- Kivi Sotamaa
The first text I published in my career was called Superficial Architecture in a design magazine called Arttu in Finland 1996. This was the time when ambient, techno, drum n’ bass music came out, we were listening to Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works (Richard David James (born 18 August 1971), aka Aphex Twin, is an electronic musician described by The Guardian newspaper as "the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music." Selected Ambient Works 85–92 (often abbreviated to SAW 85–92 or simply SAW 1 because James' follow up included a volume number) is an ambient techno album by Richard D. James under his pseudonym of Aphex Twin. It is his third release under this alias. It was released in 1992 on the Belgian techno label R&S Records. There was a digitally remastered re-release in 2008, and an analogue remaster in 2006. In 2003, the album was placed #92 in "NME's 100 Best Albums" poll link) in studio day in day out - beautiful music without a particular message or story. In the article I wrote about the film director Michael Mann and how he foregrounded atmospheric effects at the expense of the dialogue and plot. Remember those five minute Miami Vice (Miami Vice is an American television series produced by Michael Mann for NBC. Unlike standard police procedurals, the choice of music and cinematography borrowed heavily from the emerging New Wave culture of the 1980s. As such, segments of each episode of Miami Vice resemble a protracted music video. As Lee H. Katzin, one of the show's directors, remarked, "The show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.") scenes of music played to the reflections on the Ferrari wheel? The text, as well as my design work of the period, was inspired by an emerging sensibility in electronic music and was a reaction to the Finnish phenomenological movement in architecture. So, to me the furry pink elephant of phenomenology Tom brought up is certainly an issue related to this discussion. We share an interest in experience, perception and the formation of meaning with the phenomenologists. The difference is that a ‘phenomenological architect’ is interested in telling stories and a ‘superficial architect’ is interested in creating lived experiences i.e. sensations.
In Deleuze’s book The Logic of Sensation” Francis Bacon beautifully captures the challenge of creating a sensation: “It is a very, very close and difficult thing to know why some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system and other paint tells the story in a long diatribe through the brain.” (Deleuze, Gilles. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005. 18. ISBN 0-8264-7930-8) The enemy of a sensation is a story, because it gets caught up in the interpretative mechanisms of our mind, and buildings cannot help but to tell all kinds of stories. The functionalist speak of form and its’ relation to function, the structural expressionists tell stories about the forces acting on a building, the phenomenologists ‘embed meanings’, the postmodernists make references to the past and the process driven architects create designs filled with evidence of their processes.
All of us in this discussion deal with the same challenge of foregrounding the affective powers of our work over structural expression, meaning, history and process, and we do so through a variety of techniques and I would like to take moment to discuss some of our [nuanced] differences. Take Heather’s emphasis on the visceral in the production of ‘superficial’ effects and the assertion that it is the ‘serious’ work operates more on the body: Although ‘superficial’ certainly implies technological, ornamental surfaces and brings to mind projects such as the Allianz Arena by Herzog & DeMeuron it could just as well describe the work of Frank Gehry and Ernesto Neto - an architect and an artist - that deploy surfaces precisely to engage the body. Neto’s lycra (Ernesto Saboia de Albuquerque Neto (Rio de Janeiro, Brasil 1964– ) is a contemporary visual artist. Neto's work has been described as "beyond abstract minimalism". His installations are large, soft, biomorphic sculptures that fill an exhibition space that viewers can touch, poke, and even sometimes walk on or through. These are made of white, stretchy, stocking like material, which he stuffs- to fill out and solidify the amorphous forms- with Styrofoam pellets or, occasionally, aromatic spices: in some installations, he has also used this material to create translucent scrims that transform the space's walls and floor. His sculptures can be regarded as expression of traditional abstract form, but in their interaction with the viewer they work on another level as well.) sculptures use a combination of fluid form, immersive space, transparent deformable surfaces and the scent of exotic spice in order to tease out surreal bodily experiences. Gehry’s Disney Hall surfaces create turbulent sensations of movement which are experienced both visually from distance and physically when moving through and around the building. ‘Sensations settle in through the body, there is no such thing as the abstract mind,” wrote the renown brain researcher Antonio Damasio (Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, 2003).
