Experimental Dialogues: Sex Machines

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 17:32

Corrado Curti interviews Bryan Cantley, Professor of Design Theory at CSUF and owner of Form:uLA. Editorial coordination, Donatella Cusmà.

Looking at the works and drawings by L.A. based architect, professor and spatial orchestrator Bryan Cantley almost gives you the impression that you’re peeping through the keyhole of the architectural mise-en-scène of Jean Tardieu’s La serrure: right before our eyes gorgeous buildings unveil their hidden and perverted beauty in an extreme striptease, peeling off their skins like Robbie Williams in the Rock DJ music video and revealing their machinic nature.


Digital Paper, constructed on a Tablet Kiosk Tablet PC, ©Form:uLA / Bryan Cantley

There is, however, definitely more to his research than just architectural porn, and these naked buildings/machines defy numerous architectural clichés and conventions, both in the way they are conceived and in the representational techniques applied to them. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Bryan Cantley and his Architectural Burlesque:

CC: Before we begin, could you tell us about the projects you’re working on, and the concepts you’re currently exploring?
BC: Several:
1] I am working on a book of my work. This has been in development for many years. Unfortunately, partly due to the economic climate, it has been difficult to find a publisher. The overall feedback has been: “wonderfully intriguing work, but we don’t know if we can sell 50,000 copies… if you can fund it yourself we are interested…” Obviously, since my work is experimental [read: non-profit], this has almost killed the project.

2] I am working on an ongoing series of drawing experiments, loosely entitled Surface Typologies, where I seek out relationships that result from the collision and breakdown of the “traditional” plane configuration in drawing – the back, mid, and foreground systems. I find that when one allows these grounds to collapse upon themselves, and therefore each other, a new type of investigation occurs. And, since I believe that architecture [and the act of architecture] is as much the drawing or idea as it is the “resulting” tangible form, then this collapse of space and ground points to new architectural possibilities. I suppose that in a nutshell, all my work deals with the breakdown of traditional architectural norms and nomenclatures… and that I am trying to transmit the idea that architecture is about the questions asked of space and its properties, as opposed to ONLY the resultant built environment. As Perry Kulper stated: “the education of an architect is not the education of the ‘professional’… there are moments of tangency and moments of dispersion…” I embrace this view, and in my case it deals even more specifically with the undefined transitional space found between the two.

Sorry… you asked ☺

CC: In the 2004 Call and Response article in Loud Paper Magazine by Ruth Keffer, and more recently in the notes about the process featured in Neil Spiller’s writing Drawing strength from Machinery, ‘the process’ emerges as core to FORM:uLa’s research work. Layering, time constraints, objets-trouvés, and collage are all applied extensively, bearing a certain familiarity to avant-garde and conceptual art practices. How consciously do you work on the process, and how much do you leave to “improvisation”? Do you design a plan for the system of tools you intend to use in a project prior to applying them?
BC: Good question. I mean good in the sense that the question seems to get to the root of my “process” rather quickly. Maybe it’s the subtle differences between ‘process’ and ‘methodology’, or my lack of understanding of that minutia of separation. I think in my methodology, there is a given set of processes… one of which includes allowing for what you call ‘improvisation’ to occur. I prefer to call it a ‘call and response’ idea, borrowed from jazz. I actually learned about this from being a musician, martial artist, and architecture student simultaneously. There exists a given “condition”. Be it a bass line, a punch from an opponent, or a site/context. ‘Call and response’ is simply the way in which one reacts to any given action. If it is done ‘live’, then it reads as ‘improv’. Perhaps it’s the timing involved [as you can tell from the work, the time factor is a large part of the philosophical stance, but more on that later]. In music, forming a response might be a matter of seconds. In martial arts, spilt seconds. In architecture, often a day or so. If ‘timing’ were removed from the act of call and response, it would be difficult for me to identify the ‘improvised’ from the ‘planned’.

I have yet to see buildings, plazas, spaces, parks, etc. used EXACTLY in the way the designer intended them to be. People, being spontaneous and re-adaptive, make their own way, their own use within guidelines with which they may have no interaction, crafted by an architect they are pretty unlikely to meet.

