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Arguing for Elegance
Patrik Schumacher, London 2006,
Published in: Elegance, AD (Architectural Design), January/February 2007
Editor: Helen Castle, Guest-edited by Ali Rahim & Hina Jamelle

Elegance speaks for itself. In everyday life elegance suggests sophistication, taste and refinement. It is an unquestioned value of immediate appeal and in no need for argument.
However, as a new explicit watch-word claiming to guide the next stage of avant-garde architecture it constitutes a provocation. It is precisely this mainstream appeal of elegance that runs counter to the very self-conception of any avant-gardism. In fact the pursuit of elegance is most probably incompatible with radical newness. On the count of radicalism the pursuit of strangeness and the construction of “abstract machines”(1) is more productive than anything one might expect from the pursuit of elegance. However, innovation involves more than radical newness. Mutation is to be followed by selection, recombination, and refinement before the avant-garde can release its results to mainstream reproduction.(2) The time is ripe. We have reached the final stages of the current cycle of avant-gardist innovation: Folds and blobs are heading mainstream. The escape from the rarefied realm of academia and art – the twin feeding grounds for potential innovations in architecture and design – should not be denigrated. What else should be the destiny and purpose of the avant-garde? Its function is to advance the development of the discipline. Avant-garde and mainstream are two complementing sides of a single evolution: architectural progress. Like any evolutionary process this process has differentiated specific evolutionary mechanisms for mutation (avant-garde), selection (critics & early adopters) and reproduction (mainstream profession).

Ali Rahim is rightly arguing that the scene is set for a phase of refinement rather than a phase of further radical newness.  “Elegance” is perhaps the most pertinent slogan for this phase. Other candidates and contenders might step forward – but there can be no doubt about the need for effective slogans to direct and cohere our creative energies into an effective collective effort.
The immediate appeal of “elegance” is certainly an asset in the push towards the mainstream. I would like to argue that the current theoretical emptiness of “elegance” is also an asset rather than a liability. Elegance is certainly a much more clever choice than the traditional theoretical heavy-weight “beauty”. While “beauty” is so loaded and contested that it will stir up a burdensome deadload of theoreticians wasting our time with irrelevant quarrels about the essence of beauty,  “elegance” is lite, a theoretical virgin territory, giving plenty of space to maneuver, allowing us to elaborate all the specific semantic connections, connotations and nuanced demarcations we require to define this concept for our purposes and harness its positive energy to push the particular trajectory of avant-garde architecture at this current juncture. What follows is the attempt to help in the forging of such a particular notion of elegance.

Elegance is a mainstream value with a wide-spread application in many arenas. There is nothing new or original about using this term in the architectural arena. What is original and provocative is the attempt to push this term into the forefront of the current avant-garde architectural trend and to do this by giving this term a well defined thrust and theoretical underpinning.


Theory of Elegance

The elegance we are talking about is not the elegance of minimalism. Minimalist elegance thrives on simplicity. The elegance we are promoting here instead thrives on complexity. Elegance in our terms achieves a visual reduction of an underlying complexity that is thereby sublated rather than eliminated. This is my fundamental thesis: Elegance articulates complexity.

This new theory of elegance in contemporary architecture has two distinct components:

  1. descriptive: the elaboration of a descriptive language that provides the resources to distinguish and characterize the style in question and the particular agenda of its refinement
  2. argumentative: the stipulation of form-function relationships and the formulation of hypotheses about the social efficacy and pertinence of “elegant architecture” in the context of contemporary societal challenges.(3)

Attributed to a person elegance suggests the effortless display of sophistication. We also talk about an elegant solution to a complex problem. In fact only if the problem is complex and difficult does the solution deserve the attribute “elegant”. While simplistic solutions are pseudo-solutions, the elegant solution is marked by an economy of means by which it conquers complexity and resolves (unnecessary) complications.
It is this kind of connotation that we would like to harness. An elegant building or urban design should therefore be able to manage considerable complexity without descending into disorder.

