- Words by Peter Buchanan
The direct impact of the computer on architecture is immense and multifaceted. It affects every aspect and phase from conception through to construction, and then how buildings automatically monitor and adjust their various systems, such as those controlling internal comfort and security, and even how occupants use the building. Yet, as a prime shaper of our times, the indirect impacts of the computer on architecture are equally extensive. Limited space allows exploration of only some ways the computer impacts architecture. Emphasised are the implications of this influence, rather than the applications, and the profound, largely unexamined, questions provoked.
Budget permitting, the computer facilitates the conception and construction of virtually any shape of building or component. So a prime and now topical question it provokes is, what forms are really relevant to architecture and to our relationships as humans with it, and so transcend mere novelty value? This question is particularly urgent as architects indulge in an orgy of shape-making and sculptural excess, ranging from frigid minimalism to wriggly biomorphism. Answering it involves reconsidering the very purposes of architecture, with markedly different conclusions to those that produced what we know as modern architecture. This is largely because, thanks to the computer, the modern era is waning as a very different epoch emerges. Architects have not fully grasped this, nor the implications, hence the confusion and irrelevance of much current work, particularly of the avant garde (a passé modern notion), which marks the meltdown of modernity and is irrelevant to the future.
Let’s start with observations on the computer’s reshaping of the world generally, to set a frame for discussing its direct impacts on architecture. Many of the latter are widely known and written about, so will be dealt with relatively cursorily before returning to the larger impacts, the epochal transition these largely triggered, and what it all means for architecture. That these latter topics have hardly been explored by the environmental design professions is somewhat deplorable; until the current financial crisis, the most pervasive indication that the modern era was played out, its once great gifts displaying toxic downsides, was the burgeoning environmental crisis — to which the products of the environmental design professions contribute most . Radical revision of how the entire built environment is designed, as only possible with the computer, is urgent and widely recognised; but changes underway or proposed go nowhere near far enough. This is because the global warming that most designers address is only the symptomatic fever of more pervasive dysfunction and systemic collapse in most key facets of our global civilisation.
Most obvious and pervasive of the computer’s impacts is that the the globalised world we in the developed countries live in is utterly dependent on it, interlinked as it is by electronic networks handling vast, instantaneous flows of information – allowing, in turn, instantaneous global communications, ready access for most of us to much of that information, and free flows of staggering amounts of finance. We all exploit this connectivity, as do globalisation’s trans-national corporations that agglomerate staff in huge buildings that are hubs within these vast flows of information, money and goods.
Yet to attract skilled staff these same corporations prefer to locate non-manufacturing activities in places with a high quality of life, to which a distinctive local character contributes immensely. This local character also serves as a pungently tangible anchor, a grounding reality that is in reassuring contrast to the abstract flows of information that dominate corporate work lives. (The complementarity of these contrasting poles is referred to as high-tech, high-touch.) Yet the architecture and activities of those corporations almost always destroys local flavour.
In this phase of globalisation the computer has supercharged the destructive impacts of the industrial age, with its extractive economies devastating local ecologies and livelihoods, and with trans-national corporations loyal to shareholders, not localities or their communities. This wanton destruction cannot last and the fault lies not with the computer (although the use of rare earth metals in the construction of all computers and cell phones massively intensifies this devastation) but with it serving the unchanged assumptions of industrial culture and its narrow economics. Yet the profound promise of the computer (which can and should be built so that all its materials and components are easily recycled) is to precipitate a very different understanding of the world and its workings to be applied to almost antithetical ends. After all, without the computer we could not grasp the complexities of climate change nor be able to design the built environment to ameliorate it. Hence our new computational prowess could also factor in “externalities” excluded from current economics and include sophisticated life cycle costing, as well as cope with local diversity rather than impose homogenising mono-cultural models. This could lead to an economics subordinate to, not at odds with, ecological exigencies, helping mankind and nature to co-exist in something closer to symbiosis.
Science, like technology, has been radically transformed by the computer. Previously, many natural processes were too slow or too quick to be accurately perceived, analysed and understood. They can now be modelled on the computer, adjusting different variables until a model is found that behaves like the natural system under study. Thus fields concerned with taxonomy now also study complex dynamic processes of emergence. The computer is also not limited to studying simple linear chains of cause and effect, such as characterise Newtonian science, but instead can study complex, simultaneous and multi-directional interactions between many ongoing processes.
