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Conversation with



Perry Kulper is an architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He previously taught for 17 years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles and held visiting teaching positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University. Subsequent to his graduate studies at Columbia University, he worked for Eisenman/ Robertson; Robert A.M. Stern Architects; and Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown Architects before moving to Los Angeles. Kulper’s interests include the generative potential of architectural drawing, the different spatial opportunities of diverse design methods, and broadening the conceptual range by which architecture contributes to our cultural imagination. In 2013, he published Pamphlet Architecture 34, Fathoming the Unfathomable: Archival Ghosts and Paradoxical Shadows with Nat Chard. Kulper is a co-author (with University College London Professor Nat Chard) of an upcoming book, Contingent Practices.

He received his Bachelor of Science in architecture from California Polytechnic State University and his Master of Architecture (with honors) from Columbia University.

"I was thinking of the drawing for the first time as an object, as a thing in the world that had its own potential regardless of my intent."

In this interview, Perry tells us the initial motivation for him to start the work David's Island, his early experience in SCI-Arc, his landscape series, his perspective on the relationship between drawing and 3D modeling, and the ideal architecture ducation environment in his mind. Perry was the most important professor who led me into architecture. It was also the first professor who truly enlightened me on what architecture is. Let's have the conversation with him together.

——Editor/Interviewer: Keyi Zhang)


David's Island

Strategic Plot, 1996

Keyi Zhang: Can you tell us a little bit of how you changed your way of creating from a traditional architect (as you worked with a lot of practice architects, Peter Eisenman, Denise Scott Brown + Robert Venturi, and Robert A.M. Stern), to what you are creating now? What situation inspired you to create David's Island?

Perry Kulper: There were probably three key things.


One, I was walking by a trash can at SCI-Arc. It had a bunch of xerox copies inside it. I was there alone one night, and I walked by it and realized that it was not just a trash can. That it had to do with technology, with the people who wrote things, the people distributed them, and so on. A lot of people were ‘involved’ in that trash can that constructed its possibility. I began to realize the trash can was an assembly of relationships, and not simply an object. So that’s important, and that was well before the work on David’s Island.


The second thing was probably the times at Cambridge when they were talking about being situated in the world and levels of embodiment and about how things are structured in the world. That was very important to me.


Not long after that time I started making the David’s Island Strategic Plot. I began to generate knowledge that I didn’t have before because I was understanding some of the latent properties of things. I was thinking about tacit knowledge that I was gaining by making the drawing. I used the drawing in three ways. One, to have multiple languages of representation happening simultaneously. So, words, diagrams, notations, figurative pieces and so on. That was important to me, and that shifted how I worked. The second was that I used drawing to invent programs, to touch the content of the work. So the axis of mutiny, landings for mythical sea travelers, camouflagic surfaces, etc. several programs were invented to try and care for issues like panoptic and panoramic vision (hinged to islands), nautical cartography as navigational means, mythologies to do with the sea, etc. Thirdly, I was thinking of the drawing for the first time as an object, as a thing in the world that had its own potential regardless of my intent.


So those three things, the trash can at SCI-Arc, being at Cambridge, and then starting the initial work on the David’s Island drawing, the Strategic Plot opened my imagination and conceptual breath. I began to think about things that could belong to spatial discussions that I had never thought about before. Those were gifts for me, and they were important to me, and I got lucky to recognize them.


Perry Giving Lecture

Keyi Zhang: I didn't know the first story before…Is SCI-Arc a magic place?

Perry Kulper: Yes, for me it was really important. Mostly, the friendships, people doing super interesting work, really good teachers, very interesting students… So yeah, it was a magical place. And it had no resources basically when I started there, so you had to be part of it. You couldn’t just turn up, you had to help construct the school. So that was really valuable for me in terms of discipline, establishing a discipline for teaching, and caring and growing up with people. Without people caring for it, the school had no resources at that time, so it would not have been a school unless people were totally committed to it and passionate about it. So yeah, it (SCI-Arc) was magical and it was important to me for lots of reasons.




Keyi Zhang: Can you tell us more about the creating process of the “Landscape” drawings series?


Perry Kulper: Sure. When I was teaching at SCI-Arc, we were taking first-year graduate students out to the American south-west for a week. Sometimes we stayed in motels, but we would camp to spend time on the sites doing things: installation, photography, experiencing the place in particular ways. Those places became sites for the work for the studio when we returned to LA. I think it was when I was on Mormon Mesa, with Mary-Ann Ray and Tom Buresh. I was walking by myself, because the distances were big, and I didn’t see anyone. And it occurred to me that I was trying to teach about landscapes, but I didn’t know anything about them. That was part of the inspiration to make those series.


