Stephanie Easton, Yu-Yang Huang, Youngmin Kang, Mieko Preston, Jason Ryan, Samantha Okolita,
Jordan Van De Walker, Jonathan Watkins, Min Zhang
In the apportioned span of an early academic career, there comes a time when the accumulated dogmas of our educations begin to fray and disciplinary parricide is revealed as a reasonable way forward. Admittedly, the process of dismantling one’s own indoctrination does not come easy. For one, in a crisis-prone field like architecture, facing institutional protocols and enduring practices is a challenge in itself. Providing an alternative is yet another matter.
My lucky break came in 2012. At the instigation of John McMorrough, then the University of Michigan’s Taubman College architecture program chair, I was invited alongside Thom Moran, Meredith Miller, and Teman Evans to cast a new light on program in the core graduate foundation sequence. From the get go, we were all in. Intent on broadening an understanding of program beyond functionalist paradigms, eager to push the boundaries of representational decorum, and seeking to undo the calcified tropes of beaux arts pedagogy, we prototyped a light-footed studio model. Titled Situation (decisively singular) and positioned within an array of concisely named fundamentals (Form, Networks, and Systems), the untidy, ever-evolving experiment was off.
Truth be told, my reconstruction of the Situation Studio origin story may be oddly unreliable. I can vouch with a level of assurance that the chair’s prompt centered on vivifying design principles, methods, and processes related to program. The specificity of the directive escapes me now, as it conveniently did then. There are, of course, a plethora of paths such an instigation could follow, and my take, through a furtive affection for Situationist antics and relational aesthetics, was elementary enough. How could program be conceived as a loose, open-ended design strategy sponsoring a full range of planned and speculative activities? How might we liberate the practice of architecture from its prescriptive tendencies and complicit pragmatisms? Could we muster the courage to make space for uncertainty, appropriation, and social mixity? And what of the didactic OMA-inspired program diagrams—could they be jettisoned for something altogether other?
It should come as no surprise that my own education was solidly grounded in explicative and operational strategies: color bars, bubbles, and over-abundant sequencing arrows as stand-ins for people, spaces, and timetables. In the aughts, I was taught to strive for clarity, to understand program as client-generated, to treat design processes as matters of cause and effect, and to argue for irrefutable solutions. Storyboards in this approach, always a plus. Animated as a series of inevitable steps? All the better.
In the case of Situation, softening architecture’s absolutisms would start by structuring the studio as an ensemble cast in lieu of unallied, fictional, design leads. Individual, heroicist visions, delayed to the semester’s grand finale, were swapped for a series of shape-shifting collective projects tackled by teams as unwieldy as twelve and as cozy as two. Instructors adapted correspondingly, trading incidental performances as office principals and therapists for new roles as consultants, polemicists, and referees. Subconsciously, I believe, we were hankering for a third wave of punk, utopian practices. Riffing on the kitsch pop of Archizoom, the anti-heroics of Archigram, and energized by the more recent collective experiments of Raumlabor, muf, Construire, and Stalker/Osservatorio Nomade, we assembled the studio as a proxy for cooperative action.
The surreptitiously subversive nature of the exercise extended to the studio’s unconventional use of architectural materials, contexts, and styles. Projects, in quick succession, confronted spaces of cultural obsolescence, post-consumerism, and extraction with variable palettes of psychotropic neon, emphatic ruffle, moist fog, stalactites, confettied object-props, and other bargain-basement instigations. The result: an infinitely variable matrix of spatial occupations, spontaneous assemblies, actors and audiences delivered with the affected naivete of Bodys Isek Kingelez, the public dramaturgy of Cedric Price, the interventionist tactics of Yona Friedman and finally transcribed from diorama to video with the sincerity and amateurism of high school poetry penned in a graveyard. Both in its rejection of tectonic conventions and its subtextual critique of established value systems, Situation Studio tapped into the logics of an Architecttura Povera inflecting the core curriculum with an aspiration toward pluralism.
Jamilla Afandi, Yoo Soek Chung, Margo Jones, Xiaomeng Li, Richard M Oliver, Dakota Pahel-Short, Yilun Tang, Lindsay Von Seggern, Darryl Weimer
Fast forward a decade. Against the turbulent backdrop of our current socio-political eruptions, vanguard assembly seems a naive remedy to civic fragmentation. No party, regardless how ecstatic, hedonistic, or scenographically vibrant, can attend to the sociotechnical conflation of identity and ideology that erases agonistic imaginaries and creates real or digital mobs. No diversity of entourage can mend embedded inequality, reckon with injustices or build solidarity. In shrewd anticipation of our current reality, the most recent adaptation of Situation Studio coordinated by Laida Aguirre sheds the hyperbole of social mixity for the operative pragmatics of material assembly. Tracing the flux of resources, diverting chains of supply, accommodating waste, and offering cool indeterminacy in the lo-fi resolution of non-conforming bodies, the format makes space for critical subjectivities. Process driven and revelatory, it’s a new situation, one that thankfully trades stagnant essentialism for assemblies, both social and spatial, in perpetual states of reconstruction.