Big Forking Dilemma: Contemporary Architecture’s Autonomic Turn

Wes Jones

Remarkably two forks in the road have opened up for architecture at this millennial moment. One is marked by the difference (as perhaps a culmination of the Modern in the maturity of the Postmodern) between the traditionally authored and the automatic, or the (tragic pursuit of the) fixed and the (lazy preference for the) variable, manifested in the distance interpolated between the author and design, especially by new (digital) technology.1 The other is the profound divergence today of sense and sensation—between work that appeals traditionally to the intellect and that which appeals only to the senses. In other words, we have seen the emergence of a belief in the possibility of pure affect, pure sensation.

However much these new possibilities trade on the mythos of the avant-garde, neither can be said to presage any kind of revolution, and in this regard the “road” metaphor is inaccurate. Both of the new directions are post-critical phenomena, uninterested in the barricades and confusing progress with difference. While authorless design might have begun with political aspirations as a means of avoiding the repressive effects of convention, it quickly devolved into an unavoidable digital side effect obsessed with its own possibility. And the discourse of sensation is less a positive rejection of repressive meaning than a plea for the indulgence of excessive form, unmolested by reason or practical consideration.2

Nor are the two forks unrelated. In fact, both can be understood as consequences of a shift in the underlying sense of architectural necessity. As an elective enterprise, architecture is constantly in need of self-assurance. The sense of architectural necessity is a kind of faith, exercised at every step of the design process and through each design choice. Traditionally residing in the convictions of the sophisticated subject, the intuition or judgment of what is right in architecture is being pushed toward something objective, external, quantifiable.

This is the real story. It may itself be the last step of a larger process that began when modernity replaced God with the Cartesian cogito as the source of certainty; and architecture may be the last place where the faith in such certainty has survived. After God, it settled deep into the disciplinary DNA, first through the discourse of tectonics and then in the visionary channeling of the Zeitgeist. Eventually this faith succumbed, though, to poststructural sarcasm, which undermined the field’s autonomy, and Postmodern irony, which nullified individuals’ capacity to aspire to anything larger than themselves. What remains is a coolly disinterested trust in numbers that barely masks architecture’s definitional insecurity.

So although authorlessness and sensualism get the headlines, they are merely symptoms, or even side effects, of the more profound dissolution of the faith in architectural necessity and ascendance of the dry certainty of computation. A reliance on computation unavoidably results in authorless design; that it might also result in sensation-focused work is less clear, if not outright counterintuitive. Yet the capability of computation rapidly leads the object away from comprehensibility and thus as naturally into realms of mind-numbing sensation. More positively it could be understood as a way of laundering out any fugitive meaning in the interest of achieving pure affect.

Two practice models exemplify the range and character of responses to this event and its expression in authorlessness and sensualism. On the one hand, what has come to be known as “Dutch” architecture3 finds its putative architectural necessity in program-based computation, favoring the authorless pragmatism of statistics and quantifiable cultural research. On the other hand, the more ubiquitous “digital” design finds its own certainty in a parametric computation of infinite, non-critical formal variability, with its simultaneous assurance of all possibility and no particularity: necessity not by way of certainty but through infinite accommodation and sensuous delight.4

The underlying computational nature of both approaches follows a trajectory originating in the earliest work of Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman, the ultimate progenitors of the Dutch and digital. But while the old men were still in contact with the tradition of faith-based architectural necessity, and shy about the nihilism lurking below, the succeeding generations of combative young architects determinedly pushed on to the unholy logical conclusion of objective measurement. Following those original trajectories, Dutch work came to it by way of sarcastic aloofness and the digital by blind ambition. Both were examples of conscious father-killing oneupmanship by the youth, yet in neither case did the youth realize that they were themselves well within the kill zone.

