Symposium “Compositional Physics and Other Forms of Disorder,” Rice University
Looking Askance, Looking Away, Looking Easy: Notes on Architectural Nonchalance
Symposium Talk, February 2020


I was invited by Viola Ago to offer my take on the theme of a symposium titled “Compositional Physics.” The question at the heart of this presentation wasn’t how physics engines or other tools have been used in design, but rather why architects have been interested in the forms of disorder they produce? I believe they were predisposed to desire a nonchalant appearance by the search for unselfconscious informality threaded within the patchwork of late modernism. The presentation was split into three parts, each associated with a particular posture for achieving nonchalance: Looking Askance, meaning that the elements of a composition appear chaotically or randomly arranged; Looking Away, meaning that the designer sets a process in motion while setting aside their own formal preconceptions; and Looking Easy, which is about the ways design products and ensembles avoid looking like much work. I see echoes of this nonchalant attitude in the work of many contemporary architects – the last thing many of them want their work to look like is deliberate, contrived, or effortful. Much better to make it look easy.

John M. Johansen’s Mummers Theater, Oklahoma City (1967–1972) one example from a geneaology of “nonchalant” late modernisms.