Attention Deficit Disorder Architecture
By Aaron Betsky
January 29, 2019
Photo courtesy ARCHITECT
Presenting insight on a "brilliant and (purposefully) confusing" book (more on that later), Aaron Betsky, an established critic and author of more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design, recently dissected the merit of College of Environmental Design Assistant Professor of Architecture Andrew Atwood’s recent book, Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in Architecture.
Previously trained at Yale, Betsky garnered experience as a designer for Frank O. Gehry & Associates and Hodgetts and educator at SCI-ARC and now resides as the president and dean of the School of Architecture at Taliesin.
In his latest book, Atwood depicts architecture from an unconventional perspective. Atwood’s approach purposefully places restraints on an observer’s idea of perception and interpretation. The focus of the text guides readers to view architecture without particular exception to detail and instead draws them to perceive buildings and design with little interest.
“[W]e might examine things that seem initially to resist our conventional systems of representation and abstraction in architecture: things like mountains, asteroids, grassy clumps, trees, and air,” Atwood explains. “In doing so, we force a loosening of the tolerances between the world itself and the world as we see it through architecture’s conventional tools of visualization.”
Below is Betsky’s review, excerpted in full.
Welcome to the age of ADD Architecture. As author Andrew Atwood himself admits in his both brilliant and (purposefully) confusing Not Interesting: On the Limits of Criticism in Architecture (Applied Research + Design Publishing, 2018), he may have had attention deficit disorder as a child. (Apparently his parents disagreed.) That diagnosis might account for his fox-like interest in many things and interpretations, as well as his lack of desire to build a single argument. His achievement in this volume is to flip that lack of focus into a virtue, arguing for the “not interesting” approach to architecture of the title. Note, and bear with the author and me here, that what he is not interested in are buildings that are not interesting. He wonders instead whether we might be able to interpret our built environment from a different set of perspectives:
But what if we were careful to uncouple attention from interest? Would this remove the expectation that attention requires us to sort, distinguish, and discriminate between things? Might we get rid of the negative connotations of things that are not interesting? What if we deliberately tried to look without seeing, listen without hearing, touch without feeling? What if we forced ourselves to turn from the interest of the urgent, the signal, the foreground, and deliberately attend to the boredom of hum humdrum, the confusion of noise, the comfort of the background?
What he proposes, in other words, is an other (not necessarily new or novel) way of both seeing and being in the world that offers an alternative to the kind of order, hierarchy, and laying of meaning that we have considered normal for so long. Against the Ritalin-like-focused constructs of most architecture criticism, he instead proposes a meandering miasma of observations and hints.These excursions and observations have a lot to do with finding a different way of seeing and interpreting the mainstay of architecture: forms that just sit there, that endure, and that drink in interpretations. Instead, he suggests that we look at other things:
[W]e might examine things that seem initially to resist our conventional systems of representation and abstraction in architecture: things like mountains, asteroids, grassy clumps, trees, and airs. In doing so, we force a loosening of the tolerances between the world itself and the world as we see it through architecture’s conventional tools of visualization.
What is important in all of this is that Atwood does not follow those who have argued for “background buildings”—that is to say, for some form of vernacular that forgoes invention and monumentality. The recipe for building either archly or blandly of the sort offered up by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, or Deborah Berke, FAIA, is not for him. He looks instead for architecture in the confusion of different attempts to make sense of order and try to contain the complexities and contradictions of the world. That confusion, he points out, is most salient “not only when the coordination between represented and representation breaks down, but also when represented and representation are insufficiently distinct from one another.” It is neither buildings nor the imagery and theories of architecture, in other words, that are his unfocused focus, but the points where those two—reality and representation—do not match.
Atwood offers illustrations of such moments in the images that pervade the book, which he neither comments on nor explains, naturally. The drawings show versions of famous and famously difficult examples of architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s early Villa Schwob or Marlon Blackwell, FAIA’s small St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale, Ark. He renders these structures in pastel hues, in a flattened perspective, and with as much attention paid to the pavement and the vegetation as to the iconic façades. The author mixes these recognizable images, denuded as they are of their clarity, with depictions of street corners and other scenes from everyday suburbia and urban life. He renders all of it in the same manner. The images have their own beauty, one that comes from their flatness, the implosion of space, and the closeness of colors. This is a technique Atwood says he learned from paintings such as Titian’s Venus and the Lute Player (1565-70), although I am more convinced by Atwood’s own art than by his interpretation of somebody else’s. The point is that his architecture and his theory exist in these drawings of buildings that already exist.
The closest Atwood comes to a recipe is the presentation of different techniques and approaches that span his favorite terms: boring, confusing, and comforting. These all present qualities, he claims, that break down hierarchies, blur edges, diffuse points of interest, and in general offer a cloudy, messy set of not-quite-forms and not-quite-interpretations. As he writes:
Confusing architecture … cannot be explained based on established conventions. All attempts to align or understand parts based on expectations and commonly agreed-upon standards are futile, as there is no discernible logic between parts and whole or between parts and other parts. While parts are different, they are not always discrete. Parts are blurry and inscrutable. Wholes are awkward and strange. As such, confusing architecture is difficult to describe or discuss in known terms.
Atwood’s final argument is for an “an-aesthetic,” which would be something similar to the “anarchitecture” called for in different ways by both artist Gordon Matta-Clark and architect Lebbeus Woods. “An an-aesthetics describes that which we cannot see as it recedes, hides, or embeds itself in the service of other things,” Atwood writes.
The approach here comes close to the one followed by the participants in the Possible Mediums project I discussed in my last column, and also to the theory of receding reality that the followers of Object-Oriented Ontology postulate. Atwood, however, is onto something else, something that I think could actually produce the kinds of hybrid, difficult-to-define or difficult-to-make images, objects, and spaces. These would be the elements of architecture that we will need to make sense of a world we inhabit in distraction, surrounded by a blur of information, social forces, and an ultimately unknowable reality—a world in which attention deficit disorder is almost a normal way of knowing. And that is pretty interesting to me.