PRINT September 2012


Page from Nicolas Schöffer’s La Ville cybernétique, (Tchou, 1969). Design for Centre de Loisirs Sexuels (Center of Sexual Recreation).

A generation ago, it was “The Machine” that let architects down—tomorrow or the day after it will be “The Computer,” or Cybernetics or Topology.

—Reyner Banham, “Stocktaking 1960”

TODAY, ARCHITECTURE has apparently been revolutionized by the shift toward computation in every area of professional practice—from conception to fabrication—which has authorized structural systems previously only imagined, developed formal systems that abandon traditional geometry in favor of topology and its parametric generators, and enabled an unprecedented rigor and efficiency in the analysis of all aspects of global sustainability. In this changed world, the continued deployment of innovative technologies would seem to offer architecture’s best hope for addressing a host of increasingly urgent ecological problems, from global warming to out-of-control urban growth. But the uneven history of architecture’s relationship with digital technology and ecological consciousness in both theory and practice after World War II suggests that successfully balancing these preoccupations with the continuing evolution of architectural practice may be less straightforward than it first appears.

Just over fifty years ago, the British historian and critic Reyner Banham published a series of five articles in the Architectural Review under the heading “1960.” In them, he set out to evaluate the state of the art as it sought to adjust to the potentials of what he called the “second machine age.” The same year, Banham had published his historical account of the “first machine age,” which began in 1909 with the Futurists’ ringing call for an architecture transformed by new technologies of movement and construction and ended in 1931 with the sedate Purism of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, a building that looked technologically sophisticated but was fundamentally constrained by its adherence to traditional values of architectural composition. In a telling comparison, the last images of Banham’s book contrasted this villa against the engineering wizardry of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (1929), which served as Banham’s model of how architecture might properly respond to technology.

Banham’s stocktaking consisted of a parallel comparison between architecture’s “tradition” and its technological potential. The articles included statements from General Electric on systems management in weapons manufacturing, from IBM on the use of computers in operations research and linear programming, and from the planner Richard Llewelyn-Davies on social science—all extra-architectural disciplines that Banham thought should be brought into the profession. But even as Banham supported the careful application of new technologies to design practice, he warned against the fetishization of technology “out of context.”

Banham’s own sense of a technological architecture lay in his espousal of mass-production elements “clipped-on” to megastructures; transparent, inflatable enclosures that were “homes” but not necessarily “houses”; and service systems that would ensure “well-tempered” environments. As for computation, he warned that design could not be turned over entirely to computers, pointing to the observation by a GE executive that computers, dealing with “cold hard facts,” have no imagination and thereby “no aesthetic sense whatever.”

In the wake of postwar shortages and an austerity budget in Britain, however, Banham had to make do with an attitude toward architecture that Peter and Alison Smithson dubbed New Brutalism in 1953. In his seminal 1955 article “The New Brutalism,” Banham explained that what became a rather unfortunate appellation had in fact been cobbled together from the French: art brut (Dubuffet) and beton brut (as in the raw concrete surfaces of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, Marseilles). In contrast to Le Corbusier’s high Purist aesthetic of the 1930s and the meticulously polished steel of Mies van der Rohe—and in direct opposition to what Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had named the International Style in their 1932 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which had become the ubiquitous mode of corporate America after the war—the New Brutalists valued authenticity and a certain roughness. Whether in the Smithsons’ school at Hunstanton, Nottinghamshire, UK, with its exposed steel and brick infill, or in James Stirling and James Gowan’s flats at Ham Common in London, with their frames of unpolished reinforced concrete, Brutalism rapidly emerged as the preferred ethical stance against the previous generation’s “style.” And for a brief time at least, Banham believed that Brutalism might produce an “Other” architecture—an architecture Autre—that would somehow miraculously join an oppositional aesthetic to technological maturity. Inevitably, however, Brutalism became a style of its own. Archi­tects such as Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, and many others shifted toward it from their earlier modernist modes even as it was enthusiastically embraced by a younger generation, famously exemplified in Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles’s 1968 design for Boston City Hall. In 1966, when Banham published his full survey of the movement, he was forced to conclude that—as an ethic, if not an aesthetic—Brutalism was over.

R. Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House Model, Third Version, 1929, mixed media. Photo: The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.

