(initially published on 8 August 2021, under the title ‘Introduzione ad una Architettura Esplorativa’)

In 1951, at the University of Chicago, in his lecture The End of Modernity[i], German philosopher and political scientist Eric Voegelin attempted to analyse the reasons that had led European civilizations to the establishment of the totalitarianisms that emerged between World War I and World War II. According to Voegelin, these were processes stemming from Enlightenment Gnosticism and having a common philosophical purpose: the expulsion of uncertainty from the world. Totalitarianisms thus presented themselves as the political solution to philosophical indeterminacy and as realizations of utopia, while, under the surface, they depowered the teleological aspect of progress. In the name of a final perfection in which the normative component was decisive, progress was also transformed into ideology. Voegelin defined this process as immanentization. It implies that the world cannot be subject to any substantial change in the future, since utopia is already perfectly realized in the present time. According to this way of viewing reality, nature is inert, de-animated and therefore completely predictable, reduced to a mechanism composed of elements endowed with mass and movement but absolutely devoid of initiative or soul.

This particular way of seeing the world has persisted even after the end of historical totalitarianisms, still leading to the distortion of our contact with reality, which is replaced with what Voegelin calls the dream world. In the “dream world,” the common goal is the maintenance of an invariable status quo, detached from a reality that instead continues to change. Voegelin writes that “the obsession with replacing the world of reality with a transfigured dream world has become the obsession with a world in which dreamers adopt the vocabulary of reality while changing its meaning, as if dreams were reality.”

More than sixty years later, Voegelin’s political and philosophical reflections are taken up by French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour (2017), in his Facing Gaia – Eight Lectures on The New Climatic Regime. The author seeks to answer an urgent question: why, in the face of the instability and changes that accompany the new climate regime and the Anthropocene[ii], do humans not (re)act? Why do they instead prefer to point at climatologists as incompetent and publicly express the opinion that their theories are at least incomplete? According to the French anthropologist, the detachment from reality described by Voegelin is one of the causes of this dangerous disaffection with the future of the planet. Unfortunately, as Latour concludes in his follow-up Down to Earth (2018), the sooner we become aware of reality, stepping out of the dream world and back to being Earthlings, the sooner we will be able to act together with the other agents inhabiting Earth.

From this collective action may perhaps emerge a possible order that takes into account the needs of all of us who reside on the planet, human and non-human. Extending the paradigm of his best-known social theory, Actor Network Theory (known as A.N.T.), and bringing it closer to engineer James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Latour suggests how to overcome the obtuseness of Western Gnosticism described by Voegelin: it involves considering Nature as a complex and ever-changing system, acted upon and agitated by the innumerable agents who inhabit the world, each with its own purposes. We will thus have to be clear in our minds that, for example, bacteria, plants and animals are endowed with agency, that is, the ability to autonomously modify their ecosystem. From these innumerable interactions and local modifications of the planet’s surface, all with varying sizes and durations, a transient state of Nature emerges from time to time. However, this is not a philosophical reading of reality, but a scientific fact: the thin biofilm, a few kilometres thick and enveloping our planet, ensuring its cooling with respect to solar action, has proven sensitive and variable in the face of human action. History and geohistory (and their temporal and spatial scales) have become indistinguishable.

When Latour proposes to replace the Enlightenment idea of a stable Nature with the unpredictable variability of Gaia, he places those disciplines that have a closer relationship with reality in front of the need to implement an extraordinary paradigm shift. Architecture, too, is subject to this transfiguration, both within the discipline and in the processes of its practices. If our design skill had specialized in short-term causal concatenations concerning space (or a spatialized time, through historiographical and typological categories), the new climate regime has radically changed its paradigms of reference, showing us a dizzying and sudden leap in scale between causes their effects. It then violently brought the category of time back into the planning field: the effects of anthropization have durations that exceed the perception of the individual[iii], and, therefore, can only be perceived collectively, as a species.