Along with other factors, the computer has precipitated a huge shift science is undergoing in which the dead and mechanistic, clockwork universe of Newton is giving way to one understood to be alive, self organising (autopoiesis), ever-evolving and constantly creative . Such a science no longer only involves reductive analysis of isolated objects linked in simple causal chains but deals with multiple simultaneous interactions, with complex systems and the inter-relationships within and between them (systems holism). Moreover, we humans are no longer detached observers but, as implied in quantum mechanics, are to some degree integral participants in these systems and processes. This huge shift is a key reason for 400 years of modernity waning and being replaced by a new cultural paradigm underpinned by this very different science. We will return to the immense implications of this – one of them, that true creativity becomes less about self expression than with participating in these larger creative unfoldings — when concluding this essay.
Let’s now turn to the computer’s direct impacts on architecture. Two early applications were in structural calculations (transforming engineering analysis and calculation in ways beyond the scope of this paper) and computer aided drawing (CAD). Initially the latter was a labour-saving tool that facilitated, in particular, the previously cumbersome revisions of designs and drawings. But it soon became clear that CAD also facilitated a much freer use of geometry, both in coordinating grids at different angles to each other and in dealing with complex curves, including surfaces warped in two directions. Then along came various forms of Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) facilitating the prototyping and manufacture of these complex forms. Now some leading-edge architects use drawings only for presentation purposes. To ensure precision, design development and construction progresses using three-dimensional electronic models shared by and passing between architect, engineers, contractors and manufacturers who instantly and constantly add their updates. This eliminates the inaccuracies that can accrue with drawings and ensures all parties are apprised immediately of updates in the highly collaborative way of working necessary to realise some of today’s buildings.
Some architects quickly exploited the new freedoms brought by CAD and CAD/CAM. One result, more evident as projects in publications than as built reality, is an explosion of “blobs”, of curving biomorphic forms. Some of these are justified as exemplifying the laudable (if that is what they were really doing) principles of biomimicry (learning from and emulating nature – its principles rather than its forms) and biophilia (informed by and fostering a love of life and nature). Others are products of “computer generated design”, and yet others are unabashedly, arbitrarily sculptural.
Whatever the justification, these projects generally display similar drawbacks. The curves define the outer volume, and maybe some major internal elements. Then into this envelope, floors and functional spaces, intermediary structural supports such as columns and struts, ducts and other service runs, and so on, are simply shoved in, awkwardly and unconvincingly. The mismatch between the outer envelope and the typically much smaller amount of functionally allocated space leads to residual space being defined as circulation, which can constitute a large portion of the project. Such problems can be acute if the project is multi-storeyed. At worst, as much of the section is structure as inhabited space, and as much plan area is ramps as is flat-floored functional space – as with Foreign Office Architect’s Yokohama Ferry Terminal. Missing is the proportionality between means and ends essential to modern architecture, in which limited material and formal means both suggested function and allowed flexibility in its performance.
Blob buildings realised with the computer can be exciting site-specific sculpture, as with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, sited as it is beyond the edge of tight urban fabric. More usually, besides the problems already listed, such buildings are intrinsically anti-urban, unsuitable as civic fabric and only satisfying as a one-off contrast to it. The curving envelopes neither contain urban space nor arrests its movement (which is crucial to place-making); and they neither establish a formal reciprocity with neighbouring buildings nor offer to view anything of human scale or suggestive of human habitation. Most are peculiarly scale-less when seen from the outside, often ugly (a beautifully proportioned blob is an oxymoron), with little for the corporeal human to identify with and or recognise him/herself in. These buildings do not relate, not to context nor passers-by, again a theme to which we will return.
The real promise of the computer lies elsewhere, to be used more discriminatingly and pertinently to create buildings that satisfy, not merely as sculpture, but also all other criteria germane to architecture. For instance, instead of arbitrarily curved shapes, the computer can explore and generate new geometries and formal topologies that bring increased levels of structural and material efficiency. Beyond the technical and economic advantages, and the intellectual satisfaction of such achievements, legible discipline of this sort is immediately perceptible and understandable, so bringing the aesthetic assets of helping the user relate to and identify with the building. A fine early example of such a building, produced when software was much less sophisticated and powerful than now, is the passenger terminal at the Kansai International Airport by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Although not drawing the attention it deserves, it is far more significant as architecture than Gehry’s near contemporary Guggenheim, not least as an example of extraordinary discipline and distilled synthesis so that nothing is arbitrary or spurious about any form or element. Instead, each resolves and synthesises several design considerations and structural forces.
