City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Davids x Whitney Sander

NB: This is a write-up of a talk that took place at Postopolis! LA during April 2009. Notes are taken in real-time, with editing and context added afterward so reader beware. All Postopolis! LA entries are gathered here.

Another interview by David A and David B of ArchDaily, this time with Whitney Sander of Sander Architects, another LA-based firm. Their work is largely interesting due to the focus on prefab construction techniques – as noted previously, this is a consistent theme in some LA-based architecture.The Davids get Sander to talk about his Living Steel works by way of introduction, investigations into prefab construction. Sander notes that working out such projects would come in at $6000per sq ft was a breakthrough moment.

Sander describes how the prefabricated light-gauge metal building industry is actually about 100 years old, and now highly refined. He states it’s the most mature industry in the country (difficult to prove?); the patents wore out long ago. The Butler Box – or Butler Building – is the most well-known example. As it’s so mature now, the margins are very low. “The product is bullet-proof”, he says. “It’s computerised from the minute you place the order.“

(For more on Sander's prefab products, see their Hybrid House)

Moving on, the Davids ask him “What is architecture?” Sander gives the negative response to begin with: “An over-used term that has been applied to too many things (and yet) an over-regulated term – (in that you’re) not allowed to use it unless you’re registered with the AIA.”

Seeing this only part-resonates, he moves on to answer more constructively, “the making of habitation … or the studying of paradigms of doing new ways of doing this.” It’s also “cultural production”, he said, “it’s expressive of where we’re going – of what we’re doing.”

Butte Residence 

In response to a question about innovation, Sander replies that they “understand new forms for new times. We don’t take prototypical forms – this is contrary to what I said about Butler Buildings – but we also figure out what things last, what things have value. We listen to Mozart and look at work of Le Corbusier.” He looks for the right word for a few moments before settling on “Connoisseurship!”, which he interprets as the ability to “accept the best from the past but look forward to what else could be.“

Whitney Sander

When asked about social networking, Sander dismisses the notion, finding that if it only involves ”networking with a lot of architects”, it’s of little value. “A lot of architects are into themselves”, he says, whereas “you got to get out”. He says he’s not a member of AIA.

(In my notes, there’s another line from Sander, but I’m not sure of the context: “If architecture is reduced to a quantum process, then you’re lost …“)

Briard House

Briard House

During the interview Sander had also dismissed much of LA’s urban form and architecture, making the familiar complaints about it being crude and not human-scale. Geoff suggested another view, saying that if you “compare LA to the Grand Canyon rather than Paris or London you can instead see it as almost geological experience.” Or it can be viewed as an “existential investigation, in that you can look at the city and find emptiness. Then there’s an alternative psychological possibility in a city with bank towers and no people.”

Sander says he agrees and finds the idea fascinating. That LA is “vacant in some ways and yet also magnificent”. Then he seems to return to his original theme  “I just wish it were better. It’s being done better in Europe. When’s the last time someone built a good skyscraper in US?”

(Geoff recalls the idea that the US is a concentrated rebound of Europe, coming back to haunt the psychology of Europe. Maybe Dubai is a concentrated rebound of the US …)

Ben Cerveny asks about user-generated content and whether prefab might enable a form of user-generation of architecture, or at least building?

Sander doesn’t seem to get this. He likens it to “fast food prefab”.

Ben suggests it may be more sophisticated than that, more akin to the architecture of the favela rather than fast food? Sander states instead that “the process of building structures is becoming more complicated rather than less so.” In this he appears to mean in terms of a bureaucracy of approvals, litigation and so on, saying “our role as mediators of a paper trail is where we could end up.” (He clearly doesn’t seem interested in the potential of prefab that Ben’s hinting at, in terms of modular ‘kits of parts’ that enable a more adaptive design, more creatively involving the end-user as a co-creator i.e. smartly and sensitively accentuating a process that tends to happen anyway etc. etc.)


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