We might adopt the language of system theory and speak of more or less complex systems. We can distinguish two types of items that might differentiate/compose a system: elements and sub-systems (collections of related/connected elements). With respect to the measure of (ordered) complexity we might distinguish several dimensions:

1-the number and diversity of distinguishable items within the comple

2-the density and diversity of relationships between distinguishable items

3-relations between ordered sets of elements (correlations)

4-relations between relations (systems of relations)

An elegant composition displays a high level of complexity in all dimensions, including the higher dimensions 3 & 4, which imply a move from complexity to ordered complexity. As ordered complexity the elegant composition is highly differentiated, yet this differentiation is rule-governed. It is based on a systematic set of lawful correlations that are defined between the differentiated elements and subsystems. These correlations integrate and (re-)establish a visible coherence and unity across the differentiated system.(4)


Elegance and Organisation

We need to distinguish two parallel applications of the concept of complexity in our domain of reference: The underlying complexity of the institutional arrangements and life-processes on the one hand needs to be distinguished from the complexity of the spatial arrangements and architectural forms that help to organize and articulate those life-processes on the other hand. The underlying social complexity has to be somehow translated into the spatial complexity of an architectural complex. The concept of organisation operates at a level of abstraction that encompasses both domains. It is possible to elaborate types, patterns, systems and dimensions of organization that can guide both the analysis of the (complex) social processes as well as the synthesis of the appropriate (complex) spatial forms. Complex social organization is to be registered, facilitated and expressed by elegant spatial formations.
The primary argument here is that elegance understood in this way facilitates orientation within a spatial complex arrangement and thus ensures the legibility of a complex social formation. Again: Elegance articulates complexity. And: The articulation of complexity prevents perplexity.


Elegance as second nature

It is the sense of law-governed complexity that assimilates this work to the forms and spaces we perceive in organic as well as in inorganic natural systems, where all forms are the result of lawfully interacting forces. Just like natural systems, elegant compositions are so highly integrated that they cannot be easily decomposed into independent subsystems – a major point of difference in comparison with the modern design paradigm of clear separation of functional subsystems. In fact the exploitation of natural forms like landscape formations or organic morphologies as a source domain for analogical transference into architecture makes a constructive contribution to the development of this new paradigm and language of architecture.
Frei Otto went a step further and literally harnessed the lawfulness of physical systems as form-finding procedure to generate his design-morphology. The results have been striking. Lars Spuybroek has described these processes as “material computing”(5). Such analog form-finding processes can complement the new digital design tools that might in fact be described as quasi-physical form-finding processes.
Elegant compositions or complexes are highly integrated formal/spatial systems that look like those highly integrated natural systems where all forms are the result of the lawful interaction of physical forces or like organic system where the forms result from a similar play of forces selected and integrated in adaptation to performance requirements. Such elegant compositions resist decomposition, just like their natural models.
A specific aspect of this overall lawful and integrated nature of elegance is the capacity of elegant compositions to adapt to complex urban contexts. Adaptive capacity or adaptation is another key ambition of the contemporary avant-garde trend that might suggest comparison with natural organic systems. An architectural system that has an enhanced capacity to adapt to its environment will result in an intricate artifact-context ensemble that has sublated initial contradictions into a new complex synthesis that further enhances the overall sense of sophisticated elegance.


Designing Elegance

This effect, which in nature emerges through self-organisation, has to be elaborately constructed in sustained design efforts, guided by appropriate recipes and principles.
Robert Venturi made an early contribution by formulating a compositional principle that is useful here. His notion of the “difficult whole” is concerned with the compositional integration of diversity. “It is the difficult unity through inclusion rather than the easy unity through exclusion.”(6)  One of the specific techniques he has identified is the technique he has termed “inflection”. “By inflecting towards something outside themselves, the parts contain their own linkage.”(7)  He identified this technique and its integrative effect in baroque architecture, in comparison with the more additive structure of Renaissance compositions where each subsystem rests complete within itself. In contrast, baroque inflection achieves the integration of parts (subsystems) by means of imposing an overarching curvature which leaves the part asymmetrical/incomplete requiring the other complementary parts to continue and complete the curvature.
The concept of inflection can be generalized, so that we can propose:
Elegance requires that the layers and subsystems of a complex composition are mutually inflected. Every new element or new layer that enters the complex will both inflect the overall composition and will in turn be inflected. Elegance can never result from a merely additive complication.(8)


