pulp #59: scenarios

published on FRIDAY, October 19, 2018

For this issue I sat down and talked with Michael Young, a professor at Cooper Union and partner in the firm Young Ayata. He contrasted the concept of narrative and scenario. Both pull on the past to create the possible, but whereas in a narrative the pieces come together as a line, a sequence, a scenario works instead as more of a field. It is a little less prescriptive, a little more flexible.

Dima Srouji contributed a working-piece today in which she reaches - independently of Michael Young - some of the same non-linear conclusions.

Today is a significant one for pulp, as it is our last issue. As such, before we get to the meat, I should offer some closing thoughts.

Katherine Stege once called this operation a "a curatorial exercise in all of the ways one might possibly define what an architect can do – or what an architect might do.” Such an exercise was not, frankly, really my intention in setting out with this publication - indeed, the intent instead was to drive after what the Big Idea in architecture today is. I wanted to pit deep thinkers against one another and come out with an over-arching narrative, a line from which everything converged or diverged. But Katherine’s is probably the most accurate depiction of pulp: instead of a single line, I found a rich range of vectors. To list but a few themes that came out, we looked at different models for public housing (#22 , #25, #51) , at algorithmic design (#46: dave reeves), at politically active architecture (#27: dima srouji & #57: raumlabor), and at new methods of sustainability (#45: biophilia).

Through all of them, however, I found architects who feel empowered and optimistic about their projects, even if they are by no means all working on the same project.

That drive in the age of pluralism leaves me excited to keep following all of these lines with pulp’s successor.

pulp has always been on its way to something else. I will not say here what that something else is, but while the successor will continue to see architecture as more of a field than a line, it will be unambiguously rooted in a place - for as Dima says, a surprisingly powerful question today is ‘Where?’


Young and Ayata’s work merges the flowing grace of a waterfall with the tectonic stability of a brick. A partnership between Michael Young and Kutan Ayata, they are well loved teachers – Michael at the Cooper Union and Kutan at Penn Design and Pratt – but have had a harder time getting their projects built, beginning with their first project, a 2008 villa in Sharjah. Its cancellation “forced us to become more experimental – we figured out what we wanted to do as an architectural firm, and it gave us that space.”

Their bad luck continued into last year when, after tying for first in a competition for a Bauhaus museum in Dessau – “831 entries and we won,” the Bauhaus decided for the other, because it had lower projected maintenance costs. They’re over it, but still – “Itseems a little weird to have an international competition and then say, ‘Well, this one is going to be a little cheaper to maintain, let’s do this one.’”

They currently have no employees - their practice works because they teach - but every summer about six interns come in to experiment and test out new ideas, usually with a competition, and their first ground-up building – DL 1310 (above) – is under construction in Mexico City.

Anna Fixsen, writing them up in the Architectural Record, noted they make the “aesthetic and intellectual juxtapositions that make you want to look twice.”

I sat down and talked to Michael Young, for that second look, in his Brooklyn office on a Friday morning.

NK  I want to talk about your office’s relationship to history – what do you make of the postmodern revival?

 MY  When I was educated in the early '90s there wasn't anything worse in the world than postmodernism. I was educated not to do postmodernism. Michael Graves, and that version of '80s and late '70s postmodernism was something I was against. It was something I actively sought to distance myself from. At the same time I realized then, and even more so now, that I was being educated pretty deeply within postmodern theory. So, the theory was one thing and the aesthetics were something else, which means that I can say now with some comfort that I'm finally ok with postmodernism.

 NK  But your practice is clearly interested in history – how then do you approach precedent?

 MY  We're not looking for precedent as a legitimization of a project. It's just that within the history of architecture there are problems that haven't gone away, and understanding how different people at different times and different places dealt with those problems makes you a better architect. For what it's worth that's something I learned from Peter Eisenman, he was my professor at Princeton and I learned quite a bit from him. A great teacher that changed my relationship with history.

 NK  What is an old problem that has pre-occupied your practice?

