An Interview With Michelle Chang
“Considering vagueness in your practice can lead to different kinds of architectures.”
Michelle Chang is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and directs Jaja Co. Previously she was a Wortham Fellow and an Assistant Professor at Rice Architecture.
When is jargon useful in being specific and when is it ineffective because it is too technical? What factors do you consider when determining whether to use specialist or generalist language to make an argument for your work? Is prioritizing audience attention and accessibility a compromise on specificity and depth?
Maybe to start, I think jargon sometimes refers to inscrutable language and sometimes to expert language. For me, inscrutability is often a craft issue (like gibberish) and expertise is about audience (knowing to say “tfw you realize you’re just a cog in the system” at family dinner vs. “reification” at an architectural history lecture). I think jargon literally means both, so if we’re talking about inscrutability from a poor command of language, I don’t think that’s useful. Expertise in technical language is great, however.
These definitions get conflated every now and then to suggest that speaking plainly is more affective for everyone. I don’t think that’s true. What’s hard is knowing how to read a room and modulating that level of expertise up or down. I suppose it comes down to what is the most expedient. Sometimes you’re in a room with a bunch of architecture nerds and it’s more articulate to say, “Tschumi Parc de la Villette red” than to describe it otherwise.
Your article “Something Vague” was published in Log 44. In your examples for examining and analyzing vagueness, there is always a component of quantifying degrees of a quality. How does quantification, or the assignment or structuring of a quality into identifiable increments, affect, limit or broaden the discussion of vagueness?
My hope is that understanding vagueness can offer new ways of thinking about architectural qualities. To me, expanding a conversation on vagueness alone is less interesting.
The attempt to quantify qualities fascinates me because it often exposes our value systems. Let’s take the term “middle class” as an example. “Middle class” is vague in part because there is no universal definition for it. There are many competing descriptions for what constitutes the middle class in America alone, each systematizing a set of values according to what reference you’re using (the Brookings Institute has some interesting research on this). Some institutions look at income levels and others consider education, etc. Since there’s no universally shared metric, there is fundamental uncertainty where the boundary between “middle class” and not “middle class” lies. So, “middle class” is vague.
If you and I can agree that the category of “middle class” individuals is vague, then perhaps we can retract our previously held beliefs about what that means and start to examine what constructs that definition in the first place. That is, we can focus on what cultural norms play into our conception of social classes and how different standards for class stratification are better or worse than others. Maybe we can even make new ones.
Vagueness applies to all sorts of words and concepts in our daily use. Some of those, like “grey,” “small,” and “house” are more pertinent to architecture. “Bald” is vague, for example, but probably less relevant.
Your essay discusses blurry boundaries, set theory, and how sets of buildings might share qualities (a fuzzy set of vaguely gray buildings, for example). This framework is an analytic tool that opens new ways for organizing, understanding, and relating buildings to each other. How do you see this becoming instrumentalized as a tool for design?
Lotfi Zadeh, who theorized and developed fuzzy sets, proposed something called the logic of approximate reasoning in the ‘70s. Basically, it’s a means to think with imprecision. I only mention this because one of the fundamental points I try to make is that architecture has long employed analysis for the sake of precision, and architecture that employs vagueness deals with imprecision. That’s all to say that vagueness is not an analytical tool, rather a conceptual tool that handles imprecision and uncertainty well.
If you believe, like I do, that the way you think participates in how you design, considering vagueness in your practice can lead to different kinds of architectures.
Is this spectrum-oriented framework of understanding connected to changes in contemporary society? Hard boundaries and sharp divisions between categories and qualities (black/white, male/female, country/city, red/blue, straight/gay) are becoming less recognizable. Do you view your work on vagueness as related to this shift? Why is the dissolution of binaries an important act?
In short, yes. In many ways, vagueness is related to non-binary categorization and intersectionality, but not exactly where I was coming from.
In retrospect, reading Adorno’s Negative Dialectics after going through my grad school education was huge for me. That book that made me wonder how systems of thinking and categorization could be incommensurable.
Your two studios within the Totalization sequence at Rice Architecture concerned the gross roof and the grosser roof, respectively. What does gross mean to you, after completing these studios? How have your ideas of the gross roof changed over the course of your research with students on qualities of grossness?
My ideas about gross roofs have definitely expanded from teaching those studios. Grossness at once conveys an affect and suggests enumeration, so I like that contradiction. When it’s attached to an architectural element, the roof, the buildings tend to carry both aspects. My hope was that students could play with both affect and the numerical side of Totalization because they appear inevitably in buildings…
Last semester you appeared in a “Memes With Michelle” edition of Pages at Rice Architecture. What’s the relationship between type and meme? The gross roof could be understood as an “architecture meme” to be copied and extended, in a way. Do you think the meme is a useful concept to be imported into architectural conversation from internet culture?
That’s a difficult question. If I’m understanding it correctly, I think it’s hard to meme-ify a gross roof, actually. Maybe if the project were handled in a superficial way, it could be done. But, no one really did that.
It’s funny thinking about this in relation to one of the earlier questions you asked about jargon. Memes are so great and because they’re effective at conveying universal meaning/mood/whatever to huge audiences. Like, how can a sad Kermit be so devastating to so many people? Part of that ability to communicate relies on a quick reaction to an image and maybe some simple words. Architecture operates in those kinds of quick reactions but it can also be so layered that it takes a long time to absorb. Those aspects, how a building fits into its context for example, are hard to meme-ify.
Generally, I think you should use whatever tools that let you work creatively. So yeah, memes can be useful.
In answering your own question during your recent installation Complexity at Rice Architecture last December, you wrote, "Complexity is a quality. Things that require an intellectual or imaginative stretch to understand them are complex. Complex architecture elicits squints, furrowed brows, and side eyes because it, in some way, engages the unknown. I try to make work that prompts this kind of response."
Within and among any given audience(s)—some examples: a group of architecture academics, a group of non-architect patrons, or a group that includes the two—there is variation in what constitutes an imaginative stretch and what might be readily understood. When making architectural work, how do you calibrate the quality and extent to which something is unknown?
I suppose this is why vagueness interests me. How do you address multiple subjectivities in artistic and/or intellectual work? Robert Venturi dealt with it by borrowing from William Empson’s poetic ambiguity. That is, if multiple readings can arise from a single work with ambiguous terms, perhaps ambiguous forms can operate similarly. Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” can evoke different things to different people, depending on where they’re coming from. So can Luigi Moretti’s Casa Il Girasole.
Vagueness is a similar phenomenon. The main difference is that vague words and forms create multiple ways to understand one thing through the questioning of how that thing is normally measured rather than pulling from individual references.
You left us at Rice and are now teaching at the GSD. 😢 What will you take with you from your time at Rice as a Wortham Fellow and an Assistant Professor?
☹️ … I think it’s too soon to know.
I was asked about my fellowship several times last year and my answer was always the same: The amount of intellectual generosity I received from the faculty has been astounding. I realize now that the comment also applies to my students. Working with you (Jack) and the students in my seminar was invaluable for honing my ideas on vagueness. The same goes for my studios on ambient architecture, gross roofs, hard copies, television, and the seminar on shadows. I remember and will hold onto those moments of intellectual and creative feedback for a long time.
We’re asking everybody this… How do you communicate mood?
Thumbnail image of Michelle Chang's Complexity installation courtesy Rice Architecture.