PRINT April 2004


Finding inspiration in jellyfish and geopolitics, architects today are working within radically new frames of reference.

ARCHITECTURE, AFTER SEVERAL DECADES of self-imposed autonomy, has recently entered a greatly expanded field. Against neorationalism, pure language theory, and postmodern citation fever, architecture—like sculpture some decades earlier—has found new formal and programmatic inspiration in a host of disciplines and technologies from landscape design to digital animation. Where former theorists attempted to identify single and essential bases for architecture, now multiplicity and plurality are celebrated, as flows, networks, and maps replace grids, structures, and history. Where arguments once raged between Corbusian and Palladian sources, now Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze are studied for their anticipation of nonformal processes. Blobs, swarms, crystals, and webs proliferate as paradigms of built form, while software has replaced traditional means of representation with dynamic effect. Nearly two and a half centuries after Gotthold Ephraim Lessing inaugurated the search for medium specificity in his Laocoön and more than fifty years after Clement Greenberg articulated a self-reflexive definition of modern painting and sculpture, the boundary lines of architecture remain unresolved.

And yet, underlying the new architectural experimentation is a serious attempt to reconstrue the foundations of the discipline, not so much in singular terms, but in broader concepts that acknowledge an expanded field, while seeking to overcome the problematic dualisms that have plagued architecture for over a century: form and function, historicism and abstraction, utopia and reality, structure and enclosure. Over the last decade, three new unifying principles have emerged as the most dominant: ideas of landscape, biological analogies, and new concepts of “program,” for lack of a better word. It is perhaps ironic that these new conceptual models are themselves deeply embedded in the history of architectural modernism, and each has already been proposed as a unifying concept at one time or another over the last two centuries.

The notion of landscape, deriving from eighteenth-century picturesque gardens, with their narrative walks and framed views, has now been extended to include questions of regional and global visions of urban form. Given the early development of the genre of landscape painting in Holland, as well as the Netherlands’ experience in engineering the national landscape, it is perhaps appropriate that many Dutch architects, including Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio and Winy Maas of MVRDV, have found inspiration in the idea of landscape, using it to construe digital models of new cities and regional plans out of data flows, and, on a smaller scale, new topological forms for the interior landscapes of houses.

Questions of biological form strongly influenced architecture and design in the later nineteenth century, especially after the popularization of Darwin’s theories, leading to the experiments characteristic of Art Nouveau. Later in the twentieth century, the development of cybernetics and early research into DNA—including the discovery of the double helix—led architectural theorists like Reyner Banham in the 1960s to propose biological form as the next revolution in architecture. Charles Jencks followed up this proposition in his 1971 book Architecture 2000 and Beyond, where his chart of architectural “movements” presciently ended in the year 2000 with a prediction of “bioform.” Contemporary architects like Greg Lynn have built on these theories and, using the techniques pioneered by animation software, have developed a new repertoire of form: Beginning with the idea of the “blob” and more recently experimenting with the forms of complex organisms from butterflies to jellyfish, Lynn has designed coffee sets that interlock like the carapaces of insects and turtles and institutions that unfold from the ground like giant colorful orchids or artichokes.

Finally, the idea of “program” was transformed in the first age of the avant-gardes, from its eighteenth-century meaning as a design exercise for student architects into an overriding concept that regulates and generates form according to a detailed understanding of its function. In the 1950s the idea was extended by theorists like John Summerson to assume a central place as a single “source of unity” for modern architecture, but it was quickly forgotten in the rush to bury functionalism under postmodern historicism. Now, architects like Rem Koolhaas and a younger generation, including Diller + Scofidio and Lindy Roy, have taken up an expanded idea of program as a means to explode every convention of traditional architectural modernism and to create the basis for an architecture that realistically confronts the present global political, social, and economic reality.

Each of these three ideas has been proposed as a way of overcoming the persistence of a theoretical dualism in architecture that has its roots in the Enlightenment. The philosopher and mathematician d’Alembert put the problem most concisely when he defined architecture as the “embellished mask of our greatest need,” which meant that to the philosophic eye architecture was little more than the aesthetic or “rhetorical” supplement to shelter. One could interpret all of the attempts to define the “essence” of architecture since then as struggles to reduce this dualism to a singularity. Thus the appeals to an architecture of pure metaphysical uplift (John Ruskin through Louis I. Kahn) or one of pure functionalism (J.N.L. Durand through Hannes Meyer) and all the shades of the “functionalist aesthetic” in between. Each phase of modernism has juggled the equation according to its own standards of politics or aesthetics. “Function” has been reduced to structural integrity or spatial economy, while “metaphysics” has been defined as spiritual uplift or sublime effect. Other subsequent theories have posited the power of the “sign,” the return to “tradition,” or the fundamentals of tectonics. More recently, some have proposed the idea of the “diagram” as an attempt to fuse function, space, and aesthetics into a singular entity, while others have privileged the affect in the surface in an aesthetic appeal to the new materials cast and molded by digital programs. But the paradigms suggested by landscape, biology, and program seem to go beyond these singular concepts in order to frame a new field of action for architecture that subsumes form and function within a matrix of information and its animation.

