In 2007, Catrina Stewart, then a student at the Bartlett School of Architecture, proposed a stunt school for the city of Los Angeles, complete with ramps, explosions, and airborne students flying on ankle cables over spun webs of emergency netting.
Its premise was simple: to take the most extreme of extreme stunts and give them architectural form, to turn them into repeatable spatial events, and to make the whole thing a campus of accidents deftly avoided at the very last instant. Such a facility would need elaborate platforms for launching you (and your car or motorcycle) skyward; fake glass windows for crashing through; barrels to burn; walls to knock over; rubble to worm you way free from; operating rooms and burn wards for attempts gone sadly wrong; and, of course, cinemas and lecture halls for planning and reviewing a hard day’s work.
“L.A. Stunt School was to be a place where actors came to learn and train to simulate fights, car crashes, flying, fire, explosions, etc.,” Stewart explains. “It is sited on the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, towering over the suburbs on stilts to allow the water to rise and fall without affecting the function of the building. The drawings represent the spaces, but also function to convey the images of a city full of bright lights and ecstatic energy.”
Stewart’s explanatory notes for the project are worth reading in full, as she goes on to caution against the idea that architecture should be content to limit itself to speculative work—to so-called paper architecture—notoriously, a Bartlett specialty. The L.A. Stunt School, in particular, she writes, “is largely hypothetical because it is built upon the premise of seduction rather than following the strict rules of construction. Conceptual architecture exists as a means for experimentation and offers inspiration—a different, more playful approach for future constructed architectural projects.” However, her criticism continues, at the end of the day architects “must not forget that if ideas cannot be realized, we cannot improve the lives of those who inhabit the spaces we design. After all, this is why the practice of architecture was invented.”
Personally, I would say that one should not be led to think that a project lacks pedagogical merit simply because it comes with an unusual design brief or narrative; in other words, it doesn’t matter if your project is a rural house for the elderly or a magical mountain complex for human-angel hybrids, what matters is that you, as a student or practicing architect, are able to communicate—in whatever form is most relevant—the spatial potential of this proposed built environment. As a brief experiment, take any classic project by Mies van der Rohe—or Paul Rudolph or Zaha Hadid—and recaption all the images with ridiculous things, like “time travel room,” or “hospital for mechanical insects,” or “astral CCTV compound,” and the strength of the architecture itself (one hopes) will still be visible beneath these rhetorical flourishes. Now imagine the opposite, that your instructor or client has ordered you and your colleagues to design a “hospital for mechanical insects” or an “astral CCTV compound,” and you can see that you needn’t abandon any pretense toward real buildability simply by taking on a speculative, even openly nonsensical, brief.
My point is simply that Stewart is right to question the educational value of an architecture course that seems more heavily invested in narrative than it is in engineering or even in HVAC. But the most narratively straight-forward projects in the world can also be the most badly realized; and the most speculative architect in the world can also be the most technically skilled. After all, if you can’t produce decent sections or plans or animations or models or construction diagrams, then it isn’t the speculative nature of the project you’re working on that’s the problem; and even if your project is intensely speculative, it doesn’t mean you must produce incoherent sections or plans or models or construction diagrams, etc.
What matters is that you know why you are engaged in architectural practice in the first place, and that you then work in such a way as to open up more of those specific opportunities—whether speculative or real, self-indulgent or humanitarian. As such, Stewart’s project description is a refreshing, albeit brief, statement of disinterest in seeing architecture become stuck as nothing but conceptually thrilling special effects on a computer screen or gallery wall. And her L.A. Stunt School is awesome.