Green Goo and the Ecological Imaginary

For the term Green Goo I’m indebted to Mark Jarzombek, who used the term in his 2010 essay “Post-sustainability,” published in CJ Lim and Ed Liu’s Smart-cities + Ecowarriors.  the term  described building proposals in renderings draped in Photoshopped jungle green colonizing the surfaces of buildings from the equator to the arctic circle. I remember well the futility that joined with such jingoistic green, but I also remember well the critical discussion that provoked the aesthetic, and reminded that it seems to be forgotten, and too soon.  the discussion was both about how food was produced and consumed in our cities, and, perhaps more interestingly, about renegotiating the relation of urbanism and landscape. These relations are essentially social mechanisms where social/political relations are formed across species barriers.

Peter Cook's Veg House Stage 2
Peter Cook’s Veg House Stage 2

The tendency has existed for some time in architectural discourse, in projects as diverse as, for example, Peter Cook’s Veg houses, or Ken Yeang’s Eco-skyscrapers, and reminds us that cities already exist in parasitic or metabolic relation to the landscapes they occupy.  that is to say, there’s a certain artificality to a landscape/urban relation that might be mined for architectural effect, an effect that would let its users understand and involve themselves more closely in that relation.

Ken Yeang's Spire Tower
Ken Yeang’s Spire Tower

CJ Lim continues to produce such work in his books Smart-Cities + Ecowarriors, and more recently, Food City, and the books are helpful reminders that the discussion of the sustainability and self-sufficiency of food production in late-stage capitalist cities is hardly resolved.  Even the discussion of landscape or non-human subjectivities has subsided into a leitmotif in contemporary architectural discourse.  Such provocation, or propagandistic work reminds us that we the radicality necessary to enact a cultural shift is tragically missing, and bold solutions are necessary.

There are two points, however, where Lim goes spectacularly wrong in enacting this ecological imaginary, where the supposed radicality of his solution is met with uncritical reproductions of existing power structures with respect to social and ecological relations.   First, in the conception of landscape, and second, in the ill-considered political landscape that his work implies.  The work is borne out of a conservative interpretation of the role of ecology in landscape and urbanism, it uncritically reproduces food production in a mode that seems to ignore the imbalance power relations that have created the problem in the first place. The concept of ecology necessitates an acknowledgment of the complexity, and the continued re-negotiaton or evolution of relations in non-linear systemic processes.

CJ Lim's Guangming Smart City
CJ Lim’s Guangming Smart City

Politically, Lim ignores the problem of ownership and agency suggested by his images.  The scale and totality of the solutions can be, and only have been enacted, by totalitarian governments.  In their imposition of planning over such a scale, the schemes most closely resemble totalitarian housing and factory schemes. Lim even goes so far as to suggest a schedule for his inhabitants, somehow forgetting that the only places where time relations may be so tightly regulated are prisons.

Guangming Smart City
CJ Lim’s Guangming Smart City

Again, the problem is in ignoring the implications of ecological and systemic relations, where ecosystemic relations can and should be understood as social relations on a fluctuating and dynamic field.  Any top down approach will inevitably miss the fine grain of negotiation that is necessary to replicating the complexity of relations inherent in any landscape.  However, we may say that understanding and reproducing the complexity of such relations requires a dispersed agency, and a great deal of redundancy and openness in relations. Top-down optimization, after all, was the goal of totalitarian goverments the world over, but inevitably missed the individual needs of their citizens.  Instead of a water scheme imposed from above, for example, we might have to trust two citizens to understand and implement water-sharing on behalf of their own corner of a landscape relation. That is to say, the political implications suggested by Lim force us to advocate their opposite, in bottom up, retro-fitted, parasitic relations to existing cities, communities, and landscapes, in ways which allow for and encourage multiple agencies, both human and non human, to be enacted and negotiated.

