Humans Were Here

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Opening essay from the newspaper companion to the exhibition Humans Were Here: Building in L.A., at the Wattis Institute of Art, San Francisco {jpeg} [PDF]

Around the time that we were starting to organize this architecture show, I heard an interview on the radio with the members of a southern folksy-techno band. One of the musicians was describing how they work in the studio—recording, sampling, editing—using the machines to organize and manage the sounds of their instruments and voices. She said that occasionally, some messed-up, but truthful sound would break through all of those machines. They would look at each other and happily exclaim, “Humans were here!”
As architects and designers, we also have our voices mediated by machines. If a building becomes architecture when it is a manifestation of human thought and intention, then perhaps it is exactly at those “Humans were here!” moments when we really start to say something with our buildings. Since we do not physically build our work, the literal human touch of the architect is absent. We depend on our machine acumen to communicate through our work. Beginning with drafting and modeling software, and ending with the photograph of the completed project, we increasingly need to be well-versed in the manipulation of many media.

The Generated Building
The computer software available to architects today helps us to draw and redraw, revise and reconfigure our designs ad infinitum with complete accuracy. This software may also assist us in creating buildings that use resources in a more effective and less wasteful manner. Perhaps the most visible evidence of this new technology is the breathtaking formal and fabrication capabilities that were previously impossible with pencil and T-square, hammer and saw. We have begun to see the gorgeous evidence of this in the seductive forms of many new buildings.
As we delight in these new powers, we also ask ourselves as architects: What are the vital aspects of design that the narrow parameters of any software program will never be able to accomplish?  At what point does this tool become a surrogate for complex, responsive, architectural thought? The landscape of the software itself can indeed become a new construction site, free of all of those unpredictable trees, unstable rocks, humid air, gusty winds, and glaring sun. This can be of great comfort—there are easy answers, and they are all within the binary code of a computer program. The most sophisticated software can’t process those thrilling and scary particularities that make architecture eccentric, alive, vital, and human. But a new generation of architects is growing up with these tools and is developing in parallel with them. In their hands, the architect’s computer is evolving beyond a shape-making novelty into a potent tool for both problem solving and true human expression.

The Photographed Building
A compelling photograph of a building can sometimes be as influential as the firsthand experience of the building itself. In an age where design and architecture have gained some broader interest, we as architects must contend with the secondhand experience of our work through photographs. As a matter of fact, most people may only ever see it this way. When it comes time to tell the story of our buildings with pictures, we like to neatly sweep the evidence of those lives out of the frame. We build for people, but people are messy. We replace the laundry on the floor, the unwashed dishes, the children’s toys, and the pile of newspapers with a fresh orchid and a bowl of perfectly arranged out-of-season ripe fruit. Why can’t the depictions of our work tolerate the very things they are supposedly designed to accommodate? After what might be years of long hours laboring over the minutia of a design, why would we want to surrender our idealized vision to the casual whim of an inhabitant? Like the ubiquitous photoshopped image of the too-thin model, these staged images of the untainted dwelling present an unrealistic story of how people live. This can lead to a certain nervous inferiority complex in the reader of today’s design magazines. Is that the life I should be striving for? Do people really live like that? Are those parts of myself not represented in these pictures something I am supposed to hide? Environmental exposure and human occupation degrade architecture. They are forces on buildings that require moderating, guiding, channeling, or controlling, but in many ways we have come to view them as the enemy. At times, it has seemed that the discipline of architecture was plagued by some autoimmune virus that attacked a vital part of itself it saw as foreign. But as an industrial modern movement fades behind us, and environmental crises looms on the horizon, architecture appears to be moving away from these tendencies toward a more thoughtful engagement with natural forces.

The Video Screen and the Newspaper
Humans were here! (Building in L.A.) employs familiar mass media forms to tell the more human, less formal stories of architecture and how buildings are made. Instead of the conventional architectural communication tools of the model—the rendering and the staged photograph—we have produced stories for this newspaper and a video documentary by filmmaker Nils Timm that feature Bestor Architecture, Escher Gunewardena, Fritz Hæg Studio, Taalman Koch Architecture, François Perrin, and Alexis Rochas. We are part of a large, diverse, and connected community of architects and designers on the eastside of Los Angeles. This presentation of our work does not imply any particular stylistic tendency or school of thought. Rather, it illustrates the healthy diversity of architectural thought bubbling under the surface of Los Angeles.

Under Construction
Each of us presents one project currently under construction or recently completed in the pages of this newspaper, in the video documentary, and in a public set of construction documents. All of these media together present our relationship to the geography and community of the city we call home and how that has, in turn, affected the projects we are building. Looking behind the scenes, the construction documents show how design is communicated to those humans that actually build it. The documentary tells the story of how people come together to create a building, through long days and nights in the studio with employees and coworkers, and through meetings with clients, contractors, and consultants. In contrast to the slick, homogenized, and hygienic portrayal of architecture made to elicit desire and envy, this show hopes to reveal the messy truths of construction for today’s designers and architects. It is easy to take our built environment for granted. There is a certain inevitability to it. With this show we hope to reveal that behind every building, there are humans!

– Fritz Haeg, 2006