Photo: Wes Jones

Photo: Wes Jones

“Program” became an object of architectural interest before it found its computational apotheosis in Dutch work.5 An early token for Modernist functionalism, program truly became self-aware in Bernard Tschumi’s notions of “disprogramming,” “crossprogramming,” and “transprogramming,” which applied the sort of collage techniques being used syntactically by Eisenman and the hard deconstructeurs to the semantic dimension. In such operations, and as adopted by Koolhaas, this “content” was handled at a remove; the formal scrambling of the collaged elements and their associated programs facilitated the daring violations of programmatic “zoning” that charged such work with excitement. Not only was this practice formally critical, but because the operations were applied to units of cultural activity, it also carried implicit social value. The fact that this value was the result of a cool diagrammatic automatism rather than a hot liberal concern added the exquisite distance of irony, a necessary step to the ultimate estrangement of computation.

The irony manifest in the social predicaments manufactured by transprogramming spoiled any serious political interests of the deconstructive collage practices. Latent in this nascent ironic Euro-pragmatism—what eventually became “Dutch”—was an intellectually disarming drollery that was far more effective at stopping argument than the earnest rigor of the deconstructeurs. Humor, the best medicine, was also much better able to paper over the void where the faith-based value system of architectural necessity had been before the deconstructeurs pulled back the curtain to reveal that in fact there was (by then) no man behind it to ignore. In contrast to the work of Archigram, which was merely funny, the “retroactive manifesto” Delirious New York and the bricolage practice of the theatrically anonymous Office for Metropolitan Architecture were “deeply” humorous.

Where Archigram spoke more to the culture than the discipline, architecture itself was the subject of Koolhaas’s jest. The pathos of the RCA Building catching the Chrysler Building in bed with the Empire State Building took the august institution of architecture down a few notches. By the time his Parc de la Villette scheme had given cross-programming its most radical and thus emblematic expression, and the collagist formal practices of decon had been refashioned in the axonometric sampling of Modernist formalism in his Kochstrasse/Friedrich strasse Housing proposal in Berlin, any remaining criticality in the work had hardened into cleverness, and the political disengagement that began with cross-programming was completed in the final official repudiation of responsibility with the proclamation of the “post-critical.”

Cleverness is the hallmark of Dutch design. There has of course been clever work throughout history, and much of what has been called “revolutionary” could also be understood as easily in these terms. The uses of poché by the French hoteliers or Le Corbusier’s “five points,” for example, are not merely logical or finally inevitable but also shrewd and a little sly. Even the use of Hollywood animation software for architecture in the 1990s is more crafty than obvious or progressive. But for Koolhaas and Dutch work, unlike that of the previous revolutionaries, cleverness seems to be an end in itself—and architecture becomes the means to achieving it, rather than the other way around. Such work is first identified by the eccentric familiarity or oblique ordinariness that signals that some game is afoot, before it registers as any particular building. Koolhaas’s Kunsthal in Rotterdam, for example, is as much a cunning collection of gradually revealed architectural witticisms as it is a compositional achievement evident from afar, and it is through these knowing moments that an appreciation of the building gradually accumulates.

Motivated by the pursuit of advantage, such gamesmanship is calculating, manipulative, aloof. Cleverness is cerebral; it is never merely sensational or given to personal expression, because it must be understood to be fully appreciated, and such appreciation matters more than any conventional goodness. Like collage and criticality, cleverness requires a host, but unlike them it does not seek to improve the host, much less supplant it. Cleverness must preserve enough of the original condition to demonstrate the advantage it has taken, but more importantly, it must avoid becoming a new standard that could be subjected to the same treatment. Thus even the most extreme collage examples like Parc de la Villette tend toward the (re)arrangement of whole elements, often selected from catalogs and presented as icons, sliced rather than diced as deconstructivism might have done. By focusing on the working out of relationships-among and spaces-between, this practice avoids the creation of wholly new form that might project an alternative future beyond that host, thereby incurring the responsibility to justify itself out side the specific terms of its particular intervention. Typical strategies in this vein have included the repurposing of lowest common denominator materials and systems, as at Lille Grand Palais (Congrexpo), and a sort of connect-the-dots program-based formalism first tried at the Netherlands Embassy Berlin, but made famous at the Seattle Central Library and the Casa Da Música in Porto, Portugal.

