In The Press: Healthy Materials Lab

We are proud to announce that Lindsey Dieter’s essay We Are What We Specify – first published in the launch edition of container – has been featured at Healthy Materials Lab (HML). HML’s mission is to develop, promote, and implement toxin-free building materials whilst simultaneously increasing the transparency of material composition for consumers and professionals alike.

HML is a partnership between Parsons Design Lab, Building Product Ecosystems, Green Science Policy Institute, Healthy Building Network, and Healthy Product Declaration Collaborative.

Read the full essay below:

The number of times you and your fellow American citizens have confidently declared these words at the dawn of a new year are innumerable:

“This year, I will prioritize my health.”

“This year I will eat nutritious foods that are good for my body.”

In reality it is irrelevant whether or not people follow through with their intentions. Why, you might ask? The firmly rooted priority within our resolutions is human health, most often sought through exercise and improved nutrition. Our resolutions do not take into consideration a larger issue — material safety and quality in our built environment. Why not declare that we will furnish our homes with flame-retardant free furniture? Or that we will choose VOC-free paint, eliminate vinyl flooring, wall and window coverings from our homes and acknowledge that a manufacturer’s unbeatable prices for their furniture are saturated with formaldehyde?

Chances are that, regardless of education or socio-economic status, the individual declaring a movement towards better health has no idea that the built environment is affecting their health at an equal if not greater rate than the foods they consume. We spend an average of three hours per day consuming food. Our organs digest and absorb the nutrients (or lack thereof) embedded within each meal. We spend twenty four hours per day in or near a constructed environment and our skin — the most porous organ in the human body — is actively absorbing the chemical composition of every material we encounter. Unfortunately, the rates with which we experience the effects of vinyl flooring or high-gloss paint amplify gradually over long periods of time, whereas a rapidly increasing waistline is tough to ignore. There are a variety of efforts that can be taken in the fight against toxic environments. The manufacturer, consumer and designer all have the power to shift society’s attitude towards holistic health. I will examine this challenge from the role of an interior designer, presenting a cross-examination of the challenges inherent in selecting both nutritious foods and safe furnishings. After all, we are both what we eat and what we specify.

In an attempt to simplify an inherently complicated subject, I will examine the lifecycle of two common items: an apple and household paint. We are likely to come in contact with both of these items on a regular basis and upon first glance, neither suggest a threat to the human body. Although the lifecycle of each varies considerably, there are commonalities in the production and purchasing process of both. The common folk phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” is widely disseminated, and largely believed to be true. A quick web search on “how to freshen up a room” will reveal a similarly innumerable and trusted list of paint colors and topical applications with which to do so. Taken at face value, both assumptions are incredibly misleading.

The apple harvesting season in New York State runs a brief sixty days (roughly through September and October)1. How is it, then, that we can enjoy this health enhancing fruit whenever our hearts desire, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year? The answer lies in Controlled Atmospheric Storage. Apples are stored in sealed rooms where oxygen is reduced by an infusion of nitrogen gas, from approximately 21% (the level in the air we breathe) down to 1-2%. Temperatures are kept at a constant 32-36ºF. Humidity is maintained at 95% and CO2 levels are carefully controlled.2 Sounds harmless, right? As an independent process, yes. However, the mixture of nitrogen with The US’s most commonly used pesticide is concerning.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that 80% of the apples sold in the United States are coated with diphenylamine, or DPA.3 DPA keeps your prized honeycrisp its picture-perfect pink after months of cold storage. Sorry, you didn’t think that was a miracle of Mother Nature, did you? DPA was banned by the European Union in 2012 which should be more than enough impetus for the USDA to reevaluate the 0.42 parts per million (ppm) — 0.32ppm higher than the allowable concentration — present in the 10 pounds of apples consumed yearly by the average health conscious citizen.

The hazmat suit at the dinner table is starting to sound like a pretty good idea.

Paint production will inherently involve a more extensive list of ten-syllable words than a honeycrisp apple. However, not all of them are toxic (just most of them). Paint is composed of colored pigment, resin, a solvent and additives. Naturally-occurring pigments are readily available in minerals, insects and botanics that can be harvested to color textiles and paint. Reducing a negative health impact is possible through the use of a limited color selection using natural pigments. To achieve a palette of 16 million color varieties, Pantone employs a complicated and potentially toxic chemical recipe. For example, the “King’s Yellow 39” feature wall you are dreaming of contains high levels of arsenic, and the “Cinnabar Red” master bedroom will introduce mercury into your after-hours routine.4 Producing a standard batch of paint involves an industrial blending process combining water, titanium dioxide (TiO2), resin and calcium carbonate (CaCO3).5 TiO2 is an occupational carcinogen that may cause cancer with prolonged exposure. Paint manufacturers adhere to strict health and safety protocols involving industrial fans for proper ventilation and respiratory masks to ensure none of the toxic chemicals present are inhaled during production. The average consumer’s ventilation protocol is likely much less thorough. Reassuring your client that a coat of paint will freshen up any room seems to lose its validity when the resultant disclaimer includes sporting a hazmat suit prior to enjoying the addition of Pantone 7523 C to the dining room — food for thought…


Figure 1. Pharos results for ECOS Interior Atmosphere Purifying Paint

Purchasing power is fueled by the informed consumer. An overwhelming array of products are available for the choosing and it is the responsibility of the consumer to use the tools available to them to make an informed decision. This is easier said than done. In the case of an apple, the option to purchase standard or organic produce is likely top of mind. The standard produce is cheaper, but the addition of pesticides is guaranteed. Organic produce may cost more, but in order to be certified as USDA Organic, farmers must produce a history of substances used in the last three years, pay numerous certification fees, pass crop and produce inspections and reapply for certification annually.6 Although soil leeching, acid rain and crop cross-contamination can dampen the accuracy of the USDA Organic label, the use of a single third-party certified governing body provides the consumer a high level of confidence.

Unfortunately, the same standard of information does not exist among the plethora of paint colors available at Home Depot. Food products are required to display both an ingredients list and nutritional information chart. Manufacturers of building materials are not required to disclose any of the ingredients in their products. The building material equivalent to a food products ingredient list is a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). The MSDS must be made available upon request; however, the level of accuracy with which these sheets are filled renders the information nearly useless. A manufacturer can wash their hands of any obligation to provide complete product disclosure with a simple “proprietary information” statement. When you are fortunate enough to find a MSDS online, the majority of chemical ingredients are listed as complying with an outdated standard followed by an indecipherable numerical indicator. In an ideal world, the name and packing of a product would be informative enough for you to make an educated decision that is in line with your priorities. For example, ECOS Interior Atmosphere Purifying Paint sounds too good to be true. You mean I can freshen up the aesthetics and air in my living room simultaneously? Hardly. To aid in unlocking the proprietary secrets of our built environment, the highly trained team at Pharos has created an extensive database of both building products and chemicals. A single search can reveal a detailed contents list, hazard summary, lifecycle research and additional documents directly sourced from the manufacturer. Our too-good-to-be-true ECOS Interior Atmosphere Purifying Paint proved to do quite the opposite (Figure 1). The paint is composed with 20% TiO2 and 25.1% Oleic Acid, a compound on the German FEA Restricted Hazards List. The remaining ingredients are associated with gene mutation, developmental toxins, respiratory, eye and skin irritation, and persistent bio-accumulative toxins that will not break down once released back into the environment. The hazmat suit at the dinner table is starting to sound like a pretty good idea.

So with all of this information, where does the future of not only our good intentions but the health and wellbeing of society at large stand? First and foremost, there is no gain in sugar-coating the seriousness and complexity of this issue. We are facing an epidemic of rapidly decreasing societal health that cannot be taken lightly. Fortunately, the USDA is working in our favor when selecting the foods we put in our body. Who is on our side when determining the fate of the occupants within buildings? There is potential for change at every step of the design process. Manufacturer transparency will establish trust and drive highly toxic products out of production. Designers can implement a zero-tolerance policy for the use of chemical-laden materials into designs. Contractors can verify that all products entering a job site are supporting the health of future occupants. We have the creative capability to innovate in both the specification and design of material systems that are not harmful to the human beings at the core of our work. If the design is lethal, aesthetics are irrelevant. Unless designers everywhere are interested in introducing an occupant waiver form into their design brief, it is of the utmost importance that we do the research, specify accordingly and educate.


  • Look to reputable designers who are creating incredible spaces that are not harmful to the environment. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel; you just need to refine the options available when you spin.
    Select no VOC paints in a color palette derived closely from what nature does well already. This doesn’t translate into a granola infused interior, but the vibrant neon-blue is likely out.
    Innovate in material applications. Introduce plaster onto vertical surfaces, experiment with textiles for acoustic barriers and engage in the versatility of simple materials.
    Use solid wood furniture and water-based paints and stains.
    Look to trusted third-party certifiers like Green Guard, Pharos, The Forest Stewardship Council and LEED. Mandate that manufactures provide you with both MSDS and Healthy Product Declaration Act (HPD) information. If the manufacturer doesn’t know what an MSDS or HPD is, educate accordingly.
    Avoid products with brominated flame retardants, phthalates, harsh sealants and polyvinylchloride.

