, however imperfectly. The lesson we took away from the Pigeon Project was that we cannot capture all the world’s complexity, but it is probably enough to start building from. That’s why it is the first project in our book Tooling. It is the project that set the tone and pace for how we research and develop projects.
It is a central project because it was a non-computational way of forming a computational basis for our architectural practice. We were looking at birds and our observations and research generated new questions as well as this idea of being very precise about what we see in the world. The whole issue of precision is very important to us. People may think that it’s a fool’s errand to run after precision, but for us, it is more of a vanishing horizon; you are never really going to get there but the farther you go, the more things you discover and that is the most important thing.
After working in start-ups and this newly emerging IT space, we just decided that we really liked architecture and we wanted to be architects. However, we wanted to approach it in a way that was going to be honest to our background and method of learning—writing software and creating algorithms. At the turn of the century no one had really, in a robust way, looked at what this meant for design even though people had been talking about it for decades. Algorithms were being produced, in terms of software development and in terms of analysis, but it was still too early to figure out what this meant in the design world.
The algorithms eventually led to an explosion of new interests, industries, and media culture that was irresistible. So instead of doing old-fashioned architecture for some office that focused on Upper West Side apartment renovations, we dove in with enthusiasm and acquired all these other skills and interfaced with all these disciplines which gave us a very fresh perspective. This experience led us to ask, how can we take these skills and bring them back into architecture and the architectural design process as we know it? How might these other perspectives disrupt that process and open new possibilities for other kinds of information and design concepts. A lot of the early work in technology and architecture was about digitizing a conventional design process and/or optimizing conventional architectural designs. What we took as our task was to really engage with the computer as a device for design, a creative device, a device that opens concepts. How can we use it as the native tool in the discipline, as native a tool as sketching? We think that the world still has not come around to that idea.
Another Circle, Columbus, IN, Winter
Do you think that you left architecture for a while because it is such a slow dinosaur? It seems that architecture is lagging other disciplines. Why is it so slow? Is architecture pushing other disciplines forward?
We think that it is. We were not articulating things that were better articulated elsewhere. We were being true to the discipline which needs to be understood as an amalgam of institutions, design practitioners, and the construction industry, within a loose boundary of shared knowledge. We are all active participants in it, with architecture being an inherent part of this nebulous mess. It reaches out and it pulls in. It seeps into other disciplines. It has its own solid core, but it also has a periphery that is active. There are always going to people that are at that edge. I do not think we have to apologize for architecture, ever. I think it is an exciting form of knowledge that can fold in many other forms of knowledge—it’s the crest of the wave. It’s about mixing a bit of air into it. To make it a little foamy and messy at the edge. It is not a still pool of water. It is a discipline at work.
When we started, we thought we were cool—maybe kind of radical—but I think that in the end we were just being good architects in a way. We were just what the discipline asks of you, which is to reach out and come back with a stick.
Would you say that the essence of being a good architect is curiosity and that constant need to explore things?
Yeah! We do not think we are ever going to let that one go. That is the bone we are gnawing on. It is the belief that architecture is a positivist discipline. That it is a project that can bring discovery and new conditions. There is no point retreating, especially not now. We are eight years post-recession and the industry is in turmoil, because of cultural crises and political crises, but this is the moment to double down, as this is when things are really changing. We are at this precipice that just feels ripe for new discoveries and it is not a time to retreat into a corner.
Do you think that this condition, that you just described, comes from the desire to rebel against the status quo?
We think that’s part of it—one of those dynamic qualities that is always churning. And another one of them is this need to kill your father.
It is also the industry itself that must reinvent itself constantly. We have always been inspired by matter. The most dynamic qualities exist at the edges of things, even in matter. The fringe between order and disorder is where tumultuous things happen. We would say that the same holds true for the architectural discipline, and you’re asking what motivates that. That behavior at the edge. We think that it is a lot of things, probably not just one. It’s cool that young people, when they leave school, want to do things differently. They want to do something that is just better, because no one has done it ‘right’ yet. That’s good but now we want to see it.
ArandaLasch is a New York and Tucson-based design studio established in 2003 by Benjamin Aranda and Chris Lasch that designs buildings, installations and fur-niture. Recognition in-cludes the United States Artists Award, Young Architects Award, Design Vanguard Award, AD Innovators, and the Architectural League Emerging Voices Award. Their early projects are the subject of the book, Tooling. ArandaLasch has exhibited internationally in galleries, museums, design fairs and biennials. Their work is part of the permanent collection of the MoMA in New York.