The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
13
Fo’ Sho: A Conversation on Uncertainty



­Shohei Shigematsu joined OMA in 1998 and has led the OMA office in New York since 2006, overseeing OMA’s operations in the Americas, including the recent completion of Milstein Hall at Cornell University. Shigematsu was also project leader for the winning competition entry for the CCTV headquarters in Beijing and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange Headquarters. He is a visiting faculty member of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Harvard University Graduate School of Design; and Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.
Milstein Hall Exterior. Photo © Brad Feinknopf 2011.
Milstein Hall Exterior. Photo © Brad Feinknopf 2011.



Interviewed by Carly Dean, Alison Nash, and Heriberto Rodríguez Valenzuela during a visit to Milstein, in October 2011, and at oma’s New York office in December 2011.

Heriberto
We are looking forward to discussing the role of mathematics in the design and construction of Milstein Hall, and the unexpected and serendipitous conditions of the existing building. The word mathematics has many different interpretations for architects. To begin, what does mathematics mean to you?

Sho
We often talk about mathematical beauty when we conceive of a form. Mathematics, or physics, and engineering are a fundamental part of our design. We often talk about how architecture can be integrated into engineering as much as possible. In many of our buildings, you cannot tell which one—engineering or architecture—is governing. This is an ideal tension we would always like to achieve in our design work.

Alison
Historically, mathematics at Cornell has tended to imply a certain order and proportion in architecture that emerged during the Renaissance and reemerged with Le Corbusier, and later, with Colin Rowe. Although issues of proportion and order were being discussed in schools of architecture until very recently, they seem to have been lost on our generation. Do you think that these mathematical premises have a role in oma’s design projects?

Sho
The subject of mathematics implies two different applications today. One application of mathematics rationalizes free-form into something buildable and understandable. The other application of mathematics in parametrics goes beyond what you are imagining, to almost lose control. With parametrics, you are expected to get results that you were not expecting. oma uses mathematics in the former option, treating proportion not as an unpredictable formula, but as a set of givens. Often proportional issues are linked to functional issues. A lot of dimensions are often set by typologies. In a way, it is not mathematical but rather trying to embrace the givens and then trying to find more combinational beauty or proportional beauty out of the givens. In short, oma cares very much about proportion and form.

Heriberto
There seems to be a disconnect between the slow process of building architecture and the fast speed of culture and media. How did the economic recession and social movements influence the construction of Milstein Hall? The design was unveiled in 2006; was there any change after that unveiling?

Sho
There were many changes, but they were subtle. The basic idea was always the same. But to respond to your previous comment, I think the building did not necessarily respond to those changes but anticipated them by creating such an open-ended space. It is difficult to say whether it was part of our ultimate decision or ultimate conviction. We anticipated flexibility for the future in arts and architecture learning.


Alison
How did you envision that Milstein can affect learning and teaching?

Milstein Hall © Matthew Carbone
Milstein Hall © Matthew Carbone

Sho
Our ambition was to maximize the flexibility of the upper plate. This actually triggered a lot of intense discussion with the students and faculty about programming to encourage interdisciplinary discussion. In one of the many iterations, the library was located in the University Avenue cantilever. But, in the end the upper plate was dedicated to studios only, with direct access to additional studios in Rand and Sibley Halls. It is happening now in a different way than originally planned. So, it was a master planning process. The building became a platform to discuss pedagogical and operational issues.

Carly
On one hand, the engineering in Milstein Hall seems very precise. The Vierendeel that becomes a diagonal truss, for example, is a precise response to both program and structure. On the other hand, the dome, despite its complexity, was built (form-work) and poured in quite a traditional way. How was this balance calibrated between the rough and the precise, and what meaning does it hold for you?

Sho
We deliberately used two very different construction materials: steel and concrete. I wouldn’t say either process is more traditional than the other. Although steel construction was established later, concrete construction with complex geometries requires many computational studies in Rhino and other programs. Ultimately, I do not know which one is more high-tech.

It is rather diagrammatic to have such contrasting materials without any transitional element. The resulting juxtaposition is beautiful. It provides a variety of spaces and also serves as a pedagogical message to the students who were able to witness these two construction processes and the outcome.

We also sought to explore how the building’s architecture and landscape could coexist in an urban scale and an architectural scale. In our master-plan proposal for the AAP, we planned for a strip of interconnected indoor and outdoor public spaces extending along University Avenue. We chose to elaborate the ground condition of the AAP campus in the building’s materiality with a continuous concrete plaza that is lifted to form the dome. Likewise, the upper plate of uninterrupted studio space functions as a bridge between the existing facilities in Rand and Sibley Hall.

Carly
Our Building Technology class used to meet in Sibley, and as we were learning about construction methods, we were seeing the steel frame being erected and welded, and we were seeing the dome being poured. It was a unique experience. And I think the interstitial space between Milstein and Sibley, the undercroft area, is important. Recently, local Ithacans have been using this space and the dome for skateboarding. I don’t know if you have seen the signs “No skateboarding, please respect our new building.” How does this kind of unexpected usage complicate or enrich the building and the experience of the dome space?