Finally, sleep soundly knowing your careful consideration in specifying materials and finishings is not only shifting the market towards the production of healthy building materials but is protecting the health and wellbeing of everyone.



1 : NEW YORK HARVEST, accessed January 2015,
2 : Rackley, 35 – 40.
3 : APPLE CHEMICAL COMPOSITION, accessed January 2014,
4 : Smulders, et al., 47
5 : PHAROS Project.
6 : USDA, accessed January 2015,


Smulders, S., K. Luyts, G. Brabants, L. Golanski, J. Martens, J. Vanoirbeek, PH Hoet, “Toxicity of nanoparticles embedded in paints compared to pristine nanoparticles, in vitro study.” Elsevier Ireland Ltd 2014.
Richard Jones, “Soft Machines.” Oxford University Press, 2004.
Rackley, Stephen A., Carbon Capture and Storage. Boston : Butterworth-Heinemann/Elsevier, 2010.


Figure 1: ECOS Interior Atmosphere Purifying Paint,


container 1 is bound for print!

Our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of container’s inaugural print issue was a success! From the announcement on Kickstarter:

We’re awed and grateful for the massive amount of support we received over the past couple of days. We’re especially indebted to everyone within the SCE community for their dedication to their own work and that of their peers – container would not be possible without it.

We’d also like to extend a big thanks to all those in our tertiary networks who took a chance on us. Publishing a journal with little to no precedent here is no easy task. The show of support from our wider community has been both encouraging and validating.

Lastly, congratulations to not only the authors included within container 1, but to each student at the SCE for believing in the value of their education and their work. You deserve a place like container to showcase you’re work, and we’re proud to do it.


The rough draft has been completed and is currently in the capable hands of our editors who will complete the final draft this week.

We’ve sent out sample pages to our printer and expect to receive the samples sometime this week, so keep an eye out here and on the Kickstarter page for a preview!

Thanks again to everyone who supported the campaign!

Help fund container 1 on Kickstarter!

We are thrilled to announce that the first print edition of container is available through our Kickstarter campaign!

The campaign will be running until 11:59, April 12th – and we will only be printing a limited run, so reserve a copy while supplies last.

We are offering some great rewards: container swag, customized editions, and even a special event for our largest donors. Some of the rewards are limited as well so act fast!

Please check the Kickstarter often for more information about our contributing authors, previews of the edition, and much more. If you have any questions about the campaign our the journal, please field them on Kickstarter so that we can add them to our F.A.Q.

Thank you in advance for your support!

Elevation into the Sacred

“The more simply and essentially the shoe-equipment is absorbed in its essence […] the more immediately and engagingly do all things become, along with them, more in being. In this way, self concealing becomes illuminated. Light of this kind sets its shining into the work. The shining that is set into the work is beautiful.” 1


oth footwear and architectural foundations share signification as functional, survivalist structures simultaneously interpreted as humanist and divine. This juxtaposition inspired unique forms of each — namely, the elevated foundation of Ancient Greek temples and the high-heeled shoe — that lift the terrestrial into a divine realm. While architecture emanated from a necessity for sanctuary, and footwear from a requirement for increased mobility, their rudimentary functions can be understood as extensions of our bodies’ capabilities: the shoe hardens the sole and the buildings expand the structure of the body. In The Temple In the House, Anthony Lawlor expresses this resemblance as the essence of architecture:

“A building’s structural system is […] engineered to balance contractive and expansive forces. This condition is reflected in our skeletal and muscular system. The bones of the feet spread out to create a platform that upholds the rest of the body. The legs act as two pillars, extending away from the earth’s gravitational pull. The pelvis serves as a crossbeam, which in turn supports the spinal column. The shoulder blades act as another beam, supporting the neck and head. The dome-like structure of the skull recalls the span of the roof.” 2

This analogy represents the mutual origin of shoes and dwellings as life-support systems extending “the stream of inner intelligence that flows through the body into structural elements.” 3
In later centuries, both footwear and architecture garnered iconographic representations of the sacred. In antiquity, the “new” Greek temple first appeared as an actively geometric container with a high, upward-thrusting gable.4 Its base acted as the critical sacred lever allowing the temple to rise out of the ground and, as if inevitably, lifting the columns and surrounding structure out of the profane and into the sacred. Scully writes, “The whole rises, and the word here must be rises, out of the ground, rises upon a stepped base, which is itself swelling upward also, so that one force is acting through the whole”.5 The effect can be dramatic; the temple of Apollo is elevated so elaborately from the earth that the remaining void seems to drop off from the columns, and suddenly the mountains and earth come in close proximity to the viewer. 6
This effect is not limited to upward movement. Greek amphitheaters descended into the earth, offering a more secular communal effect. “Where the temple on the hill rose to a unique point of singularity, the amphitheater drew diverse people together in an experience of communal unity.” The base, through the act of raising or lowering a sacred whole, fundamentally signifies the ascent and descent of the spirit. 7

appollo temple

Historical texts serve as support for the symbolic function of footwear, with the heel in particular acting as a stand-alone sacred lever. In ancient Greece and parts of Africa, sumptuary laws forbade lower class citizens from wearing ornamental footwear, or even from wearing footwear at all. 8 The elevated heel was limited to members of the upper class, who were thought to have adorned this style to make apparent their wealth and status as divine beings.9 Within the Ottoman Empire, platform stilts known as kabkabs were worn by upper-class women. In Japan, the geta — a sandal resting upon stilts — was worn solely by emperors and priests. 10 The introduction of the heel into Western culture in the 13th-century is also attributed to a sacred elite; the horseback riding Persians and Mongols of Central and Eastern Asia likely introduced these forms to the French during the Crusades. 11

In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger defines the elusive sacredness of objects as an object’s “thingliness”. 12 This essence, Heidegger argues, is greater than the “equipmentality” of the object and its given form, greater than the collection of an object’s properties, and greater still than the sum of our many perceptions of the object in question. It is instead best understood as a self-sufficient quality that precedes the object, and from which the aforementioned properties are birthed. 13 What renders objects as sacred symbols is the exposure of a truth inherent to the object itself.
The presumption of preexistent sacred form is apparent in our understanding of Ancient Greek temples. Influenced by monumental dipylon jars of the same period, these temples were initially constructed with the purpose of containing a deity already present at the site in which these temples were built. Says Vincent Scully in The Earth, the Temple, and The Gods:

“[…] we must […] recognize that, not only were certain landscapes indeed regarded by the Greeks as holy and as expressive of specific gods, or rather as embodiments of their presence, but also that the temples and subsidiary buildings of their sanctuaries were so formed in themselves and so placed in relation to the landscape and to each other as to enhance, develop, complement, and sometimes even to contradict, the basic meaning that was felt in the land.” 14

Historical accounts of footwear are indicative of the same conception. Ancient Assyrian reliefs consistently show feet as placed firmly on the ground, reconciling the mobility of man with a need to belong to and be continuous with the spiritual space of the Earth. 15 The display of shoes of Holocaust victims in the United States Holocaust Museum is an evocative contemporary example of the powerful symbolism of shoes as the representations of sacred bodies. Says Shari Benstock in Footnotes on Shoes, “we envision the shoes attached to bodies that we ourselves invent to complete the effect. As such, [they] accrue a moral power.” 16

Louis XIV of France

The ever-present tension inherent between human constructs and the essential godly force contained within is precisely what allows for the exposition of sacredness, or what Heidegger calls “truth in action.” Heidegger compares this revelation to the cyclical ascent and descent of water out of and back into the basin of a Roman fountain; the sacred and the humane are understood in relation to each other, each revealing and raising the other into self-assertion. Scully’s depiction of ancient Greek temples mirrors this understanding. According to Scully, the new temple for the first time begins to reveal and simultaneously reconcile oppositions between man and god, representing to all men, “the presence of a god and [being] itself the monument of that presence.” The temple is simultaneously representative of the earth and free from it, a “true personality and force.” 17 Heidegger describes this phenomenon in detail:

“Standing there, the building rests on rocky ground. This resting of the work draws out of the rock the darkness of its unstructured yet unforced support. Standing there, the building holds its place against the storm raging above it and so first makes the storm visible in its violence. The gleam and luster of the stone, though apparently there only by the grace of the sun, brings forth the light of day the breadth of the sky the darkness of the night. The temple’s firm towering makes visible the invisible space of the air. The steadfastness of the work stands out against the surge of the tide and, in it’s own repose, brings out the raging of the surf.” 18

It is important to note that the foundational element of the whole of the temple — the elevated base — serves no functional purpose whatsoever. In The Origins of Greek Architectural Orders, Barbara Barletta mistakenly interprets these bases as ornamental:

“In Doric architecture, the structural role played by bases will be assumed later by a continuous stylobate,” although separate bases still appear in the seventh century, as already noted in the temple at Ano Mazaraki. […] because the stylobate alone would have been sufficient to elevate and thus protect the wooden supports, this combination [in Doric architecture] must be understood as decorative.” 19

