“The desire to have a technologically empowered environment—one where change is both appreciable and responsive as to elicit human reaction—has produced architectural design production that is wide-ranging. And it is not a new desire. Sometimes the impulse results in schemes impossible to fashion with present technologies. However, the state of architectural design education is a less exuberant one, for reasons necessarily defensible and frequently eclipsed. This is the basis on which education has witnessed a break in its many trajectories—of autonomy, geometry, typology, and technology—to the succession of technology above all else. . . .”
The desire to have a technologically empowered environment—one where change is both appreciable and responsive as to elicit human reaction—has produced architectural design production that is wide-ranging. And it is not a new desire. Sometimes the impulse results in schemes impossible to fashion with present technologies. However, the state of architectural design education is a less exuberant one, for reasons necessarily defensible and frequently eclipsed. This is the basis on which education has witnessed a break in its many trajectories—of autonomy, geometry, typology, and technology—to the succession of technology above all else.
Fabian and the Mop Tops
This architectural production has seen purpose ranging from projections into the far future, as close as the next technological advance, to the repurposed present. The first example has a heraldry that is well recognized in the early work of Archigram, specifically the output of Ron Herron and Peter Cook with Walking City (1964) and Instant City (1968). As arresting as the images are—and much has been studied about them—they remain provocations without descendents. Their machine shed and its indeterminate programming could be said to have an antecedent in Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (1959–61), and their greatest descendant is found in Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Beaubourg (Centre Pompidou, 1970–76). And although both taught for decades, Cook and Herron never established the “Instant” or “Plug-In” curricular tradition. Neither have their projects been as widely manifest in curricula and discourse as the work of their contemporary, Robert Venturi, just a few years their senior. I compare Cook and Herron with Venturi not to highlight easy divides (and critiques have passed between them), but rather to isolate two strategies of production. Venturi preceded the majority of his professional work with the seminal scholarship of his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966),1 followed by Learning from Las Vegas (1972),2 a collaboration with Denise Scott Brown (and Steven Izenour) showcasing academic work by their students. The subject matter of Venturi and Scott Brown included an interest in technology, but only in its service to the greater purpose of form as a conduit of meaning. Venturi’s Complexity and Herron’s Walking City, published within two years of each other, became progenitors of vastly different strains of production in different environments. Yet a comment that bridges these two poles is found in Learning from Las Vegas, Venturi and Scott Brown writing that, “Archigram’s structural visions are Jules Verne versions of the Industrial Revolution with an appliqué of Pop-aerospace technology.”3 Architecture critic Martin Pawley offers a defense of Archigram, and of Jules Verne, in Oppositions 7,4 with a rejoinder by Michael Sorkin in his book Some Assembly Required.5 Sorkin’s analogy, drawing the comparison of Venturi as the coiffed and polished crooner Fabian contra Archigram as The Beatles, could only be improved with an éminence grise of Ed Sullivan’s stature.
However, many Archigram projects are now finding new relevance due to developments in electronics and industry that have produced an exponential increase in the accessibility of electromechanical components. These machine pieces, previously prohibitively expensive and found only in academic institutions and industry, are now increasingly available for domestic use. This occurrence has democratized the making and crafting of any number of specialized features and interactions that were unavailable even a decade ago. Self-motivated and individualized design and fabrication, free of top-down control, is becoming an unusual factor in what product design, architecture, and cities can hope to maintain in terms of meaningful communication of intent.
World’s Expositions: The Autonomous and Analogous
I take a fragment from Peter Eisenman’s introduction to Aldo Rossi’s book The Architecture of the City to form an opposition to the singular building type of Expo pavilions: “The idea of the end of history, when a form no longer embodies its original function . . . the analogue is detached from specific place and specific time, and becomes instead an abstract locus existing in what is a purely typological or architectural time-place.”6
As evident in the World Expositions or World’s Fairs of the past century, the manner in which these architectures are represented in history is immediately influenced by their context. The industrial age produced metal machines of gears and armatures set in a clockwork of discrete parts. The advancement of petrochemicals produced interiors of supple and molded plastics that appeared integrated and seamless. The electronic and electromechanical present promises a controlled environment that is neutral to the point of being undetectable. Here, a thermodynamically stable atmosphere is superimposed over the existing so that the visual differentiation becomes largely virtual. The most immediate result of this is a do-it-yourself dispersion of authority, and expertise, of designers and arbiters to the individuated control of autonomous, self-made products and buildings.
