Caterina Tiazzoldi @IoWomenT
by Jasmina Tesanovic
Speaking of design, speaking of women, speaking of the shelf by Caterina Tiazzoldi and her students, speaking about utility, beauty and especially about luxury.
Anna of Cyprus, the Crusader princess who obtained the Shroud for Turin, ruled Savoy as its duchess. She brought luxurious habits to the grim mountain stronghold: the music, food, books and court dress from her elegant island culture. In the severe and sober court of the military Savoy they both hated and admired Anna, but the relic Shroud, which seemed like one of her extravagances at first, is the longest-lasting heirloom of her culture.
Luxury was also a necessity in Ottoman palaces. Hurrem the famous redheaded empress, the wife of Suleiman the Great, taught the Turks that luxury was as necessary to an empire as its conquered territories. The mosques and palaces she constructed are still the symbols of a time in which imperial beauty held the priority over raw military power.
Caterina Tiazzoldi made a shelf that conveys that spirit of necessary luxury: a feeling of baroque abundance, a sense of everything beyond the rational/ practical/ useful. Through the use of parametric software, it’s as if ideas and material were united in another dimension. Although it is a digitally manufactured “shelving system,” it has a sense of ease and perfection, like some exotic spotted egg.
When it is used to contain books, it changes the sense and the meaning of the literary world of books and shelves. Instead of a direct, cut-and-dried library system, it feels feline and poetic, a byzantine, labyrinthine, threadlike research of texts and their interior meaning.
When you look at the parametric shelf, with its radiating struts and slanting shelves, you forget about books as totem of solemn culture. The books, stuck irregularly and unpredictably between the lace of the shelves, seem like decorative objects. Since they lack neat lines and subject clusters, each book shows its own color and consistency, like pebbles from exotic beaches.
Acting as a room divider, the lace-like complex structure, made of dense bamboo plywood, is like a boudoir paravan, an ornate dressing-room screen. Sturdy yet perforated, it divides space, half-hides secrets and guards the personal in its dignified posture.
We women of modernity cannot command space today as Hurrem the Ottoman sultana or Anna the Savoy duchess once did. Queens or beggars, we women have always struggled for a space that extends our privacy — as much as we were allowed. Women are not just in the home, but are the home, the space itself. We privilege objects that convey emotional meaning over functional devices that simply eat up floor-space without conveying a warm sense of shelter.
This parametric bookshelf is something I could easily place in a kitchen, or move to my bedroom or just anywhere I want to feel good and beautiful: on a terrace? On a roof, in a boat?
In Casa Jasmina we have learned something by sharing our space with Parametric Lace; we would like to open-source parametric techniques and fabricate similar furnishings with the tools of Maker culture. It won’t be the same, but things are never the same. In parametrics, software creates varieties rather than a conformity. If we know what we want, our origins, our goals and our values, then we can personalize our own palaces; we can find a luxury and a feeling of beauty that makes our own era come to life.
The “Parametric Lace Shelving System” is the most photogenic piece of furniture in Casa Jasmina.
The shelf stands near the entrance, where it divides the hall from a meeting room. Everyone who enters the house seems to notice it. Commonly they stop and take a picture of it, because its shape is convincingly weird and it’s also stuffed with odd books.
“Parametric Lace” was a formal experiment by a Columbia University architecture graduate school workshop in the “Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation.” This 2008 gathering was led by Philip Anzalone and also by Caterina Tiazzoldi. Caterina is a Turinese architect who is fond of digital production methods. Caterina is therefore one of our muse figures.
The shelf left Columbia for Italy in 2009, to do a star turn in the “Salon del Mobile” that year. It has never returned to the USA, because it’s easier to make a new one than to ship an old one. When Caterina heard that Casa Jasmina had a heap of books that needed shelter, she was kind enough to lend us this 2008-9 Columbia installation.
For the record, the designers and machinists of the “Parametric Lace Shelving System” were Samuel Grenader, Karen Bechara Mitri, Jay Sikes and Heath West. They likely had some help from their fellow GSAPP participants Brian Bush, Junichiro Honkawa, Yong Ju Lee, Naser Madouh, Gabriel Nichols, and Eleni Petaloti. The entire effort was a collaboration between the Advanced Design Studio Parametric Furniture, the GSAPP Avery Digital Fabrication Lab, and the Non-Linear Solutions Unit.
I know that sounds complicated, but I’ve been known to hang out at the Columbia School of Architecture myself. When it come to mastering arcane forms of architectural production, these guys are in total earnest. They’re very for-real over there.
Since Casa Jasmina stands next to a Fab Lab, people commonly assume that we built the “Parametric Lace Shelving System” ourselves. Columbia University deserves that credit, not us: we were just fortunate enough to, well, shelve it.
