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Why ITP

April 3, 2010

I just reread my letter of application to ITP.  It still holds true and is a clear explanation for why this institution is a natural next step in my career.

Personal Statement.

Morgen Fleisig

I am at a crossroads.  I am proud of what I have accomplished as an architect, but I am ready to grow in a new direction.  Building excites me.  Making excites me.  Every material has its own demands, its own nature, behaves in its own way, and responds well when that nature is considered, angrily when it is ignored.  When I finish a building, there is the inevitable relief of finishing a project, but there is also disappointment.  I am not talking about the artist’s eye, seeing every flaw–that is inevitable, and one can only strive for a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I am talking about the nature of the materials themselves and the forms I have given them. Under construction, the building is an exciting place, full of possibility.  Finished, it simply is. The potential for manipulating materials has been expended, and now it is up to nature and time. Leaving projects unfinished is an unsatisfying solution, and not really an option, but I do find myself asking if there is not more that can be done, more that these materials have in them to be expressed.

When I walk through the shows at ITP, I see materials pushed even further.  I see them made into things that do not just react statically to the forces of the natural world around them, but dynamically–moving and interacting–not just with those forces, but with other things and people too.  I see as well that this interaction allows for the possibility of working at many scales at once, something I’ve done conceptually up until now, but have never been able to experience in action. In school we learned to draw by thinking about objects not simply as a thing in front of us, but as a key for unlocking imagination.  We would explore those objects from below, inside, taking them apart, imagining ourselves to be very small and them very large–all without touching them.  It was our imagination at work through our muscles, pencils and paper.  We were also trained to think of the building at many different scales in its context: a physical expression of defined uses related to a site, related to a city, related to a culture, all to be expressed in materials and details chosen and developed for their appropriateness.  At ITP, I see that I can take that further: that objects linked and interactive are no longer matter static, but unlocked and dynamic: linked, they have the power to operate and effect at scales from an atom to the globe, and onto as large a scale as can be imagined.  Anything is possible.

I have always been interested in how machines work and how people interact with them. I still vividly recall Neil Armstrong televised live in grainy black and white in 1969, climbing down from the Lunar Module and bouncing around on the surface of the moon.  My dad took me outside and held me up to look at it, telling me Armstrong was up there “right now”.  I remember it being full—although it was probably magnified by the sheer terror I felt when I realized how far away he was, convinced he could never come back.  Of course he did, and for most of the seventies I was obsessed with space. I had a NASA flight suit.  I built models of the Lunar Module.  I watched every Apollo mission and reruns of the original Star Trek series.  I could not get enough science fiction, glutting myself on Verne, Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein and old Analog magazines.  It wasn’t just the spaceships, or how they were designed that held my attention.  It was how people lived in them, how they got on them, fit inside them, used them, made drinking water, food and oxygen.  If I wasn’t reading, I was drawing.  I designed a submarine disguised as a whale, a floating desert island disguising a mobile undersea city, a space station based on Bova’s Exiled from Earth trilogy.

Very little of this is of course the purview of an architect.  Buildings are machines, but they sit still.  Peter Cook imagined moving hovering buildings, but he is unusual, and although hovering, they are still closely tied to the earth.  I’ve come down out of outer space, but am still obsessed with inhabiting the upper atmosphere. I love Miyazaki’s animated floating cities. I am to this day obsessed with Zeppelins and airships, despite the steady practice of directing the construction of buildings very rooted in the earth.  Pilot friends find it amusing, as airships are lumbering and not particularly aerodynamic, but for me they possess the massiveness of buildings set free of gravity. I cannot stop thinking about Werner Herzog’s documentary The White Diamond, in which Professor Graham Dorrington demonstrates quite eloquently the potential for small airships to explore the upper rainforest canopy, an uncharted frontier of unknown species and ecosystems.  I have thought ad nauseum about the next logical step in my development, seriously considering a return to school to study aerospace engineering, but concerned that it might ultimately be too limiting.  I’ve discussed this with Shawn Van Every so many times that he finally asked me if I wanted to be an engineer or an inventor, that ITP might provide me the opportunity to develop such a project, and that I might learn there that everything really is possible even if I wasn’t a master of every aerodynamic detail.  It wasn’t the first time someone had made such a distinction for me.

