on site review 32: weak systems
the original call for articles:
Weak form: form without clear links to meaning, appropriate to the times – the late 20th century when Eisenmann wrote about this – whereby buildings can be thought of as media carrying lots of messages and meaning to lots of diverse constituencies. Any meaning that accrues to form is both relative and ambiguous. Weak form is purposely zelig-like: it can be many things to many people. It can also be as nothing-like as media itself, physical form irrelevant, a strange reality found in the processes of consumption rather than in the bricks and mortar of traditional strong-form architecture. This curiously autonomous architecture is threaded into a web of all architecture, part of an array of things that act together to produce ever-mutable meaning.
Weak systems: this is a term that could cover most construction: thin components, weak and insignificant in themselves, threaded into a system that makes them opaque and enveloping. This ranges from tensegrity systems to thin skins. The assemblage of component parts makes a whole quite different from any one part; again, an array of things act together to produce an infinite variety of form.
Weak urbanism: informal housing and settlement. The rules are arcane, intimate and tribal, rather than legal, bureaucratic or democratic. Using weak materials, built without code, limited by money or lack of it, nonetheless informal settlements are resilient, adaptable, motile, opportunistic. There is much to be learned from their very provisionality.
In this Fall 2014 issue of On Site review, we look at fragile, weak, unfinished, mutable, hopeful against-all-odds architecture, urbanism, landscapes, infrastructure and construction.
Over the years I thought a lot about weak systems, starting from fixing the bezel on an old mantel clock, to an ongoing belief in micro-urbanism. Clearly there are connections here to the material culture of architecture and urbanism, where the materiality, necessarily local and touchable, is the starting surface of systems of construction, infrastructure and occupation. Surface itself is microscopic: we learn to see surface as a representation of much larger things. But even the erosion of architectural surfaces shows its mutability, its essential thin weak self.
At the time I thought this would be my last On Site review, my swan-song, so in a rare act of self-presentation I used a project I had done in 1988 for the cover. When I taught architecture, as theory, as studio, as structure, as history, I never gave out a brief for anything I hadn’t already tested to see if it was useful, do-able, fair, and if it led to exploration beyond the program. This was a small project for the waterfront area of Halifax, before its massive conversion to a cruise ship destination. The USSR still existed, often there were soviet cargo ships in port, broadside to the pier. Another part, on the way to the Seaman’s Mission across many rail tracks was a blowy field of wheat from the grain that fell off the overhead conveyor belt between rail cars from Saskatchewan to grain tankers off to the world. Everything was open, all parts accessible – perhaps it was the certainties of the cold war that froze ambiguous allegiances to other orthodoxies that pushed such things as waterfront security way down the list. Whatever, it was a wonderful, romantic, world-connected, deeply historic (for Canada) industrial landscape.
Eighteenth-century built fabric embroidered the part of the waterfront slightly north of the piers: smaller, the scale that of fishing boats rather than tankers. The north Atlantic fishing industry, based on cod, had collapsed, much of the dock area was derelict, but with the very beginnings of gentrification in NSCAD, bars, boutiques and restaurants moving into dark, narrow stone streets and lanes. It was in one of these lanes that I sited a project (following the studio brief for some sort of intervention in the dock area) that explored the making of a building using the way a salmon is organised as a way of organising space and construction. Why a salmon? Well, why not. Salmon, our silver brothers. Like all fish, they are supported by the environment in which they swim – might we think of a new building as being supported by its environment in the same way? –– so supported by its environment that it couldn’t survive without it – the very opposite to heroic, autonomous architecture, something I’ve never been that interested in, it being quite a manly thing to do but also the only way we teach architecture, and actually the only way we practice it.
And this project was not about context in the way context had been discussed for, at that time, the past thirty years ranging from replication to echoing, to interpretation to parody, to the dreaded simulacra: these were the theoretical conversations that dominated the 1980s. Instead, I was thinking about organising principles that could operate simultaneously in construction and spatial occupation. And if those principles were to be neither historic or modernist, both seeming at the time to be clapped-out, bankrupt, what else could one use.
Enter Foucault, Derrida, the text, performance, Serra, Oppenheim and the rest. This was the theoretical water in which I swam, then.
Backbone, ribs, fillets, flakes, skin, fins. Motile, flexible. Thin, pieces all sliding against each other. It was a project. It fit into an impossible little site with little prospect and no aspect. I still quite like it. It made a good cover for this issue.