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Constellations of Compliance

In 1911 a tragic factory fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory changed building codes and changed history. Concerns about life safety began to overcome the economic concerns of building owners and developers. As time has passed the strenuousness of building codes has increased. A trend toward more safety in buildings (and thus more expensive buildings) leads this project to imagine what more extensive building codes generate beyond safety. What new interactions can architects encourage while also complying with the codes of the future? New interactions can produce new economies, new forms of socialization, and new ways of seeing ones neighborhood producing Constellations of Compliance.

Here an exploration of possible coded futures are imagined using the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the NYU Brown building in Manhattan New York.  




Our economy produces a volatile landscape for architecture. In the worst of times businesses go bankrupt, houses get foreclosed, and factories become vacant. In the best of times obsolete buildings get demolished to make room for new economic ventures. When the flow of people is disrupted by economic volatility architecture becomes vulnerable. This vulnerability stems from the fact that buildings rely on the flow of capital, energy, maintenance, and material brought by people when they circulate to and from a building. The moment of interchange between global economic forces and the brick and mortar of a building takes place when a person enters through a door, ascends a stair, or rides an elevator. In this way the codes which govern circulation – door widths, stairs, elevators, and hand rails – are the fundamental way architecture interacts with the economy.

These codes were originally developed and amended for safety concerns, but could be adapted to increase, diversify, and strengthen circulation to buildings and through buildings. In an increasingly dematerialized world in which more commerce, interaction, and exchange take place virtually, buildings must strive to remain relevant by being desirable as places for people to visit. There are two tactics, which are not mutually exclusive, that architecture can use to create desirable experiences and engage people in circulation. One is to create codes that facilitate an increase in the volume of transactions which occur inside of buildings. The other tactic is to dampen the influence of the economy by making codes that encourage non-transactional circulation through creation of public access and event programming.

Thesis Statement

Architecture gives us the illusion of stability. We build buildings often imagining that they will forever withstand all the elements to which they will be subjected. This illusion goes beyond the physical environmental forces to include the volatility of societies, the volatility of markets and economy, and the inevitable destruction or decay of all buildings. There is an increasing awareness and consideration for the re-use or recycling of buildings, but this movement is no where near comprehensive. In order to begin to make the full life-cycle of buildings relevant we need to confront this illusion of stability and permanence because it denies us some of our greatest opportunities. Architecturally we should seek to exploit these volatile forces rather than to defy them. A necessary step in this exploitation of volatility is to recognize that the most volatile element in architecture is people. This is true in large part because of our continued preoccupation with environmental volatility, but also because people are the moving parts in buildings and people change with greater speed and frequency than buildings do. This movement and flux should be engaged actively by not only each individual architectural object but also by the complex interactions of all architectural objects (the city or town). Yet the architecture of today offers only a world of boundaries in which a simplistic system of discrete architecture is navigated by discrete circulation. Roof access? No the roof is off limits. Can I see the view from the 12th floor? No the 12th floor is for tenants only. Boundaries define our circulation and our cities. You are expected to circulate through the city by the most efficient path to your destination, and then circulate through the building by the most efficient path to your apartment. Rather than the rigid control of circulation we enforce on the path can we embrace the opportunity volatility provides? Can the decay and vacancy of buildings be seen as an opportunity to subject public and private spaces to the volatility of re-defined circulation? If for a moment we accept a loosening of the duality of public and private can novel circulation make us think of our cities as landscapes rather than an accumulation of discrete architectural objects? If we begin to live in a landscape what affect does that have on program both in the city and within a building? When we blur the edges between building and city what effect could that have on individual behavior? Beyond moving-walls and programmatic-flexibility what influence can human-movement and human-flexibility have on architecture? How can the volatility and diversity of human movement be encouraged by architecture?


Recombination one is inspired by Gordon Matta-Clarks way of seeing architecture. The tactical removal of dividers – walls and floors – makes completely new spaces. Rather than demolishing after these subtractions the building is “opened up” to allow for radical movement and spontaneous circulation. On the scale of the body small signals provide hints at how the space can be navigated. Thus the tactics of this recombination involve the highly invasive removing of walls and the light addition of hand-holds, pegs, or other signals of how to navigate the larger interventions.

Recombination two imagines a succession of circulation through a city, in which circulation begins to take over more and more of the available buildings until a landscape of circulation is achieved.

