Sunday, March 23, 2008

Manifesto for a 21st century design revolution

What did Albert Einstein mean when he said that "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" ? One eloquent and urgent response to this question can be found in Sanford Kwinter's remarkable book "Far From Equilibrium: Essays On Technology and Design Culture". On the surface this is a critique of the shortcomings of American architecture, but it is actually much more. It is a argument for the absolute necessity for the architecture profession to realize that the survival of humanity depends on comprehensive infrastructure design and to accept the challenge of expanding beyond designing isolated buildings.

In one of the books many dazzling essays, infrastructure is defined as big, ubiquitous and foundational: "It is the systemic expression of capital, deregulated currency, interest rates, credit instruments, trade treaties, and market forces; it is water, fuel and electrical reservoirs, routes and rates of supply; it is demographic mutations and migrations, satellites and lotteries, logistics and supply coefficients, traffic computers, airports and distribution hubs, cadastral techniques, juridical routines, telephone systems, business district self-regulation mechanisms, evacuation and disaster mobilization protocols, prisons, subways and freeways and their articulated connections. libraries and weather monitoring apparatuses, trash removal and recycling networks, sports stadiums, garages, gas pipelines and meters, hotels, public toilets, postal and park utilities and management, school systems and ATMs, rail nodes and networks, television programming, interstate systems, ports of entry and the public goods and agencies associated with them, sewers and alarms, multi-tiered military-entertainment apparatus, decision engineering pools, wetlands and water basins, civil structure maintenance schedules, epidemiological algorithms and virology labs, cable delivery systems, law enforcement matrixes, licensing bylaws, green markets, medical-pharmaceutical complexes, Internet scaffolds, handgun regulations, , granaries and water towers, military deployment procedures, street and highway illumination schemas; in a word grids of any and all kinds." (It's the grid, stupid).

Interestingly enough (but not surprising to me), one of the few individual who really got this was Buckminster Fuller. "Fuller had a profoundly scientific intuition, which meant that he was primarily interested in values such as beauty, elegance and economy as they pertained to a solution, not to cloying ornamental or stylistic properties."

This made him a real threat to the architectural community. An excerpt from one of the essays featured in "Far From Equilibrium" follows.
Fuller Themselves?

First published in ANY 17, "Forget Fuller?" (1997)

Mainstream architects-with the notable exception of Louis Kahn—have never recognized the significance of Buckminster Fuller. Yet the more appropriate question today is, do they deserve him? No other discipline has survived from the days of the Trivium and Quadrivium with as small-minded an outlook as architecture. Brunelleschi's dome, for example, remains acceptably part of the aesthetico-ecclesiastical order that current "avant-gardists" continue to worship; Fuller's languishes. No other discipline makes small-mindedness a virtue quite the way architecture does, and nowhere as dogmatically as in its knowing denunciation of overextended ambition, unbridled invention, systematic theorization, obsessive technical rigor, sweeping universalism and anti-classicism – in a word, of Fuller. One might say, in the tradition of the Italian Futurists, that Fuller was the first truly secular architect, the first to embrace synthetic ideas and the brute realities of modernization to the total eschewal of tradition, its glories and superstitions. Fuller was the veritable Einstein, the Schonberg of architecture, but architecture was never interested in real revolutions. Its business it believed was gravity, and it was comfortably, though cravenly, ensconced within the fey yet impregnable citadel of art history. Fuller revealed "modern” architecture to be an imposter, and in a treacherous, effective summoning of its own army of clerks, the architecture establishment succeeded in exiling him to its lunatic fringe. But Fuller was indomitable because he was the first to truly marry design to science and philosophy, and no one could then, nor now, dispute the following point: he alone was responsible for more fundamental innovations and transformations of thought than the entire profession could muster or make claim to in several hundred years.

For decades one was well instructed not to mention Fuller in architectural circles, lest one bring down upon oneself the wrath of the clerks. Today, how ever, it has become strangely possible to speak to the subject. What has changed? Perhaps no more than the following fact: Architecture, moribund for so long yet fatally vain, has only of late had the clear, sobering glimpse of its own mortality. The elements contributing to this perception of mortality have been rising. Like the formations of an attacking army, all around it for a century, but the central fact has been driven home by a single point of pressure: the economico-demographic dynamo of ultra-rapid, hyper-rational development. The era of naive infill, of the isolated building or building system set in a firmament of immobile forces, is over

The brave new world we now face-and there is no looking away-is consti­tuted by the media-economic imperative to produce "urban fabric" everywhere, even where no concrete or historical firmament for it preexists, where all is a-swirl with abstract "infra" structures waiting to be captured, concretized, set into play. But designing buildings and designing development (routines, propensities, unfoldings) could not be more different things. Development poses the unprecedented challenge of giving form within the agar of politics, history, media, demographics, knowledge systems and economics. In a sea of dammed but invisible forces, it is an art of total deployment: full-scale, all out, comprehensive systems design. Architecture could never figure as anything more than an incidental relay before the brute fact of a society's total technical deployment, the synchronized mobilization of all of its machines and its tools, of its physical and intellectual resources and life. This is what once made Fuller intolerable to all architects bien pensants, and of course, what also makes him so necessary for all of us today. Futurism formulated it, Nagy probed it and began to repertory it, but only Fuller, in his hubris and madness, systematized it. Design, he showed us, must attack the entire world; UN task is to produce "advantage" over adversity or hazard, to embrace work-­potential wherever and whenever it exists. Most work-potential in advanced societies is lodged within patterns of knowledge and patterns of matter and their fluid interplay: that is, in shaped action and configuration. Every pattern, Fuller understood, is something made, it is a modulus of trapped potential (shape), a system or reservoir of active storage and retrieval.

Fuller was the first designer in history to understand structure as a pattern comprised entirely of energy and information. In this, his precursors are more Carnot, Clerk-Maxwell or Boltzmann than Viollet-Ie-Duc or the masters of the Gothic cathedrals. Fuller never discussed design uniquely in terms of buildings. He conceived of the universe itself as an energetico-informational continuum, something dynamic, and always transforming. Fuller was the first designer to think of form in terms of consequent phases of forces and matter, and though he did not apply his attention to the dynamics of its temporal partitioning (i.e., its pro­ductive dis-symmetries), he may certainly be said to have anticipated by decades the morphodynamic insights of mathematician Rene Thorn. Energy, he surmised, was conserved. It was saved in form, that is, saved informationally in pattern-work.

Fuller's very existence menaced every complacent idea of architecture in the twentieth century.


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