Why We Look at Precedent

1/29/2010 Uncategorized


The Integral House, Toronto, Shim Sutcliffe, 2009 / A recently-finished single family house that is now an essential precedent for any large-scale single family house that games a sloping topography in the tradition of the Douglas House by Richard Meier and Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Some musings as I prepare a short essay for the masters degree studio:

We ask you to look for precedent for the architectural agenda of your project not so that you will be “inspired” or “influenced” by the examples you find, but for another more nuanced reason. When we design a project that self-consciously raises architectonic issues that are once-removed from the immediate pragmatic demands of the project, your proposal is contributing to an on-going discourse.  For example, if your project features an undulating ground plane that dovetails into the existing ground plane but folds up to be a roof, your proposal is entering into dialogue with the Yokohama Ferry Terminal by FOA and the new opera house by Snøhetta in Oslo. If your proposal is organized around a continuously folding plane – that moves from floor/ceiling – to wall – and back again, then your project needs to develop a particular attitude about this strategy in reference to the Eyebeam project and the ICA in Boston, both by Diller Scofidio.  How is your project similar to the paradigmatic projects that deploy the same architectural strategy? How is it different and why? 

Some may argue that this kind of insider game has little relevance to clients and the public at large.  This is partly true, but all architects educated within the context of the university have a curatorial responsibility to learn the history and tradition of the discipline, with a particular emphasis on historical and recent/contemporary paradigms that continue to fuel theoretical discourse and the priorities of architectural production.   This intellectual-feedback loop is not an innocent evolutionary process but instead a highly manipulated system where rhetorical skills and deeply embedded power structures, wedded to influential media outlets, can influence the intellectual priorities of the discipline. Not simply a marketing strategy by savvy architects, this “campaign for relevance” has an ethical dimension since formal and social priorities, as defined by the discipline, can have a direct influence on the design of whole territories of cities.