The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture

Questions for Jason Payne

with Greg Evans

Other than your new hatred for Wings Over Columbus, what’s your favorite Columbus eatery? 

(Laughs) Wings Over Columbus – that’s the worst. I would say, I have little experience here, but I have two answers for you. First is Lindey’s – I really liked the atmosphere, and the food was good. But mostly, I’m ordering from Jimmy John’s. And I’m doing that because several years ago I read this interview with David Lynch, and he does this thing where he eats the same meal every day for months or years at a time, and he claims that helps him focus on more important things. So, the first time that I ate at Jimmy John’s , I noticed their sandwiches are so plain and without character, that I went, “This is perfect!” So, I eat at least two Jimmy John’s sandwiches a day when I’m in Columbus in an attempt to see if it helps me focus. We’ll see if it works.

Other than your obvious Bowie and Hendrix influences, who is your biggest influence outside of architecture? 

Other than Bowie, I would say David Lynch.

So, in the constant debates between pragmatism, theory, art, and sustainability, for example, is there still a role for truly critical architecture? 

Yes. Absolutely. If ever I become convinced that I’m wasting my time doing critical practice, then I’m done because I really don’t see a point to this endeavor otherwise.

And where do you see the intersection of all of these practices? 

I think that without theory, criticism, and history, architecture’s evolution seems to be driven solely by technological innovation, and frankly, I don’t find that interesting. And I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but to eliminate an entire class of architects because they aren’t particularly interested or good at developing technological innovation in buildings also seems dumb. I think, largely, it’s a specious argument. It’s making more out of that difference than there really needs to be made. We’re part of both the real and imagined world, and that’s the end of it.

First architectural job? 

Daniel Libeskind. It was the easiest job I ever got. Jesse (Reiser) called him up, and I was employed a week later.

If you could collaborate with any architect dead or alive, who would it be and why? 

Dead would be Carlo Mollino cause he’s the coolest one ever – that’s why. And anyone who reads this and doesn’t understand that, well, there’s not much I can do for them. (Laughs)

Describe the environment at Hirsuta. 

Small and intimate. There are working models everywhere and tons of books on problems in the Middle East. I find those more interesting than books on architecture.

So, does that influence the design environment? 

Yes, probably, but I’m not exactly sure how. It reminds me not to take any of this very seriously. When there are too many architecture books around, you start to believe that architecture actually matters. I don’t ever want to fall into that misconception. So, I surround myself with a lot of heavy stuff. Oh, and a whole section of the library on rock ’n roll bios. For me, it’s a better model.

So, you’d agree with Michael Meredith’s statement that architects are like musicians? 


So,you obviously love both music and architecture. 

Yeah, but I’m a whole lot better at architecture. I don’t know if anyone else would think that. I know how to make architecture, I don’t know how to make music.

So you don’t play an instrument? 

I don’t.

Did you ever play one? 

I did. I played violin for a while, but it made my chin hurt so I stopped.

You said you don’t want to take architecture too seriously, so what is the role of architecture then?

Who knows. I guess it’s to keep the rain off. (Laughs) But you can keep the rain off in some pretty simple ways or some pretty complex ways. It’s not that different from any other creative practice where you’re digesting the way you see the world and then putting out a version of that in a particular medium. In our case it happens to be architecture, but it could just as easily be music, hairstyling, ceramics, or whatever.

You cite Jeff Kipnis as a huge influence. What is it about his thoughts and writings that you find so inspiring?

I think his story about how he got into architecture in the first place – whatever version of that story you believe, all of them are good. But he’s an outsider playing the game better than any of the insiders could ever hope to. I’m just deeply impressed with that. My sense is that a lot of his ingenuity in our discipline comes from that outsider status, and somehow, he has not lost touch with that. I would say that his insistence over all of these many years on close reading as a thing that critics and designers need to do is crucial. And it’s not as if he came up with some general theory of form twenty or thirty years ago that he just sticks to. You can see him reading new ideas and new forms closely year after year. And it’s through that close reading that ideas  are tested and either proven or disproven, discarded or kept. That’s a tremendous contribution.

How do you see the adoption of the four-plus-three program changing the architectural education?

I think that the four-plus-three works if, more often than not, the student doesn’t do it all at the same school. If the four becomes a condensed version of the previous five-year professional degree, then I don’t know about that. If I see any growing weakness in the graduate students I teach year after year, it’s a steadily diminishing command over the liberal arts. That, I think, is detrimental to architecture.

What do you believe is the reason for the lack of philosophy and literature courses in undergraduate architecture programs? 

If I were designing a school, honestly, I would require every student to minor in philosophy. I don’t know the answer though. It could be the increasing bureaucratization of all of the professions, which means we have to be regulated by outside professional bodies and that our curricula has to meet certain criteria. Students have to take classes across a certain number of subject areas and typically within the discipline. Then suddenly, you’re at the end of four years and there wasn’t any room for a serious philosophy line or a serious line in any of the liberal arts.

There are a lot of animal hides hanging in your studio this quarter, what do you see as your next projected step in your research after the completion of the fur studio?

Well, in terms of where I think this work is headed, I often teach studios that are multi-year endeavors. So, I’ll take on a subject, theme, or methodology and it’ll go on for three or four years where I’ll basically fine-tune it and the product gets more and more robust. The basic premise here is that I have a strong suspicion that form can be sublimated to surface; that you can actually produce strange, unforeseen form if we work the way we’re working. Also, more generally, I am interested in situating fur – that specific material – in architecture once again.

Students sometimes have an issue with studio instructors that do not have a clear, known outcome of a project, what are the strengths and weaknesses of both models of certainty and uncertainty?