The base is instead an element that makes possible Heidegger’s “truth in action,” allowing the sacred to be represented by the temple; it is a free-standing agent of the sacred act.
This point can be comparatively understood through an analysis of high heels in footwear. Though existing in antiquity, it is only after the shoe begins to “unconceal” the sacred human body does the high heel began to emerge as an almost autonomous vestigial element of the shoe — a true independent form that continues to coexist with footwear today. 20 The impact of the high heel on sacred form was most clearly made apparent by Louis XIII and Louis XIV, both of whom wore high heels with the specific intention of elongating and creating gracefulness in their heavy bodies. 21 The result was considerable: standing in heels was shown to elongate the leg, raise the buttocks, curve the back, and push the chest forward. When worn by women, the effect is even more pronounced by effectively doubling a woman’s middle pelvic angle. Walking in heels further exaggerates the motion of hips, accentuates curves, and feminizes the gait by shortening the stride and causing a mincing step. 22

Like Barletta’s assessment of the elevated base, the high heel was labeled by some as ornamental, and not thought to endure. Adolf Loos dismisses the high heel as an arbitrarily ornamental relic of a more primitive feminine fashion. For Loos, the coquette, the prostitute, the demimondaine led the way in a woman’s dress 23, but their fashion would quickly lose influence as women gained greater equality to men. He writes:

“We are approaching a new and greater time. No longer by an appeal to sensuality, but rather by economic independence earned through work will the women bring about her equal status with man. The woman’s value or lack of value will no longer fall or rise with the fluctuation of sensuality. Then velvet and silk, flowers and ribbons, feathers and paints will fail to have their effect. They will disappear.” 24

So Help Me Hannah: Snatch-shots with Ray Guns

Loos, like Barletta, overlooks the powerful ability of the form to reveal the sacred body, an effect so profound that heels maintained in popularity well past the French Revolution — a time when many “elite” ornaments were discarded as symbolic of aristocracy — through the women’s rights movement of the 20th century and onward, despite the significant discomfort they inflict upon the body. 25
In “The Modern Foot,” Lyons understands this phenomenon in much the same way as Heidegger’s theory of “truth in action.”

“Instead of framing the shoe as in a functionalist narrative—a narrative about the shoe-as-protection, or the shoe-as-replacement/fetish, or the shoe-as-commodity, we ought to consider the shoe (the fabulous shoe, at least) as a thrilling response to the ambivalence of modernity, to its relentless shuffle between liberation and discipline. For if, as sociologists of modernity have argued, modernity itself is constituted by the tension between the liberating forces of modern autonomy and the restraining forces of modern disciplinary governance, then surely we must be able to identify cultural artifacts products by that conundrum. The fabulous shoe, I would argue, is one of them.” 26

Like the base of a temple, the heel acts to both reveal and reconcile oppositions between a disciplinary entity and an expression of liberation, reflecting the strife existent between an expansive world and the earth upon which the world is grounded.



1 Heidegger 32

2 Lawlor 109

3 Lawlor 103

4 Scully 43

5 Scully 63

6 Scully 177

7 Lawlor 81

8 DeMello 310

9 DeMello 158

10 DeMello 75

11 DeMello 158

12 Heidegger 4

13 Heidegger 10

14 Scully 3

15 Bondi 49

16 Benstock 9

17 Scully 44

18 Heidegger 41

19 Barletta 47

20 Bondi 168

21 DeMello 168

22 Benstock 10

23 McLeod 6

24 Loos 70

25 DeMello 159

26 Lyons 279


2 Temple of Apollo, Palatinus. Illustration from “History of Rome” by Victor Duruy (Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884).

3 Shoe Designs, Unknown Origin

4 Louis the XIV of France, Hyacinth Rigaud, 1701. Public Domain.

5 Hannah Wilke, So Help Me Hannah: Snatch-shots with Ray Guns, 1978. Gelatin silver print; Image: 33.1 x 21.8 cm (13 1/16 x 8 9/16 in.) Sheet: 35.4 x 28 cm (13 15/16 x 11 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Buddy Taub Foundation Gift, Dennis A. Roach and Jill Roach, Directors, 2010 (2010.353)


1. Barletta, B. (2001). The Origins of the Greek Architectural Orders. London: Cambridge
University Press.

2. Benstock, S & Ferris S. Footnotes on Shoes. London: Rutgers University Press.

3. Bondi, F & Mariacher, G. (1983). If The Shoe Fits. Italy: Cavallino.

4. Canon, J. Sacred Spaces: Decoding Churches, Cathedrals, Temples, Mosques and Other Places of Worship Around the World. (2013). London: Watkins Publishing

5. Corbusier, L. (1923). Vers Une Architecture. (1923). New York: Dover Publications.

6. DeMello, M. (2009). Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Oxford: Greenwood Press.

7. Heidegger, M. The Origin of the Work of Art. In Heidegger, M. Off the Beaten Track (pp.156)

8. Lawlor, A. (1994). The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

9. Loos, A. (2011). Adolf Loos: Why A Man Should Be Well-Dressed. Vienna: Metroverlag.

10. Lyon, J (2011).The Modern Foot. In Benstock, S & Ferris S (Eds.) Footnotes on Shoes. (272-281). London: Rutgers University Press

11. McLeod, M. Undressing Architecture. Fashion, Gender, and Modernity. In Fausch D., Architecture in Fashion (pp. 39-123). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

12. Mumford, L. (1952) Art and Technics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

13. Scully, V. (1962). The Earth, The Temple, and the Gods. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hand in the Machine


he scope of architects’ responsibilities is drifting toward a state of ambiguity, while a coherent generational style remains undefined (branding, design-build? sustainability? parametrics?). Despite expanding boundaries, one component of contemporary design has become indisputable — the influence of the computer. Beginning with the development of early CAD technology in the 1960s, computer influence on architecture has advanced to a state of near-necessity. The forms, fabrication, and construction of the modern material world would indeed be inconceivable without software input. Within this machine dependence lies an inherent problem addressed by the sociologist Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman. He writes, “The smart machine can separate human mental understanding from repetitive, instructive, hands-on learning. When this occurs, conceptual human powers suffer.” 1 However, as he presents his research throughout the book, Sennett articulates a theory defining the latent role craft plays in the digital age, and it is through this lens that I will consider the relationship between modern craftsmanship and computer technology.

Craft is defined primarily as an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic
skill, but also describes an ability to plan, make, or execute. As we have moved from the analogue to a predominantly digital platform, it is relevant to consider these two explanations on their own merit. I would posit that the term “craft” has undergone a shift in identity, from an association with manual dexterity towards “planning” and “making.” For Sennett, creation by and finesse with the hands informs and improves the mind. He cites examples ranging from Linux programmers to masons, but it is the former that proves most compelling when considering craftsmanship in contemporary architecture. A carpenter honing his abilities through hours of practice demonstrates occupation-oriented craft, or a specialized skill-set centered on the hand-mind relationship. But skill, as Sennett explains, is the repetition of an action enabling self-criticism.2 The Linux technicians who donate their time to improve an open source network have refined an ability to command operations through repetition. Furthermore, they have resolved to improve upon a free system through group participation. Emphasis is placed on achieving quality, rather than profits, “the craftsman’s primordial mark of identity.” 3

rendering of the Broad museum in LA and the built museum in LA by  Diller, Scofidio + Renfro

The Broad Museum, designed by Diller, Scofidio+Renfro, shown as a rendering and in its realized form. Has scripted generation, in this example, lived up to its expectations of an “innovative veil”?

Delving back through the history of architecture, consider the disparity in construction of two homes built during the 1920’s, the first in Prague, the second in Vienna. One was designed by Adolf Loos, the other by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein attempted to erect a “perfect building” based on the precedents of all former and all possible buildings.4 Loos, meanwhile, built the Villa Muller on his ethos of new objectivity, or maintaining honesty in a structure that shows clearly the intention and actual construction in its form.5 The result of Wittgenstein’s approach was a building that lacked “primordial life”, he self-critiqued; his attempt at perfection foiled by the mere undertaking of such a monumental task. Loos’ sense of honesty—in site, context, and program—produced a building more complete in its architecture and more sympathetic to its inhabitant.

This example provides an interesting segue into the digitally derived manifestations of contemporary architecture, specifically those employing scripts. Sennett rails against the common misuse of machinery when it deprives humans from learning through the repetitive process. It is a relevant critique with consideration to parametric programs like Grasshopper. Though the knowledge to wield this potent software is rigorous, the actual output can at times generate evocative but dishonest forms. Utilizing the technology as a means for developing details or patterns, for example, is valuable, but if used as a means for wholesale generation of conceptual or massing strategies it is irresponsible. It strips architects of the quality held most sacred to the profession: an intimate understanding of the product being constructed. Sennett writes,

“Modern computer programs can indeed learn from their experience in an expanding fashion. The problem…is that people may let the machines do this learning, the person serving as a passive witness to and consumer of expanding competence, not participating in it.” 6

Material knowledge has also been affected by advances in computer technology. There is at once a nuanced experimentation that provides opportunity for material development and application, this being a positive, albeit recent resultant. However, computers have the ability to separate the craftsman from the detail. The quality of design from Carlos Scarpa, for example, who relied on the knowledge of local tradesmen to develop a more complete architecture, is lost when the head and the hand diverge. The danger with digital dependence is the tendency toward a lack of material specificity while the rapid advance of CAD/BIM software, like Revit, may have pulled architectural representation ever farther from its resultant.

ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion

ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion


This is not to say, however, that the digital age has demolished the frameworks of the field of architecture. Quite the contrary. The above examples highlight the negative potentials of computerization, but when operated in capable hands, digital means provide a tool to aid not only in the conceptualization of complex form, but also in fabrication processes that enable realization. Therein lies the nature of craft itself: that of planning, making, and executing. On the effects of computational architecture, Alan Penn, Dean of the Barlett-UCL, writes,

“it brings the potential to put the designer once again in direct control of the craft of material shaping and construction, something unseen since the medieval craftsman masterbuilder gave way to the divisions of labour that characterize the modern industry.” 7

Material manipulation by use of digital instruments coupled with an intimate understanding of the tools with which to investigate operational possibilities is the embodiment of the modern architectural craftsman, and, arguably, the craftsman at large. Where at points throughout the last century craft was ostracized in favor of manufactured, off-the-shelf components (outliers notwithstanding), technology has allowed it to be reincorporated into contemporary architecture through an increased understanding of new machinery coupled with new software. This marriage provides the platform from which architects can relocate themselves within the design and construction industries, back at the heart of the process. 8

From projects exhibited at a peer-reviewed conference held at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2011 titled FABRICATE, I have selected several projects that exemplify a dedication to craft in computational design, each emblematic of a point from my argument above. From academia to professional practice, these examples highlight the prowess of technology when deployed under the pretense of a craftsman’s approach.

The first comes from the Institute for Computational Design at Stuttgart University. As a temporary structure, Research Pavilion ICD/ITKE is “based on an understanding of form, material, and structure not as separate elements, but rather as complex interrelations embedded in and explored though integral processes of computational design.” 9 Exploiting an unforeseen moment discovered during the process of material testing, the designers exploited the limitations of their industrial robotic fabricator, and maximized the physical behavior and material characteristics of 6.5mm-thin birch plywood strips in the computational generation of form, in this case basing the entire structure on the elastic bending capacity of plywood, alternating compressive and tensioned moments along the length of the robotically manufactured individual strips.

William O'Brien for Aesop

Details of routed moulding design at Aesop Newbury Street


There is a celebration in this project both of the command over tools with which to create structure, and the conceptualization of material deformation. Craftsmanship, in this case, lies in avoiding perfection during the design phase, where, as Sennett writes in his description of the Villa Muller, the designer allows the tool to display its intention.10 The ICD’s computational fluency allowed the tools to dictate output, but their comprehension (albeit, partially through computer 3-D scanning technology) and exploitation of their material discovery distanced them from the CAD-reliant examples Sennett cites in his book.

The second example derives from a conversation held between the architect Mathias Kohler and the structural engineer Hanif Kara, wherein the singularity – or combining of design disciplines into a single entity – was considered. Put more simply, can the magnitude and breadth of computer technology skip certain trades entirely, to the point of extinction? Mouldings, for instance, that once required hand skill but can now be accomplished through CADCAM routing. According to Kohler, digital fabrication has provided designers with the means to personally interface with the manufacturing of their architecture. Prior to this relationship, construction existed on a 2-D, conceptual level, where the drawn detail is merely a suggestion that must be interpreted by a subcontractor, reproduced through shop drawings, and executed by a builder. With digital fabrication, the drill bit and a sheet material become the means to provide a finalized product. “This explicit connection between design and making leads to the renegotiation of the different roles of the participants, both in the design and planning process of architecture, as well as the building and construction process,” explains Kohler.11 Pressed on whether the rapid advance of architects’ “explicit knowledge” indeed signals the demise of the consultant, he momentarily backpedals.
“I don’t believe that the architect should be overruling the experts, the contractors or the craftsmen working with the material on a day-to-day basis. I believe in new modes of collaboration.” 12 He asserts that increasing amounts of information will originate from the architect, and that this information will be transcribed directly to a machine that will in turn produce design.

Based in the essential logic presented in the aforementioned projects, MIT professor Skylar Tibbits is proposing a wholly new form of next generational thinking. Logic Matter, as he calls it, is a paradigm shift in the assembly process of our built environment, where the individual material parts required to construct a complex structure are embedded with blueprints to self-guide the successful construction of said form. Conceived with the knowledge that the translation of design from hand to screen to fabricator to material to machine is imbued with flaws, Tibbits is interested in a self-assemblage that resembles the natural processes of our bodies. He describes Logic Matter as a compositional series of

“physical building blocks that demonstrate digital logic and computation by passively connecting brick-to-brick (i.e. no electronics, only geometry performs the computation). These building blocks can encode assembly information and guide the user in successfully and quickly building any complex structure.” 13

Logic Matter’s ambition extend beyond mere craft. It defines innovation. It strives to think beyond what is available to the architect in current practice and invents a means to revolutionize the industry.

To conclude, it can be logically deduced that the architect will be forced to initiate the type of technological departure Tibbits has conceived in order to realize the scope of their conceptual work. Though this has been the case in previous generations, contemporary demand for revolutionary technology is far outpacing the industry. This evolution must advance in unison with a material catalogue.

Craft, therefore, must remain in the collective architectural conscious. To be computationally innovative requires knowledge of and willingness to adapt to the stresses and language that each medium dictates. As Sennett wrote in The Craftsman, “computer-assisted design might serve as an emblem of a large challenge faced by modern society: how to think like craftsmen in making good use of technology.” 14 A challenge? Yes, but more so an opportunity to facilitate the composure of a new architecture.



1 : Sennett, p. 29
2 : Sennett, p. 37
3 : Sennett, p.25
4 : Sennett, p. 255
5 : Sennett, p. 255
6 : Sennett, p. 41
7 : Glynn, p. 15
8 : Glynn, p. 21
9 : Glynn, p. 22
10 : Glynn, p. 24
11 : Glynn, p.117
12 : Glynn, p. 117
13 : Glynn, p. 51


Glynn, Ruairi and Sheil, Bob. Fabricate: Making Digital Architecture. Autodesk, Riverside Press. 2011.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 2008.


Fig. 1: Photograph by Gary Leonard. Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, The Broad Museum. From: (accessed February 23, 2015).

Fig. 2: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, The Broad Museum. From: (accessed February 23, 2015).

Fig. 3, 4, & 5: Institute for Computational Design, Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design, ICD/ITKE Pavilion. From:
(accessed February 23, 2015).

Fig. 6 & 7: William O’Brian, Jr. Routed mouldings for Aesop Newbury Street. From: (accessed February 23, 2015).

Fig. 8: William O’Brian, Jr. Routed mouldings for Aesop Newbury Street. From: (accessed February 23, 2015).

Fig. 9: Logic Matter, Self-Assembly Lab. From: (accessed February 23, 2015).

Sustainability: A Self-Defeating Objective

In the first half of his essay, Dinning breaks down the concept of “sustainability” to critique its implications on the built environment and human ecology. In the associated video, from SCE’s Public Programs lecture series (only the first half is relevant to this essay), faculty member David White details his construction of a zero-energy affordable home, successfully addressing much of what Dinning discusses herein by approaching sustainability from a systemically integrated perspective. In the second half of the essay, to be presented in our first print edition, Dinning expounds upon this research with his own theory of ecological aesthetics.


he contemporary approach to sustainable development is inherently flawed, paradoxically preserving deleterious societal practices that perpetuate environmental damage.
As the adverse effects of climate change and resource scarcity escalate, the ineffectiveness of sustainable design strategies has become increasingly prevalent and demands alternative paradigms of environmental responsibility.


Architecture has addressed sustainability for millennia, yet the topic only recently entered mainstream discourse under growing threats of climate change and the depletion of natural resources. The term has been applied to numerous disciplines in a variety of applications, but is generally understood by the following definition: sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” 1. Energy conservation is of particular significance to architecture as buildings consume over a third of the world’s energy supply and 40% of all mined resources in their construction and operation 2. Architects have employed two primary strategies to reduce consumption. The first is bioclimatic, which embraces the natural conditions of the site, climate, and local context through passive design strategies in order to minimize buildings’ demand for external resources 3. This perspective also characterizes some architects’ appeal towards organic form. Complementing the bioclimatic approach is an anthropocentric promotion of active design strategies, which attempt to reduce consumption via efficient mechanical systems and regenerative energy sources 4. Combining these systems yields a discipline focused on the meticulous engineering of and reliance upon building systems to reduce the impact of buildings on environmental degradation and to preserve living standards for future generations.


The intrinsic goal of behavioral preservation is unsound in both theory and pragmatics. It was consumption-driven society’s wasteful material processing and apathetic promotion of private wealth over communal welfare that caused (or amplified) current environmental crises. To advocate for sustaining these practices directly contradicts the goals of environmental conservation and revitalization, and exacerbates resource scarcity and climate change. Accordingly, the present needs of society will inevitably be unsustainable, invalidating the core premises of sustainability.

The current emphasis placed upon building performance and technological advancement intends to mitigate the exorbitant depletion of resources, yet it has had an adverse effect by acquitting people of their personal responsibility to uphold the environment, especially those who believe technology will be able to one day reverse climate change 5. While the majority of Americans believe the US needs to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels, they also take little personal responsibility for augmenting their own standards of living to lower their impact on climate change 6. Without the will to change habitual behavior, the underlying causes of environmental challenges cannot be addressed.

