Are Architects Performance Artists? A Conference Addresses 'Performativity'

“We understand more than anyone else on the job site,” Gregg Pasquarelli told a second-floor conference room one recent Thursday

Barclays Center rendering (2011), SHoP Architects.

“We understand more than anyone else on the job site,” Gregg Pasquarelli told a second-floor conference room one recent Thursday evening inside the New School’s Arnhold Hall.

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His audience peered at him through a remarkable selection of eyewear—surely the most impressive array of cantilevers, arches and trusswork west of the East River.  “We truly do,” he reiterated. “We know more than the developer, we know more the contractor, we know more than the inspector, we know more than the guy installing something. We know a lot about all the stuff. It’s the integrator and the communicator role that’s the most important thing: We don’t build buildings, we make instruction sets for buildings.”

At a time when even flat-box furniture is morphed by amateurs into “Ikeahacks,”  has our civilization forgotten how to properly follow instructions—and defer to instruction-makers?

A principal of SHoP Architects, the burgeoning firm at work on Barclays Center and the South Street Seaport redevelopment, Mr. Pasquarelli was the keynote speaker at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s Teachers Seminar 2011. The theme of this year’s three-day conference was “Performative Practices,” which begs a bit of clarification. Borrowed from linguistics, by way of sociology, ethnography and much else besides, “performance” is perhaps better known as one of those terms of academic art whose very amorphousness—to the uncharitable, meaninglessness—is the intellectual and political point. And in a way, the advent of architecture-as-performance did free thinking from the entrenched, and perhaps as meaningless, rivalry between the formalist and functionalist. Is the “performer” in question the architect, the inhabitant, or the building itself? Yes.

Like many coinages of the 1960s, performativity is an ideal that seems just as free-associational nowadays—but that’s been astutely monetized, or should be. In Mr. Pasquarelli’s telling, architects must assert their parochial interests as “the last great generalist profession.”

“It’s about grabbing those territories back that have systematically been given away by our profession over the past 30 years,” he said at the conference. “For us, that is the core of performance-based design. Think about what the buildings do, how they work, how they’re put together. What are the politics behind it? What’s the finance behind it? What’s the technology behind it? How’s it going to engage a city?”

Mr. Pasquarelli’s favorite slide was a quasi-Venn diagram, without the productive overlaps: architects deal with clients and general contractors as would-be advisories, while outsourcing details—facades, fabrication, zoning, finance—to an orbit of specialist consultants. SHoP’s solution has been rear-guard vertical integration, morphing over 15 years from a five-person design firm to a boutique conglomerate with hands in planning, construction, software, and even real estate itself. (Developers are apparently apt to listen to architects that take equity stakes in their condo projects.)

Above all, SHoP is concerned with materials.

“I’m not talking about sitting down with your mechanical engineer, early in a project,” Mr. Pasquarelli said. “I mean actually, like, actually talking to the tinknocker who’s bending metal when you’re building a building and finding out how big are the sheets are that can fit on a truck, and what the turning radiuses are, what are the eight ways they can be clipped together.”

SHoP Construction is managing the fabrication of the Barclays Center’s rust-steel skin, cut from digital files, weathered in an Indianapolis warehouse, and tagged by barcode; SHoP Applications has unleashed an iPhone app so that “everyone from Bruce Ratner to the guy turning the screwdriver” can track the status of each of thousands of unique panels.

A drumbeat of opportunity—or countdown of crisis—animated much of the ACSA seminar.

“We are out ahead of the construction industry by about three or four years,” Mr. Pasquiarelli told the room. “But if we don’t grab those territories really fast, they’re going to grab them first and we’re going to get even more relegated to the sidelines.” SHoP, he insisted, was to remain “firmly rooted in the academic,” despite the branded subsidiaries, commitment to large-scale building, and general interest in making money. This wasn’t just playing to the bookish crowd.  Performance theory in the 20th century exploded architecture into the realm of the phenomenological, the discursive, the dramaturgical. Performative practices in the 21st seems to be about architects realigning themselves with the ancient and decidedly un-theatrical realities of engineering—while maintaining the self-dramatizing ideas (and language) of “capital-A Architecture.”

This language, of an exceptional tradition losing its “territory,” betrayed real professional pride tempered by severe vocational anxiety. Might architects really be at risk of irrelevance?

In a mildly controversial article this April, Slate critic Witold Rybczynski took to task the sort of dense, insular architecture speak—“assemblage,” “tectonic,” “spatiality”—favored by, say, participants at ACSA conferences. (Sample presentations at the New School event: “The Architectural Detail in Inter/Trans-disciplinary Practice,” “Historical Problematics of the Collaborative Divide.”)

Nineteenth-century architects, claimed Mr. Rybczynski, invented all manner of filigreed terminology to elevate themselves from mere builders. With their universalist and functionalist commitments—and unquestioned prestige—modernists swept away the linguistic ornament with jargon-free simplicity. After the collapse of modernism, “paper architects” moored in universities reinvented their practical discipline as high theory based on “arcane historical tracts and the writings of French literary critics in hermeneutics, poetics, and semiology.”

This account makes sense genealogically—to use a term as popular and despised as “performative”—but misses the special, incongruous charm of architectural overstatement over the last quarter century. The latest monograph from the leading light in post-colonial Queer Marxist semiology tends to suffer the tediousness of the inconsequential—however “radical” the argument, it’s not as if the author’s at risk of becoming secretary of the treasury. Meanwhile, Peter Eisenman spent the 1980s conceptualizing deconstructivist architecture with Jacques Derrida and the naughties building a stadium for the Arizona Cardinals.

Are Architects Performance Artists? A Conference Addresses 'Performativity'