Benedict Clouette is the research director of C-Lab, one of the pioneering experimental labs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) initiated in 2005 under founding director Jeffrey Inaba. C-Lab is a collaborator, alongside Archis and AMO, in Volume magazine, a quarterly publication that seeks to “set the agenda for architecture and design”.1 While for the past ten years, Volume has published C-Lab research, the lab has recently expanded its focus from publications and media to become an expanded research practice with diverse partners and projects.
In this conversation, ARPA Journal editor, Troy Conrad Therrien, and Clouette, who is also a GSAPP graduate and former designer at OMA/AMO, discuss research practices in an age of bigness from within a school that prides itself on expansiveness.
Troy Conrad Therrien: What is C-Lab’s methodology? What’s the secret?
Benedict Clouette: With each project we’ve taken a somewhat different approach. We’re not wed to a specific methodology. Right now, we’re developing a book manuscript, a project that we initiated to understand methodologies in the broader culture of architectural research—in part because we feel the need to clarify the way in which we work. To an extent, we’re constantly reinventing the wheel, which has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that we’re able to explore many methodologies, and consider the specificity of their application to particular projects. A disadvantage is the enormous amount of energy it takes to constantly reinvent our methods—making it difficult for others to replicate the outcomes and for us to reproduce them. We’ve recently become interested in systematizing the research process, or at least documenting our way of thinking in order to repeat this process and better describe how we arrived at a certain result or conclusion.
This has become more and more important as we’ve recognized that our work is not only read through the expectations of, let’s say, art practice. No one is all that interested in whether or not the facts are correct in art. But our work, particularly in its early period of engagements with art museums, has always sat uneasily between art practice and other discourses where veracity is gauged differently. We realized this when we produced the Donor Wall graphic installation at the New Museum in 2007, which charted various forms of global philanthropy. It caused a bit of dyspepsia in a few newspapers, which were outraged that we had included statistics about certain forms of generosity, for example, the funding of social services in Gaza by Hamas. The papers were curious how we had gotten these statistics, and why we had Hamas chosen over others. To us, it was a strange reaction. While the statistics we included were accurate, the piece was commissioned by an art museum, and our intent was to provoke thought and discussion. It wasn’t presented as sociological research in which the decision to include one statistic over another would require a different justification. Why did we include Hamas? To demonstrate, as the press’ reaction proved, that generosity to human development is not politically neutral. Similarly, I hope that our use of facts and data is always guided by a strong polemic, one that opens up discussions rather than simply confirming what is known.
However, at the same time, we are a lab within an educational setting. We are very concerned with the integrity of the statements we make. We want to be able to move beyond the limited sphere of art practice—where you aren’t expected to justify your arguments in the same way as if you were, for example, making recommendations to a city government.
TCT: When Volume came out in 2005, it had a very over-produced zine feel. There was an urgency and gravity in the way people were writing. But in terms of the visual rhetoric, it was very light and ephemeral—spray paint was a graphic trope. While graphics have tightened over time, there is still a visual adventurousness to it. What is the relationship between form and content, funky design and factual evidence in the magazine.
BC: As the magazine has evolved and we have found that people may actually be tuning in, it’s become a bit different. There are times when the validity of the magazine’s propositions are best evaluated independently from the empirical evidence that it presents. In this way, it is a fairly theoretical journal. It’s not as interested in data per se, whether quantitative or qualitative. Instead, it tries to make arguments, and introduce stories and narratives into architectural discussions. Assessing the validity of Volume’s arguments is different from the way you would evaluate, say, the research in a sociological journal. I think it is important to insist on architectural research as a specific mode of inquiry, rather than subject it to the expectations of research in other disciplines, for example, the social or natural sciences.
In 2006, Volume released an issue titled Crisis? What Crisis? Suburbia After the Crash, which featured Alexandre d’Hooghe’s research and speculative design on a then-hypothetical financial crisis starting in the American mortgage market. We sometimes pride ourselves on being the only architectural magazine to release an issue that responded to the financial crisis two years before it happened, as though the validity of those arguments was borne out by subsequent events. But I would say that the fact of the financial crisis really had no bearing on the validity of the research. Design always proceeds in relation to given circumstances, but those circumstances are neither predetermined nor fixed. That is to say, evidence can be of limited utility in responding to changing conditions. Sometimes taking a counter-factual approach to research is more beneficial—starting from “what if” rather than “what is.”
