Next Time You're at a Pretentious Exhibition, Just Change It
Güvenç Özel shows how a digital solution can augment a physical problem.
Neil M. Denari Architects, Corrugated Duct House, 1998
“If you exclude architects, it’s not architecture,” says Güvenç Özel. It’s a sunny Tuesday morning, and we’re sitting in the UCLA IDEAS Lab, a large university-owned warehouse on the west side of Los Angeles. Özel is the lab’s Technology Director. The concept, he explains regarding his latest project, “Project Source Code,” came from being in Venice and seeing the 14th International Venice Architecture Biennale’s Rem Koolhaas-curated exhibition, Fundamentals. The conceit of the show, Koolhaas states, is focusing on “architecture, not architects.” Koolhaas features the basic “elements” of architecture—the window, the balcony, the toilet, the fireplace, the escalator, the elevator, et cetera. But no architects.
Which, to Özel, means no architects except Koolhaas, who organized the show. Put his name on it. Designed it. The pretension of excluding architects gives the show a flat, impersonal feel, as if these tools of humanity weren’t created by humanity. Özel also found other faults in the show. For instance, why were escalators a “fundamental element of architecture”? And why were they separate from stairs?
But most importantly, Özel found fault with the omission of digital architecture. Nearly all architects today create models and simulations digitally. Is this not also a fundamental element of architecture? Today, 3-D models are nearly as common as the real thing. Go to a car manufacturer’s site to watch the promotional video detailing the design of the vehicle, or check out the plans for any new building being erected in the downtown of your city. 3-D architecture is not only publicity; it’s behind nearly every building or designed object in the 21st century. And not only that, but architects can play within the programs, creating that which might seem like impossibilities now, or open a dialogue as to what is possible in the future.
Left to right: Ivan Sutherland, The VW Beetle Shell, 1967. Martin Newell, The Utah Teapot, 1975
Özel decided to stage an intervention within the exhibition. But how? Özel grins. He has me download an app called Augment. The basic idea of Augment, one of many current augmented reality apps, is that you can scan objects with the app, which indexes them for later use. Then other users that have downloaded Augment can walk into a room, open the app, and point their phone at the indexed objects, enabling them to view a digital object in front of it. Using this app, Özel, who achieved a certain amount of fame with his “Cerebral Hut” project from 2012, decided to re-curate the show with historic and influential pieces of digital architecture.
To do this, Özel had to get creative. He brought a backpack full of equipment into the Biennale and scanned the entire Koolhaas exhibition with the app. Özel wandered the exhibit with an iPad, a computer, and a cellphone, to the mild bewilderment of guards. Özel is the kind of quiet, fumbling 30-something that uses a computer as an extension of his being, so most of the guards didn’t even notice, but the ones that did were even more perplexed. “I’m just measuring,” he would tell them. But since he didn’t touch anything, and didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong, they left him alone.
Oosterhuis_Lénárd, Saltwater Pavilion, 1997
After scanning the space, Özel decided upon the six seminal pieces of digital architecture to alter the show—everything Koolhaas left out. For instance, Ivan Sutherland’s “The VW Beetle Shell” from 1968, and Martin Newell’s “The Utah Teapot” from 1975, two early instances of how material objects were translated into the digital realm, are on display in front of the introductory text to the Koolhaas exhibition. Or on the left wall of the Balcony Gallery is Greg Lynn’s 1997 “Embryological House,” a digital case study of an animated home design—allowing for an infinite number of possible designs—that caused waves in the architecture community when it was designed.
Roberge, Rudy, Hoffman, Koebel, Spreebogen Master Plan, 1993
Özel recognizes that the Biennale organizers might not appreciate the “Project Source Code” hack. But to him, that’s just an interesting by-product of the project. “How do you regulate digital space?” he says, raising his eyebrows. “In a way, it makes the digital more real, because if you have to make legislation about it, it becomes as real as anything.”
Asymptote Architecture, Virtual Trading Floor, 1999
Which is really the whole point of the exercise. By critiquing the old guard and relating objects that exist natively in the digital realm to spaces in the physical world, Özel is generously seeking to blur the line between what is physical and what is digital, arguing that they are both “real.”
Greg Lynn FORM, Embryological House, 1997