second draft

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.

[networks]

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.

[blank]

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.

[ShoP]

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.

[tools]

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.

[conclusion]

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.

text of failed gallery competition.

i recently entered a competition for a gallery show, progressed to the second phase of competition, and then failed to win. here is the text of my “phase 2″ entry:

—-

The essence of shelter is the mediation of the environment. The individual, if one desires a humane existence, must be somehow protected from the vicissitudes of climate. Gottried Semper’s “Caribbean Hut” provides a clear diagram: a natural site (the earthwork, and hearth) has been rationalized though intentional human construction (the framework and enclosure). Semper’s hut exists on a tabula rasa which awaits the transformative power of human touch. This intellectual and material intervention represents the birth of architecture. This diagram provides us with a clear distinction between interior and exterior. The envelope delineates the limits of the rational world.

A physical division between chaos and order is not a sufficient foundation for civilization. A collective is defined not by the nature of its constituent parts, but by the relationships between them. Civilization can not defined by the relative civility of any given individual, but rather by the nature of the networks that link the individual actors into a cohesive whole.

As an introduction to modern methods of construction, the Semperian diagram still retains value, but if the building envelope is depicted as a membrane separating rational man from chaotic wilderness, the diagram is woefully outdated. While the climate may remain a wildcard, the majority of the natural has, in fact, been designed. The area immediately surrounding the primitive hut is occupied by other primitive huts….

Semper’s diagram lacks multiplicity: If multiplied, these huts form a community, and while the interior of each hut remains private, the emergence of a collective exterior territory necessitates infrastructural networks to ensure the sustained operation of the community. The natural ground faces extinction at the hand of the designed, “metropolitan” ground. The man/nature opposition is a vestige of an antiquated worldview, and must be replaced by a new understanding of man’s role, not as a rational actor in a chaotic milieu, but as an equal participant in the complex dynamic systems that govern both apparently-chaotic natural processes and apparently-rational artificial ones.

Traditionally, natural forces and material flows have been manageable through design on a local scale. Material cycles in nature have been unaffected by humans. However, with our numbers now growing exponentially, natural cycles are affected on an unprecedented scale, and processes thought immutable have been found to be affected by human activity.

For designers to stay relevant in an increasingly urbanized world, the theater of design must shift from the manipulation of physical structures to the manipulation of processes and flows. In this exhibit, visitors participate in the design of such a process.. Visitors are encouraged to take marbles from the gallery to the upper floors of Knowlton Hall, and drop them in the gutters.

Though the aural and visual aspects of the project can operate independently of the conceptual framework, they will be augmented by it. The interactive nature of the work and the expansion of the exhibit into the surrounding area will encourage visitors to reevaluate the sectional complexity of Knowlton Hall. Downspouts can easily be run through interstitial spaces, and gutters can be run along sight lines that normally go unnoticed. The cacophony that results from a large number of participants dropping marbles will give the exhibit a sense of chaotic cohesion: the standardized downspouts will resonate at the same frequency, stabilizing the aural field, but the random timing of collisions between glass and aluminum will give the piece a nervous anxiety. Depending on ambient conditions in Knowlton Hall, and the number of participating gallery visitors, the installation should produce a wide variety of acoustic effects. The emergence of a identifiable sound from the random impacts of individual marbles is analogous to to the emergence of cohesive social bodies from the actions of individuals.