Arch Forum

Tatum Dooley on “In Our Time: A Year of Architecture in a Day” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Carla Juaçaba’s contribution to the Vatican Chapels project for the 2018 Venice Biennale. Photo: Federico Cairoli.

A LINE OF PEOPLE WAITING TO ENTER the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art snaked its way through the Egyptian wing, holding steady for the entire day on January 19. The hope was that those lucky enough to secure entrance to the third edition of “In Our Time: A Year of Architecture in a Day” would abandon their seats, allowing those in line to fill them. This urgency was echoed inside the auditorium, wherein there was a fear of not being able to leave your spot even momentarily lest an usher give it away. Who knew there was such a demand for critical dialogue around architecture!

The seven-and-a-half-hour marathon offered brief synopses of projects from the last year, two panels, a keynote, and a couple films. The format felt like running down a very well designed street. As you ran, you were able to briefly look inside the mind of the house before moving on. An intellectual voyeur. The grab bag of architects, artists, curators, and writers steered clear of technical design jargon, and thankfully kept the focus on the aesthetic, ecological, political, personal, and theoretical elements of their projects.

Ute Meta Bauer moderated the panel “Design in a Post-Human Age,” which featured James Bridle, Vincent Fournier, and Kate Crawford and looked at the influx of “deep architecture,” the imperceptible yet invasive infrastructures of artificial intelligence. Bridle began by outlining how digital images and networks have shaped the way we see the world. “I’ve been having trouble telling the difference between renders, sketches, and the real building all day,” Bridle said about the event. “The way that we see the world isn’t keeping up with the way the world actually is…we are seeing things through a lens of computation.” Bridle’s work visualizes the invisible footprint cloud computing, what Bridle refers to as hidden architecture, through sketches of the physical infrastructure the cloud demands.

Crawford likewise aims to visualize the invisible. Using a diagram, she dissected the network required to make AI devices possible. A map of a single Amazon Echo, for instance, shows the cost of speaking with AI, one paid by “mineral extraction and human labor,” said Crawford. The mining of lithium was touched on earlier in the event by Liam Young, who questioned the way technology is marketed as a simple, better solution for the world. Young played a drone-shot video of the “lithium triangle” in Chile and Bolivia. Lithium is “carved out of one the rarest and most precious ecosystems on the planet. It’s an icon of the other future, one that doesn’t get talked about,” Young said. The future, he explained, is presented through the rhetoric of efficiency, necessitating the ignorance of the downfalls technology entails. “While AI in its early times stayed closer to fiction than to science, today AI is already embedded in all aspects of our lives,” Bauer said. “As human brains are slower than machines…we begin to realize the consequences. Can we hold social media accountable? Can we bring a machine to the court?”

These questions unwittingly led into the keynote speech. Eyal Weizman presented case studies—such as a walk-through of how activist-shot footage was recently used to debunk the Israeli government’s justification for killing a Palestinian villager they called a terrorist—from the research agency he directs, Forensic Architecture. Weizman and his multidisciplinary team use architectural technologies to recreate scenes of political unrest as a way to investigate human rights violations and hold governments and corporations answerable. Weizman cited a goal of “making evidence public and political,” and shifting the way we think about forensics (inherently a tool of the state) by creating “counter-forensics”—accessing sites that we don’t have access to and building 3-D models and architectural renderings from snippets of video, news clips, leaks, and eyewitness testimony.

The role of the visual in architecture remained a theme throughout the day, often in a much lighter context. Both Frida Escobedo, who designed the Serpentine Pavilion in 2018, and Carla Juaçaba, who similarly built a site-specific and ephemeral design for Vatican City’s Venice Biennale debut, commented on the difficulty of photographing their projects. The emphasis on experiencing their designs veered into the realm of relational aesthetics: you have to physically walk through the installations in order to understand them. An architecture of feeling, rather than archiving. Escobedo’s Serpentine Pavilion confronted the notion of temporality in architecture; the abstract concept of borders, the meridian, clocks, and being inside/outside were metaphorically present in the work. The pavilion was compiled of concrete roof tiles, allowing Escobedo a modular material that she could weave into a pattern and resulted in “a porous surface that would become opaque with the tilt of the wall, unless you were moving through the space.” The movement through space and time was imperative in Juaçaba’s sculptural piece as well: The stainless steel crosses reflected the surrounding garden, rendering the skeletal chapel invisible in a certain light.

MAD Architects, Huangshan Mountain Village, 2018, Huangshan National Park, China.

Ma Yonsong, the founder of MAD Architects, leaned into the photogenic nature of his project, the Huangshan Mountain Village, located in a Chinese UNESCO World Heritage site. The way Yongsong’s buildings blend into the landscape when photographed—and in one case, painted—is a testament to Yongsong’s requirement that they remain inconspicuous against the mountainous topography.  When asked to raise towers (1000 units) along Huangshan Taiping Lake, Yongsong replied, “It’s almost criminal to build anything here.” He countered this anxiety by asking: Can we integrate architecture into nature? He set out to build towers that weren’t obtrusive, an extension of nature rather than a barrier. While he mentioned using local materials, the question of integrating architecture into nature from a climate change perspective wasn’t dwelled on in the presentation. The cluster of eight buildings cascade down, topsy-turvy ziggurats that mimic rolling hills. Gio Ponti once claimed the role of architecture was to interpret a community to itself, and Yonsong took this wisdom literally by evoking the contours of surrounding mountains when creating his pseudo-organic towers. Perhaps the coexistence of human and nature starts on an aesthetic level.

The imaginativeness and diversity of the projects chosen is a testament to the curatorial vision of Beatrice Galilee, the Met’s associate curator of architecture and design. As she said herself, “I like to do programming where I’d like to show up.” And while I agree with Galilee—and the line outside the auditorium, plus the livestream of the entire event which garnered more than 12,000 views, attests to an event where one would like to show up—the dearth of breaks began to make me feel like I was stuck in church or school. This isn’t fair to the event, which was more interesting than any Sunday service or class I’ve ever attended. But still, I felt that if I stayed seated for another minute, I would go crazy. My tailbone felt bruised. I made a discreet exit and quickly ran up the Met’s stairs to visit the interiors of Hammershøi and Bonnard before calming myself to go back downstairs and catch the keynote speaker—I prayed no one had taken my seat.

At the end of the keynote, as Weizman was gently urged to wrap up his presentation, I counted six people in my vicinity sleeping. It’s not that his lecture was soporific, but that people’s attention can only last so long in a dark auditorium. The large demand of the event makes me wonder if it would be better spread out over a weekend. Perhaps it’s not feasible to cram a year in a day.

Tatum Dooley is writer based in Toronto.