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:
- It is an open system – assimilates multiple agencies and subjectivies, it has a collective value, and thus is inherently political
- 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.
- It is software – it is an algorithmic or systemic relation, not an object, and operates in between subjectivities.
- 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.
- 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