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Parallel Primitives or; The Primordial and the Present

- A Back and Forth on the Prevelance of Primitives

Critic: John McMorrough

A: While we are both familiar, I feel it necessary for some cosmological reason to state the definition of primitives. They are “…simple geometric shapes that mutate or combine to generate unusual wholes with uncharacteristic parts”1.Having said that, I favor the concept of platonic shapes. Plato’s theory of forms provides a frame for my argument, it, “..assumes the existence of a level or reality inhabited by ideals ‘forms’ of all things and concepts”2. That more or less explains primitives as shapes that are ideal, invariable, and definite in their forms which are made of perfectly symmetrical arrangements. They are pure and simple forms and should be left alone in terms of iterative and generative exploration of forms.

B: Interesting. I am attracted to the aspect of compound forms that combines and alters various primitives. “Aggregating these primitive parts reveals alternative possibilities concerning familiarity and legibility and resulting in compound forms with pluralistic, associative qualities. In other words, we can name only the parts, but never the whole”3. Primitives on their own have grown stale and I believe the desire to create amalgamations out of them is in effort to invigorate and re-introduce them into today’s architectural way of thinking and designing that is more interested in the alien and strange and trying to make the unfamiliar familiar. Visual oscillations between the legibility of their parts, and the ambivalence of the whole3 characterize the formal tendencies of these shapes.

However, they are still rooted deeply in the evolution and inception of the primitive, as, “…this pulling and stretching of a term such as [primitives] is overtly performed in the name of vanguard aesthetics – the ideology of the new – its covert message is that of historicism. The new is made comfortable by being made familiar, since it is seen as having gradually evolved from the forms of the past”4. They respect their upbringing while seeking to move forward onto greater lengths that they were not capable of before.

A: The forms you have latched onto seem to have shallow appeal and can only express themselves through dynamic shapes and gestures, rather than a stronger conceptual backbone with a narrative that compliments the shape. Is that true?

B: The experimental forms that I am in favor of are not always generated without substance or thought as you may think. Kelly Bair’s Seven Deadly Sins uses primitives as a starting point and begins to adjust and redefine their shape by applying a lens fixated on storyline and mystery, specifically of the seven deadly sins discussed within classical Christian teachings. The forms begin to stir, torque, bend, and bloat as they become personifications of the sins with space channeled within them. To quote her practice, “…Seven Primitive Sins projects on the architectural impetus that occurs when pure geometry meets the morally impure”

Primitives have certainly paved the way for iterative and formal thinking, yet they only truly succeed when they are compounded and aggregated like Seven Deadly Sins to create architecture. Otherwise, they are simple forms that cannot possibly offer usable spaces. How does one inhabit them as architecture; where does one sleep? Where do you possibly fit bathrooms under such sharp or rounded curves? Rosalind Krauss might say that the primitives have entered a negative condition, “…a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of [space]”6.

A: While they may not be inherently inhabitable, primitives still have the potential to create space and allow users to interact in any way they wish. Take T+E+A+M’s Living Picture project for example, which explores the relationship between object, field, and scale, allowing primitives to become inhabitable structures, environments, stages, and other conditions that the human can utilize. The project enhances the ingrained values and qualities of the primitive and turns it into a playscape, a space that you believe cannot be caused by primitives.

In the same reading you so often quote Krauss, she states, “As is true of any other convention, [primitives] has its own internal logic, its own set of rules, which, though they can be applied to a variety of situations, are not themselves open to very much change”7. I believe that any efforts to make them architectural abstracts them past their initial use, which was one of sacred geometry and mathematics. While you seek forms that are extruded and compiled, they go past the point of recognition and lose their original meaning. What you are proposing can no longer be classified as primitives.

B: Primitives are called primitives due to their inception, and while they retain the namesake, I believe that time has come to teach an old dog new tricks. We can argue and question the programmatic use of primitives for eternity, but I ask you now to think about the potential of primitives in the future of an ever-changing and adapting design and social landscape.

A: That is fair. By all means, I would love to hear your thoughts first.

B: I respect and appreciate the groundwork and foundation the “…simple geometric shapes…basic building blocks of most three-dimensional digital modeling
platforms”8 have laid, but architecture as it is today is obsessed with contemporary design and breeds in a post-primitive landscape. Top architecture programs and practices, such as Sci-Arc, Penn, GSD, Preliminary Research Office, Zaha Hadid Architects, and so many others, crave new forms that further the compound shape agenda and are unrelated and distant from the past. As the modern attention span has shortened due to technology, so has society’s patience and untrained eye for architecture due to repetition and banal forms. The general population wants to be amazed by newer and flashier forms and objects, everything else falls short of their high expectations.

A: While I actually agree on that last part, that is precisely why we should train and urge ourselves to get back into basic forms and shape and appreciate the building blocks and examples set before us, just as R.E. Somol once listed9. I believe that there should be, “…a return to shape as a primary visual and formal device for architecture because shape dodges the rhetorical excess of expressive mass and exhibits the immediacy of the graphic”10.
Lost in the obsession and speedy trajectory of the compound shape you praise is the refined thought process of the things already around us. There is use in bringing importance and careful attention to the details and framing basic elements and often overlooked features as a means of moving the design process and methodology toward introspection rather than trying to appease everyone. For example, Is-Office’s Crowns abstracts the rooftops of various notable skyscrapers in Chicago, creating a new typology where primitives inhabit the buildings from the top down, completely separating form from the ground scape. A new way of appreciating the forms already present in our urban fabric

B: One second while I look something up on my phone…
“Accordingly, the terms portrayed here as [primitives] will insist more than they exist. The terms themselves have no being, more a becoming”11. That quote by Rem seems to accurately describe our discussion. I think the main difference between our two perspectives is the idea of becoming/being or insisting/existing. We extend and project the implicit and explicit meaning of “insisting” to the societal forces that surround primitives in different ways. Does the existing become insisting, or has there always been an insisting will first? I believe that is the underlying stance that we take different sides on.

A: It seems we are at an impasse, doomed to argue in circles until the end of time. However, it does not change how I feel.

B: I am not budging either.

A and B: On this we will have to agree to disagree!


1 | Bair, Kelly, Kristy Balliet, Adam Fure, and Kyle Miller, “Primitives” in Possible Mediums. P. 109.
2 | Plato. The Allegory of the Cave.
3 | Endemic Architecture, Generic Originals
4 | Krauss, Rosalind. "Sculpture in the Expanded Field." p. 30.
5 | Bair, Kelly. Seven Primitive Sins
6 | Krauss, Rosalind. "Sculpture in the Expanded Field." p. 34.
7 | Krauss, Rosalind. "Sculpture in the Expanded Field." p. 33.
8 | Bair, Kelly, Kristy Balliet, Adam Fure, and Kyle Miller, “Primitives” p. 109.
9 | R.E. Somol has a small excerpt in Rem Koolhaas’ Content in which he lists 12 reasons for why shape should make a return to the realm of architecture and how it is easier than we may think.
10 | Miller, Kyle. "Before Theory." when speaking about the “almost-figure”, an emerging trajectory of architecture that consists of an open ended form that seems to have no obligation to the discipline or an overarching theme.
11 | Koolhaas, Rem. Elements of Architecture. P. LXII.

| marnieto@umich.edu