Furthermore, the notion of sustaining behavior without adapting to changing circumstances implies humans are able to overcome natural forces, and that Earth is merely a resource to support human existence. However, history has shown, conversely, that natural forces are dynamic and hospitable to changing lifeforms. Humans have become dominant over other species by continually adapting to environmental changes. Yet by trying to maintain the current state of society, humans are now resisting adaptation, or evolution, and thus threatening their own ability to survive.


The shortcomings of sustainability initiatives have calcified in their ubiquitously superficial applications. Numerous identifiable aesthetics of sustainability have developed and consequently become desirable for their semantic implications alone. For instance: solar panels, wind turbines, and green roofs publicly signify environmental consciousness, but are often installed in applications unsuitable to performance 7. Sustainability became a commodity, and “through its incorporation within the aesthetic economy… participates in the burgeoning cycle of consumption and waste that underlies the environmental crisis” 8.

The commodification of sustainable technologies has also contributed to the practice of absolving oneself from responsibility; one can more easily rationalize personal transgressions through the acquisition of individual components or gadgets that yield segmented, atomistic systems, what Howard Liddell calls “eco-bling” 9. President Carter foreshadowed “eco-bling” in a 1979 speech condemning Americans’ wasteful consumption:

“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Even the agencies governing standards for the assessment of sustainable design promote “eco-bling.”  The US Green Buildings Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), for example, partitions sustainability into discrete components and rewards projects for each component added to their composition. Their ratings neglect function, context, and even the operational performance of buildings. Such subdivision of design places no value on holistic methodologies or architectural quality, and propagates buildings that have not been designed with concern for the experience of their users. In Germany – a country often praised for its ecological sensibilities – there has been a growing trend of dismantling high-performance houses that have been left vacant; the inhospitable structures of engineering have simply become “repositories to store materials” 10. The lack of adaptable durability is potentially the most damaging action architecture could have on the environment, as it requires the resource-intensive process of construction to occur more often.



Maintaining current practices is antithetical to enduring development. A more effective alternative to the contemporary paradigm would advocate for adapting our cultural practices and behaviors in response to changing environmental conditions. Shifting from sustainability to adaptability centers upon the dynamism of the human ecology, imparting a notion of personal accountability. The core tenets of reducing environmental degradation and resource depletion still apply, in addition to newer strategies that take advantage of natural conditions for more efficient performance.

Evidence shows that an appreciation for the consequences of climate change alone has little effect on influencing people’s behavior 11. Without feeling personally connected to such issues, people are reluctant to assume responsibility or take initiative in enacting change. However, given the interdependency of ecological and social networks, everyone is intimately involved. The key to promoting active engagement lies in cultivating self-awareness of individuals’ places within the greater context of these systems. This consciousness can be both introspective – bringing prophetic awareness of one’s own body, emotions, and physical sensations – as well as extroversive – informing oneself of one’s position in space, time, and societal structures. The primary concern of architecture should then be to understand how people sense and perceive their environment, which has historically been the domain of aesthetics.


Aesthetics, stemming from the Greek word aisthesis meaning “to perceive, feel, or sense,” 12 has been an essential and controversial subject in architectural discourse. It has incited debates on stylization, justified aberrant pedagogies of design, and been eschewed from the field altogether. The jurisdiction of aesthetics has also been called into question. Some believe aesthetics to be passive elements possessing beauty or virtue, but which are ultimately confined to the structure or object from which they pertain. Others, however, contend that aesthetics are active: they provoke responses and incite changes outside of their own beings. Understanding aesthetics not as appliqué or symbolism, but as subjective relays of environmental response, the definitive questions remain: Can aesthetics generate a consciousness of environmental systems and our symbiotic relationship to them?

Can aesthetics “reveal the ecological ground of human dwelling, or lead to new awareness of the rhythms and cycles necessary to sustain and regenerate life”? 13




1 United Nations. “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future.” NGO Committee on Education,

2 Straube, John. “Green Building and Sustainability.” Building Science Corporation (October 2006),

3 Olgyay, Victor. “Design with Climate.” In Aesthetics of Sustainability, by S. Lee, 69. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

4 Bothwell, Keith. “The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment.” In The Aesthetics of Sustainability, by S. Lee, 66. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

5 Patchen, Dr. Martin. . Public Attitudes and Behavior About Climate Change. Purdue Climate Change Resource Center. Purdue: Purdue University.

6 Kempton, Willett M., James S. Boster and Jennifer A. Hartley. “Environmental Values in American Culture.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

7 Bothwell. “The Architecture of the Passively Tempered Environment.”

8 Hill, Glen. “The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption.” In The Aesthetics of Sustainability by S. Lee, 38. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

9 Liddell, Howard. Eco-minimalism: the antidote to eco-bling. Riba Publishing, 2013.

10 Hill, Glen. “The Aesthetics of Architectural Consumption.” In The Aesthetics of Sustainability by S. Lee, 38. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

11 Patchen, Dr. Martin. . “Public Attitudes and Behavior About Climate Change.” Purdue Climate Change Resource Center. Purdue: Purdue University.

12 Merriam-Webster Dictionary. s. v. “aesthetics.” Retrieved 2014:

13 Skjonsberg, Matthew. “Magin, Inc. – Reframing the City.” In The Aesthetics of Sustainability by S. Lee: 229. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

The Poetics of Pragmatism


n Hester Street, just east of Bowery in Manhattan’s Chinatown, sits a tiny pocket of commercial space occupied by a Taiwanese boba tea shop. Under 200 square feet in all, it is a study in organizational efficiency. Industrial refrigerators coexist happily with an immaculate food prep counter, sizeable steaming and brewing equipment, ice coolers, blenders, mechanized shakers, tea canisters, and a mechanical cup-sealing device imported straight from Taiwan. The entire array is tightly packed against both walls immediately behind the register, making room for a modest amount of customer seating that feels snugly arranged, but by no means cramped. Thanks to careful spatial arrangement and consideration of client use, the overall atmosphere is one of clean, friendly industry rather than hectic clutter – no small feat on the part of the young Taiwanese couple who opened the tea shop in 2009. Given that the couple staffs the shop themselves for up to eleven hours daily, seven days a week, their original commute to and from Sunset Park in Brooklyn proved logistically untenable despite the lower housing prices available there. When an opportunity arose last year to rent a small apartment immediately above the shop, the move made perfect sense in light of their lived philosophy of spatial efficiency; the tea shop owners now count themselves among the ranks of those who throughout history and across cultures have discovered the pragmatism of the live-work archetype.
fig1.1 teado

The wise Carl Linnaeus said in 1751 that “if you do not know the name of things, the knowledge of them is lost too.” Unfortunately, the workhome has only just begun to enjoy classification and study, for though these dual-use spaces have existed as long as human civilization, the term “workhome” was coined only recently. The Oxford Dictionary offers glib one-liners to describe factories, offices, and studios, daring even to reduce to a sentence fragment the nuanced concept of home — yet the simultaneity of dwelling and worksite has long eluded similar classification. Existing typologies have proven inadequate: the OED’s closest attempt is a nod to the Western archetype which achieved popularity through New York City artists studios cropping up in the 1970s: “live-work [adj] : denoting or relating to property that combines residential living space with commercial or manufacturing space.

work home: brushmaking

hairbrush-maker working at home

While concise, this fails to address the storied past and varied nature of the workhome; furthermore, by this definition it remains unclear whether the commercial or residential functions take priority, or even whether such hierarchy in program is significant. Can it be said that Foxconn’s Chinese workers, residing in tightly-packed compounds built on the same property as the manufacturing plants in which they labor, share a live-work typology with the young Walt Disney, whose early work took place in his first studio, set up in a shed immediately behind his house? The gross dissimilarity between these two situations, anchored in questions of privilege and choice, is obvious; yet by the OED definition they may as well be identical.

Frances Holliss, an architect and theorist who has authored a few of the most thorough studies on workhomes to date, notes that while numerous architectural typologies have been developed by the likes of J. N. L. Durand, Louis Kahn and Johann F. Geist, these systems fail to acknowledge dual-use buildings.

butchers shop

butchers shop

She points out that these “tend to be classified according to their dominant function, their dual use often ignored or missed as a result. But the dual function is one of the central characteristics of these buildings; to investigate this effectively, they need to be considered together, as a group… Therein lies the danger of allowing these spaces to settle into whichever existing archetype seems to fit: the multiplicity of the workhome points to the human, social, and economic complexities that have given it rise again and again.”

To lose any workhome to either ‘work’ or ‘home’ would be to neglect its potential commentary on human activity and the complex relationship between professional identity, the individual, and domesticity. Certainly, while weavers’ houses of the Industrial Revolution, early tenement industry in New York, top-shops of craft-workers in 18th-century England, and artist’s studios are all well-documented, together they seem to have eluded special categorization until recently, leading to their being studied as emblematic of the industry rather than domesticity of their era — or vice versa.

