Kind of Boring is a new book by Paul Preissner. It was published in February 2021 by Actar. It’s 6.75 inches wide by 9.5 inches tall and 0.7 inches deep. It contains color images printed on coated white paper. Some of the images are of Preissner’s architectural work, while others are not. The middle of the book is dedicated to project drawings and texts. These items are printed in green ink on uncoated pink paper. The book is sort of a monograph, but without the pretension of total mastery or the thirst trap of advertising. Instead, it offers a way of engaging with architecture as a big, dumb, hopefully egalitarian thing. This attitude motivates Preissner’s work and is an important one today.
“Architecture became closed at the exact moment when it mastered being interesting,” Preissner writes. Thanks to various technologies, today every Form is possible. Interesting architecture operates in the classist realm of taste—whether you appreciate something or not is a sign of your “intellectual or moral superiority.” Preissner doesn’t mince words: interesting architecture is
all decorative and subsumed by a clear ambition to signify elite notions of what is provocative. But this kind of provocation never actually makes anyone uncomfortable or reflects the world, it just makes people either like it or not like it or whatever. Who even cares? Next week there will be a new new thing to look at. This kind of architecture is entertainment for the bored affluent, not art.
This concerns the baubles of starchitecture, but more broadly how architecture is understood to operate. Preissner knows all this, as he worked for Peter Eisenman and learned from the experience. Despite the bold claims of architects, “none of the architectural promises from the past seem to have really made anything better for anyone.” Architecture competing with everything else in the attention economy, in Preissner’s words, “tends to make us unfree.”
This is where Boring swoops in. It turns out that “interestingness isn’t a necessary condition of architecture,” Preissner wagers. “Space is much better when it’s extremely, super normal or kind of almost normal, or mostly normal.” Architecture is nicer when it doesn’t force its exaltations upon you, but when it arrives slowly, or strangely, or not at all. Interesting architecture wants you to feel a certain effect; dumb architecture invites you to figure out how you feel. The point here is for architecture to be an open question and not a finite object. Rather than attempting a home run while working at the fringe, which is “oddly crowded,” dumb space opts for a base hit straight up the middle. Dumb space makes a clearing for something else—or nothing—to happen. Preissner’s Kind of Some General Practices for a Dumb Manifesto offers some great suggestions: be more boring; make general things for everyone; some things are cheap; it’s better to be weirdly familiar than obnoxious.
So much is packed into the “kind of” in the book’s title. It’s like Mies van der Rohe’s beinahe nichts (almost nothing). If something was, like, actually boring, it might not be worth fussing over to this extent. This clunky qualifier suggests a way of working that prizes everydayness, standard assemblies, and procedural simplicity. These ideas aren’t glamorous, but they’re central to American architecture now. In some realms, boring appears to have taken over: a sense of restraint dominates contemporary aesthetics under the heading of warm minimalism, “weak form” is made through all kinds of experimental means, online accounts document the surreal glitches of the built environment, installations look like half-finished construction sites, and academic studio courses regularly study the supernormal. Last year, in similar terms to Preissner’s, MOS declared that they like Dumb Architecture instead of Clever Architecture (“it’s obviously not about smartness, or whatever”); boring was one of the four qualities explored in Andrew Atwood’s 2019 book Not Interesting; and Jenny Odell, who wrote a book about how to do nothing, gave a talk at the Harvard GSD, which itself is being turned into another book. Lacaton Vassal, a very good and plain architecture practice, won this year’s Pritzker Prize. Boring has hit it big.
Ever since Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour started learning from Las Vegas, there’s been a strain of Ed Ruscha-inspired architectural vision focused on the typical and the mundane. You could say this concern started earlier than the late 1960s, though. Preissner, along with Paul Andersen, has studied this history as a curator of American Framing, now on view at the American Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The installation looks at wood framing—“the great forgotten basis of American architecture”—and seeks to elevate it from “an ignored form of construction” to something more noble. Model images of their structure are included in Kind of Boring’s visual passages. Stick framing is pretty boring, but its redundancy means that human hands can turn it into useful things with ease.
The internet changed the way we look at images; the two sequences that begin and end the book show this influence. Project images are mixed up with “random” images, as if seen on a Tumblr page. (A similar tactic was used in artist Tauba Auerbach’s intense book S v Z from last year, produced for an SFMOMA exhibition that will now open in December.) Installations, interiors, exteriors, images, and model photos are set together with odd stuff—a guy on a motorcycle, the ocean, a doodle, food, etc. It’s junky, but that’s the point. Life is messy; architecture is just another Thing that either makes living easier or harder or nearly the same. The book’s wordy subtitle Canonical Work and Other Visible Things Meant to Be Viewed as Architecture sums it up.