“Parametric Lace” is visually striking and it’s plentifully digital, because it is one output of a long and much-pondered academic research program in digital design and digital manufacturing. With that said, though, “Parametric Lace” is not really a “bookcase.” Parametrics is a general method of using software to generate structures that fit required parameters. Parameters, that is, of height, width, transparency, modulation, and subdivision. These physical characters are all closely inter-related, and the whole shebang can be fine-tuned on the screen by architectural software before the designer hits “print” and the whole thing is carved out by routers.
“Parametric Lace” is basically a set of tilted shelves united by web-like struts of machine-carved bamboo plywood. It exists to explore space rather than to efficiently store books.
But, I put books in it anyway. In fact, they’re my books, and I deliberately arranged the books in there in order to emphasize the eccentricity of the space.
The Casa Jasmina library includes some mightily eccentric books. They’re hard to get your hands on, and if you manage to pull one of these books out of the angular web of “Parametric Lace” structure, you’ll find that the books themselves are rather hard to read. Most of them are tomes on electronic art and postmodern media theory. Some are even about parametric architecture. It makes good sense that they’re in crooked, lopsided, colorful piles, because they are books about crooked, lopsided, colorful subject-matter.
In any Maker space, bookshelves are some of the easiest things to “make.” Basically, all you need for books is some dry planks, concrete blocks and a shelving system. In the Parametric Lace structure, the library of Casa Jasmina is piled at indiscreet, non-Euclidean angles, while the books have to be snagged and tugged through many spiderweb-like holes. It has rather a Borgesian or Calvino-like astral quirkiness to it. Actually, though, it’s a form of truth-in-packaging.
Nobody complains about these eccentric books and their difficulties. On the contrary, they’re properly impressed that a “house of the future” has any printed matter in it at all.
So, though “Parametric Lace” is by no means an efficient bookcase, it’s an effective cultural statement. Even a parametric architect would have to watch it around this unique ensemble of books and shelving. He might well drag a book out of the case with diligent effort, only to discover that he has snagged “The Speed Book” of the former architect and current net.art performance artist Aram Bartholl. If he wants to keep his cultural composure, he will restore Aram’s book to the case before his fingers are burned.
So “Parametric Lace” has been a signal success. Although it was built six long years ago, it looks entirely up to date, and even feels quite House-of-the-Future like. It set a semiotic tone for the opening of “Casa Jasmina” that was well-nigh ideal. Most objects in Casa Jasmina are very Makerly, quite minimal, legible, low-fi and simple. “Parametric Lace” is gnarly and sophisticated, and is eloquent of cultural disturbance. The gaze clings to it. It is elegant and even baroque, and yet the eye doesn’t tire of it.
It’s not a great bookcase, but it’s an excellent room-divider. You can partially see through it, and easily hear through it, but it has so much architectural presence that it sharply demarcates one space from another. Since it’s also crammed with literary curios, it invites people to sit within its sheltering aura and discuss deep matters. We’ve already had a number of useful discussions along that line. It’s a very sociable object.
So it is our star piece of furniture, but, there is a fly in the parametric spiderweb there. Although it’s a very digital object, it’s not an open-source object. It’s from a world-class academic lab, not from a Fab Lab. So it belongs to a different production tradition, and it would be unfair of us in Casa Jasmina to blandly assimilate a creative work from Columbia University.
Frankly, we’re benefiting from the elegance of their creative work without going through the serious labor of being a Columbia post-graduate. This rather large group of creative people didn’t create “Parametric Lace” for our benefit, so, although we think we’ve indulged in some “fair use” by reassembling it and showing it off, we’re going to remove it from the premises.
I’ll explain why, since, as curator, it’s my duty to decide whether it is proper for things to be in Casa Jasmina, or not. So I’ll say a few brief words about what turns out to be a complicated ethical problem. There are a surprisingly large number of ways to argue about the complex relationship between the academy and the open-source world. I’m very open to these debates about rights, ethics, and usages: in fact I’m keen to host some in Casa Jasmina.
I don’t dismiss the subtleties here, or the important stakes involved, but I also admire the brief simplicity of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Let me frame it this way. If I were a graduate student (a notoriously exploited class of people, by the way) at Columbia GSAPP, and if I built some cool object and I even paid for the privilege of doing that, I would not be entirely happy if somebody else feigned ownership of my academic creation and started showing it off to the public and press. Who designed and built “Parametric Lace Shelving System?” HEATH WEST, KAREN BECHARA MITRI, JAY SIKES and SAMUEL GRENADER. That’s who.
If they’re like other young architecture graduate students whom I know, they probably decorating the baby’s room, struggling with cruel student debt and hoping to get some commissions right now. An interesting profession, architecture. I certainly wish them well.
So, “Parametric Lace” was not something we owned or made. Instead, it was a guest in our house; a New York celebrity who dropped by for a few days, out of courtesy. A cool guy; chic; a class act. He was here, we admired him, and it’s time for him to go back to his own world. We were happy to host him. There will be others.
When a host is urbane and considerate, people will find their own reasons to appear at his door. We are not a business at Casa Jasmina, we are a house; we will be known, not buy what we have bought or sold, but by the quality of our guests.