The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
6
ECO-POP



Mark Jarzombek

is professor of the history and theory of architecture and the associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. Between 1987 and 1995 he taught at Cornell University, where he edited and advised earlier issues of The Cornell Journal of Architecture.
In the last 10 years, Sustainability and Form have dominated architectural discourse, trapping the discipline between utopian play-acting—promising what it cannot deliver—and computerized “gaming” of design extremism. Culture, if one can use that word, has been more or less abandoned, taken over by the preservationists and vernacuralists, not known for their theoretical elasticity and design creativity. The result is a dead zone at the center of architectural discourse. To make matters worse, no one seems to have noticed that words like nature, city, landscape, and even architecture have become ever more ambiguous and ineffective. We continue to use these words, of course, but they are holdovers from a distant past. Concepts like “Department of Architecture,” and “Department of Urban Planning” are atavisms. Why should the Greek word architectos and the Latin world urbs still seem relevant even after some 2,000 years of history? And certainly the Latin natura is by now nothing more than a shifting—if not actually an empty—signifier. Architects who present “green buildings” with blue skies and leafy trees seem not to have noticed that the Enlightenment equation of social harmony and verdant nature is dead.

Further, in the 1990s, the study of culture as its own “construction” began to disappear as a subject of study in the schools of architecture—creating the split we have today between form and preservation, between a mythology of endless choice and a pathology of timeless permanence. It is in the context of this disappearance-of-culture in the schools of architecture that we have seen the rise of Sustainability and Parametrics.

I do not lament the loss of culture and the death nature within the field of architecture, but state it as a given. Architecture must ultimately accept its fate as a disciple of uncertainty and to this end we must engage (or perhaps reengage) architecture as play of concepts—living or dead.

ECO-POP is the design strategy that embraces both our untenable cultural predicament and the vacuity of the idea of nature. It allows us to move away from our obsession with designer objects toward ready-made realities. ECO-POP, however, is not about design-from-below; it does not attempt to give voice to the “nonarchitectural” community. Its goal is rather to think outside of the conventional “design” ethos and make use of cultural productions, tropes, and critiques that may not require “design” themselves, but that can be grafted into the processes of architecture.

In the large map of our discourse, ECO-POP can, therefore, be positioned at the opposite end of parametric-driven architecture, which has extended in recent years the modernist fantasy of expertise over the dead body of culture.

ECO-POP hopes to expose computational architecture as little more than an attempt to keep alive the myth of animism.

ECO-POP does not seek to salvage beauty in the body of the machine, but accepts the productions of culture without over-determined aesthetic presuppositions.

ECO-POP promotes alternate cultural productions to erode the persistent bond between “architecture” and “architect.”

ECO-POP seeks the truth of rupture over the myths of continuity.

POP by itself is insufficient without the eco. Architecture must embrace—perhaps go so far as to declare—the death of nature in everything that it does. This has to be achieved before—not after—we address the so-called ecological problems of our age. ECO-POP serves this purpose by shifting the focus from the technological to the philosophical. “Nature” is being filtered through the vortices of our cultural imaginaries, which means that architects need to wake up to these cultural constructions or be left holding an empty promise of relevancy. ECO-POP looks not past our cultural predicament but at it. It does not produce the empty signifier and mislabel it as “meaning” (as sustainability does), but accepts the empty signifier that is at the core of the cultural production of “nature.”

There is very little history to ECO-POP, but perhaps, on the pop side of the equation, one could cite the Chiat/Day Building, Los Angeles (1985–91) by Frank Gehry. Rarely do we talk about this building today, but one can hardly overlook its rather amazing binoculars. And if the Oldenburg tactics are not enough, one is struck by the oddly aligned “sticks” holding up the roof. There was a time when tactical exaggerations and borrowings were considered a legitimate part of an architectural way of thinking, but for various reasons this approach died.




The Urban Cactus of UCX with Ben Huygen and Jasper Jaegers seems to move toward the ideas of ECO-POP. Unlike the other projects of UCX—which should be categorized as rather uninteresting examples of modernist reductionism—this building with its tree-laden curved balconies seems playful. But is it ECO-POP? No. Unfortunately the UCX architects did not consult with Natalie Jeremijenko, who not only heals “Polar Ice Cap Stress Disorder,” but also plants trees upside down, as part of her TreeLogic exhibition a Mass MOCA. The trees survive quite nicely.