 MY  One formal issue that we are continually fascinated by goes back to the Baroque, How do you lose and gain an edge? How can an edge be crisp one moment and soft the next? It is a question regarding the aesthetic relationship between surface and volume. This is in almost every one of our projects at some level, even our first house, the villa in Sharjah, has the erosion of its abstract bar into a soft middle belly.

NK  How did you first become interested in losing edges?

Losing and gaining edges with Borromini: Drawings from Michael Young’s thesis project at Princeton, 2004.

MY  When I was in graduate school at Princeton I had a travel grant to study Baroque architecture in France and Italy, inspired by a Joseph Connors essay about Baroque architecture and the lathe. There are many amazing Baroque buildings but there was something about the interior dome of Sant' Ivo designed by Borromini that was missed by most drawing techniques. Normal plans and sections were not capturing the weirdness of what was going on in the interior of that dome. All of the piers and pilasters rise up to an interior cornice and from there fold continuously into the oculus. So, corners that would intrude on the space fold back into the surface of the dome and corners that were pushing out from the space would fold towards the interior. So, very distinct, sharp, tectonic elements became soft and continuous with the surface of a single dome. 

No drawings I saw caught that, so I spent my thesis project at Princeton, in 2004, trying to find a way to describe this sharpness to softness, of softness to sharpness. I ended up unrolling hundreds of plan cuts of the surfaces and redrawing them as tangent and normal vectors to the surface.

It was also a moment in time also where we were coming out of the smooth fluid blobby world of late '90s early 2000s digital architecture, which both Kutan and I experienced in graduate school, and entering into something that was sharper, chunkier, more graphic, more abrasive in a way. At some level we were trying to find a way to move between those two things. I guess that's the easiest way for me to explain it. It's even in our Bauhaus proposal.

Merging the smooth blobs of the 90s and the sharp chunky graphics of the 2000s - Young and Ayata’s Bauhaus Museum, Vessel Collective, 2015. Link.

NK  How so?

MY  The Bauhaus museum's plan consists only of circles on a grid. It was the simplest most modular type plan that we could begin to organize. But from there we transform the plan geometry down into piers that elevate the building, and then transform up to form a series of nozzle like sky occuli. This is what creates the bulbous vessel like masses of the building. The plan also establishes a datum for the main floor of the gallery expressed as a continuous break in the project's individual masses. The building sits in the park as a set of clustered objects, clustered pavilions that nestle and intersect with each other, appearing as if they were all discreet individual entities from the outside, but inside create a continuous ever-changing floor plan. When we were designing this we were not  talking about "can we lose and gain an edge", but a that formal device allows the massing to take on multiple interpretations that aren't easily situated together. Which I have to acknowledge is a debt to the theories of Robert Venturi.

NK  Your work shows no fear of axes – especially your 2011 proposal for an Opera house in Busan.

Not afraid of an axis, not afraid of being symmetrical: Young Ayata’s 2011 Proposal for an opera house in Busan. Link.

MY  Yes,we use axis, and are interested in symmetry.

NK  How did that come about? Most people abhor axes.

MY  Yeah, how did that come about? That's a good question. I don't want this to sound too trite, but there was a definite fear of the axis, or fear of symmetry for quite a while, for legitimate reasons as a rejection by modernism of certain traditions in the Beaux-Arts. These were then revived by postmodernism, and then rejected in deconstructivist architecture and the digital formalism of the '90s. Our symmetry works with the difference between global symmetry and local symmetry. Global symmetry establishes an axis that runs through the entirety of a composition, local symmetry works between two things over here and another pair over there. You end up with four possible pairs between global and local symmetry. If something is simultaneously globally symmetrical and locally symmetrical you get things like grids. If something is globally asymmetrical and locally asymmetrical you produce the informal. You know, dust and vomit. But then if you start to combine these pairs you get weird middle grounds. I would say the typical condition over the last century is an implied global symmetry with a local asymmetry. In Frank Lloyd Wright or even Zaha Hadid there's an implied symmetrical axis that's being pushed against, played with, producing local asymmetries from side to side against an axis. We became interested in the inverted possibility of something that was locally symmetrical but globally asymmetrical, as you can see in the Bauhaus museum design.

