John McMorrough Reflects on a Conversation Among Architects

Eavesdropping on Architectural Conversations, or “I’ll Have What They’re Having”

A Response to Serious Playfulness

Architectural conversations are powerful. In studios and at final reviews, over napkins with clients, or trace paper with co-workers, these fleeting exchanges are a repository of architecture’s possible truths (before drawings, before models, and before buildings). However, the reproduced fidelity of these exchanges is elusive, very hard to apprehend ex-situ. Following the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, their capture changes their character. Through the artifice of recording itself, to the translation into transcription, from copyediting for clarity in print, the words come to the reader at a far remove from their original utterance. At best, one is eavesdropping on a conversation only partially heard.

A notorious overheard conversation from cinema history is useful here. In “When Harry Met Sally,” a somewhat typical restaurant (a delicatessen) conversation about the possibility of platonic love between a man (Harry) and a woman (Sally) culminates with a vigorous embodied demonstration of the effect of the female orgasm (as a well-rehearsed simulation by Sally). The incident illustrates how a familiar intimacy can become a public spectacle (and is there a better way to characterize the radical escalation of architecture from notion to edifice?). However, even more aperçu is the culmination of the scene, when a woman at an adjoining table, coming to the conversation late (and likely only being aware of its conclusion), comments to the waiter, just then taking her meal order, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Like the woman in the deli, we find ourselves in the position of a distant follower of these architectural conversations, only hearing the proclamations that make it through the editorial processes. With only partial information, we decide if we agree with what is offered and if we will also have what they are having. So then what is to be had? The menu of offerings is an array of combinations (Michan, and Miracles Architecture, PARALX, SCHAUM/SHIEH, and, Young & Ayata, all with PARTISANS and ARTIFIZI), but in identifying the major ingredients of seriousness and play (which like, sweet and sour, seem best in combinations), the resulting taste profiles have some recurring notes: a flavor of the ordinary, but only as reconstructed; a suspicion of irony, but an underlying appreciation of its uses; and a hunger for the real, as stewed in the reduction of the digital. The consistency within variety speaks to a commonly held gastronomy of practices at this juncture; the collapse of old dualities into new frothy mixtures.

If, as readers of these architectural conversations, we are the proverbial lady at the next table, then who is Sally or Harry? At this point, the analogy completes and confounds us, for, in this, we are each the actor, the observer, and the audience, as architectural talk is for, with, and by, architects. Such a limited audience is not lamentable; rather, what must be understood is that the passion of the bull session, among those that know and care, constitutes the fire that fuels the discipline.  As long as the talk is fresh, then count me in, I will continue to have more of what they’re having.

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