16 Sept 2020
Antagonism, Autonomy and Automation
Project for an Automated Urbanity
"Enough with the social…Let’s get rid of the tyranny of the plebs, the masses must understand that, through the media, they are no longer consumers but rather they are consumed, No one is author of anything, no artwork can be given, since it cannot be produced any masterpiece, as we continuously reset ourselves, all that remains is TO BE a masterpiece."
The discipline of architecture is primarily an intellectual endeavor whose goal is to speculate and offer interpretations on what it means to shelter, to build, to home life and human activities. Rather than focusing merely on how we build buildings, architecture is concerned with why we do build. In this sense, like other fields of knowledge, architecture is ultimately concerned with the fundamental quests: what it means to be human, what it means to domesticate the natural environment and, in turn, how the artificial environment domesticates our collective living. Of course, architecture expresses itself through buildings, as well as drawings and words that constitute the world of ideas about and around what we call architecture.
However, such intellectual supremacy always requires a position, a hypothesis, a point of reasoning if not an ideology, a “lever” to question who, what, how, where and why architecture. Like any ideology, architecture is always related to its time, the historical contingencies of our culture. Certainly, the affiliation of architecture with the political sphere has a long tradition, one which has not always produced the best kind of it. In the second half of the XX Century, for instance, architecture sharply reflected the evolving social-economic and culture of its time. The Fordist economy based on industrial mass production was instrumental to the spread of Modernism. The post-Fordist knowledge-economy paved the way to Post-Modernity, while the current shift on the 4th industrial revolution with new digital technologies and robotics is opening up new avenues of research for the architecture of the digital age.
Project for pre-fab. Micro unit to fight housing shortage. Open Systems. Orb, 2017
However, the current climate, which is characterised by the economic and environmental crisis, poses many threats to our societies, our cities and our environment. The current situation calls for a particular awareness of the opportunities at our disposal and of the relative threats we are facing. Architects need to take a position, articulating the political dimension of their work, if not openly declaring their own ideological creed. The urgency to ‘take a position’ towards today’s societal, geo-political or environmental issues is often valued as an exclusive and essential quality of design. The societal function of architecture, which encompasses political and ethical aspects, is often considered in opposition to the aesthetic qualities, which is judged as subordinate if not in open opposition to the former. This is clearly a false opposition and it has to do with a misconceived, heterodirect idea of architecture and its place within society.
All too often architecture is predicated (and thus reciprocally critiqued), through rhetorical postures, as a commentary where its implicit political dimension fully encompasses the sense of purpose and the scope of the work itself. This very approach, despite being often superficial, reflects on the “phenomenological’ aspects of contemporary culture and is often aimed at the didactic purpose to ‘do good’. It requires an ‘a priori’ political adherence, without which nothing - or very little - makes sense.
Indeed, any ideology has its propaganda; for it to be effective and viable, consensus must be reached on what has to be done. However, the risk is for the profession to become an echo chamber where, despite architects’ hypertrophic ego seeking the limelight, all actors sing in unison. The predicted extinction of star-architects, whose vanity is deemed unfit to face today’s challenges, seems counteracted by a diffused tendency to value and reward the idiosyncratic, the personal, the individual, beside and despite their real merit.
Intermediate Unit 07, Architectural Association School of Architecture, 2018. Professor Marco Vanucci and Anna Muzychak. Student Carson Leung
Global warming, mass migration, scarcity of resources, housing shortage and the environmental crisis are all issues that are addressed and pursued as a moral imperative. These subjects are often sought through the deployment of empathy, which implies the capacity of putting oneself in the shoes of another person, to feel their pain. While this is an effective way to conquer consensus (of clients, stakeholders and the general public), it makes us blind to the long-term consequences of our actions. While doubting involves rational, skeptical, critical analysis and argumentation to persuade or defeat others, the empathic believing game is often uncritically naive (1).
The lack of a shared direction leaves the discipline stuck in the “rhetoric of empathy”, a state in which meanings are validated through the adherence to external factors or phenomena. All too often, architecture simply mirrors the phenomenological aspects of the contemporary culture, its zeitgeist and this adherence, in turn, validates architecture. A case in point is the widespread concern with climate change and the issue of sustainability. Many architects have militantly embraced this issue, often prone to “green wash” their ideology. “Green architecture” provides straight-forward responses to world-referential inputs (phenomena) whose spatial effectiveness is inversely proportional to its rhetorical emphasis.
Project for a fast deploying emergency unit. Open Systems. R-System, 2012
While the continuous brainstorming about and around the disciplinary boundaries is seeking to widen the perimeter of influence of architecture and design, the discipline seems to have lost its autonomy and therefore its capacity to be an effective agent of change. It seems all too relevant today to reclaim an operative space of resistance, one from which the discipline can escape being manipulated by the current power structures, whether that is capitalism, the status quo or the mainstream.
The term autonomy derives from the Greek word αὐτός (autós, “self”) and νόμος (nómos, “law”). It means having its own law. This term is often mentioned in opposition to the heteronomic nature of architecture, which is the tendency to exist in relation to other field of knowledge, not in isolation (heteronomy comes from hetero “other” + Greek nomos “law”, and it means “subject to the rule of others”).