But as the deconstructeurs discovered and contemporary art experienced, cleverness pursued as an end offers a slippery slope. Eventually decon deconstructs itself, and art evaporates into indifference. So to survive, cleverness must keep moving—requiring agility and a continual situational awareness to outflank the contexts that ever threaten to ensnare and normalize it. In particular, disciplinary cleverness must continuously dance with the very rules that give it meaning. Unlike the avantgarde or progressive innovation that judges its significance in linear terms of forward movement or cumulative gain, cleverness is too busy weaving around the field, feinting and dodging, to care about forward or behind. This means that each project must be different instead of better; neither its predecessor project nor its current host may serve as a standard of comparison that would allow a judgment of improvement, and so projects do not contribute to any kind of cumulative formal signature or larger program. Each is recognized by its wit alone, applied to a different host, and nothing carries over from one to the next beyond an increasing facility in the deployment of that wit.

The work has been appreciated for its increasing sophistication, but it can seem to operate without any sort of conscience or governor, chasing itself into increasingly convoluted or dismissive (program) strategies that (like conceptual art) lead far from the usual haunts of serious architecture. Lately cleverness has wandered into consumerism in (supposedly communist) Shanghai, mercantile urbanism in Dubai, state-run media in Beijing, and “infrastructure” in Lagos—places where the work is disassociated from any possible empathetic connection to the designer’s personal or architectural experience. Such exoticism is not new—nor is its colonialism. But while the colonial taint that followed the heroic Modernists into Chandigarh and Dhaka was somewhat excused by the obvious concern of Corbu and Kahn to ennoble and improve the locals’ situation with their imported architecture (while paying lip service to local traditional forms), the worldliness (globalism) of this latest Dutch version does not allow such misunderstanding. Instead of any possibly corrective interest in unique vernacular traditions, this clever new work displays an unsavory fascination with the locals’ reactions to the demands of globalism, discerning an emergent genius in their coping strategies that might be ironically appropriated by the prosperous West in a spirit not unlike that behind the search for medicinal herbs in the Amazon basin.

In this latest global incarnation, the work displays a lubricious pragmatism, availing itself of the consolation of post-criticality in its accommodation6 to the convenience of capital. This forsaking of critique is to a certain extent the final frontier for cleverness, the ultimate bad boy trick, far outstripping Robert Venturi’s titillating slumming on the critical “wild side” in Las Vegas. But this is also territory well prepared by Gilles Deleuze, legitimized as an unexpected arena of decoding, the ultimate territorial solvent. As Deleuze explains, capital dissolves all boundaries—social, cultural, sexual, and now architectural—in the objective, calculating, rational pursuit of profit. And it confers a delirious freedom on those fortunate enough to be able to deploy it. The contemporary post-critical version of autonomy to which this gives rise is the opposite of the postwar retreat from reality; instead of avoiding engagement because it is inadequate to the world’s problems, today’s architectural work takes that inadequacy as license to play freely “in” and “against” that larger world without consequence—by its own rules, according to an intransitive value system that sees the concerns of society as mere counters in a game of its devising. This work seems critical in its engagement with those problems, yet it appears to use them more as obstacles for measuring its own cleverness than as matters to effect—leaving them otherwise untouched because the actual operations are occurring within the secure confines of academia and publication, rather than out there, “on the ground.” It is not at all obvious that Koolhaas’s Lagosian de-urbanism and his Delirious Dubai urban island theme park were ever seriously intended to live outside the academic terrarium. Of course, Dubai is a special case (like China), and stuff can get built there without leaving the terrarium, so if his Waterfront City does happen, score one for the architect!

