November 16, 2008
François Blanciak’s recently published book ‘Siteless’ (MIT Press 2008) features 1001 architectural designs unconstrained by scale or context. Each of his hand drawn sketches represents a possible design for a building anywhere –or maybe nowhere– in the world. Each drawing is complemented with a title, which is just as imaginative and humorous.
This book belongs to a long tradition of experimentation in architecture, which privileged inspiration over rationalism. Its subtitle ‘1001 Building Forms’ is an homage to Iakov Chernikhov’s 101 architectural fantasies. Among François Blanciak’s other inspirations, he cites John Hejduk, Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, and Hermann Finsterlin. Finsterlin notoriously refused to undergo formal architectural training because he thought it would reduce his creativity. This rebellious attitude towards institutions and conventions is certainly present in Blanciak’s work.
Blanciak’s book seems to originate from a profound contempt for the kind of architecture he experienced, even as he worked in some of the most prestigious offices in the world, including Frank Gehry, OMA, and Peter Eisenman. It also comes as a reaction to the moral imperative for architects of fitting new buildings into an existing fabric. What if buildings could land in the city as if they came from another planet?
Architects, already frustrated by the expectations of their clients (when they are lucky enough to have any), are also told that their designs must respect the context in which they will stand. Blanciak unapologetically rejects this constraint and abstracts design from space, which allows him to design fantastic forms with an almost aerial kind of freedom. Some of the architectural designs presented in ‘Siteless’ seem to defy gravity itself.
This makes for a good sci-fi architecture, one could say, but if any of these building forms were actualized in the urban realm, they would look alien and threatening. One could also argue that, however much one believes in respecting the local context, sometimes it just needs to be woken up from its dullness. On the other hand, a context is often full of its own eccentricities, like in many Tokyo suburbs, and may only need an extra push to come into its own more confidently.
At the same time, when it comes to picking up from his 1001 forms and insert into a Tokyo landscape, Blanciak chooses one which fits rather well in the context. This reminds us that over and above sitelessness, Blanciak’s book is really making a statement about the need for imagination in architecture. In conversation with the author, he explains how the landscape of Tokyo with its seemingly random juxtaposition of forms and functions provides for the most inspiring visual experience. This street-level experience is one that no architectural masterpiece can match.
Blanciak produces a manic stream of designs, each of which are as different and similar as snow flakes. This mass –or rather massive– creation of difference serves to make a strong point about our general inability to activate individual creativity in the urban landscape. Of course in the big bag of diversity not every form is beautiful, just as most of Blanciak’s designs taken individually would not necessarily translate into great architecture. Nonetheless, more trial and error in the urban realm would not hurt, especially if it implies a broader participation in urban development by young architects and non-professionals.
This book should not be understood as a catalog of possible architectural forms but rather as a device to trigger one’s architectural fantasies and imagination. ‘Siteless’ would make a great cookbook for self-help builders. It is indeed in contexts like Tokyo, Bombay or Rio, where large chucks of the city have been developed by local actors, one small structure at the time, that one encounters the most innovative architectural contributions, and it is precisely in these less regulated urban contexts that experimental forms could be actualized.
In a paradoxical way, contexts, when defining themselves, are so interdependent on other contexts, that they often auto-dissolve their boundaries altogether. No wonder, each individual design in ‘Siteless’, with its gravity-defying lightness, seems to generate its own imaginary context altogether.