The two-directional curves let all tail planes be visible from the control tower. The outer envelope of the boarding wings is part of a torus, 16.8 km diameter, set at an angle to and barely arching above the earth’s surface. Easy to construct, the torus is amongst the most prevalent forms in nature, to which the earth’s magnetic field conforms as do many fruits, like apples and oranges. Its constant section allowed all structural ribs to be bent in one jig, while the differing curves are a direct response to the bending moments they resist. The departures hall roof and the main trusses that support it curve too: the main trusses to introduce a structurally efficient arching action: and the roof to entrain, without ducts, jets of fresh air blown in from one side to ventilate the vast space. The asymmetry of the curve follows that of the decelerating air jet and also gives a strong directionality to the structure and space, so immediately orienting passengers.
The exposed structure acts as an intermediary between the passengers and the huge spaces. Passing under eaves supported by the cantilevered ends of the main trusses, passengers then enter the departure hall through portals defined by sloping struts supporting the trusses, the asymmetrical forward movement of which visually pulls people forward, as if surfing the wave motion. Once in the boarding wing, passengers seem almost to be passed from one structural rib to the next while the tapering form explicitly communicates the direction towards and away from the central terminal. Structural discipline such as this, which communicates the logic of form and helps people relate to buildings, is common to much vernacular construction, obvious in Gothic and even present in the ordered columnation of Classical architecture. But such discipline is entirely missing from today’s biomorphic blobs.
Especially striking about the Kansai terminal is the tight integration achieved by the high degree of synthesis. Structure, skin, space and services are intimately accommodated to each other, as if through generations of mutual evolution. Despite the two-directional curves, the discipline is such that all 90,000 cladding panels are identical. Here, modern architecture’s dream of buildings approximating machines or organisms is fused in a building of machine-like efficiency that is much closer to the organic than those of merely biomorphic form. Even the identical cladding panels, reflecting their industrial manufacture, are the apt equivalent to fish or reptile scales that differ in size but all grow from a single genetic template . Real biomimicry emulates the principles of nature rather than copies its forms.
To ensure the air jet ventilation would work, and to exactly shape the roof to entrain these jets, the system was computer tested using computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Predictive modelling and simulation of environmental conditions using the computer is essential to most low energy “green” design and increasingly part of everyday architectural practice. It is used for studying such things as light levels, optimal shading of summer sun, admittance and heat gain from winter sun, rates of heat absorption and subsequent radiation from masonry mass, temperature gradients and airflows, differential air pressures and the aerodynamics of both exterior form and components.
In the completed building, the computer in alliance with many forms of sensors deployed around the building – measuring light levels, temperatures, CO2 levels, movement of air and people, and so on — runs the building management system (BMS) that adjusts the building’s various environmental systems. Hence ventilation openings will be adjusted as temperature and CO2 levels demand, louvers angled to shade or admit sun, lights progressively switched on from the backs of rooms as night falls and switched off when no movement is detected in the room, blinds retracted and windows closed in high winds, exhaust air diverted through heat exchangers on cold days, and so on. In the more sophisticated buildings the computerised systems prepare the building for anticipated conditions, perhaps using cool night air to purge heat, having built up from previous years a database of conditions that will result from the forecast weather. Again, even if conventionally rectilinear, such buildings — with their automated, energy-efficient metabolisms responding to information from the dispersed sensors and data in its memory banks – come much closer to biomimetic ideals of resembling an organism than do most of the biomorphic projects of the avant garde, which largely ignore the “green” agenda. Once again, too, they realise the promise of the computer with buildings that are semi-sentient and responsive, rather than just looking as if they might be.