MVRDV, Pig City, rendering, 2009. Courtesy MVRDV

MVRDV, Pig City, rendering, 2009. Courtesy MVRDV

Koolhaas is not the only purveyor of this clever Dutch architecture, of course, merely its daddy. Over the years, his office has spun off many former employees into their own firms, who now practice what must ironically be termed a conventional or watered-down mode of cleverness. This is possible because the formal expression of cleverness is the opposite of personal expression, but for the same reason its diffusion also leads to a normalization of its effects. Much of the accumulated Koolhaas-ian formal vocabulary has become standard for the younger firms (those that are not by now purely digital). Random window patterns from the Zeebrugge Sea Terminal; startling material usage and abrupt material changes from the Lille Grand Palais (Congrexpo); default appropriation of didactically tweaked iconic Modernist form, in both plan and section, beginning with his Checkpoint Charlie housing; as well as graphic pattern quotations, non-normal or regular column grids, and structural “camp” exhibitionism from the Très Grande Bibliothèque, among many other examples, come close to constituting a style for those firms. These moves are expediently tolerated as loose (formal) conventions by those wary of appearing to subscribe to any larger program, because the important part of cleverness is not sensation. The bad news is that the obvious chumps and straight men from the discipline and the outside world animating those formal moves have already been taken: There are only so many times that the “five points” or Las Vegas can be cited or appropriated. A warning of the impending depletion of form occurred recently with Koolhaas’s reuse of his earlier Y2K house design for the much larger Casa Da Música in Porto.7

Perhaps in anticipation of this event, the less inventive progeny have been looking for some time at yet more objective measures and standards of cleverness. A sort of engineering approach to the pursuit of advantage has emerged, in which data mining, statistics, planning and building codes, functional diagrams, and arcane development criteria have replaced the architectural and cultural icons deployed by Koolhaas. This is exemplified in the overtly computational work of the more slyly anonymous MVRDV, which has become famous for (its attempts at) stripping the last vestiges of authorship, formal signature, and willful design from its projects,8 as it competes with Koolhaas in the arena of cleverness. While MVRDV’s first large public commissions—the Villa VPRO (for the Dutch public television network, a mashup of Koolhaas’s own Educatorium at the University of Utrecht and his Jussieu Libraries competition entry), which combines the open office idea with the critical interests of cross programming as an experiment in “social engineering,” and the WoZoCo elderly housing, which exploits the bureaucratic fumbling of density—were clearly derivative, it emerged from its former employer’s shadow with the almost suicidal anti-signature of pure, data-driven “design,” announced in its 1998 doorstop FARMAX, published after Koolhaas’s own massive 1995 S,M,L,XL had set a standard for willful obscurity. FARMAX (Floor-Area-Ratio Maxima) was the first expression of its obsession with problems of density as a design catalyst; its theatrically restrained order cleverly reproaches Koolhaas for the no less eye-glazing randomness of the emulsified graphics in S,M,L,XL, trading a cool indifference to affect for his hot disdain for convention.

With this fateful turn to shaping “those zeros and ones,”9 they escaped cleverness’s requirement for constant reinvention and difference, which Koolhaas had pushed to an unanswerable frenzy in S,M,L,XL. The universal application of numbers to all problems in an increasingly enframed global reality cleverly allowed them to forge a signature for their work through a continued project without resorting to personal expression or seeming to violate cleverness’s aloofness or stricture against simple-minded repetition. Although perhaps not as disarming as the humor Koolhaas had discovered in his early years, numbers were more indisputable. Understandably relieved to get off the treadmill of reinvention demanded by cleverness, it quickly followed FARMAX with another, similarly stultifying blizzard of numbers and design equivalents in the aptly named 1999 Metacity/Datatown. As its website describes it, Datatown is designed just from extrapolations of Dutch statistics, “A city that wants to be explored only as information; a city that knows no given topography, no prescribed ideology, no representation, no context. Only huge, pure data.”10

This computational emphasis leads MVRDV to interpret almost all architectural problems in quantifiable terms of density, and most solutions as matters of enhanced verticality, with an exciting lack of regard for conventional human physical limitations or comfort. The effect of this preoccupation with numbers has been to leave the earth-bound projects that actually get built without any architectural inspiration, however. The design process it has evolved to serve this signature focus on the numbers practically guarantees such a result. Each project begins with “research,” which means a gathering of the numbers that will contribute “certainty” to the design—planning guidelines and zoning regulations, codes, political considerations, technical and economic requirements, statistical data regarding the target audience, and of course the client’s pro forma. The fruits of this research, which traditionally have been seen in a more negative light as constraints on a project, restricting architects’ room to assert their “vision,” instead act for MVRDV as the contextual data scape to be hermeneutically negotiated by a now hollow cleverness. Standing in for the judgment formerly demanded by cleverness is a proprietary piece of software it calls the “Functionmixer,” which processes all the data to test the limits of selected parameters in relation to building form.11