The title of CJ Lim and Ed Liu’s book is Smartcities + Eco-warriors implying an affinity to (perhaps militant) politico-ecological movements.  I symptathize with their aims, certainly.  Unfortunately, if there is anything of leftism implied in the schema they have developed, it is in the totalitarian mode of the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat.  It seems as if Lim has been unable to stop himself ‘architecting,’ to stop himself from reproducing the closed and top-down planing method of totalitarian governments the world over. The type of design necessary now is precisely the opposite. what is needed is design in a minor mode, that provokes agency in individual users that allows for dispersal, negotiation, redundancy and excess, rather than a fixed and closed system that discourages growth and evolution in that most dynamic and fragile element of human society, our relation to non-human others that sustain human life.

A Soft Architecture

This week we introduced a new project in the studio, called Interactive Ecologies.  The project challenges students to think through phenomenological relations through the tools of interaction design by creating devices that activate a familiar outdoor courtyard at the school – a microcosm of urban social relations.  Further on in the process, we discuss the social relations that might arise when these devices begin to speak to each other, and the social scenarios that might arise through the mediation of this ‘ecosystem’ of devices – a material analogy of an ecology of mind in the sense discussed by Bateson and Guattari.

In order to find a conceptual domain to work from I introduced what we might call ‘soft architecture,’ which in some way could form a manifesto for the studio, dealing as it does with the intimate scale of architecture.  I’ve often written the why of soft architecture, see the monstrous urban subject, but a few words from Sanford Kwinter “Soft Systems” might the domain:

“A system is “soft” when it is flexible, adaptable, and evolving, when it is complex and maintained by a dense network of active information or feedback loops, or, put in a more general way, when a system is able to sustain a certain quotient of sensitive, quasi-random flow.”

Of course, the method was to introduce softness as a counterpoint to ‘hard’ architecture and systems of power and control as described by Foucault.  The first and easiest way to introduce the conceptual force was to set it up against Bataille’s “Architecture” article from Documents:

“Architecture is the expression of the true nature of societies, as physiognomy is the expression of the nature of individuals. However,this comparison is applicable, above all, to the physiognomy of officials (prelates, magistrates, admirals). In fact, only society’s ideal nature –that of authoritative command and prohibition – expresses itself in actual architectural constructions…”

I haven’t invented the term “soft architecture”, and Neeraj Bhatia  & Lola Sheppard’s Bracket [Goes Soft] was an obvious  influence, as was Kwinter’s essay and Jill Stonor’s Towards a Minor Architecture, which I review here.   I also included Negroponte’s “Soft Architectural Machines” as a vision of the potential for adaptability in architecture.  Also included in the work was a kind of historical survey of moments in radical architecture which might inspire further engagement and reflection.

Without further qualification, some (tentative) principles of a soft architecture:

  1. It is an open system – assimilates multiple agencies and subjectivies, it has a collective value, and thus is inherently political

    Constant’s New Babylon
  2. It has a tendency towards nomadism – it moves away from fixity and encourages change or growth.  the object is de-emphasized in favour of process and adaptation.

    Raumlabor – das Kuchenmonument
  3. It is software – it is an algorithmic or systemic relation, not an object, and operates in between subjectivities.

    Remedios Terrarium – Topological Media Lab/Sha Xin Wei et al.
  4. It is parasitic – it acknowledges a kind of symbiosis, operating alongside, and with and/or against major structures, using energies and relations in ways other than what they were meant for, disturbing the semiotic mode of the object.

    Haus-Rucker-Co. Oasis No. 7
  5. It has a tendency towards immateriality – this immateriality is in the dissolution of the boundary either through folding, perforation, the multiplication of effects — as in Islamic ornament or for example Hansmeyer and Dillenburger’s Digital Grotesque, or the erasure of boundary altogether, as in Diller, Scofidio and Renfro’s Blur Building or Sean Lally’s environments

    Neil Forrest – Mosque Sponge

Identity formulations in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’

I’m putting together a lecture on architecture and urban subjectivities, and so I revisited this video I made while at ETH about identity formulations in Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus.’  I try to dig around in some of the minutia like pronoun usage, and also see what comes out of a confrontation with some more explicitly political voices.   Enjoy!

Mapping as Performative Urbanism

Another portion of my thesis from ETH, this article focuses on how one might begin to construct a performative understanding of urbanism, and what mechanisms might be at work in it.

