Shane Reiner-Roth

Archive for the ‘science’ Category

The Inside-Out City and the Question of Nature

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In class, as well as the rest of academia, there had been a discussion of the notable obscurity in the question, “What is Nature?”. We agreed that the answer most people give to this question is as confident as it is ignorant, and that the question is not nearly as open or as clear as it seems. For many, the distinction between human – man, woman, child, athlete – and non-human is a simple substitute for the distinction between non-nature and nature, but when one recognizes that humans invented the cantaloupe, the Boston terrier, and the very idea of nature –all things we believe are nature/non-human, it is equally as clear to see that this argument is fraught with inconsistencies.


As of 2010, this conversation would, on a large scale, seem to be a purely trivial pursuit, unrelated to the man in the street; but forty years from now, a global challenge will be set: In April of last year, a G8 policy document warned that global food production must double by 2050 to ward off international chaos. As it stands now, the world has collectively designated a rural farming area “essentially the size of South America,” says Dr. Dickson Despommier. “That feeds seven billion people. If you include the three billion who’ll be here in 40 years, there isn’t enough land given the current way of farming to feed those people.”[1] In order to combat famine, urban farming – that is, farming within the urban city – will have to take precedence within the communal mind and at the voting booth. As a choice between Heideggerian-environmentalism and techno-environmentalism, virtually every urban farming projectionist embraces the latter methodology.


But while urban farming would alleviate the land issue that Despommier addressed, this radically new agricultural tactic would also gravely obscure the question, “What is Nature?” for the masses living in the city, creating a whole new conscious class.


Beyond introducing “nature” to the “non-natural” city, there are several worldwide stands to preserve “nature” in its “natural” state through “non-natural” means. As Geoff Manaugh writes:


“Delicate Arch, a fifty-two-foot-tall sandstone arch and one of Arches National Park’s most famous natural wonders, faces eventual collapse, as it is regularly threatened by rain, ice, and seismic activity. The solution was clear: the arch should be stabilized. This “minor stabilization could be done in such an unobtrusive manner as to be hardly distinguishable and would not in any manner detract from the natural appearance of the Arch.” It would not be structural, in other words, using cross-braces or encaging the arch in Gothic cathedral-like buttresses. Instead, the geological formation would be sprayed with a transparent aerosol adhesive. This fine mist of glue would then seep down in the rock’s porous sandstone surface and harden there, locking the arch in place. The arch would be preserved – geologically shellacked, if you will.”[2]

This injection of the preservational “non-natural” into the “natural” landscape, coupled with the “natural” crops we eat injected into the common man’s assuredly “non-natural” city, each event carried to their respective extremes, would mark a radically new event in philosophical history. Surrounded by these figures as an environmental reality, the common man would have to seriously question their interpretation of the term “natural,” and maybe even the term “reality.” While the answer to the question “What is Nature?” has proven obscurity prior to the concepts of urban farming and technological landscape renovation, the introduction of these concepts demands an attempt to answer this question.


It seems as though the only correct answers are the positive absolute and its reciprocal negative: in the extreme of these two events, both the city and its environs can be considered purely natural (given that humans are a natural species, thereby making natural things), and they can simultaneously be considered purely non-natural (given that both the city and its environs have both been altered are were not left to do what they would done “naturally”). There are theorists that project this agricultural injection into the city would have sociological advantages. As Dr. Dickson Despommier again writes, “it would then become possible for a city to behave like an ecosystem; producing its own food, driven and designed by sunlight.” Despommier imagines a more communal city in light of urban farming, where other pragmatists believe that there are ways to make a smaller sociological impact. As William Wiles writes,

“James Wood’s solution is to put farms on rooftops. Work AC’s Public Farm 1 pavilion last year demonstrated how to elevate productive space, creating a usable social area underneath it. Public Farm 1 also trialled a high-tech soil made out of compost and recycled Styrofoam that is only one-quarter the weight of normal dirt, which circumvents the usual structural problem with rooftop farming. And there are already rooftop farming systems on the market.”[3]

Whether the impact is obtrusive and socially impactful, as in Despommier’s model, or concealed and above the carpet, as in that of Wood’s, the impact on the collective urban conscious would become philosophically altered. There may never be an answer to the question “What is Nature?,” but these two projects, put into extreme effect, would stir up some answers.


[1] ICON no. 73, The Edible City. William Wiles, Pg. 83

[2] The Bldgblog Book. Geoff Manaugh, Pg. 167

[3] Ibid


Written by differance

December 24, 2010 at 10:27 AM

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.


Written by differance

August 6, 2010 at 7:29 AM

Posted in science