3/21/2013

Indeterminacy and Architecture (On Determination ı The Sniper's Log | Alejandro Zaera-Polo)

I was posting quotes and abstracts from Alejandro Zaera-Polo's The Sniper's Log, when I read this passage On Determination. I have a strong interest in notions of indeterminacy, contingency, and their integration within the architectural practice and thinking, what they can bring to the practice of architecture.
As expected, Alejandro Zaera Polo's book offers a large array of interesting, critical, or polemical topics to discuss on architectural practice, past, present and future.

Below is the random ideas, notes and other reactions I was about to post on tumblr before deciding to post here. My comment is on the passage On Determination (p.325-327).

As Alejandro Zaera-Polo (we will continue with AZP) writes, indetermination (and arbitrariness) has become an important concept in the architectural discourse, in particular the discourse of the architectural avant-garde, from the post-war period up to the end of the '60s. What can indetermination bring to architecture? AZP states: "indetermination is an unlikely model for a discipline that is aimed at the ordering of the environment." He goes on with the following,
The notion that architecture can be produced by indetermination, to remain contingent for the sake of openness is a peculiar one and runs the risk of undermining the role of architecture as a profession.
According to AZP, a reason why architects are often not taken seriously is that for some architects, architecture can be produced by indetermination. For him, however, 
Even if we cannot predict a priori the form that a system of cellular automata will produce, it does not mean there is not a moment of determination involved: once we have a material domain, some behavioral rules and some agents with certain objectives, the form is virtually determined. Mere selection of the automata is a form of determination.
He proposes diagram as a determinate tool, a strategy that allows practitioners 
to construct a project without eliminating the possibility to incorporate changes in the environment through the project, or, conversely, without declining the possibility to control it, by determining partially and sequentially the adequate domains of control.
Put it the simplest way, "[d]iagrammatic practices enable architects to apply determinations while allowing local structures or contingencies to inform the final result."
Interesting take. However: I might misunderstand AZP, but if I follow his take, he posits determination can act as medium. If so, my question is: what to do when you can't predict future, an unpredictable, fictitious future? How, in the age of digital when nonlinearities become the norm, can determination problem-form emergent yet uncertain ecologies including natural, cultural, social, economic, environmental, energy and political? How can determination be "contingent", "non-linear", "improbable" whilst being the opposite sense of contingency, flexibility, nonlinearity? How does determination allow for adaptability, feedback loops? How can determination help or become an "instrument" to cope with, absorb, transform unexpected situations, complex linked dynamics across multiple scales?

It seems to me that architecture should, rather, integrate the concept of indeterminacy (a philosophical and related concept to indetermination). Indeterminacy and indetermination are related to uncertainty, nonlinearities, contingency. Both articulate differentiation, absorption, behavioral organization. Both can allow architecture for problem-addressing these new ecologies mentioned above. Allow me for focusing on the concept of indeterminacy for a short moment. There is an embryonic research on architecture as expanded field (an expanded architecture influenced by Rosalind Krauss's sculpture in the expanded field), an architecture, beyond its site, that integrates other fields. This research has been started by Mason White, Lola Sheppard, and Neeraj Bhatia of Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab, and Mark Smout and Laura Allen of Smout Allen. I am looking forward to reading more. 
Indeterminacy allows architecture to expand its site into new opportunities. Theater, for instance, is at ease with indeterminacy, as Keller Easterling writes in The Action is the Form quoting Bruno Latour's use of the word "actor" in social studies: "It is not by accident that this expression, like that of 'person', comes from the stage… Play-acting puts us immediately into a thick imbroglio where the question of who is carrying out the action has become unfathomable." (See: Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory; and Keller Easterling, The Action is the Form). Architecture, such as theater, can also become indeterminate. Nicholas Negroponte, who is regularly quoted by a certain architecture that includes Lateral Office/InfraNet Lab, MAP Architects, Smout AllenTomorrows Thoughts Today, or R&Sie, wrote in his seminal The Architecture Machine: "Any environmental design task is characterized by an astounding amount of unavailable or indeterminate information." Determinacy vs. Indeterminacy, as Neeraj Bhatia writes in his essay Resilient Infrastructure (Bracket [Goes Soft]). Indeterminacy referring to 'soft', flexible, scalable; determinacy meaning 'hard', static, inert. 