If architecture is that which exceeds building’s concerns with shelter and other strictly hygienic, engineered matters, then it is no surprise that the cleverly objective approach of MVRDV tends to result in relatively unimaginative collections of boxes or outlandish forms spit out by the Functionmixer—the default expression of square meters, cubed (another doorstop, the 2006 KM3 celebrates this at the scale of an entire city), or quadratic and cubic equations—that have not benefitted from any of the native architectural sense that rescues Koolhaas’s more extreme efforts from mere ugliness or deflating absurdity. As a consequence of its attention-grabbing commitment to the numbers, the firm has achieved more renown for its approach than for the actual designs these numbers engender, a result that it probably welcomes.

The relative success of MVRDV does not prevent it from serving as a warning of the fate that lies down the path of quantification untempered by architectural judgment, though. The dull repetition (clever the first time, merely funny the second…) of the numbers end-game, however inarguable, must finally be intolerable to the spirit of cleverness. In the end, cleverness enjoys the argument, the challenge to find advantage where none expect it. So after the exhaustion of cleverness in the architecturally self-loathing quantification of MVRDV, the even more cleverly (at least in English) anonymous BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) practice discovers a softer version of the numbers that preserves room for design. By using computation more in the spirit (if not fact) of post-rationalization rather than true generation—just enough numbers to provide a veneer of intellectual respectability, but nowhere near what any self-respecting Function mixer operator would want to see—the BIG practice makes sure that the final products are recognizable as architecture by the glossy mags. BIG’s design for the Boscolo Hotel in Nice, for example, a swooping “symbiotic” transformation of a mixed-use vernacular context into a multi-spired luxury high-rise, or its winning entry in the Faroe Islands Education Center competition, which dramatically coils separate strands of program around a central outdoor gathering space, is exemplary of a “signature process” that describes, explains, and justifies the spectacular results as if they were merely the inevitable outcomes of a really quite reasonable and straightforward logical process with no ulterior design motives.

The final self-consuming (if finally unoriginal) irony in this Dutch story of a descent into objectivity is evident in the recent monograph-cum-manifesto put out by BIG, which gives the work an extended comic book treatment.12 Perhaps offered as proof against criticism that the overtly pretty work might be mistaken for an uncool earnestness, the comic book format of BIG’s volume is cleverly self-effacing and overtly expedient. The simple format of recomposed fragments from the original client presentations and office photos, rendered cartoonish with text bubbles, enabled the book to be rushed out when BIG’s surprising arrival on the scene—announced by the presentation of its Danish Superharbour (cleverly repurposed for China by transforming the Mærsk seven-point star into a PRC five-point star), which was a sensation on YouTube—created a need for a momentum sustaining follow-up. It is a post-critical collage: the hipster’s scrapbook.

Bjarke Ingels Group, Boscolo Hotel, rendering, Nice, France, 2009. Courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group

Bjarke Ingels Group, Boscolo Hotel, rendering, Nice, France, 2009. Courtesy Bjarke Ingels Group

