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Business - Research - Architecture
Patrik Schumacher 1999
Published In: Daidalos 69/70, Deutsche Ausgabe: Wirtschaft Forschung Architektur

Why research?

The business of Architecture is not excepted from the challenge of competitive innovation. The accelerating economic restructuring is affecting the organisation of architectural production as much as every other sphere of production. The question is how the demands of an increasingly differentiated and fluid market can be met, i.e. which new and relevant products or services are to be developed and which forms of work organisation will succeed within the evolving market and technological framework. Although these forms will indeed be manifold, there is no guarantee that the architectural atelier, figureheaded by the architect, will survive this restructuring process. Indeed the traditional reliance on the architect's "idea" or "parti", whether based on precedent or "original intuition", appears increasingly inept. In a time of momentous restructuring, questions concerning design product and process can only be adressed within an academic framework that understands architecture as a research based business rather than a medium of artistic expression. This is acknowledged by the reorientation of the 'architectural avant-garde' from philosophical critique to an interest in 'operativity'.

Materialism and the inertia of good taste

In his 1990 lecture on Atlanta Rem Koolhaas contrasted the massive commercial developments, sadly proceeding without backing through parallel academic research, with the "critical" self-marginalisation of the avant-gardist academic scene. Koolhaas called on institutions like the AA to abandon the margin and take on the tasks posed by the forces of economic development. At the same time he was launching a new type of building - later theorised under the slogan of "bigness". The series of projects then presented - Zeebrugge, French National Library and ZKM Karlsruhe - made explicit the possibilities of a new kind of building that was already succeeding outside of the rarefied realm of acknowledged Architecture. The fat and opaque volumes (hotels & malls), made possible by mechanical air conditioning, offered an exciting new interior dimension, but violated the ingrained modernist sense of proportion (based on naturally lit and ventilated slender slab-structures). The new spatiality could only be retrieved and radicalised once these aesthetic prejudices were suspended.

This pattern whereby the architectural avant-garde achieves its innovations (and re-evaluation of aesthetic values) via the acknowledgement of what proliferates despite of the high art of architecture, has been pervasive in the history of 20th Century architecture: Koolhaas' Delirious New York, a retro-active manifesto embracing the anti-aesthetic of congestion, Robert Venturi's explicit "Learning from Las Vegas", and most importantly the heroic modern movement learning its principles from anonymous factory buildings and other products of industrial civilisation shunned by Beaux Art architecture. The high art of architecture reproduces itself primarily within the realm of ideology and is thus inherently conservative. The dynamic of development originates within the economic base where the pressure of innovation is permanent. 'Avant-garde are those who update the aesthetic ideology in line with the logic of production. Aesthetic regimes have to be analysed as sublimations of an underlying performativity. At the root of any persistent morphology lies an economic rationality. Emergent morphologies will initially contradict dominant styles and acknowledged typologies. The (subsequent) process of aesthetisation has its own economic rationality: The aesthetic judgement of cities and buildings is rational in as much as it operates as an intuitive appreciation of performativity, economically short-circuiting first hand experience or analysis.

Functionalism revisited

A parallel might be drawn between the current 'operationalism' (within the context of postfordist restructuring) and the historical circumstances under which modern functionalism asserted itself, i.e. the dramatic socio-economic transformations of the early 20th Century. The 'radical functionalism' of the twenties (e.g. ABC group) was going beyond a mere post-rationalisation and aesthetic codification of spontaneously emerging forms and posed the total suspension of any aesthetic regime and argument, projecting a scientific elaboration of architecture. The subsequent codification of the results of a decade of work in the doctrine of an International Style was in line with the regime of fordism: After the new social and technological potentials have been allowed to crystallise, style lubricates their dissemination. In the 25year post-war boom this codification, allowing for easy aesthetic appropriation, was indeed a factor in the fast, world-wide proliferation of the achievements of modernism. But any extended reliance on aesthetic judgement creates the idealist illusion that the well-designed can be identified aesthetically beyond the limits of a specific historical period - an illusion the profession is still infested with. Today one might assume that one of the hallmarks of the post-fordist era is permanent revolution rather than the establishment of a new order of repetition that would allow the mineralisation of a new reliable style. An experimental and research-based architecture might be here to stay and the current tendencies (Deconstructivism and Folding) might be conceived as contributing to this 'line of flight' rather than being expected to consolidate. This would be consistent with the trend whereby the structure and pattern of economic activity in general is assimilated to the processes of research and science(1), also within (and against) the discipline of architecture.

