The Play of Parts


When it comes to the conception of architecture and buildings, architects constantly question its nature and the reality in which it lives. Good architects conceive of, design and represent their works that challenge the preconceived notions of how a building functions, sits within its site and contexts and looks aesthetically. If this is true, then why do architects continually stop questioning the individual parts that make up their architecture, by which I mean mundane objects that surround us everyday. Simultaneously, as the proliferation of the digital is expanding the resolution and the traditions of tectonic expression, the relationship of the parts of architecture and the scale in which it is represented is becoming ultimately blurred.

To explore these questions, The Play of Parts looks at the most accessible and mundane details within contemporary architecture and exploits them to in order create new architectural opportunities. These architectural details or moments, such as gypsum wall connections, floor base connections, crown moldings, door hinges, as an example, will be given new meaning through an exploration of simultaneity in architectural form, perception, function and tectonic. More than just a pure hybridization of function, how does an architectural detail perform when architecture has qualities of two different systems but can’t be fully categorized as either?

As a mechanism to create slippages between representation and construction, and shake our perceptions of what we consider the real and realistic, the project created a game for which the design to play with and into. This game took the form of an architectural competition for the University of Pennsylvania State to ‘update and speculate on the future of its architecture for the school of engineering and applied sciences.’ Creating this scenario allows the project to explore two conditions: first to explore and test the design of interventions at multiple scales at different intensities as individual ‘entries’ into the competition. And secondly for the project to take on the full gambit of complexities within an existing architecture, meaning the combination of the “wants of program, structure, mechanical equipment and expression.” In doing so, the project is working within a system of inclusion, with the mundane parts and systems that make up architecture instead of creating easier abstractions about it.

You may have already noticed that within this scenario there is a range between what is fictitious and what is real.  Like the buildings themselves, the parts within this project are combined and represented in such a way that the distinctions between them are blurred . This play on reality is done to not only put the project in a place where it can be ‘real’-ized but also place the general public into critical contemplation; where they can begin to speculate on architecture, both past and future, in other ways through their response to the aesthetic motivations of the project itself.


What prompted the project?

The project was prompted by an architectural thesis that I accomplished while finishing my master of architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania. As an young architect, I am interested in expanding architectural thinking to domains beyond and wanted to have a project that explored an area for architecture that was neither fantastically speculative nor terrifyingly pragmatic. Spurred on by Rem Koolhaas’s exhibition for the 2014 Venice Biennale and Robert Venturi’s notion of the “both-and” in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, I’ve found an opportunity to oscillate between these precedents and inform an architectural production that looked at architecture, and the parts that comprise it, closely with a wide lens.

How and to what extent do you see the potential for this speculation to grow and expand over time?

I believe the potential for this project is to expand the role of the architect beyond the design of just buildings. In reading the news and what I encounter daily in my professional life, there are a tremendous amount of issues that don’t solely involve buildings but that architecture either facilities or directly creates . These issues range in complexity and scope, but if we are to begin to chip away at them, I believe there needs to be a subversion of thought to have architecture, and designers, expand their thinking past just new solutions to traditional problems.

I believe that one way to accomplish this is through the understanding, combination and hybridization of different elements and parts, that begin to erode the lines between areas of design, disciplines and culture. That’s where in this project, there is a subversion to have the design not only provide for the function of the architectural space but also accomplish other and maybe contradictory functions as well.

What informed the choice of different elements which you choose to explore at these different scales? Which do you think are the most interesting/effective and why?

I believe there is a fertile area for architecture that lives between the speculative and the pragmatic. As such, the elements that were chosen to be explored in the project came directly from the existing site and were chosen based on the opportunities that the project saw add additional functionality. It is this speculation of the existing that transforms mundane objects into something special and unexpected that I believe to be crucial to the role of the designer.

Thus the parts of the design that I find most interesting and effective are elements that I can see a clear trajectory for design beyond just the building. The combinations of ceiling plenum, planted earth, sprinkler system and structural column are very exciting to me because of its uniqueness and performance that cannot be reduced to any of the singular parts that comprise it. But instead, it is from its synthesis and combination of functions where is gains its highest strength and biggest economic marketability.

Another element of the project that find very interesting and something I’m still questioning is the notion that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. On the surface its a notion that is quite easy to accept, but I believe that this project makes it much more complicated and nuanced. Looking at the master site perspective and site plan, one could see a relationship of the five architectural interventions in which seems to invert this notion. At this scale, the whole of the building almost seems insignificant and is forgotten when it comes to the combination of the existing elements and the new interventions. Thus because of this, I believe there is an interesting opportunity to explore and challenge, that maybe the whole isn’t always greater than the sum of its parts but instead its dependent at the scale at which you view the parts against its contexts.

What is your take on the language of representation of a project in relationship to the project itself?

Representation in architecture is a very hot topic right now with many different areas of exploration happening simultaneously. This project was interested in representing reality as a mechanism for architectural production. How can an architect accurately represent the real so that a viewer can perceive that reality? What other techniques can be used to blur the lines between the real and the fake, or in this project the existing and designed?

I found these questions very interesting when exploring how to represent and produce this architectural project and it moved the project to speculate on methods of representation past the norm. As such, the presentation of the project was spoken through the lens of a factitious architectural competition in where all the media chosen, the images, models, histories and narratives were all a part of building this false reality. A book, titled the report on the speculation towards the advancement of architecture of the school of engineering and applied sciences, was created to help build this false reality in where the difference between the what is real and what is designed would difficult to separate. As such, for a viewer, when they look at the project they are not just looking at the design but also a mechanism in which they can reflect upon their own reality and agency in it.

How and to what extent has the project influenced how you operate as an architect?

I believe that this project as a deep influence on my views of architecture to not only strive to create beautiful and enlightening things but also question the role of design as well. I believe that that in this globalize economy where architecture seems to be produced and conceived of as a commodity, more architects today play the role as an arbiter of style rather than a creator of architectural ideas and speculation. I’m interested in challenging this culture and refresh the role of design, and the designer, to incorporate an expanded response and not only challenge architectural form but also the architectural parts, moments, elements and typologies that comprise it.

What would you say is the architects most important tool?

I believe the architects most important tool is the creativity to take what is given and transform it into something mysterious, unknown and enlightening. This transformation, and estrangement of things, places and spaces, I believe to be the most powerful tool for architects to influence not only architecture and urbanism but also the culture that inhabits it.


Alexander Bahr is a Chicago-based architect, designer, artist and aspiring educator. Interested in not only new solutions to traditional problems, Alexander’s work asks what is the role of design itself. Working for several high-profile and award winning architectural firms, Alexander currently working out of the office of Adrian Smith Gordon Gill Architecture. To contact Alexander and to view more of his work, please visit his website: