AFTER NARRATIVE

Perspecta 38: Architecture After All explores the ever-widening array of political, social, technological, and economic influences in architecture today. Many leading designers and thinkers have turned away from the ideological hegemony of critical theory towards a rediscovered focus on praxis as a means of conceptual positioning. This shift lessens the focus on meaning in architecture, and instead prioritizes processes and techniques enabled by late-capitalism and the appropriation of emerging technologies.

Perspecta 38: Architecture After All aligns authors with various issues of contemporary practice –globalization, urbanism, ideology, image and technology, as well as form, pedagogy, theory and meaning. The essays should be read as cross-sections through the larger topic at hand, and as a way of probing the various avenues of architectural exploration resulting from a landscape seemingly devoid of a single dominant ideology.

Three overlapping themes emerges from the essays: network practices – or the possibility of interdisciplinary work; the changing role or relevance of theory in contemporary practice; and the role of technology – or more specifically technique and production enabled by technology.

In the first essay, Roger Connah questions whether we are witnessing the end of ideological hegemony in architecture or merely a shift towards a more flexible approach to the use of ideology in contemporary practice. In setting the tone for the broader topic of the journal, Connah searches for productive energy in a condition seemingly liberated from an exhausted hegemonic condition. He maintains optimism in this ‘post-ideological urgency’ whereby architectural ‘guerilla strategies’ are developed to engage this new-found liberation. Similarly, Emmanuel Petit frames a debate between two different bases of architectural conceptualization derived from references to the living body: one differential, the other integrative. The former depicts a traditional perception of the body which places focus on the search for meaning through metaphor. Drawing from an inclusive and integrative practice, the latter exploits technology and multi-disciplinarity to generate complex and unanticipated forms. Through different modes, both of these authors frame central issues regarding the current shift in how one approaches the practice of architecture.

A roundtable discussion held in the spring of 2004 at the Architectural League of New York utilizes the discussion of technology to touch on the broader issues of this journal. During this event, Michael Speaks, Mark Goulthorpe, Gregg Pasquarelli, Winka Dubbeldam, Hernan Diaz Alonso, and David Serero engage many key conceptual issues surrounding architecture’s relationship to emerging technologies. The participants address how architects implement computer modeling, scripting, prototyping, fabricating and computational systems to explore the aesthetic, economic and organizational aspects of design. This discussion not only addresses post-theoretical impetuses for design, but also brings into question notions of authorship; it is suggested that some degree of control is yielded to the computer through these techniques. The full transcript from this event runs throughout the journal at the top of each page, offering a parallel discussion to the essays.

In a reading of Hardt & Negri’s notions of ‘biopower’ and ‘biopolitics’, Christopher Hight and Chris Perry look at what they term ‘bionetwork architecture.’ They explore how the forces of globalization can empower smaller research and design-oriented firms, thus enabling them to operate remotely, compete with larger entities, and reconsider how information is acquired, exchanged and folded into the design process. In a related article, Tom Wiscombe uses work from his firm Emergent, and collaborations with Coop Himmelb(l)au to illustrate how new organizations of practice can both inform the design process as well as enhance the performance of its constituent systems. Wiscombe calls for an approach to architecture that embraces the facile techniques, expertise, and material processes of diverse industries rather than relying upon entrenched theoretical positions. In a tangential discussion, Noriyuki Tajima explores the role of networked technologies in generating new strata of urban space and experience in global cities like Tokyo. Each of these authors advocates a form of praxis that exploits knowledge and facility appropriated from various disciplines investigating similar modes of practice.

Michael Speaks attempts to finally banish philosophy and critical theory from any discussion of contemporary practice. He argues that the grand theories of ideologies past no longer hold and that architects must now focus on innovation and the culling of what Speaks terms Design Intelligence. On the other hand, Ashley Shafer contends that you cannot be so rash as to throw the baby out with the bath water. She makes a case for a revamped utility for theory that integrates it with design, demanding reciprocity between thinking, making, writing, and building. In much the same vein, Winka Dubbledam’s and Dawn Finley / Mark Wamble’s essays envision merging practice and design research supported not only by the academy, but also by the profession – a model descendent from the systems of innovation and development utilized in science and medicine.

Orbiting these various essays, Sam Jacob pushes the ideological spectrum to the extreme opposite pole of critical theory in his concept of ‘Pop Vernacular’. Jacob promotes an architecture that unabashedly engages pluralism, commercialism, populist taste, and even formless kitsch. Alternatively, Lebbeus Woods challenges the profession to substantiate the promiscuous forms that are so readily produced in a time when anything can be built. He notes that a certain formal discipline – previously necessitated by material techniques – is no longer present. This relieves the contemporary designer from the burden historically linked with the generation of form. In his recent work, Woods explores various ways to experience space without dependence on these empty forms.

