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It’s been a busy few months here in Tallinn, but by now we can conclude that this year’s TAB Symposium was a great success!

A few months ago I published a blog post saying I was appointed as symposium curator for this year’s Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB). TAB is a relatively young but quickly growing architecture festival that takes place every two years in Tallinn, Estonia, and the symposium constitutes one of its central parts. Hence, being invited to head the preparation of the symposium by this year’s main curator, Marten Kaevats, was a great honor, but also a challenge: other parts of the biennale have been in the works for about half-a-year by then, with the symposium drastically underdeveloped.

As a symposium curator, my responsibilities included everything you can think of, when organizing a major international conference – topic and program development, selection and communication with speakers, marketing strategy development, securing the consistency of event’s graphics, budgeting, volunteer coordination and so on. There was an incredible team behind me to help with the specifics of each task, but still, it was a lot of stuff to take care of in a relatively short period of time.

Getting into my new role, I had one major idea: I wanted the event to be a “dialog”. Unfortunately, in my practice I’ve discovered that architecture is often seen as a quasi-elitist profession where others are not usually welcome (just ask Kanye), a field exhibiting a certain lack of outward interest and high-brow withdrawal of discourse from the general public. In my view, though, architecture is by default a dialogue: developers commission, architects design, city officials restrict, neighbors protest, regular passers-by ask “What is THAT?!”, end-users complain, and so on. There are constant feedback loops between all parties involved, and as we see from the above, some of the named relations are far from perfect. Hence, for me it made sense to use a major architectural event to let those diverse agents get together and talk – in public – what they really thought was going on, or rather, what they though was going to happen with the built environment in the future. We want the environment to be as good as it can possibly be, I reckoned, so we’d better include everyone who has a say in its development process earlier rather than later. Interdisciplinary communication became symposium’s main tool.

Given the time constraints, I decided to “walk the talk” and started applying my dialog approach from the get-go. First of all, I set up meetings with previous TAB curators and all the members of the team individually, to see what everyone’s expectations were. Later, using advice and connections of the team as well as my own “cold-emailing” skills, I managed to compile a list of 14 international speakers from diverse disciplines – from data science to journalism and, of course, architecture – and subdivided the two-day event into four sessions, with the first two being super-broad, and the other two – more specific:

  • “III Industrial Revolution” discussed the origin, evolution and influence of the phenomenon on spatial development,
  • “Data” – which is the “material” of our contemporary world – was devoted to the notions of data, the internet, telecommunications, IoT and the „Smart City“,
  • “Mobility”, focused on autonomous vehicles, new modes of public transportation and the resulting changes to road infrastructure, zoning and architecture, and
  • “Fabrication”, which focused on new geometries and techniques of architectural production.

The event was structured so that each session would last for about 3 hours and consist of the following:

  • 3 x 30 min – Lectures by industry experts and architects directly involved with the topic of the session,
  • 15 min – Coffee Break,
  • 1 hr 15 min – Relating the topic to the Estonian spatial / political / economic context via a panel discussion and Q&A with the audience, which included all speakers plus 2-3 local influencers from backgrounds related to the topic.

As you can see from the third point, I found it crucial to not only include representatives of diverse disciplines, but also local stakeholders in the discussion taking place at the symposium. We did not want the symposium to become a show of global best practices, irrelevant to / irrespective of local conditions.

Needless to say, the format of the event invited both praise and criticism from the team, with some complimenting the intention of striking a conversation among disciplines, and others being concerned about it not being “architectural enough”. However, despite the reality of a near-zero budget, complex speakers’ itineraries and skepticism about its format, the biennale in general and the symposium specifically proved to be a great success.

Apart from the fact that this year’s attendance of the biennale multiplied comparing to the last time, the list of participants in all TAB’s events was beyond ambitious. At the symposium, the President of Estonia Toomas Hendik Ilves himself delivering the opening address, followed by talks by Prof. Carlo Ratti (MIT Senseable City Lab), Prof. Lev Manovich (CUNY, Software Studies Initiative), Steven Poole (The Guardian), Salome Galjaard (Arup) and Roland Snooks (Kokkugia) among others, who discussed their work and what they thought the built environment of the future would look like.

The symposium venue – the machine hall of a recently renovated energy plant “Kultuurikatel”, graciously lent to the symposium by the TAB Lab exhibition and beautifully augmented by Marco Casagrande’s Paracity – was the best possible venue for a symposium aimed at discussing how technology and architecture intertwine. It was close to full throughout the symposium’s 8-hour long days, and additionally was watched online via a stream on ERR.ee (Estonian State Broadcasting Corporation) by a few thousand people.

