d12 - theory & history of architecture

Only after disaster can we be resurrected, it's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything...

Tyler Durden in 'Fight Club' from the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Question 1:

'To achieve architecture without resorting to design is an ambition often in the minds of those who go through the incredible effort of putting together buildings. Behind this objective is the desire to achieve the obvious clarity of the inevitable; a structure in which the concept becomes architecture itself. In this approach there is no need to design ‘new' abstract shapes or historically grounded forms...according to ones ideological allegiance. Here the idea or concept would result in all the architectural, social, or urbanistic effects one could dream of without reliance on proportion, style, or aesthetics. Instead of designing seductive shapes or forms, one would posit an axiom or principle from which everything would derive.'

Describe a building and it's architect which illustrates this practice.

This statement by Bernard Tschumi, is both the essence of his architectural quest, and a bridge between present day contemporary theory and its predecessor - poststructuralism.

Rather than presenting a single work, this essay will demonstrate the background and foreground of this picture, and briefly chart the route defined by the writing and building that has contributed to a subtle shift in architectural desires. By doing so, I hope to confirm the importance of Tschumi's work as the conduit that leads us to current avant-garde practice.

Only then will its final destination will be the examination of a building that explores the possibilities of this statement. First we introduce the Players and their actions, then examine one of the Acts.

...architecture without resorting to design...

A singular obsession can be read between the lines of Bernard Tschumi's work since the publication of 'The Manhattan Transcripts' and the later 'Architecture and Disjunction'. His search for the almost indefinable 'in-between' or interstitial existence was the beginning of architecture's intellectual cross fertilisation with poststructuralist philosophy.

The previous structuralist manifesto of a world consisting of signs and its concept of 'signifier' / 'signified'1, was accused of being too rigid and ignorant of time or place. In poststructuralism the notion of these binary oppositions - such as up/down, male/female or alive/dead - are challenged in an attempt to break down accepted hierarchies.

One of the most important figures in this movement was Jaques Derrida. His written disassembly of structuralist work, such as that by Levi-Strauss, became known as 'deconstructivism'. Here his connection with Tschumi begins in their work together for Parc de la Villette.

Our aims were to displace the traditional opposition between program and architecture, and to extend questioning of other architectural conventions through operations of superimposition, permutation, and substitution to achieve "a reversal of the classical oppositions and a general displacement of the system," as Jaques Derrida has written, in another context, in 'Marges'. (Tschumi, 1996)

Parc de la Villette consisted of the collision/superimposition of three separate programs - 'system of points', 'system of lines' and 'system of surfaces'. Their pre-collision exclusivity is an expression of the notion of working 'within' a preconceived order and the production of a flat hierarchy. The superimposition is then administered arbitrarily and any form of controlled composition is avoided.

The Parc expresses two vital parts of the Tschumi/Derrida technique or 'pharmakon': That of the creation of an unpredictable 'event' at the point of superimposition, derived from the critique/construction occurring 'in between' the texts/programs; and (as already seen in the opening quote) the desire for complete objectivity during the creative act.

Although each is determined by the architect as 'subject', when one system is superimposed on another, the subject - the architect - is erased. (Tschumi, 1996)

Two further Tschumi projects set the background for our journey to the contemporary. The glass video gallery at Groningen in the Netherlands, and Le Fresnoy, the Centre for Art and Media at Tourcoing in France.

Firstly, the video gallery, which,

In an attempt to supersede the hierarchy of structure over surface...used structural glass...employing tactics of reversal and dynamism. Inside, the video columns displace the tradition of a column as body, into flickering signifiers adrift upon the gallery's night surface. (Perrella, 1998)

We shall return to this example later. Secondly, Le Fresnoy, a re-inhabitation of an old school building, which is perhaps the complete distillation of all Tschumi's desires into one project. The combination of the old and new programs producing the most physical manifestation of his quest for 'interstitial' or 'event' space. The placing of the roof plane over the existing buildings generates a new circulation space between the two.

...the obvious clarity of the inevitable...

Development of the search for objectivity in architecture is found through the office of the Dutch practice, MVRDV. Winy Maas' text 'Datascape' in their book 'FARMAX' proposes the complete removal of artistic intuition. By extrapolating existing rules and regulations of architectural programs, and therefore marginalising the need for the subjective, creative act, MVRDV apply absolute pragmatism which arguably aims to negate criticism of the final product. Only the illogical nature of its users - relative to the resultant pragmatic land[data]scape - is left for comment.

