What else is architecture beyond the sole manifestation of material? Leigha Dennis, a New York-based architect, designer, and researcher, examines social, cultural, and economic topics through their relation to architecture. In this interview, she addresses the influence of digital technology and network culture on architecture and the built environment in her latest projects, discussing the relation between material and immaterial, physical and digital dimensions of architecture.
Judith Engel: You work as a designer, researcher, and educator in the field of architecture. What’s your approach to architecture?
Leigha Dennis: My work investigates the impact of digital technologies and network culture on architecture and the built environment. In particular, I’m interested in the exchange between material and immaterial systems. On the one hand, architecture has material properties with physical presence and varying degrees of longevity; and on the other hand, it is increasingly defined by immaterial values that are fleeting, constantly changing, and volatile. Through my practice, I try to participate in this process of redefinition, and hope to reveal the interdependencies between material and immaterial, physical and virtual environments – in essence, identifying permanent structures in an impermanent world.
Architecture’s ultimate objective is not only to build, but also to conduct intellectual research and develop a context for discourse. An important part of my practice involves working with and between multiple formats (text, photography, video, objects, environments, etc) as a way of generating narratives and conversations, but also as a way of understanding and evaluating architecture. My hope is to produce a body of work that builds on itself thematically and aesthetically, while incorporating elements of playfulness, and fostering new and ongoing collaborations.
»The challenge is being able to see what architecture already is, by constructing new ways of thinking and observing the present society we operate in, while also identifying and claiming new territory to act on.«Leigha Dennis
JE: Some of your works could be perceived as photographic documentation of architecture, for example Clouds, Architecture of Collapse, and Green Screen. What is your interest in documentation?
LD: I’m interested in the difference between documentation and documentary forms. Documentation is more objective and descriptive, while documentary employs narrative to reconstruct, destabilize, and intervene in realities, while also maintaining the critique of objectivity and transparency. Documentary forms are not meant to be naïve or neutral. I think this is an exciting realm to be working in. For me, the concept of perception is core to my work, which makes linkages between existing operating models in order to critically engage contemporary issues. The challenge is being able to see what architecture already is, by constructing new ways of thinking and observing the present society we operate in, while also identifying and claiming new territory to act on.
JE: In terms of the question of documentation, truth, and fiction, have you ever been interested in working on the blurred border between reality and fiction – for example inventing a story like the artist Katarina Burin did in faking the documentation of the career of the Czech female architect Petra Andrejovna-Molnár ?
LD: Great project. I don’t generally work this way, but I agree that fiction can be one of the most productive ways to speculate on architecture and society. Scenario planning, a methodology that locates events within an impact to probability matrix, is another. I think I already work at the blurred border between reality and fiction, but maybe in a subtler way. One could argue that all realities are constructed to some degree, and working with documentary forms can put a certain obligation on the viewer that other types of fiction cannot.
JE: Many of your projects generate a certain curiosity that there seems to be an underlying dimension of content that is not limited to the superficial genre of architectural photography or YouTube tutorials for example. How do you develop a work?
LD: Rethinking the relationship between form and content is an important part of my process. I like to work with vernacular forms and conventional formats, and assign new meaning to them or explicate hidden meanings already present. Mostly because I think this is happening on its own anyway as society rapidly advances.
YourCribs, a collaboration with Farzin Lofti-Jam, came out of an observation that YouTube genres inadvertently expose private domestic space to the public sphere. By appropriating the format of YouTube videos along with the format of MTV Cribs, a TV show that gives tours of celebrity homes, the idea was to amplify this existing condition by explicitly controlling it.
JE: Paradoxically the Internet is often described as digital/web space, creating the misleading impression that the Internet contains a digital architecture. Does this linguistic relationship with architecture have something to do with actual structural similarities between digital space and physical architecture?
»Architecture is a kind of proto-interaction design, which ultimately has to do with users, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to their environments.«Leigha Dennis
What’s interesting is that the semantic similarities go beyond the term »space.« For instance, terms like »site,« »structure,« »build,« even »architecture« itself are foundations in both disciplines. Although, I think one of the fundamental similarities comes in the idea of interactivity. Architecture is a kind of proto-interaction design, which ultimately has to do with users, their relationships to each other, and their relationships to their environments. Both web space and physical space can facilitate meaningful (and not-so-meaningful) interactions, conversations, and exchanges. An important question maybe has more to do with when or why we choose to operate in physical space versus digital space, or when we choose to mediate one with the other.