Related publication
Field Journal of Architecture | Architecture and Indeterminacy | edited by Renata Tyszcuk and Doina Petrescu, Volume 1, September 2007.

Let me go back to diagram, precisely to diagrammatic practices. Quoting AZP, I wrote above, "Diagrammatic practices enable architects to apply determinations while allowing local structures or contingencies to inform the final result". Diagram seems to be more than a simple mode of representation in AZP's practice and thinking. It acts as a strategy, an instrument, a tool, precisely a design tool that is able to both problem-form and problem-solve. Still better, a design tool that contains, integrates information about material, site, tectonics, specific contexts, and so on. I'm curious of AZP's take on diagrammatic practices. His diagrammatic practices raise questions. It seems to me that what AZP discusses is a paradigmatic shift and a redefinition of the practice of architecture. Diagram remains diagram. Yet it now incorporates new possibilities as well as new emergencies, expandable parameters, to quote Neeraj Bhatia and Lola Sheppard — material agency, spatial organization, program, economics, politics, and ecology. Diagram adapts to, or, to follow AZP, contains adaptive capacities to address these complexities that architecture is facing.

Hadspen House - rendering | © FOA, 2007
Originally appeared on The New York Times, 2007
> "Foreign Office Architects' scheme for the new garden at Hadspen House in Somerset, England." (NYT, 2007)
Hadspen House - diagram | © FOA, 2007
Originally appeared on e-architect

According to AZP, determination should be integrated within diagrammatic practices. AZP proposes two interesting examples from contemporary music — if you have already read (or are reading) the book, you certainly have noticed AZP's interest for contemporary music —, two important names: French Pierre Boulez and American John Cage. Both having practice-based experience in alienation (about alienation. Describing the sense and the role of diagram in his practice, AZP describes alienation as a "powerful instrument for displacement from a closed state of conventions or orders, and the possibility of triggering virtualities in a project, generally excluded by a historical construction of tools or response. (p.237)" As AZP states, alienation has been examined by the architectural practice and discourse over the 1980s "destabilizing the objects by resorting to other disciplines, or destabilizing the subject by embracing automatism, randomness, or chaos. (p.237)") as a productive state, as AZP states, a productive state that enables the "exploration of the sound space left aside by the musical forms of the past." But two opposite approaches. Cage has opted for indeterminacy as methodology to "produce openness, and the unexpected". Boulez's approach however explores determination "as a way of triggering the virtual". I suggest to read these two approaches. What I retain here is that while being opposite, Cage's and Boulez's approach to musical composition lies in a diagram-based methodology: "[t]hey are both good examples of a diagrammatic operation". Furthermore, while being opposite, as AZP points to, "neither Boulez nor Cage had full knowledge of the piece's sound beforehand. It was only in the performance that the piece would take its final form, and it would be a form that would change across the different interpretation." The difference between Boulez and Cage in their approach to diagrammatic practices, however, resides in their approach to (in)determination:
While [John] Cage was a kind of mystic who prayed an all-embracing credo, [Pierre] Boulez is a craftman who constructs structures of such complexity that are able to open new acoustic effects without renouncing to precision and determination. His extraordinary proliferation or rigorously constructed material aimed towards the subversion of the traditional musical experience is a wonderful model for diagrammatic practices in architecture.
… [to be continued] 

Information
The Sniper's Log ı An Architectural Perspective of Generation-X | Alejandro Zaera-Polo || Actar, 2013, 592 pages
pages quoted: pp.325-327.


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