Datascapes: sublimized pragmatism? Under maximized circumstances, every demand, rule or logic is manifested in pure and unexpected forms that go beyond artistic intuition or known geometry and replace it with 'research'... :hypotheses that observe, extrapolate, analyse and criticize our behaviour. (Maas, Rijs 1998)

If one is less cynical about the apparent dodging of critique, it is perhaps 'the ultimate democratic method' as Jencks (1995) suggests; or even - as Eisenman is quoted in the same volume - 'against the male architect's desire to impose his phallocentric will on exterior material'. Both of which, would undoubtedly be hastily claimed as true by most proponents of a similar discourse.

Two MVRDV projects in the Netherlands attempt to express this manifesto. Apartments for the elderly in Amsterdam-Osdorp; whose volume is ruthlessly carved and reconfigured by the dichotomy of required volume against sunlight shading restrictions. A similar process is applied to the VPRO building in Hilversum. A standard 'domino' construction concrete frame is kneaded into shape by the forces of the internal plan, sunlight and heat loss calculations.

The facade has become a 'result', a datascape of demands. It borders the endless interior as requirements demanded. In a building whose activity is mainly expressed by other media, any representation in the facade has been avoided. Interior design has become architecture again. (Maas, Rijs 1998)

The survival of matter following the stripping back of preconceived Platonic forms becomes a cathartic experience. It disassociates itself the with heroic Modernist ideologies of architect as master creator, who makes conscious decisions about which characters from the library of architectural typologies to deploy. The desire of a generation to become anti-Corbusian and a sense of 'disenchantment with form' (Scalbert 1998) is evident in offices such as MVRDV.

How well I would write if I were not here! If between the white page and the writing of words and stories that take shape and disappear without anyone's ever writing them there were not interposed that uncomfortable partition which is my person! Style, taste, individual philosophy, subjectivity, cultural background, real experience, psychology, talent, tricks of the trade: all the elements that make what I write recognizable as mine seem to me a cage that restricts my possibilities. If I were only a hand, a severed hand that grasps a pen and writes... (Calvino 1981)

...the concept becomes architecture itself...

We have so far worked up to and around the contents of Tschumi's ambition. To demonstrate its importance further we shall examine the results that occur beyond this seminal, statement 'event'.

The influence of three new parameters in the discourse of architectural academia have combined with post-structuralist questioning to produce a new theory - 'hypersurface' theory. Namely, the 'consumer-subject' (related to the distrust of modernist elitism), the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and the continuing success of 'Moore's Law' - which predicted the speed of computer processing improving exponentially.

In architecture, there has been a tendency to eschew vulgar capitalist programmes: that is to avoid the contamination of everyday consumer praxis, to stand-off from it, and somehow establish higher cultural ground. (Perrella 1998)

As we have seen, the questioning of this logocentrism began with the Deconstructionist work of Derrida, Tschumi, Eisenman et al. Yet the language based or textual emphasis was insufficient in it's discussion of materiality for many. Enter Deleuze and Guattari's work on 'Capitalism and Schizophrenia' and The Fold. Taking the division between capitalist programme and elite form making as the pervading architectural trend, it is evident that previous attempts to overcome this separation (arguably throughout Western thought) have employed the tactic of placing one above the other, i.e. form follows function (Perrella 1998). However, the position of schizophrenia, as a method of perpetuating the dichotomy - a version of the 'in-between' already discussed - prevents the collapse of the functions signification (the vulgar 'consumer-subject' for instance) into form.

Allowing for a degree of post-rationalisation with regard to the 'hypersurface' terminology (the phrase is a recent one), we can begin our examples with a return to Tschumi's video gallery.

This project is seminal in a move towards hypersurface: in particular through the way in which it reconfigures traditional architecture architectural assumptions... form is negated in order to celebrate programme in a tactic of negative modernism that affirms the deterritorialised consumer-subject as an ornamented membrane. Tschumi's deconstruction of traditional hierarchies in architecture reveals the latent potentialities of consumer praxis into an event space. (Perrella 1998).

The proliferation within architecture of 3-dimensional computer modelling is the product of a coincidental meeting, between improving technical possibilities and the desire to investigate the dynamics of this 'event space'. Massumi (1998) introduces the notion of 'topology' to the act of representation; a description of the already mentioned move away from Platonic forms, and the introduction of the temporal into Cartesian space. Topology as an interconnected web - as opposed to separate volumes within a vacuum - which is indistinguishable from the forms within it. If the web is the field of process, the frozen moments of form within become a sign or implication of that process occurring, '...it stands as the trace...of it's passing...and of it's potential to be repeated.'.