Just as the nihilism of Dutch work was foreshadowed in Delirious New York, so the seeds of the digital’s over-weening ambition were planted in Eisenman’s first experiments with Noam Chomsky and the possibility of an architectural “deep grammar.” Yet where the end-game of the Dutch work took time to reveal itself, and Koolhaas’s work was an important contributor along the way, the early work of Eisenman already seemed like it at least should have been done on a computer, although he was among the last to actually adopt one as a tool. There is no more critically obvious image of architectural objectivity than Eisenman’s overtly rational axonometric diagrams for his numbered houses, which are both records of a process and justifications of the result. In each of these, the object was emphatically no more or less than the final state of the process that led to it, a completely self-referential sign. In fact, the stepwise development of these designs from the simplest “primitive” to the most elaborate product is a direct precursor to the digital solid modeling process (such as used by FormZ, for which Eisenman’s work served as an inspiration). Yet, during the proto-digital era Eisenman distanced himself from the computer, claiming that what he was doing was not computational at all. Since so much of the value in his work was due to the extraordinary effort it took, it was understandable that he would insist that it could not be done by a machine. That this assertion aligned him firmly with the disciplinary conventions he was ostensibly trying to criticize only became evident in the digital’s own endgame.

Eisenman wasn’t the only skeptic: Designers shunned the computer when it made its first appearance in the profession. The computer, in its early AutoCAD default guise, was seen as strictly vocational, more naturally suited to the manipulation of program—what became the Dutch side of the game—and useful only for drafting and engineering, not real architecture. But with the introduction of Alias and Maya (Hollywood animation software) into the field, which were vocationally useless (at the outset) design media, the AutoCAD nerd became the trendier Silicon Valley techie, and this vocational pre-history was forgotten as the use of the computer took off among designers. The computer had yielded to the far sexier “digital.”

The work of this fashionable new computer age started out as naturally generative but critical in spirit, like Eisenman’s numbered house projects. Unlike his work, though, the early digital’s apparently critical spirit was aimed more at architecture’s personalities than the discipline: In fact, the digital critique was leveled at Eisenman and consumed in that contest, missing completely the disciplinary program of his work. The early critical digital work took Eisenman’s game at face value, trying to show that the digital could do it even better/more.

This new software arrived on a scene that was well prepared to welcome it. For a decade Eisenman had been waging the decon wars against the forces of history and historicism, and his efforts had spawned several critical techniques like collage and diagramming that had reached an impasse with respect to the key problems of determinism and interpretive freedom. Willful design, however critical, could not escape its willfulness. Its sheer presence always betrayed it.

Finding the closed loop of architecture’s teleological presumption to be either repressive or impossible—in fact, suspicious of any manner of willful design—“deconstructivism” advocated an aggressively open-ended form-finding process instead. In this process the goal was a continuously irresolvable surprise, a determined indeterminacy. This turned out to be much harder to do than to write about, though, since every attempt at nonsense tended to settle into a final determined state that allowed interpretations as fixed as that state. It was also less satisfying, because the natural recourse to randomized measures undercut the significance of any outcome, however “regrettably” final. Fortunately, this was the point at which the computer, and special effects software, arrived on the scene. This digital deus ex machina seemed to offer an answer to the conundrum of how to produce the sought-after, mythic unstable object—the near figure or “undecidable”13 form that could not read its way back to an original, originary, and thus ultimately limited/limiting state. By keeping the process going and allowing the focus to remain on the method rather than the product, the computer provided the means to make the object literally unstable.

With the advent of this software and the subsequent explosion of the digital throughout academia and then the larger profession, two strands of development could be identified that were latent in either Eisenman’s work or the culture of theory surrounding it. The (invariably three-part) texts supplementing his work, which invariably made reference to extra-architectural theories in the letters (Chomsky, then Derrida), the sciences (physics and genetics in particular) and culture (postmodernity, the Holocaust, and The Bomb), gave rise to a sort of science-envy in the use of these new tools, leading to “the blob” and the early versions of biomimicry, while the overt formalism and sly beauty of his work led to a relatively mindless (or at least un-theorized) obsession with the formal capabilities of the computer that put 3-D printers and CNC milling machines in almost every university architecture department throughout the world. At times these two strands crossed, and the more rigorous pseudoscientific practices made attempts to theorize beauty (as the work took a strong turn to the ugly), while the formalists began to think of their work as “indexical” to something and maybe therefore somehow “performative.”