Having said that, I have developed a conceptual stance over the years which is the basis for all process and methodology [as well as formalism] that my work aspires to explore. It’s called ‘Mechudzu’©. In short it’s a marriage between ‘mechanical’ and ‘kudzu’, or an “uncontrolled mechanical growth system”, entirely based on call and response. The kudzu vine is an invasive plant that covers, erodes, conforms to, and eventually deconstructs anything it touches. It grows on live power lines. It erodes the most massive masonry structures. It has been known to “leap” over roads in its desperation to propagate. If one combines that relentless “conformative” growth pattern with the idea and formalism of the ‘machine’ [read: interchangeable, self-generating, kinetic, possible ‘parts’], then one can begin to understand the governing concept behind my ‘process’.

Residue, constructed on a Tablet Kiosk Tablet PC – image & works © Form:uLA / Bryan Cantley

CC: How important is it for the designer to aim for a displaced position during the process, one that allows space for the unpredictable?
In this sense, can the mechanistic language of your work be interpreted as a literal translation of the process as “an abstract machine” which is a diversion from the traditional interpretation of architectural design?

BC: It is imperative. I guess I see a strong correlation between displaced designer and displaced ‘occupant/observer’. I try to become an occupant while operating as a designer… in other words I am constantly looking for the unpredictability of spatial experimentation and experience. It’s almost an obsession.

I like your labelling of the translation process as a yield of diversion. That’s exactly what I have been aiming to achieve over the last 20 years… though turning on that machine in Orange County is often hard work, due to the lack of a power supply behind the “Orange Curtain”.

Form:uLA has always seen machine language as the ultimate mark of the man-made, the artificial, the imposed. We impose buildings into sites, into contexts. We impose marks upon paper. We impose our will and ideas of construction on some given condition that at some point pre-exists. The mechanistic language serves as a testimony to that artificial superimposition. And, as you stated, the diversion of tradition is a subtext that flows through the work.

Why do we, as an architectural society, question the foreign symbolism, and not the numerical data? They are all codes, something representing something else. Just like the drawing is.

I am developing a series of drawings [and eventually model explorations that explore the ideas of meltyshifts … the notion that a new type of spatial understanding might come from the reverberation and resonance of space and articulation during a sequence of untraceable transformational events. Or, what types of spaces can we imagine if the very act of documenting their representations is scrambled during the process of mark making and recording?

If something is fluid in its transformation, and NOT delivered via the latest animation software, how does one denote a single event in evolution? Could it be the beginning of oscillated space? In other words, if I purposely interrupt/interfere with the transmission of “design data” [marks on a page that denote higher spatial compositions], then how does the scrambled signal influence the process of understanding the significance/role of the architectural drawing, and therefore the significance of the architectural “idea” as a stagnant entity? So far, this experiment has been limited to the very simple idea of scrambling the signal/idea/signifier during the translation from analog to digital, or vice versa.

Similar to projecting the 180 degrees of a triangle onto the curved surface of a balloon to get a different sum total of the angles… or to the Stephen Holtzman reference to the “Cage-ish” experience of the sherpa listening to the distortion of “noise” BETWEEN the radio stations’ “music”… so is the idea of interfering with the transmission both during the act of drawing and documentation.

The RESULT – though I dislike using that word, as it seems to imply “finale” – is an idea of evaporative space, architecturally both in the concept and in the nature of drawing an idea. The idea of reverberational space has always intrigued me, even as an undergrad, when I lacked the language to describe the idea, but now the coding of the transmission intrigues me just as much.

Surface Topology – image & works © Form:uLA / Bryan Cantley

CC: What role does the mix and interaction of analogical and digital tools of design/representation play in this context?
BC: Ironically, I am a ‘traditionalist’ when it comes this. Although I use technology on a daily basis, I still need to have my “hand” in the process. Frankly, even though ‘technology’- and here we are talking about the tech of the computer for a moment – has opened up innovative forms of spatial investigation and liberations, I still feel impelled to go back and reassess the investigation in analog mode.

Even some of my technological work has become hybridized. I’ve been noted for using the Tablet computer, thanks to the support of Tablet Kiosk, to generate a lot of the work, which for me was a bit of a no-brainer, since the use of a stylus is an obvious extension of the notion of the analog drawing tool. I received a Graham Foundation Grant to explore the use of tablet technologies in the pursuit of new types of architectural representation, and therefore new types of architecture. It may seem obvious, but an architectural “project” does not typically exist in any one medium, in which case it doesn’t make sense to me to limit it to exclusively analog OR digital. I would be quite hard pressed to find any of my work over the last 5 -10 years that is NOT hybridized… not only physically but conceptually as well.