Widespread agency then implies a certain viscosity: the actors in play (causes, effects, subjects, objects, elements, materials, ecosystems, etc.) move collectively, no longer distinguishable by individual elements. Thus emerges a reality characterized by the indeterminate, in which the variables are innumerable, far more numerous than the invariants. Can architecture take this new kind of reality into account? Unfortunately, today it still seems too tied to the reiteration of a stable worldview and with a reduced capacity to imagine another world, a reading largely permeated by that capitalist realism[iv] that affects our very capacity to imagine an alternative to the status quo. The multitude of instances that architecture has so far been unable to take in, register and re-compose, forsaking the composition of the multiple in favour of the preservation of its own conceptual apparatus, has assembled, over centuries, a heap of detritus, waste, hybrids and failures that we insist on disregarding. If architecture really intends to be a form of a process of self-consciousness of men[v], we should ask what we can really be conscious of if we do not also analyse the failed works that clutter the planet. The suburbs are the great forgotten archive of our civilization, the place of the removed, the repository of the failures of the discipline of architecture, its undisciplined “third landscape.” This removed[vi] presses upon us, everything is periphery, and the discipline of architecture shows wide fractures and internal conflicts that unfortunately do not seem to be completely resolvable within the discipline. We therefore need other points of view and to find, through them, a renewed relationship with reality. For this we will have to welcome the challenges that come precisely from the undisciplined, because disciplines also tend to distort reality. Recall Foucault’s words that disciplinary systems are emanations of a “power (that) produces; produces the real; produces fields and objects and rituals of truth[vii].” We thus understand that our reliance on the disciplines will have to be the subject of new arrangements if we are to attempt a recomposition of the world. This is, in our view, the real challenge facing architecture: to return to the earth, agent among agents, endowed with the capacity to imagine a collective future, and thus to design it. But it will be necessary first to become aware of the mistakes made, and it will be a territorialized and undisciplined awareness, for it will require local, extreme experimentation, guided by associative thinking, with no concessions to a universal nor even a global gaze, since we know that that path[viii] has already taken us far too far from our new goal of a common future.

Beyond the fragile wall that protects the discipline from these new besieging barbarians from the periphery of the globe, we see proceeding toward us three monstrosities that we still struggle to comprehend: the planetary scale of Hyperobjects[ix], the end of Reality[x] as a given, and, we have already presented it, a Nature conceptually unstable and no longer willing to be an inanimate object at man’s disposal. How is it possible to establish utility in a world in which the relationship of subordination between subjects and (hyper)objects is increasingly tenuous? How to ensure the solidity of a construction in a world for which the very concept of Reality is questioned? How to rely, finally, on beauty as the highest result of human agency at a time when Nature challenges our poetics by animating and endowing itself with agency in turn? These fractures in the theoretical organization of the discipline lead us to question what path to hope for architecture so that it can, then, be entrusted with the task of exploring the possible, using renewed design and compositional tools, to shape a future dominated by the indeterminate and uncertain. We will call here, provisionally, “Novacene” the undisciplined and uncategorized archive that collects the traces of this journey, with its attempts to recompose imaginaries and sciences into a possible description of the near future. In the Novacene we will find failed experiments, unrealizable projects, futuristic narratives, radical critiques of the present time. The Novacene, for us, will be the collection of visible and invisible[xi] mirabilia waiting to enter the possible future order of the world.

Where to start, then? And, most importantly, in what direction to proceed?

Let us start with an end, only seemingly hypothetical: let us imagine a world without humanity or architecture, the realization of an extreme Novacene, in which only design errors and almost no positive (for the human) outcomes persist. For a moment we decide to rely on narrative, the same narrative used by many contemporary global signatures to tell us about the future they have in mind for us. After all, even the Novacene is still a narrative experiment, the set of attempts to collectively imagine a future. So let us consider two literary works that attempt to describe it and that are linked by a single, tragic thread: the disappearance of the human. The first work is a pamphlet, titled precisely Novacene – The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, in which the dry prose of centenarian engineer James Lovelock[xii] describes the Novacene as a future age in which the human and the natural no longer exist, evolutionarily superseded by a collective [nature+cyborg] driven Artificial Intelligences. According to the same creator of the Gaia hypothesis[xiii], the future does not belong to the human. It belongs, as the last evolutionary act, to the creation of the very AIs, capable of surpassing the human intellect in understanding the cosmos.

