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Plectic architecture: towards a theory of the post-digital in architecture
Neil Spiller Professor of Architecture & Digital Theory,
Vice-Dean, Director of AVATAR group, The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
My research is centred upon how architecture is invigorated by cyberspace, the blurred boundary between the virtual and the actual, and how the different parameters of these spaces can be used to inform one another. My early experience in practice was that buildings are limited by the inert materials used to construct them and by the unimaginative ideas of what a building should look like and be. My research draws upon a variety of different disciplines to inform one – architecture. The areas of research are multidisciplinary and include the changing status of the architectural drawing, smart materials, computeraided architectural drawing, computer-aided manufacture, emergent systems, responsive environments, the architectural design of cyberspace, interactivity, cybernetics and evolving systems and algorithmic design. To create responsive, non-prescriptive designs for architectural intervention was the starting point that led to an interest in the logic of algorithms and openended systems. These problem-solving diagrams used by computer programmers are very useful as a way of describing fluctuating conditions in responsive environments. This led to an interest in other computing paradigms such as cellular automata, complexity and emergence. These and other ideas I attempted to bring into the arena of architectural design to help architects cope with the rapid growth of computational technology, which is starting to revolutionize the way buildings are designed, drawn and built. We are at another of the important perturbations in technology and epistemology that seems to affect us so often these days. Cell biology is the new cyberspace and nanotechnology. Once we fully understand the exact nature of how our world makes us and, indeed how it sometimes kills us, we will be able to make true architectures of ecological connectability. This is our profession’s future. Small steps have been made, but much more remains to be done.
cyberspace virtual surrealism architecture cybernetics plectics nanotechnology post-digital synthetic ecology cyborgian geography
First, it is important to stress that ‘post-digital architecture’ is not an architecture without any digital component. Indeed it an architecture that is very much a synthesis between the virtual, the actual, the biological, the
TA 7 (2) pp. 95–104 © Intellect Ltd 2009
these architectures seek to simplify. The reason. to talk of digital architecture as a binary opposition to normal real-world architecture. at every scale and at every turn. the physics of information. Such terrain can include a variety of complex subcultures of architecture that are all composed of differing degrees of the digital. We have to supplement the partial studies with a transdisciplinary ‘crude look at the whole’. on the other hand. if the parts of a complex system or the various aspects of a complex situation. including prebiotic chemical evolution. exhibiting diversity. It is impossible. including chaos theory. for the name to connect with both simplicity and complexity. It includes the various attempts to define complexity. amplify or facilitate and make visible the complex entanglement of contemporary space. or solving problems. the evolution of human languages. (Gell-Mann 1995/96. the study of non-linear dynamics. It is important. the study of roles of simplicity and complexity and of classical and quantum information in the history of the universe. all defined in advance. The interplay between simplicity and complexity is the heart of our subject. and the operation of computers that are designed or programmed to evolve strategies – say. the virtual. The etymology of ‘plectics’ talks of braiding together. are studied carefully by experts on those parts or aspects and the results of their work are pooled. the operation of mammalian immune systems. individuality. Cyberspace has insidiously insinuated itself into our existence. and evolution. for playing chess. strange attractors. and self-similarity in complex non-adaptive systems in physical science.cyborgian. and the study of complex adaptive systems. Murray Gell-Mann defines ‘plectics’ as …the study of simplicity and complexity. the functioning of ecosystems. the behaviour of individual organisms. on the one hand. (Gell-Mann 1995) If we start to think of the architecture in this book as the first stirrings of a plectic post-digital architecture. the augmented and the mixed. biological evolution. the behaviour of markets. the rise and fall of human cultures. the complex fabric that we see around us. the simple underlying laws that govern the behavior of all matter in the universe and. propositions and researches. 96 Neil Spiller . Likewise. the biological and the nanotechnological interaction and reflexivity without banishing the more off-piste and often less fashionable investigations. learning and thinking. of course. then Murray Gell-Mann’s mid-1980s definition of ‘plectics’ seems a suitably broad umbrella within which to situate it. What is most exciting about our work is that it illuminates the chain of connections between. Gell-Mann’s description of plectics resonates with current architectural concerns. in my opinion. an adequate description of the whole system or situation does not usually emerge. anymore. is that these parts or aspects are typically entangled with one another. Above all. p 320) It is this transdisciplinarity and reflexivity that architects can often offer. and practitioners of plectics often do just that.
