Tag Archives: diagrams

Etiquette and Architecture

A few months back, I was surprised to receive an email from Senator Franken’s daughter.

Dear Joseph,

Mom had a great idea. Our dad’s birthday is coming up — and the last thing he needs is another pair of socks. So, this year, we decided we should get him what he really wants — the support he needs to keep fighting for Minnesota families.

For every $1000 donated, she went on to explain, they’d light one of the 61 candles on his birthday cake.

It’s a strange and wonderful time to be alive. I, a guy living in Texas, can get an email from a Minnesotan senatorial staff collectively posing as their boss’s daughter. Their email even includes the forwarded email from mom (Al Franken’s wife Franni), with the original birthday gift idea. By the time I’ve reached the bottom of the email, my generosity is implicated not just in the happiness of the Senator’s 61st birthday, but the future of Minnesota families. Specifically: if I didn’t donate, Al Franken’s celebrations would involve a cake studded with unlit candles.

But the broader situation is equally absurd: what about the fact that we don’t think about how weird it is to get this sort of email, that we even expect it? Thousands of people must have seen this email. How many of them believed this elaborate fiction? And, whether or not they believed the senator was unaware of a plot to blackmail his supporters into donating by holding hostage the candles on his birthday cake, how many actually considered the concrete facts of this melodrama while making the decision to give him birthday cash?

A critical reading of this episode might suggest that Al Franken’s staff believes his supporters are morons. This would, I think, also be an incorrect reading, to which I’ll propose the following alternative: this modality of “fictionalization” is just the way things are done, or said, today. We expect to be bombarded with such calculated narratives from every direction. It’s a kind of discursive etiquette, by which I mean the fictionalization might be wholly transparent (i.e. we don’t buy it), while still having pervasive and subtle social effects. Our awareness that it’s a performance changes the effects and meaning, but they’re still there.

To apply all this to the e-mail above: we know it’s a ruse, but it’s the kind of play we anticipate. In any case, it’s slightly more interesting than another generic plea for money. It’s so normal that I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the only mention of this bit of absurdity in the whole wide internet. (For what it’s worth, thirty seconds of Google searching corroborated this hypothesis.)

Our everyday is packed with exaggerations that uplift quotidian events to the status of narratives, thickened and punctuated with plots and characters. This is explicitly the role of art in Camus’ and Arendt’s writing. Camus argues, for example, that the novel’s essential performance is to oppose the absurdity of reality with a world that, for justices and injustices, beginnings and its endings, is comprehensible and meaningful. Something of this understanding is shared in Arendt’s description of art and, in particular, the public monument: Action echoes and ripples infinitely and endlessly outward, but art can memorialize it, giving to certain events the permanence that Action lacks. Both authors have a sense that reality is too complex and too fast – inhumanly so. The narrative constructs a world alienated from our immediate experience, one where things are organized, curated, and broken up so that they can be gawked at, and perhaps understood. We know these stories aren’t “real,” but – like etiquette – they’re useful.

Here’s the big surprise: I think this is all directly related to architecture.

Reinier de Graaf goes to the Berlage and gives his lecture on megalopoli(tic)s. At the end, the event’s host asks him about AMO’s methods. De Graaf is initially reluctant to give away trade secrets, but eventually he relents: “We operate on hunches.” A student jumps on the word:

STUDENT: Hunches. . . correspond to Freud’s working way. . . . And today he’s been extremely discredited in the psychology world because he was not… this way of working on hunches was not believable today. And so his theories are really not taken seriously in today’s… given the level that psychology science has reached.

DE GRAAF: Yes, but at the same time Freud is great, because he’s so persuasive. And that he has in common with Le Corbusier and that Freud has in common with Karl Marx. Because ultimately all that they produce is in a form of persuasion, but I think – be that as it may – it still makes the work very powerful, even though one could argue the damage Le Corbusier’s thoughts have done to the city is enormous, it’s at the same great. I hate to read psychoanalysis; I love to read Freud. I hate to read about Karl Marx; I like to read Karl Marx.

In my half-joking, half-serious post before, I put “psychology” on both lists for precisely the reasons that bubble up in de Graaf’s response. Freud’s “hunch-based narrative” of psychological (and even historical) development provides artful, compelling explanations that make his work – discredited or not – enjoyable to read. This rhetorical strategy is apparent not only in OMA/AMO’s oeuvre, but in de Graaf’s decision to end his lecture with a series of provocative images – the US flag all in Communist red, for example – and his claim that the lecture is “partly a joke,” by which he meant it was a story and not necessarily all “true.”

In this sense, OMA’s “hunches,” Freud’s writing, and Al Franken’s donation request all recognize the performative potential of a sort of “narrative exaggeration.” But the architectural use of this strategy is not unique to OMA. Isn’t Tschumi’s circulation diagram of Lerner Hall a “joke” in the same way as de Graaf’s presentation? What about Peter Eisenman’s projects, whose diagrams are both more and less than the buildings themselves? Alejandro Zaera Polo’s “Hokusai Wave” article is clearly about how architects tell stories, but what if he had successfully justified the Yokohama project to a client in its original Kwinterian vernacular? Wouldn’t he still be telling a story to grant the design a kind of singular, virtual-conceptual coherence that the experience of the built work would never possess?

