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New Theories for Old Truths

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Last night I re-read Patrik Schumacher’s article “Let the style wars begin!” that appeared in Architect’s Journal in May 2010. In it, he talked-up “parametricism” as a necessary and best way for buildings to be. One person commented that of all the parameters that could be chosen, the ones that were chosen seem to be the ones that generate forms having certain visual characteristics. Somewhere in Volume I of his new book, I’m sure PS explains why this has to be so.

The central thesis of “The Autopoiesis of Architecture” is thus that the phenomenon of architecture be most adequately grasped if it is analyzed as autonomous network (autopoietic system) of communications. The communications of architecture comprise drawings, texts and built works. The built works of architecture constitute a special set of reference points within the overall network of architectural communications, and serve society as communicative frames for social interaction.
This new approach offers an arsenal of general comparative concepts that allow architecture  – understood as distinct communicative subsystem of society –  to be analysed in elaborate detail while at the same time offering comparisons with other communicative subsystems of society like art, science and political discourse. On the basis of such comparisons the book insists on the necessity of disciplinary autonomy and argues for a sharp demarcation from both art and science. Design intelligence is an intelligence sui generis. Its logic, reach and limitations are the topic of this book.

Anyway. This morning I read Alejandro Zaera Polo’s recent essay ‘The Politics of the Envelope: A Political Critique of Materialism’, in issue 17 of Volume magazine (March 2008).

The attempts to politicize architecture have emerged from the hypotheseis that architecture is a ‘social construct’, cultural fabrication and an embodiment of political concepts, disassociated from an architecture governed by natural laws, statics and climatic demands.
But architecture is as much a physical construct as it is a social or political one and to understand architecture as a mere representation of the political is as problematic as to declare architecture entirely ruled by natural laws. In order to enable a viable strand of architectural politics, we need to politicize the discipline as the mediator between humans and non-humans, culture and technology and as the mechanism that will enable us to produce problematized matters of conceren” Things rather than Objects.
This text is an attempt to initiate an effective link between architectural technologies and politics and to advance a new political critique of architecture capable of addressing the challenges posed by globalization by incorporating political content to architectural entities.
Alejandro Zaera Polo
The Politics of the Envelope: A Political Critique of Materialism

All this is fine, but why is it that new theories of architecture always seem to occur together? It’s happened before.

“Only with the decline in building activity in the 197os did interest in theory begin to grow again, and with it the realisation that contemporary architectural theory was in fact lacking, a lack that had to be made good by improvised statements and reactions.”
“A History of Architectural Theory From Vitruvius to the Present”
Zwemmer/Princeton Architectural Press, 1994

If theories multiply when architects don’t have much to do, then this is indeed bad news for the built environment. It implies that when architects are busy, they don’t think much about what they are doing. There may be some truth in this. Anyway, if I were an architect without much to do, then I’d be spending a lot of my time either promoting my brand or looking for new clients – inasmuch as the two aren’t the same thing anyway. There’s nothing wrong with that.

In order for architects to exist, they need to design buildings and in order for architects to design buildings, they need to fish for clients with money, land and an agenda. “Big Fish” clients don’t care much about theory, but what they do like is an architect who’s making a splash, who’s making a noise, who’s making an impression. (This was the theme of an earlier blog “YES MAN” and it also got a mention in the previous two blogs Moneti$ing Architectural Fame and Moneti$ing Architectural Fame (In 6 Easy Diagrams).)

If architecture theory is just an intellectual hook and bait in the big food chain of architecture, then we shouldn’t just swallow it whole. We should nibble around the edges a bit first. Of these two new agendas competing for our attention and our book-buying or lecture-going $$, I prefer Alejandro Zaera Polo’s because it deals with buildings in general and not some supposed avant-garde subset of the built environment. So let’s start with that, but skip straight to the tenth paragraph.

The building envelope is possibly the oldest and most primitive architectural element. It materializes the separation of the inside and outside, natural and artificial and it demarcates private property and land ownership (one of the most primitive political acts).

Let’s hold it right there! The building envelope probably is the oldest and most primitive architectural element and it certainly does (by definition, actually) separate inside from outside. I’ve no problem with that, but from here on, Alejandro’s interests and mine begin to diverge. The building envelope is artificial, yes, but so is the rest of a building. The building envelope is just what we see. The building envelope demarcates private property and land ownership but again, so too does the rest of the building.

Indicating the ownership of land probably is one of the most primitive political statements. However, such statements are not made by the building envelope, or even by the building itself. It is the act of building on land that makes a claim to that land. The envelope is irrelevant, along with the flavour of its architecture.

A general view of  Jewish housing in the Israeli settlement Har Homa in the West Bank

(end of Part I)