I would use the term ‘reading’ to describe an analytical state of mind that gets on the way of sensation. What I think we’re after is a ‘lived experience’ or a ‘state of wonder’.
I agree that the use of representation in order to cause sensation is possible. Actually, I believe it absolutely necessary. Francis Bacon spoke of the Figure - an oscillating state between abstraction and illustration which he sought in his paintings because both abstraction and clear representation i.e. figuration settles into a particular interpretation too easily. Some examples of different strategies: Ernesto Neto creates a surreal back-to-the-womb experiences using mathematical [minimal surface] geometry which in its’ sensibility is closely associated with bodily forms. Frank Gehry transforms a figurative element such as a fish or a rose into near abstraction to create a building. Matthew Barney [Matthew Barney (born March 25, 1967) is an American artist who works in sculpture, photography, drawing and film. His early works were sculptural installations combined with performance and video.] uses films to create false narratives about the history of his sculpture and in so doing weaves the act of ‘reading’ into the sensation making substrate of his work. Jeff Koons [Jeff Koons (born January 21, 1955) is an American artist known for his giant reproductions of banal objects such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror finish surfaces, often brightly colored. Koons' work has sold for huge amounts including at least one world record auction price for a work by a living artist. Critics are sharply divided in their views of Koons. Some see his work as pioneering and of major art-historical importance. Others dismiss his work as crass and based on cynical self-merchandizing. Koons himself has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works.] uses images which are so powerfully obvious and familiar [Balloon Puppy] that ‘reading’ them isn’t possible.
Disciplinary issues such as new materials and building technologies, which Tom brought up, are naturally crucial to architecture, and architectural elements almost always have at least two simultaneous roles - the functional and the architectural. The provocative use of the term ‘superficial’ implies that we have confidence in discussing issues which are more intrinsically architectural, such as sensation, instead of speaking of buildings as philosophers, pseudo engineers or software programmers.
Another issue often ignored in these discussions between architect that have mastered the use of form is program. Indeed, the ‘superficial architects’ no longer have to use programmatic arguments to legitimate building designs, but instead are liberated to use program as an architectural ‘material’. To use Jeff Kipnis’ analogy, program in architecture can work like a libretto in an opera - you don’t have to understand the words to enjoy the music, but if the text is beautifully written it can participate in the production of the musical experience. Superficial, I would like to think, is a term which stands for an inherently architectural attitude towards the multiplicity of issues involved in building design.
To answer Peter's question I would say that the superficial can exceed the merely “unreadable” through skilled use of the Figure. Earlier, I listed some examples of practitioners from different fields which I believe use representation in order to create an oscillation between abstraction and figuration, i.e. the Figure. To the list I could add Greg Lynn’s toy furniture, which uses recycled toys but deforms them though cutting and assembly to a degree where they can be perceived both both as an abstract constellation of blobs and a collection of toys, and my own work the Extraterrain furniture  which seeks the Figure by resampling American fighter jet geometries to a point where they are barely recognizable. The superficial, although it implies a lack of depth and content, is a strategy for staging architectural effects in such a way that viewers begin to explore their own minds and in so doing create far more content than a prescribed narrative ever could.
I agree with Peter’s final point that the superficial is an opportunity to "remove the cataracts of our self-imposed gravitas". As an attitude it entails a liberating confidence in architecture as a cultural practice that needs no outside alibi. However, the ‘superficial architect’ should not be mistaken with a ‘superficial entertainer’. True, he/she is after immediate sensations at the expense of the ‘intellectual depth’ associated with conceptual or process driven work, but does so precisely in order to break through clichés and conventions of that work.