Yet most of these scenarios of the new architecture and environment are human-centric. Following the Second World War, the idea of cybernetics, or a total unification of disciplines, turned the anthropomorphized world into a network of relationships. From mathematician Norbert Wiener’s book Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948) to philosopher Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), the human condition was no longer the primary focus. In fact, the distinction of subject versus object was no longer deemed appropriate. Cybernetics has seen a dissipation over the years, replaced by the fields of cognitive science and artificial intelligence, but it nevertheless challenges an ingrained idea of human as center.
If we take account of what is at the core of architecture discipline and practice, the primacy of the meaning and form of architecture, separated and autonomous, has consistently been clear. However, the evaluation of this matter and media has always been through the human occupant. The scale, social and cultural scenarios, as well as communication of meaning have also been that of the human occupant. Ideas of the posthuman and transhuman—perhaps as outmoded as the term nonlinear—could prove to be potent in expanding or blurring architecture’s kingdom of classifications.
Representation and Design as Research
Within the players of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the “Rude Mechanicals,” a group of six men who venture into an enchanted forest inhabited by fairies. The group serves not simply as a source of comedy, but also two higher devices: one, they enact a play within a play, projecting and exposing the audience into the conceit; and two, one of their party undergoes the play’s only physical transformation, a human-nonhuman hybridization from which stunning events unfold.
In productions of the play the magical forest is not seen—it is simply set by Shakespeare as, “A wood near Athens,” with no production notes to guide its manufacture. The flora from which magic is supplied is not presented. A 16th-century production designer would no doubt be ill equipped to produce the special effects of such a vital element of the play.
However, one of the Rude Mechanicals undergoes a transformation, albeit offstage. Entertained by a character named Bottom, the instigator Puck gives him the head of a donkey. The notes of the play simply read, “Re-enter PUCK, and BOTTOM with an ass’s head,” but the historical accounts of that particular prop are unclear. Would Shakespeare even permit an overbearing and large physical mask, as he was adamantly opposed to devices that marred the representation of the acting and narrative?
If we permit the idea that transformation—through technology or other (human-with-head-of-ass) means—can incorporate otherness or combined identities, then architecture can take on trajectories not previously permitted. Architecture and cities—as a collector of memory not time, and of geometry, elements, and organizations—can be a domain for new opportunities. The means and methodologies of self-assembled nodes of instruction and making are the conclusion to the dissemination of knowledge, parts, and systems. This would require disengagement with digital fascination, validated through its own exterior complexity, and find an expanded architectural discipline that is able to take on new media and make significant its authority. Generations after Archigram, provocations must be tempered with merit. New relationships between input and output, now too easily made, must be channeled into meaning.
To expand on Anthony Vidler’s typologies as a means to produce a wholly independent tradition, a fourth typology could be the independence and agency of process separate from the human author. As a deterrent to a falling back to the original model of nature for all manners of mimesis, and to put aside a fetishization of industrial imagery, this new typology would be self-generating and free of signification. Its internal procedures would not require a singular worldview to frame their evaluations, and its methods would produce open-ended matrices of possibilities. More importantly for the discipline and practice, it might allow for the removal of design as a service and dispel power as the only relationship.
1. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966). ↩
2. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972; rev. ed., 1977). ↩
3. Ibid., 151. ↩
4. Martin Pawley, “‘We Shall not Bulldoze Westminster Abbey’: Archigram and the Retreat from Technology,” Oppositions 7 (Winter 1976): 25–35. ↩
5. See Michael Sorkin, Some Assembly Required (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). ↩
6. Peter Eisenman, “The Houses of Memory: The Texts of Analogy,” editor’s introduction to Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, trans. Diane Ghirardo and Joan Ockman (New York: MIT Press, 1984), 8. ↩