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The AA Design Research Lab - Premises, Agenda, Methods
Patrik Schumacher 2000
Paper delivered at Conference: Research and Practise in Architectutre, at Alvar Aalto Academy
Published in: Research and Practise in Architecture. Editors: Esa Laksonen, Tom Simons, Anni Vartola, Building Information Ltd

I would like to start with Bill Hilliers reminder that what is recognised as architecture vs mere building is marked by radical innovation and theoretical argument. One might paraphrase this by saying that architecture as distinguished from mere building is inherently academic and that every great architecture constitutes a form of research.
The most striking examples are Alberti, and Le Corbusier, but virtually every architect that has been charted by the historians of the high art of architecture was (with very few exceptions) both an innovator and a theorist or writer, especially in the 20th Century: virtually all modernists, post-modernist, and deconstructivists. Mere building (i.e. the vernacular) relies on tradition, on well proven solutions taken for granted. Innovation questions the way things are done and requires an argument which transcends the mere concerns and competencies of building. Innovation requires theory. This ultimately involves conceptions of the good life and the good society. Great architecture and ambitious architectural theory relates architectural progress with social progress. The status quo does not require theory. Theory offers an implicite utopia. However, utopian speculation is rather dubious today. In recent years the very notion of progress and the ambition to project a different future has come to be regarded as suspect.

The history of (built and unbuilt) Modern Architecture has been paraded as villain and quoted as a symbol for the vanity of failed utopian claims. But however one judges the radical concepts (concerning the structure and morphology of the modern, industrial city) that were formulated at the beginning of the 20th century by Tony Garnier, Le Corbusier, Ludwig Hilbersheimer and Frank Lloyd Wright etc., they have shown an unbelievable anticipatory power. After 50 years of runaway success and world wide adoption the (utopian) projections and principles of the modern heroes they can hardly be discussed as "mistakes", even if the socio-economic transformations of the last two decades - achieved on the back of the material advances of the modern period - mean that the social ideals, desires and requirements with respect to the architecture of the contemporary city have since developed in radical anti-thesis to the modern utopias.

What are the new needs, demands and questions that contemporary society raises for architecture and urbanism? Are there protagonists that take up this challenge within their research or creative practise? There is no easy or immediate answer here.

In the last 10-15 years the discourse of the architectural avant-garde was driven by the principle of negativity. Concepts like de-construction, dis-location, de-coding and de-territorialization have been dominating the scene. Key concepts like multiplicity, heterogeneity, otherness, indecidability and virtuality are defined in opposition to the key concepts of modernity and signal the end of universality, predictability and of any notion of a (future) ideal order. The total social process has become far too complex to be anticipated within a single vision and utopian image. Other strategies are called for.

Classical modern rationality would demand that new form would be derived from new function. The limit of this procedure is given with the formal a priori of any question/solution, i.e. the limits of the given/current space of formal possibilities within which the functional solution is searched and selected. This poses the question of expanding the formal universe. This might be done "strategically" by means of transforming and recombining certain already well tested tropes and patterns. But ultimately the expansion of formal repertoires is a non-linear matter beyond calculation and narrow goal-orientation. There might be solution spaces which can only be tapped into by resorting to the mechanism of "random" mutations to open up possibilities upon which a goal-oriented search- or selection engine can then operate. Thats the mechanism of evolution: the cycle of mutation - selection - reproduction. Mutations are initially purely other, i.e. negative. The unpredictability of emergent socio-economic patterns casts doubt upon straightforward goal orientation in planning and design. From this follows a strategic retreat from the immediate program of progress. What emerges as competitive is the option of nearly unrestrained experiment, providing the rationale for an unheard of proliferation of new formal possibilities.

What one is left with is the (nearly) random production of the new and "other", without yet being able to make the claim to provide measurable improvements. A phase of pure mutation is introduced whereby the selection and reproduction of the new material points beyond the capacity of the individual author towards a collective process of appropriation. In various fields of research and professional work, not least in architecture, the necessity to incorporate random mutations into strategies of innovation has been asserted in practise and starts to be reflected in theory. The role of chance discoveries in the progress of science and technology is long since proverbial without systematic acknowledgement on the part of epistemology. The notion of random pursuits still rings anti-thetical to notions of strategic conduct or rationality. Nevertheless, in the history of science as well as in recent design methodologies, a new notion of rationality crystallises. Groping experimentation, 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. "Uncontrolled" investment? Not quite. There is systematic randomisation within definite brackets and constellations and with definite techniques.

