Enrique Norten: This Will Kill That

Rendering of TEN Arquitectos’ Acapulco City Hall

Courtesy TEN Arquitectos

Event: Enrique Norten: This Will Kill That
Speaker: Enrique Norten, Hon. FAIA—Principal, TEN Arquitectos
Organizer: AIANY Cultural Facilities Committee
Reception sponsor: TEN Arquitectos
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.07.2012

Enrique Norten’s recent talk, provocatively titled “This Will Kill That,” could be best considered in two parts. In the course of his lecture, Norten moved between a fresh mix of recent work by his firm TEN Arquitectos and a historical analysis of the relationship between architecture and media technologies.

Norten began the night comparing physical urban space and digital cyberspace
through the lens of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1901 The Art and Craft of the Machine. Norten’s lecture took its title from a chapter in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is also a touchstone for Wright in Art and Craft. Norten’s point was well taken: while cities might have once served as the true “machines for living” (Corbusier), the machine in which we increasingly live is cyberspace’s cloud. Nevertheless, while remarking on last year’s Arab Spring and flipping through slides of occupied squares across the world, Norten asserted that one actually “has to be present to change the world.” Cyberspace, it seems, cannot supplant physical space, at least when it comes to political change.

Although the phrase “This Will Kill That” can be interpreted as a reference to erosion of the Church’s monopoly on truth, following the advent of the printing press (from Hugo: “All civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy”), Norten aptly put his finger on the other meaning: “Printing will kill architecture.” Or as Norten suggested, “Thought has become liberated from architecture.” Indeed, Norten, via Hugo and Wright, identifies a larger issue of contemporary architecture: its relative impermanence and resultant decline as humanity’s principle repository of memory.

While this author might address the issue from slightly different position—after all, what building isn’t a reflection of its time and a wellspring of information about an era?—it is probably true that contemporary architecture rarely rises to the level of “the great handwriting of the human race” (Hugo again).

What does this have to do with TEN Arquitectos’ work? Well, perhaps it’s the fact that the four projects presented—Acapulco City Hall, Rutgers University’s Livingston Campus, the Chapo Museum in Mexico City, and the Amparo Museum in Puebla, Mexico—each starts with a consideration of public space and the social dimensions of the building’s program.

Acapulco City Hall, located at an important intersection, separates the sections of the program (different bureaucratic offices) into boxes, and stacks each under a roof that spans two-and-a-half football fields; the roof is green, of course, and is covered with solar panels and troughs for rainwater. The interstitial spaces created between the stacked bureaus serve as circulation and public space, enabling the building to be open 24/7 and serve as a public square at the end of a typical government workday.

Work for the Rutgers University Livingston Campus, which includes a master plan and a business school, attempts to “create an edge” to what is an extension of the main New Brunswick campus. Carved out of the Rutgers Ecological Preserve, the plan rings the site with buildings, leaving central quads open for circulation. The Business School is the literal campus gateway.

For the Chapo Museum, instead of demolishing a crystal palace-style structure on the site, Norten opted to slip the museum under the existing roof, as if it were a “ship in a bottle.” The existing shell protects the building and, like the Acapulco project, the interstitial space between roof and building is available for assembly and circulation.

The final project, the Amparo Museum, also works with an existing building. This time, new space is found on the building complex’s roof. By inserting a new structure into the middle of the collection of colonial buildings and expanding up, the public realm is again rediscovered in an interstitial space.

In an attempt to weave the two halves together, perhaps we can end with a quote by David Remnick from the March 12th issue of The New Yorker: “Democracy is never fully achieved. At best, it’s an ambition, a state of becoming.” Are we destined, then, to occupy an interstitial space along Hugo’s procession of civilization (theocracy to democracy)? If so, then perhaps there is still hope for architecture to embody ideas despite its materiality. By opening up public space, Norten’s architecture attempts to unlock architecture’s power to influence people and effect change.

Daniel B.F. Fox is AIA New York’s office manager and liaison to the Landmarks Preservation Commission.