Instead, humanity and architecture still find a final alliance in the short story The Shores of Bohemia[xiv], written in 1991 by Bruce Sterling, a Texas-based futurologist and cyberpunk science fiction writer. The short story describes life in Paysage, the City of Youth, a small hamlet of an apparent Victorian style. The main activity in Paysage is the construction of a gigantic work of architecture called the Enantiodrome, rich in building styles and trappings, immeasurable, “that great monument of stone, that Cathedral to Youth, that tall and magnificently useless building that represented the heart of Paysage.” In Sterling’s tale, Nature surrounding Paysage was invaded by nanotechnology, thus merging into a literary hyperobject (a high-tech version of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, much like the cyborg domain imagined for the Novacene). This system of systems, in Sterling’s imagined future, organizes the entire planet Earth beyond human comprehension. Sterling’s narrative still leaves a place for the human, within a collective [nature+cyborg] that dominates the planet, but there seems to be no room for architecture or a city. Rather, architecture has become a purely memorial act with almost no design at all.

Should we take such unprincipled narratives into account when trying to account for the future of the discipline of architecture? Perhaps yes, at least insofar as they push us to question the reasons for the existence of architecture and the human. These ruptures become very valuable, opening spaces of critical distance, allowing us to suspend and revise even the most established theories. The same assumptions of continuity/repeatability between the city already built and the city to be built, based on typological series or other types of invariants, should be revised to help the discipline of architecture to be truly more realistic. Reducing the complexity and idiosyncrasies of the city and architecture through invariant classifications (typological, morphological, functional, historical, aesthetic), in a counterintuitive and unexpected way has fragmented any possible continuity, confining the experience of the built only to what could be noted and classified within taxonomies. This is how continuity became separation, and how reality ceased, in the long run, to be an active element of design.

To find reality again, architecture will have to develop its capacity to explore the possible, to take into account the outcomes of associative thinking, most likely developed within extended and cross-cutting communities that mix professionals, researchers and active citizens. As Bergson stated, this exploration is so complex that it can only be collective. The elaboration of this exploratory capacity by architecture implies breaking out of the self-referentiality that the discipline has built up over centuries of local and global practices. So, if the intent is to design the future, the self-assertion of the work of architecture, its being a priori a piece of the world, regardless of the connections (or ruptures) that are enacted with space and time, is no longer a necessary and sufficient condition to give the work a reason for being.

It will perhaps be possible to develop an internal process of falsifying theories for architecture as well. This trajectory of deconstruction and learning will hopefully be accompanied by methods derived from comparative anthropology and ontology, to lead architecture to revise its classifications, as they unfortunately bend and discipline thought, excluding the undisciplined and its instances, until they have already emerged as autonomous forces that challenge the discipline itself.

As we take away architecture’s props of stability and project it in the direction of the accumulated scenarios of the Novacene, we take note of at least two possible consequences. On the one hand, in the face of an accelerating world and a sharp weakening of its universals and disciplinary structures, architecture might finally try to unify design and composition, turning the former into a learning process and the latter into a mode of exploration. In this way, we would stop considering “every architectural project as an opportunity for an individual work of creation”[xv], and rather seek to entrust it with a much more onerous task: to become part of the future guarantees of collective survival. The second consequence, we have already anticipated, is that architecture could accept the falsifiability of its theories and the subversion of its postulates by embracing the scientific method. It will also involve taking into account the existence of certain biases[xvi] that we did not consider before, those differences between reality and the way we interpret and model it in a functional and formal algorithm. Biases are not theoretical: they become structural and ontological components the moment we entrust architecture with our very possibility of existing. Watching over the biases of the discipline of architecture is a necessary condition for allowing it to evolve as a truly collective discipline.