In fact, the computer held the promise of a perfect open-ended automatism, a nonstop variability untainted by false consciousness, with the machine pumping out endless versions, continuous surprises. At the same time, the engineering and scientific bona fides of the computer reawakened the dream of a more perfect functionalism that might simply bypass the unreliable human on the way to the strictly empirical. The two interests ultimately became reconciled in scripted parametric indexicality, which serves both the ambition of non-arbitrariness at the microscale, where each point along the curve may be understood to stand for something, and the desire for surprise at the larger scale, where the overall shape of the curve remains unpredictable.

Scripting generates series, discrete members of which are expediently nominated as the finite, publishable representatives of the series as a whole. The nominated elements are not considered the final result, how ever, since that would negate the continuous variability and imply that the series represents some sort of development, with the members existing as steps along some determined way. Rather, all instantiations or “versions” are simultaneously “valid” and interchangeable with the visible one, because the real product of this effort is the abstract machine, the script, and not any particular version produced by that script. For the advocates of this “versioning,” this suspension of preference carries forward and perfects Eisenman’s program for an unstable object by eliminating the last vestige of untrustworthy authorial influence. No final choice or judgment of preference needs to remain to incriminate the author or spoil the pure “undecidability” of the object.

At the same time, sensitive perhaps to historical criticism of mass production, the proponents of this approach also hype the uniqueness of each of these instances, the results of an indexically engendered continuous differentiation. Although the differences between them may be slight, they are not indistinguishable (even if its basis in calculus makes a very close study of adjacent instances necessary to tell them apart—so much so that it really amounts to a matter of faith).14 This implies that versioning cares about these differences, and that a choice between them might matter (since it is only on that basis that their uniqueness would be something to announce). But if the instance’s hard-won undecidability is not to be under mined, if the parametric variability is to be privileged, then that difference can matter only as an outcome of its indexical relationship to the flows, forces, or other influences engaged by the script, quantitatively delivered and certified as beyond the designer’s control. Which leads to the question of whether those particular influences do in fact matter, whether they are worthy of the script’s attention or are just a mechanism for creating non authored difference.

Since mattering is a hallmark of architecture, versioning’s blunt, inelegantly literal production of a chorus of alternatives—or simple assertion of the possibility of those alternatives—leads to work that is flat and lifeless in comparison to the fraught work of Eisenman, which is haunted by the presence of absence, and the shadows cast by the offscreen author’s desperate, tragic attempt to exceed his own volition. There is no richly uncanny “otherness” in versioning, just a machine that ignores Dr. Strangelove’s admonition about bluffing as it blithely cranks out all possible alternatives.

However violent Eisenman’s apparent transgression, it is still a transgression, and thus significant in relation to the conventions transgressed. Eisenman’s critical approach to the discipline has always assumed the continuity of the discipline. Those of his children who chide him for his timidity confuse his underlying complicity as inadequacy, mistaking a fugitive firmness in his object’s instability as a problem to be solved, rather than as a guarantor of the game. Versioning and parametric variability solve the problem of undecidability by literally relying on the computer to create overwhelming choice without any desire to decide. Yet undecidability is only interesting, not to say meaningful, in relation to decidability.

Perhaps recognizing finally that reception—subjectivity—was unavoidable even in an ultimately parametric or variable state, undecidability was retooled to address the issue positively through the promotion of the sensual side of reception, of affect, rather than negatively by the proscription of meaning. To some extent the sensual had always been there of course, at least as a side effect, even on this more rigorous side of the digital story. Even Eisenman’s numbered houses were better received as pattern than text, despite their cerebral intentions to engage and then frustrate the viewer as the latter. The earliest versions of biomimicry were more effective for their sensual strangeness than for their logic. And all along, the work of the cousins on the less rigorous side of the family caused critics of the digital to scoff at the performative claims of the algorithmic/parametric/indexical operations as mere cover for a deeper interest in form.

Affect means many things, but in architecture these days it is most often related to mood or emotion; it signifies whatever can be experienced without regard to meaning. Affect is what turns the sensual into the “sensation” of the second fork in the road, in so doing resurrecting the logical positivists’ notions of “sense data” from their own vain attempt to objectify the most subjective of experiences. It is sought through the bewildering multiplication of effects, some special but more often merely complex, novel, or weird, with a view toward confounding understanding on the way to direct visceral engagement. This level of experience seems like the opposite of objectivity or computational certainty, but affect serves the same goal of deflecting criticism—as the computational endgame of the sensual—through simply reframing that experience to exclude any argument as beside the point.