To blame, at least in part, is the reality that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, most residences were effectively workhomes. Entire fiefdoms — medieval gentry and their servants, farmers, smiths, craftsmen, vicars – all lived proximal to their work. Domestic privacy was not expected, nor indeed even suggested, in the greater part of Western society until the 19th century. For all that the concept of workhome can be easily reduced to a one-liner once we allow that a space may contain dual functions; yet the division between work and home is a relatively new phenomenon. Donna Birdwell-Pheasant and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga present in their investigation of the development of home, house, and domesticity in Europe, the following explanation:

in classical Latin “a familia referred to ‘everything and everybody under the authority of the household head,’ a definition that encompassed not only persons [kin or not] but also the economic resources necessary for their support, including their dwellings. The Greek oikos embraced the entire ‘domestic economy,’ including inhabitants as well as their material base of operations – house as well as household.


transorming space: photostudio and home

transorming space: photostudio and home

To address the inherent slipperiness of the division between domesticity and economy, as well as the continued ubiquity of this division in modern culture, a few researched structures of the workhome have been outlined below. Further consideration of the nature of the workhome can be built upon this structure with regards to the concepts of stimmung and kekkai, which will be elaborated upon following an agreement of definition.

In an ongoing study conducted by the Workhome Project Team at London Metropolitan University, three spatial strategies and twelve spatial arrangement patterns have been identified to represent the most common historical and modern work-live situations. The most common of these patterns are outlined here for purposes of establishing the concept of workhome in a more rigorous context:

workhome typologies A workhome typologies B workhome typologies C workhome typologies D



In each of the above arrangements, two elements come to the fore: identity and agency. For the purposes of this exploration, the work-dwelling and the workhome are considered distinct. Whereas the Foxconn worker referenced earlier has no choice but to dwell in the factory compound, reinforcing managerial control and industrial efficiency, and the crew of a ship must for the duration of their role in a journey remain on its premises, others are not forced by the nature of their work to dwell in a certain place — take for instance a psychiatrist who holds a small practice in her home office, or the Eameses who throughout their career maintained a home studio. The latter two are compelled to choose to incorporate elements of their work into the space they call home, while the former are simply compelled by social or economic forces beyond their control. So agency is identified as a crucial factor in discerning between live-work typologies; what then about identity?

Precedent for Type C  LAYER CAKE / LOFT (LIVE-ADJACENT):  Maison de Verre [Paris, France 1932] by Bernard Bivjoet and Pierre Chareau, consisting of ground floor consulting rooms for a doctor with two floors of living accommodation above.

Type C / Loft: Maison de Verre [Paris, France 1932]

Theorist Mario Praz calls the interior “a museum of the soul, an archive of its experiences; it reads in them its own history, and becomes perennially conscious of itself; the surroundings are the resonance chamber where its strings render their authentic vibration.

The root of the German word stimmung, in fact, comes from the verb stimmen, which means “to ring as a bell,” and the interior that reflects the soul of its inhabitant can be said, in the English adage, to “ring true.” Stimmung is therefore less a product of functionality than the conveyance of a particular character, and additionally involves a sense of intimacy. When the identity and agency of an individual bring about the creation of a workhome, stimmung becomes possible; it is arguably less tenable in the Taylorist factory compound or the branded, modernist office interior.

To examine this quality, stimmung, which manages to exist in both home and workhome but remains difficult to quantify, we might turn to the Japanese concept of kekkai. As explained by Shigeru Uchida, kekkai are “marginal zones … spaces that arise as passageways from A to B, which relate very closely to both A and B, yet really belong to neither.” Uchida posits further that the significance of kekkai lies in the rite of passage that sets one realm apart from the other, and the action itself creates passage between the two realms. The self, for instance, is created by the passage of existence through its own lens: in the act of perceiving its own existence, the self comes into being – or in Descartes’ immortal words, “I think, therefore I am.” The boundaries between interior and exterior, public and private, work and home, are for the most part constructs of human vocabulary and in fact bring about and establish the relationship between each of these pairs rather than simply divide them. As Uchida explains, the act of making a boundary itself frames a duality composed of a closed inner realm and an outer realm, cementing in the same moment the “sameness” of whatever lies inside while underscoring the “otherness” of all else. The interior, therefore, is an interior thanks only to its separation from the exterior – prior to the separation there was no distinction between the two. The interior finds meaning in function, specificity, and in security of privacy, but in so doing intensifies the expansive, broad, public nature of the exterior.

Type D : the Eames House

Type D / The Workbox : the Eames House

In her study of Singapore’s public housing, Lilian Chee notes that “the private realm has always been historically defined in relation to its corollary space, the public domain. In particular, the private domestic interior was established when the spaces of home and work were ideologically separated in terms of geographic distance during the early nineteenth century as offices, factories, workshops, and other sites of economic production were set up outside the family home. …The progressive distinction between male and female spheres [also] came about during this period when men went out to work as the breadwinners of the family while women remained at home to care for the children.

As we now know, the forces that were restructuring the socioeconomic landscape set in motion a cult of domesticity that went hand in hand with an obsession with privacy and the rise of consumer culture. In reaction to the standardization of paid labor and to commercial pressures, the domestic interior gradually retreated in purpose, becoming a secluded haven, inlaid with the fruits of industry and production.

Chee concludes that the term domesticity is “inherently more politicized than home because it implies a specific type of production, whether biological, material, psychological, social, or even national.

This dovetails neatly with our discussion of kekkai and the creation of passage through action. The modern workhome, having emerged after centuries of the ever-stricter division and specialization of domestic and work spaces, is defined neither by home exclusively, nor work. The domestic space can be stretched and redefined to incorporate work – indeed, many states in the U.S. are now provide tax incentives to small-scale entrepreneurs who wish to work from home – and the changing technological and hierarchical landscape of modern offices can more easily accommodate home-workers as well. Thresholds can be erected between work and home, and often should. The live-with, live-adjacent, and live- near configurations of workhome have long allowed for a variety of needs, occupations, and family typologies.

A combined design studio, residence, and photo-graphy studio

by LMS Arcitects, San Francisco CA


One should, however, question how else the modern workspace itself might be calibrated for flexibility, adaptability, and longevity. Rather than construct new physical spaces, it may be possible to adaptively reuse existing spaces, and to utilize alternate forms of boundary — be they psychological, visual, or ritual — to provide the requisite divisions of time and space. One might argue that the strict thresholds established by Freud in his live and work spaces, meant to isolate psychoanalysis from writing and mental impulses from consciousness, were his own constructs – personal myths – that served their purpose only because he willed them to. Much as a Japanese koshi lattice, so minimal as to visually obstruct nothing, whispers into being a distinct spatial separation — so can ritual create both passage and separation between work and home life. Therein lies the potential for poetry in the pragmatism of this age-old typology. No more the physical walls and thresholds that define one space, one facet of identity from another. These two worlds can be created, dissolved, brought in perfect harmony by a cup of coffee, by playing a certain song, or by the simple act of picking up a pen.




i The term “workhome” is currently in use by Dr. Frances Holliss and the Workhome Project at London Metropolitan University, among others.
ii The following pattern types and descriptions have been condensed from the more extensive WORKHOME study, with additional examples provided from outside the study.



Figure 1.1 The young Taiwanese owners of Teado, hard at work in the shop beneath their apartment.
Figure 2.1 Foxconn worker dormitories. The compound houses ten million people in total.
Figure 2.2 Walt Disney’s first studio, Los Angeles, CA. est. 1923
Figure 2.3 St. Paul’s Studios, designed for gentlemen artists whose housekeepers lived in their basements, Baron’s Court, London
Figure 2.4 Tenement family making artificial flowers, est. 1890
Figure 2.5 Marcus Stone’s Workhome, Holland Park, London, 1876
Figure 3.1 Basic workhome with transformable bedroom – rendering
Figure 3.2 Basement workhome – live-adjacent – rendering
Figure 3.3 Layer-cake workhome, with business on the first two floors
Figure 3.4 Maison de Verre, Paris, France
Figure 3.5 Workbox workhome, with separate studio
Figure 3.6 Plan of Eames House, 1949



Donna Birdwell-Pheasant and Denise Lawrence-Zuniga, HouseLife (Oxford and New York, Berg, 1999).
Lilian Chee, “The Public Private Interior: Constructing the Modern Domestic Interior in Singapore’s Public Housing” in The Handbook of Interior Architecture and Design, ed. Lois Weinthal and Graeme Brooker (London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
Edward Hollis, The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors (London, Portobello Books, 2013).
Frances Holliss, “From Longhouse to Live/Work Unit; Parallel Histories and Absent Narratives“ in Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular, ed. Peter Guillery (London and New York, Routledge Press, 2011) 189-207.
Jeremy Myerson, “The Evolution Of Workspace Design: From The Machine To The Network” in The Handbook of Interior Architecture and Design, ed. Lois Weinthal and Graeme Brooker (London and New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).
Shigeru Uchida, “The Bounds of Privacy,” in From Organisation to Decoration: An Interiors Reader (London and New York: Routledge Press, 2013), pp. 35-40.
Alexa Griffith Winton, “Inhabited Space: Critical Theories and the Domestic Interior,” in The Handbook of Interior Architecture and Design, ed. “Workhome Pattern Book.” WORKHOME, accessed May 9, 2014.

