ARCH977-06 SURFACE; Architecture and its Ambiguous Boundaries  

Wentworth Institute of Technology,  Spring, 2015

Professor Dan Hisel

The surfaces of architecture are the planes from which meaning gets extracted. Surfaces give shape to space, and structure the sequences of movement and experience. Historically, the surfaces of architecture have been the outermost boundary of a material with depth and ‘honesty’ (the modernist tenant of ‘truth to materials’ as seen in the concrete surfaces of Louis Kahn, for example). And yet today’s architecture overflows with mediated surfaces, where there is little to no material depth, and the surface is as thin and smooth as a layer of paint. Compound this superficiality with the technologies of our mediated digital culture and we are left with existential uncertainties about the very nature of architecture... And yet, these unstable contemporary surfaces simultaneously offer fields for new discoveries, and blank canvases for the playful creation of new meaning in architecture today.

This seminar examined the outer limits of architecture through a critical interrogation of its material surfaces and disciplinary boundaries. We questioned the contemporary over-reliance on the architectural image by asking what is visible? Invisible? Present? Substantial? How is the identity of a building affected by problems of illusion and doubts about the Real (which, as Norman Bryson shows us, have been an integral part of architecture at least since Pompeii)? Perhaps, as Baudrillard claims, everything is only a simulation... Alternately, what might these superficial questions imply about the privileged experience of architectural absorption? If the Surface is merely appearance, then what is Space, Depth, Time, Sequence, Material? How do these qualities (unstable as they may turn out to be), inform and enliven the architectural Idea, especially in our own image-saturated, digital age?

The work of conceptual and minimalist artists were studied in order to learn how the disciplines of art and architecture have been, and might be further tested through artistic practices that question the very presence of the object.  We studied selected writings of philosophers and theorists in order to understand how the body and its perceptual apparatus affects, and is affected by the surfaces and spaces of our environment. We also examined architectural precedents whose ambiguous surfaces question the formal and spatial ‘reality’ of the built work.  Students were asked to make temporary installations that challenge our presumptions about the places we inhabit. Students also designed a collaborative final exhibition in the Cassella Gallery at WIT that engaged the topics of the course in a critical way.

Below are some images of the final installation.  Many thanks to the wonderful students who engaged this material so fully, and worked together to make the installation a reality.