the following is the first second draft of a presentation i’ll be giving at bowling green next week, as part of a graduate student conference. Should be interesting, but hopefully I’ll be able to tighten this up a bit by then….
I must admit, before I started architecture school, I knew very little about the field, but I had a vague notion of the architect as a solitary genius, creating free-standing works of art that, if not world-changing through their pure aesthetic power, would at least give their occupants a better life.
Though I now realize that this view is naive, I feel that this thought is an outgrowth of America’s general obsession with individuality. The importance of individual rights is the basis of our system of government, and has, in many ways, allowed this country to prosper. However, the emphasis on the importance of individuality, or rather the supremacy of the individual over the collective, is not without its negative consequences. As this concept of the hero has become entrenched in our country, it has had its negative impacts. This solitary-hero-attitude has pervaded all levels of society, to the upper tiers of our government, where a go-it-alone stance on foreign policy has degraded our national reputation in the eyes of states more interested in cooperation than hegemony.
In architecture as in government, there can be no isolated heroism. Architects necessarily proceed by collaboration and committee. Even the biggest names are only a small part of larger teams. Building construction, like policy-making is simply too complicated a task to be a one-man operation. Still, the architect is portrayed not as a collaborator, but as a solitary genius, a madman, or both. Ayn Rand’s hero-architect, and America as “policeman of the world” are both characters from an antiquated world-view. To continue to act as if these are a valid models would be to misjudge the current state of the world.
With the emergence of the Internet, advancements in mathematics, the application of non-linear dynamic models to everything from evolution to economics, it seems that we have entered a new phase of cultural production, where the dominant model for society is no longer a clockwork, an engine, or even a computer, but a network, and the characteristics of individual nodes are inconsequential compared with the nature of the relationships between nodes and linkages within the network structure.
This kind of “network thinking” is particularly relevant to the profession of architecture, which, in practice, is based not on individual creativity, but on the ability to make connections, forge bonds, and organize the networks of experts necessary to realize a project. It’s no surprise that the “rhizomatic” ontology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guittairi has proven particularly relevant to architectural theoreticians.
In Deluezian thought, the nature of relationships between actors is more important than the characteristics of the actors themselves. In this way, a structure can be described by a relational diagram, where the organization of the whole is of more importance than its constituent parts.
[ronchamp and d.g. Diagram]
This is particularly useful for formal analysis, for deriving the internal logic of a work of architecture. While this is obviously speculative, it encourages keen attention to minutia and the integrated whole simultaneously, a useful skill for architects. However, problems arise when such diagrams are applied literally to new architectural projects, when an abstract figure is concretized, and supposedly justified by a Deluezian diagram.
Any work of architecture that is to participate in a cultural discourse must necessarily consider all the networks and flows in which it will participate. Traditionally, this may have meant that a facade would stylistically match adjacent buildings, or that the plan would reinforce a standardized typology. But this strictly formal interpretation of context is giving way to a more nuanced view, and contemporary architecture now tends to be effected by a broader range of forces, from economic and environmental considerations, to political landscapes, cultural lineages, and philosophical revolutions.
A diagram may be useful for form-finding, but this type of theoretical engagement is easily criticized, as almost any arbitrary form can be justified by diagrammatic means. This kind of analysis is perhaps more practical when applied to the real economic and material flows that constitute the routine tasks of construction management. While building code reviews, zoning laws, and utility connections are not the most appealing aspects of the profession of architecture, these connections nonetheless show how the practice of architecture belongs to larger networks, and the manipulation of these networks may reveal efficiencies that allow for more aesthetic freedom, environmental regeneration, and economic gain.
Cutting edge firms such as ShoP have taken the traditional structure of an architectural practice, analyzed the work flow diagrammatically and have edited this abstract figure in order to make the project structure more efficient and economical, with the result of greater aesthetic freedom. Rather than using this freedom to make arbitrary formal moves, however, ShoP allows their aesthetic to be defined by the emergent properties of the rules they have established.
A profession evolves along with its tools. While the traditional draftsman may have completed a project in isolation, with t-squares, triangles and pencils, the malleable nature of electronic files allows much more freedom in who can manipulate a set of architectural plans. There is no longer a single author of a drawing set, ownership has become diffuse. As working models from the world of open-source software begin to infiltrate other disciplines, it will be interesting to see how a widely distributed network of collaborating firms conducts a building project, how ownership will be defined, and how laws and codes will be effected if that type of practice becomes widespread.
When architecture, and indeed any mode of cultural production, is understood as the interaction of various flows and forces, and when diffuse collective ownership takes the place of heroic individual achievement, then “design” can be understood not as the production of objects but as the manipulation of flows, then we will have entered a new paradigm. Rather than aspiring to solitary heroism, the achievement of individuals can be measured by their effectiveness within the collective.