Without the I there would be nothing to report and no one to report it. Scientists perceive themselves as fighting against this ontology of language and ask us to believe in objective and ubiquitous language to describe its allegedly ubiquitous knowledge. When I design I make space by putting things together. First we must establish an understanding of the activity of ‘design’ and the ‘ontology of designer’. Plectic architecture cannot be developed. for personalization. I might construct narratives about the Plectic architecture 97 . 1998) The practice of architectural design has. All that distinguishes one building from another is a 450mm zone of cladding. To pretend that what is written is written without a writer seems to me to profoundly and intentionally misrepresent what is going on. Plectic architecture can be nothing if not a second order cybernetic system and its designers nothing if not epistemologically observing and acting conversational dynamos. having conversations with people. symbolism and anyone or anything seen to be ‘selfindulgent’ or of expressionist personality. Language has a propensity of inaccuracy. it is that the I needs not to be excluded. Second-order cybernetics. observed and interacted with. visionary genius and beneficent form giver. This approach has throughout the years fostered a modernist mistrust of narrative. in the twentieth century. When I put things together I like them to do more than one job – to be multivalent. for relativity and it is emotively subjective. I argue that the nuances that architecture delivers can only be personal and personally mnemonic. at least as I understand it […]. creating void from mass and mass from void. (1998) narrows this problem down to the denial of the concept of ‘I’ in scientific reportage. (Glanville et al. often known as the cybernetics of cybernetics. We must understand that everyone’s world-view is different and we construct this world-view by interacting and building. objects and ideas. a radical constructivist mind dependant reality – a nomadic science. decorated and change in position related to a predetermined algorithm and that algorithm might be able to fluctuate in time changing its criteria and optimization logistics. misreading. as one would conduct a series of scientific experiments: objective and sacrosanct. for misconstruing. It is here that science’s biggest error has been made and it is here that poetry through its acceptance of the ontology of language has bloomed. This stripped-down architecture has been reductively honed down to almost nothing – a ubiquitous plainness. One cannot preordain the way architecture is seen. for to exclude it is to create an epistemology that we cannot sustain. in short. decoration. been seduced by this impersonal way of documenting and describing science – denying the ‘I’. Glanville et al. Rather. it never excludes the observer or the observer of the observer of a system. is a relational subject. produced by a limited number of cladding manufacturers. I might like an element to be structural. Architectural discourse camouflages this lacuna with the myth of the hero architect. to the observer/user – in short a movable feast.Understanding the architectural design of architectural design Such an architecture must also address itself to the issue of the many epistemological unknowables in our world.
but not always verbal: it happens when one observes and one can talk of conversations within conversations. Cybernetically. no two designs the same. (Pask 1969) Every designer is different and feels that they have something original to bring to their world. my inspirations. notions. rather than the interaction between a system and the people who inhabit it. My design work within this blooming tapestry should do nothing more than exploit this systematic paradigm and create poetic moments in its interstitial spaces. as particular. no two sites are the same and no two observers or users are the same (and all change over time and have varying durations). but he operates at a higher level in the organisation hierarchy. But notice the trick. solving a problem in an original or idiosyncratic way. Let us turn the design paradigm in upon itself. my intent and the observer/user’s preoccupations.whole or the pieces that allow me to develop deeper and more resonantly complex semiotics. memories and formal associations and intent. This is second-order cybernetics. Conversations with humans and also machines and our reflection on them define who we are. the relation ‘controller/controlled entity’ is preserved when these omnibus words are replaced by ‘designer/system being designed’ or by ‘systematic environment/inhabitants’ or by ‘urban plan/city’. The conversation between my work and the user/viewer of it (and the ability or inability of the observer to understand and decode my intentions) should be able to evolve in all manner of associations and hierarchies. which are a rich broth of symbiotic interaction between me. I might like to take the view that my work is part of the ‘Modernist Project’ and that its functionalism includes its symbolic nuances. In other words. as a series of cybernetic personal and conversational mnemonic events. concepts that are potentially useable in a specific domain of discourse. the designer is controlling the construction of control systems and consequently design is control of control. So post-digital design must attempt to be immune to sophist arguments of style and good taste. Pask also introduced the notion that the architectural profession might start to use computers as surrogate architectural assistants. let us apply it to the interaction between the designer and the system he designs. It should rejoice in the particular and the ‘I’ who and whatever is the ‘I’ (we must remember that objects can now become ‘I’ to a growing extent). almost perfectly in the case when a designer uses a computer as his assistant. the designer does much the same job as his system. my architectural lexicon and idiosyncrasies. These systems are ascalar universes of discourse. 98 Neil Spiller . No two designers are the same. i. A conversation is circular. The glove fits. These facts have led me to view the world as exceptional.e. Gordon Pask’s Conversation Theory seeks to describe the parameters of conversations. One final manoeuvre will indicate the flavour of a cybernetic theory. Design is a second-order cybernetic system and Gordon Pask was the first to stress the relevance of cybernetics to architectural design. a universe of discourse denotes the entire set of ideas. These internal (to me) and external (to me) conversations are all languages and metalanguages. some considered by me and not by others.