By this time, other contenders had emerged to challenge the corporate hegemony of the International Style. Already in April 1961, Nikolaus Pevsner had delivered a lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects decrying what he saw as a return of historicism in a “post modern” form—the eclectic use of motifs from the early avant-garde movements. This postmodern tendency was carried forward by those who, like Robert Venturi, worked to restore what they saw as a greater “complexity” and historical reference to an architecture denuded into the stripped forms of a ubiquitous corporate modernism: Venturi’s house for his mother, with its clever riff on Palladio and the Mannerist deformations of its plan, remains iconic in this movement. Between the publication of Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966 and Paolo Portoghesi’s manifesto exhibition of postmodernism in the Venice Biennale in 1980, the historicists gained ground, indefatigably championed by Charles Jencks, a former doctoral student under Banham.

Where, then, might an architecture properly Autre come from? If there was an alternate model developing at the time, it was the province of a few pioneers in computational design—for example, the programmatic research of Christopher Alexander in his Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964)—and such lone architects as Cedric Price, working with Fuller and the cybernetician Gordon Pask on Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace project (1959–72), which famously influenced the high-tech approach of Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano, and Gianfranco Franchini in their Centre Pompidou between 1972 and 1977. The mathematics of proposals such as these was developed to some extent in the vocabulary of engineers—such as Frank Newby for Price and Lord Snowdon in the aviary for the London Zoo of 1964, Günter Behnisch and Frei Otto in the Munich Stadium for the Olympic Games of 1972—but they still remained outside the architectural mainstream until advances in computation in the 1990s made it possible for younger architects to revisit radical geometric experimentation.

Otherwise, developing technologies were envisioned as enabling new urban environments of high density and flexibility only by more utopian groups: Archigram with their megastructures, “clip-on” pod aesthetics, and celebration of networks; the Metabolist architects, led by Kenzo Tange in Japan; and the French megastructuralists, including Yona Friedman and the brief collaboration between Constant and Guy Debord. Betraying the influence of such collectives in his celebrated article “A Home is not a House,” Banham joined with François Dallegret to illustrate an “Environment-Bubble”: a transparent plastic membrane containing images of a naked Banham seated around a modular technological-services “icon.”

Ultimately, perhaps the best examples of Banham’s architecture Autre would be developed outside the professional tradition. Thus the artist Nicolas Schöffer, an avid reader of Norbert Wiener’s book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (1950), conceived of what he claimed was the first “cybernetic sculpture” in 1956. Engineers from the Philips Company outfitted the so-called CYSP 1 (for “cybernetic-spatiodynamic”) with an electronic “brain” animated by feedback loops, the central theme of cybernetic theory. A rectilinear frame structure, its sixteen black, red, white, and yellow plates responded to variations in the environment—light, color, and sound—by moving in all directions. Confronted with the color red, noise, or intense light, it remained still; silence or the color blue set it in motion. It was installed on the roof of Le Corbusier’s Unité at Marseilles, where it became the center of one of the first festivals of avant-garde art in 1956, responding to the movement of Maurice Béjart’s ballet.

A year later, Schöffer extended the use of feedback loops to the inhabited environment, building a prototype spatiodynamic house at the International Exhibition in Saint-Cloud in Paris. Called Maison Trou de Serrure, or Keyhole House, it consisted of two rooms, each with a radically differentiated environment but without a separating wall; one “cold” room was kept at a temperature of 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, while another “hot” room hovered at 95 to 104 degrees. The rooms were respectively painted in cold and warm reds and oranges, were lit with cold and warm incandescent light, and were “quiet” and “noisy” in their insulation. Separated by an infrared “wall of heat,” these two rooms would, Schöffer claimed, allow two individuals (or the children and parents in a family) to inhabit the same space while enjoying environments suitable for calm reflection and noisy play.

Expanding his ideas of spatial dynamism, Schöffer went on to develop designs for an entire “cyber-city,” published in his La Ville cybernétique in 1969. Anticipating later ecological and environmental concerns, he called out a range of “topologies”—climate, light, sound (natural and artificial), and space—where architecture was not based on a strict or permanent division of space but was instead measured in the rhythmic movement of time. The city was made up of an administrative center, a science center, a cultural center—museum, cinema, library, conference halls, plus a Spatiodynamic Theater—and, at a suitable distance, a Center of Sexual Recreation. This last, in the form of a giant, inflated breast, provided audiovisual immersion, with hot and cool rooms, wafting odors rhythmically pulsating, and a moving walkway.

Nicolas Schöffer, La maison à cloisons invisiblesTK/Maison trou de serrure (TranslationTK), 1955, cityTK. Interior view.