In this path that we are laboriously trying to outline through a possible paradigm shift for architecture, the last obstacle that confronts us is actually an almost insuperable mountain: we should abandon the centrality of construction. The discipline of architecture places construction as the end and synthesis of its practice, at the centre of its purpose and the main reason for its very existence. This makes architecture notably teleological: design is its method of internally organizing information from its own historical, cultural and technological context, and construction is the positive affirmation of this synthesis. Common sense thus leads us to think that the most significant works of architecture can tell us much about the ways in which a zeitgeist has formulated its worldview: they have been considered among the most interesting objects produced by man, history, aesthetics, and in more recent times, philosophy. From representation to representation, the work of architecture has been read as the richest condensate of heterogeneous cues, starting with social aspects, passing through productive ones, traversing technological ones, arriving at conceptual ones, and even tracing, today, ethical aspects. For these reasons, the discipline of architecture has made construction its constitutive and symbolic principle. History, technology, aesthetics and architectural design gravitate around construction, to the point that it has been both the beginning and the end of the discipline. But construction has also fuelled architecture’s self-referentiality, and while appearing to common sense as a positive and constitutive fact of reality, it actually removes the work from all judgement, making it directly part of reality, without any possibility of appeal. What an extraordinary process!

We are therefore aware that if we question the centrality of construction, we are operating at the heart of the ontology of architecture. However, this is, in our opinion, a necessary transit to allow architecture to overcome much of the self-referentiality that the centrality of construction generally allows, when it knots together interpretations, theories, imaginaries and constructed reality without possibility of appeal. Giving up the centrality of construction means, in other words, having the opportunity to evaluate, case by case, the right of existence of each architectural artefact. We could thus bring out the error, the bias, and open architecture to learning, no longer considering the built as an incontrovertible fact.

By setting construction aside, we will give architecture the possibility of considering a new reading of the real as a complex composition of parts in a state of continuous relationship[xvii]. If construction operates by concealments, subtractions, machinations that tend to break the connections between the artefact and the real, we will then have to understand, once we have contextualised, localised and displaced construction from the position of centrality it has occupied for centuries, whether it is possible to imagine an alternative to it or at least a new version of it, moving from construction to construct. We understand the construct here as a temporary and limitedly functional structure, not necessarily quantifiable, but sufficiently stable and open to ensure local connectivity and resilience. In other words, the construct is an adaptable concept, optimal for a discipline capable of exploring and acting in an indeterminate context.

The construct belongs to the same genetic lineage as the objectile elaborated by Gilles Deleuze and Bertrand Cache, an extraordinary philosopher who first transited through coding and finally landed in design. For Cache, the digital, which increasingly permeates design and production processes, is an enabling phenomenon not only of new forms but also of new states of relationships between initial hypotheses and their formal results. Cache describes the objectile as “the set of objects that are repeatable variations on the same theme, like a family of curves that follow the same mathematical pattern; objects immersed in a flow””[xviii]. Similarly, we could conceive of the construct as a quasi-manufacture, in which there is no real seamlessness between materials and digital meshes: the materials constitute it as much as the information included in its algorithm, and which derives from contexts at the most diverse scales: for example, biochemical reactions to pollutants in the local atmosphere or the influence on planetary ecosystems of its energy efficiency deficits. The construct would be as much a tool for holistic experimental design as it would be a powerful philosophical pick, as it would constantly challenge production chains and meaning-making systems, allowing architecture to be definitively transformed into an exploratory philosophy of construction.

