Architecture Meets Literature

Sofia Panuelos/New University

The UC Irvine Design Alliance held a symposium named “Design Fictions” in HIB 135 on Thursday, May 12.

The symposium featured talks by Geoff Manaugh, Sean Adams and Charlie Hailey. The symposium started at 1 p.m. and lasted through 5 p.m. Each talk lasted about 45 minutes, followed by a Q-and-A and a break between speakers.

Julia Lupton, professor of English and moderator for the symposium, said the idea for the conference came from some experimental teaching she had done this year within the Humanities department.

This past fall quarter, she taught a class called “Design Writing” and continued her path spring quarter with another course she calls “Design Fictions,” the name shared with this particular symposium.

“In these classes, we’ve been looking at writing that engages our overbuilt, hyperbranded and socially-mediated infoscape,” said Lupton in her introduction following Professor Sanjoy Mazumdar’s greeting speech. She went on to describe how the themes of these classes, including the interaction between the humanities and what lies outside the university, brought her to invite the speakers.

Geoff Manaugh, the first speaker, is best known for having started BLDGBLOG, an architecture blog that later became the inspiration of a book by the same name. Besides his work on BLDGBLOG, Manaugh is a contributing editor for Wired UK and is currently a visiting critic at the School of Architecture at USC.

He called his talk “Applied Fictions Unit,” in which he focused largely on the narratives created in urban planning and cartography. Among the various topics he covered was the concept of “trap streets,” which are nonexistent streets synthesized by mapmakers in order to weed out potential copyright infringement.

“It’s almost like a proactive cartography of an imaginary city, or a parallel urban environment,” Manaugh  said.

The next speaker, Sean Adams, is unlike the others in that his background was in graphic design instead of architecture. Titled “Telling Ourselves Stories,” his presentation went through different kinds of design and how visual representations of ideas can tell stories just as or even more effectively than their written-word counterparts.

He described some of the design jobs he and his design studio AdamsMorioka had tackled, including the Sundance Film Festival, for which he came up with a set of images depicting classical myths in 2006. He described how putting together images of a man, a woman, an apple and a snake hanging from a tree created obvious implications of the story of Adam and Eve, despite how the images used are in no way accurate to the biblical tale. Such instances are acceptable because viewers can easily put together a few symbols and assume the narratives they belong to, despite the absence of truly accurate portrayals.

Charlie Hailey, the last speaker, is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Florida and the author of a book about campsites aptly titled “Camps.” His presentation was called “Porches, Perches and Other Narratives,” and dealt with issues of transitional space: areas which are not considered inside a house, train, etc. but can share qualities with the rooms within. He drew examples from the sleeping porches and gave the example of the White House sleeping porch, going through its evolution from a simple five-cot setup into what eventually became a room in which the Kennedy children were home-schooled. Such transitional spaces are seen as grounded but still in a space separate from the interior.

The audience was comprised mostly of Lupton’s current and former students, as well as people who heard about the symposium through the Design Alliance. One attendee, Sebastien Cervantes, is a third-year currently enrolled in Lupton’s Design Fictions course. Speaking on the theme of the conference and the class in general, Cervantes commented that “it does extend into different areas of society, different practices … different areas of study. So I’m learning that in the same way that you can have a linear plot progression, you can have the same thing, a whole plot in a building.”

Though the crowd reached a good size, the number of attendees dwindled after the second break, more a product of the length of the symposium than of the content presented. Still, those who remained got a chance to meet the speakers and get their books signed.

Despite the perpetually shrinking crowd, Design Fictions offered what was viewed by Lupton’s students as a unique experience which blended together a few seldom combined elements of writing and design.