Basically, it’s about formulating questions and formulating answers. The first model is about formulating answers, and I think what we’re doing is formulating questions. And if you don’t know how to ask questions or aren’t interested in asking questions, then I think you’re not going to be successful as a designer, and that’s just the bottom line.

You mentioned that you really enjoy coming to Columbus, what’s your fascination with Columbus and the Midwest in general compared to the cultures on the two coasts?

I could see myself here. I mean, I have a pretty strong rural background from where I grew up, and I try to use a lot of that knowledge in my work. So, if I were to live in a place like Columbus, I think I’d be spending a lot of time out in the countryside trying to figure out what the various rural cultural situations are out there. I’m not particularly interested in the [urban environment] that appears to be happening in Columbus. The typical American, middle-of-the-road consumerism, I just don’t find that interesting. The big box stores, malls, horizontality, sprawl and all of that is very important to study, but it’s just not my bag. So, if I were out here, I’d be looking at corn fields and looking at Amish communities because I find that stuff very interesting.

So, you like the two ends of the spectrum and not the in-between?

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, right now, I do studios on urbanism, but I’m only interested in favela urbanism, which is like super extreme, exotic urbanism. And then at the same time, I’m interested in driving around the Ohio rural landscape.

How do you feel about the loss of true curation in contemporary terms/blog publication model and how it deals with curation? 

I don’t know what to think right now. I would say that it’s fast and loose; I don’t have any problem with the fast, but I have a problem with the loose. If it could be fast and tight, then I think I would read blogs a whole lot more often. It’s not like publications used to be where you’d subscribe and you’d read it regardless. And that’s because it’s loose. And all I mean by loose is that it looks to me like there are too many modes of evaluation from blog to blog. So I don’t know what criteria have been brought to bear on the editorial process, and I frankly don’t need that kind of stress in my life. With publications, you know how each one is edited, and you only read the ones where you are comfortable with that editorial line. With blogs, there are either too many variations or just not enough editorial control at all. So, if they would start to tighten it up and I could be assured that no matter how unknown the architect is on there, that someone I trust has made certain that I will be learning, then I would read it. But it’s just too loose. I like the idea that it’s fast though because we’re exposed to a lot of ideas more quickly that way.

So, how do you see that affecting architecture students’ work? Do you find it helpful that they’re exposed to so much more or do you lament the loss of curation?

I lament the loss of curation. It makes it harder for a teacher to do his or her job. Basically, I will show up to studio and the first part of each week is trying to explain to students why they should not have done what they did over the weekend. Then I find out that they did what they did because they saw something that they thought looked cool on a blog somewhere and spent a good number of hours trying to emulate that. So, it makes my job tricky. Old school curation helps the educational process tremendously.

You teach at a number of schools including UCLA, Sci-Arc and now here at the KSA. What do you see as the differences between these programs?

If there’s any question a graduate student should be asking, it would be a question like that. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be any singular strong pedagogy at any given school, and you can actually learn a lot by knowing what’s going on at another school even though you don’t go there. When I went to Columbia, I was very aware of what was happening at Harvard, Princeton, and Sci-Arc even though I wasn’t attending. Knowing what was happening at those two places and comparing and contrasting them was really helpful and made my education stronger.

In Los Angeles, UCLA and Sci-Arc are often compared to one another, and the way that it’s often described – which is largely true, but also is now changing – is that for the past ten or twelve years, UCLA has been understood to be theoretically very strong and technically strong too, but in more a comprehensive way. For example, it’s been said that students at UCLA can make a drawing but not a rendering, and students at Sci-Arc can make a rendering but not a drawing. That’s not entirely true across the board, but there’s some truth to it. At UCLA, Sylvia Lavin was largely responsible for insisting that theory be brought into the design studio on an everyday basis. That way the product of design was evaluated in terms of its theoretical contribution as well as its architectural contribution. So, a good building was a good building, but that wasn’t enough at UCLA; it also had to be a good argument.

Whereas at Sci-Arc, during that same period, there was a powerful urge toward technical expertise and virtuosity. You could get up on the stage at Sci-Arc and make a fantastic and exquisite guitar solo – whatever the architectural equivalent to that may be – and that would be enough. And at reviews, if you tried to get into serious theoretical conversation about the work, it would be very difficult. However, all of that is changing. What I think happened is that people realized that that kind of virtuoso performance is actually valuable for a variety of reasons, but it’s not sufficient. So, now there seems to be more smart conversation coming out of Sci-Arc.

When I come here, it feels a little bit like Princeton or Harvard, where I can sit down with a student, regardless of the quality of work, and be relatively assured that I’m going to get high level conversation back. So, it seems that that level of intellect is somehow established in the school and is a requirement for the level of thinking in the studio. I guess a big question I have regarding OSU against the other two schools is that of the contemporary discourse. The other schools are completely entrenched in the international conversations going on – whether they have to do with parametric design or with the affective issue that has largely come from Jeff (Kipnis) – but there are a lot of polemical positions that are universal and are happening from UCLA to Yale.

But how tied OSU is to that handful of on-going conversations is not clear to me right now. But the thing is, on the plus side, and I mean this sincerely, the danger of those contemporary conversations, especially the parametric one, is that they can overwhelm a school. However, at a school like this one, the fundamental conversations that need to be happening, no matter what decade or political moment we’re in, never die. Whereas, at a school like Sci-Arc, you could go for several years and never have a conversation on something like close reading and formal analysis. To my mind, that’s a fundamental flaw when something like that happens because of hotter, faster conversations taking over a school. So, I don’t know which is better or worse: having the guarantee of the fundamental conversation continuing, but lacking some of the heat that Sylvia (Lavin) calls the “flash in the pan” conversations or the other. I’m not sure which is better or worse for a student anymore.


Jason Payne is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at UCLA and principal of design firm Hirsuta in Los Angeles, CA.


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