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Counterpoint: Transgression, Innovation, Politics
Patrik Schumacher, London 2013
Published in: AD # 226 The Architecture of Transgression, Editor: H. Castle, Guest-edited by J. Mosley & R. Sara, Nov/Dec 2013


When I am taking a position against “the architecture of transgression” I am certainly not arguing from a conservative position. The editors credit the architecture of transgression with revolutionary force.  I am arguing two counterpoints here, namely that transgressions are only productive during revolutionary periods at the beginning of a major cycle of innovation, and that in order to be productive transgressions must remain within the discipline’s bounds determined by the functional differentiation of society.

As protagonist of the discipline’s advancement we are all positioning ourselves on the side of progress, aiming for the innovation of the discipline and thus the built environment. The question is thus not the choice between architectural revolution vs the conservation of established practice but rather in which direction architecture should progress. Another question is whether progress should take the form of a revolutionary transgressive leap or follow a gradual, cumulative, constructive path. The answer to this latter question depends on where we are in the historical cycle of innovation.1 What the notion of “cycle of innovation” indicates is that evolutionary processes (including the evolution of civilization as a whole as well as the evolution of any of its subsystems) move in a rhythm of alternating periods of accelerated change and relatively gradual change. With respect to the evolution of organisms and natural eco-systems evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould proposes a theory of ‘punctuated equilibria’, according to which evolutionary change occurs relatively rapidly, alternating with longer periods of relative evolutionary stability. This kind of pattern of evolution is to be expected in complex systems where many processes interlock in mutual dependency with feedback mechanisms of mutual stabilization. This pattern also applies to societal evolution. It also applies to the progress of professions like architecture. Thomas Kuhn2 has observed this pattern with respect to the developmental trajectory of individual sciences. He is distinguishing revolutionary science from normal science. ‘Normal science’ progresses within the framework of an established paradigm and ‘revolutionary science’ emerges when the explanatory power and fruitfulness of a paradigm is waning and the search for new answers beyond the confines of the dominant paradigms ensues. This period involves transgressions against the established paradigm and usually spurns several competing potential paradigms and might eventually lead to a paradigm shift when the discourse converges on one of the competing candidate paradigms to an extent that the older paradigm is supplanted by a new viable paradigm that can re-cohere research efforts and inaugurate a new ‘normal science’. In my treatise ‘The Autopoiesis of Architecture’3 I have adopted and adapted Kuhn’s terminology and analysis to the development of the discipline of architecture by distinguishing revolutionary and cumulative design research. Architectural styles function as the design research paradigms of architecture.

Accordingly I distinguish transitional versus epochal styles and the contested avant-garde stages and the hegemonic mainstream stages of the great epochal styles through which the discipline of architecture progresses. Revolutionary transgressions have played an important role in the progress of the discipline and might do so again in the future. For instance, at the beginning of the 20th century architecture witnessed a momentous revolutionary period which ushered in the paradigm shift from historicism to modernism (via transitional styles like art nouveau and expressionism). Fifty years later modernism went into crisis and a new revolutionary period ensued with transitional styles like postmodernism and deconstructivism and a diverse, radical cast of protagonists like Superstudio, Venturi, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Tschumi, Gehry, Eisenman, Hadid etc. In my book ‘Digital Hadid’4 I am discussing some of the radically transgressive moves Zaha Hadid enacted in her design processes and designs at the beginning of her career. Her transgressions include the audacious move to translate the dynamism and fluidity of her calligraphic hand directly into equally fluid tectonic compositions, as well as the incredible move from isometric and perspective projection to the literal distortion of space, from the exploded axonometry to the literal explosion of space into fragments, from fish-eye perspectives to the literal bending and bulging of space etc. All these moves seemed to be willfully irrational, akin to the transgressive operations of the surrealists. And yet, they allowed for a radical expansion of the design repertoire that eventually made the design process more versatile, agile and adaptive to the new level of programmatic and contextual complexity that started to confront the discipline since the 1970s. What started as seemingly irrational transgression or mutation was eventually selected, reproduced, refined and integrated into a new, more powerful design process rationality, and then further expanded and empowered by the new digital design tools that became increasingly available to the discipline since the mid 1990s. This revolutionary practice matured into a cumulative design research programme  -  parametricism -  that is now gearing up to go mainstream to impact and transform the physiognomy of the global built environment as modernism had done pervasively in the post war era. My key point here is to suggest that the spirit of transgression is required and arises in periods of paradigm crisis where the old ways are bankrupt and new potential paths are being charted. However, as potential ways forward emerge and gain adherents further transgressions are less productive than the participation in a new collective, cumulative research effort. The transgressive spirit needs to be supplanted by a constructive spirit that is able to develop a new viable paradigm that might eventually mature to replace the prior mainstream practice and to take on the responsibility of advancing global best practice in line with the new societal demands and opportunities. Accordingly I believe that the current period does not call for transgressive practices in architecture.