Sho
There was initially opposition to the covered area because there was a fear that it would basically become a dark wind tunnel. But we wanted to provide a more urban environment within the campus. The moment where you can see the bus stop along University Avenue from the Dome crit space feels particularly urban. The combination of the landscape element and a simple box on top succeeds in providing this strange density unique to the campus.

Carly
Did you ever imagine that people would enjoy skateboarding on the dome? The seating bubbles seem to be intentional obstacles for these kids.

Skateboarder, Milstein. Photo by Carly Dean.
Skateboarder, Milstein. Photo by Carly Dean.

Sho
Yes. We thought they would. The seating bubbles were primarily intended for informal crits but also to at least interrupt the skateboarders. The bike rack acts as a barrier as well. Naturally, they see it not as an obstacle but as a challenge. I’m happy to attract urban activity into the building.

Alison
Milstein’s continuous ceiling is clad with pressed metal panels, reminiscent of 19th-century industrial, yet ornamental, ceilings in the region. It is one of the few signs of ornamentation that we see in Milstein. At the same time, in the studios housed within, some of our advanced studios are producing extremely complex and arguably ornamental forms. Do you think that using algorithms or parameters to create these ornamental architectures is an arbitrary approach to design, or is there potential in that approach?

Sho
The ceiling panel was a 3d model that was communicated with the contractors. So, a direct connection between manufacturing and computation is happening in that regard, to maximize on the panel’s durability and acoustical performance. But I think it is a good point; parametrics has more and more potential to deal with the repetitive and mundane rather than very special things. You are rather expecting the opposite.


Milstein
Milstein's Continuous Ceiling. Courtesy of Cornell University by William Staffeld

Alison
Since you have had the opportunity to see how digital tools can be used in construc-tion, what is your opinion on their potentials for creating regenerative architecture? Can parametrics be used not only for production of form but also as a design method?

Sho
There are many ways to look at the potential of parametrics, and one is that there is a big gap between drawing and manufacturing at this moment, so there are many mistakes—from the different panel size to glass size, etcetera. If those inefficiencies are solved by bim or by digital fabrication that automatically find the optimum size and connect straight to manufacturers and so on, that is one way to see the potential of parametrics. But parametrics implies that the designer is manipulating the parameters, and I would still like to believe that my own intuition is stronger than computer parametrics. When you are engaged in the architectural process, it is not necessary to say this is the result of 500 studies and, therefore, this is the best thing. You just have to say what you believe in and that is real human communication: I don’t think it’s healthy to exclude that real encounter so much.

Heriberto
You do not see parametrics as a productive process in architecture?

Sho
As a design tool I don’t see it yet, because it endangers the profession to a certain degree.

Alison
The idea that a computer could design something is a danger?

Sho
It’s not the old-school worries you might imagine. But with any art form, because you don’t know the ideal, you continue to seek for it, and you continue to wonder, you continue to design. If parametrics claim to find the final, ideal solution, I think it’s a bit strange. In my opinion, not knowing the ideal is healthier for any art form.


Heriberto
What are your thoughts on the future of architecture, as media culture begins to accelerate, making architecture seem comparatively slow?

Sho
This is why we, as a firm, conceived the entity called amo that deals with non-architectural commissions with architectural thinking. That is one way to catch up to the speed of cultural production. The other way is basically to widen our territory of performance from being an architect and belief in architectural thinking to have more surface area to communicate to society. And that way you are unavoidably influenced by media.

Alison
Do you believe that data can be used generatively in the design process, and how is it productive for your practice?

Sho
As a student, there was a dominant Dutch school that used data as a drive to generate forms, but I don’t think that’s ideal. Data supports your intention or argument—not vice versa. oma’s research focuses not on relentless data mining, but on forming a hypothesis to utilize the data for a better narrative.

Alison
Are there any specific architectural projects that exemplify this relationship between data and form?

Sho
Our midrise for 23 East 22nd Street is one example. Typically, real estate is governed by floor area, but we thought that the developer could also sell volume. The developer had also purchased the air rights from adjacent buildings but he did not want us to go higher than 250 feet, because he had already presold all the units. This design maintains the cubic footage of each unit—so when the floors are bigger, the floor heights are smaller; and when the floors are smaller, the heights are bigger. We generated something that resembles the typical New York step building.

Alison
So in this project, you have appropriated developers’ profit formulas and matrices to figure out the puzzle of program?

Sho
Yes. Whether working for a developer or doing an architecture department building, there are always interesting givens that can contribute to objective data analysis. It is not a design tool, it is just information. Architects still need to think subjectively and make design decisions.

L.P. Kwee Studios, Milstein Studio Plate. Courtesy of Brett Beyer Photography.
L.P. Kwee Studios, Milstein Studio Plate. Courtesy of Brett Beyer Photography.



Alison
How does the idea of subjectivity play out in your work?

