Stan Allen has been an active and vocal force in architecture over the past 25 years. As the former dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton, the principal of Stan Allen Architect, and the author of numerous books and articles (among them the essay “From Object to Field: Field Conditions in Architecture and Urbanism,” to which we refer repeatedly in this conversation), his impact has been felt from the realms of practice to the academic world. In the “Field Conditions” text, he articulates new ways in which “difference” can be accommodated in compositional strategies that do not resort to figural, typological, or iconic variations and he unearths a series of aggregative strategies that demonstrate the wide range of spatial, formal, and material possibilities immanent in the systemic logics of the field itself. Protean in many ways, Allen’s mission has been to define some of the irreducible aspects of the architectural discipline on the one hand, while on the other he has used his experience with the arts—painting, film, sculpture, and beyond—to expand the intellectual terrain on which architects walk.
As one of the original voices of landscape urbanism, Allen is also its most potent analyst, critic, and interlocutor; his most recent book, Landform Building: Architecture’s New Terrain, establishes a provocative critique of landscape practices, while helping to unlock the potential of architecture beyond its dialectic other, opening up a wide array of discussions about urbanism, geometry, aggregation, and composition—all the discrete practices that impact the field from bottom up. While his personal manner is nuanced, diplomatic, and soft-spoken, Allen has a bold and polemical presence in the architectural discipline.
Taichung InfoBox, 2010, temporary exhibition pavilion, Taichung Taiwan. Photos by Iwan Baan.
Nader Tehrani Your 2010 book, Field Conditions Revisited, helped refresh my memory, and I also read some new material that put a lot of your work in context for me. Moreover, I realized the historical affinity we share. In fact, the historical era to which we were both reacting was almost identical. You were doing it, I believe, from a broader “organizational” point of view, if I can say that, and I was doing it almost at the scale of a unit—a slat of wood, a brick, a sheet of glass—without a concern for the scale of planning or the landscape implications of what I was doing. But I realized, reading these things, that you were also somehow a teacher to me, though I didn’t understand it at the time. So although your articles have been out there, seeing them all together was very instructive.
Stan Allen For better or worse that’s my legacy: it’s going to be on my tombstone that I’m the guy who wrote “Field Conditions.” ( laughter ) It’s an older essay, but it keeps coming back to haunt me. For example, I was flattered and a little surprised when Joseph Becker, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, based an exhibition on the essay just last year, which included both artists and architects. When I was originally working on “Field Conditions,” I was looking as much at examples from art and music as I was from architecture, so I’m glad to have that favor returned. Clearly, that essay, which was written almost 15 years ago, continues to be very important to me. With the field conditions idea, I wanted to preserve the double sense of working “in the field,” open to change, accident and improvisation, and at the same time, the more abstract sense of a “field of forces”—organizational systems and material assemblages that are serial, expansive, non-hierarchical and open-ended. But you identified a dilemma in the piece: if the proposition is that you create difference not by starting with a single form and breaking it up, but by accumulating small differences over many, many iterations, you will always come to an impasse with the smaller scale. I thought at the time (and still do) that you could not do a “field conditions” house, for example; you needed a larger scale, more repetitions. But if—as I learned from your practice and others—you were to say that the repeated units are not the larger, compositional elements of architecture but, in fact, construction elements, you can make that transposition to the smaller scale.