Topology's hereditary can also be traced to our earlier investigation of objectivity. The concepts of 'feedback', 'auto-emergent' or 'auto-poetic' occurrences become new examples of the abdication of intuitive creation.

The theory of hypersurface is thus described by Perrella (1998) as:

...an emerging architectural/cultural condition that is effected through an intertwining of often opposing realms of language and matter into irresolvable complexities that create middle-out conditions...Hypersurfaces are an interweaving and subsequent unlocking of culturally-instituted dualities.

...an axiom or principle...

The work of Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos and their 'UN Studio', sits comfortably within this discourse and introduces (or re-introduces) two new terms. 'Inclusiveness' and 'hybridization'.

Inclusiveness is used to work into the method of flattening hierarchies when presented with several systems, rather than dual binary oppositions. A further move away from the language based influence of Derrida - greater occurrences of materiality are allowed into the schizophrenia.

The super-optimistic section in their book 'Move' (1999) under this title, swiftly covers the propositions we have discussed so far. For example, '...without resorting to design...' becomes,

...the inclusive model is the hybridization of multiplicitous sources; the project is not founded on isolated concepts of being worked out in a linear process.

'...the obvious clarity of the inevitable...' transforms into,

The inclusive model is anti nothing.

'...the concept becomes architecture itself...' reads as,

All material and immaterial aspects of the project, the engineering and the substance of architecture result from a unifying approach...

and finally, '...an axiom or principle...' is presented as:

To redefine organisational structures in an inclusive way means to proportion all information at the basis of the project in one, comprehensive system.

The brief manifesto also contains the acknowledgement of moving between layers possible on a computer station; and the concept of topology as textured field.

The building I have chosen to demonstrate is their project for a private house in Het Gooi in the Netherlands. Titled 'The Mobius House', it's axiom is the diagram of the movement about a Mobius strip. This 3-dimensional computer model charts a representation of the ever circular patterns of sleeping, working, living, sleeping, working, living. The topology of this field - which is both spatial and temporal - is then allowed to become the construction itself. Where the consumer-subject and field cross, deformation occurs to form furniture, partitions and facade etc.; the 'frozen moments' that implicate the process. Ultimately,

The diagram liberates architecture from language, interpretation and signification.

...from which everything would derive...

This succinct description of the Mobius House contains all parts of this essay's investigation, and returns us to our departure point. Hypersurface architecture or inclusiveness is shown to be the rightful heir to the Tschumi throne. His statement is crucial to the understanding of the discipline's current trajectory, which in turn becomes the escape route for the infinite search for the new. Whereas architectural discourses have often moved in reactionary leaps away from that which came before, the deconstruction/hypersurface slide is progressive and self reinforcing. The catalyst for change being the infection of capitalist culture into the architectural protection racket. Numerous announcements of the death of modernism have previously been falsehoods. Perhaps no longer. It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything. Close the Cartesian door on the way out.

Yet, the final question that arises from this essay, predictably involves the infinite struggle for complete objectivity (almost coming full circle and meeting the same struggle for complete, subjective, loss of self). One must remember that it is still the architect that chooses the axioms or principles. Although Tschumi claims self erasure in the act of superimposition; others, such as Van Berkel Bos still hint at the seductiveness of control:

But don't forget it has to sound right. (Van Berkel Bos 1999)

Rob Annable, February 2000


(1) Calvino, Italo. (1981) If on a winter's night a traveller , Minerva.

(2) Jencks, Charles (1977) 'The Language of Post-Modern Architecture'

(3) Jencks, Charles (1997) The Architecture of a Jumping Universe , Academy Editions.

(4) Maas, Winy & van Rijs, Jacob et al (1998) FARMAX , 010

(5) Massumi, Brian (1998) 'Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible' Hypersurface Architecture I. A.D - Vol 68 pp 16-25

(6) Perrella, Stephen (1998) 'Hypersurface Theory: Architecture><Culture' Hypersurface Architecture I. A.D - Vol 68 pp 7-15

(7) Scalbert, Irenee (1998) 'MVRDV Town' AA Files 35 pp 64-69

(8) Tschumi, Bernard (1996) Architecture and Disjunction , MIT Press.

(9) Van Berkel Bos (1999) Move , Un Studio & Goose Press