• Deja-Vu: Environmental Architecture from Object to System to Cloud

    Charles Harker, Earth House, Tao Design group
    new york NEW YORK

    1971: Charles Harker, founder of the TAO Design Group in Austin, Texas, juxtaposes Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” with a new concept for habitation that he coins the “soft machine.” The Tao Design Group—a group of architects, sculptors and artists— experiments on building without drawings, spraying urethane on a chicken wire armature based on sketches and written rules for enclosure. Every step is a fluctuating process of incremental adjustments that necessitates constant reinvention of the original plan.

    In his manifesto, Harker outlines an alternative definition of matter as patterns of energy that solidify in time. He writes, “We are in the midst of a Socio-Psychological, Cybernetic, Mass-media, Space Age revolution,” and speaks of “softness” as an expansion of environmental perception; both literally, through curvature and the use of plastic materials, and conceptually, envisioning an elastic understanding of tectonic conventions.

    2005: François Roche, principal of R&Sie(n) in Paris, France exhibits a “hypnosis chamber” at the Modern Art Museum (MAM) in Paris. Designed with computational scripts—protocols that allow for growth of the original “seed” design—and fabricated with a five-axis milling machine, the hypnosis chamber renders an immersive space of disalientation from the social sphere, in a state between sleep and wake. A complex intrauterine vascular space, the hypnosis chamber is intended to introduce uncertainty in the individual’s environmental cognition, as a means of creative speculation and experimentation which may open up the possibility of transforming one’s environmental sphere.

    Is it the same or is it not? Are we destined to remediate unsettled memories of our recent past? Is regression a defensive reaction against future disenchantment? Or have we already imagined in the past something beyond the present of that time?

    The kinship between present-day experimental design and that of the 1960s-1970s is so striking that we can speak of uncanny resemblances, eerie images of projects already seen and experienced like a déjà-vu. In psychoanalysis, déjà vu is a “disturbance of reality perception, which serves to reassure the patient against this insecurity, by divesting, through an estrangement affect, the recurrent circumstances of the impact of a new reality.” Déjà vu is an unconscious effort of the ego to bridge a gap between the past and the present; it is a peculiar defensive reaction against the fear of the unknown, manifest by projecting the future not as an entirely new course of events but as mixture of past and present stretched in time.

    In our field, a number of critics have described concepts, forms, and approaches retrieved from the recent past as a pervasive phenomenon of media archeology. Is this type of regression, however, merely expressive of historical interest? Looking to the postwar period may be more than a quest to identify historical antecedents. It could be quite the opposite: that the present helps us understand this recent past and, of course, vice versa. History only survives as a relevant discourse through revivalism of the oblivious past. Leftover histories—environmental experiments with organic matter, synthetic growth, and other alternative technologies that were once esteemed as marginal and deviant—are now of core significance to architectural discourse. Displaced from the periphery to the center of deliberations, these counter-histories may account for the multiplicity and diversity of current ecological anxieties in architecture.

    As such, déjà-vu might be used procreatively to rebuild future disciplinary courses. Reconstructing projects and ideas of the past through a new organizational and classificatory lens might enable us to generate a critical discourse that migrates to different terrains of thought throughout time.

    For in the way we classify things bears a profound impact on disciplinary structures. The means by which we organize information emerges from and profoundly affects our social, political, intellectual, and cultural constructs. The legacy of ecological ideas in architecture evidences this effect. Post-enlightenment, environmental debates focused on assiduous observation and documentation of objects and organisms, analytically classifying the living stock of the world. In the postwar period, environment was addressed through diagrams of feedback cycles; global resources were examined as interconnected systems that could be redistributed. Today, while the environmental discourse is much more diverse than in the past, it shares an investment in local data classification of living systems, similar to information clouds of data constellations online.

