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Sotamaa and his dislike of 'designed environments'

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

Kivi Sotamaa is part of a 'new type' of design collaborative, is what we were told, where 'every project is treated as an opportunity for research'.

So it would have been interesting to hear in more detail about this at some point during his AA lecture, and how it might relate to other areas of architectural and spatial research.

Sotamaa, from Finland, is part of Ocean North, whose theoretical proposal for the replacement of the World Trade Center towers (incorporating 'warping and interlocking skins') was published last week in the Guardian - along with projects by Hani Rashid, Libeskind, and Foreign Office Architects. The company of these three better-known practices is indicative, Ocean North sharing with them a preoccupation with form-making of a somewhat abstract sort. In Sotamaa's case, this apparently derives from his dislike of 'most designed environments', on account of their inherently prescriptive effect on human behaviour patterns. In contrast, he claims his work allows the user 'to take an active role', and the formal language contains 'no typological signs'; it 'doesn't reveal anything'. Yet he avers in the same breath that 'the object requires you to adapt', which sounds equally prescriptive in its way.

Judging from the work presented, this is achieved through an embrace of form-making without any evident basis in research of any kind.

Indeed, if, as he says, 'you can't predict' anything about human response to an object or structure, then it seems there can be little to research. He describes the projects as 'specific but also decoded', indicating some kind of rootedness in site or location, while they remain entirely open, or abstract, in terms of cultural meaning. This is achieved through purely formal means, whereby a stadium is designed as 'an extension of the parkland' around it. This produces 'three lasagne-like layers' - a meaningless analogy in relation to a building's cultural role, rather than the result of any kind of investigation into society's present or future use, notion or ideal of a stadium.

Sotamaa notes that children respond particularly well to his work, because they have not yet 'developed categories of use'. In other words, they are not fully formed cultural beings, unlike adults, but operate at a more visceral, physical level of perception. But for adults, material culture cannot be divorced from its social and psychological significance.

The concept of a bridge, as in the scheme produced for Dusseldorf 's Living Bridge competition, as 'a bundle' of strips, producing a 'ground for emergent activities', offers a clear, if rather cliched, formal image, but a blank in terms both of cultural reference and of materiality. This is equally evident in the current, high-profile Kiasma art gallery installation, which 'provides surfaces' to break up the spaces and on which to hang artworks, but otherwise lacks real architectural content.

Kivi Sotamaa's talk, 'dCoded', took place at the Architectural Association, London

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