“Non-Standard Architectures”

On the TV series Star Trek, whenever people are hungry, they walk to a terminal and say the word “cake,” and within seconds the object of desire materializes out of thin air. “Non-Standard Architectures” would be a Trekkie’s wet dream: Order a house or chair, and a design will go straight from a hard drive into the automated controls of a factory, where the desired object will then be pumped out according to the infallible laws of the algorithm. No more clumsy maquettes, no more stockpiles of prefab components, no more standardization (since all will be made-to-order)—but also no more architects. They will all have become programmers.

Of course, neither the exhibition’s curators, Frédéric Migayrou (chief curator of architecture and design at the Musée National d’Art Moderne) and architect Zeynep Mennan, nor any of the twelve exhibiting teams really hope to see architects become obsolete. They want to have their cake and eat it too (or, rather, they want to have some control over how the new computer-generated cake will be made). As Greg Lynn sensibly puts it in the catalogue, “It is our responsibility to improve and to apply the [characteristics of the method] in new ways, not to reduce them purely and simply to a process.” If Lynn is “non-standard” architecture’s most eloquent spokesman, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of the UN Studio are its most impressive practitioners. Their maquettes for Arnhem’s central train station, a Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart, a bridge for Las Palmas, and especially a musical theater in Graz—so modest in comparison with the flashy ooh-and-aah theatrics of their neighbors in the show—make a compelling point: The algorithm may make the curves, but the architect decides which curves make the building.

One can ask how non-standard “Non-Standard Architectures” really is. The curators rail against the tyrannical geometry of the International Style. But is Servo’s 3-D lattice of clicking “claws” any less creepy than the utopias of high modernism? Would one really want to spend an entire workday confined in the cocoonlike cells of the NOX team’s SoftOffice UK (2000)? Too many of those involved seem to have forgotten that “old-fashioned” standardization is a two-way street—sure, there’s the monotonous Sixth Avenue skyscraper, but there’s also affordable public housing. The exhibition foresees a moment when cutting-edge design, industrial manufacture, and consumer choice will be part of an egalitarian, computer-driven process. However, it is telling that at least for now the projects most likely to be realized are inevitably those sponsored by the wealthiest of corporations, such as Mercedes and BMW, or produced in tandem with the ultra-high-tech aeronautics industry.

Finally, two questions: Must “non-standard” architecture be curved, and must it always be generated by algorithms? The exhibition wants to say yes, but history tells us the answer is no on both accounts. Mies’s “non-standard” Barcelona Pavilion accommodates human sense in a way that belies the formal austerity of its rectilinear plan (and without a single rounded wall!), while a couple of miles away in the same city Gaudí did not need computers to create his famously organic Sagrada Familia church. However, in today’s architectural marketplace, hype trumps history. The bullish optimists will say the future belongs to the blobs; the skeptics will say that, like the so-called dot-com revolution, it is only a matter of time before these bubbles burst.

Paul Galvez