Inspired by the popularity of Cicloví– called Sunday Streets in San Francisco – this imagines the desire for more public space expanding from the pedestrian only street spreading to Sunday Fire Escapes, then Sunday Overpass, then Sunday 5th floors.

As the succesion continues a new way of circulating through the city emerges in which a visual communication is all that is necessary for a pedestrian to know where they are free to move.

Recombination 3 imagines a new way of circulating through nature in which various gates will be opened or closed based upon the volatility of the wind. This physical device would make the circulator more aware of feeling wind direction as its direction would dictate which path they take. The architecture here seeks to increase the awareness of volatility rather than attempting to suppress it.

Recombination 4 imagines a way to expand on the Parklet movement to not only engage in the vertical direction, but imagine its utilization on abandoned or unoccupied architecture. By imagining the street and side walk not as a surface, but a void that needs to be inhabited, the facade of this vacant building becomes active. This helps to recognize buildings not as interiors spaces, but as a support and defining feature of public space.

Method 4

Sectional Explorations

A full circulatory exploitation of volume.

A volume is filled by a structural grid.

Selective subtractions of the grid -shown here in red – provide a multiplicity of routes through the volume.

Method 3

Architecture is often subverted or re-appropriated for Human Volatility.

Image Curtesy of Google Images

Image Curtesy of Google Images

Image Curtesy of Google Images

Image Curtesy of Google Images

On occasion architecture is designed to fully exploit human movement.

Image Curtesy of Google Images

Image Curtesy of Google Images

These examples represent a minimum of architectural intervention and provide for almost none of the services, shelter, or protection expected for habitation of any kind. They also cater to a fraction of the population. It is not the specific physical requirements, but rather the way these people think about space.

Method 2

A continuous surface or “landscape” of circulation. These precedents propose novel means of circulation. The circulation becomes an essential aspect of the program. Additionally, the circulation is visually apparent, both internally and externally, essentially encouraging people to navigate and explore its circulation. The architecture must communicate what is possible in regard to Human Volatility. The next step is to exploit Human Volatility to a greater degree while maintaining an explicit communication of possibility.

BIG Architects

BIG Architects

Diller Scofidio + Renfro

Frank Lloyd Wright

Method 1

Volatility – Wind Model

This model represents a simple experiment of Programing Volatility. The “walls” of the model move according to the volatility of air movement. The structure of the model maintains an open interior region. The Volatility of the elements (wind, light) are expressed rather than suppressed.

The Urban Complex by Anthony Burke and The Moment of Complexity by Mark C Taylor

Traumatic Possibility is a concept that Anthony Burke uses to describe a system that sees trauma as a necessary and essential adjustment. Trauma, as defined by a rupture between expectations and outcomes, can be viewed as an essential element in a system’s equilibrium instead of being viewed as the demise of a system.

Not only does trauma provide a necessary re-adjustment to a system it also is an information rich phenomena. It makes sense that post-trauma is an information rich environment, as it is essentially a system stress-test which requires reorganization. This post-trauma information happens everyday at every scale from the information the child learns post-burning-itself-on-the-stove-trauma – don’t touch hot stuff –  to post-Japanese-tsunami-trauma – worldwide reevaluation of earthquake preparedness, building codes, evacuation procedures, and nuclear safety. Our neural systems, transport systems, structural systems, social systems, etc. all respond to trauma as an information rich event. Too bad trauma sucks!

But an interesting point to be learned from this on the Volatility front is made by Mark C. Taylor that, “Information… is inversely proportional to probability: the more probable, the less information, the less probable, the more information.” (The Moment of Complexity p.109) We do tend to design for these low probability events. Volatility and trauma necessitate that we focus on these low probability events. As a structural engineer once told me, we design skyscrapers largely for how they will perform for 1 to 10 minutes of their lifecycle – The Big One – earthquakes. Designing for low probability should not change – unless we figur out how to make a building change structure for an earthquake – but why should we not probe the high probability low trauma events for more information?

Taylor writes in The Moment of Complexity that complex systems exist on the edge of chaos. This could mean that a system is subjected to enough “traumas” that it is adapting, but not so many that it is under constant flux. Taylor’s analogy is the phase states of water: Solid ice, liquid water, and gaseous steam. As Goldilocks would agree, systems should be “just right, and in the middle”; Frozen systems are too rigid, gaseous systems are too chaotic, but liquid systems ride the line between order and chaos. Complexity is liquid.

