Sunday, March 13, 2011

Form: Partial Figures

[a sketch towards a partial theory of form]

Architectural attitudes about form generally arrive as more or less direct [and simplistic?] translations from whichever philosopher[s] an architect is reading in a given decade...

Ideas of substantial form in Plato or Aristotle [morphe - form -  as opposed to hyle - matter] are appropriated as an infrastructure for ancient through medieval compositional methods. Unity, clarity, and proportional relationship of parts are derived from metaphors of the body. The mathematics of extrinsic forms in nature are appropriated as examples for architectural composition.

Rene Descartes' challenge to substantial form in philosophy, often characterized as a mechanical model, introduced an analytic geometry in place of the analogic geometry of proportions of classical architectural thought. When combined in the 20th Century with theories of the assembly line and the managerial regime [Frederich Winslow Taylor], a Fordist modernism was birthed which was absorbed across political lines of Capitalism, Soviet Socialism, and even National Socialism in Germany. Economic Production was God, and the scientific management of production drove the relevant architectural thinking on form. [Albert Speer's architectural production might at first glance appear to be a rear guard return to substantial form, but his most important production which was the choreography of the Nuremberg rallies was a sophisticated Taylorist orchestration]. This paradigm translated into a modernist anti-form, or a thinking of generic, identical, and extensible space in contrast to figure. Superstudio famously paradied this idea, by attempting to over-extend the managerial space towards a totalizing system. Peter Eisenman describes one line of escape in the conflict that Le Corbusier develops between generic extension of the grid, and dynamic partial figures animated by subjective movement through space as well as alternating moments of centrifugal and centripital forces within his projects.

Jacques Derrida delivered a wildly significant assault on form and identity from the domain of literature, which nevertheless can mostly be seen in retrospect as a still-birth in its architectural version. By identifying with literature and the text as the way of accessing the world, de-constructive thought largely failed to access the political and the forces which give rise to form. Barthes' search for a degree zero resulted in a more critical architectural anxiety which drove architects towards a questioning of the most basic building blocks of architecture. Eisenmen and Tschumi's approaches towards finding a deep structure of form prior to significance remains highly relevant to the crafting of architectural objects. [Jenck's and Venturi took Post-modernism as an excuse to pander to a cultural conservatism and, along with their associates have discredited the semantic degree-zero.]

In his 1988 book Le Pli (The Fold) Deleuze breathed new popularity into Leibniz's dynamic physics and theories of the object. In contrast to Descartes' rigid brand of modernism, Leibniz's fluid rationalism re-appeared as a sharply distinct counter-thesis that appealed strongly to designers. Following Greg Lynn, 1990s architectural thought focused on the use of animation software appropriated from the Film Industry to primitively model the philosophy of time and event in architectural terms. Advanced architectural thought at this time proceeded from the degree-zero experiments of Eisenmen's process architecture and began to introduce Computer-Aided-Manufacturing methods. This advance moved architectural working drawings from symbolic objects, intended to convey methods of assembly to contractors, in the direction of operative drawing. This newly direct relationship of design visualization software to manufacturing methods has resulted in a rupture that has opened up in real terms, a path out of the Taylorist production as a primary determinant of architectural form. Toyota's success with its Just-In-Time Production System [developed between 1948-75] is often cited as a fundamental rupture with mass-production and a move towards mass-customization. This returns us to the question of what we are doing formally with the object currently.

The digital avant guard remains obsessed with single celled organisms and small populations at the scale of the petri dish which are simulated as particle or agent systems within virtual physics models []. This is highly relevant [or at least fashionable] scientifically, but falls rather short of the complexity of the architectural assemblage. As the current generation finds its voice, it is important to return to the half-completed projects of Greg Lynn and Bernard Cache with the far more developed toolkits we have on the table twenty years later. The move towards informal disintigration, while interesting, is taking too long to achieve a high level of formal differentiation and cohesion.


The sketches collected here are part of an experimentation which takes some guidance from Eisenman's search for deep structure within architectural grammar. We are developing procedures by which to move from point to curve to surface to volume within the toolsets of emerging graphical algorithmic editors (grasshopper) which will allow us to critically interact with this generic topological geometry at each stage of its formation after the manner of the 1990s animation experiment. By associating the parts of an architectural assemblage in a relationship based model, we can begin to expose these to information/signals from datasets or simulated environments, such as physics models or structural analysis packages, or from arcGIS formatted mappings. The methods by which we build these relationships is the focus of this study of the explicit history of the object. Discussions of formal development in animal genetics, especially at the embryonic stage, as well as cybernetic theories of signals/information within biological and mechanical systems are strong conceptual material to draw from as we develop these procedures.

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