Wes Jones' 10 Steps to Cleverness

12/19/2008 Uncategorized

I attended the morning session of Wes Jones’ review at the GSD on Wednesday and discovered that we were not there to review student projects, but rather to discuss the lessons that the class had learned about the design process itself over the course of the semester.  Mack Scogin, Michael Hayes, and other theorists and academics were also part of the discussion.

The proto-theory was presented in two separate student presentations, but it was clear that both Wes and the other students had participated in the development of the content.   In the first talk, entitled “Ten Steps to Cleverness”, a case was made for a more culturally inclusive disciplinary-focused process by establishing a dialectic between the Dutch (the approach of Rem Koolhaas and Winy Maas) and the Digital (the P-CAD architectural processes popular at the GSD and Columbia).  The implicit point was that the necessarily internalized and formalistic logics of the Digital is not predicated on the kind of opportunistic cleverness exhibited in the best work by OMA and MVRDV.  Also implicit in the discussion was a critique of the giving in to the scripting of P-CAD processes and the resulting lack of agency and intentionality as part of the process.

Historical architectural examples were used to demonstrate the different principles of cleverness.  Examples included Le Corbusier’s Algiers project, the planning logic of the French hotel type (as analyzed by Michael Dennis), and the nineteenth century panopticon prison type (the example of the panopticon did not go down well with the post-structuralists on the panel).  The test of “retroactive inevitability” was introduced as part of the discussion and Michael Hayes suggested that Le Corbusier’s Five Points might be one of the best examples from the modern canon.  I volunteered that the muddled logic of Corbusier’s Modular was decidedly NOT clever by contrast.  Several critics agreed that cleverness is more common through the mid-career of an architect but often disappears in the final stages of an architect’s oeuvre.  Given the thrust of the conversation, as Hayes pointed out, it was not surprising that Koolhaas’ Delirious New York was subtitled A Retroactive Manifesto while his more recent work lacks some of the cleverness of early projects.

But what was up with the almost nostalgic embrace of the Dutch method on the one hand the digital-bashing on the other?  One hint was Scott Cohen’s short outburst at the beginning of the discussion. The normally dialectic-loving and polemical Cohen was having none of the Wes’ intellectual antics; after his passionate but mostly incoherent speech, he left the room.  The critics were not sure whether Cohen was exercising the right of the Chair to “float like a butterfly” from review to review, or if he meant to make “a statement” by leaving.

For Wes Jones, it seemed that he was using the studio to work through a very healthy mid-career crisis; one where, perhaps, he realized that he needed to reintroduce a bit more cleverness into his own artfully-designed projects.  In an informal chat with students at the end of the morning session, it was clear that they had appreciated the discussion. I was sorry that I couldn’t stay to see the student projects in the afternoon.