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LV-426, or: The Labors of P.S. 1

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normal LV-426, or: The Labors of P.S. 1

Site model for MOS's Afterparty (Source: NYT)

What do we mean when we say that architecture is a form of cultural
production? If we modify this question, modulate the use of the word
"form", we come up with something like this: if architecture is a form of cultural production, then architectural form is a type of cultural expression.
To confuse the situation even more, we deploy an arsenal of buzzwords
to describe this situation. For example, we argue, pound our fists,
invoke theoretical canons and convince naysayers that architectural
form is borne out of a specific sociopolitical context. We use words
like "zeitgeist", "apotheosis", etc., to express this marrying between
a building and the time in which it was conceived. Like literature,
art, or cinema, architectural form can fall victim to a type of

OS Principals Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith stand behind a model of Afterparty (Source: NYT)

And this continues to this day. When asked by a New York Times reporter to comment on their winning entry for MoMA's yearly P.S. 1 Young Architects Competition, architects Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS invoked the current economic crisis as the impetus behind their
project. Their project, a varied assortment of thatched, woven cones
sitting on P.S. 1's trapezoidal courtyard is, according to the Times,
"meant to honor and reflect current economic realities." The architects
chose to title the project "Afterparty" in order to express such a
sentiment. But this is a sobering and reflective party -- an
opportunity to create a "more modest and thoughtful architecture" after
"the economic party is over."

Critics for the Times and other national newspapers seem to agree, at least in principle. The
operative term here is "hangover", a term of art that tells of excess
and lingering headaches. Commentary from the past couple of months thus
speaks of an "architecture hangover" and reiterates how intrepid
experiments from the 1990's and early 2000s have failed gain traction
in this post-Bilbao, post-Experience Economy
climate. Architecture, that most capital-intensive and capital-reliant
of endeavors, is having its rug pulled out from under its feet. A
worldwide economic recession has shaken the architecture profession,
and no one seems to have any idea when it will pull itself up. Not so
strangely, such observations are tempered with the language of
opportunity. A hostile economic climate will lead to a resurgence of
vital and meaningful architectures.

rendering showing Afterparty's conical, thatched forms (Source: NYT)

MOS'schoice of materials for their Afterparty project suggests an austerity
proper to the current economic climate. There are no gilded, sinuous forms, no fabricated spider webs.
Afterparty is essentially a combination of aluminum tubing and fabric
weave that takes advantage of temperature differentials and induction
currents to create welcome breezes what will counter the New York
summer heat. Those familiar with the competition brief know that such a
sparingly use of materials is to be expected. All P.S. 1 competition
entries are required to adhere to the strict $70,000 budget maximum,
thus ensuring a field of entries that, by current standards, is done on
the cheap. The idea of innovation as a by product of stringent
competition parameters is not new. The relatively meager budget cap for
the Young Architects Competition ensures a level playing field. But
now, given the current dire economic circumstance, MOS's frugal use of
material seems especially appropriate.

Inside Afterparty's Canopy (Source)

The same could be said for Afterparty's forms. Cones and domes spread
across the P.S. 1 courtyard, creating a partial canopy over the entire
site. But these are not exactly cones and domes. Each have an oculus
and touches the ground on four points. The domes appear like pendentives,
controlling transitions from a cubic to a hemispheric volume and vice
versa. In Afterparty, however, there is no such transition. Or rather,
there is another type of modulation between surface and ground.
Afterparty's pendentive-like legs help create a series of arched
passageways underneath the canopy. Unilke Frei Otto's Munich Stadium
-- essentially a web of forms hanging above the ground -- here,
Afterparty's forms come to rest lightly, delicately on the ground. It
is a fitting metaphor: architecture has coming back to Earth, slowly,
deliberately, reminding us of its collaborative and public roles.

The Times piece affirms this point of view with a tale of teamwork. The
architects tell the reporter how MOS student-employees helped load a
model of Afterparty into a minivan just in time for the competition
deadline. This story implies an esprit-de-corps
that counteracts the starchitect stereotype: a small firm like MOS is
now really the sum of its parts. Principals, employees, are all vital
links in what is, in essence, a design collective -- a model of a
professional practice that is highly-stylized with pursestrings drawn

Here, then is another type of production. Labor.
Hours spent behind a computer mouse-jockeying. Hours spent with knives
and other cutting implements, giving form to form, building models. And
this is only for the competition entry. Here, then, is a model of
private practice for days of dwindling clients and scurrying capital.