Two examples: 1. DEGW is an international space planning firm specialising on corporate environments and facilities. DEGW offers a new type of research-intensive architectural service. The design is preceded by extensive analysis of the way in which the corporate client operates, communicates and uses space. Over and above the concrete project research DEGW conducts generic investigations which are set up as multi-client R&D projects (e.g. Intelligent Buildings ).(2) 2. The Space Syntax Laboratory is a space planning consultency firm that grew out of a research unit at London University. Claims are made for rationalising composition - the central expertise of the architect - in the form of a "configurational science" through the employment of computeraided analysis and measurement of spatial patterns, evaluating e.g. hierarchy and connectivity in networks. Configurational parameters are correlated with empirical field research as basis for the prediction of use patterns. Work is centered on urban masterplans but also includes organisational space planning for corporate clients.(3)

These examples encourage us at the AA DRL (Design Research Laboratory) (4) in our attempt to identify an area of architectural research that is not only intellectually engaging but promises economic relevance and vitality.

DRL Agenda: Spatialising the complexities of business

The design research at the DRL investigates the theory and practise of corporate organisation as a source realm for design briefs. The realm of business organisation is a well prepared field to put the formal repertoires of Deconstructivism and Folding to the test. The business discourse furnishes well formalised programmatic material in the form of organisational charts, communication- and work-flow diagrammes, scenarios etc. for the "translation" into spatial terms. The well-articulated corporate briefs offer the heuristic advantage of specifically demanding specific interpenetrations, multiple affiliations, simultaneities, specific temporal patterns, and recontextualisations etc. (5)

Our point of departure is the convergence of terms between new management theory and recent architectural theory (deconstructivism/folding). The 'architecture' of business-organisation is indeed liquefying. Architectural notions like 'simultaneity', 'multiple affiliation' and 'smoothness' correspond to organisational tropes like 'matrix', 'loosley coupled network' and 'blur' (6). Such concepts demand a sophisticated discourse and nuanced repertoire of spatial ordering, territorial distinctions, and morphological differentiations - all to be conceived as virtualities rather fixed realities. The insatiable demand for flexibility ideed determines the endgame of all contemporary business operations. Also: Recent corporate headquarters point towards the need for ever higher levels of overall spatial and visual integration. Internal cuts across floors have become a persistent feature. One might therefore pose a tendency towards a three-dimensional, multi-level Fieldspace. This leads us to design experiments with porous, sponge-like spatialities utilising the transient internal furnishings as crucial space-making substance.

Methodology - Design as Research

The project based research we are conducting at the AA DRL appears rather informal. This is only partly a symptom of our infancy. Although we certainly recognise the power of a formalised analytical framework, we do not think that the fully formalised demarcates the scientific. Our method involves the admission of form to programme heuristics, the renunciation of any real or conceptual tabula rasa, and promotes the non-linearity of the design/research process, thus extensively relying on post-rationalisation. But these procedural anomalies and the precariousness of final product evaluation, should not dissuade all claims to scientific rigour. Rather than mere deficiencies, these are complications which are beginning to be acknowledged as forms of rationality, not least within business organisation and management theory. The necessary relaxation of premature demands for formalisation are certainly not meant as carte blanche. Our project is geared towards the synthesis of play and analysis. Our polemic calls for the necessity of a scientific elaboration of new form-function relations, even though our methodology and concept of science is in many important ways quite different from the linear and determinist conceptions of the early functionalists (7).