Design, Rehearsed


hat if the process of designing for architecture was more akin to the process of staging a play?  Though the end products of architectural design and theatrical design are quite different, each design process has much in common.  In both cases, concept development, integration of design teams, collaborative meetings and iterations of design proposals all follow a similar timeline for accomplishing the final production goals.  Staging a play, however, takes advantage of an ongoing rehearsal process where design concepts can be prototyped in the early stages of development and tested throughout the production and in every performance.  Here, both the aesthetic and experiential properties of a production are devised and rehearsed through an inclusive collaboration between designers, performers, and audience members.  Through diligent iteration, both performer and production begin to acclimate, adapt and respond to one another so that the audience can invest in a cohesive and consuming experience.

On the other hand, architecture can be quite difficult to rehearse.  Architects and designers can study existing buildings and circulation spaces to observe how people move and interact, but scale models and renderings are often the only realistic tools available to communicate a design’s intentions to the people who will eventually inhabit it.  Without a shared understanding of purpose and functionality, the dispersion between a design’s intention and its eventual use can be quite extreme.  A 2008 study by the New Buildings Institute1 reveals great discrepancies between the projected and actual energy consumption of new LEED-certified buildings.  In response to these findings, they recommend better feedback systems that will enable the design community to fully appreciate how their systems actually end up performing.  It is only reasonable to assume that a more inclusive process will not only improve a design’s functionality, but also the experience one has within it.  In response to this growing awareness, we can look to a participatory design process that can engage with the eventual audience of end-users and provide a platform for collaborative feedback.  We must rehearse the design.

Design Trust for Public Space

Architects, designers, and stakeholders collaborate on a new vision for New York’s Special Garment Center District.



In many ways, buildings are performance spaces inhabited by characters that perform roles that have been cast, in part, by the building itself.  Therefore, the designs that support these characters require a clear understanding of why they are needed and how they will be experienced.  With this in mind, design can facilitate a relationship between people and architecture that allows each to adapt to one another.  These interactions will define crucial design criteria for a system’s integration and usability.  To accomplish such a nuanced conditioning of space, all the stakeholders of a given project from the building managers to the maintenance crew should be given an opportunity to inform the process.  Not only will these tactics embed familiarity, relevance and innovation into design outcomes, but each rehearsal will generate a sense of authorship for its contributors and a working understanding for how the design operates.  Ezio Manzini describes this informed condition as an “enabling system” where “all people involved are, in different ways, agents of the solution.”2  Such a sense of contribution will build confidence, investment and, ultimately, a greater potential for success.

Snøhetta - a design firm engaging public space in a multitude of domains - describes their process of “transpositioning” as one “in which different professionals - from architects to visual artists, philosophers to sociologists - exchange roles in order to explore differing perspectives without the prejudice of convention."

Snøhetta – a design firm engaging public space in a multitude of domains – describes their process of “transpositioning” as one “in which different professionals – from architects to visual artists, philosophers to sociologists – exchange roles in order to explore differing perspectives without the prejudice of convention.”

In April of 2012, a large-scale renovation project was conducted to revitalize Poppintree Park in the town of Ballymun, Ireland.  The conceptual development (by Mitchell + Associates, Landscape Architects) went much further than public consultations and community outreach.  It actively sought to engage the community directly in the process of design.3  Architect David Andrews conducted design + build workshops with local youths who were not only asked their option, but were given an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise as the eventual park users in a hands-on manner.  Infused with local value and functional familiarity, the park went on to receive the 2012 LAMA Community and Council Award for Best Public Park4 – an indication that the park’s underlying design considerations resonated with the greater community.


Rehearsing a design with eventual users can generate intuitive environments that address unique, localized needs but that are capable of adapting to changing demands.  For instance, design parameters that are primarily directed by efficiency rather than use will likely result in environments that are populated entirely with automated systems, essentially depriving occupants of a tactile grasp of the mechanics.  These centralized and hidden controls tend to overlook individual preference and can create a sense of disengagement and apathy.  When we advocate for resilience, a great deal of that strategy must lie in the adaptability of each system or structure we design.  This understanding is a critical component in our capacity to design environments that truly support those who inhabit them.

Just like the communally inclusive approach that brought Poppintree Park so much success, design criteria can continue to be imagined and prototyped throughout a design process that includes the designers and architects as well as the anticipated occupants and stakeholders.  Along the way, new metrics can be established that help to assess performance and further the project’s development.  Each successive consideration of a design’s eventual use and impact will help address a wider variety of needs, avoid unintended consequences, and more fully integrate it into the surrounding context.  The design firm Snøhetta engages public space in a multitude of domains.  They describe their process of transpositioning as one “in which different professionals – from architects to visual artists, philosophers to sociologists – exchange roles in order to explore differing perspectives without the prejudice of convention.”5  Perhaps convention is the sticky issue and one that is getting more difficult to disrupt.

Poppintree Park

Poppintree Park

Architecture is a highly formalized discipline.  Consequently, its design process is unapproachable for most of the people who will benefit from it.  This campaign for a participatory process seeks to reinforce traditional practice by strategically opening the process of design to greater transparency and inclusivity.  Much like a theatrical rehearsal process, the repetitive cycle of performance, observation, reflection and refinement can help define the roles that a building or design may be required to play.  By implementing inclusive, participatory design strategies, we may begin to address the hidden complexities that arise when society’s demand for adaptive and sustainable space grapples with the longevity of the constructed environment.  Ultimately, any success will depend on how we engage with and learn from the people for whom we design.



1 Turner, Cathy and Frankel, Mark, “Energy Performance of LEED® for New Construction Buildings.” New Buildings Institute, Vancouver, March 4, 2008.

2 Manzini, Ezio and Tassinari, Virginia, “Sustainable qualities: powerful drivers of social change,” 2012: 6.

3 “Poppintree Youth Project – Participatory Design,” commondesigns, April 26, 2012,

4 “Poppintree Park Wins 2012 LAMA Award for Best Public Park,” commondesigns, May 10, 2012,

5 “Process,” Snohetta, accessed November 4, 2014,


1 (Feature)


3-4 (see 1)


Nothing to Be Done

“Architects have no authorship over their product.”

So spake Eva Franch i Gilabert, the fecund ideator at the helm of Storefront for Architecture, at a recent speaking engagement at Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments. Gilabert spoke in the context of her reflections on this year’s Biennale Architetturaits 14th installment — and her statement, while seemingly contentious, is upon closer inspection emblematic of a far broader current of unrest among architecture and its constituents. 

This year’s exhibit was curated by Rem Koolhaas, known worldwide as both a prolific builder and as the influential nexus of many of today’s most prominent figures in architecture. Koolhaas, titling his exhibition Fundamentals, endeavored to “reconstruct how architecture finds itself in its current situation, and speculate on its future,”1 evoking the uncertainty of a discipline with a newfound self-awareness. Seeing, perhaps for the first time, a reflection it not longer recognizes.

Interpretations of Koolhaas’ message vary in flavor and pungency, yet the brunt of criticism lands not, as it may seem, on the shoulders of the curator, but on his subject; architecture is on trial. The question of architecture — an inquiry into what is rather than how does, or when, or why or in order to… — is long in the tooth, yet with each passing generation, receiving a fresh coat of paint, feels fresh. It is not narcissistic, but reflexively existential.

In Koolhaas’ own words,

“Fundamentals consists of three interlocking exhibitions—Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, Elements of Architecture, and Monditalia—that together illuminate the past, present and future of our discipline. After several architecture Biennales dedicated to the celebration of the contemporary, Fundamentals will look at histories, attempt to reconstruct how architecture finds itself in its current situation, and speculate on its future.” 2

Architecture’s current situation is fraudulent. As so eloquently encapsulated by Samuel Medina, of Metropolis,

“…architecture has become more marginalized than at any point in its history, and architects far less influential in the shaping of the built environment than they’re ready to admit…it is the global neoliberal hegemony to which architects are necessarily beholden that has bankrupted architecture’s creative and critical faculties.” 3

Fundamentals seeks to reveal the mechanisms of architecture as well as its components. but there are many intangible components not displayed – cultural, emotional – suggesting that the biennale instead investigates the components of building systems, the nuances in whose details begins to reveal an underexposed portrait of architecture.

The problem with architecture, and with Fundamentals’ examinations, is that it is so often associated with buildings. Buildings are born out of wedlock and raised at arms length from the parents that bore them.

Fundamentals is not the end of architecture. The components of Elements are not nouns of the language of architecture.4 The details elucidated in Modernity are not its grammar. Architecture cannot be found in the vernacular. It cannot be found within walls or behind doors. Fundamentals searches for architecture in buildings, and finds none. If the answer cannot be found in these, perhaps the wrong questions are being asked.



1 “Latest Details Released on Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale 2014 ‘Fundamentals’,” ArchDaily, March 12, 2014,
2″What’s So Different About Koolhaas’ Venice Biennale?,” Metropolis, March 27, 2014,
3″Biennale Breakdown: A Guide to the National Pavilions,” Metropolis, June 23, 2014,
4 “Rem Koolhaas is stating the ‘end’ of his career, says Peter Eisenman,” Dezeen, June 9, 2014,


1 World Architecture (Edited from original)
The Japan Times

Bodies in Space


n 2002 photographer Jen Davis began a decade-long series of self-portraiture exploring beauty and the body in relation to the interior. The culmination of this project resulted in a monograph and her first solo show in New York – entitled Eleven Years – at ClampArt in the Summer of 2014.