Computing Elegance

Current digital modeling tools are able to facilitate integrative effects: lofting, spline-networks, soft-bodies, working with force-fields ect. Morphing – the ultimate effect of animation movie technology -  has been an often emulated paradigm for achieving the continuity of the differentiated.
There is an inevitable, powerful relationship between the new digital tools (like animation software), compositional tropes and stylistic characteristics. Intensive coherence (Kipnis), pliancy, multiple affiliations (Lynn), intricacy (Lynn) etc. are the concepts coined to describe the compositional ambitions that emerged early in the wake of the new modeling tools. In fact it has become increasingly easy to achieve abstract sketch-designs (surfaces) that satisfy these terms and thereby achieving a measure of elegance as defined here. However, surface compositions are only the first sketchy step in the design of an elegant architecture.
Only in limit cases such as the installation “ice-storm” (Zaha Hadid & Patrik Schumacher, Vienna 2003) does the modeled surface translate directly into a built reality – in this case an extensive experiment in morphing.


Constructing Elegance

The next obvious challenge was to go beyond pure surfaces and to elaborate structural systems that are compatible with this ambition for continuous differentiation, perhaps even enhancing the overall effect of integrated complexity. One of the most convincing contributions was Jesse Reiser’s notion of a “space-frame” exemplified in his competition entry for Manhattan’s West Side (9) in 1999. In the work of Reiser + Umemoto the space-frame becomes a space-filling medium that could receive continuous deformations that inform the system by allowing disturbances (squeezes, clearances, inserted objects) to radiate through the space-frame.
The next step was the focus on the envelope: how to tessellate or panelize continuously changing double-curved surfaces and further, how to integrate (rather than merely impose) openings.
Naturally, on the way to the elaboration of fully functional, fully detailed designs, whereby evermore systems or layers need to be integrated, the principle of inflection (organic inter-articulation) becomes evermore difficult to maintain. Also the visual field is in danger of being overcrowded, compromising legibility and orientation.
It is at this moment of mounting difficulty  - in the face of bringing the new paradigm into large scale realization -  that elegance becomes an explicit priority, not least because the built results have all too often been disappointing in this respect. Already on the level of detailed digital modeling, every new layer of function or detailing requires a new, increasing ingenuity to be (seamlessly) incorporated. With view to execution further demands of geometric lawfulness, precision and high order surface continuity become paramount concerns. Contemporary car design affords a challenging benchmark both in terms of the tight inflective nesting of multiple functional features and in terms of surface continuity. The obvious progress of the last few years is equally reliant upon digital design and manufacturing. For instance, observe the way the headlights of the latest Mercedes sport-cars are massaged into the subtle surface of the chassis.