One problem with these examples is that they start to suggest the fictionalization ends when the design has been explained. But my intent with introducing this kind of storytelling outside the architectural context (i.e. with the Al Franken email) was to emphasize that our lives are saturated with these narratives. We’re not just dealing with architectural marketing (or even the design process); the narrative modality is always operative. These narratives don’t paper over a separate, “authentic” reality, they are part of our experience of that reality (or architecture project), and they constitute our experience as much as they reflect it. When we diagram a building, the fact that the diagram doesn’t “authentically” reflect the experience of that building doesn’t change the fact that using a diagram to design the building has an effect on what the building does. Again, Al Franken’s daughter didn’t really send that email at her mother’s prompting, but the implicit narrative that this introduces still effects its social performance.

The problem for architecture is the need to recognize that, because there is no one-to-one relationship between narrative and effect, we can’t just hold ourselves responsible for the former. If every story we told came true, we would only be responsible for telling the right stories. Instead, we’re in a much more precarious position: we tell stories that might come partly true, and then we’re culpable for the way the whole thing unfolds – happily ever after or otherwise. We have to remember that our stories are stories without concluding that this means they’re powerless. We don’t think etiquette is “true,” but we know these rituals are influential. More importantly, knowing this gives us the option of not following them when it comes to it.

Skeuomorphism III and the Semiotic Ghosts

Here, in the third and final part of this exploration of skeuomorphism (which sometimes might have leaned more toward the skeuomorphish than the skeuomorphic), I’m going to look at how it relates to an idea I’ve thought about quite a bit – what I call “materialist indexicality.”

Skeuomorphism and indexicality have quite a bit in common. Neither can be understood autonomously, as they’re defined by their participation in a sort of generic historical narrative. They both pursue legibility through a kind of “rehearsing of the past.” Through the skeuomorph or index, the current design is understood in relation to a past process.

You could object that there’s an important difference in what past is being referred to: while Eisenman’s early experiments in indexicality produce forms that refer to the design process itself, skeuomorphism pursues legibility through reference to past, external precedents. But this assumes too narrow a definition of indexicality: Eisenman quickly shifts from self-referential, autonomous indexicality (e.g. House II) to archaeological indexicality (e.g. the Wexner Center). This evolution doesn’t stop there. “Historicity” is a rather arbitrary qualification once you’ve recognized external inputs as a potential influence on form. For example: if architecture can index the historical urban grid, why not reflect a mathematical idealization of flows of people across the site? At this point, software developments (Maya in particular) fuse with this conceptual expansion of indexicality, allowing for experiments in what Jeffrey Kipnis called “hyperindexicality” (“Performance Anxiety,” 2G no. 16 vol. 4).

I’ll come back to hyperindexicality, but first let’s finish this simplified history of indexicality. The next episode sees the index tethered to materiality. If Eisenman’s early exploration of the index can be connected to an interest in testing Derrida’s ideas in architecture (this is not to say that it was done without translation or inventiveness), materialist indexicality has its own practice-theory pairing in Reiser + Umemoto and Sanford Kwinter, epitomized by his introductory contribution to their Atlas of Novel Tectonics.

Kwinter begins by describing their work as “new materialism” and ends with the suggestion that it “may well be a new expressionism.” The reference (“expressionism” is the last word in the essay) can’t be taken lightly. Kwinter plays a rhetorical game here: the historical connotations of Expressionism, signaled by putting the word “new” in front of it, are completely antithetical to what he means by describing their work as a new expressionism.

Rather than attempting a real summary of “old Expressionism” here, it’s sufficient to merely point out a key, uncontroversial characteristic: Expressionism’s conceptual investment in the way art reflects the artist’s subjectivity. This could not be more different from Kwinter’s description of R + U as “chemical engineers” whose work “transmits” / “reveals” / “discovers” / “deploys” / “expresses” material potentials by applying diagrams to them as “reading devices.” Kwinter works hard to make sure his terminology avoids implications of authorship. In Kwinter’s telling, the design process sounds like a chemical reaction, and the architect-engineer watches while flows of matter-information shift from one metastable state to another.

Between the agenda of “revealing material potentials” and the conceptual debt to Deleuze’s antihumanism revealed by Kwinter’s rhetoric, we have the making of a decidedly materialist agenda. But what makes it indexical? This time, the answer is best discerned by looking at a point of continuity rather than a contrast: the shared reliance on the diagram.

In the formalist architectural analysis of Rudolf Wittkower and Colin Rowe, the diagram played the same role that rhyme scheme annotation plays in formalist poetry analysis. Between reading Terragni’s Casa del Fascio and designing his House series, however, Eisenman went from using the diagram to describe (etymologically “write down,” i.e. “record”) architecture to allowing it to prescribe (etymologically “write before”) architecture.

