Angela Amoia and Robert Cody: “Technology should push imagination”

Vladimir Belogolovsky met with the founders of Amoia Cody Architecture, DPC and NYIT professors to discuss their first book, Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Oct 21, 2022

Architects always relied on their own intuition to find the right spot for their buildings, to better respond to the topography of the site, to catch the prevailing winds, to play with the sun, or to take advantage of beautiful views. Architecture is never conceived as an independent object, or at least it shouldn’t be. For example, Eduardo Souto de Moura said about Alvaro Siza’s houses that they are “like cats sleeping in the sun,” as they assume the most natural postures on the site. How can architects master their design skills to “humanise” buildings to that degree? Surely, technology can help to achieve it. Of course, technology alone, no matter how sophisticated, will never replace the intuition of a good architect. But it can enhance it. In fact, such enhancement can already be measured with an incredible degree of accuracy. Angela Amoia and Robert Cody, the founders of New York City-based architectural practice Amoia Cody Architecture, DPC and professors at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) just finished their first book, Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture, in which they discuss how emerging technologies such as digital design and fabrication have been transforming the contemporary practice of architecture.

In the book, published by Routledge, the authors expose a dialogue between history, theory, design, construction, technology, and sensory experience by means of digital simulations that can better explain and define our design strategies and choices. They say that their book, “offers a critical look at the past to inspire the future.” Their aim is “to make technology a critical component in thinking about and making architecture.” In my conversation with Angela Amoia and Robert Cody that follows, we discussed their focus on Alvar Aalto and why he remains critically relevant today, realism versus imagination, why there would be no architecture without building types, which recent buildings are most relevant, how to make architecture more delightful, and what did the authors learn from writing their book.

Zollverein School, Essen, Germany, SANAA Architects, 2005| Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
Zollverein School, Essen, Germany, SANAA Architects, 2005 Image: Michael Hoefner, CC by SA 2.5

Vladimir Belogolovsky: Your book’s synopsis says that it “offers a critical look at the past to inspire the future.” Let’s define the basic premise here first. You focused on Aalto and some of the currently practicing architects to exemplify the impact of technology on design, particularly digital design and fabrication tools. Where did this idea originate?

Robert Cody: The idea came from our desire to look at the past and use it as an example to engage younger architects to use digital design tools not merely to produce complex shapes but to be able to better relate buildings to their place, environment, and how to optimise them to all kinds of specific parameters. We saw this book as a necessary tool for our teaching classes with students at NYIT. We can already pretty much make anything we want but the question is – How can we do it in the most responsible, equitable, ecological, and phenomenological ways?

Angela Amoia: And that’s where the use of performative tools comes in. We wanted to explore such phenomena as heat sensation, temperature and seasonal changes, and different experiences inside and outside of buildings, and experiments that sequence such changes.

VB: In the book, you said, “Making architecture is a multi-variant decision-making process. In order to make informed choices, we model our intentions.” Would you say it is the book’s most definitive and consistent argument?

RC: Yes, I would confirm that. We came to this conclusion by analysing Aalto’s work, particularly his idea for integrating art and technology into his architecture. Architecture for him was about developing different strategies and combining them in a solution that would be both artful and technical, what he called “archi-technical”. We can learn from his findings, and new tools can allow us to simulate more accurately how buildings would react to specific environments and what we want to achieve.

Jyväskylä Auditorium Lobby Situatedness, Alvar Aalto, 1961| Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
Jyväskylä Auditorium Lobby Situatedness, Alvar Aalto, 1961 Image: Courtesy of Amoia Cody Architecture

VB: You said in your introduction that Aalto is a model figure and that he remains critically relevant today. You quoted Kenneth Frampton who considers Aalto “the most important architect of the 20th and now even the 21st century.” Why did you focus on Aalto? After all, he did not use the same design tools you discuss in the book. 

AA: One of the reasons I wanted to pursue my master’s degree was that I wanted to engage with Frampton. So, I went to Columbia for an advanced design degree, and I took many of his history seminars. Many were very much related to Aalto. But before that, Aalto was a kind of figure that very few wanted to embrace. There were so many facets in his work, which were very ambiguous and enigmatic. Also, throughout my career, I was continuously asked whether I was a designer or a technician. And I always said that I am both. [Laughs.] I need to be both in order to make a great building. This is what we see in Aalto; he was both. The technical side makes the design side more interesting. And as far as details, he was in his own category. They were so particular, referring so much to the Finish culture and, of course, nature, as in the case of the grid of columns in Villa Mairea, a kind of metaphor for the forest inside and all around. And there are so many readings of his spaces because they have so many references.