“I’m less concerned with what mapping means as with what it
actually does”
James Corner, The Agency of Mapping

If we consider again the monstrous subject we sketched earlier, we are faced with a potentially mind numbing number of individuals or affinity groups, both those that can speak for themselves, and those that cannot, those that intersect with one another, and those that compete for the same territory. The urban designer would not know where to start, and the question is not how we deal with information streams individually, but they interact in the political space of the city.

Continue reading Mapping as Performative Urbanism

Review/Response to “Towards a Minor Architecture”

Towards a Minor Architecture

I’ve just finished reading Jill Stoner’s excellent ‘Towards a Minor Architecture’. It’s an argument for a politicized conception of architectural practice drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of ‘minor literature’ as described in their book Kafka. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Stoner conceives minor architecture as a counterpoint to the majority of cultural production in that field. Where architecture is most often the preserve of wealthy elite, and is most often the expression of – following Bataille – the physiognomy of power and capital, Stonor argues that a minor architecture echos the triumvirate established by Deleuze and Guattari in that it 1) deterritorializes a major language – in architecture a semiotic mode 2) is thoroughly political in nature and 3) has collective value.

I won’t go too thoroughly into outlining her argument, if you’re curious there are reviews here and here, though it isn’t a long work and well worth reading in its entirety. Stoner outlines and argues against three myths that pervade architectural production – the myth of the interior, the myth of the object and the myth of the subject. The myth of the interior addresses the permeability of the architectural production, against the seeming opacity of the object. The myth of the object confronts the mistaken idea of the wholeness of the architectural production and the non-relation of the object to other parts of the city. The myth of the subject confronts the ideal of the professional architect, seeking to replace this ideal subject with an anonymous fleeting figure who accepts incompleteness and rejects the language of masters.

Continue reading Review/Response to “Towards a Minor Architecture”

The Monstrous Urban Subject

This series of posts collects disparate writings related to my thesis work at ETH.  The thesis questions and uncovers the role of technology in what I term a ‘Performative Urbanism’.  Some of the writing is more academic in nature, but I hope this doesn’t put anyone off.  This post examines the role of the individual subjectivity in  the city, drawing on my prior research/reading in the area of monstrosity. 

“In bed next to the girl he loves, he forgets that he does not know why he is himself instead of the body he touches. Without knowing it, he suffers from the obscurity of intelligence that keeps him from screaming that he himself is the girl who forgets his presence while shuddering in his arms.”
Bataille, George _ “The Solar Anus”

I want to argue that a new conception of the city should include a radical ecology, as well as a radical conception of urban subjectivity, inter-subjectivity that takes into account not only reified individuals, but rather the interactions and the assemblages that describe the processes at work in the city. A monstrous urbanism encompassing multiple subjectivities and multiplicities. Continue reading The Monstrous Urban Subject

New Ways to Use a Pencil

In a recent conversation with a colleague, we broached the subject of the future potentials for digital fabrication.  Certainly a topic de rigueur, but both of us were of the opinion that as a venue for architectural innovation, it is, if not dead, then we might begin to sound its death knell.

What we observed is that, over the last decade or so, the use (abuse) of digital fabrication technologies in architecture, or more specifically, architectural education has ossified into a seemingly closed set of formal and material expressions that betray the promise of both the tools that exist, and the radical experimentation with digital technologies that preceded it.  It’s made worse by online tutorials that, while necessary, often encourage laziness in students.  We are all too familiar with the grid of laser-cut flat materials representing a complex surface, or contoured models.  Worse, while I was at ETH, I saw perhaps the best equipped digital fabrication facility in a school deployed to churn out the endlessly repeated elements of that school’s renewed fascination with Rossi and that branch of post-modernism.  I might be controversial, but a somewhat analogous practice is Marc Fornes/The Very Many, where we see the same practice of repetition over a geometric element.  In Fornes’ work, certainly a rigorous practice too be sure, we see highly expressive pieces, but in each case, it amounts to the repetition of a singular geometry.  Visual complexity is achieved with a single algorithm, as a substitute for programmatic complexity.

Continue reading New Ways to Use a Pencil