Another use of the computer deservedly becoming more prevalent, particularly in urban design, is the use of the techniques and software developed by Space Syntax, a London-based consultancy applying theoretical approaches developed by Professor Bill Hillier of University College London. Though narrow in focus, this approach is powerfully useful because of its precision in predicting flows of movement, particularly pedestrian, through analysis of the configuration of the movement systems of a city, urban area or building. It is immensely valuable for testing the success and safety of as yet unexecuted designs, also providing immediate insight into necessary revisions. Merely understanding its principles helps avoid mistakes. Space Syntax also marries well with the best American urban design approaches, particularly the too soon forgotten ones developed at the University of Pennsylvania by Professor David Crane in the 1950s and 1960s . Also significant is the development of various digital models of different cities, some mapping all buildings in three dimensions and such things as the shadows cast by them. These can be extremely useful in guiding and assessing design. The San Francisco Digital Context Analysis Model developed by SOM seems to be a particularly complete and exemplary model of this sort.
In academe and the avant garde the computer has revived an interest in design methods, an enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s that delivered little on its promise of rationalising the design process. This was partly because many key parameters – especially the psycho-social-cultural – are difficult to define and quantify, and partly because, prior to the computer, synthesising many parameters was problematic — unless left to the human intuition that design methods were trying to replace. Besides, a key feature of the architectural design process is precisely that it draws on those quintessentially human qualities of intuition, judgement, discrimination, empathy, imagination and so on that resist reductive analysis.
In engineering, though, the parameters to be optimised are more easily defined, like minimising material or maximising rigidity. So the computer can been useful in devising engineering solutions, using generic algorithms and random variation to generate series of options, assessing these against predetermined fitness criteria and then generating hybrids synthesising the most promising of these. But in the more complex discipline of architecture, of which engineering is only a small part, the earlier problems persist with the current “computer generated design” movement — sometimes referred to as parametricism , a term used here for convenience rather than to endorse it — whose characteristic formal vocabulary influences even mainstream practice.
But the seductive graphic gloss of the digital animation programs that are fundamental to this approach are so compelling (hence Renzo Piano’s warning to the unwary that the computer is a visual karaoke machine ) that much less rigorous attention is given to designing “the design method” than in earlier days. Instead, the identification of relevant parameters can be relatively arbitrary and perfunctory, and even more so their definition and the determination of their relative weighting, let alone the clear formulation of desired outcomes and the criteria that would confirm their achievement. Instead of seeking any sort of optimal solution, digital animation software along with parametric design processes and scripting methods (knowing exactly what these techniques are is not germane to our argument here), are more usually let loose while designers watch passively until something suitably whizzy-looking emerges. Chance plays a greater role than considered intention.
Our times are usefully understood as closing the modern era that began as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and faith to reason
The resulting projects tend to be swirling curvy or angular crystalline forms that meld with the landscaping, hence the term “landscape urbanism” used for one strain of such projects, which some see as hybridising the manmade and the natural. To the uninitiated these projects look much the same and, whether true or not, they again display similar problems — extending beyond those already listed of being intrinsically anti-urban and ignoring the environmental agenda. Although if the parameters were inclusive enough and sufficiently well defined – covering such things as component forms, materials and jointing – this might prove less true, there is large degree of one-directionality to the process of design generation, working only from the general to the particular and from context inwards.
This differs markedly from the design process of accomplished architects. This proceeds from several perspectives simultaneously, including inwards from context and upwards and outwards from the shaping of components (while also considering and testing the implications of making these from differing materials), analysing outer massing and the demands of internal functions (including the character and atmosphere best suited to them), studying the impact of and on external climatic conditions along with internal comfort conditions, examining dynamic wind and snow loads and the efficient deployment of internal structural members, and so on and so forth. Moreover, all this is considered from the perspective of an erect bipedal human of a certain size with forward facing binocular vision and an urge to understand and project him/herself psychically into things – considerations largely missing from computer generated design. And despite so much area assigned to circulation, there seems little understanding of how movement generates and structures the activities adjacent it and how the deployment of these activities relative to each other and the movement system affects their intensity of use, the experience of them, and even suggests meaning. Indeed, the crafting of the plan, or of an urban design masterplan, as a configuration structuring functional and psycho-social relationships threatens to become a lost art in some influential architectural circles.
