This article was written on 26 Sep 2013, and is filled under Urbanities.

Soft architecture, etc.


Low magnification micrograph of an alveolar soft part sarcoma. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The following is the first installment of an exchange between Léopold Lambert, Justin Read, and Craig Epplin.

Dear Léopold and Justin,

I’m writing with some thoughts occasioned by some recent readings, most specifically Lisa Robertson’s little book Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. There’s lots more to say beyond the scattered reflections I’ve included here below, but there will be time to get to that (or not).

Among the hard materials of the built environment, extensions of softness feel like respites—and sometimes like traps. The most obvious soft material is furniture: couches in lobbies or seats in movie theaters. Grass in parks is soft when compared with the sidewalks and streets, and bucolic pools of water where ducks swim are softer still. Fountains are unique for their combination of hard and soft materials—stone and water—though the forms traced by the latter’s movement are often as stable and, viewed while squinting, as still as those carved in granite. Walking through the city, we are drawn to oases of softness. People love the park, its lush grass and soft dirt fields; we sit around water just to watch its lapping movements happen, a spectacle of inert mobility.

In a similar vein, Sergei Eisenstein thought that the soft, stretchy animality of Walt Disney’s cartoon figures represented a reaction to the hardness of discipline: “the very inhumanness of the systems of social government or philosophy, be it during the epoch of American-style mechanization of daily life and behavior or during the epoch… of mathematical abstraction and metaphysics in philosophy.” Softness, in his view, frees us from the harshness of angular, institutional life.

But therein lies the trap. Heather Warren-Crow has written that a logic of animation underlies the “soft-body” forms of contemporary digitized buildings: buildings whose skins are made of light in motion, for example, or that are responsive in myriad other ways. And buildings are not alone; many elements of our built surroundings are now animated and activated by our presence: traffic signals, to mention a relatively benign case, surveillance cameras to name a sinister one. These technologies of control do not represent the same sort of softness as cloth, grass, and water, but they share with these materials a tendency to accommodate and assume the contours of the body. Their soft receptivity and mutability facilitate control. If hard objects repel us because of the contrast between flesh and stone, and if soft objects are alluring because they cushion the blow of contact, then the most insidious form of control would be the softest, the one that barely touches the flesh—a building so light it would threaten to float or flicker away, or one whose outlines were drawn only in dashes: – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I thought I’d begin with the concept of softness because it seems germane to Léopold’s concise definition of architecture as the discipline that organizes bodies in space.I suppose what I’m interested to know is what role materials—soft and hard, analogue and digital—play in this process of organization, in both the practices of architecture and criticism. Feel free to elaborate on any of this or to steer the conversation in an entirely new direction.

– Craig Epplin

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