RC: I agree. The general reading of Aalto was that he is too enigmatic and difficult to understand and analyse. He considered so many outside forces before giving his buildings a form. The book is very much related to our research as practitioners and educators. So, we took trips to Boston to see MIT Baker House Dormitory. The students who lived there showed it to us. Interestingly, they prefer to live there over all other dormitories on campus, and we discussed their reasons – the dorm rooms, the quality of natural light, the intermediary spaces, views, proximity to the water, and so on. We visited his Parish Church in Riola, Italy. And, of course, we traveled to Finland to visit many of Aalto’s buildings. We went there in the dead of winter, quite intentionally, which gave our students a different form of imagination. That experience was crucial to better understanding how his buildings integrate with the environment. We wanted them not only to see how these buildings look but how they feel and why. And how they are integrated into their environment – from the site, the inside to outside connections, the feel, and the touch of a door handle, for example.  

IOC Parametric Panel System Software Diagram | Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
IOC Parametric Panel System Software Diagram Image: Courtesy of 3XN

VB: The book is divided into five chapters – topology, typology, tectonics, technic, and thermodynamics. Why did you pick these particular themes as the most important in your design analogy?

AA: We felt that historically these topics have been debated the most. And all of them remain relevant today. They serve as an essential tool to discuss the relationships between the past and the present and how, with the help of digital tools, they can be more integrative with all building materials and systems in the future. For example, you can see how much more effectively we can integrate buildings into their site conditions now than before. We also discuss various materials under tectonics, but really ecological tectonics because today we can no longer discuss design choices without considering their impact on ecology. And we can use materials in ways that we couldn’t use before – in more ecological, optimal, sensitive, and even psychological ways. We can simulate our buildings in ways that can give us a very accurate understanding of how they will be felt and experienced. This process is now very systematic, and it will continue to improve. 

International Olympic Committee (IOC) Headquarters, Switzerland, 3XN, 2019 | Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
International Olympic Committee (IOC) Headquarters, Switzerland, 3XN, 2019 Image: Adam Mørk, Courtesy of 3XN

VB: You quoted Aalto saying, “Realism usually provides the strongest stimulus to my imagination.” Then you talk about your goal as an architect to reconcile reality and imagination. You said, “Our task is to artfully, logically, and firmly position reality and imagination into harmony.” Could you elaborate? 

RC: The idea of engaging neuroscience to help us measure our imagination can be an incredible tool for us in the future. And we need to have a digital model to better imagine the building that’s coming. The intention to achieve certain feelings is quite realistic now and we can talk about engaging all the senses simultaneously. Already these aspects can be quite measurable and, in a way, real even before the structure is finished. The imagination we put forward in our design process comes to life in the end. That’s the future, and it will come to be. That’s what will keep us relevant as architects; we are pushing not only technology but also imagination.

Zollverein School, Essen, Germany, SANAA Architects, 2005| Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
Site Section, Zollverein School, Essen, Germany, SANAA Architects, 2005 Image: Courtesy of Amoia Cody Architecture

VB: About building types, you said, “Studying types matters; it forms architecture’s very idea and essence. It provides information for a model, and without it, there would be no architecture.” Still, many of our leading architects don’t like to specialise in designing a particular building type. They see their creativity in working on types that they never tackled before. They want to break out of what is expected, even fuse different types together. Architects are constantly engaged in this idea of reinventing a particular type. Why do you say there is no architecture without building types? Isn’t it the notion of attacking our existing types that pushes the architectural discourse forward?

RC: You do make a good argument about the need to break the type. And everything you said could be said about Aalto. His buildings are related very precisely to what is expected in a particular type of building, but then he develops many differences and inventions, to form a new typological model. His libraries exemplify this. He tries to remodel the type by producing variations. So, I think we need to hold on to certain aspects that worked through time but keep reinventing, reimagining, and improving. There is a clear difference between such types as a house and a library. Both have evolved – surely new types will keep emerging and we need to explore and study these changes.

AA: What stands out about Aalto is that he always talks about universal standards and flexibility at the same time. So, the point is that before you have a new idea about something, you need to understand what was done before. History always needs to be engaged. But this question – How can I make it more flexible? – should also be present. And what does it mean to be flexible? And what does it mean to be universal? For example, if we look at the International Olympic Committee Headquarters by 3XN, it is a type of curtain wall. But it is made in such a way that it is absolutely flexible. So, it is not about breaking the type, but about creating a new typology. To use different technology to give you a more exciting result. And what is also interesting is that in the 3XN office, they told us that their older architects typically play very different roles as designers or technicians. But now, those who come directly out of school and know the latest software well can more easily cross those boundaries and communicate directly with manufacturers and builders to enable a smooth transition between design, manufacturing, and construction. So, many limitations are being erased even in how offices are structured. And the point of all these new technologies is to push all kinds of boundaries to make architecture more elastic, responsive, and imaginative.

