Shane Reiner-Roth

Application, representation, and speculation

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For this is the age of experimentation, and

we have not yet learned to read its protocols.

–Avital Ronell

The integrity of ‘the architect’ – artistic, but not decorative; intense, but not in control of another source – has led to the skepticism laden in this question regarding the control and series of decisions the architect either chooses to make or is forced to accept in reference to his product: architecture. In order to approach this question, that being whether architecture can ever be or has ever been appreciated as science, it is important to distinguish between three contemporary practices which dominate not only our skylines, but our journals of architectural theory as well: applicative architecture, representative architecture, and speculative architecture. Through this discernment, it is the aim of this analysis to describe the contrasting educations, strategies, inspirations, desires, and research methods of the practitioners of these two occupations.

The former approach, applicative architecture, takes as its source a selected and exclusive number of fields outside that of architecture. The most common examples of this selective process include engineering, geometry, art, and, most recently, ecological biology. Applicative architecture directly applies information from its inspirations, and in the case of sustainable architecture, is adapted as thoroughly from ecology biology (and the related sciences) as the budget and constraints see fit. Ecological biologists directly inform the work of famous sustainable architects such as Glenn Murcott and Norman Foster, and it is important to note that over half of the features that are informed by the ecological biologist are not even visually present in the finished architecture.

Granted, over time, there has developed a sustainable vernacular (generally involving sheet metal, bamboo, corrugated edifices, singularly angled roofs, etc.), yet there has never yet been a visual demonstration of a grey water cooling system, and perhaps there never will be. This feature, among many others, is hidden, and its concealment reveals a unique and contemporary characteristic of the architect’s; this is the work of a new type of architect, one that does not mind focusing on the designs that will never be seen nor appreciated. Sometime in the future, a building can be sustainable, and no one will be the wiser. Applicative architecture is generally the work of those who are coincidentally well trained in other fields, so that their architectural product is the unmediated manifestation of their understanding in their separate field of knowledge. Much like a traditional science experiment, sustainable architecture acts as the product and elaboration of a thoroughly researched study based on preexistent facts and observations.

The second type of approach, representative architecture, like applicative architecture, articulates concepts and information from other subjects or fields, yet its appraisal of the information from these other subjects is entirely different. The fields from which these concepts grasp are varied and, at times, nonsensical. These include philosophy, literature, astronomy, NASA, indigenous tribes, and, for the purpose of the question posed for this essay, science. Where applicative architects use the most miniscule information science has to offer, representative architects are much more interested in the aspects of science which are grand, controversial, and the fodder of epic science fiction: evolution, bifurcation, DNA, organic structures, etc. From these striking scientific discoveries, representative architects become indirectly informed, allowing for an artistic and unbounded creativity. They might use these concepts as metaphors, allusions, aesthetics, programmatic diagramming, and any other sort of product in respect to their inspiration.

There is no particular type of science of scientist that informs a representative architect, nor is there dialogue shared between the scientist and architect within this forum. Science is appreciated on a grand and general scale for representative architects, such as Greg Lynn and Francois Roche. Within this exchange of dialogue, scientists work independently from architects, as architects take information from scientists, along with any other field with information that proves potentially stirring.

Because the concepts from which these representative architects manipulate are organically or microscopically based, the only way to represent these concepts as physical entities is through the illusion of organicism. Because aesthetics and programmatic irregularities are prized in representative architecture, this approach to architecture mirrors not the traditional scientific experiment, but rather the work of a plastic surgeon, for instance, whose occupation is to artificially and inorganically recreate or mimic body parts, with the aspiration of immediate response or presentation of these phenomena. Therefore, representative architecture is vastly different from applicative architecture, for while the latter has no need to visually present the information granted from science, the former cannot stand without it.

The third approach to architecture, speculative architecture, is much like the first approach, in that it attempts to elaborate upon a formal experiment or hypothesis, yet it is more like the latter, in that it does not require nor appreciate the complexity of scientific knowledge nor the exchange of information among other speculative architects or scientists. Speculative architects are not informed by scientists or scientific research, but rather they create their own hypotheses and articulate them either through aesthetical or programmatic criteria. In other words, they are one part applicative, and one part representative. This type of architecture is generally based on perceptual hypotheses (usually focused on parallax, kinesthetic differences, chaos, etc.) and the practitioners are almost always self-informed.

The practitioners of this type of architecture, notably including Peter Eisenman and Jean Nouvel, for example, generally go on to write about the conceptual strategies and hypotheses of these words after they are built. Though it has not famously been practiced, scientists could technically research the effects or accuracy of these architectural hypotheses, since the overreaching concepts these speculative architects elaborate upon have not themselves been researched extensively or publicly within the field of science. Therefore, unlike the other two, speculative architecture can directly inform the work of scientists, though the reciprocal is not possible.

It is significant to note that it is only in the first approach that the architect encourages other architects to apply the same information or research to their buildings that they themselves discovered or initiated: applicative architecture is all inclusive. It is for this reason why I would include applicable architecture as a science, according to Thagard’s description. Thagard distinguishes between sciences and ‘Cargo Cult Sciences,’ and in this discernment it becomes clear that applicative architecture would be considered a science, while representative architecture and speculative science would be considered cargo cult sciences. To clarify, Thagard defines a Cargo Cult Science as a practice that refuses “to report everything that one would think might make it invalid – not only what one would think is right about it.” In other words, the pseudo-scientist, through making broad-sweeping statements, is able to create ‘personal’ data without the need for scientific communal dialogue. Therefore, the conceited nature of the latter two approaches to architecture would clearly get considered as Cargo Cult Sciences to Thagard. Meanwhile, applicative architecture, according to Thagard’s model (which mirrors Kuhn’s as well) would be considered a science, if only because they are more interested in accurate and beneficial results than in conveniency, and because they exchange constant dialogue with people within the ecological and architectural fields to back up their work, unlike representative and speculative architectural discourse, in which the practitioners are not interested in their work being tested out by other architects.

However, to reiterate, while we cannot consider speculate architecture a science, it is interesting to note that the work of the speculative architect is technically beneficial for the scientist to research and perfect. But in this analysis, it has become the case that representative architecture, unlike the other two, is left out of the scientific conversation, for it is neither directly informed by scientists, nor is it informative to scientists. This neglect might lead to representative architecture’s gradual demise, and the future of architecture might glorify applicative architecture and speculative architecture.

-SRR

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Written by differance

August 6, 2010 at 7:29 AM

Posted in science

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