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The Dialectic of the Pragmatic and the Aesthetic - remarks on the aesthetics of data-scapes
Patrik Schumacher 1997
Lecture delivered at Architectural Association, London as part of the 150 Years AA Celebrations
This is an attempt to rationalize the tension within the data-scape approach between pragmatism and aesthetic
The notion of 'datascapes' conceives architectural form as the translation of certain determining parameter or
'data'. The notion may be understood analytically - interpreting existing urban formations - as well as
describing hypothetical design experiments based on selective extrapolations testing the quantitative or
qualitative limits of the respective selected parameters. Those parameter describe certain performance criteria
of the urban fabric, like density, light-conditions, ventilation, visual penetration, structural limits,
traffic flows, institutional use patterns etc.
The spirit of these experiments is explorative rather than pragmatic. They are trying to turn
design-constraints into design-engines testing what form architecture might take if one really gives
up all aesthetic prejudice and just follows the morphological thrust of certain selected functional
parameters, ready to take it as it comes - and the stranger it comes the better. This is the spirit of
ruthless modernization - also on the aesthetic plane.
Aesthetic judgement is delayed but in the end remains the ultimate ground of contestation for the high
cultural institution of Architecture. At the end of the 20th Century this institution will not liquidate
itself into pragmatism, and the AA will certainly not become a vehicle of such a liquidation.
Data-scaping offers its own aesthetic sensibility, expressing an urge for the new, a readiness for the
unfamiliar. Abstract and synthetic environments are offered as the next human habitat.
Nevertheless the polemic and ideological importance of the data-scape approach rests in the rebuttal of
purely aesthetically driven discourses (like minimalism). The reaffirmed 'functionalism' of data-scaping
starts with the rejection of poetic sensibility and artistic intuition as points of departure for architectural
and urban design. "Design" looses all its connotations of style, taste, compositional delicacy etc. It
becomes a creative force precisely as it temporarily suspends aesthetic and moral prejudice in order to
experiment with and elaborate new and forward looking aesthetic and moral sensibilities in tune with
contemporary performance criteria (e.g. allowing for new and unseen degrees of massivity). But rather
than abandoning all pretensions towards the aesthetic realm datascaping pursuits the conscious subjection
of its evolution to the dynamic criterion of performativity.
Within a consistently materialist outlook aesthetic regimes have to be analyzed as sublimation of
an underlying performativity. At the root of any style or typology (which goes beyond the drawing board
and effectively shapes the built environment) lies an economic rationality.
The aesthetic judgement of cities and buildings is rational in as much as it operates as an immediate
intuitive appreciation of performativity, short-circuiting first hand comparative experience or extended
analysis. Aesthetic judgement thus represents an economical substitute for experience. It depends on a
tradition that disseminates accumulated experience via extrinsic and dogmatic rules. This dogmatism is the
virtue as well as the limit of aesthetically condensed intelligence.
For instance: The Vitruvian or Palladian regime of proportions represents a condensation of accumulated
building experience, allowing for the 'blind' design of sound stone-structures. The classical orders are
regulating column-height to width-ratios, spans, foundations, minimum roof-angles for drainage etc. The
Palladian rules concerning room proportions guarantee certain standards of day-lighting and air-volume.
Any such rule-system embodies an economy of performance as well as an economy of design effort. Those
regimes are - as it were - dogmatized data-scapes.
Over and above these technological principles the aesthetic rules concerning e.g. (Vitruvian) city-layout
or the (Palladian) rules for the suburban villa enshrine and make easily reproducible specific social
organizations which in turn are easily read off by the trained eye identifying the right environment
With the development of society and the availability of new building technologies (reinforced concrete, steel
etc.) the classical aesthetic regime lost its rationality and became a fetter upon the further development of
the built environment. What once was an accumulated wisdom became an irrational prejudice that had to be
battled also on the ideological plane of aesthetic value. This necessary battle was waged and won by the
heroes of the 'modern functionalism'. The technological and social revolutions called forth an aesthetic
revolution, establishing and aestheticizing non-classical proportions, a new tectonic and new compositional,
i.e. organizational patterns. An earlier but equally significant aesthetic revolution concerning the image
of the good city is analyzed by Tafuri: the shift from the strictly formalized and centrally controlled
Baroque absolutist city-planning to the call for a picturesque city-scape celebrating "chaos, uproar, and
tumult" (Laugier) as the fitting impression of a vital city. The picturesque was dismantling the former
aesthetic regime that had become a fetter upon the development of early capitalist accumulation and privately
driven urban growth. The new sensibility was able to identify with the emergent vital production- and
life-processes rather than being locked into a reactionary gesture of repulsion and rejection.
The 'radical functionalism' of the twenties (e.g. ABC group) was going beyond a mere post-rationalization
and aesthetic codification of spontaneously emerging forms and posed the total suspension of any aesthetic
regime and argument, projecting a scientific elaboration of architecture. This anti-art position was
productive in this period of fundamental technological, socio-economic and political transformation.
The subsequent codification of the results of a decade of work in the notion of an International Style
should not be interpreted as a reactionary move, but has to be understood within the productive dialectic
of material performance and aesthetic codification. After the new social and technological conditions and
potentials have been allowed to formally crystallize, style lubricates their dissemination. In the 25 year
post-war boom this codification and the resulting economy of easy aesthetic appropriation was indeed a
productive 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 and ascertained aesthetically beyond the limits of a specific historical period - an illusion
the profession is still infested with.
Although I conceded above that the aesthetic dimension remains a powerful and inescapable dimension of
Architecture, it does not operate in a vacuum. In the last analysis it has to mediate the economies of
performance within total material reproduction of society. From a 'materialist' perspective the real and
perennial driving force behind aesthetic and moral development originates in the economic realm.
Koolhaas also grasps this and wants to surf the wave of (commercial) development and is keen to hunt for
new forms that emerge from new programmatic/demographic/technological forces. In order to avoid the erosion
of its relevance the discipline of Architecture had to open itself to the material forces and revolutionize
its idealist discourse retrospectively learning from Manhattan, Las Vegas and more recently from the
successes of Portman's big buildings. The data-scape approach tries to push further and speculate about
new and uncharted potentials of pragmatic form.
In conclusion: The point is not to start with 'nice ideas' or fantasies of the beautiful in order to suffer their inevitable corruption (quite pathetic), but to find beauty within the logic of modernization and the social relations this process throws or allows us into, like high density, mobility, diversity, anonymity ...etc. The point is to construct, and aesthetisize the latest possibilities of the development of social productivity.
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