The Value of Thinking Institutionally

Event: Architecture and Institutions
Location: Center for Architecture, 12.12.08
Speakers: Damon Rich — Founder & Chair, Center for Urban Pedagogy; Beth Stryker — Director of Programs, Center for Architecture; Gwendolyn Wright — Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University
Moderator: Olympia Kazi — Director, Institute for Urban Design
Organizer: common room

The Center for Architecture brought together a cross-disciplinary audience with Buckminster Fuller’s “Fly’s Eye Dome” installed at LaGuardia Park.

Jessica Sheridan

Big or little, independent or entrenched, New York’s radically different architectural institutions share some common traits. They initiate and propagate both abstract and creative research; leverage other arts as material for inspiration; and help bring discordant voices together in design. The educational collaborative Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is one example of how design groups mediate among city dwellers, architects, and politicians. Like many fledgling architectural groups, CUP’s founder Damon Rich said that he wondered for a number of years how his group’s efforts could be made sustainable. “How can non-profits be more than beautiful bursts of energy?”

One key to the longevity of architectural institutions is the type and quality of the research they undertake. Moderator Olympia Kazi, of the Institute for Urban Design, questioned if the “hundreds” of design research labs practicing today actually generate valuable information, to which Professor Gwendolyn Wright responded that all research is valuable. Applied research, which reveals something new about a problem, is potentially more potent than solely intellectual, meta-scape research, however. Architects often use ex post facto research to “buttress” their designs, said Wright, but even these investigations are important if they reveal a new way of looking at things.

Beth Stryker, Director of Programs at the Center for Architecture, said that the beauty of larger architectural institutions, like the Center, is that they can bring together a range of cross-disciplinary perspectives. She cited Buckminster Fuller as one example of a designer who actively sought outside influences. This past summer, the Center put together a Fuller Study Center, which highlighted some of the many outside-design influences that the designer relied upon.

Though the panel praised institutions’ ability to spark creative thought and collaboration, the definition of what compromises an architectural institution was left fuzzy. How does an informal one- or two-person collaborative without physical space rank against groups with an established public presence, like the Center? Kazi posited a wide definition, saying, “Architectural institutions are places where compromises occur.”