On Wednesday February 25 the School of Architecture hosted “Export Agendas,” symposium that brought together leading architectural academics and practitioners to discuss new models for understanding how architectural expertise is translated into different countries and contexts.
Organized by Assistant Professor Amanda Reeser Lawrence, the event was a continuation of and a response to the recent International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, directed by Rem Koolhaas. Prof. Lawrence was catalogue editor for the US Pavilion, OfficeUS, which responded to Koolhaas’s theme of “Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014,” through the compilation of an exhaustive collection of projects designed by U.S. architects and built abroad over those 100 years, as well as the establishment of a working architectural office on-site in the exhibition. The exhibition framed the organization and management of the US office as a defining aspect of not simply U.S. but global architecture over the past 100 years.
“Export Agendas” furthered the OfficeUS exploration of export and expertise through 11 lively presentations and two spirited panel discussions.
In the first panel, moderated by Ashley Schafer from Ohio State University, architects discussed the challenges and opportunities of working abroad. Aybars Asci traced a ‘steretomic” language in the work of SOM, where he is design director. Eric Howeler of Howeler + Yoon argued against preconceived ideas of regional architectural language, giving as an example a courtyard house that his firm constructed in China, in which code-based criteria as well as input from both the US architects and Chinese client allowed for both to “recognize” aspects of the project. And Tim Love, Associate Professor at Northeastern and principal of Boston-based Utile, Inc., discussed how lessons learned locally—such as methods for aggregating low-rise housing units—can be exported globally, and vice-versa.
The three historians in the first panel explored and to some degree problematized the concept of export. Daniel Barber, Assistant Professor at UPenn, traced the history of the brise-soleil or “sunbreaker” as a climate-controlling device that enabled the global spread of modernism during the 1930s and 40s. Michael Kubo, PhD Candidate at MIT, traced the explosive rise of US projects in the Middle East following the boom in oil prices in the mid-1970s, and its impact on the size of corporate firms, while offering a cautionary tail of the architecture’s relationship to the vicissitudes of petroleum pricing. Ijlal Muzaffar, Assistant Professor at RISD, closed the first panel with a call for architects doing humanitarian work abroad to address the complexity and specificity of the places in which they work, to expose that which is “beyond” their specific project.
A second panel, moderated by Ana Miljacki of MIT, looked more specifically at models of expertise. Peggy Deamer, Professor at Yale, explored management strategies within architectural offices, and particular the use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) as a key form of expertise, whose influence exceeds aesthetic production. Ivan Rupnik, Assistant Professor at Northeastern, outlined how European modernist architects imported and translated scientific management tools from US, and how ultimately those techniques came back to American soil. And Claire Zimmerman, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, showed how US architecture was exported to the Soviet Union during the 1930s not as single product, but as a distributed force and capitalist product. Carlos Zapata, of Carlos Zapata Studio, discussed the exchange between foreign and local architects on a job-site, discussing his own work in China. And Nader Tehrani, of NADAA Architects, traced the translation of ideas from the academy to practice, as well as to building sites in China, a form of “cultural intercourse.”
The event highlighted the need for more focused conversation around the complexities of architectural export. The term export itself—critiqued for its monolithic quality and imperialist connotations—is one that invites further consideration. All panelists highlighted the importance of understanding export as a two-way street, a mode of exchange, a feedback lop, rather than a unilateral transfer of ideas. Issue of media were consistently raised, as critical to understanding how what we know as export and import, as were the problems and opportunities posted by various constraints—codes, regulation, customs, etc. Within such an exchange how do we evaluation the possibility for invention and innovation, or its appropriateness? Architectural export is, of course, more than simply the construction of a structure somewhere far from home; it is an ideological imposition, a negotiation, an opportunity, and a responsibility.