Criteria and Postulates of Elegance

The notion of elegance promoted here still gives a certain relevance to Alberti’s criterion of beauty: you can neither add, nor subtract without destroying the harmony achieved. Except in the case of contemporary elegance the overall composition lacks this sense of perfect closure that is implied in Alberti’s conception. Alberti focused on key ordering principles, like symmetry and proportion. These principles were seen as integrating the various parts into a whole by means of setting those parts into definite relations of relative position and proportion in analogy to the human figure. Perhaps the best example of this ideal is the Palladian villa. In contrast contemporary projects remain incomplete compositions, more akin to the Deleuzian notion of assemblage than to the classical conception of the organism. Our current idea of organic integration does not rely on fixed ideal types. Neither does it presuppose any proportional system, nor does it privilege symmetry. Instead the parts or subsystems mutually inflect and adapt to each other achieving integration by various modes of spatial interlocking, soft transitions at the boundaries between parts, and morphological affiliation etc.
The principle of elegance postulates: do not add or subtract without elaborate inflections, mediations or interarticulations.
While the classical concept of preordained perfection has thus been abandoned, there still remains a strong sense of increasing tightness and stringency, approaching even a sense of internal necessity, as the network of compositional relations is elaborated and tightened. I guess every designer knows this from his/her own design experience. The more the compositional cross-referencing, inflection and organic inter-articulation within the design has been advanced, the harder it becomes to add or subtract elements. This kind of design trajectory  - although wide open at the beginning -  beyond a certain point becomes heavily self-constraining. One might be inclined to talk about the increasing self-determination of a composition: an emergent (rather than preordained) perfection.
The systems theorist Niklas Luhmann has emphasized this phenomenon   - which he has termed the “self-programming”(10)of the individual artwork -  that might be observed within all artistic work that is concerned with the elaboration of complex artifacts, whether they might be elaborate paintings, musical compositions, or literary works. Luhmann takes account of “the necessity that manifests itself in the artwork”. He elaborates: “In this sense, creating a work of art … generates the freedom to make decisions on the basis of which one can continue one’s work. The freedoms and necessities one encounters are entirely … consequences of decisions made within the work. The necessity of certain consequences one experiences in one’s work … is not imposed … but results from the fact that one began, and how. This entails the risk of running into insoluble problems …”.(11)
I guess every designer knows how a design-trajectory can lead into a dead end, can fail to “work”, or remain unresolved. The elegance we mean  - elegance on top of complexity -  is a tall order, and can not be secured in advance. Although we can provide certain recipes  - e.g. the employment global distortions to cohere a field of fragments etc.-  the result can not be guaranteed.
With increasing complexity the maintenance of elegance becomes increasingly demanding.
Complexity and elegance stand in a relation of precarious mutual amplification: a relation of increasingly impropable mutual enhancement, i.e. mutual amplification with increasing propability of collapse.


Arguing for Elegance

Why should we bother to strife for this increasingly difficult elegance? Does this elegance serve a purpose beyond itself?
The overriding headline here is: Orientation within complex organizations.
Contemporary architectural briefs are marked by a demand for evermore complex and simultaneous programmatic provisions to be organized within evermore complex urban contexts. Elegance allows for an increased programmatic complexity to coincide with a relative reduction of visual complication by means of integrating multiple elements into a coherent and continuous formal and spatial system. The general challenge is to find modes of composition that can articulate complex arrangements and relationships without losing legibility and the capacity to orient users.

Elegance as defined here signifies this capacity to articulate complex life processes in a way that can maintain overall comprehension, legibility and continuous orientation within the composition.
In this vein, for instance, Zaha Hadid Architects have been promoting an architecture without corners because corners pollute the visual field usually without signifying anything (unless they are specifically made to signify something).

Complex organizational relations of overlapping, or interpenetrating domains can be articulated and made legible, so that a complex order is perceived rather than allowing the complexity to appear as disorder. The user might, for instance, be able to perceive his position as a position where several domains intersect, or (more ambitious) where multiple perspectives unravel the spatial interpenetration of multiple simultaneous use-patterns relating to the multiple audiences which tend to coincide in contemporary institutions. How can this be achieved?
Traditionally spatial orientation has been operating primarily on the basis of relations of inclusion or containment  -  the Russian doll principle of nesting domains. Spatial position is defined as series of relations of containments: continent, country, region, city, district, neighborhood, estate, building, floor, apartment, room. Each domain has a clear boundary and is fully contained within a larger domain with an equally crisp boundary. This is how you know where you are at any time. A change of position implies the crossing of a boundary. Orientation is traditionally further supported if the domains can be identified with easily recognizable platonic/geometric figures like circles, squares or rectangles. Domains and figures are ideally kept separate.  It should be obvious that the scope of this system of ordering is limited. A sense of order can only be maintained on the basis of a radical reductionism that is antithetical to the realities of contemporary life. On the one hand this predicament leads to the fallacy of minimalism craving for an artificial simplicity and on the other hand to the fetishistic embrace of disorder as in the celebration of Tokyo’s visual chaos.