If Schöffer anticipated the technological and environmental exploration of a cybernetic feedback space, decades earlier, in the prewar heyday of the International Style, the Surrealist painter Marcel Jean had already explored topology as a generator of architectural form. In a series of meticulously carved solids constructed according to precise geometric formulas, Jean developed designs for new housing blocks, envisaging an entire “topological” city that was published in a special edition of L’Architecture d’aujourd’ hui dedicated to art in 1946, together with photographs of natural structures taken by Robert le Ricolais. Jean’s office towers, modeled in wood and photographed by Man Ray, were developed according to what he called the elliptical function and were formed of three thirty-two-story vertical ellipses. The same issue of the journal opened with a long meditation by Le Corbusier on “ineffable space”—and Jean’s project for a “Modern City,” was, of course, a slyly Surrealist comment on Le Corbusier’s own Cartesian city planning.

Le Corbusier himself was not unaware of these experiments, and he asked the young engineer-musician Iannis Xenakis, at that time his apprentice, to help produce the immersive light-sound environment for the Philips company at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958. Here the tent structure that had been Le Corbusier’s model for the origins of shelter since the 1920s was given new technological life, its topological inner surfaces used as projection screens along the winding route of an audiovisual architectural promenade.

Xenakis, who would later be given responsibility for the construction of the monastery at La Tourette, eventually broke with Le Corbusier and went on to develop a project for an ideal city in a manifesto written in 1964 and published by Françoise Choay a year later. Xenakis proposed “cosmic” cities of radical vertical density: three-mile-high towers formed out of hyperbolic paraboloids, each city envisaged as an enormous “shell” containing five million inhabitants. On a smaller scale, in his competition entry for the Cité de la Musique at the Parc de la Villette in Paris in 1984, he elaborated on the suspension roofs of Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion. The proposed roof’s geometry was to be controlled by mathematical formulas that responded to musical intervals, with the auditorium enclosed by a “patatoid,” or deformable rectangle, for acoustic accuracy. All these formal and technological experiments from the 1950s and ’60s were conceived in a milieu, part Surrealist, part mathematical, part utopian, that included the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose topological formulations of psychological states were elaborated in consort with the cybernetic theorist Georges T. Guilbaud, leading to Lacan’s celebrated invocation of the Möbius strip, the Klein bottle, and the Borromean rings to demonstrate the relations between the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary.

In 1971, Banham brought together his interest in life technologies and his earlier conversion to Fuller by adopting the newly fashionable word ecology for the title of his unconventional book on LA, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Here Banham showed the influence of his former colleague in the Independent Group at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, John McHale. McHale, the collage artist, sociologist, and collaborator with Fuller in Carbondale, Illinois, had just published his magnum opus, The Ecological Context, in 1970, summing up the finite nature of the earth’s resources in persuasive detail and issuing one of the first warnings about global warming. In ecology, Banham finally found the proper arena in which to ground his desire for an ethic of design aimed at deploying technological developments to establish more harmonious feedback between architecture and environment.

But it was not until the appearance of relatively accessible computational software in the 1990s that questions about ecology, technology, and design could be reframed with new urgency. What could digital technologies offer for the exploration and application of theoretical, ethical, and programmatic principles to architecture? Between 1993 and 1998, Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UNStudio mapped out the Möbius House, which represented a pinoeering implementation of digital design, with the building’s geometry painstakingly developed to calibrate the times and moments of everyday life in a seamless loop, as if constructing a Lacanian family analysis in three dimensions. Today, Frank Gehry’s ongoing application of auto-industry and aerospace software to resolve the complicated twists and turns of his cardboard models and Zaha Hadid’s use of parametric modeling techniques to produce the flowing topological curves of her dramatic structures point to a vastly extended range of formal, programmatic, and structural possibilities. Experiments in material fabrication, as developed by Greg Lynn and others, have demonstrated the potential for new resins and glues to create lightweight shells of surprising strength. Even in more mundane practices, the early use of computer-aided design as a drafting tool has evolved into a range of sophisticated programs to calculate structures and optimize material and environmental performance.

Have these developments finally resulted in the creation of an architecture Autre? In one sense, yes, as new formal experiments, technological developments, and material advances have certainly produced objects that challenge a definition of architecture derived from the modernist canon. But in other senses—those invoked by Fuller and Banham, on the one hand, or the utopian-social visions of Schöffer and Xenakis, on the other—the social promise of a networked, flexible, mass-produced solution to the habitat demanded by an extraordinary rise in urban population and an equally urgent ecological crisis has yet to be realized. If digital technology is indeed radically changing the way that architecture is conceived and built, can we not expect, at a minimum, that it be deployed at last in the service of something more than the technological aesthetics that ultimately dominated architectural practice in Banham’s first and second machine ages? If this already long history is to produce more than a new style, it must once more heed Banham’s suspicion of architects’ fetishization of technology.

Anthony Vidler is a professor of architecture and the dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Cooper Union, New York.