Reza Nik Studio
an experimental architecture practice


A weekly piece reflecting on current thoughts, theories, research and sometimes creative writing.

[experimental architecture vs. experimenting in architecture]

Disclaimer: This will be a quick post which I would like to reflect on in more depth at a later date. But since we have implemented a midnight cut-off time for my daily experiments, this piece in particular will be on going and updated in the next little while.

Frei Otto - Soap Bubble Experiments

Frei Otto - Soap Bubble Experiments

The difference between experimental architecture and experimenting in architecture is becoming more evident for me in the past few months. This has been a slow understanding of the nuances between the two (which I am still uncovering), sparked in particular by my time teaching and researching for this semester’s course “guided distractions: abstraction and experimentation in architecture.” Also by my own accelerated process of daily experiments which I have been executing for the past 39 consecutive days - see instagram feed. I will make an attempt to distinguish between the two below, in order to further understand my intentions and how I relate to them.

Firstly, experimental architecture seems to have a variety of interpretations in the architectural world. This was a term which got some traction after it was used by Peter Cook of Archigram in 1970 in his book by the same name. It was further developed by architect Lebbeus Woods with the founding of the Research Institute of Experimental Architecture (RIEA) in 1988 where experimental practices and methodologies were introduced to architectural education. Not to say that other schools were not practicing experimentation or experimental architecture, but the RIEA’s mission was to focus on it. Woods believed The task of the experimental architect is to take us to places and spaces we haven’t been before.”

Years later, architectural critic and educator Aaron Betsky described it as “experimental architecture emerged to question not only Modernism's clarity and clean lines, but also Postmodernism's jokes and revival revues.” Betsky also curated the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008 with a focus on experimental architecture named “Architecture beyond building” and when writing and speaking about it, he described one of the mottos being inspired by a quote by architect Wolf Prix, in that: “what we want is an open architecture of the open eye, open heart and the open mind.” Betsky also wrote about what his interpretation of Experimental Architecture is in the biennale’s catalogue, he says:

“If it is true, as I believe it is, that architecture is of necessity the built affirmation of the economic, social and political status quo, then experimental architecture is the attempt to erect critical counter-structures to such codified productions of buildings. Experimental architecture is a site of resistance as well as of alternatives, and is so both in form and in method. Instead of producing autonomous forms meant to provide shelter, to monumentalize the values for those who caused them to be built, and to contain and isolate people from each other, experimental architecture may be useless, or even formless, but it is always open-ended. “
-Aaron Betsky

Lebbeus Woods

Lebbeus Woods

In order to understand the nuances of the term Experimental Architecture, I also asked the students in my class as well as various architects I personally know.
How do you define experimental architecture?

  • pioneer, avant-garde, doing something people never did, beyond the field of architecture (or forget the identity of architects)

  • Experimental architecture has a theory or concept behind an architectural project in order to solve the problems of the community, rather than just make something that beautified the neighborhood.

  • Architectural design that is speculative and highly conceptual

  • unbuildable but meaningful or a tool to explore the world

  • Developing conceptual ideas through a series of methods, that expand the thought process uncovering new ideas.

  • Architecture that pushes new boundaries and explores new territories with an open mind. Experimental architecture does not have to come up with concrete solutions to things, but alternate and creative ways of thinking about existing problems.

  • Experimental architecture is developing an architectural idea in its purest form, unrestrained by factors, such as money, which at times limit the creative exploration

Those are only a few of over 50 answers I have received, and you can see the range of interpretations. There isn’t really a right or wrong answer to this question, as you may have already guessed. And everyone’s interpretation seems to be different in some way, and perhaps it doesn’t even matter - who really cares about how we define this? Does it matter? A part of me wants to understand this further in order to be able to define how I have interpreted it - because I disagree with many of the statements above in regards to my interpretation of what experimental architecture is…. I also think that because of Woods, Peter Cook, and Wolf Prix and others’ drawings and buildings, experimental architecture has been (mis)associated with experiments in form, which is something I am definitely not interested in. Form-finding to me is a result of everything else involved in the process of making architecture - it doesn’t act as the primary goal. I am realizing that what I am interested in is experimentation and not necessarily trying to define what experimental architecture is.

Peter Cook - Kunsthaus Graz Building

Peter Cook - Kunsthaus Graz Building

Experimentation isn’t simply a tagline, or a trend which I’m exploring here. I am quite serious about exploring the consequences of a variety of variables within the process of creating Architecture and this is where experimentation and constant trial & error is important for me.

In short, my daily experiments are about accelerated failures and the exploration of a variety of ways to reach failure. The faster I fail, the better. They are also about incorporating play back into the architectural process, something which I believe we need more of in our practices as architects.

I definitely need more time to elaborate on this… I hope I get back to it soon, but for now this is my 40th entry of my daily outputs and I’d like to end off with a quote by Lebbeus Woods and Frei Otto in describing the importance of experimentation in Architecture, and the ability to learn from the accidents and the findings of these experiments:

“The truth is that most experiments lead nowhere and judged from a strict cost-benefit viewpoint are a waste. However, learning and invention are notoriously inefficient, requiring many failed attempts and dead-ended explorations to find one that is fertile enough to open out onto a rich new landscape of possibilities. If a society is unwilling to tolerate such waste it will stagnate. “
- LW

“But the truly important things did not arise from that method, but largely from fortuitous or casual observations made during experiments, some of which were planned in a completely systematic style,” 
- Frei Otto

Reza Nik