A radically different, alternative mode of ordering and orientation is afforded by the principles of elegance discussed above. Here figures and domains need not sustain platonic simplicity because their deformation does no longer spell the break down of order but the lawful inscription of information. Figures/domains do not have to remain neatly separated because we have developed lawful rules of mutual inflection, and lawful rules of gradual transformation.
Orientation in a complex, lawfully differentiated field affords navigation along vectors of transformation – for instance a morphing trajectory -  rather than snapping from position to position via boundary crossings. In the extreme case of a pure field condition both bounded domains and identifiable figures have in fact disappeared and orientation along reference objects and bounded/nested domains has been fully replaced by the navigation of lawfully modulated field qualities like density, directionality, agitation in the field etc., affording inferences and anticipations. Projects like the Master-plan for One North, an urban science and business park in Singapore, or the design for a new national Italian museum of 21st Century art and architecture (“MAXXI) in Rome project are pursuing this thesis.


Striving for Elegance  -  Zaha Hadid Architects

It is an undisputable fact of life at Zaha Hadid Architects that 90% the time and energy is spent on the achievement of elegance, after the concept has been long been clarified and all functional arrangements are fully resolved. The real hard work is the elegant formal resolution of the intended complex assemblage.
As first example might serve the design for a new Guggenheim Museum in Taichung, Taiwan. Here, the two gallery wings are mediated by allowing both to meld into the central communication space, which itself is continuous with the surrounding park-scape. All transitions are made smooth. Changes in surface material never coincide with or reinforce changes in geometry. There are no add-on parts that could be easily separated out of the overall composition. The ramps and paths are cuts and folds molded into the ground surface, as well as into the envelope of the building, thus mediating the two domains. The lattice of the roof bridging the central public space is not a neutral grid but an irregular triangulation that is adapted to the wedge-shaped gap between the two gallery wings. The structural beams are formally affiliated with the pedestrian bridges that cross this canyon space below. The glass mullions of the roof glazing continue this game of triangulation on a smaller scale. The openings within the building envelope are not punched out as arbitrary shapes; instead the surface is spliced along its lines of least curvature to create louvered openings, akin to gills, which respect the integrity of the surface.

The recently completed Science Museum in Wolfsburg (“Phaeno”) is the virtuoso masterpiece in the articulation of complex continuities that can be followed all the way through the building. The whole building is inscribed within a rigid trapezoid whose angles are adapted to the site-condition. Within this sharp-edged trapezoid everything flows and melds without corners. The ground-surface is molded into an artificial topography that registers and receives the cones that carry the building. These cones  –  each with its own variation of angles and radii  -  blend seamlessly into the waffle-slab above. Those cones also reemerge within the interior – either as craters or as cones that continue to carry the space-frame above. There is an essential symbiosis in the spatial and structural conception of the building, and a close inter-articulation of the waffle concrete structure of the raised floor and the steel space-frame that carries the roof. The lateral openings are of two kinds: the large openings are conic sections that produce the characteristic paraboloidal form, and the smaller openings come in swarms that are articulated as variations of the swarm of voids that make up the waffle slab. These regulations structure a repertoire of operations that allow for the adaptable handling of all sorts of functional and contextual contingencies without loosing formal consistency. Such a regulated repertoire of design moves is the precondition (not the guarantee) of elegance. More universal rules like balancing within an asymmetric, dynamic equilibrium, and a certain (new, stretched) range of plausible proportions are still to be observed. Both concerns (dynamic equilibrium and proportion) also pertain to the rhythmic flow of the interior spaces.

Perhaps the most significant example is the Central Building for the new BMW plant in Leipzig. Its significance resides in the fact that elegance is here put to effective work with respect to the articulation of a very dense, complex and multi-layered productive life process. Here the fertile and pliant formalism of flow lines has been pursuit obsessively. Every system was forced (structure, partitions, circulation, lighting, conveyors etc.) to contribute to the intricate play of bundling, diverging and converging trajectories.

