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Sign as Surface: Meaning Beyond the New Digital Aesthetic Symposium
Patrik Schumacher 2003
Afterword for the symposium: Sign as Surface: Meaning beyond the New Digital Aesthetic,
Published In: Sign as Surface Catalog, New York


On September 9, 2003 the AIA/NY Chapter Technology Committee hosted a special two-and-a-half hour symposium entitled, Sign as Surface: Meaning Beyond the New Digital Aesthetic at the Cooper Union in the Albert Nerken Engineering Building, Wollman Auditorium.


The event was co-moderated by curator Peter Zellner and Paul Seletsky, Chair of the AIA/NY Chapter Technology Committee and featured presentations by  Evan Douglis, Christopher Hight, Kamiel Klaasse, Wade Stevens, Tom Verebes, Chris Perry and Ali Rahim.  Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects and Co-Director of the Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory responded to the architects’ presentations. His after-word to the symposium is presented here.



Divergence or Confluence?

Sign as Surface shows the second generation of two distinct tendencies which became manifest in the mid-nineties as serious contenders for the position of leadership in the avant-garde segment of the architectural profession/discipline. The opposition between these two trends - one concentrated in the US and the other one in Holland -  is a well-established fact within architectural discourse.

While the original protagonists (i.e. Eisenman, Lynn etc. on the one hand and i.e. OMA, MVRDV etc. on the other hand) are realizing their concepts on a grand scale, it is interesting to look at the emerging talents (i.e. Evan Douglis, OceanD, Servo and Contemporary Architecture Practice on the one hand and i.e. NL-Architects, FAT, Neutelings, Lyons etc. on the other hand) that push the respective tendencies further along their diverging trajectories.

Peter Zellner’s programmatic statement for the exhibition characterizes the opposition of the two “competing tendencies” as the opposition between “practices rooted in representation and metaphor and those founded on material systems and organizations.” This characterization reveals that Zellner’s vantage point is in fact aligned with the US based tendency: the cited opposition reflects the original self-demarcation of the US tendency. While I myself tend to align my own design efforts on the same side I equally refuse to locate the discourse of signification within an alien territory. The divergence between concerns of signification and concerns with material formation can not be construed as an ideological choice about the future of architecture. The semiotic dimension of architecture can not be dismissed by fiat – neither can it usurp the field of relevant research and practice. Therefore I subscribe to Zellner’s attempt to turn this confrontation into a dialog. The exhibition motto Sign as Surface (instead of Sign vs. Surface) indicates this intention which was further pursuit at the attendant conference hosted at the Cooper Union.

However, the presentations initially reinforced a strong sense of divergence. Kamiel Klaasse (NL Architects) presented a series of built projects that were striking by means of their surreal programmatic juxtapositions and by their ironic treatment of familiar architectural motifs: A window doubles as basket ball target, a sky-light doubles as centre-circle of the basket ball court, a handicap ramp doubles as skate-board-bowl, a column doubles as water-dispenser etc. Klaasse’s laconic style of presentation matched the dry humor of the built work itself. Theoretical accounts were avoided -  the built effects were supposed to speak for themselves.

The presentations of Evan Douglis, Tom Verebes (OceanD), Chris Perry (Servo), and Ali Rahim (Contemporary Architecture Practice)- the US practices-  were discussing abstract installations exploring the new formal and material possibilities afforded by the latest generation of digital design tools and proto-typing technology. The presentations focused on the theoretical descriptions (iteration, modulation, self-organization etc.) as well as technical description (splines, nurb-surfaces, CNC-milling) of the artifacts –  avoiding any reference to the potential social deployment and meaning of these proto-architectural experiments.

The stark contrast between the super-concreteness of NL versus the super-abstractness of US appeared to imply an utter incommensurability of the underlying discourses, both in terms of language and agenda. There seemed to be no point of contact around which a communication could be initiated. No cross-references were made. The purpose of the exhibition/conference seemed doomed.

What point of contact could be construed between a window and a nurb surface? Well, Sign as Surface shows how a nurb-surface can articulate a tectonic concept that might develop into a structural skin with structurally integrated apertures and that might produce intriguing window-equivalents. The profundity of such a possibility escapes us as long as the discursive domains of abstract technique and concrete effect remain segregated.

One of the problems that created the sense that the presented communications were incommensurable is the fact that NL addresses the general public while US addresses the discipline. However, in the end both tendencies need to develop an internal as well as an external discourse.

Another barrier resides in the fact that the US work presented here has not yet reached the stage of implementation. However, there are built examples that can serve to substantiate the intentions of the US tendency: Lynn’s Korean Church, Nox’s Waterpavilion, or Kol/Mac’s Manhattan apartment. If one compares these spaces with those constructed by NL one might identify certain convergences. The two ways of working are comparable and directly compete with respect to quite similar intentions and effects: hybridization, subversion of typologies, mutation of use-values, decoding of familiar meanings, making strange etc. Both collage (NL) as well as morphing (US) produce comparable psycho-social effects. Both tendencies equally resist pragmatic functionalism and a priori performance criteria. Both tendencies follow ‘lines of flight’ and forge unexpected assemblages in the search of uncharted effects and (perhaps) latent utopias. (1)

In this perspective the two tendencies can observe each other’s experiments, compare results, and transmute each other’s discoveries. The Dutch programmatic alchemy might inspire chimerical articulations in America and vice versa.