We play with that relationship to fact in our research in different ways. C-Lab edited an issue of Volume titled Storytelling. A piece that I worked on in this issue was an insert called “Alibi”—a travel guide that appears in several issues of Volume, describing adventures in cities like Rio de Janeiro or Astana. However, in this case it was about a fictional island. Here, true stories from islands including the Maldives, Japan, the Galapogos, Venice, Easter Island, Madagascar, Tristan da Cunha, Indonesia, Iceland, and Singapore, were fused to create a fantastical island as a way to talk about the challenges that every island faces as an urban organization. So, there are times when we deliberately free ourselves from the obligation to justify our arguments in relation to fact, even if we still draw heavily on empirical research.
Sometime around 2008-2009, Rem Koolhaas started doing these lectures with graphs drawn in pencil that showed two exponential curves, one up and one down, using the idiom of data as a rhetorical device. I think in some sense AMO has always done that, but it was with those graphs that Koolhaas was finally comfortable acknowledging it. You could spend months assembling data sets to prove a point, but all you would prove is a relationship that could be posited with greater force theoretically. Data sometimes simply confirms what is already known, which, while useful, lacks explanatory power. So, I hope that when C-Lab uses quantitative data, it actually identifies a relationship that was not known before we crunched the numbers. We’re most interested in data that displaces knowledge, and supports an argument that contests a widely held view.
TCT: I think you offer an interesting distinction in data practices in your analysis of the differences between AMO and C-Lab. Would you say that the AMO/Koolhaas approach is exemplary of an aesthetics of search? That is, ostensibly combing through massive amounts of data to show only very rarified results—the way that Google “returns” millions of possible results, even though 90% of users never go past the first page. This becomes more explicit as Google evolves and applies even more sophisticated techniques to give you exactly what you already know, and iron out any surprises. Despite C-Lab’s ever-changing methods, is it safe to say that one constant is that you are not contented to just reveal the obvious, but to be mining for the counter intuitive?
BC: I would say that we are always looking for things that are either counter intuitive or counter to dominant knowledge. Because of this, we are constantly in danger of falling on our faces, particularly when it comes to facts or data. We have a bias towards and preference for information that is not in accord with the prevalent understanding of the situation we are confronting. But I think that’s a very healthy bias to have. At least then you are able to introduce a different direction.
I think that is the problem with Google, or really most search engines. I think it’s most dangerous in the way that search engines structure political discussions online, because they’re built around the idea of aggregating numbers around the things and topics that are least likely to be divisive, and these are the ones that are promoted. There are two issues. One is the way in which search engines are driven by numbers. The more people whose attention you can focus on a piece of content, the more likely it is to draw other peoples’ attention, because of how search ranks information. From a political standpoint, that’s very problematic. The other thing is that the kind of mass aggregate body has now been broken down more and more by the tailoring of search results through filters, the difference between Google 1999 and Google today. There, it’s a slightly different problem: reinforcing the feedback loops of the existing opinions.
TCT: How much of a role does Google or search play in the life of a C-Lab researcher?
BC: Search, I would say a lot; Google, less than might be expected. We spend a lot more time on ProQuest and JStor and Elsevier and whatever else, reading peer-reviewed journals. At the same time, we’re very interested in how other, non-traditionally academic information sources, like Google, Youtube, social media sites, or even weather forecasts can be turned to other purposes. And then we also work with information, but not necessarily working with its content but rather producing the platforms through which it is presented. One example in our work is the project LA Open Acres, which was produced through a partnership between C-Lab, Community Health Councils in Los Angeles, and 596 Acres in New York. The site is organized around a GIS-driven map of all the vacant land in Los Angeles that allows users to look for parcels and then connect with their neighbors to make a plan for a community-led open space. It works with many different data sets, but not to extract some piece of information about the data through search, but to render those data sets in a communicable form that can start conversations, in this case about land use. We are interested in building technologies through which information becomes usable to other people. We are constructing a certain sort of search engine.