    Beyond the pretext of healing the planet and the strategic relocation of finite natural resources, the present ubiquity of ecological concerns illustrates a persistent taxonomical thinking in design. Expanded materials listings, technical standards, mechanisms, natural and synthetic processes and methods assemble a rising sensibility of design agency where authorship, as a projected vision of a new reality, is replaced in favor of editorial observation and data reshuffling. The permeation of organizational tools in our discipline is not innocent. It is not merely about facilitating and managing knowledge; it also transforms the nature of design, with no return. Is it not critical that we give equal attention to reconsidering our classification systems and how they are affecting architectural discourses?
    The recent invasion of ecological anxieties in architecture has many faces: from the restitution of moral values in design thinking, in revival of an archaic humanist discourse; through the substitution of “performance” for “function,” in restoration of a lost modernist and positivist ethos; to the post-structuralist denunciation of environmental improvement and the critical recognition of waste and pollution as generative potential for design. As a circular, causal form of reasoning, ecology surfaces as an inevitable salvation in architectural debates, in advocacy of unity and the common good. However, on a planet without a square inch of untouched environment, the new wave of ecological architecture cannot be explicitly directed to the ethics of the world’s salvation and the rhetoric of confinement. It rather projects a psycho-spatial or mental position, fuelling a reality of change, action, and disciplinary crossbreeding.

    The term ecology is attributed to eminent German biologist, naturalist, and artist Ernst Haeckel, who identified embryonic interrelationships between living organisms and their ambient environment. In The General Morphology of Organisms (1866), a reformation of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Descent, Haeckel conceptually linked ontogeny with physiology and illustrated all known life forms in a genealogical tree. Haeckel’s work was a revolution in visual mapping compared to the Hippodamian gridded classification tables of his predecessor, Carolus Linnaeus (Systema Naturae, 1735). Whereas Linnaeus established the normative method of naming and numbering the world’s living wealth in boxes, Haeckel’s genealogical tree graphically described the relationships between organisms, introducing shape and scale as decisive parameters for his classification system. Nevertheless, both maps still follow a paradigm of understanding the world through component pieces and objects, and classify the natural world as wilderness—an object of observation and conservation separate from the man-made.

    The post-WWII period signaled the rise of a modern environmental era, distinctly different from earlier environmental positions of wilderness preservation. In the 1960s and 1970s, ecologists instrumentalized the prevalent social and political discourse of a closed, ill-managed earth, arguing that their science provided the most faithful account of planetary values. As awareness of worldwide pollution levels mounted, environmentalism became a form of social activism calling for a redistribution of global resources. Buckminster Fuller, John McHale, and Ian McHarg played a seminal role in formulating this discourse, explaining ecosystems with parallels between the earth and human processes. A physiological diagnosis of planetary resources was precisely the agenda of Fuller’s “World Design Science Decade,” which took cognitive analytical form in McHale’s The Ecological Context. Through systemic management, the totality of the earth could or should serve as a stage of action, envisioning a new empire and reasoning backward to a colonial and empirical modality.

    Their work represented a significant shift in the field of ecology: from understanding the built environment as distinct from nature to understanding the built environment as embodying natural ecosystems’ cyclical behaviors. This change was deeply rooted in ecologists’ appropriation of a specific scientific language and a set of classification tools used by cyberneticians in the postwar period. Cyberneticians’ diagrams of the flow of energy in the natural world as input and output, circuits in a cybernetic ecosystem, provided ecologists with new research techniques and a biologically informed, and yet computational, theory of the world as a system of subsystems.

    The work of this period forms the basis for the online archive entitled EcoRedux, which I assembled from various personal collections and archives during the past four years. The name refers to the contemporary return of ecological awareness as a phenomenon of resurgence from the 1960s and 1970s, and assembles a database of ecological material experiments as well as their ramifications in architectural design. In this sense, the intention is to document and track an unexplored genealogy of design experimentation conducted by underground architectural groups, as a prehistory of a rising biotechnological imagery and a new social and planetary vision, throughout different design disciplines.

