Architecture Should Be Less Authoritarian

Pruitt Igoe, the greatest failure of Modernist authoritarian architecture.

Pruitt Igoe, the great failure of Modernist authoritarian architecture.

Today I read a very insightful opinion piece on Dezeen by Sam Jacob, entitled “Architecture might have to become less architectural”, that argued that the architectural profession, which has lost a great deal of its influence to engineers, urban planners, community organizations and politicians, can never go back to the way things once were. As Jacob points out, “the terms of architecture’s engagement with the world have entirely changed.”  Whereas architecture used to be largely a publicly-funded endeavor, now “Architecture, development and construction are now conceived and implemented as almost wholly private enterprises.” This has led to a sort of divergence in the profession, in which architecture and Architecture have come to refer to the practice of typical building construction and the art of designing space, respectively. Architects of the latter type bemoan the prevalence of boring, market-driven developer projects, yet the public has become increasingly suspicious of wildly over-budget buildings-as-sculpture. Jacob concludes:

Perhaps architecture should step back from the act of building as its ultimate fulfilment [sic] in order to provide a deeper, more significant vision of how we are going to live, work and play and how places can become economically and socially meaningful and sustainable in the long term for the people who live in them.

In other words, we might have found ourselves in an ironic situation where in order to fulfil [sic] architecture’s core ambitions it might have to become less architectural.

– Sam Jacob, “Architecture might have to become less architectural”,, January 16, 2014

I agree with Jacob’s conclusion, but I would modify it slightly. I would say that architecture should be less authoritarian. Architecture needs to adapt to the changing environment in which we design, if the profession is to remain relevant. Architects have for ages been caught up in their own ideas, at times unwilling to compromise a design despite economic, structural, or social concerns. Some architects see themselves as the ultimate authority on designing buildings, and like any authoritarian regime they resist any change that threatens to remove them from power. Yet as we have seen in many recent cases outside of architecture, from WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden to BitTorrent and Bitcoin, technological advances in the sharing of information have effectively undermined the authority of central figures by leveraging distributed power structures. Technology is having the same effect on architecture, whether we like it or not.

Historically, disciplines have been isolated from one another, with very simplified, limited transmission of information. This disconnectedness, partially a legacy of the mediums we have used in the past, protected by allocating responsibility to discrete players in the process while restricting the free flowing of information and intent between disciplines.

– Dennis Shelden, “Networked Space”,  Computation Works: The Building of Algorithmic Thought, AD Magazine, April 2013

Many architecture firms have already begun to embrace information technology as a tool for streamlining collaboration between the many disciplines involved in designing a building. As Dennis Shelden, Chief Technology Officer at Gehry Technologies, notes in his article “Networked Space”, developments in cloud computing have enabled an ever-widening array of disciplines to collaborate on projects with greater fluidity than was ever possible with the architect’s traditional tools. Advances in building information modelling (BIM) such as GTeam allow users to “reduce errors, save time, reduce change orders, reach consensus faster, get historical information and reduce project administrative costs.” This process of collaboration is to blame for the reduced role of architects in building design, but it also creates new opportunities for architecture to respond to a greater variety of design considerations.

Technology has had more profound effects on architectural practice, however, than simply sharing design information with other disciplines. Whereas information technology allows for fluid communication between members of a design team, algorithmic and parametric design software have enabled designers to engage in a dynamic dialogue with their computers. Rather than simply using the computer as a tool for drawing and distributing designs, architects now use computation to create complex relationships between diverse parameters, including space, form, program, structure, site conditions, environmental considerations, budgetary constraints, material properties, fabrication techniques, etc. The catch, of course, is that architects must relinquish control over the final appearance of their designs. Some architects remain skeptical of parametric design, such as Jimenez Lai, author of Citizens of No Place, who argues that “Parameters, logic, systems, indices, or any gauge that is quantifiable is a type of tyranny that reduces passion or will to a checklist.” However, I prefer Michael Meredith’s explanation, which he outlines in his introduction to From Control to Design: Parametric/Algorithmic Architecture:

The potential of complex parametric relationships are to become radically inclusive and reconcile this artificial, form-vs.-material binary. Parametric models offer another type of play and design process based around multiplicity of scalar parameters, but it never resolves what parameters are necessary for architecture.

– Michael Meredith, From Control to Design: Parametric/Algorithmic Architecture, pg 6

Whereas Lai’s statement about the reductive nature of parametric architecture is itself quite reductive, Meredith takes a more nuanced approach. Architecture is too complex to be left up to personal preference. This is not to say that architecture cannot express the artistic vision of the designer, but rather that the architect must balance his creative passion with technical, social, environmental and economic implications of their practice. Architects have a tendency to forget one or more of these basic requirements in the pursuit of an artist ideal, often at the expense of those who interact with the resulting spaces. Just ask anybody who has lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. The legendary architect’s Prairie Style houses were my first introduction to the world of architecture and my inspiration to enter the field, but his legacy has been plagued by leaky roofs, sagging cantilevers and rigid furniture arrangements that not even his clients were permitted to change. This type of authoritarian mindset is dangerous in any setting, but particularly so in the field of architecture, as the unintended consequences of a poorly designed building can affect the quality of its users’ everyday lives for decades.

Now, poetry, as generous as its beauty may be, is indubitably an authoritarian form of declaration. It draws its authority only from itself, abhors argument, and states what is, in the sensory form of what imposes itself without having to share this imposition. It holds itself at the threshold of the Absolute, but too often regards itself as the self-proclaimed guardian of this threshold. Inversely, mathematics disciplines thought through explicit rules, not through the singular genius of language, and offers to everyone a shared demonstration, whilst never giving up on ultimate clarity – as complicated as its construction may be. It informs the True without conceding anything to the trembling or existential doubt before that whose cruel necessity it unveils. So, it is necessary to affirm that, contrary to what is generally said, it is mathematics which is democratic and poetry which is aristocratic, or royal. We can thus begin to understand why it is necessary today to be a Platonist.

– Alain Badiou, ‘Plato, Our Dear Plato!’  (via spiritandteeth)

This final quote, though not specifically related to architecture, seems to best support my case against authoritarian architecture. It would be very hard, even for me, to deny that poetry has no place in architecture. A beautiful building can inspire rapture in ways that even the most potent wordsmith could not hope to achieve, with a spatial language that transcends linguistic barriers. However, to claim that architecture belongs solely to the realm of art and poetry is to reduce the field to a form of scaled up sculpture, robbing it of its ability to respond to the increasingly complex demands of contemporary building culture. I have only been at Columbia for a semester, but already I have been told by one of my professors that architecture has nothing to do with mathematics, a claim that I found unbelievable considering the number of design metrics that go into designing a building. Architecture is a discipline, and like any discipline it requires rules, logic, parameters, etc. Rather than resisting the rise of computation and parametric design, architects should embrace the movement towards a more comprehensive, algorithmic architecture, even if it means they must reevaluate the traditional meaning of authorship.



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