the central processing unit. 6. A design might use different technologies at different times in its existence. 3. These are: 1. A design might demand of its occupants the use of different lens with which to see other than anthropocentric phenomena or spaces. no mobile phone. cities. Sensitivity – A designer might decide to make objects. no computer. that pick up environmental variations or receive information. which operates in all manner of mixed and augmented terrains that are subject to all manner of geomorphic and cybermorphic factors and drivers. glocal. semiotics and performance – An architect or designer can choose whether their work operates along a continuum that ranges from minimal engagement in quotation or mnemonic nuance in relation to the history of culture or the contemporary world. whose parts are sensitive. A design might conjure new conjunctions of semiotics as a way of re-reading them. 4. carpets. oceans. psychogeography and narrative. the stem cell. A design might coerce the occupant to be aware of environmental conditions in other Plectic architecture 99 . A design might perform complex mnemonic tableaux at certain points in its life cycle. technology ranges from simple prosthetics (the stone axe) via the Victorian cog and cam. post-digital design is relativistic. it all depends on the resolution of the scope that one chooses to use: continents. Therefore designers can ‘mix’ the movement of their spaces. These sensors therefore can make objects and buildings that are influenced by events elsewhere or indeed are influential elsewhere. Scopic regimes – Architecture can exist at all scales. the integrated circuit. or embraces the multiplicity of the complex and emergent universes of discourse that we inhabit and engage with it daily. logic gate. rooms. streets. no connectivity whatsoever to full bodily immersion in cyberspace. the nanobot and a million states and applications between and beyond. to the valve. Space – There is a continuum of space that stretches from ‘treacle’ space standing in a field. All the above six continuums can be time dependent. 5.Above all. Time – This is the most important of these continuums. 2. The continuums of architectural composition at the beginning of the twenty-first century The experience of contemporary designers is one of positioning their work in relation to seven continuums. Narrative. Technology – Like space. capacitor. mnemonics. Cyborgian geography – A designer now can posit work. along the way between these two extremes are all manner of mixed and augmented spaces. ascalar and constructed from a genius loci that does not just include anthropomorphic site conditions but also includes deep ecological pathways. 7. the quantum computer. It also might integrate itself with human and cultural memory and it might be reflexive and performative (in real time or retrospectively). micro-landscapes and medico-landscapes are all part of this continuum. buildings and objects up and down the other six continuums So a design might oscillate the spaces within itself with varying elements of virtuality over time. spaces or buildings.