Her project asks us to think about our manipulations of nature while at the same time showing us an extreme example of the non-natural.

As it is, the UCX project is little more than a tower with bourgeois balcony plantings. The architects, in other words, have caved into the naive notion of nature as an ideal, though constructed, landscape for the wealthy. In accepting the status quo, they do not challenge us to rethink our attitudes toward nature. Obviously, nature is constructed—that has been true for more than 200 years. But how do we engage that construction and turn it on its head? This is what Jeremijenko does, more than literally. Her upside down trees ask us to think through our expectations. Had UCX really wanted to challenge the architectural cliché of photoshopped nature, they would have followed Jeremijenko’s idea and hung the trees upside down.




The Naha Harbor Diner in Naha City Japan does more to challenge our concept of nature by redefining the role of the “tree” in architecture. The project was designed by Takeshi Hazama and built by the engineering firm Kuniken Ltd.[1] There is some difficulty in knowing what to call it, but I will insist on calling it a building. Even so, the project would hardly earn a passing grade in a design studio, despite the relatively sophisticated engineering that went into its construction.[2] The tree’s bark, for example, was made of painted fiberglass-reinforced panels supported by light-gage steel frames. Hazama created small cracks in the panels and inserted mats and plants so that moss could grow from the branches. Eighty thousand small lighting fixtures were also installed on the tree’s skin and restaurant facade. At night, these lights illuminate and define the shape of the tree.




This unexpected pairing of nature and artifice is extraordinarily provocative, especially as an alternative to the seductive tree romance of the film Avatar, which I see as merely extending the heroic, animistic fantasy of a computational fusion between man and nature. The Naha Harbor tree plays on the difference between “natural” and “manmade.” It is not a conventional tree-house either, but has a modern—and rather absurdly typical—concrete building montaged into the branches.




This syntactical fracture, in which both the tree and the restaurant are in quotes, is the key to this building’s success. The design does not hide the restaurant in the tree, but launches it implausibly into its upper reaches, as if swept there by a great tsunami.

The disparate imaginaries out of which the diner is designed are readymades, but by putting them together, the project undermines the presumption that aesthetic production has to be an extension of the superego.

More can be done to expose the transitory state of the cultural product. We should, therefore, take the Naha Harbor Diner one step further. I propose to rebuild it next to Gehry’s Stata Center designed for MIT along Vassar Street in Cambridge. The Stata Center, after all, is itself a replication of the Gehry brand. So if architects copy their own work, and corporations utilize the franchise model, why are we in the discipline of architecture so insistent on our principles of authenticity and autonomy? Such insistence has long since been obliterated as a cultural model and survives almost exclusively in the schools of architecture. The new Vassar Street tree is, however, neither brand nor franchise, but an alien insertion—a photoshop—that happily exposes the death of the architectos and the related death of nature, both of which are dialectically invisible in Gehry’s building. The Vassar Street Diner will remind us that the death of these concepts is the only theoretical platform on which architecture can legitimately operate. The new fiberglass tree is the future set against the backdrop of the old.





Endnotes

1. Takeshi Hazama is a registered architect in Japan, although he has never been trained as an architect. He considers himself as a designer, not an architect. Hazama lived in Italy for many years, where he worked as an assistant art director for the Italian movie director Federico Fellini. He was hired by 20th Century Fox as an art director in Los Angeles for several years. He then went on to produce tv commercials in Japan. Now, he bases his business in Japan as a designer-producer. He was part of the team that came up with some of the themes for the scenes of opening and closing ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympics. Though he is a licensed architect, Hazama is what one might call a “conceptual designer.” The client of the restaurant was Kiyoharu Kakazu, the former head of the Ryutou Inc., which used to be Ryukyu Seito, a local sugar manufacturing company. The site is between the city of Okinawa and the airport, and, according to the architect, lacks good “Ki” or “quality.” The tree was meant to compensate for this. It represents the gajumaru tree (Ficus microcarpa), which grows in the region. Hazama envisioned that that the tree would form the basis of a commercial village around it, providing “Gokujo Kokage” (the best shade under the tree). Feng-shui was also taken into consideration. Four living Gajumaru trees were placed at the bottom of the tree.
2. I would like to thank Norihiko Tsuneishi, who interviewed Hazama for me and made the necessary translations.

Credits

Photo of tree: Norihiko Tsuneishi. Image of plan reproduced with permission from Takeshi Hazama.


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