TCT: So, you relocate the search engine to the user?
BC: Yes, right now the search engine really is in the user, in that LA Open Acres maps 23,000 vacant lots and only has relatively primitive filters that you can apply, for instance, is it publicly or privately owned, what’s the size, etc. We’re now building a new set of tools, called the Parcel Analysis Resource Kit (PARK), that will sit on top of the site that will include a richer set of data, like its history of use, topography and drainage, sunlight modeling, tax liens and other forms of leverage that users can use to open up a common space. We’re also building a set of urban analysis tools that, based on that parcel of land as a center, can measure how many people are in the catchment population within a certain proximity of that space, what are the boundary conditions surrounding it, and what is its position in relation to surrounding neighborhoods. We are actually trying to build, in that sense, a spatial search engine. More than that, what we are trying to do with this new set of tools is to put that information in the hands of people who are non-specialists so they can make arguments and claims about the neighborhoods where they live and work. The idea is that PARK becomes a tool for organizing a discussion about land use.
TCT: So, you are in fact an expert on search.
BC: If you want to talk about the progression of C-Lab, I think early on we were very interested in production of content and arguments. More recently, while we still make arguments, we have been less focused on publishing (what we called ‘broadcasting’) and more focused on research in which we’re trying to answer a very specific question. Our current work is less about trying to get arguments into circulation to stimulate discussion, and more about what can we contribute in a particular area that’s of value. The other side has been thinking about our mandate of new forms of communication in architecture as being not about content, but rather about producing tools for communication, the platforms and technologies where discussion can happen. With LA Open Acres, we’re not pushing a particular message about land use in LA, we’re organizing the data in such a way that it becomes usable and interpretable by people who would otherwise not have access to it. In LA, you couldn’t even really say there was data because the publicly owned parcels—of which there are between 3000-4000—were on spreadsheets in five different agencies that have never been compiled or made available online. So, the first step was producing the data and then producing systems for people to make their own arguments.
TCT: To summarize, C-Lab, born out of a University without the same client pressures as a research consultancy like AMO, was allowed to develop a bias towards sitting on more unstable ground, looking for things that were counter intuitive. Yet as C-Lab evolved, C-Lab uses Google less and less while becoming itself more and more like Google in terms of focusing on producing platforms rather than providing content. If you can accept my rough sketch, how does C-Lab remain uncompromised as it mutates? As you now take on sponsored research, has C-Lab developed a strong enough mandate, ethos or personality to be able to absorb outside funding and not enter into a typical client-service relationship?
BC: Dealing with sponsors of research has really forced us to grow and to sharpen our methods. It’s been a very valuable experience. We’ve had to find ways to retain our intellectual interest and freedom in the projects while also being far more conscious of the ways in which the ideas that we pursue intersect with realities that make them more or less useful to other people. I think we have enormous curiosity and skepticism about sponsored research, and also benefit from a great deal of autonomy. Nothing we produce ends up being directly used in some client’s strategy, but at the same time having those discussions, and identifying the interests of sponsors, has definitely sharpened the way that we think about these projects. Sponsored research produces a kind of friction within it where we are forced to consider directions that we wouldn’t have otherwise, and also have our ideas questioned and need to really defend them. Working in sponsored research has meant that we need to take our intellectual freedom far more seriously.
More and more of our time is spent on interests that are self-initiated, even if we then find ways to cross those projects into sponsored research. Being able to develop these longer trajectories in our research has been a really positive direction in the last few years. It’s something we have learned from watching other labs. That’s not a luxury you have in being an editor of a magazine, where you’re always trying to figure out the next theme for the issue. That’s more of a curatorial practice, and driven more by a series of diverse trajectories. Even there, some of the ideas that we’re currently developing have come out of a re-reading of our work for Volume. An appreciation of the continuity of our own work has come from a process of approximation, from having intuitions and pursuing those intuitions, and then connecting them later in order to further an area of research.
