Interview// George Katodrytis, Architectural Speculation & Education
Interviewed by Heba Najada
During Amman Lab’s X-Talk, HKZ had the chance to meet George Katodrytis, one of the most recognized architectural educators regionally. Katodrytis’ students projects are among the recipients of The | CSBE Student Award in its 5th & 6th cycles.
George Katodrytis is an associate professor at the American University of Sharjah who has studied and taught at the Architectural Association in London and he has been a visiting professor at various schools around the world. He has built a number of projects as well as published widely on contemporary architecture, urbanism, cultural theory and digital media. The work addresses the “city,” especially as it is evolving in the 21st century. He has adopted digital technology and scripting as tools for establishing new formal and performative models in architecture.
1- Your studio is an archive of material adaptability. Can you explain how issues of typology, program, user and site came into play for your project?
All the studio projects are initiated by students. The starting point is concepts, collages and physical models on selected themes. These are developed within the overall framework and theme of the semester defined by the studio. Material and fabrication studies (which generate structure) and spatial iterations (programmatic possibilities and user experience) are then transformed into systems (typological variations) that subsequently are scaled, adapted and applied to individual sites and context. Issues of program and the site are components to define a project than to generate it.
Unless an important or historical site is given as part of a brief there is no point using the site to make a project. It is more meaningful to make an architectural space of high quality, open and pure, (referring here to the modernist dogma) that can resist time and urban transformations than a quick solution to a site problem. Abstraction here supersedes figuration. We design prototypes and systems.
2- How is your studio speculative? And, how does it run between design components (program, site), digital formulation, and material investigations?
All architectural design is speculative, until it is built. This is what distinguishes architecture from other crafts and arts. This allows for the testing of concepts and the development of narratives prior to construction. Design is an autonomous process and an incubator of ideas.
The sequence of operations in the process follows a logical structure: concept, collages, machine, physical modeling, digital modeling and scripting (program and variations), systems and iteration (scale and adaptation to a site), test fabrication, representation (architectural drawings such as plans and sections extracted from complex 3d digital models) detail and ultimately construction. It is a sequence of continuous and rigorous transformation. The studio progresses in a series of stages, with each stage corresponding to an increase in complexity, scope and scale. The quality of both the process and the outcome are equally important.
By adopting contemporary practices, such as modeling in physical and digital form, the work of the studio attempts to go beyond some of the preconceived limitations of architecture, notably that of the traditional sequence of site, program and solution. We like the incomplete, raw, crude, unpolished and endless potentialities of architecture; atmospheric than glossy. The studio is interested in questioning as to what architecture might be – not what architecture is already understood to be, or how it is already created and practiced.
3- Let’s talk more specifically about the form-making and its process.
Architecture is, ultimately, about form. All architects, whether designing or building, are formalists even if they never admit it. During the process of design, an architectural language becomes gradually embedded, first in the early explorations, and then it is manifested in drawings, models and animations. This is ultimately brought together with the necessary demands for use, functionality and occupation. At the end of the process all architecture and its formal expression has to be beautiful. The studio employs techniques, logical and intuitive, analog and digital to represent the project. This generates a system of tectonics and structures, which are spatial and formal. We are not interested in the oversimplification of architecture, the production of generalized space and banal poetics.
In recent years the studio projects developed an architecture that is built up by many different strata of applied scientific knowledge, software based morphologies, micro-worlds and intelligent environments such a physical forces, gravity, fluid dynamics, particles and temperature. This is a type of performative application than aesthetic composition. Dynamics, topology and systems then become tools that pertain in large degree to the control and manipulations of formal strategies.
4- In the discussion of contextualism, your studio is contextual in an avant-garde manner, as something other than responding to the existing site but rather a response to the add-on (material).
Context should not be reduced only to the facades and heights of surrounding buildings or to random nearby urban activities. Good architects have the ability to exclude than include and focus on a singular and significant idea. Contextualizing a project is a complex process of discovering and balancing visible and invisible forces and parameters; it not only about fitting into a surrounding. A project should give something significant back to the site and the city and in most case it can ‘make’ the site, if the site has nothing to offer. We can contribute more to the city than just replicate it.
5- Which architects in your own personal collection are crucial to this typology of architecture?
I respect architects who have consistency in their work and have produced a ‘body of work’, which makes an impact. There are number of these examples, notably modernist architects. Historically Piranesi and Russian Constructivists and more recently Lebbeus Woods are few examples. Their work has a unique identity, it is consistent and representation becomes an integral part and powerful tool to define and specify their ideas. The work also challenged mediocrity and the norm. Poetics alone is not enough without polemics.
6- A common theme we have seen in your studio is progressive experimentation. Is this inherent in AUS’s pedagogy and teaching method?
Final year architecture studios in most schools are thematic in nature and research oriented. This is also the nature of the program in architecture at AUS. The early years are more structured in terms of pedagogical goals and outcomes addressing fundamental aspects of architecture. This way we prepare students when they graduate to be equipped to decide for their future and professional careers. The majority will go in practice and some will continue with graduate studies.
The studio is organized like an experimental-research effort in a field of architectural than a typical academic studio. Within this framework each student has the opportunity for independent research. Each proposal is identified by the singularity of the idea and intention.
7- Architecture education is key in order to form the new generation of professionals that will face the critical issues of contemporary Arab World. How do you see your role as an educator in this preparation?
Students and young graduates of architecture in the Arab World have tremendous potentials. No need to look at the western model alone. The environmental, cultural and material culture of the Middle East is so rich that it can be reinterpreted and stand-alone.
Studios should work within the context of the post Middle Eastern city at the beginning of the 21st century as a metabolic instrument and develop proposals that trace a subliminal and imaginary condition both at urban and landscape or desert areas. The idea of ‘newness’ in architecture should be used at various levels to achieve innovative architectural propositions. As such the role of educators of architecture in the Arab World is complex: teach the basics, understand the city and engage with it, not only historically, deal with hybrid and contradictory models, discover unique material processes as well as use digital media in the process. But the emerging young generation of architects in the region is capable to make an impact.
A group of student projects completed at AUS by 8 young architects during their undergraduate education are shown below. Each of the 8 projects focuses on architectural experimentation, loosely defined by program, type and context. Despite the initial appearance of diversity within the set, each architect sought to address a common set of ideas emerging at George Katodrytis’s studio at AUS and perhaps within the discourse of architecture at large.
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