Despite such shortcomings, those exploring these particular parametric approaches claim to be pioneering the long-term dominant trend in architecture that will replace modern architecture after the brief pluralist interlude of Post Modern historicism, Deconstructivism and Minimalism . In place of modern architecture’s freestanding, abstractly rectilinear slabs will come curvy or crystaline continuities of space and form, nestled into landscaping and blurring the distinctions between architecture and nature. Some argue for this formalist approach on purely stylistic grounds or for exploiting the latest software – the so-called the technological imperative. Besides as with biomimicry or biophilia, others justify it as emulating nature’s own processes of evolution and emergence – ironic considering the indifference to environmental issues – and so both, exemplifying science’s new understandings of self-organisation in nature, and participating in nature’s inherent creativity. The pervasive influence of this work on students, and the wider diffusion of its formal vocabulary, necessitates challenging these views to bring critical perspective.
In fact, rather than transcending modern architecture, such work exacerbates what are now seen as its worst pathologies. Yes, the forms might be organic rather than abstract, but besides all the failings already discussed, there is an even more fundamental problem. If modern architecture trivialised the human subject, in ways we’ll explore, this new formalism marginalises the human subject yet further. Like the fad for minimalism and icons, these works are “sunset effects”, Marshall McLuhan’s resonant term for last fling flare ups exaggerating now obsolete characteristics of a passing age. To explain this and usefully conclude this essay we must return to discussing the epochal change the computer is consolidating.
Many sense this is a period of major transition to a new era — although similar views in many previous periods proved unfounded. But huge pressures for sweeping transformation now go way beyond dealing with such things as climate change, financial collapse, resource depletion, globalisation and the inequalities between and within countries. They include also the already mentioned changes brought by the computer, especially those to science and our interconnectivity, along with the awakening awareness of the inter-relationships between all things these bring and our evolving views of what it is to be fully human. The issue is not if massive change is underway, but how big and with what consequences. To some, we must reverse a drive to conquer nature, extending back at least to the earliest cities, that has brought us and countless species to the brink of extinction. Without contradicting that view, let’s adopt a perspective of hundreds, not thousands, of years.
Our times are usefully understood as closing the modern era that began as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and faith to reason. This sparked a rebirth of the arts in Humanism, with “man as the measure”, and the birth of science posited on the notion of an objective reality, independent of us and understandable through detached observation, measurement and reductive analysis. As science became increasingly successful, this objective reality became that of modernity, and the subjective was progressively devalued as Humanism withered into the humanities, that relatively inconsequential preserve of the subjective realm of culture. This also suppressed our experiential connection, both sensual and psychic, with the world around, so heightening a sense of separateness as the world fragmented into isolated objects. The sense of separateness was intensified by the emphasis on detached observation and so the privileging of the visual over other senses. Along with the progressive devaluation of symbolism and subjective meaning, this led to the flattening out and desiccation of experience and also to the alienation and desensitisation that tolerated the destruction of our natural world and our manmade legacy. In the twentieth century, social bonds and community partially dissolved too, leading to an exaggerated individualism quite different to the individuation coming from knowledge of the self and the deep subjective .
Renaissance, Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic all reasserted some notion of the rational. But only in the twentieth century did modern architecture exactly exemplify the cultural paradigm of modernity. Freestanding, abstract in form and stripped of symbolism and ornament, modern architecture (especially the International Style and the glass box) tended to be oblivious of climate, context and culture and fragmented the once continuous fabric of the city into isolated object-buildings. The impersonal formal vocabulary, reaching an extreme in today’s slick skins and unmodulated expanses of glass can be engaged only by the eye. They offer no haptic or tactile gratification and nothing that suggests the presence of the human body and habitation, as, say, the conventional vertical window did. Probably most demeaning of all from the very different perspective of the emergent paradigm, although it seemed commonsensical and liberating at the time, is the concept of Functionalism. Viewing human activity, as did Behaviourism in psychology, as understandable by detached observation and measurement, this extreme reductionism suppressed the cultural and psychological, subjective dimensions implicit in the much more resonant notions of dwelling and inhabitation. The outcome was, even then, an architecture alienating to people, who found insufficient to relate to, and alienated from place, to which it did not relate.