NK  How so?

Locally symmetrical: the plan for Young & Ayata’s Dessau scheme.

MY  It is full of local symmetries produced by pairs of masses, but the whole is globally asymmetrical except for one moment, which is the diagonal axis to the urban corner that you pass under and enter the building. So, there's one kind of large moment that produces a suggestion of global symmetry but at the same time there are multiple twined masses that have local symmetries over the entire design, almost like a flower arrangement. 

NK  Speaking of axes, how did you approach your Tempietto drawing?

MY  We did combat with the precedent.

NK   At first glance, it looks like you've given us the Tempietto's plan back again.

Before & After: on the left, Bramante’s Tempietto, drawn by Serlio (with its never built courtyard) and on the right, Young Ayata’s Tempietto, from the 2017 exhibit by Spencer Fried and Amanda Iglesias, Tempietto Exemplum.

MY  The Tempietto's plan is in there. With the Tempietto and the parchment plan of St. Peter’s, Bramante is one of the first architects to give us the concept we now understand as poché – using material thickness to shape space. So, in our drawing, we mirror the poché around itself, then wrap the interior around a second time, and then mirror it a third time, so this chunk of the Tempietto plan is echoed four times. These echoes of poché create new spatial organizations that move from a circle to a square, developing corners where the original plan has none. 

NK   Literally squaring a circle. 

MY  Yes - a circle in the square, in the nerdiest geometric architectural history way – again it goes back to losing and gaining that edge.

NK   What of architecture’s responsibility to society? Could these formal games distract from the huge environmental costs of the built environment, the high cost of housing and- 

MY  All of those are serious issues, and all of those are real issues,  but, we don't think architecture can solve them. The most important thing that architecture and architects can do is speculate on future realities, and try to imagine the aesthetics of what those are like. For instance, a studio I taught at Yale in 2016 was focused on Icelandic infrastructures of energy generation and their relationship to ecological catastrophes that are upon us every day. The students were prompted to imagine the Icelandic infrastructure 20 years in the past, 40 years now. So, it's all in the future but everything that they're designing is documentary evidence of what happened between 2036 and 2056. That was the parafictional premise of that studio. To me this is actually where architecture's political agency lies, not necessarily in solving problems, but in facing them directly, and questioning what that means for the ways in which our future world looks, behaves, and operates.

A plausible possibility? Heather Bizon shows us what the future could look like, in a project from Young’s Yale 2016 studio, Icelandic Infrastructures.

How can we challenge the aesthetics of how we think reality should appear and by doing so, offer plausible realities? Aesthetics can redistribute sensible information to allow people to doubt the assumptions of what they think reality should be like, look like, or behave like, and propose an alternative.

NK   So you are trying to shift the narrative by which society operates rather than work on a practical level.

MY  Yeah. Except the word we use is scenario.

NK  Why scenario?

MY  Narrative suggests a linear structure for interpretation. A scenario alludes to something more open ended. It's like a scene.

MY  Here's the way I talk about it sometimes with my students, do you know the hard boiled pulp fiction writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet?

NK   I recognize the names.

MY  They wrote things like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Heat. Somebody once asked Raymond Chandler what the difference is between his “hard boiled” murder mystery and the more typical mystery novel, and Chandler said he wanted to write stories that you would be intensely involved in even if you never figured out who committed the crime.

He described his writing process as episodic: he would write the most detailed scene he possibly could, and then put it on a table over there, and then he'd write another one. As soon as he had 20, 30, 40 scenes he would move them around on his table until they started hitting up against each other and doing something strange. Then he would change the names of the characters so that it appeared as if it was always the same people that were going through this, and with this assemblage he had his finished novel. Writing the episodes, then letting the episodes sit next to each other offered the reader space to figure out how you get from one to the other, from this thing to that thing. A lot of film noir operates that way as well. Rather than following a single narrative thread, we find working through episodes, assembling scenarios to be a more compelling way to think about architecture.