The media coverage was spectacular. If you are interested, a selection of publications that featured pieces about the biennale and the symposium is here. Below is a brief piece about the biennale on Euronews:

Also, all the videos of symposium presentations have been uploaded to YouTube, and are available here:

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Click on the image to be redirected to TAB’s YouTube channel

So, for those of you, who attended the symposium this year – hope you found it inspiring! For those of you who didn’t – well, let’s jut say you missed out. In two years from now, when the next TAB will take place, make sure to come and visit. I am sure it will be a blast. Again.

P.S. In case any of the team, sponsors, speakers or volunteers are reading this – please accept a big personal Thank You! from me. The symposium would not have happened without you.

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It’s weird, how I keep re-discovering architecture. Why haven’t I gotten it straight yet?

When I got into architecture school, all I knew of it were the housing blocks of post-soviet Estonia, the mysterious (“does it really exist?”) Flatiron building and the (“I guess it’s like a thousand years old!”) Sagrada Familia. A few years in, I got convinced architecture was an “art”, taking it one step further at Tech by buying into the slogan “Architecture will save the world!” Talking to some of my ex-classmates, I got introduced to the idea of “architecture as a business”, while realizing after OMA that it was more of an “industry”. Working at Alver’s place, I discovered it was what got actually built, while after visiting the exhibition of work by Nieto Sobejano at the Estonian Museum of Architecture today, I am kind of swaying towards “art” again.

Go figure.

In one of my recent posts I referred to an article in the Guardian, called “The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’” by Scott Poole. A great article overall, this one quote chained my attention:

As the tech companies bid for contracts, Haque observed, the real target of their advertising is clear: “The people it really speaks to are the city managers who can say, ‘It wasn’t me who made the decision, it was the data.’”

This “it wasn’t me, it was the data” attracted my attention not only because it referred to a potentially large topic in the future of city policy and planning, but also because it is directly related to architecture.

I have a feeling that us, architects (and yes, me included), often have a hard time deciding on our designs. It is not surprising, considering the complexity of our profession, responsibilities it implies (as, for example, for whatever reason designing something people will abhor, but which will stay to “pollute” the face of the Earth for years to come as a reminder of our failure [dramatic music here, and an image of a failed architect, please], not to mention all the health-and-safety stuff), and the fact that a lot of times it seems like we are forced to draw a design out of pure ether. Thus, we invent excuses, allowing for, and justifying, our designs. I wrote about this a little bit earlier, but it still seems to me that sometimes we invent strategies for design that we hope will lead us to a design without making decisions. For example:

– “It wasn’t me, it was the random generator in Grasshopper”, or

– “It wasn’t me – the site ‘spoke’ of it”, or

– “It wasn’t me – it was the program…”

And so on. The reality is – architecture is a decision game. And it is largely irrational – at least the formal part of it – whether we like it or not. You need to make decisions, and then face the consequences. And the faster you make those decisions – the better.

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Ultimately, I think, the trouble with making decisions has to do with risk – we want to avoid it at all cost. So we delay making decisions that may ruin us. In the end, though, that “waiting” ruins us anyway. I’ve experienced this a lot of times while doing competitions at various offices, or in my own academic work – most painfully while doing my thesis, for example. But here’s a surprise for you (and all of us) – we can’t avoid risk – it is going to be there regardless. So, the only thing we can do – is change our attitude towards it.

I like the way Michael Ellsberg puts it in his “The Education of Millionaires”, when he is describing the successful people he interviewed for the book:

“I don’t believe the people I feature in this book simply took a bigger bet than everyone else and happened to get lucky and win. Rather, I’ve seen that they have systematically and intentionally developed a style of working that allows them to take lots of small bets – bet after bet after bet after bet – all the while making sure that they don’t get wiped out of the game if one or many of them go south” (p.53). “People who have been successful are still as likely to get it wrong as right going forward. They just try more things” (p.55).

How does this apply to architecture? Very directly: do more stuff, faster! Do that model right now, in 15 minutes! Photoshop that collage now and show it to your professor tomorrow, not in a week. Look at alternative scenarios and designs now, because you do want to know if your great idea doesn’t actually work earlier than that final push 48 hours before the deadline, when it’s to late and you will have to accept the silent defeat of “could have done better” deep in your gut. I think, a student (or professional) of architecture needs to give up the attitude of “holiness” that he/she oftentimes has towards his/her ideas, and regard all of them as little bets.

And guess what: no amount of analysis or benevolent considerations will save you from a bad design. Architecture in a lot of cases is not a rational thing – it is based on gut feeling. Nothing will happen – and you will not know the truth – until you actually run that algorithm, make that line on paper, or cut through that foam. So do it NOW!