This possibility would follow in the footsteps of Tschumi’s realization that cross-programming might be effectively spatialized by means of superposition – a radical “compositional” technique pioneered by Peter Eisenman. One of the next major formal innovations was perhaps Zaha Hadid’s radical dynamization and curvilinear distortion of the complex spatial arrangements previously achieved. The next step was Lynn’s/Kipnis’ shift from fragmentation towards the smooth inter-articulations afforded by folding and morphing.

That an aggressively formalist agenda was pushed at the same time can be appreciated as a heuristics of research, i.e. the exclusive concentration on difficult formal problems that could not be mastered without initially unburden itself from the concern with social meaning. However, this exigency of an incipient research program did not deserve to be glorified into an ideological paradigm shift: the abandonment of the semiotic paradigm in favor of a formal/organizational paradigm. The precise character of this supposed new paradigm was shifting as the design problematic started to expand beyond pure questions of form to successively include structure, material and fabrication processes. Further, as a certain strand of the folding movement (FOA, UN-Studio) assimilated MVRDV’s data-scape approach, a (parametric rather than typological) sense of program and use-pattern was augmenting the discourse. This successive augmentation of the discourse is following a typical path of maturation. Zellner’s definition of a tendency “founded on material systems and organization” tries to summarize this self-augmenting bundle of concerns which is maturing together with a definite formal/tectonic repertoire. The time might be ripe to speak again of the growth of a new tradition. I have no doubt about the importance and profundity of this new tradition.

However, I would like to argue that the persistence of the polemic demarcation against any concern with signification – which made sense initially is response to the trivialization/exhaustion of the postmodern and deconstructivist contributions, is becoming a barrier for the full maturation of this new language of architecture.

It is a fallacy to counter-pose organization and signification as incompatible paradigms for architecture. Instead it should be recognized that both are inescapable dimensions of architecture. In as much as architecture is inhabited by (culturally formed) subjects the organizational effects of architecture rely to a large extent upon effective signification. The social inhabitation of complex institutional spaces can not be achieved purely by means of the physical channeling of human bodies. The effectiveness of the spatial order relies upon the active orientation of the subjects on the basis of a “reading” of the spatial territory. Current forms of differentiated office landscapes (2) may serve as example: The traditional physical demarcation of territory by means of solid walls is replaced by the subtle coding of zones and the articulation of (hopefully) legible thresholds. This means that the importance of the semiotic dimension of architecture increases rather than decreases – albeit the process of semiosis is much more dynamic and complex than the post-modern pioneers of semiotically conscious architecture presumed. Literal citation and the accumulation of ready-made icons is to be replaced by subtle de-codings, overcodings, iterant and mutant re-codings, multiple simultaneous allusions etc. Also, an abstracting destruction of stale iconic values is required to clear the ground for semiotic re- and self-organisation. This work does not move from representation to material performance, but from simple signification to hyper-signification  -  and might be thus theorized. In seems timely to reactivate and connect to certain strands of the deconstructivist discourse in order to theorize the semiotic potential of the current US avant-garde work. There is no chance that this work should remain mute.

The recent research emphasis on infrastructural projects  - chosen to underline the ethos of material organization -  has obscured the necessity for a sophisticated semiotics of folding. Such projects are indeed dominated by mechanisms of physical channeling – and I think they are all the less interesting for that matter. In fact I would argue that the difference between architecture and engineering is rooted in the degree to which functionality can be reduced to matters of material organization. Architecture organizes social life via the articulation/perception, and the conception/comprehension of spatial order. This means that representation and organization can not be pitched against each other as a superficial reading of the exhibition might suggest. Signification vs organization has to transmute into signification as organization: Sign as Surface.


Patrik Schumacher, Zaha Hadid Architects, AADRL





1. Latent Utopias was the title of an exhibition curated by Patrik Schumacher & Zaha Hadid for the art festival Steirischer Herbst in Graz 2002-03. The attendant catalog: LATENT UTOPIAS - Experiments within Contemporary Architecture, Ed. Zaha Hadid & Patrik Schumacher, Springer Verlag, Wien/New York 2002

2. On this topic the author has written (

Robotic Fields: Spatializing the dynamics of Corporate Organization
in: Designing for a Digital World, edited by Neil Leach, 2002

Business – Research – Architecture, In: Daidalos 69/70, December 1998/January

Productive Patterns, in: architect's bulletin, Operativity, Volume 135 - 136, June 1997, Slovenia and in: architect's bulletin, Volume 137 - 138, November 1997, Slovenia

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