The Oodi Helsinki Central Library, ALA Architects, 2018 | Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
The Oodi Helsinki Central Library, ALA Architects, 2018 Image: Robert Cody

VB: Could you talk about how you chose the examples presented in the book? You included projects by ALA Architects, Shigeru Ban, Toyo Ito, SANAA, Heatherwick Studio, 3XN, UN Studio, Peter Zumthor, and Herzog & de Meuron. Is there anything in particular that unites these firms?

RC: It was after we defined our five Ts, the five chapters, that we focused on specific examples. For instance, Oodi Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects is an incredible work and is a great case study for all five of our themes. It is an extraordinary building, and we decided to put it under topology because it, best of all, integrates with its place. It is a superb response to its location in every sense. Similarly, SANAA’s Zollverein School in Essen, Germany, falls under the same category. That is because of how the building’s design and its structure respond to the latent energy from a defunct coal mine coupled with a thermally active concrete used both as a design and structural strategy for the building’s four square facades, perforated by what seems like a random array of square windows of various sizes but they are very strategically placed and sized. This building couldn’t be picked up and placed elsewhere.

AA: We went back and forth, considering different architects’ attitudes and toward Aalto. We knew that Shigeru Ban wrote about Aalto’s work and Toyo Ito’s writings about morphology. So, we looked at their work with great interest. We knew well the work of all these architects that embodied all the themes we focused on, and we had to pick their most representative buildings.   

Minna no Mori Gifu Media Cosmos, Japan, Toyo Ito & Associates, 2015 | Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
Section, Minna no Mori Gifu Media Cosmos, Japan, Toyo Ito & Associates, 2015 Image: Courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates

VB: I couldn’t help noticing that there is not a single American firm, just European and Japanese, right?

RC: We did consider Thom Mayne, Jeanne Gang, Rick Joy, and the work of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien but their projects were not so directly related to our topics. And because we intended our book to be read mainly by students, we wanted our examples to be universally known but presented in new and more profound ways.

VB: In the book, you said, “Architecture must be made delightful (pleasing), not just beautiful (attractive). Delight is a bodily term excited by all the senses, unlike beauty which is beholden to the eye.” How can architecture be made more delightful?

RC: Of course, for much of history, making architecture beautiful was the primary focus. But there is more than beauty. You walk into the Pazzi Chapel by [Filippo] Brunelleschi in Florence and feel a spirit in that room. You sense so many effects and phenomena in there – from the right sense of proportion to an experience that’s beyond just visual. It is a bodily sensation that connects you to that space. Or when you enter the Chartres Cathedral. You cross that threshold, and suddenly you feel temperature changes, humidity changes, the light changes, the colours, the sound, and everything builds on itself and takes over the body. So, first, it is the image, and then you become fully engaged and absorbed by the surroundings. That’s what we try to analyse – the sensations we experience with all our senses. That’s what becomes delightful, the complete experience. And I think our intuition augmented with digital tools can help us achieve this more explicitly through the design process.

Swatch Headquarters, Shigeru Ban, Biel Switzerland, 2019 | Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture | Angela Amoia and Robert Cody | STIRworld
Swatch Headquarters, Shigeru Ban, Biel Switzerland, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Jan Bolomey Blumer-Lehmann AG

VB: What did you learn from writing this book?

RC: It is hard to write a book. [Laughs.] For us, it is a teaching tool intended to move forward a comprehensive discourse on architecture. And we hope it will help others better understand how to read buildings and the architects’ intentions both from the past and our own time. History might not be what it seems, and we need to reevaluate it all the time. The more we know, the more we need to discuss it. Our understanding of the meaning of architecture is constantly changing as well. It has become much more complex with many new emphasis on efficiency and ecology.

AA: An air conditioner used to be the answer. It changed everything, removed the sensitivity, and the perfectly sealed universal box took over. It obliterated cultural and climatic differences. The book questions how we can learn from each place and each other. And now we are contemplating writing another book on Alvar Aalto and the Future of the City. We hope this exploration of Aalto continues because there is so much more to say and to learn. 

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