I was also looking at a lot of artists who made serial work, from Robert Ryman to Brice Marden, many who were working in series. That was indirect relative to the inspiration for the landscapes, anyway.




Perry Kulper: I was in Philadelphia (University Pennsylvania), also teaching there. I intended to travel light, and I couldn't take my drawing table and heavier gear. So, I went to a paper store, and decided to make a series of landscape drawings. Normally I was making a landscape drawing by 6:30 am. Because the white paper was thin, but I liked it, I used two layers for each drawing, so there was enough opacity that I could see what I was doing. The landscape drawings were 9” x 12”, the images, and the double layers of trace were 18” x 24”. I taped them in the same four places. To start them i worked on the horizon. Because the horizon was big, and it's super expansive. I don't think I've exhibited these, maybe once in Tennessee, but they're a series of black drawings, basically. One is called “Horizon”, the second is called “Double Horizon”. Then there's “Sloped Horizon” and “Broken Horizon”. They're all basically black drawings. The inspiration came from the trips to the Southwest and then the artists who were working in serial ways. 


I made them very quickly and I never threw any of them away. I didn’t make heavy judgments like I did about architecture. Architecture can become, you know this well, really heavy when you're having to make judgments, about values and ideas. I didn't worry about that. So, I made that series, and as soon as I got to a point where I sort of exhausted an idea, I stopped that series and went onto the next series. I made one a day for six weeks (so I made 42 of them). At that point, I was living in Cambridge part of the year, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. So, my schedule was funky, and it was hard to do one a day. But I wish I had continued to do that. I made the last one the year Ella was born in 2005. But I have an idea about two new sets. So, I may start. I'd recommend one a day of something to everybody. The Photoshop studies, the “Speculative House, Garden, and Landscapes”, there were 155 of those. Those were basically kind of one a days. They learned from the landscapes.



Architecture Model, 1990

Keyi Zhang: Is Architecture Drawing an individual art form in your mind other than Architecture Practice Projects? In your mind what is the relationship between Architecture Drawing and Architecture Practice Projects?


Perry Kulper: That’s a good question, K.


Because of the cultural influences in my work, and because I think architecture needs to be a cultural project not just a professional practice, the influences are broad for me in terms of what I do and why I do it. Art, in my view, historically, has a much greater capacity to touch multiple aspects of societies. It can deal with a much broader range of topics. So, when I was a student at Columbia, I'd probably never been to a museum, really, or a gallery. But when I went to New York, I realized that part of the culture there was structured around public institutions. So, I began to go to lots of galleries and museums, and I realized that art has much greater range than architecture does. And, because of my interest in the cultural roles of architecture, I'm willing to borrow from, or learn from, filmmakers, painters, literature, and various kinds of art practices. So, techniques from art, structuring relations of things and broadening the conceptual frameworks by which work might be produced have become, as a result of David's Island really, a part of my world.


I often get asked in lectures, if I'm an artist. And I’d say that's a good question, but it doesn't really matter to me because I think and work relationally, so I'm not so interested in categories or silos or... So anyway, I'm willing to borrow, learn from, and use techniques or methods or structures from other disciplines if it seems appropriate or relevant to something I'm working on.



Architecture Plan, 1990

Keyi Zhang: Are architecture drawings individual art forms outside of the architecture profession.


Perry Kulper: You're raising an interesting question. I don't think of what I do, any of the drawings that I've made, as art forms. There are certain affiliations or recognizable or legible traits where one might say that some aspects of the drawings are aligned with art practices. I'm not trained as an artist in techniques nor in the histories of art, so I don't think of what I do as an art form. But I do think that the discipline of architecture touches many cultural forms, so I don't mind if people say that some of my work could be aligned with art practices. That's partially because I often use techniques, again, that might be used more likely by artists than by architects. That's just to give myself more room.