“… The presumption of the Gods of The Market is that we passively crave, above all else, the accessible, the approachable, the unchallenging, the bland, the readily legible. It is, I suspect, its very subjection to an unrelenting diet of these base qualities that has prompted a generation to decline saccharine architecture, fast-food architecture, “eezee-lisnin” architecture, instant gratification architecture in favour of the grown-up’s architecture of getting on for half a century ago.

There was good Brutalism and bad. But even the bad was done in earnest. It took itself seriously, which is a crime in The Market whose insistence is on mindless fun and moronic fun…”

Jonathan Meades (15.09.2014), “There was good brutalism and bad, but even the bad was done in earnest”. Dezeen (read the full article)

Seemed worth sharing..

When I was in school, I remember our professors telling us that only about 10% of the people educated to be architects will actually end up being architects. I never really understood how that can be, but already now it seems to be true. Out of all my ex-classmates, few are actually practicing architecture. Instead, they tend to focus on auxiliary fields, related, but not strictly speaking architectural. A couple folks have started a joint CAM outfit, 3D-printing objects, laser-cutting models and such. Another couple of people I know started rendering businesses. Others focused on code and architecture, programming presentations and digital models, or doing spatial installations. A good number switched to interior design. And all that in addition to countless people I know who just changed their professions altogether. I guess it’s pretty hard to be an architect-architect after all – actually produce projects and build buildings. Don’t think we are dying out – there are just too many of us for the current market. Plus, the financials of architecture are complicated, provided the difficulty of defining the “product” of architecture and why we charge this and not that for projects. All this makes a lot of us reconsider our professional trajectories, and some of us simply fail. Something to think about for some of us on the first day of school.

For us – architects – it is important to somehow live out our insanity. Many of the things – in fact, most of the things our profession actually craves to do – are just not possible in the world that is trying to be rational. All the curved, angled, huge, megalomaniac stuff that many of us dream about (and the schools are promoting) is just not going to happen. In our daily practices we need to produce buildings – not boundless spatial play. So, how do live out our insanity?

Daniel Libeskind

Daniel Libeskind, Micromegas

Rem Koolhaas

Rem Koolhaas, Zeebrugge Terminal

Zaha Hadid, The Peak Leisure Club

Zaha Hadid, The Peak Leisure Club

Doing architecture, I believe, is a balancing of acting out this insanity and adhering to the needs of rationality. The more insanity we are able to incorporate into our built designs, the happier we are as professionals. Perversely, architecture – the profession of spatial play – is not able to satisfy our craving for molding space. For that we need other media – media allowing for less responsibility. And may-be that is for the better, too. Would we actually want to live in our dreams? I doubt it. Other media help us keep our denial of reality at bay, and cope with our madness. It’s not that architects “can draw, and do sculpture, too”. We have to do that in order to stay sane.

Ivan Sergejev, Utopia

Ivan Sergejev, Utopia

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City – a three-dimensional city grid

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City detail

Ivan Sergejev, Rubik City detail

Ivan Sergejev, The In-between

Ivan Sergejev, The In-between

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NEWS: my academic work of the last two years has finally come to its end, concluding in a Master’s Thesis book called “Exposing the Data Center”. Done and done!

Abstract of the thesis is as follows:

“Given the rapid growth in the importance of the Internet, data centers – the buildings that store information on the web – are quickly becoming the most critical infrastructural objects in the world. However, so far they have received very little, if any, architectural attention. This thesis proclaims data centers to be the “churches” of the digital society and proposes a new type of a publicly accessible data center.

The thesis starts with a brief overview of the history of data centers and the Internet in general, leading to a manifesto for making data centers into public facilities with an architecture of their own. After, the paper proposes a roadmap for the possible future development of the building type with suggestions for placing future data centers in urban environments, incorporating public programs as a part of the building program, and optimizing the inside workings of a typical data center. The final part of the work, concentrates on a design for an exemplary new data center, buildable with currently available technologies.

This thesis aims to:
1) change the public perception of the internet as a non-physical thing, and data centers as purely functional infrastructural objects without any deeper cultural significance and
2) propose a new architectural language for the type.”

If this sounds interesting, make sure to get in touch and request a copy of the publication. I believe you can also find it in the Virginia Tech library. Please don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail if you want to help me take this work further in the form of lectures, talks, advance research or actual construction.

Cheers,

Ivan

 

P.S. A few snippets from the final “book”:

 

What is the "cloud"?

What is the “cloud”?

 

What we thought was ephemeral, is actually very physical: the rise of silicon materiality

The cloud – that we thought was ephemeral – is actually very physical. It signifies the rise of a “silicon materiality”.

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Data centers, spread out across the city, form a rhizome. They contribute to their surroundings via their unique spatial features, and become public spaces.

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They could be anything.

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A case study of a new-age super-dense data center on Broadway.

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As seen from Lafayette St…

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…and from Broadway.

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In section.

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In plan.

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Exposing the structure within.