I liken it to a sort of architectural synaesthesia… A misinterpretation of senses – not only media specific – but spatially as well. I think this gets back to your point of the role or OUTPUT of the abstract machine to produce a marbling of ideologies, kind of antithetical to traditional views on the role or ‘function’ of architecture [and its drawing significance].
Surface Topology – image & works © Form:uLA / Bryan Cantley

CC: In his article Neil Spiller points out the strong relation that your work bears to the research carried out by architects like Neil Denari, Pfau/Jones, Kaplan and Krueger in the late 80s, and I would definitely add the more recent works of Mas Yendo to this list.
In the stream of this renegade interpretation of architecture as machine-à-habiter your work appears to investigate the peculiar aspect of machine building as a dynamic tool. In this context, moving beyond a purely iconic dimension, machine building is able to evolve and interact, taking architecture out of its static role/project and upgrading it.
How important is the dynamic and interactive dimension in your research?
In your blog, Form:ULA Dimension Laboratory, you recently wrote several posts about “the impermanence of program”; how does this relate to the dynamic dimension?

BC: If you look back to my idea of Mechudzu, you’ll recognize exactly HOW critical the dynamics and interactive dimension inform/deform the architectural tool/object. There is the literal notion that these architectures build/rebuild/repair/inform themselves [at times acting as their own seeds, at others using us to act as midwives]… that the ‘kit of parts’ and inherent kinetics of machines allow, if not demand, for ‘moveable buildings’… not in the popular mobile architecture ideology [where they don’t move themselves, or think about moving themselves], but more in the idea that these architectures possess something of AI… that they possess the DNA to be non-static building components.

But there is also the idea of a conceptual fluctuation, as referenced in my ideas of the “impermanent program”. Program, or to put it another way, ‘use’ or ‘function’ is never static. It’s never followed precisely. Program/usage is, to me, as organic an entity as anything. I have yet to see buildings, plazas, spaces, parks, etc. used EXACTLY in the way the designer intended them to be. People, being spontaneous and re-adaptive, make their own way, their own use within guidelines with which they may have no interaction, crafted by an architect they are pretty unlikely to meet.

…experimental architecture – at least the type that I practice – might help the ability of “built” architecture to become more of an open platform. Or at least to inform or inspire those that “only” inhabit the built-environment profession to investigate more…

To put it literally, look at any large scale “generic” project… look at how many places that were originally intended for ‘use’ are transformed into storage. Look at how many ‘conversions’ exist. Look at the amount of ‘renovation’ projects that fill our professional desks [thank goodness!]. The dynamic dimension of a LOT of my recent work attempts to explore the overly simple idea that the users of architecture [as buildings] constantly expand and contract… persistently adapt and alter their place carvings in a building [look at any of the cubicle designs in an office building, and how they are used/misused/personalized” by the individual’]. We hate to be told how to use our space [or at least I do]. The dynamics of change… even the dynamics of daily navigation… are the subject of these new diagramming explorations. I’m trying to codify an entity that refuses classification, or at least refuses to be placed within permanent boundaries. If architecture can become elastic in its notions [with or without its actual construction becoming so], then I think there are new territories for understanding how the word ‘function’ is thrown about, and therefore new territories of architectural experimentation.

Seed Planter – image & works © Form:uLA / Bryan Cantley

CC: Staying with mechanistic language: another issue that you recently explored in your blog is the inherently diagrammatic nature of the architectural drawing, something that the use of a mechanistic language seems to enhance. What intrigues me is the constantly ambiguous nature of your works – 2D or 3D representations, plans, sections, exploded views or a combined mix – that seem to challenge the conventionally accepted scientific nature of the diagram, taking it to an open stage: the diagram becomes a tool to make a number of possible architectural objects collapse into a single representation. Do you agree with this interpretation? How would you describe the diagrammatic nature of your work? What meaning should be attached to the obscure writings and codes?
BC: I completely agree. The work strives for clarification through ambiguity. Or is it ambiguity through clarification? I think it’s maybe about the realignment of what it means to “accept” the scientific nature… but that’s not a new idea, or one that’s exclusive to my work. I think it is also about the redefinition of what it means to be scientific… just as it’s about the reclassification of what it means to be ‘architecture’. The work has always been about “possible architectures”… over the last 5-10 years it has most certainly been about making the viewer/inhabitant aware that a number of architectural possibilities are located within a “single” media-dip [again, referring to traditional notions that a ‘project’ does not exist in only one medium].