In college, I asked Robert Stern whether I shouldn’t also study engineering so that I really understood how buildings stood up.  He just turned around and walked away, saying over his shoulder, “No!  You’ll think like an engineer!”  He was not being entirely fair to engineers, of course.  There are plenty of great ones out there, and we certainly need them, but I think he didn’t feel that they add much imaginative value.  Having subsequently worked with many over the years, I’ve come to see what he means.  Architects are trained to think about the big picture and outside the box; most of the structural, mechanical and electrical engineers I have worked with are not, and it takes a rare one that does.  I don’t say that to disparage them.  I have always been fascinated with the way things work, and have always wanted to master so many engineering disciplines;  I have harbored some secret envy of engineers, but I have yet to meet one that thinks far outside the confines of his or her domain.  I have no regrets about foregoing the path of an engineer, but I am hungry to close the gap between science and art.

Louis Kahn once said, “I do not like ducts, I do not like pipes.  I hate them really thoroughly, but because I hate them so thoroughly, I feel that they have to be given their place.  If I just hated them and took no care, I think that they would invade the building and completely destroy it.”  (World Architecture I, London, 1964, p 35.)  Kahn wanted to build like the Romans.  I don’t share the violence of his emotion, although I certainly agree that coordinating ducts and pipes can grow tedious.  Those ducts and pipes and all the other systems for communicating and entertainment, for controlling light and temperature, and for tying it all together and controlling it remotely, are all vital to some degree to living comfortably and integrating with the world beyond.  The more I’ve learned about all of these systems, the more fascinating I find them.  Most people want it all hidden away, though, taken for granted.  In the residential work I have done, it is this that I find to be the most interesting: our clients want to lead a twenty-first century life, but live in a nineteenth-century house.  I have never encountered a single client who saw any irony in this whatsoever.  I have hidden Crestron panels behind secret doors in raised wood paneling.  I have put turntables under parquet floors so that Lamborghinis can be spun about indoors.  I have hidden five-foot flat-screen televisions behind paintings that are raised and lowered by hidden motors.  This is without a doubt excessive, but it is also wonderful, and it is the evidence by which our era’s neuroses will be judged.  It is not a new phenomenon, though: there are examples of this going back at least into the eighteenth-century.  While celebrating his inventions, Jefferson hid passageways behind his public rooms so the servants could light his candles through tiny hinged panels without being seen.

All of these systems cannot stay completely hidden of course.  There are nodes, points of use, places where people interact with them, handles, switches, and mechanical devices.  Designers in the 1890s were so fascinated with the light bulb that they called it a flower of modernity, and designed fixtures to celebrate it.  Perhaps one does not want to expose every pipe and duct, anyway: we’ve seen that at the Pompidou Centre, for example.  It has its place, and is a very interesting experiment, but it is these nodes, these places where people interact with the systems, and their material expression that I find so interesting.  Too, these systems are in their infancy: household control systems barely control; there is redundancy between so many systems and little integration. And while this is all very interesting to me, it is not quite the same as controlling Zeppelins or designing Lunar Modules.  It has whetted my appetite for something much larger.

All of this has led me to ITP.  Reflecting on the experiments at the ITP shows, all of this can do so much more, and its use goes well beyond integration with Architecture.  It is the development of an idea that has been around for a long time that might affect design but does not concern it alone, that everything is organically related and connected, extensions of each other and something deeper still.

I tried the Physical Computing class this summer to see if the fit was right, and I immediately regretted not simply applying for the full program last winter when I spoke with Midori.  Rory has done a wonderful job of bringing it alive for me: I realize it is not an experience I can go into part-time–I need full immersion.  He might tell you I have somewhat obsessively been building blimps.  I am confident I will explore many other inventions if I am invited to join the program.  The blimp has simply been a rewarding way for me to focus my energies on learning so many of the basics one needs to master in physical computing.  We hacked a toy radio-controlled blimp, and then succeeded in controlling it with X-Bees, and if we have our way with the demons of micro-electronics and master a few basic aerodynamic principles, we will have it sensing the floor and ceiling and powering a fan to stay away from both before long.  If I am invited into the program, perhaps we will eventually have it exploring the rainforest canopy for Professor Dorrington.

While two years at ITP may look on the surface like a complete career change, I see it as a natural next step in my development.  It might lead to something completely different, but it might also just make me a better architect.  I will be delighted with either and both.

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