TCT: This trend towards sponsored research has also infected GSAPP, which has spawned an increasing number of such projects over the past few years. The effect has been an expansion of the school, an expansion that has also been carried out by its research centers, Studio-X Global Network of event and exhibition spaces, global summer workshops and, of course, the experimental labs, of which there are now about twenty. This “high bandwidth” model of a school…
BC: Hernan Diaz-Alonso called it the “UN of architecture”.
TCT: Exactly. And this model was already present for Wigley in an article he contributed to the second issue of Volume, “Toward a theory of quantity”, in 2005. As one of the original labs, C-Lab was thus the prototype and the seed for a school whose pedagogical schema was one of bigness, and Volume was the journal that broadcasted its manifesto. Bigness is precisely the condition that necessitates search. Google is derived from gogol, the term for 10100, indicating the need for search as the web exploded in size. How did C-Lab operate as a device for enabling GSAPP to grow so large? Was search a part of its function?
BC: There is so much content and so much diversity in the work produced by the school that sometimes it’s hard to amplify or channel a critical point. How you create “volume” out of the breadth and quantity of arguments I think is a relevant question. I think the school’s website, which you designed, is a symptom of that problematic. It’s a website that does not have a high signal to noise ratio. Volume’s content is also incredibly diverse, but Volume has these strangely dedicated readers who have picked up on some thread that we perhaps didn’t even realize when we were working, but that they have decided is what’s important about the magazine. So I think that it’s up to the people who write the histories of this moment in the school, or who choose to pursue one of the aspects of research that came out of it, and about which they feel especially passionately, to find the threads that connect with something beyond the school.
TCT: You recently co-wrote an article titled “BIMness” for the Venice Biennale with C-Lab’s director Jeffrey Inaba. How do you relate the premise of this article, of its championing of the space of indeterminacy, to the ethos of the school?
BC: “BIMness” suggests that if Bigness is the scale at which architecture exceeds the imagination and the motives of the architect, then BIMness, in its systematic coordination of complex details spanning millions of square feet, could claim to represent a re-architecturalization of Bigness. What we are interested in is what that means for the amount of tolerance for change that a building can accommodate after it’s constructed. If you can coordinate everything according to the exact specifications of the architect, and therefore create efficiencies and minimize redundancies and waste, you may actually give yourself too tight a ceiling, too strict a specificity of spaces, such that efficiency today might preclude other possibilities for adaptation in the future. Whereas a specific kind of inefficiency in a building might prove beneficial for future uses. Do we really want to coordinate everything quite so tightly? That seems to me to be one of the limitations of parametricism or other practices that produce forms that are highly specific, in that you do don’t create generosity to things that are not anticipated by the precisely coordinated system.
TCT: I feel like that maps pretty cleanly onto Wigley’s pedagogy for the school, that the school got big enough to be able to absorb failure without threatening the project or its population. The school seemed to operate according to a 20th century growth model in which it was thought to be unbounded. Now that Amale Andraos has succeeded Wigley as dean of the GSAPP, this philosophy is being revisited. What do you think is in store?
BC: If you have growth and that growth does not get disseminated in some way, but instead is hoarded, then that’s not really growth, that’s bloat. Bloat is when an organism grows, but its boundaries remain intact. It may be that the school has to go through a period of contraction, and for the success of Mark’s project, that could be beneficial, the proliferation or diaspora of its intelligence. If all of us just kept cycling our ideas back into a larger and larger school that would be worse than if the influence of the school was felt elsewhere. I think that moments where people are forced into some sort of exile can be helpful for both spreading and transforming their ideas. Diaspora is not about transmitting something that remains genetically identical to the source, it’s also about transformation. I think that could be really good.
Benedict Clouette is an architectural researcher and writer living in New York. He received a Master of Architecture from Columbia University, where he was awarded the William Kinne Prize and the Alpha Rho Chi Medal. With Marlisa Wise, he was awarded the Architectural League’s Deborah Norden Grant for his research on architecture and international aid. His writings have appeared in journals including Domus, Volume, and San Rocco.