Thus modern architecture and the modern city were for doing rather than being, with differing roles played out in differing locales dispersed in a physical and experiential void . Being, by contrast, stresses the continuities of the ever present, ever experiencing self and looks for reciprocation in buildings that are not mere shells of lettable space but whose forms imply the presence of and relationship with the human, and which overall convey a presence, as if beings themselves. Facades, for instance, would not then be composed of mechanically extruded repetitive rhythms but to constitute a distinctive pattern that is irreducibly whole. This is partly what gives pre-modern buildings the life and presence contemporary buildings lack, and why they “hold” the space before them and invest it with a sense of place. Symmetry and sub-symmetries contribute to this too .
Alert readers might object that though this characterisation applies to most modern architecture it does not apply to the very best, particularly that of early masters such as Wright and Le Corbusier. This is true, and grasping why this is so helps us to understand the architecture of the recent past and present. Modernity provoked waves of anti or post modernity. First came Idealism and Romanticism protesting the flattening of experience, destruction of the natural world and dehumanisation of workers, and reasserting subjective perceptions and spiritual values. The third anti-modernity was constituted by the masters of modernism – particularly such greats as TS Eliot and James Joyce, Stravinsky and Picasso, Wright and Le Corbusier, Aalto and Kahn. All reasserted the subjective and though their work was immensely innovative, all also drew on and alluded to historic precedent. In these and other ways they were all clearly both moderns and anti-modern, and transcended the limited mindset of modernity exemplified by functionalism, Neue Sachlicheit and most later modern architecture.
Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies and Aalto were all steeped in Romanticism and, in differing ways, concerned with the subjective and spiritual as they pursued a larger, more complete vision of architecture than that associated with mainstream modernity. Wright and Aalto’s concerns with place, like Le Corbusier’s with the primitive and the occult, are not conventionally modern. Hence the depth and resonance of works that still move us. But after this generation, of whom only a minority were such complex figures, came the real break with history and the collapse into the merely modern, the arid utilitarianism often camouflaged by slick detail and technological exhibitionism. Now today, the best buildings may display a virtuoso technical expertise the modern masters could only dream of, and may be visually very satisfying too; but missing are the depths found in the works by those of whom Louis Kahn was the last.
The current, fourth, Post Modernity is the repressed flip side of modernity, the pendulum having swung too far from the latter’s objective reality to posit all realities as arbitrary, mere consensual constructs. Thus this Post Modernity’s hallmark is ideas or theories elevated over any grounded reality, including that of the deep subjective where universals such as archetypes may be found. Post modern architecture illustrates (or represents) some theoretical position or conceptual idea, often at the expense of such concrete realities as programmatic demands, materiality, structural discipline and sensual detail. The notion that appending classical motifs reconnects buildings with history and ensures popularity was merely one such ungrounded theory. Post modern thinking still dominates the departments of academe not concerned with science and technology and is characterised by extreme relativism (one theory or opinion is as good as another), rejection of hierarchy and grand narratives (including modernity’s one of progress), a concern with representation, and so of surface over substance, and so on.
Although historically an important corrective to modernity – highlighting, for instance, the importance of context in determining validity and value (a correlate to contextualism in architecture) – post modern thinking is now a liability. Rejecting hierarchies, it cannot prioritise, rejecting grand narratives and big picture thinking, it lacks much-needed perspective, and so it blocks consideration of and action on critically urgent issues. After all, evolution and ecology, sustainability and the new visions emerging from science, such as that of the cosmic unfolding, are all very grand narratives. The lingering tenacity of post modern thought is exactly analogous to Scholasticism at the close of the Middle Ages, arguing angels dancing on pinheads and oblivious to the burgeoning Renaissance. Even the urgency of global warming has failed to break post modernism’s dalliance with frivolities of theory and form. Perhaps the financial crisis will: as theory ungrounded in larger realities there is little to choose between bankers’ derivatives and Derrida.
The emerging long-term cultural paradigm is based on the new understandings of science and incorporates new visions of what it is to be fully human, including resurgent aspirations and values (such as reverence for nature and spiritual concerns), not least the need for meaning within a much expanded reality. Based on a living, unfolding, relational universe, this reality is more dynamic, complex and complete than that of modernity, and values the subjective as much as the objective. And besides moving beyond modernity, it selectively reaffirms aspects of modernity, post modernity and earlier paradigms to be reintegrated in the new, a process known as “transcend and include” .