It can be argued that if a strategic avant-garde of the current power structure exists, it manifests itself in those practices aiming at widening the boundaries of architecture. While the practices of participation, sustainability or social engagement were once forces behind a progressive idea of social emancipation, today they seem to be functional to the perpetration of the mainstream.
An antidote to the current state of affairs, lays in the possibility to resist. A form of resistance is to uncover the intrinsic and irreducible properties of architecture, to evoke its autonomy. In fact, autonomy implies searching for the meaning of architectural form before it relates to its contextual and societal function, to look for what’s left after architecture is devoid of its original mundane significance.
If architecture has its own laws, what are the laws of architecture? How does form contain meaning that is independent of the context within which it operates? How can we establish an epistemology of architectural form?
Luigi Moretti is the first architect to open up his gaze towards the laws of parametric as the key to unlock the autonomous potential of architectural form. As a fervent and prolific intellectual, Moretti believed in architecture’s power to unify different language. Through the pages of his magazine Spazio, starting from his view of the Baroque as the beginning of modern expressions, he elaborated a reflection on the integration of the various arts based on the concept of the Unity of Languages.
Moretti is aware of differences between expressive languages; however, he finds in the parametric interrelations of all aspects of the projects, including the spiritual, social and economic parameters, a converging unifying language. In Moretti the form is understood as pure interrelation of different aspects, where order and coherence are resolved by the architect. While he advocates the coming of a new parametric paradigm, Moretti claims the centrality of the figure of the architect. In this sense he anticipates the question of the author’s death and takes a clear position regarding the “dictatorship of the algorithm” that will hunt the architectural debate at the turn of the XXI Century. He didn’t see the introduction of computers as a treat to his individual creativity but rather an opportunity to inject scientific rigor to the process of designing an increasingly complex world.
In the second half of the XX Century, while the question of autonomy was declined as a political standpoint against the surge of the triumphant capitalism, new approaches emerged. New systematic procedures and algorithmic design methods offered a novel interpretation to the meaning of disciplinary autonomy.
Intermediate Unit 07, Architectural Association School of Architecture, 2018
Architect Paolo Portoghesi, most famously known for being the first curator of the Venice Architecture Biennale (1982) and subsequently one of main interpreters of Postmodernism, represents an interesting and equally unexpected case in point. Among his many interests and his fervent intellectual life, Portoghesi was one of the sharpest and most knowledgeable scholars of Baroque architecture (2). Less known but in no way less interesting is Portoghesi’s interest for the history of technology. In 1965, he writes Infanzia delle Macchine, Introduzione alla tecnica curiosa, an essay on the history of rational thought (3). For him, Tecnica Curiosa is ”the machine mentally designed before being built, even the machine as a simple thought and investigated abstractly as an idea”. Portoghesi surpasses the idea of technology as a mere prosthesis of the human body and embraces the idea that the machine “begins to impose itself as a direct projection of reasoning or as a fantastic stimulus linked to the mysterious sense of nature, to the desire to discover and celebrate together the secrets of movement, strength and time”.
The study of mathematics, although almost entirely overlooked by the official historiography, is a very intriguing feature of the work of Paolo Portoghesi, especially in the period between the decades of 1960 and 1970. During that period, he elaborates his Teoria dei Campi, a sophisticated and elegant study on the heterogeneous quality of space. According to this theory, objects in space “emanate” an influence on the surrounding environment, they produce a field that affects space and, in turn, is affected.
To represent this concept Portoghesi found traditional orthographic drawings insufficient to render the ephemeral spatial qualities he wanted to express. A new diagrammatic representation was to be employed: he produced a series of drawings representing rippling waves emanating in circle around different centre points. These diagrams produce a spatial field with differentiated lines of intensities. The differentiated field works as a template where walls, partitions as well as less tangible qualities of the space, such as light and sound, could be laid out. The project is therefore designed through the medium of a diagram that fosters a differentiated field where various polarities are at play. In this sense, although not developed with computers, the method follows some strictly algorithmic logics.
Intermediate Unit 07, Architectural Association School of Architecture, 2018
The field, beyond exploring the potential for a more open and porous spatiality, was further explored by Portoghesi as a means to formulate a new formal expression. Here, the autonomy of architecture is expressed through the laws and the principles of formal logic. This theory was applied in various projects: from the Casa Andreis to Casa Papanice, from Casa Bevilacqua to the Sacred Family Church in Salerno. The articulation of the walls and the subdivision of the space here follow the template constructed through the circles. These structures champion free circulation and establish a very fluid boundary not just between solid and void but also between interior and exterior. The theory is explained in the volume Le Inibizioni dell’Architettura Moderna, a small pamphlet published in 1972 by Portoghesi (4). In the book, Portoghesi advocates the re-appropriation of architectural history without fear or inhibitions, integrating the memory of the past with the Modern movement. In the book, concepts such as field, growth, rhythm and process are conceived as systems of soft control over the architectural project which is based on the congruence of the project with rules established a priori. Once the parameters and their behaviour are determined, the system is free to produce the conditions that will better fit the initial design criteria assigned. In Portoghesi, autonomy means, on one hand, to produce an independent form of knowledge and, on the other, to leave space for an open composition to emerge.