The design for a new monumental Performing Arts Complex on an artificial island in Dubai’s artificial creek represents the so far unsurpassed apotheosis of architectural fluidity within the work of Zaha Hadid Architects. The compelling elegance results from the dune-like handling of the great masses in quasi-dynamic, quasi-natural sweeps. Again, the embedding of the buildings within an artificial topography produces the sensation of overall seamlessness within the complex. A further factor is the consistency of the morphological repertoire across scales, all the way to balconies and staircase details.

The arrangement of three towers within a dynamic equilibrium composition is aiming at grace and elegance with a monumental mass of 55, 65 and 75 storeys respectively. The suggestion of “dancing towers” once more borrows from the realm of dynamics to acquire a heightened sense of compositional rule and logic with respect to the primary massing. Elegance further requires the handling of variations within a framework of strict morphological regulation: All lines meet tangentially. Secondary articulations like the facade support and extend the play of the overall massing.

The competition entry (1st Prize) for a new Centre for Islamic Art within the Louvre in Paris is a recent example within the work of Zaha Hadid Architects where a play of oppositions is choreographed by means of seamless transitions and affiliations between those diametrically opposed elements. Thus what might otherwise be construed as a contradiction transfigures into a symbiotic relationship. In the case of the Islamic Centre the historical courtyard, as figural void, seamlessly involutes and transitions into a highly contemporary figural object. The surface transition is emphasized not only by fillets and material affiliations, but it is further emphasized by a twist that distorts the cubic figure and drags the ground surface along as it blends into the object. This move also opens a rift that functions as entrance. The ornamental texture is another tenuous, affiliative measure that contributes to the overall sense that there operates a hidden logic.
This sense of hidden logic, that can be perceived but not always explicitly spelled out by the observer, is at the heart of what we mean by an elegance that articulates an underlying complexity of relations.

1. The concept of Abstract Machine has been imported from Deleuze & Guattarri’s A Thousand Plateaus. Within architectural discourse the concept denotes open-ended design-processes that submit to runaway graphic or computational processes, thus suspending purpose and rational control. Eisenman’s formal transformational series have been a seminal precursor.

2.At this juncture the protagonists involved typically bifurcate into two distinct groups with two quite different career trajectories: those who go mainstream together with the innovations they contributed to, and those who stay within the domain of the avant-garde to move on into further unknown territory.

3. The elaboration of a descriptive language is a precondition for any theory and an extremely important mechanism for directed architectural creativity – however, it is this second argumentative component that can sustain the claim for the pertinence of the trend pushed here.

4. The avoidance of the loaded concept of beauty and its attendant disputes does not exclude the recognition that there are certain (perhaps inevitable) continuities with certain prior reflections around the concept of beauty: In fact this emphasis on establishing coherence within the differentiated  - unity in difference – is reminiscent of Francis Hutcheson’s notion of beauty as “compound ratio of uniformity and variety”. pp.38, Francis Hutcheson,  Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 1725, critical ed. The Hague, 1973.  Also see Hogarth’s notion of “composed variety”, p.28, William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 1997. My emphasis on ordered complexity might be understood as a radicalization of William Hogarth’s notion of “composed variety”. Hogarth, theorizing the aesthetics of the Rococo, is promoting variety against sameness, but insists on composed variety, “for variety uncomposed, and without design, is confusion and deformity.”(p.28)

5. What Frei Otto called “Formfinding”, Lars Spuybroek refers to as “Material Computing” in order to emphasise the similarity of those physical processes with the by now familiar and ubiquitous digital modelling techniques offered by animation software like Maya.

6. p.88, Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, second edition, New York 1977
7. p.89, Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, second edition, New York 1977

8. For instance, Tschumi’sParc de la villette, in contrast, still operates with layers that remain indifferent to each other. The introduction of inflection marks the shift from deconstructivism to folding.

9. p.128, West Side Convergence Competition Entry, New York 1999, in:Reiser + Umemoto, Atlas of Novel Tectonics, New York 2006

10. p.204, Niklas Luhmann, Art as Social System, Stanford California 2000

11. p.203/204, Niklas Luhmann, Art as Social System, Stanford California 2000

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