Tag Archives: materialism

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.