July 20, 2015

Speaking with Nat Chard

Nat Chard is Professor of Experimental Architecture at the Bartlett, University College London, following professorships at the Royal Danish Academy, Copenhagen, the University of Manitoba and the University of Brighton. He is an architect registered in the UK and has practised in London. His research practice develops means of discussing uncertain conditions in architecture and his recent work has been acted out through a series of nine types of drawing instruments. 
More information on Chard's practice can be found at his blog: http://natchard.com/

KI: I’m wondering if you can explain the title you and Perry Kulper have chosen for the Summer Institute workshop? What is indicative of Archive Shadows

NC: It’s an assembly of parts of Perry’s “archive ghosts” and my “paradoxical shadows.” It relates back to latent ideas but not so much in a way that they would influence things.

KI: Can you describe your relationship or approach to technology?

NC: I’m less and less interested in most modern technology, and more in the ways that ideas are embodied in technology; for instance in experimental and didactic instruments. Things like the planetary projector down the road at the Manitoba Museum, which is an East German Zeiss planetarium projector. It is the precise embodiment of a whole range of ideas and yet when you see it in action you might understand part of what is intended but also dream into it. I am interested in this combination where there is enough intellectual precision to engage you and yet enough content that is not immediately graspable and, having engaged, one has to imagine the fullness of the thing.  

KI: Would you say that this approach ties into your thoughts around indeterminacy and contingent architecture in terms of how we look at the function of certain technologies, spaces or objects? Specifically how do these ideas relate to your series of drawing instruments (that catapult paint)?

NC: Yes, the drawing instruments try to do this – they are both straightforwardly instrumental and within their own sets of logic make sense but also their instrumental appearance is a seduction to dream into the drawings they make and to take those drawings seriously.

In terms of the question of indeterminacy, if you look at the way in which architecture is typically framed, that there are ideas such as comfort and convenience (that are highly privileged) where the architect provides for those things that the person commissioning the project wants to happen. While this is partly necessary, the provision of convenience to do a certain thing also sets the expectation that this is the thing that should be done, and the provision of comfort can also encourage us to be passive. An architecture that was analogous to the instruments might provide for the things that need to happen but also provide a disturbance – might tease or seduce us to be more present and lead a more active existence.

KI: What would be a way of dealing with that, of challenging certain expectations so to speak?

The “Bird Automata Test Track” is looking at ways in which this might take place, but is one step removed from being such a proposal. If we were to have an active engagement with architecture it might behave a little more like us – as well as being helpful and compliant it might also tease, be provocative or silly or sometimes irritating, for example. The project was not trying to make the architecture unhelpful or uncomfortable or inconvenient or anything, but rather something that we can’t take for granted. To be like this, architecture might have to be a bit like an automaton. Instead of starting out with a proposal for this I made a project for a bird automata to think through what sort of relationship we might have with them and how it might be different from working with real animals, for example.

The project was also chasing other thoughts about how new programs are not prescribed by architectural typologies as a way of opening up possibilities for indeterminacy and following an interest in research facilities as an example of this possibility.

KI: It seems really appropriate to use the camera, considering the relationship between the two technologies. Both the instrument and camera depend on the release of a trigger in order to capture an image on a 2D surface. Can you explain your role when using these two technologies, in terms of capturing this indeterminate state?

NC: When making a drawing with the paint throwing instruments I would have an idea of where I would like the paint to hit the drawing pieces and a sense of what might be possible. I had not designed paint catapults before and they were more accurate than I had imagined, but the bighting point of the trigger was hard to predict. As a result I had a set of expectations of what would happen, but also a hope that something that expectation might happen. While aiming I also had a hope for what they would produce, the hope of capturing the paint in flight and in seeing what happens in terms of the drawing but all of these conditions were unreliable and unrepeatable. It built up a condition of the sublime, which is one of the conditions I’m interested in evoking in the architectural work. The instruments become as much of a rehearsal of an idea through engagement as they become a rehearsal of the idea through drawing.
KI: For the Body Project, I’m wondering if you can explain why you have built up a sort of blueprint of speculative organ structures in relation to architecture and the city?  

NC: The city and architecture make claims to have a close relationship with our bodies. The size of a door, the need for light, temperatures it makes for us, and so on. What the project does is that it looks at these sites and how they relate to the body (hygiene, heating, digestion etc). It brings in some extra organs that operate within those realms. If you take for instance Walter Christaller’s, “Central Place Theory” whereby he developed a theory for why towns and villages and cities are located in relationship to each other. He developed a hexagonal plan where a market town would have 6 villages around it and the city would have a similar number of market towns around it and the dispersal of these things, according to him, had to do with the perishability of the produce. For instance milk that is produced on the farm, goes to the market and then gets taken to the city, and it's important that it doesn’t go sour in that time, and this helps to organize spatial arrangements.

The infrastructure of the city is very determined by the structure of when we have meals, the temporal order of the day and infrastructure of getting rid of the waste. I think that if one started to have a degree of independence from those structures I think maybe we might be more present in the city, but not quite so dependent on it. I was trying to play out those questions; how is it that we can take possession of the city on our own terms, rather than physically changing the city. You could also ask the question dimensionally. Thinking about the city as being larger or smaller than us. Mine is more of an operational understanding of the city than a formal one.

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