Visionary ideas presented in "Architecture of Disbelief"

News
November 7, 2008

Thinking -- and drawing -- outside the box were the thrust of the recent "Architecture of Disbelief" symposium Oct. 30-Nov. 1 at Cornell, where prominent architects discussed their projects -- some built, many unbuilt, others sketched or conceptual.

"I'm a conceptualist. My work has always been addressed to architects, to my colleagues and students," said Lebbeus Woods, cofounder of the Research Institute for Experimental Architecture, at a talk Oct. 31. "We can work with ideas; those are free." 

The works shown and discussed were often not buildings, but the ideas of buildings. The symposium's focus on radically speculative work -- and designs requiring a willing suspension of disbelief -- reflected an agenda within Cornell architecture programs to re-examine the links between theory and contemporary practice. The participants shared personal viewpoints on their unrealized projects, providing a look at their visual and conceptual preoccupations. Critics also addressed the precedents and conceptual positions raised by the architects. 

Architect and critic Neil Spiller, the author of "Visionary Architecture" who is often described as "cyber-Gothic" for his phantasmagorical line drawings and his work addressing virtual realms, had an appropriate venue for his Oct. 30 keynote address: Sage Chapel. 

Spiller, a vice dean and professor of architecture and digital theory at the Bartlett School in London, is the editor of "The Cyber Reader," now an essential text on theory, said Mark Morris, who organized the symposium with fellow architecture graduate programs coordinator Jim Williamson. 

From the pulpit, Spiller's slide lecture veered from his mentor Cedric Price and "the wonderful, wacky world of Archigram" (the early '60s British architecture subculture) to the rejection of style, new ecologies, nanotechnology, architects in cyberspace, and "why do we need street signs?" 

Woods, a professor at Cooper Union, talked about how the fall of the World Trade Center inspired an installation in Paris and showed how his designs derived from observing patterns of human movement and settlement, using a project in Vienna and slums in India and Mexico City as examples. He suggested a system of self-sustaining capsules as a way to improve shantytowns. "You have to give people the freedom to reshape their own environments to some extent, with help from outside," Woods said to a standing-room-only crowd Oct. 31 in Goldwin Smith Hall's Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium. 

Following Woods' lecture, faculty, students, and the symposium participants attended a Halloween masque reception at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Woods also met with architecture students at their Esty Street studio the day before to discuss how his designs inspired the edgy look of urban landscapes and built environments in the films 12 Monkeys and Alien 3. Other visionaries revealed their interests in the diverse areas of digital practice, multimedia projects, membrane technology, computation and genetics, and interactive computer simulation. They included critic, curator and educator Jeffrey Kipnis, who has collaborated with Peter Eisenman '54 and philosopher Jacques Derrida; architect and researcher Neri Oxman of the MIT Design Lab; and artists Ben Langlands and Nikki Bell, both featured in Charles Saatchi's "Sensation" exhibition and recently nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize. 

"Architecture of Disbelief" was presented by the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, the Department of Architecture and its Preston H. Thomas Memorial Lecture Series. Thomas was an architecture student who died in who died in a car accident in the mid-1970s. By Dan Aloi