We are considering design work itself - under certain conditions - as a distinct form of research. Those conditions are not necessarily identifiable within each project. They pertain to the specific academic context in which the projects are developed, assessed and superceded. Scientific work is never separable from its ongoing process and self-criticism. The following principles and strategies have been guiding our work so far: 1. Analysis : Design work is preceded by analysis of built projects, while the notion of analysis is stretched to include the speculativ extension of identified logics. 2. Extended catalogues & Comparative evaluation : Each analytical finding is assessed relative to a space of possibilities or extended lists of alternatives. There is no pretension of absolute ('root and branch') rationality. 3. Isolation of parameters and aspects (dimensions) : Any sytematic investigation of a (pseudo-concrete) architectural task has to be broken down into factors or "themes" elaborated in focussed investigations and speculative projects. We make this necessity (and the resultant 'academic' status of the respective projects) explicit. One initially separate the following dimensions of architectural research: a) The formal dimension is operating with compositional (configurational) categories like degrees of (poly)centralisation, relations of containment, typical patterns of adjacency (e.g. string, matrix, network etc.), depth and pattern of hierarchy etc. (8) Formal categories are not restricted to classification but also admit ordinal ranking and numerical quantification. b) The operational (functional & technological) dimension is elaborating criteria and categories specifying architectural performance relative to (more or less) definite life-processes. c) The semantic (& phenomenological) dimension recognises that buildings do not only operate like mechanical systems but function through historically evolving subjects who navigate and inhabit space also on the basis of its legibility within contextualising systems of signification. d) The social/political dimension relies on the categories furnished by the social and historical sciences, e.g. Post-fordism. (But space is so profoundly implicated in the establishment and reproduction of political patterns that the priority of political categories can not be maintained as absolute.) 4. Extremism : We are extrapolating observed tendencies and push isolated parameters to their formal/functional limit. 5. Totalisation : The 'final' elaboration of design projects needs to be conceived (at least in outline and principle) as a totalising effort, abandoning (at least tendentially) thematic focus.

Although a shared apparatus of categories and strategies (like the check-list sketched out above) is crucial to any systematic work claiming the title of (design) research, it should not be expected that each DRL project is in advance girded this way. The design-research process can not be assumed to proceed via ticking each successive box in the checklist, even if the checklist is at times a great facilitator and even more often a redeeming schema of post-rationalisation. The actual process is turning on contingencies and random encounters. This fact deserves recognition. Indeed: Playing, grafting and automatic processes have been corroborated as productive anti-methods. The challenge is to systematically exploit the creativity of random processes (absract machines), thus no longer leaving chance findings to pure chance. But only against the backdrop of a 'hungry' categorical grid can chance findings really be harnessed and incorporated into an evolving (soft) system of knowledge.

Innovation : the rhythm of plan and play

In various fields of research and professional work, not least in business organisation and architecture, it seems necessary to incorporate random mutations into strategies of innovation. The role of chance discoveries in the progress of science and technology is long since proverbial without systematic acknowledgement on the part of epistemology. Even today the notion of random pursuits rings anti-thetical to notions of strategic conduct or rationality. Nevertheless, in the history of science (9), as well as in management theory and economics, a new notion of rationality crystallises. Groping, the incorporation of random play and a margin of indetermined, uncontrolled investment, are now seen to be necessary ingredients of any strategy aimed at innovation.(10) Sophisticated arguments which challenge the traditional antithesis of (random) play and (strategic) plan are developed in J.G.March and J.P.Olsen "Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations" (11). From the vantage point of management this critique of formal decision analysis suspends engrained 'certainties' about the logic and rationality of planned, strategic action. The whole edifice of Western rationality is shaken in this text with no explicit philosophical ambitions.