The argument that buildings must learn to change comes up frequently. They need to move and react and swell and shrink and grow and wither. But having buildings physically alter themselves may be getting a bit too close to gaseous chaos. At least with current technology, buildings are most prone to being frozen systems which are physically rigid and calibrated to specific tolerances (remember volatility and low probability trauma). Why not let them be too frozen, but allow the complexity and the chaos to come from an inherently chaotic element always present in buildings: People. The liquid complexity can be the interaction between people and architecture, catalyzed by the high probability low trauma events that take place hundreds of times everyday.

Program = Circulation

Robert Smithsons “Spiral Jetty”

Seeing Site and moving through Site are intimately linked in “Spiral Jetty”. The experience of walking on the jetty is a choreographed circulation that causes you to see the desert in successive 360 degree views. The same experience could essentially be accomplished by simply walking in a circle twice. ‘Spiral Jetty’ encourages us to see Site through circulation and by doing so circulation becomes Program; Smithson has programed the desert.

Original image curtesy of “Fine Art America”

The idea of succession in circulation, of a choreographed experience, is a method of control. A path of circulation provides a specific experience but it also provides a controlled experience. The expectation of an experience, and the realization of that experience are Program; the effort to control experience is Program.  A trail through a field gives a participant an expectation of a hike, and the means to have a hike. You can hike without the trail, and you could picnic on the trail instead of hike, but the trail communicates the Programmatic idea. The expectation is the trail will take you somewhere neat, but it also controls you because you are expected to stay on the trail. The volatility of hundreds or thousands of people walking through this field is mediated if not completely controlled by the trail. The fact that people use the trail is the culmination of societal cues both explicit and implicit.

Architecture controls the volatility of human movement by defining program and circulation. The question is: what effect (intended or unintended) do these architectural controls on human-volatility have on our spatial experience? The trail through the meadow is an example of an “architectural” intervention that has an extremely limited spatial constraint on our spatial experience of the meadow/program/hike.

Images curtesy of Google Image Search

Increasing the degree of control over volatility (both human and environmental) to an elevated path, then one with railings, then a covered path, increases the spacial effect of the intervention. Concurrently the program is subtly changed and shifted by these interventions. The more volatility is controlled the less Programmatic flexibility; the picnic becomes less of a programmatic possibility.

So what is gained and what is lost by an increased response to human volatility? Programmatic flexibility is lost, but control is gained. Put another way, human volatility can be seen as a Programmatic asset or a liability.  The simple trail provides a primary Program, but allows for the infinite creativity of human volatility to provide secondary Programs: picnics, slack-lines, camping, hackie-sack, yoga, bird-watching, etc.

Image curtesy of google image search

There are instances when the controlled Programming of circulation are deemed necessary and the architectural and spacial tactics that have been designed for the perceived control of human volatility are nearly innumerable, but worth a careful study.

But what why should we allow for human volatility in Program, what I referred to as secondary programmatic flexibility? Because it offers freedom of choice, but also because circulation itself is the essence of secondary programmatic flexibility. The control -or freedom- of our movements within a space radically alter our perception of that space and our potential for enjoyment of that space.

Image curtesy of google images

The Shopping Mall is programmed for shopping, but I would argue it is circulation through a volume that makes shopping malls fun. It is easy to imagine a section of the shopping mall in which our senses (sight, social desire) induce us into movement to-go-to-the-other-place with as much freedom of choice as we can architecturally muster. At the end of the day, especially for teenagers, no actual shopping has been accomplished, just the circulation. Successful spatial constructions can encourage human volatility to the point of programming it.

Denver International Airport
Image curtesy of google image search

Airports provide examples of both restrained and unrestrained circulation. Like the mall the terminal is often directional – or linear – in terms of circulation, but provides for some degree of human volatility.

So what spatial qualities do these buildings that are essentially devoted to circulation take? Why do we devote these huge volumes -especially height – to airport terminals?

It is interesting how large volumes of space are employed to induce movement, and yet our tactics of control within these spaces can be as subtle as retractable belt stanchions. It requires more research to support this hypothesis, but on first blush it looks as if we spend millions on the creation of huge volumes of space to make movement enjoyable (perhaps even possible for huge numbers) and yet we have been so sensitized to barriers that all we need to cancel human volatility is a two inch wide belt strung between poles. In a world of barriers what happens to the creative act of movement?