Open Work

Half a century ago, architecture became open-ended. Buildings would change and grow, architects argued, not unlike cities. Architects embraced impermanence, promoted flexibility, timed obsolescence, and welcomed uncertainty, just as Umberto Eco proclaimed the birth of the open work, and Roland Barthes pronounced the death of the author. Architects also questioned authorship. Many would no longer strive to prescribe outcomes, let alone inscribe meanings. Against the backdrop of modern masters and modern monuments, and as a result of cultural, social, political, and technological developments, buildings became systems. Paradoxically, architects would pioneer new building types, in unprecedented ways, by openly disregarding program.

Design theories for open-ended buildings differed, but they all implied, almost invariably, free plans and modular units, as well as building components discriminated by their rate of renewal: frame versus clip-on, core versus capsule, structure versus envelope. By the mid-sixties, just a few years after speculation on openness had begun in earnest, several projects materialized. Over the following years, many changed: some according to plan, some according to other, or no plan. Many others did not. Some were demolished against the architect's will, some preserved against the building's principles. Today, those buildings stand as monuments to architecture's attack on permanence.

This seminar will examine the vestiges of that debate. Specifically, it will address the ways in which architecture theorized openness, from the 1960s to the 1980s, both as a design question about unfinished structures and a cross-disciplinary question about unstable content. The seminar is structured around a series of ten projects and ten buildings; each session will interrogate a pair, and scrutinize the design questions they raised, the arguments they advanced, the critiques they entailed, the design techniques they mobilized, and the notions of authorship they implied. Ultimately, the seminar will trace the trajectories of openness as a design question.

Instructor: Enrique Walker