M.Arch I (SCI-Arc), B.Sc (School of Interactive Arts and Technology)
Emerging Logics of the 'Hrmmfph'
"Among the conjectures foregrounded in [Figure Ground Game] are new
building postures, co-dependent structures, non-local contextualism...
and perhaps most important of all, an assertion of a desire to see comedy
achieve an equivalent status to tragedy in architecture, as it has for
centuries in all of the other arts, to the profound increase in their powers
and the resultant existential benefit to each and all of us."
Jeffrey Kipnis, Figure Ground Game, 2014
In his text, Awkward Position (2010), Andrew Zago discusses the "awkward" as being a
unique classification of mastery in the architectural profession. While architectural
excellence has typically been associated with achieving perfection, or coming as close
to it as possible, Andrew Zago's "awkward" proposes that upon reaching specific levels
of mastery, deliberate errors, mistakes, oddities, and perversities that oppose
disciplinary expectations offer new ways to think about excellence: "The awkward
requires the architect to perform contrary to his or her best judgment, to tactically
undermine fine-tuned skills in an attempt to define new and unsettling aesthetic territories."
Mastery within the Modernist pursuit has left an indelible mark upon the profession, and has
forced contemporary architecture to seek new ways to enliven the rectilinear, and to invigorate
the rectilinear box. Today, the pseudo-Modernist pursuit has fully absorbed the oblique in
its search for the new. Other professionals have enthusiastically adapted curvilinear forms
to unforgiving, yet all-encompassing urban grids.
Along another trajectory, The Figure Ground Game (2014) by Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk
(figure 1) was a response to the proposition that buildings have long assumed a strong and
confident posture by default: erect, rectilinear, tall. However, they argue, human beings
are short and stout, too. Some human beings are lethargic. Some have pot bellies. Is there
no room for other postures, Kipnis and Turk ask, those that reference other states of being
human, those that reference something less-than-perfect?
The architecture of the "Hrmmfph" addresses this question, among others. While disregarding
the finely-tuned manipulation of the oblique and the curve, the Hrmmfph reconsiders the
deformation of the rectilinear box by literally misshaping material boxes. With the Hrmmfph, an
alternate way to tackle the box problem in contemporary architecture is to attack the box. Using
the basic shape of a cardboard rectilinear model, the Hrmmfph is a crushing, a twisting, a creasing,
a folding, a bending. At the same time, it is none of these things specifically, nor exclusively.
Hrmmfph is an application of force intended to misshape materials with deformations that they are
not materially-prepared to combat. Using Andrew Zago's terms of the "awkward," it is having the expert
knowledge of how materials tend to behave, then using that knowledge against architecture in order
to produce peculiar and notable results. The study models of Hrmmfph (figure 3) push its material
properties to the edge of tolerance, and the choice of material is defied by the form that is produced.
Brick, glass, and rectilinear paneling are not intended to be dynamically-shaped in this way. The work of
artist Alex Chinneck achieves a related outcome in his work, proposing brick forms that do not agree with
standard material use (figure 2).
While a common working process for architecture finds an architect designing form and simultaneously resolving
it structurally, the Hrmmfph considers its structure in a different way altogether. For instance, the amount of
glue used along its paper edges will influence the final result of a cardboard model deformation. Further, the
structural support of the glue can be omitted in certain locations to force apertures to emerge upon the
bending/crushing/folding. Once force is applied, the outcome is largely unpredictable. While the architect
determines how much force is used, where the force is focused, and in which directions, there is significant
uncertainty in how the form will physically deform itself.
The action of Hrmmfph is one that can give anthropomorphic traits to a form which previously had none (figure 3, 10).
By forcing a static material to behave in an anthropomorphic way, as if part of the box were a muscled-limb or the
torso of a body, a static form is brought to life. The "body" that the force is applied to is
folded/creased/crushed/etc., and granted an animated quality - a personality. The deformations make clear
references to a human body, particularly when the scale of the model and the location of the deformation
roughly agree with bodily proportion.
Deformations can occur on a relatively minor scale, yet produce profound results to the form as a whole.
In these images of stubbed cigarettes (figures 4-6), there are numerous small folds and subtle bends, yet
when collectively added together, they bring an anthropomorphic quality to the overall formal reading.
This outcome can also begin to be seen in the kink of a common garden hose (figures 7-8) , or,
architecturally, from certain views of Reiser + Umemoto's Kaohsiung Port Terminal (Figure 9).
All this considered, the Hrmmfph doesn't go too far: it doesn't fully betray the figure of a
human or an animal. When compared to the Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk exhibition, it is a
relatively subtle manipulation.
Additionally, through the most primitive of form-finding means, cardboard and glue, Hrmmfph engages
the contemporary conversation of authorship: as the discipline attempts to respond to digital tools
that have reduced the role of the architect's influence, and the architect acts as more of a mediator
than a creator, the profession has been left to ponder the degree of unknown that is integrated into
its own processes of design, and how much power the architect can agreeably relinquish. Here, the
architect designs the initial shape, then forfeits control of the outcome. Despite this very
"digital" process, Hrmmfph brings the small, meaningful gesture, and the subtle, conceptual
detail back to a prominence that digital tools have largely left behind.