JE: Some of your latest projects – for example YourCribs, Clouds, and Pleasure Box – address the relation between web space and architecture in different ways. What’s your approach to digital space as an architect?
LD: I suppose I try to be critical of my own personal engagement with digital technology because I do use it quite a bit – both professionally and socially. There is a fiction that technology has offered us endless possibilities and potentials, but in reality there are limits to the tools we have been given. Each of these tools comes with their own set of parameters and settings – essentially restricting our behavior to certain pre-designed defaults.
»This is not to say that physical space is somehow better than digital space or vice versa, but rather that they both can offer meaningful exchanges that the other cannot.«Leigha Dennis
So often today, digital interactions are used as a way to »replace« physical interactions, which I find to be problematic. On the one hand, it is nice to access some form of escapism, but on the other hand, the desire to do so is often symptomatic of some other crisis or issue that should really be dealt with. This is not to say that physical space is somehow better than digital space or vice versa, but rather that they both can offer meaningful exchanges that the other cannot. Understanding a balance between the two and resisting the impulse to default to one over the other is important. Neither space is neutral.
YourCribs, Clouds, and Pleasure Box, while very different in some respects, all attempt at re-establishing a link between material and immaterial networks, particularly at a time when mobile technologies and social media have made it so easy to exchange physical environments with virtual ones. These projects recast a way of engaging and reconnecting with the built environment, or at the very least, acknowledging it. Pleasure Box, for instance, quite literally gives users a choice to disconnect from mobile devices by providing a place to lock them away.
JE: Although the projects YourCribs, Clouds, and Pleasure Box make the connection between digital space and architecture, they all seem to deal with different overlaps. How did you develop them?
At the time, I had been working in a digital communications group at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. We were actively developing and prototyping digital tools to augment the traditional methods for architectural research and education. Eventually this group transitioned into the Architecture Online Lab, which interrogated the capacity for architecture to be connected, online, and live in ways related to the Internet. Through this research, I started to identify interconnected themes and underlying similarities between architecture and digital culture. This is the fundamental context for these three projects.
For example, in Clouds I describe the self-storage industry as cloud storage for domestic objects; suggesting that if today’s digital clouds provide data storage with remote servers, then self-storage facilities are analog clouds for our physical homes. Both spaces enable us to collect and amass large quantities of possessions (or data) while relieving us of the visual and psychological clutter, but also acting as alibis for consumerism and capitalism. At the same, there are similarities between the physical characteristics of these spaces, which have a kind of anti-design aesthetic, employing prefabricated construction methods and using standard materials like corrugated metal and concrete. They also occupy similar geographies, often located at the edges of towns and cities in what French anthropologist Marc Augé describes as non-places, or spaces of transit lacking meaningful human existence.
JE: Do you consider yourself an architect, designer, or artist?
LD: I consider myself an architect and designer, but not necessarily an artist. Although calling myself an architect is tricky, because legally you must be licensed in order to do so. I am an »unlicensed architect.«
JE: Why is it important for you to make your work accessible to a broader audience?
I just want to first mention that I don’t necessarily strive to produce projects that can gain widespread media attention, and don’t judge the success of my projects based on their capacity to be seen by many people. Of course this would be nice at times, but working this way can be problematic. There are limitations to the formulas of click-bait culture, which can dictate the types of projects, content, and imagery that gets produced.
That said, I think this question has a lot to do with communication. I generally try to work with multiple and complex bodies of knowledge and issues, and then develop projects around discrete sub-sets of these that can be made legible. This is mostly for my own understanding, to help me work through ideas and come to terms with the research. But in the process, I try to whittle down the language used to describe the work in order to make it intelligible to audiences outside of architectural discourse.
JE: What project are you currently working on?
LD: At the moment, I’m putting together an exhibition that opens in June at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius with an ongoing collaborator, Kazys Varnelis. The general theme for the show is on detachment or disconnection. A new version of Pleasure Box will be installed, along with a piece by Kazys, and photo series that we are producing together.
I’m also working on a new video project on the urban transformation of Downtown Brooklyn, and designing some domestic objects. I’m always interested in finding new collaborations, and am curious about potentially working with the digital journalism or art coordination fellows here, because there seems to be a lot of overlapping themes in our work.