Within most of the Western world individuals and organisations see themselves as making rational choices. This concept assumes the pre-existence of purpose and poses the consistency of conduct. Those ideas, deeply embedded in modern society, are made the explicit axioms of decision theory. "It is fundamental to those theories that thinking should precede action; that action should serve a purpose; that purpose should be defined in terms of a consistent set of pre-existenting goals; and that choice should be based on a consistent theory of the relation between action and its consequences. Every tool of ... management science, operations research or decision theory ... (and) the entire structure of micro-economic theory builds on the assumption that there exists a well-defined stable, and consistent preference ordering." (March&Olsen). How could it be otherwise, how could one not start the building with the foundations? What decision theory and the ideology of choice can only regard as deficiency - the reality of "the fluidity and ambiguity of objectives"(M.&O.) - needs to be 'redeemed' within a new and more complex understanding of innovative rationality. The whole economy of rationality involving the network of concepts like freedom, coercion, identity and progress will have to be deconstructed/reconstructed. "Goals are thrust upon the intelligent man. We ask that he act in the name of goals. We ask that he keeps his goals consistent."(M&O) (Just as preconceived function is thrust upon form in architecture.) Intentionality is seen to be the defining moment of human consciousness, in its individual as well as collective existence. March & Olsen do not indulge in an abstract negation of goal-oriented rationality, rather they propose its sublation into "more complicated forms of consistency". On this basis a more complex rationality can be elaborated which allows for degrees of temporary laxity, able to offer procedures for the discovery/construction of new goals and values. The current reality of shifting goals seems to force us to "choose now in terms of the unknown set of values we will have at some future time. ... This violates severely our sense of temporal order."(M.&O.) Such a "choice" is, according to the ideology of choice (dicision analysis, rational choice theory), utterly non-sensical. But it is the ideology of 'rational' choice that has to be challenged, not the pervasive reality of 'irrational' conduct.

Deconstructivist design-process experiments had precisely this warped time structure: 'choose' now, 'motivate' later. The design process was systematically purged of any preconceived intention and replaced by an ever extending series of (initially) arbitrary formal moves: mappings and extended series of formal transformation as form-generating aleatoric processes. Such a process or "method" involves the radical suspension of everything usually associated with "design" as deliberate purpose-lead activity, directed to solve well-defined problems according to known and explicit criteria. Progress can no longer be monitored as the systematic accumulation of solutions on that basis. Instead of such step by step accountable conduct, initially unaccountable graphic proliferation was the order of the day. Freedom and progress are here mediated through coercion in the sense of the designer's (temporary) submission to the arbitrary determination of the graphic process. ("Coercion is not necessarily an assault on individual autonomy. It can be a device for stimulating individuality."(M.&O.)) In the aleatoric design method the formal process is running ahead and a meaning (programme) is read into it a posteriori, allowing for an innovative re-alignment of both new form and new function. The aleatoric play is an instrument of intelligence, not its negation or substitute. As in biological evolution, the necessary condition for the ability to harness chance for the purposes of innovation is reproduction, i.e. the ability to reproduce an initially unintended and uncontrolled effect. The machinic process becomes domesticated and human. What was play has become method. "Playfulness is the deliberate, temporary relaxation of rules in order to explore the possibilities of alternative rules. When we are playful we challenge the necessity of consistency. In effect, we announce - in advance - our rejection of usual objections to behaviour that does not fit the standard model of intelligence. Playfulness allows experimentation. At the same time, it acknowledges reason. It accepts that at one point ... it will be integrated into the structure of intelligence." In this context March & Olsen arrive at the Derridian insight about the temporal logic of becoming: "Planning in organisations has many virtues, but a plan can often be more effective as an interpretation of past decisions than as a program for future ones. ... In an organisation that wants to continue to develop new objectives, a manager needs to be relatively tolerant of the idea that he will discover the meaning of yesterday's action in the experiences and interpretations of today."(M.&O.) (12) What to many yet appears as an assemblage of disjointed trials and tribulations, might soon cohere into a worthwhile trajectory, career and oeuvre.