The diagram is important to me because of the ability of the representation/object to at once collect and disperse multiple readings… therefore multiple interpretations, or multiple ideas. Then the drawing starts to trace its roots back to its traditional purpose – to portray an idea. Drawings are at once inherently diagrammatic, representational of something else, and object, their own entity, or themselves. Where my work tends to depart from that a bit is that it becomes multiple [or what I call a Simlutane ©]- it suggests a representation of another event, another set of possibilities, while at the same time it is a firm documentation of its own existence. Everything and nothing. Where nothing is definable as quantity.

Regarding codes. Especially the Japanese characters [the Kanji and Kana] I get asked about time and time again. At every lecture, every exhibition, the same question. Without giving too much away, we often put the question back to the questioner – why are the numerical data contained within the work not questioned? Why do we, as an architectural society, question the foreign symbolism, and not the numerical data? They are all codes, something representing something else. Just like the drawing is. But they are also a graphic or compositional event themselves, just as drawings are. At the same time they are project-specific data clusters, and compositional [or nodal] flares.


Betty Boop 2004, artwork ©Michael Paulus,www.michaelpaulus.com

CC: In several of your works the relation between drawings and models – which apparently refer to the same architectural object yet all differ from one another – creates a “blurred” condition that places the architectural object in an indeterminate state: we don’t know whether we are looking at a number of synchronous “variations” of the same object, or at a time-series of snapshots of an object that is undergoing changes and modifications, a series of explorations along a trajectory.
In any case my impression is that we can consider your works something like “potential architectures”: spaces that might happen in several ways. Do you agree? What is the relationship between your research and built architecture?

BC: Yes. “Potential Architectures” is a very good way of defining my entire practice. The blurred condition… of a drawing… of an idea… of a space… is what my experimentation has always been about, even in the not-so-literal vibration of the “traditional” project – where one can see all the physical parameters of the project at once… it is still meant to suggest opportunities.

It’s similar to the way I feel about how we interpret, inhabit, and experience space. Be it the built space of architecture, the page space of the written word, or the audible and emotive space of music. We can all witness the same event, but we may take varied resonant memories from that same event. Therefore, the “variations” of the object… the trajectory explorations… the indeterminate condition… attempt to reflect the variations of experiential quality and potential.

Since I don’t usually make distinctions between “research” and “built architecture”, that’s a tough question to answer. Or perhaps it’s a dangerous one. I suppose the imagined response would be that experimental architecture – at least the type that I practice – might help the ability of “built” architecture to become more of an open platform, as we mentioned earlier. Or at least to inform or inspire those that “only” inhabit the built-environment profession to investigate more. Someone once said that my work is akin to “architectural pornography”… it’s what “real” architects look at when they get home behind closed doors… fantasising, but hiding their dark secret. I love this analogy. I think in many ways it’s spot on. The question then becomes what do those architects do after their viewing session? Does it influence their thinking? Does it help build architectural ideas? Does it scar their architectural ethics? I certainly hope so, because then it becomes that abstract machine mentioned before.

Someone else once said that my architecture answers questions that have not been asked, and therefore “what’s the point”? I think that is the point… to foster that kind of inquiry. The type of questions we are not asking ourselves as a profession, or as an educational system. That’s when we change… that’s when we grow.

Mobile Gatherspace with Drew Partridge, image © Form:uLA / Bryan Cantley

CC: In your experience what is the rapport between research and teaching?
BC: I think I began to touch on that with the last question. My role as a teacher is to instil intellectual inquiry. My research is [hopefully] about the same thing. Not to sound clichéd, but perhaps it is similar to the words of one of the Agents in The Matrix, “…Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions…” I’m sure I got that wrong, but you get the idea!

For more information on the work of Bryan Cantley please visit:

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2 Responses to “Experimental Dialogues: Sex Machines”

  1. Marcia Caines says:

    August 31st, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    New blog post | Experimental Dialogues: Sex Machines: http://tinyurl.com/39efdq6

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