I love traditional forms of drawing, the conventions of architectural practice. I grew up on those and I have huge regard for them. But, for me, they're often too narrow in terms of things I'm trying to work on because I can't figure out how to draw a plan or make a section or a rendering because some of the ideas I'm working with aren't that easily converted. So, I make drawings where I try to keep those ideas at play long enough where I can figure out how to convert them into geometry, form, and material. So, the drawings, for me, are still architectural, or they're spatial. But they use conventions of other disciplines that architects often don't, like notations, or indexes, for example. Architects don't tend to work with those, but other disciplines do. And those other forms of representation are sometimes useful for me, and they get incorporated in drawings. When I work on things, I don't feel compelled to believe that the endgame is architecture. I feel compelled to work on the things that I'm curious about and that perhaps have spatial ramifications. But in the profession, we tend to use drawings to prove architecture or to describe architecture. When I enter a piece of work that I'm trying to work on properly, the end game, I don't say I need to make architecture. I don't even say, and I don't tend to use the words buildings or architecture. I tend to use spatiality because it includes building and architecture, but it’s more expansive for me. Spatiality doesn't have to be architecture as we know it. So, I'm not sure I'm answering your question very directly, but I think the practice is motivated by lots of important things, like codes, clients and budgets, and by the conventions of architectural representation. I'm just not skilled enough to be able to take certain ideas that I have and convert them through conventional representation types. I at times need to invent other types of work, drawings, to keep those ideas in play so I don’t give them up because I don't know how to design them.


Speculative House, Garden+Landscape

+Jeff Halstead, Digital Modeling, 2018


Speculative House, Garden+Landscape

+Jeff Halstead, Digital Modeling, 2018

Keyi Zhang: In the process of 3D modeling based on your drawings, are there emerging values which are different from the original drawings?


Perry Kulper: They're different in specificity, but they're similar in kind. I think there's an enormous amount of potential to discover things in digital modeling, for example, that we haven't touched yet. When I've worked with others who are digitally modeling things, the work that happens through modeling is normally quite reductive. Because we're modeling figures basically.


In collaboration with others, I establish the conceptual framework for the work. “These are the kinds of ideas. Are you interested in working on them with me?" But because of the ways in which I work, when I work by myself, and the way my brain works, a tremendous amount of that thinking is lost. Someone else working on the machine doesn't have a way to contact all that stuff. So, if I could work directly in the computer, the work would be different in the computer because it's structured differently than physical workspaces. It has histories linked to things like perspective, but at the same time, has its own logic. So, for me, while the former students have been fantastic, the work is reductive when it happens through a digital format because it's losing things, in relation to things worked through by me where contact with latent, and tacit knowledge is critical. The implicit things that arrive by working through something.


Aerial Diptych Folly

+Oliver Popadich, 2018

Perry Kulper: But to answer the question maybe more directly, yes, there's a tremendous amount that has come back from the computer to me in terms of constructing knowledge. For example, I could make a hundred views of an object in a handful of hours that I could never draw. I'm interested in how the machine's structured. The history panel, for example, is there potential there? What about CMYK in relation to RGB? Can that contribute to the work? So yes, much more complexity and information than I could ever draw. There'd be no way for me to draw certain things that I think about. I mean, I could draw them, but it'd be hard to study them. I think it's hard to study things in digital modeling because when you model things, they look certain. I think it's hard to change them. So, whether modeling, scripting, coding, diffusion models, whatever those things are, they are all very interesting, but I've not had enough time to really integrate what I've learned from modeling back into my work. But it's interesting. I started work on two drawings a long time ago where I took digital renderings and began to modify them. I was erasing things and replacing things…so I would start to get involved in modeling and image production. The “Aerial Diptych Folly” pieces are related to images and drawings and then modeling, so that whole body of work, those three pieces are related to some things that your question implies.


Aerial Diptych Folly

+Oliver Popadich, 2018

Keyi Zhang: You mentioned that the poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird inspires you to think about architecture and architecture drawing, could you please tell us why?


Perry Kulper: I got interested in ambiguity, multiplicities in work, complexities, and so on, largely through the writing of Robert Venturi, and his book ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’. In this sense, Wallace Stevens's poem is useful because it's about a blackbird, but the 13 stanzas speak about a blackbird in ways that are indirect, and ambiguous or multiple relative to a description of a blackbird. It points to the blackbird. The cosmology of the bird is built up through 13 different ways to articulate it. So, when I work, because I’d like work to be durable, and ideally it would work at many levels including discursive levels, to its cultural and disciplinary bearing, to growing my skill sets, to some form of contribution and so on. Work can't just be good according to a program or client or a budget or a site…It needs to work on multiple levels. 


So, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird is a way metaphorically or analogically for me to think about 13 ways in which work needs to work for the architecture or the spatial realm to be analogous to the blackbird. This also means that I can point to things, structuring this indirectly if relevant. This is the other key thing about Wallace Stevens's poem. He points to the blackbird or indirect characteristics of the blackbird. It's never explicit. And I'm often interested in things that are implicit or ambiguous because that often invites people to participate because they can't access them immediately and say, okay, I've got that, end of the story. So, the poem allows a construction, a kind of co-construction by a reader and the text that Stevens wrote to build the world of the Blackbird, so it's an active participation rather than an explicit description.