Dima Srouji is an architect working in Palestine and the United Arab Emirates. You can read more about her in pulp #27.

Project 1: Rule of Superposition

An installation with a double sided map to subvert cartography and archeology by bringing the viewer beneath the earth's surface to reveal hidden histories. A surreal view of Jerusalem from its own gut.

The pure cartography presented on top acts as a pure blanket covering, or censoring, what lies beneath the ground. The installation brings the viewers from the aerial perspective of the enlightenment to subterranean levels as an act of excavation in itself.

Project 2: Where is Man?

The Kantian question “who is man?” has changed in contemporary philosophy to the more pertinent question: “Where is man?” This question shifts scholarship from questioning human existence and identity to a spatial question of place instead. How do boundaries intersect in maps? How do these maps conflate with the physical geography of place? What are physical elements that are fluid through man made boundaries and how do we use them to erase such control?

Place is a living reality that can either be the cause for violent conflict or the glue that binds communities together. We document and investigate place through mapping. The history of cartography is fascinating as the map of a place does not portray the place in itself but rather is a representation of that place. Alfred Korzybski’s quote “the map is not a territory” is a simple concept that highlights the complexities and transparencies of the question of cartography. Artists and architects have a power of representation equal to the power of map making. How then do we recognize place as being significant? What is it that makes one place special and not the other?

In the history of colonial invasion, Edward Said said maps were always drawn by victors. They became tools of conquest and were used to project and then implement political strategies. Geography therefore is the art of war. But can architecture represent place in a way that is not merely a question of boundaries that initiate violent endeavors? Counter-maps or forms of counter-strategies against such powerful tactics would be explored through this project. The idea is to trace threads of power, appropriation, and control found in the physical context of the Middle East, and suggest a counter-map to resist such powers.

Project 3: A Quote from Sloterdijk

“But whatever the degree of isolation established by respective individuals, they are always co-isolated islands that are momentarily, or chronically, connected to a network of adjacent islands constituting midsized or larger structures - a national assembly, a "Love Parade," a club, a Freemason lodge, a work force, a shareholder meeting, a concert hall audience, a suburban neighborhood, a school class, a religious community, drivers stuck in a traffic jam, a convened federation of taxpayers. If we describe these ensembles in their episodic clusters and enduring symbioses as foams, it is also to make a statement on the relative density of co- isolated conglomerates or confederations of life - a density which will always be higher than that of archipelagos, which usually offer a conclusive metaphor for insulated multiplicity, but still lower than that of the masses, where the misleading associations with the corporeal proximities of a collective entity like dough, sand, or bags of potatoes come into play.”

I like this (foam) as a concept given its density, but I want to add here that Foam Architecture could be argued as the status quo of the discipline of architecture, and the UAE is an example of why that is. The narrative of architecture as a formal lineage from the Renaissance to today is no longer valid. That is part of an Other tradition. The “discipline” we are tracing now follows much more the concepts of the network of things rather than a single line trajectory.

(Old) Architecture or the single Line is the reason the discipline is stuck.


Object-Subject - Kant: Objects are only important because humans experience them. This is phenomenology- an outdated philosophy. It attempts to get rid of objects.

Object -Object -Network: This is Speculative Realism- Akin to Sloterdijk’s foam, we should be able to talk about the world itself without humans. Most philosophies have been attempting to get rid objects. This one does not. It is about the objects in the world.

Object-Object: This is Object Oriented Ontology which falls under the umbrella of Speculative Realism. The network here is irrelevant. The world is irrelevant. It is only about the object to object relationship.


ANNE MA, by the way, tied to win the 'Non-Architecture' competition with 'Office Anywhere' - a set of glasses that would allow the wearer to 3-d model anywhere. 

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