Academic Fiction

I was as an invited critic for Cal Poly Pomona’s second-year architecture studio’s final project presentation on May 4, 2020. The program for the studio was a tower for the architecture department, situated within the university. The students developed individual designs that aimed to express formal affects that exemplifies the qualities of an institution through expressive envelopes and structures. As is the case for the majority of academic projects, this was an exercise in fictional commission proposed to advance the design skills of the students without the concerns of real-world construction. The drawings, renderings, models, and diagrams are the realities that manifest themselves from a fictional proposition, absent of a committee of clients, consultants, a budget, and the government. The omission of such criteria is necessary for architectural design education so that critical design thinking is developed without overwhelming the students. Fictional studio projects in schools allow these projects to take on an expansive scale of design execution and engages the minds of the students to think in terms of grand gestures.

Fiction in architecture often ends for most of these students after they graduate and start working in offices. While there are avenues in architectural discipline to pursue unbuilt projects for pure research or creative endeavors, often fictional propositions only exercise their virtual status only in terms of being unbuilt. An extreme position that all architectural values are fictional has been taken by Peter Eisenman, and I took that statement to offer a possibility that fiction offers an opportunity for architecture that parallels literary fiction or other cultural projects that do not concern themselves with the projection of the real. This mode of thinking is contrary to the value system in architectural representation dating back to the advent of perspective drawings -which sought to bring the real even into pictorial representations. Instead of obsession with the real, architects such as Daniel Libeskind has created musical drawings such as Chamber Works in the early 1980s that celebrated fiction in architecture beyond mere simulacrum. Music is not concerned with representing the noises that are real in nature; musical scores create a fiction of noise that tells a nonlinguistic narrative. Just as there is a separation of values between noise and music, architectural fictional propositions can have a system of value that elevates the virtual to fiction and go beyond the binary privileging of the built over the unbuilt.

Fiction in architecture, when compared to other fictive arts, can be seen to have levels of developments beyond the initial step of the unbuilt. It can be fiction just by the fact that it is a design exploration without being an actual built project. However, a layering of aspects that create unforseen narrative potentials can help architects elevate our discipline as one concerned more with cultural productions rather than engineered products. Architecture school projects often establish the initial fictional aspects, but only few students embrace expressions of narratives that push the definition of fiction from mere falsehood to the those with potentials akin to the literary or the musical. The privileging of the real (built buildings) over the fiction (works such as Libeskind’s Chamber Works) is deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome. Only through the effects of the projects that offer narratives that are not possible within the constraints of the real, can such privileging of the binary value system be overcome.