44 Low-resolution houses was an exhibition of 44 models of houses by 44 architects. It was organized by Michael Meredith and on display at the Princeton School of Architecture’s North Gallery from September 11-November 9, 2018.
Seemingly simple, the show is organized by a strong conceptual framework that puts these houses into dialogue with one another. In the show, “Low-resolution” (Low-res) is posited a way of seeing objects that are not slick surfaces or gridded plans, but rather aggregated, quotidian, and loosely composed.
The exhibition is divided into three parts: “First, houses that vaguely resemble houses, using familiar elements like pitched roofs, etc.; second, houses that appear to be constructed, in that one can see the construction, joints, and materials (there is a sort of cheap, unfinished quality to the work); and third, houses that are composed of basic geometric primitives-squares, circles, triangles-arranged in a non-compositional or abstract manner.”
In category 1, Montreal practice Atelier Barda’s Maison Gauthier—a house that vaguely resembles a house— incorporates narratives of European stables, the gabled roof, arched gateway, vestibule, cathedral ceiling, deep light canyons, and morphological and formal characteristics of Ellsworth Kelly. All of these references were implemented to achieve desired effects while not immediately recognizable as such. Abstracted figural forms escape the cliche of the sign while still holding symbolic meaning, which is a theme of the low-res.
In category 2, Ann Arbor firm T+E+A+M’s A Range Life, constructed so that one can see the construction, joints, and materials, creates a feedback loop between the physical and the digital, including printed graphics on the side of the house, but also with similarly weird material approximations such as fake stone bulkheads and foam rocks. The simulations constitute a construction logic that defies the high-tech detailing and material specificity of previous generations such as phenomenologists or the digital avant-garde, as well as big service firms.
In category 3, the low-resolution organization (non-compositional or abstract) group, Columbus, OH–based Outpost Office describes their Upstate House as part of a body of work about “openness,” or formal and organizational strategy that generates “open systems embedded with multiplicity and/or formal ambiguity.” This ambiguity and plurality could provoke new and unexpected social forms.
In the exhibition, these loose, cool compositions are displayed in a highly choreographed, rigorously designed exhibition by New York-based Studio Lin. All-white, 100-pound Bristol paper models at ¼”=1’0” scale with simple AutoCAD hatch patterns showing materials gives each house an equal footing to be compared with others. This is the paradox evident in all of Meredith’s work, where a “Low-res,” nonchalant attitude is hidden deep beneath a refined, clean aesthetic. It is likely what allows him and his practice MOS to have such a distinctive hegemony over young practices today.
The problem with this approach for the exhibition is that in architecture, hardcore formalism and the way it strips away material and site sort of undermines the theoretical rigor and novelty of the exhibition’s content, which relies on more than just massing and abstracted material representations. While this could be read as “Low-res” exhibition design, where only part of the information is available and we get the point, just not in great detail, this would be generous in its reading.
IMHO, the conceptual framework of “Low-res” seems to be more productive than Meredith’s previous attempt to understand this generation, “indifference.” In Log 39, he wrote an essay “Indifference, Again,” claiming that today’s practitioners operate in a condition similar to those in the McCarthy era, and he cited a 1977 Artforum article. This questionable reading of today’s political context and the citation of an Artforum article of that vintage left the critical judgment of “indifference” stillborn. However, the shift to the “Low-res” makes more sense in today’s neoliberal, late-capitalist world where cultural production is strained by commodification and strained labor. For a group of designers who avoid conflict, “Low-res” offers a way to discuss the work that can begin to categorize, understand, and create dialogue between the works, rather than simply let the designers off the hook, or veer into nihilistic multivalence like indifference.
“Low-res” offer a formal project that becomes extremely productive in part because of the flexibility that arises from the independence of building parts, such as walls and a roof that can be tuned to the needs of program and site, rather than a strict parti of a continuous surface, which can inhibit the finer details of plan and section.
The “Low-res” architectural project shares characteristics with certain practices and efforts in both art and product design. Under a broader umbrella of “low”—in the sense of a “low” production, not necessarily a “low” culture—we can see common threads about how to expose the process of construction or production in the avoidance of what the artist Hito Steyerl describes as “high-end economies of film production were (and still are) firmly anchored in systems of national culture, capitalist studio production, the cult of mostly male genius, and the original version, and thus are often conservative in their very structure.”
We can also see this in contemporary art today in the attitude of COMP USA Live, “The original live desktop theater internet television show.” The producers created a custom software that allows for a completely anarchic and disorganized aesthetic. Filmed in front of a live studio audience, the show takes place inside of a Windows 2000 desktop. While the technology behind the show is advanced, and the artists are skilled, the show comes off as something more “low-resolution,” as members of the cast are/appear unprepared. They fight with each other, and the low production value is expressed in every sense, from costumes to props and the stage itself.
For Meredith, the three categories of “Low-res” point to a similar condition in architecture, one that rejects the futures where virtuosic technology is the answer—the techno-dystopias we see unfolding before us, such as gender-recognition technology—and points to attitudes that make their own ideas about how the world should be: a compositional, material, and organizational “Low-res,” where columns and parts are left articulated in construction, much like the video effects and software glitches (a result of a looseness about color-selection tolerances within the green-screen technology) are left on display in COMP USA Live.
44 Low-resolution houses showcases some of the best designers in the world, but in the wrong hands, low-resolution seems to have the potential to devolve—or be co-opted—into a techno-dystopian uber-shabby-chic aesthetic, like in District 9, one where the sheddings of capitalism—cheap materials and trash—are recast into aesthetic objects infused with a realism and an almost survivalist fashionability. Given enough space, this kind of formal looseness starts to absorb other loose-nesses in the world, bordering on the ad-hoc or informal. For example, at the 2016 Venice Biennale, curator Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean Aristocrat born of the Post-Pinochet neoliberal order, seemed to suggest that the whole world learns from the practices of the developing world, and build cities out of trash that is disposed of by the machinations of global materialism.
The Low-resolution (Low-res) project is not complete, but this show in Princeton’s gallery was a successful attempt to define a set of characteristics and conditions that define contemporary practice for these architects. And this is not easy these days. The remaining question is what causes one to be “Low-res?” How can an entire set of practices be working in this way? It could be that the aesthetics of virtuosity—perfect Grasshopper models—have been absorbed into institutions so deeply that all that is left is some new rethinking of parts as a way to slow down attention but at the same time speed up production, reducing the time spent on generating form and spending more of it looking at material and construction details.
Comparing this to Aravena’s Biennale (the aesthetic project of collecting pieces, as well as the social one of helping others), we can see some similarities. Both had dramatic, hi-fidelity exhibition design. While Aravena’s Biennale was first a social project that directly attempted to offer solutions to problems, Low-resolution is not. Rather, it grows from conditions underlying the context in which it is produced. Most notably, both are post-digital, Aravena’s seeking low-tech solutions that might fill in where the promise of the digital utopia has fallen short, while Meredith’s assessment of today’s elite design practices arises from a similar condition, probably one where our experience of the digital is less about tools such as Grasshopper, and more about digital space and the feedback loop between online culture, identity politics, and the cut-paste culture of the internet, where anyone can easily piece together an online persona with some clicks of a mouse.
Overall, 44 Low-resolution Houses is an important show that could serve as the start of understanding more about how we make architecture today.