Meredith and Sample invoke the names of Louis Kahn and Anni Albers
as inspiration. Yet this invocation carries a significance far beyond
Afterparty's material and formal qualities. Kahn's ability to
transition from "high tech" to "very primitive", as well as Albers'
deftness with mass producible and esoteric combinations of materials
also suggest the role of labor in the design process. We need not think
further of the Kahn's capital complex in Dhaka,
a series of interlocking brick and mud volumes built by local masons
with limited tools. The courses on the building's facades bear the mark
of this labor: horizontal reveals mark the extent of the Bangladeshi
builders' daily progress. MOS's summoning of Kahn's work as the
inspiration for Afterparty's cones and domes is therefore a quotation,
a reference to a previous building and architectural practice now
placed inside inverted commas.

An architect's looking to historical precedent is nothing new. For example, we can look to Colin Rowe's
important "The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa" (1947) to understand
what it means to place architectural precedents in inverted commas.
When referring to Le Corbusier's ability to summon geometric principles
a la Palladio, Rowe tells us
how quoting architectural precedent requires wit and a
quick-on-the-draw ability to readily associate the old with the new.
Although this is done with a wink and a nod, quotation serves a more
important purpose. It places a reader or critic on alert that precedent
is about to be de-contextualized and used in service of an argument.
This is what Terry Eagleton would later refer to as a "Janus-faced temporality": an ability to look to the past in order to move into the future. In some instances, very far into the future.

The Nostromo, orbiting in the vicinity of planet LV-426, from Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979)

And what future could Afterparty be referring to? What future does MOS
place in inverted commas? It is a future that invokes issues of form
and labor. But it is also a future familiar to fans of Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi screamfest. In the film, the crew of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo wakes from a deep sleep to find that their shipboard computer has answered a distress call from LV-426, a remote planet very, very far away from Earth. In the film, the tiny Nostromo tows a giant, sprawling refinery containing millions of pounds of mined ore.

Cones and Superstructures, by any other name: Afterparty (top), and the Nostromo (bottom)

This assembly of tug and cargo bears, at least in a passing glance, some
formal similarities to MOS's Afterparty. A careful squinting of the eye
would reveal the Nostromo to
be a series of tall, narrow cones and domed structures sitting on a
surface, much like Afterparty's thatched structures for the P.S. 1
courtyard. One could even say that the Nostromo's
cargo reads as dessicated, shredded version of Afterparty. The
Albers-inspired weave has now become a network of tatters, ossified
into a monolithic, machinic superstructure.

Nostromians analyzing a distress call from LV-426: Ian Holm, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and John Hurt, from Alien.

The similarities continue. The Nostromo's
crew compartments become the stage setting for a drama involving
distributions of labor. In one scene, crew chief Dallas (Tom Skerritt)
reminds the rest of the Nostromians of company policies regarding
payment arrangements. Complaints are raised about the ship computer's
answering of the distress signal from LV-426, as this mission will
potentially delay a return to Earth (and payment as well). Dallas
reminds the crew of their contractual obligation to answer and
investigate the distress call. The crew are essentially underpaid,
overworked employees charged with the dirty toil of interplanetary
exploration. Back on Earth, far away from LV-426's hostile climates,
corporate clients are about to bank on a windfall of royalties.

Toiling behind consoles: Tom Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver aboard the Nostromo (top), and MOS in their office (bottom) (Source)

If the Nostromians are not busy hosting (quite unwillingly) the "xenomorph's"
future offspring, Scott often captures them sitting in front of
computer monitors. As in contemporary architecture practice, the sordid
business of interplanetary exploration requires hours of retina-burning
sessions in front of a computer. The work is similar, but is it
thankless? The difference would be that for those interns and employees
that worked on Afterparty and other projects by MOS, or even those who
worked with past winners and runners-up, labor is understood to be
thankless at first. Association with a winning entry ensures a bigger
reward in the future. Being an employee (paid or unpaid) at an
architecture firm also requires a "Janus-faced temporality."

Ask an underpaid intern working in the entertainment industry about low
wages, and he or she will rationalize their below-poverty-line
existence by saying something about being paid in information.
Something similar at play is at work in the architectural profession.
We can label it as an asymmetrical relationship between labor and pay.
An intern will spend hours toiling with computers and models, and often
in hopes of a big payoff in the end. Thanks to Afterparty, MOS
employees will be able to transition into other jobs and gain their own
15-minutes of New York Times-mediated
fame in the end. But current economic woes will delay the promise of
such success indefinitely. The price to pay for architectural excess is
that most undesirable of situations: a final modulation from an
architecture hangover to a labor hangover.

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