In the final essay, Stanley Tigerman calls for an abandonment of the disciplinary hegemonies that he believes have limited architecture throughout its recent history. Tigerman criticizes the tendencies of former generations to codify and impose their ideas upon others, attributing such an approach to a pervasive insecurity. He points out the circular nature of the profession, in which those who wish to challenge authority band together in numbers, thereby promoting their own ideology as a way to “agitate against” that which is in power. Tigerman optimistically observes that much of the younger generation simply does not appear to be as overtly invested in codifying new hegemonies. He points to this as a “much needed water shed in the process of becoming.”

It becomes readily evident that these essays provoke a number of important questions: Can or should architecture be expected to provide meaning or significance within a culture that has become so amenable to multiple and sometimes contrary influences? What, for example, is the role of form and form making in today’s architecture schools and practices? There are questions of technology: Has it become a means to an end or the justification of design in-and-of-itself? And of practice: What are the limitations (social and otherwise) of a profession obsessed with the process, and not necessarily with the effects of its end result?

Perspecta 38: Architecture After All exposes an era of architectural production seemingly focused solely on the processes of architecture (its how) at the expense of considering its effect or reason for being (its why).

Though the practices discussed here easily appropriate a variety of multidisciplinary influences, what we find missing from this discussion is any projection of meaning. Emerging from the lineage of Postmodernism, we cannot avoid the question of narrative: particularly, what is its validity or relevance to architecture today? In much of the work published today, we perceive an ostensible skepticism of and deliberate swerve away from narrative. In turn many choose to focus on the methods and techniques involved in production. But, is narrative really avoided? Obviously architects still write and lecture about their work (perhaps more now than in any other time), and very few would offer a project without explication. Perhaps this work lacks some form of internal resistance.

Many of the projects published in the numerous outlets available today exhibit sophisticated, modish forms, but lack a compelling narrative. Now, technology and/or methodology provide productive resistance. Inevitably, these techniques will become nearly ubiquitous as more and more designers become facile with computer modeling, scripting, and fabrication techniques. What then will provide the conceptual resistance? Will the practice of architecture be reduced to merely solving the immediate pragmatic demands of site, budget, and client? You can almost hear the unspoken, “So what? What else?”

As we consider the questions surrounding the role of narrative, it is necessary to consider ever-present media saturation. Where does architecture stand in a culture that seems to favor surface over depth, image over experience, and the sound byte over explanation? Can architecture maintain relevance in a society demanding and being molded by the flux of abbreviated information on CNN and BBC instead of traditional, in-depth media? Perhaps in the face of a culture that prioritizes fashion and surface, we are revealing a nostalgia for something more substantial: something which may not be easily sustainable or even desirable in the globalized, market driven information age in which we now reside. It is fitting to note that Greg Lynn was recently overheard provoking Peter Eisenman: “Peter, you know that students don’t read anymore.”1

There is a fair amount of irony in the abundance of texts and publications devoted to the question of the ‘end of theory’ (not excluding this very journal.) Such an intense frenzy to publish easily provokes a rather fundamental question: “has theory really lost itsweight?” Today’s ease of media dissemination allows young architects to market themselves at increasingly early moment in their

careers. It has also proliferated an immense number of books, magazines, online journals, and blogs, each of which offers itself as the techné du jour. Beyond abstract discussions of whether we are post-critical or not, little of this space has been dedicated to discourse about actual work. It is almost as if the published record or process has obtained more importance than the built artifact. In this context, the realization of projects regains our interest.

This issue of Perspecta seeks to explore the practice of architecture after the loss of consensus: the designers, theoreticians, and scholars that have contributed to this journal were asked to consider architecture’s divergent ideological landscape. They were initially confronted with two fundamental questions: Is the lack of an overriding ethos liberating or limiting to the profession? And, is it conceivable or even desirable to return to a method of design derived from a single, dominant mode of operation? Perhaps the possibility of extreme difference has actually produced a new unspoken consensus that quickly becomes apparent in much of the work. However, unlike the more rambunctious crowd of another generation – those who formed oppositions, allied themselves into color-coded camps, and secretly documented their debates (only to be packaged and published later) – this new group finds a tranquil solidarity through overlapping interests in technique, methodology, technology, and perhaps an Oedipal resistance to Critical Theory.

At least for now.

1 This comment was made during reviews at Yale in the fall of 2003.

Marcus Carter, Christopher Marcinkoski, Forth Bagley and Ceren Bingol
Perspecta 38: Architecture After All