Intervention research: towards an unpredictably productive architecture

Aleatoric experimentation is not necessarily to be confined to the design process, but might continue in the building itself. Who is to judge and deny a priori that a strange building will not attract and engender a strangely productive occupation. Such speculative investment might become accepted as intervention research. The structure of post-modern time allows and perhaps even demands such reasoning. A decoded architecture might offer itself to inhabitation as an aleatoric field, anticipating and actively prefacing its own detournment. The late sixties "soft rooms" and toy-like environments may have been the moment architecture got closest to such an ambition. An aleatoric field is always a specific field and offers more (and less) than the abstract freedom of blank neutrality. Emptiness forces the inhabitants to fall back on the pre-conceptions they bring to such a space. Such a space is reproductive rather than generative. A generative and liberating architecture can only work via a degree of coercion. It becomes a generative force via resistance rather than offering the path of least resistance. Laxity as an active force is proposed to substitute the ideas of abstract openness on the one hand and passive flexibility on the other. Laxity implies a productive imprecision not always associated with flexibility (which mostly offers a choice between clear cut options). Laxity also involves a degree of stiffness (its definitory other with which it shares a scale), a productive coercion. The strategy of Laxity views architectural space as a (lax ) subject in the sense that a cultural force can no longer be referred to as a priori independent of the architecture it enters into. Concerning e.g. the question of cultural identity: architecture is, together with all the other paraphernalia of every day life, always already involved in the construction of (the system of differential) identity. And this not only as a part of the 'system of objects' (fashion system), but more profoundly in the territorializing matrices in which those systems operate. Architecture operates as a gigantic sorting machine. If architecture can incarcerate (Bataille, Foucault, Lefebvre), it can become the site of a liberating inflection. Every new building has a lever upon the total structure and can initiate a chain-reaction of subversion, creating a whole new "market". Laxity is emphasising this demiurgic power of architecture. It requires and deserves systematic research and critique as well as speculative intervention.

Notes and references:

1. see: Patrik Schumacher, Arbeit, Spiel und Anarchie in: Work & Culture - Büro.Inszenierung von Arbeit Herausgeber: Herbert Lachmayer und Eleonora Luis, Ritterverlag, Klagenfurt Loasby, Brian J., Equilibrium and Evolution, Manchester & N.Y. 1991

2. DEGW (Duffy, Eley, Giffone, Worthington) F. Duffy, C.Cave, J.Worthington (eds.), Planning Office Space, The Architectural Press Ltd., London F. Duffy, The New Office, London 1997

3. The Space Syntax Laboratory Hillier,B., Space is the machine, Cambridge 1996 Hillier, B. & Hanson, J., The social Logic of space, Cambridge 1984.

4. The AA Design Research Laboratory is part of the Graduate School of the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London.

5. Such a brief offers a sufficiently sympathetic and determinate resistance to avoid the radical gratitiousness of an infinite "space of becoming" or an ever undifferentiated "field of continuous differentiation". The lack of such resistance, which was necessary to proliferate the new formal potentials, has now become a dangerous quicksand. Any further postponement of tangible and productive applications can only serve to discredit the potential that has been created.

6. Stan Davis & Christopher Meyer, BLUR - The Speed of Change in the Connected Econnomy, Reading Massachusetts 1998

7. Modern functionalism, in its purest form (H. Meyer, L. Hilbersheimer) tended to assume a linear determinism, proceeding from a coherent catalog of needs, placed onto a clean slate (tabula rasa) and posing the calculated optimisation of solutions on the basis of known techniques. The mechanical principle of linear decomposition which was the key to the productivity advances of the whole fordist mode of production became also the key principle of the modern architectural rationality. see: Patrik Schumacher, Produktive Ordnungen (engl.: Productive Patterns) in: ARCH+ 136, April 1997, Berlin, pp.28-33, pp.87-90

8. The categories of formal analysis are fundamental and are always presupposed by functional and social categories, as the discourse of those supposedly higher order phenomena relies on spatialising techniques and metaphors in its very conception. This insight in the dialectical dependence of functional (and social) categories upon formal categories does not imply idealism or an idealist conception of history. The point of historical materialism is not to deny the creative force of formal systems and languages. The point is precisely to see languages and ideas as material forces surviving or collapsing within a material (economic) world. Platonic truth has no bearing here.

9. Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago 1970 Feyerabend, Paul, Against Method, New Left Books, London 1975

10. Bergquist, William, The Postmodern Organisation: Mastering the Art of Irreversable Change, San Francisco 1993

11. March, J.G. & Olsen, J.P., Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations, Oslo 1976, chapter 5 "Technologies of Foolishness, pp.69 -82

12. The implied warped time is a rather late insight within the history of philosophy. Derrida, J., Differance, in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago 1982, French: Paris 1972


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