geomorphic and economic conditions. Recent technological advances allow us to probe 100 Neil Spiller . Massimo Minale’s project is situated in the French Carmargue and aims to optimize the indigenous fish populations. the seasonal and diurnal and even millennial perturbations. the manifestations of post-digital plectic architecture is extraordinary and infinite. The project has diurnal. dulling them sometimes. I present them here as harbingers of the future for plectic architecture. can create local rituals. country and continent and it is the spatial manipulation of the relationships in these ecologies that their architecture resides. set in particular fitness landscapes. University College London. It is also important to note that I do not include sustainable criteria in my continuums for two reasons: any design work done in the twenty-first century must be sustainable in some way and that sustainability should be embedded in all the seven continuums they cannot exist without issues of sustainability and indeed ethics. movement patterns. cuisine and indigenous variations of animals and plants. virtuality. In other words it is the negotiation and understanding of these continuums that will give us the opportunity mentally. appreciate and design within the subsumption imperative of flora. Architects need to also understand that architecture must be bedded into a landscape of ecology that far exceeds the boundaries of any specific site. of sound particles lasting less than one-tenth of a second. physically and virtually to create post-digital plectic architectures. if required. fauna. A design might change the sensitivity of objects over time. Under the skin of the musical note lies the realm of micro-sound. Architects must understand. Those natural relationships. It was inspired by Minale’s earlier research into micro-sound. Whilst the description of the continuums re necessarily relatively simple. and accommodate and rearticulate slow and abrupt phase changes of sites and landscapes. Rebooting natural ecologies Since the Industrial Revolution bulk manufacturing processes have polluted and torn the delicate interrelationships of the natural world. making them hypersensitive at other times. The following projects are a knot of positions utilizing the continuums described above and are gleaned from work conducted by the AVATAR (Advanced Virtual And Technological Architectural Research) group at the Bartlett. seasonal and yearly time cycles. For millennia the simple act of building has been in essence one of destruction or at very least ecological truncation and rearticulating. machines and networks and their architecture capable of husbanding the forces of bio-chemistry. Things and relationships are lost and others formed. It is important to illustrate some its spatial potential.locations that change. A post-digital plectic architecture needs to buck the entropic trend and it needs to be smart enough to comprehend and respond. each type used in varying clusters to guide fish to various aquatic environments that suit the various stages of their life cycle – all within the water bodies of the Carmargue. He does this by using four differently scaled sonic devices. to the myriad of natural and artificial ecologies within which it sits.
Plectic architecture 101 .Figure 1: Massimo Minale’s cyclically responsive sound architecture for herding fish populations to optimize breeding.
sensing the 102 Neil Spiller . This enables them to subtly change position over long periods of time. elbow and shoulder.and manipulate these pinpoints of sound. Andersson set about designing a series of small. Simultaneously such nanotechnological devices could also act as preventative medical sensors. The pieces were composed of simple domestic utensils. In short. very subtle architectures that hint at past events and interactions. This extreme bonsai technique can utilize other technologies such as nanotechnology that can create within sections of trees. To do this he utilized nanotechnological implants at an artist’s wrists. sorts of Purist compositions of objects growing and harvestable as yet unseen. So as the work was in progress three other nested ‘paintings’ were generated. It also utilizes a range of technology to create its allusions. Whole sites. he then sought to understand and choreograph the effect that a radical brief change would have on his system. can be granulated down into points. lines and surfaces. it is now empty. to grow a ship. the project harvests the growth imperative of trees. the ship’s use became of no use but we needed to harness our system to excavate an obelisk. ambiences and minute vibrations. dissolving the traditional building blocks of both music and. from the rasping drone of a car’s exhaust to the flicker of a fly’s wing. This achieved. Her family own a very dilapidated house in Sweden. spanning across continents. particularly a yew tree copse (the subject of an extensive technical treatise). doctor’s house and granny’s house. bowls and bottles or pieces of plough or a doctor’s ancient blood transfusion unit. architecture into a more fluid and supple medium. So if we said around year 150. Particle densities evaporate and mutate into one another giving birth to fluid landscapes. how might this be achieved. in this case of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1909). These mnemonic micro-architectures exist in Rembrantian shadow until occasionally highlighted by a redirected sun’s ray. Mnemonics and the ghost in the machine Lenastina Andersson’s work attempts to create an architecture resonating with memory: it utilizes the art of memory and the second-order cybernetics of memory. spoons. Harnessing the growth imperative Christian Kerrigan’s work is predicated on the fact that if one puts metal corsets around growing trees it encourages timber to grow that has a higher density and therefore it can be more effectively used to construct things. This was a project that had a 200-year life span as the copse/ship/launching pier grew. But it has had a rich and varied history as farmhouse. using the partially formed ship’s timbers? How would the system rearticulate itself to achieve new ends? So from a theoretical point of view this project is about a synthesis of the natural and the artificial and the potential of an architecture of parts that makes another architecture – an architecture before an architecture fuelled by the natural power of growth. All the arrangements of pieces were given a little power by wind catchers in the adjacent wood. Nano re: creation Glen Tomlin’s research was interested in the myriad vectors and spaces that are never seen or appreciated that are generated as a side effect of the creation of a recognized masterpiece. more importantly. pulses.