The diagram mediates between forces (commonly described as “flows”) and form: it’s an explanation, in a sense, but it also claims to determine the translation of inputs into a formal output. The determinacy of this process entails the collapse of description and prescription. The temporal superposition of product and process inherent in the collapse of description and prescription is the essential characteristic of indexicality.

The implicit objectivity and directness of the relationship between conceptual input and design output underlies Kwinter’s anti-subjective account of new expressionism. One of its more problematic secondary effects is that this “new expressionism” risks appearing as “architecture without subjective agency.” This is a misreading. Kwinter’s account does not remove subjective agency (let alone creativity) from design. Rather, by taking the implications of indexicality to their logical conclusion, it resituates agency as a series of curatorial acts: the selection of properties to express, of flows to index, of diagrams to accomplish the translation of the virtual into the real.

If we now turn our attention back to hyperindexicality, we see clearly what makes it such a radical break: it is indexical architecture without the goal of legibility. Inputs produce formal outputs, but the diagram that accomplishes this translation is too complex to permit the aforementioned temporal collapse of description and prescription. And yet – conceptually speaking – this collapse is still in place. We know that in fact there’s a set of inputs being mapped onto a formal output. We’re left with the diagram as a promise of this translatability and the building as an image that refers us to the design method and its attendant ideology.

Another way of addressing this break between indexicality and hyperindexicality is by trying to relate the latter to skeuomorphism (as I did with the former at the beginning of this essay.) To restate: skeuomorphism justifies itself on the grounds that a legible relationship between past and present increases functionality. Hyperindexicality is interested in the mere existence of this relationship, independent of whether or not it can be discerned. The translation of this idea into skeuomorphism dramatizes the difference: it would be as though a designer argued that historical references were productive even if they couldn’t be recognized as references.

Stated this way, we see that indexical legibility has a fundamentally semiotic dimension (something which is not necessarily  the case for hyperindexicality, which isn’t interested in this sort of conceptual legibility.) Since we can’t literally have the past over again, indexical (or skeuomorphic) legibility depends upon reference. House II is not literally its process of formation; it uses semiotic techniques to evoke this process. This extends to the way material Eisenman’s used materials: when he clads the Aronoff Center in EIFS, he’s not deluding himself that “EIFS isn’t a material”; he’s thinking “EIFS will contribute to my desire that the building be understood as not ‘about’ material.” The semiotic dimension of indexical legibility is admitted and instrumentalized.

If we look at hyperindexicality, we see a sort of (often, presumably, unintentional) referentiality: as I argued before, these projects refer to the design process that bore them in a way that might be described as “ideological,” but they also engage in this sort of “cross-scale inauthenticity” where the aggregation of assemblies at one scale refers to its prior, virtual existence as pure, plastic geometry.

This is where, in my view, things start to get prickly for indexical materialism. This referential operation is forgotten in material indexicality, which pretends that the result (e.g. a building) is a direct consequence of the process, rather than a system of signs that refers to that process. A “fold” in contemporary architecture is not an actual fold, but an assemblage intended to look like a fold. In other words, it’s skeuomorphic: these “material expressions” consist in the reproduction of a material property which is “authentic” in one context in a new context in which is it “inauthentic.” The digital reproduction of a leather texture has the same relationship to real leather that the façade-scale reproduction of a fold does to a bent soda can.

While we can see how Kwinter’s description of R + U’s design process as akin to a chemical reaction could maintain the designer’s importance as a curator of material expression, it is difficult to see how this “mere expression” can be reconciled with the fact that the building is not the direct result of this process, but an image that refers to this process. Moreover, the “actual” process – likely far more complex and dependent on such concrete and messy things as trucks, screw guns, plotters, city officials, laborers, etc. – is elided.

Just as I argued that inauthenticity was not necessarily a problem for skeuomorphism, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for materialist indexicality (though it does force on to question whether the philosophical implications of “materialism” are appropriate in this context.) But there’s something bothersome about the fact that the architectural version of skeuomorphism believes itself to be free of semiotics while producing designs that rely heavily on metaphors. Ultimately I think this cognitive dissonance reflects a disciplinary problem. Even in the absence of a “reading subject” who beholds the architectural object, semiotics often plays an unacknowledged role in the design process. “Conceptual architecture” – since Eisenman at the very least – has never been content to have a concept, it must make the concept legible.

To close the gap between “authentic expression” and “legibility,” these conceptual projects make recourse to a kind of “semiotic overstatement.” This is why Banham writes that Archigram’s genius was to understand that, even if a computer city might look like nothing, it had to look like something. This is why architecture generated by algorithms intended to maximize the efficiency of its flows is curvilinear. It’s why Greg Lynn moves from buildings whose rectilinear geometry indexes the virtual curves used in the design process to actually building those curves. Architects interested in exploring materiality produce hyper-articulated details: it’s a way of not just having materials, but of drawing attention to them. It’s why we take smug pleasure in knowing that Zumthor’s walls at Vals are not actually composed of enormous stones, and it’s why architectural minimalism is a design aesthetic, not a construction method.