Charlene Spretnak aptly calls the emerging paradigm — or cultural ecology, as she prefers – Ecological Post Modern, as opposed to Deconstructivist Post Modern . In retrospect, it has been emerging piecemeal over decades. In place of either an objective or arbitrary reality is a dynamically emergent and multilayered reality that includes cosmological unfoldings, natural and cultural evolution and even the development of each of us – intellectual, emotional and spiritual. (Essentially “developmental” in nature, dealing with evolution through levels, so invoking hierarchy and grand narratives, it transgresses major post modern taboos.) We participate in all these levels, or at least are the evolutionary product of them, and impact with increasing effectiveness the progressively lower ones. Hence the subjective is intrinsic to everything, leading to a higher order synthesis that includes both sides of what for modernity was the dualism of objective and subjective, body and mind. Even holism becomes more holistic as systems holism (mistaken by some for the new cultural paradigm), which deals only with the objectively observable, is absorbed into what some call Integral holism, which gives equal value to the essentially subjective domains of the psychological and cultural as to the objective.
As modernity ends, and faced with immense challenges including achieving global sustainability, it is obvious we have lost our way on many fronts. Getting back on track — living as the planet can support in the long term, creating a sane and more deeply satisfying lifestyle without which sustainability is impossible — necessitates reassessing the fundamental purposes, including the subjective ones, of much of human culture, from economics to agriculture to environmental design. Reducing architecture to shelter, function and financial return desperately trivialised it. Architecture is part of our larger culture and shares its fundamental purposes: to elaborate a narrative or collective myth that roots us in our past and guides us into the future; and to help us discover and unfold our potentials in line with our current vision of what it is to be fully human.
Essential to the creation of our culture and ourselves as complex acculturated beings, architecture –along with the rituals and social protocols inextricably linked with it — is arguably surpassed in this role only by language. Yet architects have forgotten how vital and ennobling their discipline should be. After all, architecture started with choreographing ritual as much as with creating shelter. The purpose of ritual, like that of architecture, is to project the inner world of the psyche outwards to be mapped in space. We can then move between, explore and elaborate, intensify and invest with meaning these compartmented parts of ourselves in the interlocked processes of self development and cultural evolution. This is how we created our complex, self-conscious selves and our various cultures, and how we took possession of and ordered the world so as to make it our home.
As with Renaissance architecture, born from the rediscovery of the classical, it is now time for architecture to again “transcend and include”, learning from the vernacular and history, and also from modern architecture, a hotbed of experiment, too much of which has never been properly assessed and is prematurely forgotten. Obviously the new architecture must be “sustainable”, benign in impacting the biosphere and bringing improved quality and equality of life style, as well as the deep satisfaction of living in harmony with nature and the depths of human nature. Intrinsic to this is helping us be at home in the world, which entails more than designing to fit in with the built surroundings and nature and harnessing its ambient energies. It means creating buildings suggestive of human presence and eliciting empathic relationships with us, as does the vertical window, the vertical column and horizontal floor of conventional construction, and forms like the circle and the right angle. Equally important to helping us feel at home in the world is relearning how to make buildings that create satisfactory urban fabric, both framing urban space and investing it with a sense of place. To do this, buildings must once again project the sense that each is a distinct being , to which the physiognomic quality invested by the façade is as crucial as is the way the aedicular window is itself a place between inside and out, so intensifying the sense of place of both. Important too, is to re-appreciate the role of discipline in making a building’s composition and structure immediately legible, so again helping us understand and relate to a building.
As the Kansai terminal shows, reasserting the role of discipline does not imply returning to the forms of the past, although it may involve learning from them. This is true of all the many ways architecture elicits relationship with context, nature, the body and the psyche that need to be reinvestigated. Then architecture might play a crucially important role in reconnecting our disjointed world and reconnecting us with it — while also reinvesting it with meaning and depth, the potential promised by the emergent era the computer helps usher in. Eliciting these many kinds of connection, along with yet others qualities to be reacquired or newly devised, is crucially missing from much contemporary architecture, including minimalism, and even more so from those of computer generated biomorphic form. Exploiting the amazing capacities of the computer is not alone enough to participate in the epochal shift it is bringing about. It is also necessary to understand the historic significance of this shift and its implications, only some of which are explored here, and so too the reinvigoration of architecture it promises, not least by reinvesting it with ennobling human purpose and a sense of pervasive human presence.