Flights o' Fancy: Bird Motel


In my 60’ish conceptual catalysts, I wrote something like using literary terms as a construction logic for architecture. So literary terms have been important to me indirectly, but the precision, the relational specificity and precision seemed much more particular than architecture language, which is normally approximate and abstract.


And I used to write Haiku, not the seasonal, landscape or nature variety, but I would write them, and I paid attention to the form, five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, so 17 syllables total. It's where what I call language folds came from, where I put words and phrases together in sometimes unusual ways that allow me to think about particular things. I was writing haiku to understand how a pair of words in the first line might infer some things that were occurring in the third line, using different kinds of subject matter, again not to do with nature. So, haiku, years ago, were important for me. I wrote a lot of them, and I enjoyed that. While I'm not a good writer, it allowed my creative and imaginative capacities to grow.


Sometimes the way key pieces of literature are structured has been important in terms of narrative thinking and how to structure particular kinds of content.

Flights o' Fancy: Bird Motel


Keyi Zhang: You once said in your lecture that you hold up a pencil and ask students what its world is comprised of. And you said, “mass production, deforestation, history of writing”, and the eraser at the end of the pencil, “censorship”. This is the most inspiring and beautiful description I have ever heard about analogical thinking. Could you please tell us more about what you think analogical thinking is and how analogical thinking helps the architecture design process.


Perry Kulper: I wouldn't disagree with you, K(Keyi), but I don't think the pencil example is, for me, not so much a form of analogical thinking. That's relational thinking. Analogical thinking is super important, and it sometimes can be analogical. The pencil example basically came out of the trash can story that I talked about earlier. It's a combination of things. The pencil thinking really came out of both my experience with that trash can, but also some of the conversations at Cambridge and in the UK.


It was a movement, for me, from ‘things’ to relational thinking. There's an equivalent, like from typological to ecological thinking. Things like typology are fixed in terms of the relationships, or properties, which qualify something as a typology; where ecological thinking, for me, is much more inclusive, and has indeterminate conditions. It is a temporal construction. Relational structuring through the example of the pencil, suggested that the pencil touches on deforestation, mass production, advertising and the history of writing in its relational field. When you sit down and eat a meal, there are a lot of things that make that meal possible: from manners and bodily gestures to chemical relationships to ethnic things and so on. When we eat a meal, identity and gender conditions, geometry of movements, bodily configuration and so on. There are things that make the meal possible, or make the pencil possible. It doesn't mean that deforestation is a frontal characteristic of a wooden pencil, but it means, for me, in its relational field, that it belongs somehow to the makeup of the pencil. That recognition was incredibly helpful for me because it then opened things that I could potentially structure in spatial realms or in architecture that I didn't think were previously possible.


I think there are ways that architecture can talk about all kinds of things through relational structuring, advanced through representation techniques and design methods. Architecture historically, in the old days, talked about all kinds of things: God, the infinite, ritual construction, social capacities and so on. So the pencil is useful just because it allows me to talk about the ecology of kinds of things that belong to the world of something or a phenomenon or a conceptual framework. It gives me some confidence that if the pencil can talk about those kinds of things, not foreground them, but if we can grasp the possibility that it's linked to other relational networks, that architecture can equally talk about a range of things by thinking and working relationally. Anyway, so that's relational thinking, relational structuring comes out of the pencil, eating a meal, anything. All architects do is restructure relationships. That's what we do through material and representational practices.

In the pencil problem, analogical thinking may be there, but for me analogical thinking is very helpful because in your experiences of the world or my experiences of the world, we have experienced a lot. In terms of design skills, for me at least, that's a much more limited range. And analogical thinking, because it works through likenesses: this is like that, this might behave like that, this might look like that, is expansive in terms of relational structuring. I'm limited in terms of what things can look like, but when I'm working on a set of ideas, I say to myself, that might look like a B-52 bomber crossed with rattlesnake skin. That, because there are certain things that those two things have in common, relationally, with what I might be thinking about, but can’t otherwise articulate. Analogical thinking then allows us to bridge to other things that lie outside of our own authorship. I'm not likely going to cook up a facade that looks partially like a B-52 bomber crossed with a sidewinder rattlesnake skin because I know how to do that or say, that's what it should be. But we often, in life, operate through analogic relationships.