But it isn’t so straightforward. A closer study reveals a Midwestern indie rock attitude, where emotions indirectly enter through the side door. Some of the images are from Preissner’s life: family photos, drawings by his children, a motorcycle he saw in Havana, a photo from an encounter with the Texas Highway Patrol. The passages approximate a visual self-portrait. Like a social media feed, it’s the individual touch of the image gatherer that gives the flow its personality.
Preissner’s musical background might explain the text drawings by Tim Kinsella, perhaps best known for emo bands like Cap’n Jazz or Joan of Arc. These begin each project rather than descriptions using prose, which, still useful, are filed at the back. Short texts by additional writers give context, making it less of a monograph and more of a book that happens to be about Preissner’s work.
Paul Preissner Architects is a self-described “pretty good” architecture office. Though I’ve never seen any of their buildings in person, I’d probably agree. The projects included in Kind of Boring range from (unbuilt) international competition entries to built or buildable items in Chicago or nearby. Preissner’s style could be described as Valerio Olgiati meets Home Depot, in a good way. Olgiati’s a relevant reference, as he also manipulates architectural elements to create estrangement. (While I love Olgiati’s architecture, I’m critical of his attitude.) Preissner’s proposal for a Tripoli Special Economic Zone perhaps has the strongest Olgiati vibes, but its wiggling in elevation comes from the admission of construction slop: “Precast components are oversized to enable hasty stacking, therefore ensuring that the resulting buildings are always slightly unstraight.” While Olgiati gets to this same awkward chunky realm “from above” via elitist gymnastics, Preissner enters “from below,” ascending from the mundanity of suburbia.
If you’ve worked in architecture, you might agree that the work is something like 5% finding the right Good Idea and 95% wading through the important small stuff. (Percentages may vary). Inspiration and perspiration, the usual terms of this split, are meaningless—the first conceptual part is sweaty, and the following long labor shadow requires creativity to jump through all the hoops and maybe get something built right, if at all. This is the black box called the Design Process. In addition to suggesting a particular architectural approach or a way of seeing, Boring describes many of the tasks that architects perform.
Boring architecture can direct our attention to the structural conditions of the built environment. Preissner rightfully champions this, but he doesn’t go far enough. His ideas are sort of anticapitalist, but they don’t fully spell it out. His “commitment to dumb aesthetics is also a commitment to class politics,” Walter Benn Michaels, who was featured in PLAT 9.0 Commit, writes in his essay in Kind of Boring. “Instead of being structured like a market, understood in terms of differing consumer preferences, [this conception of the public is] structured ideologically.” There is huge potential to fuse this critique of interesting architecture—which largely centers aesthetics—with efforts surrounding architecture’s complicity with capitalism. Boring architecture refuses commodification, but in its quest for (attempted) normalcy, it exposes how the world works. (“Most materials have edges not intended for people to see, but those are the most emotional edges to look at,” Preissner writes in his general practices. “Don’t cover those up.”) Boring—as in, drilling—accurately describes the many status quo operations currently destroying the planet. Some boring (dull) considerations might be “architecturally” not interesting—that is, they may not have direct impacts on the Forms produced by architects—but most are, and do.
Boring architecture might be more chill than its interesting counterpart, but we shouldn’t see this as a contraction of agency. Instead, it opens space for new experiences. The first step is a step back from the robot smile operations of business-as-usual productivity—a task which the busy precarity of most architectural workers makes even harder. Preissner writes that “we are told that the future is smart cities and smarter buildings, but all we really want is to be left alone for a few spare minutes.” He’s not wrong.
Boring is also key to understanding Houston. Outside the nodes of interest, boringness constitutes the suburban surface that blankets the region. But pop the hood, and nothing is as it seems. Things get Weird, fast. At some point, the conditions of Houston and sprawling places like it weren’t architecturally interesting. But times have changed, and now many are studying the economics of how so much boring space was made, how unhealthy it has been for nearly everyone except those at the top, and how we can change this. (Houston also factors into Preissner’s life: he went to elementary school here, he said via email). Examining the “typical” conditions of our built environment reveals the exploitative logic that fuels its proliferation. Preissner writes that “boring things open the world up”—we shouldn’t squander this opening.
In a 1987 interview in Cite 17, Charles Moore said that “it would all be so much better if everyone would relax a little. We don't even have to learn to love kitschy things; we just have to get over the stark and debilitating fear of being tainted by the ordinary.” Similarly, Preissner concludes his essay in his nice book by speculating that “if the city is the one big project of society, architecture can be its black hole,” which “requires the privileging of the world of normal, anonymous, weird, strange things over the interesting.” We ought to use “the project of pictures, memes, and images as a carefree form of precedent of spirit to allow a relaxed idea of precision and composition to enter the architectural project.” They’re both right.
Jack Murphy is Editor of Cite.