Negotiating Copyright and Copy-wrong in Architecture

Installation view of 'Un/Fair Use' at the Center for Architecture (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 3D-printed models in ‘Un/Fair Use’ at the Center for Architecture (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There is no shortage of literature on copying in architecture. For a while, that seemed to be all there was. Swept up in their fantastic visions of ancient Rome, architects of the Italian Renaissance imagined ways to build their convictions into reality, to resume the project of enlightenment ascribed to antiquity by reconstructing its fallen monuments. Some of the earliest theoretical texts on architecture were thus born out of a wish to revive past forms. Printing presses churned out volumes on how to properly replicate classical columns, which ideal spatial arrangements to reproduce, and what construction concepts and techniques to extrapolate from ancient ruins. By imitating what were seen as purer or more masterful precedents, architects avowed to propel their art — and society along with it — to glorious new heights.

These days, it seems difficult to entertain such a notion of the past as the key to the future. As a current exhibition at New York’s Center for Architecture points out, rather than specifying approaches to reproducing earlier forms, today’s more instrumental decrees on copying in architecture operate on a seemingly opposite impulse: that of protecting architecture from the copy, a concept now seen as antithetical to innovation and progress. Curated by MIT professor Ana Miljacki and designer Sarah Hirschman, Un/Fair Use investigates how recent discourse about architecture and copyright law reveal a deeper imperative to revisit the very definition of architecture. Though it may appear we’ve come a long way from the Renaissance, we may still be asking the same questions.

Installation view of 'Un/Fair Use' at the Center for Architecture
Installation view of filmed interviews in ‘Un/Fair Use’ at the Center for Architecture (click to enlarge)

The exhibition is split into two parts: a series of five filmed interviews with protagonists involved in architecture’s 1990 integration into US copyright law and an orderly display of unlabeled 3D-printed models. On one side of the gallery, the parade of models, all rendered in a similar scale, represents what Miljacki calls “fair use moves.” These are architectural forms discernible in at least three extant architectural designs. As the exhibition and its accompanying pamphlet suggest, these formal expressions — boxes, blobs, twists, and folds, among other familiar permutations — have achieved a level of ubiquity that defies the copyright, making up a public commons of architectural forms.

On the opposite wall: the problem children. Here are the “unfair use moves,” pairs of originals and their illegitimate copies made famous, in some respects, by legal skirmishes. Twinned, miniature mansions invoke the 1988 case of Demetriades v. Kaufmann, which went to court after a suburban couple reverse-engineered a developer-built house to create blueprints for their own residence. However roundabout, the pilfered plans were ruled as unlawful copies, and the couple had to commission new designs to complete their half-built, derivative dream home. In the more publicized 2005 case of Shine v. Childs, an early scheme for the Freedom Tower was denounced as a copy of a project conceived by Yale architecture student Thomas Shine. Shine had evidently showcased the torqued structure and textured curtain wall of his “Olympic Tower” before a jury that included Freedom Tower architect David Childs, and even though the Olympic Tower was never destined for construction, its design was successfully registered for a copyright in 2004, prompting Childs and his powerhouse firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to abandon their scheme with a similarly twisted and diamond-patterned façade.

Installation view of 'Un/Fair Use' at the Center for Architecture
Installation view of 3D-printed models in ‘Un/Fair Use’ at the Center for Architecture (click to enlarge)

Cases such as these reveal, for one, the elusiveness of the architectural work, which clearly extends beyond buildings to the two- and three-dimensional objects that represent them. This is one of the main narratives running through Un/Fair Use: that of determining which media can transmit architectural information, and what constitutes the fair or unfair use of the information being mediated. In her interview for the exhibition, legal scholar Jane C. Ginsburg emphasized the need to keep the legal definition of the architectural work broad enough to withstand changes in practice. She and others foresaw the emergence of new means of representing architectural works, and so they persuaded legislators to define the work of architecture as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium or expression, including a building, architectural plans or drawings.”

One could easily rattle off a list of media that have embodied the “design of a building,” but it is worth searching for a more positive definition of this valuable thing in need of legal safeguarding. Rewinding again to the Renaissance, one of its foremost architectural theorists, Leon Battista Alberti, dedicated the first of his 10 books on architecture to a discussion of lineamenta or “lineaments.” Lineaments, he wrote, serve to “prescribe an appropriate place, exact numbers, a proper scale, and a graceful order for whole buildings and for each of their constituent parts, so that the whole form and appearance of the building may depend on the lineaments alone.” For Alberti, lineaments were pure projections of the mind. They existed not in the material world but in the enlightened imaginations of architects, and from them, the “whole form and appearance of a building” could be generated, including its siting and the correspondence between all its lines, angles, and constituent parts.

What Un/Fair Use suggests is that contemporary culture espouses a notion of design reminiscent of Alberti’s lineaments. Both concepts imply that the work of architecture is not the building itself but the immaterial essence of the building, which gets expressed materially, be it in a full-scale construction or a plan, model, or drawing. But today, this notion of an essence or design has possibly become more abstract from the days of Alberti, boiling down to whatever gives a building its monetary value. Viewed this way, design further likens itself to capital: it is at risk of being stolen and thereby profiting one party at the expense of another. Hence the need for copyright law to cover an extensive range, from the exacting construction drawings of a mass-produced house to the formal features that give more prestigious buildings their iconic character. Reflecting this latter consideration, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation eagerly jumped into the 1990 legal proceedings, with an eye toward protecting rights to sell unbuilt Wright designs.

Installation view of 'Un/Fair Use' at the Center for Architecture
Installation view of 3D-printed models in ‘Un/Fair Use’ at the Center for Architecture

Yet this was not the only perspective voiced at the time. The late architect Michael Graves also responded to a request to testify at the hearing. In his interview for Un/Fair Use, recorded in late 2014, Graves recalled explaining to a committee of legislators that, in architecture, “you don’t look for somebody copying somebody, you look for those things that the culture and society at large has given us in the myths and rituals in an architectural language — a kind of code.” Graves saw himself as standing opposite the Wright Foundation, celebrating the derivative quality of architectural innovation rather than any claims to originality. He openly professed his indebtedness to Renaissance architects, while slyly attributing architect Daniel Libeskind’s wildly expressive forms to the influence of Frank Gehry. From Graves’ perspective, his discipline is founded on fair use moves; every work of architecture is both original and unoriginal in that it ushers existing concepts and forms into new contexts.

Of course, Graves’s semiotic interpretation of architecture supported his own practice, which was characterized by populist mash-ups of architectural and non-architectural motifs. Yet his views seem to have particular resonance today. In an era that consumes images faster than ever, when architects can effortlessly access an endless stream of renderings and photos, which snippets of inspiration are “fair” game? What elements of earlier designs are allowed to enter into our imaginations and find their way back out into the material world? Add to this an older question: do the division of labor and the collaborative nature of the profession complicate notions of originality and authorship? Silently facing off, the opaque white models at the Center for Architecture seem to be posing these very questions, provoking visitors to ask what really separates the fair from the unfair.

Un/Fair Use continues at the Center for Architecture (536 Laguardia Place, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) though January 2, 2016.

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