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NORMAL ARCHITECTURE
2021 - M.Arch II Thesis
Part I - How to Murder a Thesis
Part II - Aesthetics of Compromise
Thesis Advisor: A/P Erik L'Heureux
Collaborators: Lee Lip Jiang, Ng Sze Wee, Jasmine Quek, Seah Ying Xin, Amelia Lim, Ahmad Nazaruddin

This thesis examines the context of practice as an intelligent and aesthetic project in architecture. As a graduating student, I was becoming suspicious of architecture and the illusion of control that it promises, especially within the ivory tower of academia, or at least within the Department of Architecture in NUS. The architect is portrayed as the sole controller over architecture, usually rendering the opinions of others as nuisance and obstructions towards an otherwise perfect design, which creates an unhealthy, uncompromising and idealistic culture. In the discipline's pursuit to silence other voices in its portrayal, it consequentially impacted aesthetics, tending towards reductivism as an aesthetic reading of singular authorship. These reductive aesthetics were traced back to modernism, a hygienic sensibility which was about a radical removal of contamination (even the dirty process of its own creation), which made architecture and even cities as legible products of a singular genius. Le Corbusier comes to mind as a figure who intentionally or unintentionally championed this thinking and aesthetics.

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The architectural thesis itself can be seen as a performance of these hygienic aesthetics. It has abnormally emptied out most obstacles in creative practice, to become a crucible that incubates genius architects. I was critical of this fantasy that can only be fulfilled by the extremely privileged people in our society today. My position, especially as someone who will leave school with little economic and social capital, is to frame code, characters, and chance as intelligent and aesthetic qualities of architecture. Part I of the thesis is "How to Murder a Thesis", a board game created to invite clients, engineers and chance in a systematic manner into the thesis. It serves as a critique towards the fantasy of the genius architect, and shifts the performance of my thesis into a simulation of practicing reality, albeit in a simplified manner. Three scenarios were created to provide a variety of pollution, each made with the goal of designing a house in a "collaborative" process. Several representations of these simulated realities were produced with the intention of evoking real emotions and atmospheres that I felt while being put through compromising situations - a visceral experience I was not well conditioned for under the protection of the school of architecture for the past 5 years. The reality of practice is not as pretty as we dream it - it is brutal, violent, ridiculous and at many times, abusive. That is the harsh reality of architecture that I have chosen not to make a problem, and becomes material that guides aesthetic choices and strategic resolutions.

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Part II of the thesis, Aesthetics of Compromise, reflects on the simulation to produce an aesthetic proposition that acknowledges the reality of practice. Prior to that, I identified a community of practice that act upon compromise in various ways in their practice. In the example of Modernism, the presence of voices exterior to the architect are rendered invisible in its choice of reductive aesthetics, most notable in Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe who adjusted in whole the design of the pavilion to accommodate changes in stone dimensions. Kazuo Shinohara, whose aesthetics I align with the most, displays collisions that are brought about through the chaos of design, such as a client's demands, although he does so through an aesthetic that remains precise and serious. Alternatively, a more collage like aesthetic approach for example in the early work of Frank Gehry could accept changes in design very easily through an additive operation, yet the collage masks any form of compromise when it comes to reading it.

 

I am critical of reductive aesthetics in a practicing reality which is absolutely full of compromise and contingency, yet at the same time, I acknowledge and appreciate these aesthetics through a different lens. In a famous photograph, Le Corbusier is seen, naked, and painting an offensive mural on Eileen Gray's Villa E-1027. It seems that even Corbusier himself could not hold back his temptation to contaminate the blank walls of Modernism. I reposition the abstract and reductive figures from Modernism as aesthetic tools to highlight messy reality, through stark contrast. From the three scenarios, the three houses act as prototypes to such an aesthetic project by remaining largely reductive in shape, colour, and language, reading like subtractions from their built contexts. Within the architecture, however, certain sites of compromise are made into features, emphasised using alternative aesthetics that are playful, grotesque, excessive and contradictory, rendered visible against the reductive figure. The playful features are like me acting on a coping mechanism, turning friction into fun, violence into play, and abuse into humour, reminiscent of Corbusier's vandalism on Villa E-1027. The existence and manipulation of both reductive and its contrary aesthetics are important in the project; through a binary of whole and fragment, serious and fun, reductive and excessive, the aesthetics becomes more accommodating towards contingency, and communicates the presence of compromise within projects of architecture.

In retrospect, fully accepting the whims and fancies of characters, or being fully accommodating of chance is also problematic for the discipline. Ultimately, it is not about fully surrendering the role of the architect to everyone else, but to pull the reigns when needed as an architect. The aesthetic choice still provides some resistance and idealism towards unideal architecture, and at the same time, allows the contingent vitality of the discipline to be featured strongly within architecture projects.

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A Note on Photographic Representation:

Photography, as a tool to represent architecture, is often relegated to the role of documentation. However, that process of documentation is intrinsically interesting. It allows architects to claim agency over sites of design - fragments in which architects execute their magnum opus, like a violent extraction of parts from a whole. Photography was also used here to this purpose, in claiming the features of compromise as The Project, comfortably ignoring other parts in which I am not interested in showing as it does not display the project. What enabled the photography were the construction of three large models of 1:25, 1:30 and 1:40 scale.

(I am still thinking about this, but perhaps a more radical way would have been to make the models based on the scenes that I was going to photograph, like a mini set, and the "set models" become a secondary representation of this extractive process.)

At the same time, it is not about an extraction of details. The photographs are spatial, providing the atmosphere between walls rather than squeezing into the details of compromise. This was partially due to my reading of Barthes' Camera Lucida and his identification of the "punctum", and to view the relationship of the strange details to the rest of the entire whole. Using the wide-angled lens in particular, the details are slightly distorted, and are given a presence over the architecture as alien entities, contributing to the atmosphere of the houses.