Throughout the series, Davis employs interior architecture as a means of investigating the private and public self. In “Untitled No. 4,” Davis is seen through the building studs of an unfinished interior room. Her body, caged by framing lumber, creates a sense a remoteness that is reflected in her expression. In “Obstruction,” a window frame blocks out Davis’ face.  Her identity is obscured, reducing her body to another element within the architecture. In this series, the interior is not always at odds with the body. A green hued bedroom takes on a Vermeer-like quality with Davis as the central figure bathed in a warm light that turns her pale skin a lovely shade of pink.

Not only does light provide universal depth to an image, it connects the external public world to Davis’ internal private world. In “Untitled No. 55,” light enters an otherwise dark room through an unseen window. Davis’ eyes are shut as her body melts into the background; she is caught in a vulnerable moment. As the viewer we are allowed access to this scene, as is the band of light that penetrates this interior space.

This summer I sat down with Jen Davis to talk about the culmination of Eleven Years and her ideas about light, color, and the interior.

Your self-portraits are made primarily in domestic interiors. When you first develop an idea for a photograph, to what degree do you consider interior space?

I think most times the location informs the picture. I don’t draft anything or create a completely new environment. It’s mostly about using what’s available and what I see. Also, it’s about the light that enters into the space. In fact, the light is what guides the photograph; it creates a set, in a way. And I’m using natural light. Artificial light is different, of course, but the natural light is like another character within itself that comes and enters into the space.

There is a photograph I made that was early on when I was living in Chicago. It was a third floor apartment surrounded by two-story buildings, so there was nothing obstructing our windows. I don’t even think I was thinking about light then, at least not so coherently. But I came home and opened the door and there was the most amazing light in the living room and on the kitchen table. And I thought, I have to make a photograph here.

So the photographs are informed by the space?

I think they’re informed by the light more so than the space. For example, I’m thinking about a specific photograph where I’m watering plants. It’s a very banal thing, a woman in her apartment watering plants. But the darkness of the room, the 4 o’clock light coming in, it heightens the tension and psychological drama of the scene.

That photograph was very intuitive for me to make. I put on a shirt that matched the pattern of the couch and there was something interesting that I saw when I was making the photograph with the scale of the couch, how it’s very small versus the body, that went with that matching pattern.

Untitled No 15

Untitled No 15

Yes! Not only is there the drama of the light, but also a heightened sense of isolation with you inside looking out.

Exactly. I shot film but I scanned the negative and [in doing so] you get all the information in the highlights that are lost in the c-print. Because of that there is all this information in the window of the picture – you can see the tree branches and it looks like veins. It’s like the interior self is reflected in the exterior, which also adds a different kind of interpretation.

It’s interesting to hear that you would change outfits to match your interior. Do you commonly attempt to connect yourself to the interior in that way?

Yeah. I think the palette was always something I was interested in, or searching for. For example, the color of the apartment that the earlier pictures were taken in was a shade of green I was really drawn to, and I painted one of the rooms blue because I liked it. I would purchase clothes at a thrift store thinking about a photograph that could be made in that space. But it was also about perceiving beauty as something that could be based on color and light. Something that’s not conventionally seen as beautiful, like this person, or this body, and trying to shed a beauty onto it. Trying to seduce with color and light.

When you turned the camera on yourself and began your portrait series, did you start out thinking, “I want to photograph interiors?” Was there a conscious decision to shoot yourself in a domestic environment instead of a studio environment?

I think it was just something I responded to: the isolation of this home and domestic space. Maybe because it was my first apartment, when you’re just kind of figuring out your home and what that means. But there was something about being indoors, an emotional interior space that I was interested in, and the idea of the home. I think later on when I began to craft the pictures there was more of a placement on home and making it my own. Like identifying with it or having some kind of individuality with it. But I think I chose to stay inside. Some of my photos take place outside, but for the most part, it’s about channeling or challenging this interior sense of self or privacy. It’s a kind of push and pull between the private and the public. I was doing things for the camera that were really hard or embarrassing, and that was an act of release for me.

As viewers we are granted entry into this private world, and by not always confronting the camera you support that.

The camera is, for the most part, very observational; I’m rarely ever confronting it. And, that’s something I didn’t realize in the beginning. It was just like a third set of eyes or third party. There wasn’t much of a relationship to it, it would just absorb. The camera records what it sees, it’s like the dead honest truth of me. Or seeing me in a way I could never see myself. It doesn’t lie or withhold anything, and it’s not about flattery. So there’s this replica of me that’s transpired on the film.

What are you thinking about when you sit in front of the camera? Do you go into character?

I don’t think it’s necessarily a character, but a lot of times the work is really performative: it’s a side of me where I’m able to ask questions to the camera. It’s this kind of empowerment. When I’m taking the picture there is a point where I shut off. I’m in the moment, feeling the light, feeling the breeze. In every photograph I’ve taken, those moments of making them are all the memories I have. I can remember what the light felt like on my body, the wind on my skin with the window open, or the painful thing that was happening emotionally in the set that I was like trying to convey. Because some of them were very intuitive, like in the moment of what I was experiencing. And those are the harder ones for me to think of, or maybe the harder ones for me to make at the time.

I want to touch on your series, “I Ask in Exchange,” because you capture a similar connection between the body and space. When you were making portraits of men, was it important to place them in the domestic environment as well?

Yes, and it was also important for me to be present in their space. I’m very grateful that these people allowed me into their world and allowed me to watch them in these private, intimate moments. More is suggested in those moments then what actually took place, but that fiction works and it’s what I’m interested in.

Could you talk more about the creative process of working with these men? I imagine it was a different experience than photographing yourself.

It’s all about making decisions at the time and in the space. I go into it and it’s new to me, and it’s just making decisions. Like the guy rubbing his chest with the red bedspread, I put him there because the light was nice.  Pictorially it was really beautiful and I responded to that. But with the self-portraits, if the light wasn’t right or if I missed it, I could look at it and come back the next day. I could have an idea, have the camera set up, and wait for everything to be lined up and everything to be perfect, and then make the picture.



Would you be arranging things? Like folding sheets back or messing up the bed?

Oh yeah, I would definitely arrange things. The one of the couple on the bed with the sheets, that was from their bodies as they rolled around, but I would definitely go into a space and move things around in other scenarios.

What are you looking for when you’re arranging things?

I think I’m just trying to make it neat, to take away the clutter, or just make a better frame. And I will add things – like in the self-portraits there were details and things I would add. There’s a picture of me eating oranges with a painting behind me. I put the painting there and arranged the three shakers. There’s also a curtain up behind me to eliminate the chaos in the other room. It was a pictorial decision I made when making the picture.

When you put the painting of the girl up, were you thinking about the gaze? She’s looking at the viewer, the viewer is looking at you and you are looking away. It makes for a very voyeuristic experience.

I don’t know if I was thinking about the gaze necessarily, but I was definitely thinking about the presence of the painting of the young girl and identifying with her. Those are my roommates and there was a young boy and a young girl and I chose the girl to put there. So there was definitely this younger figure I was interested in. And, I think there was something about the light of that painting, the kind of Dutch soft northern light. With that picture I set up the camera the night before and then I woke up at 7 or 8am and made the picture. The curtain was up, everything was in place, I pre-visualized it and then made it the next day.

gift from grandpa

gift from grandpa


Now that you finished the series are you going to continue making self-portraits?

I don’t know. I’ve made pictures recently but I haven’t scanned them or done anything with them. The last picture for the book was more about giving myself a deadline and not being able to add anything. But I’m really not that engaged with looking at myself at this point. I think it’s something I’ll come back to, but I feel this pressure to do something else. This also feels like closure, with the book and the show it feels like an ending. I think, though, there is something in me that wants to come back to it. I don’t think I’ll never photograph myself again. If it feels important or if there’s something happening in my life that it feels necessary to. But I want to challenge myself and do other projects.

What other projects do you have planned?

I want to photograph women right now. It’s something I’ve never really done. I’m interested in going to LA and making pictures of women there. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, I want to go someplace I don’t know, that’s foreign to me and that’s also very surface level. I want to get under that surface, look at the beauty, the body. Like beaches, pageants, teenagers, I don’t know, but just to see what comes from it. It’s exciting to me because I’m interested in this process of letting the people I meet inform where the work will go. When I started the “I Ask in Exchange” project, that started with a road trip I went on and one photograph worked from there. That one photograph propelled the project. So, I’m looking for inspiration right now. How it will be shaped is a big question mark still. Which is exciting and fun. And it could totally fail and flop and not be interesting and I could hate it. But that’s the process of working, you know?

More of Jen Davis’s work including Self-Portraits and I Ask in Exchange can be found on her website. She is represented by Lee Marks Fine Art and lives in Brooklyn.



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1 (Feature) Jen Davis, “Untitled No. 11,” from the series Eleven Years
2 Jen Davis, “Untitled No. 15,” from the series Eleven Years
3 Jen Davis, “Sean,” from the series I Ask In Exchange
4 Jen Davis, “Gift from Grandpa,” from the series Eleven Years