A more radical and enduring form of resistance is to be found in the work of Peter Eisenman.
Since his time at Cambridge University as PhD student, Eisenman’s project focuses on the problem of form in architecture. He aims at elucidating a formal analysis of works of architecture, outside the perceptual, metaphorical or subjective realms. Eisenman defines architecture as a three-dimensional form in time and space (5). The architectural volume for Eisenman is affected by internal and external forces. He is not interested in the isolation of individual form but rather he develops and analyses a language of order which uses geometrical solids as a point of reference. Eisenman juxtaposes the “generic forms” represented by Euclidean geometries, which are at the foundation of our perception of space, and the “specific forms”, which are forms that are subject to deformations required to fit a specific site or programmatic brief. For him, form develops from internal and external functional requirements, like syntax and language.
Eisenman moves away from the idea of form as “adherent” to reality. He accepts a concept of form which is understood as independent and autonomous agent. For him, form is a field of possibilities in which, dissolved any hierarchy, formal elements become indexes, freed from any signification. Eisenman’s indexification of form makes use of the diagram as a machinic devise to record the evolution of form, which happens through the mediation of the intrinsic and extrinsic logics of the architectural project. In this sense, his work anticipates and set the basis for the development of the digital project, where the procedural and casual proliferation of form follows an evolutionary process.
It can be argued that what makes Eisenman the godfather of the project of autonomy isn’t just his refusal of any signification (6). Rather, it has to do with the way knowledge in his work is produced and communicated. In Eisenman, architectural knowledge is produced by means of procedurally automated processes, through protocols that escape any form of socio-political signification.
Project for pre-fab. Micro unit to fight housing shortage. Open Systems. Orb, 2017
The new millennium marks a new shift in the evolution of architecture: the automation of design processes. In the western renaissance tradition, architecture is an act of notation, architects were making drawings and the pencil was the tool of work. Traditionally architects have ideas, they do not build.7 The pencil translates these ideas into drawings, which are technical notations which have to be passed to the builders.
This has held true until a few years ago when, with the introduction of computers, the separation between design and making has imploded. Nowadays, the same file we have on the screen of our computers can be used to produce a drawing, an image or to be sent directly to a machine for fabrication. Computers have become machine to think, to represent, to notate and to fabricate. Already during the first digital turn at the beginning of the 90’s, architecture and academia have experimented file to factory design processes. Nowadays, with the introduction of artificial intelligence, computers are capable of performing operations of decision making that architects have traditionally kept for themselves. Increasingly machines are no longer tools for making but they are increasingly becoming tools for thinking.
These two factors, the automation of making and thinking, are fundamentally questioning the role of the architect as we have known it and will inevitably redefine its role. More importantly, automation is changing the way architectural knowledge is produced.
The first wave of digital architects sought to shift the Fordist serialized mass-production (economy of scale) in favor of a new paradigm where mass customization could be achieved. The introduction of digital machine allowed for the production of different object at no additional cost (economy without scale). The new digital shift in architecture is characterized by the automation of logistic processes. Similar to the Amazon’ fulfillment centre where artificial intelligence and machine learning are driving the automated systems of distribution for the sorting of goods, architecture in the age of automation will increasingly deal with the mass customization of logistics.
Rather that embarking in the task of automating the several thousand parts forming a building, the architecture can be thought of being made of fewer discrete parts, its syntax reduced to a finite number of component parts whose assembly can be customized and recombined at will.
An opportunity arises, one where automation can be used to rethink the production of architecture and architectural knowledge, its syntax, its logic, its bones. The automation of design protocols, as well as fabrication and assembly processes open up the possibility to regain a disciplinary autonomy where architecture is at the same time open and close (8), operating a distinction between self-referential and world-referential aspects.
Computational design, through its rigorous and open-ended methods, is capable to mediate the cause-effect relationship between the intrinsic and extrinsic logics of the architectural project. A new degree of complexity can be reached where architecture can better adhere to the ever-changing shape of the world while maintaining its autonomy.
1. Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Random House, 2017
2. Paolo Portoghesi, Roma Barocca, Laterza 1978
3. Paolo Portoghesi, Tecnica Curiosa, Medusa Edizioni 2014
4. Paolo Portoghesi, Le inibizioni dell’Architecttura Moderna, 1972
5. Peter Eisenman, The formal basis of Modern Architecture. Lars Muller, 2006
6. P.V.Aureli, “La strategia del rifiuto. Formalismo, testo, autonomia, passività nell’opera di Peter Eisenman”, Peter Eisenman, Tutte le Opere, Electa 2007
7. Mario Carpo, The Second Digital Turn, Design Beyond Intelligence, 2017
8. Patrik Schumacher, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume I: A New Framework for Architecture. Wiley 2011aquellas
Originally published in Antagonismos Architecture Magazine, N3. Buenos Aires, 2019.