The radical architectural projects emerging within the current avant-garde discourse in architecture are not offering themselves as utopian proposals in the sense of elaborated proposals for a better life. They do not claim to have a sure meaning in this sense - yet. They pose questions and withdraw the familiar answers. They are open-ended mutations that at best might become catalysts in the co-evolution of new life processes. (Of course there is also the risk to remain alien to everything and everybody. That risk has to be taken.) 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. What right now appears as an assemblage of disjointed trials might soon cohere into a worthwhile development. A decoded architecture - made strange - offers itself to inhabitation as an aleatoric field, anticipating and actively prefacing its own detournment.

But the argument has been pushed too far here. Selection can not just be left to the material life-process itself - although I would defend a certain margin of "irresponsible" or adventurous investment. Selection should be anticipated and proceed via systematic criteria on the basis of theorised hypotheses. We do need to raise the question of the new needs, demands and purposes that the new architecture might adress with respect to contemporary society and we do need to speculate about the effectiveness of spatial and architectural operations in this respect. The specific crux of architectural theory therefore remains to hypothesise form-function relationships. In consequence those "architectural theories" that restrict themselves to the elaboration of formal possibilities constitute an incomplete effort. They are mere descriptions of new forms and at best new languages rather than theories in the strong sense claimed here. A lot of what passes for influential contemporary architectural theory is "theory" only in the weak sense of description of new formal/spatial tropes) - and needs to be complemented by a systematic functional evaluation. But Eisenman and Kipnis explicitely reject any functional measure as futile and alien to what they believe to be the discipline of architecture. I am recognising the heuristic productivity of this attitude. It is the productivity of any single-minded specialisation. The unforgiving demand for functional and social justification is bound to slow down and hamper formal proliferation. The decomposition of the problem of architectural innovation and the disciplinary division of labour between the proliferators on the one hand and the mediators and evaluators on the other hand will continue to be fruitful. What needs to be challenged therefore is not Eisenman’s ouvre but his claim for the self-sufficiency of the partial contribution of formalism. This claim constitutes fetishism.
This does not mean that this work is friutless. The work of Eisenman, Kipnis and Greg Lynn has been the most powerful resource of innovation within the architectural discourse of the 1990s. But it remains a suspended, incomplete contribution as long as its function and its potential contribution to the development of contemporary society has not been reflected and assessed.

This is what the AA DRL has set itself as its primary task: to redeem the recent vast expansion of formal registers by means of theorising its spatial tropes with respect to the emerging social configurations and patterns of post-fordist societies and to "test" them, i.e. think them by means of detailed design proposals for quasi-clients that seem to be in the vanguard of the momentous socio-economic and social changes we arguably witness today. The specific research agenda I will present is the quest to spatialize the complexities of recent business organisation. Progressive corporate restructuing and innovation in management is a very dynamic field these days. This is the momentous social realm we put on to the agenda of avant garde architecture, to make practical sense of the new formalisms.

I will show a series of images of recent student work at the DRL - reading the various projects as various instances of a fairly new and promising principles of spatial definition and organisation. The claim here is that these principles of spatial organisation - complex modular games, super-imposition spatial reference systems, smooth interpenetrations of spatial figures, multiple affiliations, blurred or fuzzy territorialisations, field articulations via directionality, gradient density distributions, radiating deformations ect. - are well suited to spatialise, facilitate and orient emerging forms of social organisation within the realm of post-fordist work processes. New patterns in the division of labour and the allocation of competency like the matrix organisation, new dynamic patterns of collaboration, like open networks, with shifting centres of authority and blurred lines of responsibility and specialisation ect. These are intricate organisational structures that can be spatially registered by recent architectural languages.

The high rate of correlation we seem to be able to establish between the new architectural formalisms and the new social patterns we find within the field of innovative corporate organisation suggests that the formal research of the 1990s was less random than suggested earlier. Of course certain buzzwords are in the air and disseminate concepts without explicite reference or engagement. One might also point here to the transmission function of the philosophy of Derrida and Deleuze who have acted as veritable seismographs for emerging social logics and abstracted and condensed them into spatial metaphors then played upon and proliferated by Eisenman and others. This transmission through philosophy is obviously rather loose and offers no a priori guarantee or justification. It is only offered as an explanation of what otherwise might appear as a preestablished harmony between the latest trends towards a "new architecture of folding" and the new social patterns as we encounter them e.g. in recent business organisation theory and practise. However, on the level of general formal/organisational principles we can start our work on the basis of a close fit between recent ideas in architecture and management. Our task is to develop these ideas into convincing innovative design proposals and thus help to achieve a real effective, operative correlation (beyond the realm of mere ideas). The striking precedent for this correlation is the close fit between fordism and modernism, i.e. the identity of organisational principles of classical management theory and modern architecture: hierarchical, functional differentiation and serial repetition of the specialised units. Today we are moving beyond this mechanistic paradigm to more complex and fluid patterns. These new social patterns need to be liberated from their current architectural incarceration.


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