Interview with Caroline O'Donnell, Author of "Niche Tactics"

Caroline O'Donnell, author of Niche Tactics, discusses her new book and what she hopes readers will take away from it.

Why did this book need to be written?

Architecture has long been and continues to be obsessed with itself as an object. This book looks at architecture and its environment as one system and asks how architecture might be different if considered in this way.

How is it different from other books in the field?
Niche Tactics thinks of “context” or “site” not only as built environment, but as the entire world of visible and invisible forces acting on architecture. This is a new interpretation of the term context, which completely shift the discussion into a much more radical design realm.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope readers will think less about buildings as objects and more about buildings which – like organisms - are systems irremovable from their environments. If we can get out from under our aesthetic preconceptions of what buildings should look like, and allow architecture to be responsive (and to look responsive), our design trajectories and our future worlds would be different

Can you share a story/anecdote from the book?
The cover of the book is a diagram of a giraffe. It does not look like a giraffe: it is not giraffe shaped nor does it have the familiar pattern of a giraffe. This diagram is a synopsis of the thesis of the book, in fact. It shows how the organism is seemless with its environment when considered as a system. One must draw the leaves of the trees, the parasites, the watering hole, etc. as part of the giraffe: without these forces he would not exist. What if we were to think about architecture as an evolution in response to its environment?

What are some of the controversies surrounding architecture and site?
Talking about architecture and site seems a little “uncool” - it is a topic that was covered ad nauseum in the 60s and 80s and its consequences were, in the worst cases, an architecture of fitting-in with existing built environments. This book aims to re-engage with issues of context by opening up the meaning of the term (not just built environment but all environment, including weather, culture…) and understanding any contextual response as potentially radical: as perhaps the opposite of fitting in. We do this mainly by looking at it through an ecological lens, but also by zooming out to look at the way in which context is treated in other disciplines.

What findings in writing/researching the book surprised you?
I was excited when I zoomed out of the discipline pf architecture to look at the role of context in other fields: in evolution theory of course, but also in film, in linguistics and joke theory, and also aesthetic theory surrounding monsters and ugliness. The role of context in the perception of an object in these fields helped me to better understand how we as architects might rethink context in our work, first to accept it and to acknowledge that our work is always perceived with its context, and then to potentially harness that context in the design and the legibility of the work.

What got you interested in this?
I have a background in bioclimatics from Manchester School of Architecture in England combined with a more formal and theoretical education at Princeton. At first these two modes of thinking about architecture seemed separate and uncombineable to me, but when I went back to the texts that we were reading in Manchester – texts like James Gibson’s Ecological Approach to Perception – I re-read them through the lens of architectural formalism. I realized that things like formal analysis could be reconsidered ecologically: an analysis not only of the building, but of its environment. Such analysis would uncover the motives of the formal operations.

As this was percolating, I began to be aware of the terms of evolution becoming more common in architectural language through new digital practices: words like species, brood, family, generation. And I realized that these terms were missing half of the imperative for evolution: the environment. So the book is really about going back to evolution and ecological theory in order to re-examine architectural production today.

What suggestions would you make for change/future research/interventions?
The book is strongly related to my practice and ends with a “CODA” (which is also the name of my practice). The texts have, at least in part, been driven by my design work. Now that the book is finished, I plan to use it as a series of design prompts to be put into practice over the next few years. Projects shown in the book concentrated on ideas of sitre-generated design. My new work will focus on affordances and the possible mis-use of materials and objects - a related but separate trajectory emerging from James Gibson’s notion of affordances.

Learn more about the author’s practice here:

  • Niche Tactics

    Generative Relationships Between Architecture and Site, 1st Edition

    By Caroline O'Donnell

    Niche Tactics aligns architecture's relationship with site with its ecological analogue: the relationship between an organism and its environment.Bracketed between texts on giraffe morphology, ecological perception, ugliness, and hopeful monsters, architectural case studies investigate historical…

    Paperback – 2015-04-15