On the Uselessness and Advantages of Studio.
ehnsa In Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 text, The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge, he described an age of “hurried empiricism” in which we no longer ask if knowledge is true, but rather of “what use is it?” In a more recent essay, the architectural critic and professor David Leatherbarrow echoes this evaluation in architectural practice and theory, when he describes what he sees as a shift “from what the building is to what it does.” The recent proliferation of performance-themed conferences, symposia, and publications, and even a few built works, certainly support this condition. Concomitant to this turn in architectural epistemology is a shift in the expectations of the studio. The research-based studio has recently re-emerged and with it a renewed fascination with bio-mimicry, information-based design, and all things parametric. At its best, perhaps, is a new awareness achieved by grafting the techniques of the natural sciences onto architectural production in the hope of providing a new “utilitas,” by way of material efficiencies, fabrication techniques, responses to sustainability, and even a renewed sense of disciplinarity. What is often times not mentioned is the loss of any sort of discourse or dialog beyond the performance of the artifact. We have, indeed, shifted from ideology to information.

Most studios still, however, produce work that does not get built; is not inhabited; and much of the, often very expensive, products and remains of digital fabrication are either recycled or simply discarded. Further, the model of studio as mimicking professional practice with studio instructor acting as client and coach to an individual designer is inherently flawed. Practice, in all its various guises, simply does not work in the same way. While I would not argue that any of this is useless, I would argue that is not always useful in the manner intended. What if a studio project recognized it’s own uselessness? What if a project was not intended to be anything other than the artifacts produced – drawings, models, writings – not “of” a future oriented production, but valuable in and of themselves?

This essay looks to the work of Douglas Darden, and specifically to his Oxygen House, as exemplary of such an approach. The project, a house for an injured rail worker, acts as a breathing device for the inhabitant as well as his final resting place. Darden presented a series of wonderfully crafted drawings and models (see below) not intended to be used as a model of a built work. The project includes a fictional letter from Abraham, the “client” to the “architect,” Darden that weaves Faulkner’s text As I Lay Dying with the fiction of the project and also with Darden’s own life. Also included in the project was an x-ray of Abraham’s lung. During the production of the work, Darden was diagnosed with tuberculosis and learned that he too was soon to die. The x-ray, it turns out, was his own.

I will propose that there is use value in the work, but not in the model of the natural sciences. Rather, the work is rhetorical, but not informational; allegorical, but not iconographic; technical but does not rely upon technique; related to discourse, but is not referential; autobiographical but not solipsistic; and finally, productive but not necessarily performative.