Flexible Figures

Flexibility in buildings is a question of patience. All buildings adjust or die, the question is how quickly and how gracefully they adapt. To a large degree, flexibility within buildings has been solved by technical flooring and the dropped ceiling. By insulating the actual floor plate with a technical DMZ at floor and ceiling, the vertical planes that define enclosure and the furniture which allows program to actually function may move at will- assured they will always have a jack to plug into and air-conditioning to cool them. That is to say, to watch an office building's internal arrangement in fast forward is to observe the building itself digesting program after program, each moving a wall here or there but otherwise gliding smoothly through the plenum of productivity stuffed so neatly between technical cavities. This is smooth capital at work in our architecture, much more so that any cartoon of fluidity.

A flurry of creativity in the 60s opened the dream of a truly flexible, movable architecture with the work of Archigram, Cedric Price, and others. Broadly, this era understood flexible architecture to be way of opening up new social possibilities rather than simply enabling changing programmatic usage. Price's intense collaboration with leftist theatre activist Joan Littlewood produced the Fun Palace which may be seen as the culmination of the era's interest in flexibility. The Fun Palace trades thingness for the possibility of a sustained optimization of usage: it has no stable image precisely because it's a system of occupiable volumes, media screens, and circulatory elements (pivoting escalators!) that may be reconfigured by overhead gantries. This desire to always have the right tool for the job seems to be a curiously British (or perhaps European) concern and stands in contrast to the American penchant for "souping up" their objects, to follow Wes Jones' lead, when a new performance is desired.

This is why James Bond has Q and MacGyver only has duct tape. Speaking also to the political differences between Europe and America, the British model awaits custom tools which fill highly specific needs. Thanks to MI5's infinite budget these tools may be created at will and benefiting from the fiction of film they may be produced in no time at all (this is the Fun Palace as lifestyle). MacGyver, on the other hand, lacks Bond's network of support. Standing on his own, MacGyver must assemble whatever he has at hand to get the job done. Whereas Q works within a relatively closed system- after all his gadgets were always some combination of weapon, personal accessory, and radio device- MacGyver must produce his work by opportunistically combining things into their own ad-hoc system. To pick up a previous thread, MacGyver's production is literal, unmasked, and yet spectacular in its inventiveness.

If such a title may be bestowed, MacGyver and the US Gypsum Company are the grandparents of Junkspace. Combining the will to assemble provisional enclosure and to accept this ad-hoc construction with blind eyes because it gets the job done, the sea of differentiation was calmed. With the introduction of speculative construction a cultural unwillingness to wait for space to be purpose built divorced the architect from his mandate to deal in efficiencies, instead leaving him build temples of efficacy. Ultimately, MacGyver's ad-hoc method of working is possibly too efficient in that it has written the architect out of the question and thus we turn to the A-Team for a conclusive example of the possibility of balancing ad-hoc systems and the drive towards figure.

As a matter of scale, the A-Team's need to soup up vehicles as opposed to objects necessitates that the balance of standard and custom will always favor the standard-issue because the starting point is too significant of an investment (of energy and material) to be subsumed completely. The mobility and enclosure of a vehicle are its key functions and these remain salient in all of the A-Team's productions despite being augmented by new weapons and features or improved performance. As a working model for the architect, the A-Team promises a synthetic balance of figural possibility (something that Fun Palace could never provide) and an essential willingness towards adaptability.

I would like to make the case for Paffard Keating-Clay's San Francisco Art Institute as a key example of the synthesis possible between a strong figure and enduring adaptability. Paffard's use of cruciform concrete columns provide just enough of an affordance, a term from product design describing features that hint at how to use the thing, to make it easier to follow his logic when modifying the interior than to create one's own. Visiting the SFAI today one will find new rooms enclosed by CMU which appropriately stem from the columns both logically and aesthetically. By acknowledging and accepting the fundamental impatience of the building's occupants, these columns unify the abstract logic of the building, its actual structure, and the implications of the building's future into one material thing.

James Bond & Qcrafted systemFun Palace
MacGyverad hoc systemgeneric office building?
A-Teamsynthetic systemSFAI?