Sho
Mathematics has a formula, right? By using a very simple formula you can solve and address very complex issues that exist in the world; however, parametric design studios only talk about how well they used the formula. These studios never explain if they liked this formula or if there were any personal reasons for it. With parametrics, you are educated to be only objective. In my point of view, pedestrian decisions [in parametrics] don’t generate any new energy. In real communication with the client, and within our studio, what really matters is what you’re really passionate about, what you really like about certain things, what you’re critical about, or what you’re really interested in. I’m critical because when I was a student I wished that a school could have taught me more about how to appreciate instincts or passion. You have to be an artist…

This is just a tip for students: don’t just present your portfolio in a rational path with a rational expression. Show your studies, show your struggles, show your emotions, and your opinion of the outcome or the process. Students need to develop a point of view, not just present a sequence of rationales. This is something that I try to enforce with the studios that I teach: data analysis only plays a supporting role in design. Intuition, fostered by criticality and by developing your own interest, should lead design decisions. The danger of parametrics is it eliminates the reliance on intuitive design by using data alone to deliver the ultimate design decision.

Alison
Do you see a relationship between the academy or university’s theorizing about architecture and the practice of architecture in terms of the economy?

Sho
As you know, I am from Japan, and Japan has been in a depression for a long time, and I am interested personally in postcrisis. In my lectures on the subject, I’ve talked about the end or transformation of the market economy that we call the ¥€$ (Yen, Euro, Dollars) regime. Also, I describe the postcrisis effects on architecture and urban design that motivate thought, invention, and theory of architecture as directly related to the current economy. When economic indexes are in decline, there is a rise in humanistic indexes like planning, connecting, thinking, and feeling. For example, health care and religious architecture are the two typologies that always proliferate when the recession happens. Many architectural and urban manifestos were written during the recession because, obviously, when architects don’t have work, they either come to the university or they try to do something that compensates their time—typically, historically, that is the case.

Japan had its ups and downs but if you look at it in a 40-year span, it shows constant decline. I do not think that the U.S. will ever go back to the boom of 2007. The Middle East, Africa, China, and South America are already in the process of experiencing that modernization fate. From working in different economic, political, and cultural conditions in different countries, I’ve learned that it’s very important to be open and aware of diversity.


Carly
With a number of projects in the Middle East, Africa, China, and South America, an influence of Japanese culture could yield an interesting output. How has your own culture come in to play in your work?

Sho
I was born in Japan in ’73. After the war [World War II] Japan had a steady growth until almost 30 years later. My parents’ generation lived their lives through an economic upturn, whereas I only lived during the downturn of Japan, after the oil crisis. I found it very important to travel outside of Japan. As an architect it is critical to know what modernization means to a city, but at the same time now, with work in China, the Middle East, and booming countries, I am interested in what it means to be in downturn. I led a number of studios at other schools about the potential of postcrisis, because the upturn and downturn is a back-to-back condition. It has a kind of dialectic relationship. As an architect you need to understand life in a declining country or shrinking country like Japan, or parts of Europe, or even parts of America.

Alison
A lot of architects, developers, and entrepreneurs are reconsidering rust belt cities in the United States for that reason, because when there is an economic downturn, the flip side is its potential for growth.

Sho
During a downturn, potential is always there. I am a also interested in new ways of interpreting modernization in the urban landscape, rather than creating another downtown New York or another downtown Shanghai. I’m a bit tired of the prescribed hypercommercial, capitalist outlook on the city and the fixation on the ultimate outcome. I am trying to not be influenced by specificity and diversity rather than individual culture. In the end, I am influenced less by traditional Japanese culture, but more by my generation and the specific geo-political-economical conditions into which I was born in Japan.

Carly
Contemporary mathematics incorporates probability, chaos, and uncertainty to deal with unpredictable outcomes. This emphasis is reflected in the global economy in terms of the densification of cities, the building of informal settlements, and the instability of future climate. Do you see mathematics and economics as parallel, and do you find these ideas relevant to your work?

Sho
I like the way that you apply the notion of mathematics to economy or climate, or movement of people on the globe. It is all linked.

Alison
Mathematics is at least trying to describe some of those conditions, either using statistics or equations in atmospheric science. How do you deal with uncertainty in your work?


Sho
We embrace uncertainty. I think that if you lose the sensibility to enjoy uncertainty, architecture is not fun anymore. Each time you deal with different conditions—climate, economy, complexity, industry—uncertainty is there. Embracing uncertainty is a good ending for a mathematics theme. If math is a structure that can deal with uncertainty or the questions of the universe, then a parallel tool or realm definitely exists in architecture.

Carly
In our interviews, it has been interesting to hear points of view of many different architects. Many shy away from mathematics, they seem to never be at peace with it, or embrace their own strengths. Many seem to be tongue in cheek about failing calculus or structures.

Sho
Me, too. I associate physics with math. How do you think of mathematics?

Alison
I think of mathematics as a language.

Sho
I like that idea that mathematics is a language that we all use, especially in architecture. That math is a common language, between architecture or the economy, or politics, or science. I think it is a catalyst. Like a language, architecture has a structure, and rules, and growth, but can create completely unknown results: it can deal with uncertainty. I think that is beautiful. I can personally describe my life like that. We have a common set of rules or language, and by dealing with uncertainty and expectations of the known, we create something unknown.



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