Georgina Huljich, Associate Adjunct Professor
Black Box. Mute Icon
401 Advanced Topics Studio Fall 2016
“I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them. They answered me: "Why should any one be frightened by a hat?” My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Then, I drew the inside of the boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Le Petit Prince, New York 1943
Architecture seems at a significant crossroads nowadays. Haunted by vast processes taking place outside itself, since 9.11, the financial collapse, the exacerbation of global warming, cultural and sociopolitical developments such as the Arab Spring and Occupy, a new epoch of economicausterity, the often ill proclaimed but certainly perceived “death of the icon” era, the impulse for social responsibility, the celebration of practices of common sense and search for common ground: all point to a challenge to the most creative and projective aspects of both discipline and field, and certainly suggest a political realignment of its establishment. While context can’t be the only driver for architectural production or any form of artistic practice of cultural relevance, it is certainly an important factor to be considered and reckoned with.
The present status and contemporary role of the icon comes into a deeper scrutiny and its cultural relevance definitely under stress. While culture at large always needs icons, the question here is what constitutes a contemporary icon, and whether its image could sever its ties to former notions of iconicity. Challenging, and provoking at the same time is the notion of muteness, or the “mute icon”, a kind of anti-monument. No longer concerned with either narrative excesses of meaning and communication, nor with the shock and awe of sensation making, architecture can do what it does best: express its virtues through volume and mass in its most pure state without the anesthesia of excess and ornamentation. By suppressing what have now become expected aesthetic teasers, the mute becomes intriguing by its indifference towards context and a total apathy towards the body. A mute icon in architecture is at the same time object and building. As such, it requires a strong posture and with it, an attitude that is absolute and unstable, anticipated and strange, manifest and withdrawn. By limiting its appearance, the mute icon demands closer scrutiny, its resistance conveys resilience and its introversion stimulates communication.
The relation that the term ‘black box’ has to questions of functional flexibility, atmospheric darkness and plain mystery, or the connotations that it entails to the most pure form of art are important aspects for the studio. Not in and of themselves, but especially if one looks at them from the perspective of a mute icon. Can a black box be a mute icon? Can a mute icon be a black box?
Given a certain semantical flexibility in the understanding of the word [from theater to popular culture and the arts], these questions become productive by suggesting a possible inversion, albeit still a dichotomic one, between interior and exterior, object and receptacle. The studio speculates on the idea of mute icons as it applies to distinct and often competing pressures. In this case, those of a university campus context with a clear neoclassical plan and an advanced multidisciplinary performing arts program destined to create new cultural audiences. In the disconnection between interior and exterior, the studio will seek new and maybe unconventional solutions to the problem of the icon. From classical notions of “poche”, to ideas about “Crowded Intricacies”, “Sectional Object”, etc. the studio will involve advanced techniques of solid projection.
The word icon acquires a different meaning if one looks at Kazimir Malevich “Black Square”. Occupying the corner, a position traditionally reserved in Russian Orthodox homes for icons of saints, this painting displaced the image of a saint and replaced it with an abstraction. This radically challenged the status of the painting as a mimetic representational system, and produced what could safely be called a mute icon (herein mute equates to abstraction). Is mute a form of abstraction, an inability to communicate, or a form of deaf noise in architecture?
Indeterminate, vague, incongruous, abstract yet familiar, fuzzy, mute yet iconic, the studio projects will have to grapple with the following questions and tensions:
- How does architecture reconciles the difference between a large mass embedded within a conformed and restricted context and an interior void immune to all external pressures?
- How to make a building that both stands out from and conforms to its context.
- How to maintain a certain monolithicity in the mass and still allow for the building not to appear decidedly solid
- How and where a mute icon ceases to be engaging as a civic form or its form too closed to engage the public?
- How to productively understand the parallelism or opposition between mute icon and black box.
- How to create an interior icon, a space that by nature performs the most radical differences in time.
- How can a cultural building involve known architectural elements and strange them from their commonplace uses.
Formal ambiguity and ambivalence of reading between interior and exterior will be mobilizing mechanisms to subvert notions of typological and aesthetic fixity. At the center of this is the idea of dichotomy, which implies that by combining opposites, contrasts could dissolve, be emphasized or rather become fuzzier, and the whole entering into a more complex state of dualism. Consequently, the studio will pursue dichotomies as a way to defy fixed notions of mass configuration.
We will challenge fixed aesthetic notions of beauty and legibility in architectural representation and visualization, using abstraction and defamiliarization to speculate on the generation of withdrawn, irritant and engaging images [through both, photo realism and drawing]. We will operate between abstraction and realism, simulation and representation, perspective and projection, object and field, drawing and image.
Possibilities of migrating information from context to image, from image to geometry and from geometry to tectonics will be provoking devices to activate a speculative realism in the projects. Rather than simply replicating or re sampling the known, the studio will push for deeper, stranger and fresh relations between ideas of context [interior and exterior] and the resulting architectural image emerging as a response.