Experience shorn of meaning is impossible, however. The deconstructeurs’ discovery of the hermeneutic free-for-all did not only apply to real language. Even gibberish is significant of that fact about itself.15 While the objectively designed form may be granted a pass from conformance to any conventional language and its associated meaning, it cannot avoid being experienced by its viewers. In being experienced, the object stands unavoidably on one side of (at least the expectation of) a conversation with those who experience it merely by the fact of its being perceived. Beyond the trivial state of mere perception, though, and the explicitly indexed “web of influences” the object declares, this will also include those constraints, expectations, and desires stemming from the intention to produce it in the first place—as well as dimensions of “language” outside those specific conventions that serve the work up to its viewers and condition their consumption of it.

It would be convenient and satisfying if symmetry with the Dutch development could be discovered at this point in the digital story. This would require that after the endgame of objectivity was reached in (the hope for) pure sensation, someone would notice the emperor’s nakedness and take advantage of the sartorial advances leading to that condition to instead design a more perfect speed suit or body paint. The conditions are ripe for this among the newest of the digerati, for whom the computer has always been merely a fact of life, like the cell phone and flat-screen monitor, and thus simply no big deal. It is also possible to imagine those older practitioners, who can remember a time before the computer was even an issue, finally mastering the damn thing (now that the language/interface has become so transparent) and therefore becoming able to actually participate in this adventure. As with BIG’s returning cleverness to its role as a means rather than an end, it would involve restoring the computer to its original status as a tool rather than a program. As a tool, the digital might finally get to the point, rather than being the point, or just get out of the way, to allow a deeper probing into the disciplinary questions opened up by Eisenman so many years ago, matters that will demand judgment rather than calculus to settle.

The displacement of the sense of necessity from the subject to the computed, from the judged to the measured, amounts to a change in values that questions the very meaning and sense of “necessity.” When the measure is quantifiable, conviction becomes satisfaction, and inspiration becomes justification. But the sense of necessity attending the architectural experience is supposed to exceed mere satisfaction and bypass all requirements for justification; those are sentiments grounded in the values of efficacy and efficiency, which are of no concern to architecture when it is viewed as other than simple building or shelter. Something like faith—in the value of the effort, in the possibility of an outcome—must be involved. Architecture’s struggle with its own sense of worth, given its elective nature, has forced it to continuously raise the stakes in order to fend off the temptations of quantifiable, engineered certainty. However, the increasing sophistication of the technology available to supply this version of certainty has pushed architecture to the brink of abandoning its faith. In order to indulge a craving begun innocently enough so long ago, when the “eyes which do not see” were opened, architecture is on the verge of finding out what really happens when “form follows function.”

To Louis Sullivan, who first popularized that phrase, form and function were simply different sides of the same coin, but after Le Corbusier placed them aboard his planes, trains, and automobiles, the pair began a journey toward literalness that leads through Koolhaas and Eisenman to the present. Koolhaas stands for the functional side of Modernism, which saw architecture as a species of problem-solving, while Eisenman, despite the severity of his work, epitomizes its problem-transcending expression. The unity of the terms was assured by defining each through the other—expression as the face of function, function as the body of expression—while judging both according to a subjective sense of architectural necessity that could not derive from either alone. Functionalist problem-solving wanted to be appreciated rather than simply assessed, while expression was always asked to measure up. Whether their fissioning, so evident in the practices of Koolhaas and Eisenman, should be blamed on the culture-wide ascendancy of irony, or on the objectivity that backstops that irony, it set in motion today’s seismic division between authored and authorless (or willful and automatic) design, and attunement to either sense or sensation in appreciating that design. It remains to be seen if these are just forks in the road or the four-point antlers of an impossible dilemma.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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Issue No. 1