    In curating the EcoRedux archive, I am seeking to offer a counter-history to the canonic environmental discourse of this period that was centered on the decryption of the planet as a whole ecosystem. The experiments in this archive eschew notions of a planet managed and harnessed as a whole ecosystem. Rather, all imaginable provisional structures and small-scale strategies—pneumatics from used parachutes, handmade domes from discarded materials, electronic-lawn carpets, pills, capsules and self-sufficient systems, garbage houses, foam shelters—become part of new equation in reflection of the intense socio-political concerns of the time and the collective fantasizing about new technologies as remedial tools. The collection of these experiments recounts ecological strategies as discrete fragments in defiance of a larger scheme for global harmony, like a peep show of the world, or a selective perspective that reconstructs the globe out of little pieces.

    As a collection, the EcoRedux experiments suggest an alternate model for urbanism that presupposes a new form irreverent to the master plan—a form that needs to integrate the parameters of continually variable micro-environments. Although these improvisatory techniques only provide rudimentary shelter, they suggest a new approach, in contrast to prior geometric configurations, integrating constantly changing environmental parameters into the design and construction process. Furthermore, we witness a germinal connection between the macro-urban scale and the micro-material scale, leaving the medium scale—building—out of the equation. Peter Cook recalls how, at the end of the 1960s, “It was fashionable to introduce a project as ‘anti-building,’ or a conglomeration of environmental elements.” By looking back at this time, it is not proposed to dispense with the significance of “building” as the main edifice of architectural practice and education; but instead to interrogate extremity of scale—the focus on the micro and macro—and to inquire into this “out of focus” moment as a reflection of intense, socio- political upheaval.

    These experimental schemes, beyond being historically informative, narrate stories, wonders, obsessions, blemishes, and personal values that haunted their authors. In many cases, the projects were very crude in form, leaving their authors unsatisfied or in anxious search of the materialized visions they could not somehow pin down. Many experiments utilized erratic material interactions and therefore defied established definitions of representation; there was little tectonic control over their formation. This realm of impossibility, the moment when representation fails to describe the form of objects, is both magical and terrifying. As such, these architects were prisoners of their visions, openly willing to fail.

    Compared to the scientific definition of experimentation, these open-ended explorations were obscure in their directions and purposes. The scientific method requires an experiment to either verify or falsify a hypothesis, or research a causal relationship between phenomena. Moreover, an experiment should be capable of replication, under certain predefined canonical conditions, and in a particular number of steps/phases. On the other hand, the fuzzy, non-linear nature of design processes makes it unfeasible for a design experiment to align to this universal clarity. One could argue that design experiments seem “hypothesisless,” while the value of contingency—as this is mediated by the interaction of materials and their deployment tactics in varied circumstances—constitutes a key feature of design experimentation.

    The model of “direct action,” that the EcoRedux projects proposed, stimulated design debates, the echoes of which still reverberate in contemporary practice. This emerging framework of critical thinking undermined the imperial significance of formalism as the distiller of value, in favor of open-ended potential in procedural design. As an effect of this discourse, alternate means of production were recovered, disengaging design from the conventions and limitations of drawings, which have for the most part governed design practice throughout the century.

    Foremost, several projects documented in the EcoRedux archive do not target environmental improvement as a planetary strategy. The archived experiments are partial, small-scale, ad hoc and opportunistic; unclassified under a larger plan. In this sense, the archive documents a counter-history of ecological anxiousness. The projects are not performative agents of amelioration; rather they are, in themselves, their own ecologies, producing new worlds.

    Today, the extensive recovery of ecological concerns broadcasts mainstream values and stands as a defense mechanism for late capitalism. Yet, at the formative stages of the green movement in the 1960s and 1970s, ecological design debates were of a very different political and ideological orientation. Ecology not only embodied an alternative route to mainstream political action, but also an inspirational model for design creativity; it embodied an evolutionary design process in several stages and lifecycles through material experiments as analog computation tools. Looking back on this period offers an alternative elastic understanding of the term “ecology,” at a time when the term addressed not only a new kind of naturalism and techno-scientific standards, but also systems theory: a recirculatory understanding of the world and its resources. In this context, revisiting the term “ecological,” rather than “sustainable” and “green,” is of essence and may potentially contribute to a reassessment of contemporary debates. It may be in this epistemological fusion that we can ask more of architecture.