In order to diagram the relationships among the various disciplines that constitute the new expanded field of architecture it might be useful to return to Rosalind Krauss’s groundbreaking 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” In that text Krauss set up a diagram of relations and distinctions that for the first time placed the “sculpture” of the 1960s in its relationship to other, nonsculptural arts—landscape and architecture. For her, sculpture proper was not a universal quality but a historical one, defined by its monumental and memorial characteristics; its gradual loss of such specificity began with Rodin’s Gates of Hell and was completed by modernist abstraction’s final loss of “site.” Modernist sculpture, then, was nomadic. By the 1950s this avant-garde nomadism had grown exhausted, and sculpture began to explore domains outside itself—developing into something that was not sculpture but also “not-landscape” and “not-architecture.” These “non-sites” were then elaborated into more specific categories: “site constructions” (Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970), “marked sites” (combinations of “landscape” and “not-landscape” such as Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970, and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, 1969–70), and “axiomatic structures” (combinations of “architecture” and “not-architecture” such as the work of Richard Serra and Robert Irwin, among others).

It is this last category, which brings together architecture and its opposite, that is of interest here. For as Krauss argues, “in every case of these axiomatic structures, there is some kind of intervention into the real space of architecture . . . the possibility . . . of mapping the axiomatic features of the architectural experience—the abstract conditions of openness and closure—onto the reality of a given space.” If such holds true for the destiny of sculpture in its postmodern field, might we not be able to construe a similarly expanded field for architecture in its present exploratory condition? It is true that both “landscape” and “sculpture,” or rather “not-landscape” and “notsculpture,” have been emerging as powerful metaphors within a new condition of architecture. “Landscape” emerges as a mode of envisaging the continuum of the built and the natural, the building and the city, the site and the territory, while “sculpture” figures as a way of defining a new kind of monumentality—a monumentality of the informe, so to speak, which at once challenges the political connotations of the old monument, yet nevertheless preserves a “not-monumental” role for architecture.

In terms that echo Krauss’s sculptural field, then, we may find combinations of architecture and landscape, architecture and biology, and architecture and program producing new versions of the “not-landscape” and the “not-sculpture,” which are nonetheless not-exactly-architecture. Or at least “not-exactly-architecture” as we have experienced architecture up to the present. In architectural terms this involves not the outward citation of an already formed language but the internal study and development of architectural language itself in conjunction with a similarly rigorous and productive approach to these external fields. This effort, of course, has distinguished roots in avant-garde modernism. For example, it is in this way that architects from Theo van Doesburg to Peter Eisenman have understood the formal language of architecture, and others from Le Corbusier to Koolhaas have understood the radicality of the program. Similarly Lynn draws on the forms of the Rococo and Art Nouveau, even as he strikes out into the field of biomorphic complexity, while van Berkel demonstrates knowledge of the “endless” house forms of avant-gardist Frederick Kiesler, as he explores the landscape implications of the topology of the Möbius strip.

Much of this new work, however, goes beyond reliance on the various avant-garde languages of the 1920s to confront the programmatic and technological demands of the present. These demands include a recognition of by now familiar digital technologies—technologies that have been too subservient to the software aesthetic that arrives with every new program, whether AutoCAD or Rhino or Maya. New critical responses are required to questions that have been posed throughout the history of modernism but remain unanswered in either political or architectural terms: the housing question that still haunts architecture and development on a global scale; the question of density raised by population explosions and land scarcity; and the ecological question of resources and modes of conservation that, with radical shifts in climate and diminishing energy sources, presents more fundamental problems for architecture than those addressed by developments in materials and “green building” alone.

The posing of such questions is aided by new modeling techniques for assimilating, integrating, and ultimately forming data of all kinds so that the consequences of programmatic decisions might be evaluated in terms of design alternatives. These alternatives do not simply appear as random choices among beautiful surfaces or blobs. Rather, they take shape as arguments in forms that propose political, social, and technological interventions and, in turn, imply a critique of business as usual. In sum, this new modernity continues to address the questions of the present with an avant-garde imagination, but now with the wisdom of hindsight and a truly historical understanding of the modern. It is perhaps not too much an exaggeration to state that this expanded field for architecture owes greatly to the previous expansion of the sculptural field. Thus, the spatial arts now come together in their superimposed expanded fields, less in order to blur distinctions or erode purity than to construct new programmatic and formal conditions that for the first time may constitute a truly ecological aesthetics.

Anthony Vidler, an architectural historian and critic, is dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at Cooper Union in New York.