You know, I'm giving you a set of instructions. K(Keyi), when you get to this intersection, it's like what we experienced in such and such a place, so you'll know what to do. Or when I go to a library that I've never been to, I have a sense of how to behave, I have a sense of what it might be about, I have a sense about its history, maybe even its organization, because I have likeness relationships. Because I've been to other libraries. So, likenesses are hugely foundational for our experiences in the world. If we didn't know what things were like, everything that we would deal with would be a new condition. We'd have no way to navigate the world, to be honest.


Speculative House, Garden+Landscape


Keyi Zhang: And also, I believe the contrast or difference we're trying to research on is also trying to find the likeness. 


Perry Kulper: Oh, for sure. That's often in a kind of Western context where we use comparative logic. There were differences and likeness or contrast and similarity. I'm not so keen on that. There are certain Asian practices which are not comparative. They're not binary. They're not opposite. They're not oppositional. But yes, you're right. Yes, we do. We find likenesses through difference. But there are also other ways to find likenesses that don't have to do with a comparison to something which is opposite or distant from itself. That's another discussion altogether.


I just think relationally that there are certain things in certain Asian cultures, for example, or prior to modernization in Western culture that are much more attuned to relational richness. Where we're not left with this or that. We might get a taste of this or that, but we can also occupy lots of places between difference and likeness. It's more subtle, more supple, rangier. There are cultural practices and traditions that allow a different gradient, not just a comparative black and white logic. We have lots of things that we use in Western culture. That's a different conversation. But yes, we do. I think we do discover likenesses through differences and vice versa.

Keyi Zhang: What idealized architecture education mode or architecture education environment should be in your mind?

Perry Kulper: If I knew that, Keyi... These are super good questions. I've talked about this before, I often do in lectures, where I think the history of ideas is critical. I would ground an architectural education relative to other disciplines, relative to the history of education, relative to architectural education.


But more broadly, I think architectural education must touch on the history of ideas. Those are cultural foundations: geometry, optics, mathematics, religion, philosophy, technology, language systems, and so forth. If architecture is to be a cultural practice, which I believe it is, not a professional service (which is part of it), then we need to expose students and ourselves to history of ideas, to cultural practices, values, traditions, things which structure cultures, whether it's meals and markets and religion and forms of exchange, whatever those things are. So that would be part of an ideal spatial education. I wouldn't call it an architectural education to begin with because it's too narrow.


Then, I think, really understanding how to work out what's being structured and what's structuring things. Art history was useful for me in that regard. I would look at a painting and then someone was writing clearly about it, a still life. These are the things that are going down in terms of gender roles and biases, social norms, distant relations pointed to, etc. that were happening through the painting and relationships to the landscape that the painting would talk about. So not so much what things are, but what’s being structured. Things, conceptual frameworks, and phenomena. Not just things. That would be very important. It's to do with relational thinking, relational assemblies, relational contours. Because when we work, we enter situations that are structured in some way; and if it's true what I said earlier, that all we do is basically modify certain relational conditions, then we need to understand relationally things that are going on. We need to be sensitive to those things so we can encounter them and interact with them in generous or relevant or appropriate or interesting ways. So that would be a second thing that would be very important.


Speculative House, Garden+Landscape


Perry Kulper: It would be important to understand many disciplines, and creative disciplines in particular, and to get exposure and working knowledge of things like literature, film, painting, sculpture and so on. It’s important to understand techniques, and the communicative properties of different disciplines.


Representation would be huge. Not only how we work representationally, but who's represented. So, what I like to think about is double representation.


Design methods would be huge. How to work.


Those would be some foundational things that I would establish in the first year. If I had a say in how to structure a curriculum, there probably wouldn't be any design really in the first year. I don't know that.


You can't do everything in school. I'm just particular because the things I'm mentioning have to do with participation. And if we don't know etymologies and conventions and histories of things, we don't know how to talk about things. Even contemporary things, emergent things, future things, it's hard to participate generously and contribute to cultural enrichment, embodied range. 


For me, it would be incredibly difficult if you don't have some sense of how things are composed, how the world is composed. It's hard to participate. Because we don't know. When I was in school, we did things like analysis. It's great. That's my equivalent of structuring. But the analysis was how... What program types were in the street, in the buildings? What were they made of? What were the setbacks? What were the code things? What were the programmatic logics and so on? That's part of it. But it's not the richer relational set up in terms of a context or situation. Situations are much richer and denser than conventional analysis. We can talk about those things and situations and introduce new things. So, analysis is always problematic for me, normally the way it's framed. Situational structuring is a way that I talk about it, not an analysis. Analysis assumes everything can be seen or known.


Keyi Zhang: That was the last question. Thank you so much for coming today.





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