Anamorphism and hypertext Melissa Clinch uses ideas of architectural anamorphosis to create a series of spaces and semiotics that inhabit that great exposition of anamorphic painting. pp. These objects operate like four-dimensional hypertexts. The biotechnology of breakfast Sacha Leong’s polemic project focuses on the potential of bioengineering to become ubiquitous and everyday. 61–70. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Rome. Plectic architecture 103 . reveals a series of architectural spaces that could be provoked. interacted with or used to drive other architectures. S. muscle fibre and nervous system. is a biotechnological experiment practised time and time again. in John Brockman (ed. It is an attempt to conceive architecture as the physical body of a ‘fluid text’.health of the user’s bone marrow. and Forey. Complexity. The Third Culture. The church has an anamorphic painted ceiling and an extraordinary painted anamorphic dome. References Gell-Mann. His project is an artful mix of the scientific with the quotidian domestic.. again backed up with extensive technical and medical analysis. New York: Simon and Schuster. 5: 4. These spaces open and collapse as one moves and help the viewer understand the science of anamorphic projection and also the rituals and history of the church. Basically. Glanville. perspective and scale. (1998). G. Clinch positioned three-dimensional forms within the church that create fluctuating architectural spaces according to the dynamics of the observer. ‘Let’s call it Plectics’. ‘A (Cybernetic) Musing: Language and Science in the Language of Science’. It is research on how an architectural system could embody a novel’s narrative and syntax and how we could construct a physical reality out it. Leong then create a lexicon of elements that can function as breakfast utensils and biotechnical laboratory equipment. The barbaric aesthetic aims to reveal the exotic beauty that exists in Salammbô’s world of literature. Murray (1995). The project asks what is unusual anymore? Are we not indistinguishable from the advanced processes we manage to manipulate? What is normal for humanity now? Are we all not biotechnological engineers? The spaces of literature Martha Markopoulou’s research project focuses on the inquiry of the possible relations between language and architecture and it is based on the novel Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert (1862). ‘Plectics’. in others it reveals it for what it is – a distorted painted form on the ceiling. R. Sengupta. Breakfast after all. blood constitution. Cybernetics and Human Knowing.). From certain positions in the nave the dome looks perfectly real. ____ (1995/96). speed. 183. 1: 5. The project consists of a series of softly oscillating devices that translate in space and time the conditions found in the narrative. pp. The project. Leong explores a near architectural future where the technologies of biochemistry are as common and unremarkable as making breakfast. The project culminated in a full-size installation. changes of direction. concerning points of view.
which Thames and Hudson published in November 2007. September. His monograph Maverick Deviations was published by Wiley in 2000 as well as his book Lost Architecture about architectural projects of the last two decades of the twentieth century in 2001.uk/otherhostedsites/avatar/spiller. Contact: The Bartlett School of Architecture. 22 Gordon Street. published by Thames and Hudson in October 2006.spiller@ucl. pp. He was also one of the ten international critics featured in the Phaidon book 10x10 (2000). Suggested citation Spiller. He is the author of Visionary Architecture. of The Power of Contemporary Architecture (1999) and The Paradox of Contemporary Architecture (2001). 494–6. Wates House.html 104 Neil Spiller . He is the Architecture Graduate Programmes Director and Vice Dean at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 7: 2. with Sir Peter Cook.ac.uk Web: http://www. doi: 10. He is co-editor. He is also author of Digital Architecture NOW. He lectures around the world and his work has been exhibited and published worldwide. 95–104. He is author of the book Digital Dreams: Architecture and the New Alchemic Technologies (1998). He is a visionary architect and has an international reputation as an innovative architect. London. ‘The Architectural Relevance of Cybernetics’. N. Tel: 0207 679 4839 E-mail: n.Pask. ‘Plectic architecture: towards a theory of the post-digital in architecture’. pp. University College London.95/1 Contributor details Neil Spiller is Professor of Architecture and Digital Theory and a practising architect.ucl.1386/tear. published in 2002. critic. teacher and author.bartlett. Architectural Design ‘Young Blood’ (2001) and Architectural Design ‘Reflexive Architecture’ (2002) and formerly editor of Building Design Interactive magazine.7. guest editor of Architectural Design ‘Integrating Architecture’ (1996). Vol. He has also edited Cyberreader for Phaidon. He is co-editor of Architectural Design ‘Architects in Cyberspace’ (1995). (2009).2. a book about radical architecture of the twentieth century. Architectural Design. Architectural Design ‘Architects in Cyberspace II’ (1998).ac. theorist. He is also Director of the Advanced Virtual And Technological Architecture Research (AVATAR) Group at the Bartlett. Gordon (1969).