No 37.

Where the Skin Ends

by Quang Truong

There is a quote that I thought I remember reading somewhere a long time ago that went something like: “architecture starts where the skin ends.” While a cursory Google search doesn’t find that exact phrase anywhere, it most probably is a variation on a series of sentiments related to the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist, and lies outside of the reach of the web searches. Pallasmaa did write in his book The Eyes of the Skin, “Architecture is the art of reconciliation between ourselves and the world, and this mediation takes place through the senses.” 1 I’ve taken this to heart since I began studying architecture in earnest; the true canvas for architecture is everything outside of the human body. When seen from that perspective, “between ourselves and the world” is both a confoundingly broad and rousingly inclusive scope for architecture.

This perspective puts both cities and chairs within that scope; and indeed, name any famous architect of the past century and you will find examples of designs for both chairs and cities (along with, of course, buildings and other objects from tea kettles to doorknobs). That expansiveness of scope can be threatening; imagine a blank canvas that is the size of the world, or a cursor blinking at you in front of a similarly large blank screen. But as with any creative endeavor, it’s often discovering the selective focus (or its converse activity, defining the constraints) of a work that allows an intellectual foothold into an otherwise daunting edifice.

With specific regard to chairs, particularly those of the modern era, it is the interplay between material technology, structural resolution, and the particularities of the human form that engages me. It’s essentially a story of reconciliation between the new (material innovation) and the old (human bodies). This story explains, in part, the canonical status of many chairs familiar to design aficionados; the Eames chairs in molded plywood or fiberglass, the bent tube steel of the MR chairs by Mies van der Rohe, and the stamped sheet-metal Emeco chairs all blended new materials and novel structural resolution with the banal task of holding up a seated human being.

It can be easy to take for granted the revolution in design and materials those chairs represented, even if it is equally easy to be jaded at this point from seeing them repeatedly in design catalogs and periodicals. Consider, for instance, the molded plywood in the Eames Lounge; plywood is often taken for granted given its ubiquity today. But the invention of laminating mechanically sheared wood veneers in thin dimensions together was only invented about one hundred years ago. In terms of material innovation, this was revolutionary. Laminated wood veneers (what we call plywood today) provided expanded structural capacity over naturally occurring wood, as well as an aesthetic, structural, and production consistency that wasn’t available before industrialization. Then Charles and Ray Eames took this new material and, through diligent experimentation and testing, gave it form in a supremely comfortable chair that is still being produced today. If you ever get a chance, go ahead and sit in one.

The same story of innovation can be told about the Mies chairs, albeit for tube steel. Industrially produced steel in standardized structural shapes is also another relatively recent invention, even if it may feel to some of us like it was pioneered eons ago. Prior to this, metal was wrought, forged, and molded by blacksmiths into anything that might be useful. Gleaming tubes of dimensionally and therefore structurally consistent metal were new, and the photos of van der Rohe smoking a cigar while precipitously reclining in a chair made of thin bent steel tubes are indelible in my mind.

More than the sum of their parts, these chairs can serve as the ticket into a fascinating rabbit hole, much the way that knowing a little bit about petroleum jelly can make you stare at a Matthew Barney sculpture for much longer than would seem warranted.

How we make things is technology: using something in a certain way to do something. In the case of the aforementioned chairs, it’s the use of plywood or tube steel to support human beings while sitting. Those chairs’ innovative use of material technology is what distinguishes them. All chairs help people sit, but not all chairs are innovative. It’s thus worth thinking about why that is. To put it succinctly: what is innovation?

Innovation is one of those words that is bandied about carelessly, but I believe this question, as it pertains to architecture, has been the most important and polarizing question of the past century. There are three main reasons why: 1) it concerns how we think of the future, 2) it establishes what our contemporary tools really are, and 3) it asks us to define our ambition. 2 When we question what we mean by innovation, we also examine the assumptions underlying the work we are doing and the direction towards which are doing that work. To illustrate the ramifications of certain conceptions of innovation, I’ll begin by suggesting that, for the past century, innovation in architecture has meant a very specific kind of innovation: namely, formal innovation.

Formal architecture might best be understood dialectally, through the contrasting mid-century theses of Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman, whose roughly contemporaneous Cambridge doctoral dissertations were titled “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” and “The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture,” respectively. Though it may have initially seemed that Alexander and Eisenman were critical opponents (their debate at Harvard in 1982 is often billed as a kind of academic architectural analog to King Kong versus Godzilla, or Alien versus Predator, take your pick), both Alexander and Eisenman shared an assumed basis of architecture that was concerned with the metaphysical reasons for why buildings look the way they do. But what is notably excluded in both these theories of formal architecture is the material, technological, or phenomenological reasons for architecture—that very world that starts where the skin ends.

So, for a long time, architectural innovation has meant ever-more complex forms with ever-more complex metaphysical reasoning to justify those forms—all with a correspondingly diminishing audience for these intellections. Meanwhile, this narrowing definition of innovation in architecture has also meant an increasingly large scope of issues went essentially unheeded by architectural discourse (sustainability, for one). The last hundred years of technological design have radically reshaped other large-scale engineered products, while the architecture of today still mostly relies on the same industrialized products that were introduced at the birth of industrialization. Think of the difference between a car or airplane from a century ago versus an example of one from today—then think of the architectural examples bookending that same time span.

At the root, any definition of innovation involves an understanding of time and milieu. Quite simply, something is innovative only if it specifies previously non-existing methods and techniques that meaningfully change the way things can be made in the future. Innovations have bases of assumptions and intended effects. In this way we might see them as vectors, which encode in their trajectories information about the past, the present, and the visualized future.

At the time the Eames chairs were designed, they succeeded in engaging with something new to do something better than before—the proverbial lightning in a bottle. Think of the moments when that kind of serendipity was captured, whether encapsulated in a specific chair, car, building, or any other product of human endeavor. Knowing how intrinsically fraught any attempt at innovation really is makes the appreciation that much richer.

Another reason why meditating on innovation is important: because the search for it is fundamentally both a curious and optimistic pursuit. Consider the opposite: by not engaging with a search for innovation, there are two possible presumptions: 1) that the available and existing methods cannot be bettered; or 2) the cost of failure is too great to bear. By contrast, a search for innovation presumes from the outset that a possibility of something better exists and that we have the capacity to attempt it. This fundamental curiosity and optimism must inherently be a part of design. It’s too easy to be curious, but not optimistic; or optimistic, but not curious.

Footnotes

1

Pallasmaa, Juhani. (1996). The eyes of the skin: Architecture and the senses (Polemics). London: Academy Editions.

2

I expand on these reasons in other articles published by Architects Newspaper.

Next from this Volume

39.

Tom Burr

in conversation with Blake Oetting

"I like to be both inside and outside."