Editors’ Choice ∙ Architecture as Time-Based Art ∙ Rion Willard

Posted in Editors' Choice by Ian Pollard on November 7, 2011

Second in the matzine Editors’ Choice series is Rion Willard’s ‘Architecture as Time Based Art’,  from matzine 07 – The Hourglass Issue (ed. Seán McAlister).

 From ‘cartesian solidity’ to the ‘spatial geometry of dance’, this short essay considers the possibility of  architecture as ‘perpetual performance’, and the ways in which scores for both music and dance could provoke for the architect alternative methods in the representation of space. Furthermore, the sentences employ a dimension often excluded from analysis of architecture – ‘time’.  In referencing Pask’s Conversation Theory, the essay also encourages the reader to consider the nature of the dialogue which must exist to bring about architecture – the’conversation’ which defines and describes our position within our physical and cultural environments, locating us within a particular chronology, whether it is within a grand narrative or the extraordinary quotidian.

What form does this dialogue take, and can it be described graphically, in the form of notation? What other forms of discussion and inquiry might exist, and are drawings capable of hosting this exchange, without the support of text? Is producing a collaborative ‘little magazine’ in architecture one form of this dialogue, and are buildings another? “If architecture is anything at all”, proposed Douglas Darden, “it is a form of inquiry” –  the words and images below illustrate that each can contribute to the dialogue of architecture in equal – and elegant – measure.

Ian Pollard


Architecture as Time-Based Art ∙ Rion Willard

Paskian Feedback Loop Diagram

For me the delights of architectural education have always been the insights that reveal the fluid, dynamic, changing and cyclic nature of architecture. Let us consider architecture as a process and as a unique creative act that happens, not only as a part of the architect’s design methodologies but also as a cognitive act that is fundamental to our perception and subjective experience of space. In this light architecture can be seen as a time based art that exists in space like a continual piece of music or a perpetual performance.

When we start to see architecture not as inert spaces that we occupy but rather spaces created by our occupation, a complex reciprocal relationship between people and space, culture and architecture becomes apparent. Architecture can now be seen as a time based art that is inseparable from the way people perceive and use it. This cyclic relationship between human activity and architecture sees architecture as an event or series of events in time much like a performance complete with characters and protagonists both human and architectural.

In representing architecture the traditional drawing methods employed by architects transcribe and precisely construct a seemingly clear and scientifically objective representation of the piece of built work to be realised. These modes of representation continually improve with precision as our technology continues to expand. However they serve to reaffirm an assumption of a directly mapped correspondence between drawings and completed built form. This is incredibly useful for the swift translation of an idea into a built work but it will struggle to elucidate the time based nature of architecture.

Labanotation - a graphical tool used by dancers to describe human motion. Here movement is set alongside a musical score.

This is no easy task, but perhaps lessons can be learned from other time based arts such as music and dance where the development of a graphical notation has had a significant effect on the development of these arts. Musical notation can be seen as a representation of space. Crotchets, quavers and semibreves are spatial divisions of a beat that denote rhythm and a passage of notes describes a set of musical intervals in time. Labanotation is a form of graphical notation describing a spatial geometry used in dance. Its originator Rudolph Laban defined a geometry utilising the limits of the of the outstretched body, which mark twenty seven points in space that tilt and rotate with movement.

These systems acknowledge the presence and necessity of a performer in order for the work to exist. This important acknowledgement allows a space for interpretation, indeterminacy, and the unexpected – this is improvisation. Can architectural representation relinquish its assumed Cartesian solidity and allow for a time based architecture to emerge that acknowledges the activity of those who use and perceive it as being its creative impetus?

Digital technologies may provide a possible future for an improvised architecture that undermines the traditional position of the architect as originator of the object. Genetic algorithms, self perpetuating systems and other digital drawing systems are being employed and developed that allow for an organic architecture to emerge. However the attitude we adopt as designers is as a powerful tool. Actors, musicians and performers strive for complicité within a performance. Complicité is a shared sense of unity, heightened awareness and sensitivity to those around you. An architectural complicité can be achieved within creative teams when ideas are given space, where personal ownership is relinquished and personal expression is encouraged. This environment is highly conducive to creativity, spontaneity and can be seen as the opening acts of an architectural event.

The polymath Gordon Pask developed his Conversation Theory to describe the interaction between two or more cognitive systems or distinct perspectives within one individual, and how they engage in a dialogue over a given concept and identify differences in how they understand it. Recognising that this intimate relationship of creation exists between people and their environment Pask extended his theory to architecture. He conceived of an architecture that would be in constant conversation and dialogue with its users. Understanding architecture as a time based art and representing it through a conversational loop unveils the potential of an exciting and organic architecture of participation, interaction and creation.

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