The editors maintain that the issue examines how transgressive practices are reinventing and repositioning the architecture profession “in much the same way as the avant-garde of a century ago - Dada, Surrealism and early modernism - subverted and subsequently influenced established thinking and method”. While I agree with the importance of the historical avant-gardes for the breakthrough of modernism  -   and I indeed theorize the emergence of parametricism in analogy to this historical experience -  I do not see such a potential in the projects promoted here under the banner of an “architecture of transgression”. Nor do the most recent societal developments merit the inauguration of yet another paradigm shift. The paradigm shift from modernism to parametricism is architecture’s response to the epochal socio-economic transformation from a fordist society of mechanical mass reproduction to a much more dynamic, internally differentiated and complex post-fordist network society based on the new production processes made possible by the micro-electronic revolution and the new globalized societal dynamics unleashed by the new communication technologies. The demise of the socialist block, the radical transformation of all centrally planned economies, phenomena like the privatization of many state enterprises and services, corporate outsourcing, network organisations as well as a much accelerated globalisation are all transformations that characterize this new socio-economic epoch which emerged during the 1980s and 1990s. It is a fallacy to believe that the 2008 financial crisis and the great recession that ensued in its wake represents the beginning or opportunity of yet another epochal transformation which would merit yet a further reorientation of architecture. This is not a claim by an architectural theorist but a matter of an architectural theorist surveying prevalent economics and social science discourses. There is no new structural transformation on the horizon that is being discussed as redirecting the trajectory from fordism to post-fordism. The occupy movement that fascinates the editors can in no way be taken as indicative of any substantial redirection of societal developments that might merit a re-inauguration of a transgressive spirit within architectural discourse. Therefore I maintain that an architecture of transgression in 2013 is unlikely to be productive. The task we are facing is a constructive task: to push the cumulative design research of the last 20 years into mainstream relevancy.5

The editors invoke and quote Bernard Tschumi’s outline of three possible roles for architects in his introduction to ‘Architecture and Disjunction’: “Either we could become conservative, that is, we would “conserve” our historical role as translators of, and form-givers to, the political and economic priorities of existing society. Or we could function as critics and commentators, acting as intellectuals who reveal the contradictions of society through writings or other forms of practice…Finally, we could act as revolutionaries by using our… understanding of cities and the mechanisms of architecture… in order to be part of professional forces trying to arrive at new social and urban structures.”6
I find Tschumi’s distinction interesting but untenable, not least because all three roles distinguished here  - translator, critic, innovator -  must all come into play within an ambitious, progressive architectural practice. There is no choice possible between them. More importantly our theoretical account needs to reassert the distinctiveness of architecture’s societal role. This distinctiveness and delimitation of architecture’s role and responsibility is rarely in doubt in practice. However, in architectural discourse demands and illusions abound concerning the possibility of transgressing architecture’s institutionally circumscribed domain of competency. The editors of “The Architecture of Transgression” too are guilty of such illusory schemes for the expansion of architecture’s mission, without raising the question of either its feasibility or legitimacy. They assert that “in order for architecture to remain relevant, to position and reinvent itself in changing times, it has had to move across perceived disciplinary limits”. I think this statement is a crippling fallacy that is bound to insure the marginality of its adherents.

