zero-degree machine

Review_2019 Architecture Ireland — Critic's Lecture

This year's annual AAI critic's lecture was given by Professor Gary A. Boyd, Head of Architecture at Queen's University, Belfast. The lecture was titled The Hidden Architecture of Things. As part of his introduction, Boyd outlined the hybridity at play in his practice; he refuses the label of Architectural Critic; he is a writer of the past but is not as a historian; he is an architect who doesn't build, and a Scot living in "exile". Through the citing of (among others) popular science historian James Burke as a formative influence, we get a rounded picture of a thinker who is perhaps less interested in the timeworn analysis of architecture as some static object, and instead, one who is more concerned with the dynamic assemblage of actors, networks, and the multi-scalar and multi-linear histories from which architectures emerge. To put it another way, Boyd is interested in the complex relations at play in the social construction of the built environment.

For Boyd, to be an architect is to be an actor equipped with the tools to negotiate these complex societal relations, and more critically, equipped with the means to speculate potential alternative societal realities. Architectural design is a method of action whose role is to perennially ask the question (succinctly articulated by William Morris) "How we live and how we might live." I will briefly mention two (of the many) projects examined by Boyd — each one acting as a kind of bookend to the modernist project. The first is the Finsbury Health Centre designed by the Tecton Group — headed by Berthold Lubetkin and operating at the high-point of British of progressive socialism. The health centre was conceived to free London's most destitute people from TB, rickets, lice, and other illnesses caused and contributing to the patients' squalid living conditions [1]. The health centre was not solely an architectural project but a cultural project that emerged from a particular kind of social assemblage; it began as a utopian speculative model for an alternative society driven by a progressive public sector and given an appropriately radical architectural form. In 1969, at the twilight of the modernist movement, Andrea Branzi designed the No-Stop City, a speculative project consisting of an infinitely extending grid of walls, columns and cubic buildings, only interrupted by natural topography. Humans live as nomads in this endless interior. Branzi proposed this to be a non-figurative architecture for a non-figurative society, and prefiguring CAD, Branzi gave form to this infinite networked-interior by drawing with a typewriter. In the No-Stop City nature merges with a hyper-cartesian logic in a critique which pushes modernism to absurd limits. For Boyd, both Lubetkin and Branzi were critically engaged architects; both explored the world outside of architecture to develop an understanding of the societal assemblages in which they found themselves — enabling them to speculate alternate cultural environments be they utopian or dystopian.

In the 2009 essay titled 'iPhone city' [2] design theorist Benjamin Bratton challenges "one-half of all architects and urbanists in the entire world (to) … stop designing new buildings and new developments altogether. Instead, they should invest the historical depth and intellectual nuance of their architectural imaginations into the design and programming of new software that provides for the better use of structures and systems we already have. It is a simple matter of good content management. The other half, the control group, may continue as before." In his call for architectural thinking to be used in an expanded field, perhaps Boyd would be sympathetic to this experiment. In the credits for the educational film A Communications Primer directed by Charles and Ray Eames, Boyd draws attention to the list of contributors, with each being a pioneer in their respective field; Norbert Wiener (Cybernetic Theory), Claude Shannon (Information Theory) Johann Von Neumann (Digital Computing) and Warren Weaver (Machine translation), Elmer Bernstein (Composer). The Eames brought architectural thinking, or design as a method of action, to other areas of knowledge production (cybernetic theory, information theory and computational theory) and in doing so created new ways of understanding the world. For Boyd the architecture school is the most fertile place for this kind of speculation — I would agree but go further in that we to need push architectural education into that expanded field. Architecture, in an era defined by Surveillance Capitalism [3] and Climate Change, requires an adjusted mode of architectural education, one where (perhaps on a rotational basis) half the students are encouraged not to design objects but instead to understand the technological systems that are rapidly defining public space; this educational model could not exist solely within the discipline of architecture but would require intense collaboration with other disciplines. To paraphrase Andrea Branzi, students must learn to collaboratively design a non-figurative architecture for a non-figurative society with no external form [4]. For this reviewer, Professor Boyd's message was necessary, urgent, thought-provoking and skillfully delivered but perhaps could have been a touch more polemical.

[1] Jonathan Glancey, ‘Finsbury Health Centre – an Expert’s View’, The Guardian, 12 April 2010, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/apr/12/finsbury-health-centre-experts-view, (accessed March 6, 2019)

[2] Benjamin H Bratton, ‘IPhone City’, Architectural Design 79, no. 4, 2009, p. 90–97.

[3] For a detailed account of surveillance capitalism see Shoshanna Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, London, Profile Books, 2008.

[4] Andrea Branzi, Weak and diffuse modernity the world of projects at the beginning of the 21st century. Milano, Skira, 2006. P. 71.