Published April 5, 2013
As one legend has it, the city of Buffalo’s name comes from “beau fleuve,” or “beautiful river,” the name French settlers gave it after first glimpsing the pristine waters of what is now called the Buffalo Creek.
Jordan Geiger, assistant professor of architecture, has turned this local folklore into a new question for architects and designers around the world: “What languages mark landscapes here today, and what sorts of currents bring them?”
“Beau-Fleuve (You Are Here)” is an interactive architecture installation Geiger calls “part urban spectacle, part recording booth,” designed to help younger immigrants and refugees in Buffalo discover their migration stories.
The project—which includes an installation, workshop and website—is just one of several he and UB colleagues have created involving the local community.
“Beau-Fleuve” is a 15-foot tube made of thick beige felt and embedded with tiny speakers, microphones and custom electronics. By climbing through the soft, floppy tunnel, children touch different points wired to sensors that trigger microphones in the tube that “speak” to them and ask each child to talk about themselves.
These oral histories are collected as data points and used to generate a map linking each child’s original country to his or her new home in Buffalo.
Commissioned by UB’s Humanities Institute and set up last June at the Grant Street Neighborhood Center on Buffalo’s West Side, “Beau-Fleuve” was designed by Geiger, with the assistance of architecture students, to connect these immigrant and refugee journeys to “the flows of environmental, political, legal and economic turbulence that now catalyze urban and global shifts.”
“So much of the immigration process is a mystery for children, my goal was to help kids increase their awareness about their individual journeys, while at the same time re-explore the architecture and embedded technologies of such experiences,” Geiger explains.
The global influences on architecture make up what Geiger describes as a “messy tangle” that has inspired him to create projects like “Beau Fleuve”—influences that demand new ways of designing, teaching and even thinking about contemporary architecture.
He has coined a theoretical phrase, “Very Large Organization” (VLO), referring to things that are both “at the scale of a human hand and at the scale of the entire planet at the same time.”
For example, immigration is equally affected by a fingerprint scanner at an airport and by U.S. immigration policy as it relates to global databases or climate events that affect mass migration. “VLOs have resulted in vibrant changes in West Buffalo’s urban population,” Geiger says.
Since new formations of architecture and landscape now exist as a result of VLOs, Geiger adds, new educational models are needed to teach young architects about these relationships and how to embrace the messy tangle; instructors and designers must recognize the exciting opportunity and responsibility they have to develop design-based solutions with an awareness of VLOs.
Born and raised in Manhattan, Geiger holds a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught architecture and urban design, and worked for several architectural firms in New York and California; his former San Francisco-based design studio, Ga-Ga, published and exhibited internationally.
Interestingly, Geiger didn’t switch fields from comparative literature to architecture; he decided to pursue both degrees on purpose.
“Comp lit demands that you assimilate and translate ideas across texts and cultures, and as an architect and teacher, I constantly remind students of the act of translation,” he says.
A lover of languages, Geiger speaks four: English, French, Italian and German. He considers architects, like journalists, to be “some of our last generalists. I don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ at any particular topic.”
He and his wife, Miriam Paeslack, an assistant professor in UB’s Arts Management Program, moved from Berkeley to Buffalo in 2009. At the university, Geiger began shifting his work from commercial design to design-based research and teaching, with a specific focus on how humans and computers interact and how that relationship affects the built environment.
Geiger conducts research through the UB Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies (CAST), which focuses on responsive architecture and pervasive media, and is co-directed by department chair Omar Khan and Mark Shepard, associate professor of architecture and media study. Geiger also teaches within CAST’s pedagogical arm, the Situated Technologies Research Group.
In December, Geiger was named a 2012-13 fellow of the UB Techne Institute for Arts and Emerging Technologies, which will help fund future installations of “Beau-Fleuve” later this year.
With Khan and Mark Shepard, he also is co-organizing MediaCities, an international conference, workshop and exhibition to be held at UB in May to investigate new relations between digital media and a multitude of urban conditions.
Geiger’s work also is on display in the UB Art Gallery as part of “Time Mutations (Buffalo),” exhibitions of work by artists at UB and the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar in Germany, on view through May 4.
Geiger’s contribution, “Day for Night,” a sprawling, inflatable structure, is a natural fit with the exhibit’s charge to explore time as a construct that can be influenced and altered by time zones, the environment and other global forces.
“Day for Night” was designed to be temporary. Its surfaces are awash with live audio-video feeds, streamed from sources 12 time zones removed from Buffalo in order to illustrate relations between the host city and places far away.
Geiger plans to spend the next two years or so working on a book of essays about Very Large Organizations and public space, and a large-scale curatorial project in which he hopes to commission architects to design works for different VLOs.