The above quote from Tschumi also reveals a disregard for the fact that society is organised into distinct domains of competency when he is lumping together the innovation of social and urban structures as the task of the revolutionary architect. He is also obscuring the specificity of architecture’s societal function when he credits the architect as critic with “revealing the contradictions of society”. In contrast to this untenable and illegitimate inflation of the architect’s competency I insist on its proper demarcation. (In fact, it is not me but society who insists on this demarcation.) Although I am committed to the avant-garde architect as critic, in my view, the architect as critic is neither called upon nor able to reveal the contradictions of society as such, nor is he called upon or competent to criticize society as a whole or any of its phenomena or subsystems (other than its architectural subsystem). His task is it to reveal the contradiction between the established mainstream architecture and architectural discourse on the one side and those new relevant and pervasive facts and tendencies in society -  be they technological, demographic, socio-economic, or political – that have not yet been taken account of and adequately responded to within architecture. The task of the revolutionary architect is not social or political revolution but to effect a revolution in the discipline’s methods, repertoire’s and values in order to make them once more relevant and effective with respect to the societal transformations and new social requirements that are no longer adequately addressed and facilitated by prior mainstream practice. This is something rather different from what has sometimes been called “political” or “critical” architecture.

The currently fashionable concept of “critical architecture” as a form of political activism must be repudiated as an implausible phantom. The paradigmatic examples from the early 1920s and the late 1960s that give meaning to the notion of politically engaged architecture were born in the exceptional condition of social revolution (or pending social revolution). During such periods everything is being politicized: the law, the economy, education, architecture, and even science. The autonomy of the functional subsystems of society is temporarily being suspended. During normal times architecture and politics are separated as autonomous discursive domains. They are autopoietic function systems within a world civilization that is now primarily ordered via functional differentiation7. Representative democracy is the form the political system tends to take in the most advanced states within functionally differentiated world society. Representative democracy professionalizes politics and regularizes the channels of political influence, negotiation, and collectively binding decision making. The specialized, well-adapted channels of political communication absorb and bind all political concerns. Art, science, architecture, education, and even the mass media are released from the burden of becoming vehicles of political agitation. The more this system consolidates, the longer this division of labour within society works, the more false and out of place rings the pretence of ‘political architecture’. Political architecture finally becomes an oxymoron  -  at least until the emergence of the next revolutionary situation, when a new socio-political upheaval re-politicizes all aspects and arrangements of society. At that stage  - within the throws of a genuine social revolution -  we can expect the (temporary) melt-down of these distinctions and their underlying differentiation. Then we are no longer concerned with politics in the operationally defined sense that this term currently denotes.
Until then it is certainly not architecture’s societal function to promote marginal political agendas that have scant prospects for becoming political mainstream any time soon. Nor is it its task to actively initiate political agendas. Architecture is no viable site for such initiatives. Those who feel that a radical political transformation of society is a prior condition of any meaningful architectural project and therefore want to debate and resolve political questions must do so within the political system.8 Only there can they really form sustained political convictions and test the power of their arguments.

Political debate within architecture can never amount to anything significant. Architecture cannot substitute itself for the political process proper. However, architecture can and must respond to transformative socio-economic and political developments that become manifest within the economy and are processed within the political system. Accordingly I propose the following thesis: To respond to hegemonic political trends is a vital capacity of architecture. It has no capacity to resolve political controversy.  Political debate within architecture overburdens the discipline. The autopoiesis of architecture consumes itself in the attempt to substitute itself for the political system.9

1 The word “cycle” is not a very happy choice here because history is evolving forward without returning to prior states. However, what does recur is the need of any societal subsystem to adapt to shifts in its societal context.

2 Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, University of Chicago Press (Chicago), 1962, second enlarged edition, 1970

3 Schumacher, Patrik, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.1, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2010, see section 3.7 Styles as Research Programmes

4 Schumacher, Patrik, Digital Hadid: Landscapes in Motion, Birkhauser, London 2004

5 It is indeed a unfortunate that parametricism has been misunderstood as wilful, exuberant iconicism and as such associated with the latest real estate boom and bust cycle. This misunderstanding, together with the overestimation of the significance of the financial crisis and recession, has led many astray in thinking that parametricism is no longer tenable and that the task of architectural discourse is now one of fundamental reorientation. A certain reorientation has indeed been effected in some major schools of architecture that have accordingly transformed from leading, high-skill design research laboratories aiming to innovate professional best practice into debating clubs. However, there is no sign that these debates lead to any viable re-orientation of the discipline. They are rather accompanied by either retro-gressive aesthetics or the absence of design altogether.

6 Tschumi, Bernard, Architecture and Disjunction, MIT Press, 1996

7 Luhmann, Niklas, Theory of Society, Vol.1, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 2012

8 This also applies to radical “urban politics” that challenges established socio-economic and political institutions.

9 Schumacher, Patrik, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol.2, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., London 2012, Thesis 49, section 9.2 Theorizing the Relationship between Architecture and Politics

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