    EcoRedux strives to map a history of architectural imagination, rather than a history of technological development. Through this documentation, the hope is to question current mainstream perceptions of sustainability and the LEED program (as a technical classification tool that empowers capitalist production, creating a new revenue source veiled by the ethics of environmentalism). The archive is also an educational open-source online resource ( with a dual function: as a tool to explore the history of the period, but also as a pedagogical tool for design. Given the open source nature of the project, architects and designers are able to actively participate in the expansion of the website by submitting their own interpretations of ecological experiments that are documented in the database. The scope is to foster the reuse and recycling of the information documented in the historical archive in order to explore innovative ecological strategies in contemporary architectural practice. It is implicitly argued here that the permission to reproduce, translate, or even “misuse” information to observe and transform existing material and ideological structures, endows architecture with its creative potential.

    This organizational open source system of gathering information online in clusters, assembling ideas mixed in past and present time, might relate to our data-driven culture and the emergence of “cloud computing.” The term “cloud computing” was coined in 1997 by Ramnath Chellappa to describe information storage in networked online clusters, as distinct from localized storage in physical data centers. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, argues that information is now untethered from the archive, the library, and even the organization of complex three dimensional classification systems, and instead it renders an order of “dimensionally agnostic statistics.” The cloud necessitates an entirely different way of understanding the world, “one that requires us to lose the tether of data as something that can be visualized in its totality.” Growing out of Google’s model of detecting correlations through applied mathematics and not through context, the cloud ranks fractional connections above holistic perceptions of phenomena. An embodiment and representation of change and self-organization, the temporal space of the cloud grows, crystallizes, and dissolves. What is essential about the cloud is the absorption and collection of data that crystallizes in a region, rather than the overall contextual interpretation of the data. In a world where complexity can no longer be decoded systematically, the cloud is a byproduct of incidental data accretion; it defies any precise definition of form and representation.

    In many respects, the EcoRedux archive is like a cloud in its content and organization: seemingly unrelated characters, projects, and environments—that have little in common phenomenally—swarm together in blurry mass. Even though they never worked together, the architects collected in EcoRedux are the protagonists of a profound transformation to amplify the main disciplinary focus from object to environment, system, and situation. This archive is not a marginal history of non-architects that needs to be written because it is left untold; it is assembled to uncover spatial and architectural concerns and ideas that have surfaced now, though they originate from a historical moment when the discipline underwent a fundamental reorientation in the deployment of normative representation tools.
    The stories outlined in EcoRedux archive appear as side effects in the history of ideas, rather than being allied with the normative course of what we premeditate as of core historical significance. The experiments register retroactive moments—incomplete bubbles of events. They are manifestations of a moment between the “system” and the “cloud” that was never cognitively addressed at the time it took place.

    The stories of unexpected offspring at times germinate as derailed paths from the central line of inquiry and more truly speak of today’s ideological diffusion, despite the fact that they are not perceived as central. They constitute a marginal practice that subconsciously informs the core, feeding history through its dross. These stories, incidental side effects produced as a discipline undergoes a transformation, may suggest an alternative reading of architectural history: not by offering actual objects and a new paradigm, but by suggesting new tools and new modes of practice.

    What is essential about the cloud is the absorption and collection of data that crystallizes in a region, rather than the overall contextual interpretation of the data. Meaning is not essential for the cloud; neither is the understanding of phenomena’s complexity as a whole. Instead, the cloud evokes localized data collection and the fractional correlations between bits and pieces. In a world where complexity can no longer be decoded systematically, the cloud is a byproduct of incidental data accretion; it defies any precise definition of form and representation. It is impossible to map or draw the cloud, as there is no tectonic control over its formation. In this sense, the emerging ecology of the cloud is our contemporary obligation to translate. It feels like rain.