Many of the features we have described for the construct are already in place, thanks to the introduction of tools for the creation of forms based on computer algorithms. If the algorithm is well coded, it will already be a construct, a quasi-manufacture, since it will have already established adequate connections between the initial hypotheses (e.g. the presence of agents such as sunshine, the direction and strength of prevailing winds, the amount of material used, its ecological footprint, the use of energy sources, the usability of interior and exterior spaces, etc.) and the resulting form. The algorithm for form finding will thus form non-linear connections between all the agents determining the form, and they will be able to modify the form to the final result. It will thus be possible for the composition to become a mode of exploration through exploratory processes/projects that can last for the entire existence of the construct. It will thus be possible for the composition to become a mode of exploration through exploratory processes/projects that can last for the entire existence of the construct. But the digital part of the quasi-construct will have to maintain the characteristics of instability and openness to the possible typical of every construct, otherwise the architecture would fall back into self-referentiality. The construct must therefore also accommodate the material instances that insist on having a voice in the project. These include all the biases that come from a rediscovered realism and that cannot be included in the digital component of the construct: the concerns of users, the demands of the communities that will have to live with the artefact once it is built, the need to experiment with new levels of interaction between the different agents that will inhabit the artefact, its final aesthetics, its ability to adapt to other uses, and so on.

Just as the construct becomes much more permeable through the evolution of linear production processes into complex generation processes, so too for composition very interesting evolutionary trajectories open up. In order to become the main mode of exploration, composition will necessarily have to overturn its point of view on the relationship between Parts and Whole: since the Parts have gained the capacity to act on the world, their sum will be more important and interesting than the Whole. We will thus have in the exploratory architecture a powerful tool, capable of accommodating new instances from a world that will change ever more rapidly.

[i] In Voegelin, E. (1952), The New Science of Politics, Chicago, USA: The University of Chicago Press.

[ii] In 2012, Stan Finney, head of the International Commission on Stratigraphy and paleontologist at California State University, Long Beach, stated that the Anthropocene is “a political statement”.

[iii] According to data from the Godard Institute for Space Studies, 75% of the effects of global warming will last for five hundred years, while in three thousand years the oceans will have absorbed 75% of the carbon compounds. Unfortunately, as much as 7% of the effects of the new climate regime will last for one hundred thousand years. In Morton, T. (2013), Hyperobjects, ed. it. 2018, Rome, IT: NERO

[iv] According to Mark Fisher Capitalist realism has contaminated every teleological possibility, leading us to believe that there is no alternative to the biopolitical exploitation of society, nor to the application of market logic to every aspect of human development.

[v] Monestiroli, A. (1979), The Architecture of Reality, Milan, IT: CittàStudi

[vi] For visual feedback on this statement of mine, see the photographs of Johnny Miller at https://unequalscenes.com/projects?utm_medium=website&utm_source=archdaily.com

[vii] Foucault, M. (1975), Surveiller et punir, ed. it. 1976, Turin, IT: Einaudi, p. 212

[viii] I am referring here to neoliberalism. In the first part of their 2015 Inventing the future, Nick Srnicek (lecturer in digital economics) and Alex Williams (lecturer in sociology) describe the successful rise of neo-liberalism, the social, economic and political paradigm that has racked up crushing victories over socialism since the end of the Second World War. With the emergence of neo-liberalism as a hegemonic thought, there has been a profound hybridisation of bios and politics: not only does the future seem already written (a teleological and political question), but even reality and its description have become the exclusive prerogative of the neo-liberal hegemony.

[ix] Without entering here into the realm of philosophy and ontology, I refer to Timothy Morton’s (2013) text, Hyperobjects, which in some ways restores to philosophy its capacity to explore the real, and which can be placed side by side with Bruno Latour’s research in the field of an anthropology of the West. Both grasp the need to rethink the West and its relationship with the global dimension. However, Morton and Latour take different directions. The former argues that the human is now an object among objects that can no longer be fully perceived, as they are viscous, non-local and inter-objective. Three examples of hyperobjects: the thin layer of carbon dust that has cloaked the Earth since the beginning of the Anthropocene (in 1784, with the patenting of Watt’s steam engine); the diffuse nuclear radiation due to the use of nuclear weapons since 1945; and global warming. Latour, on the other hand, argues for the possibility and ethical obligation of the Western human to become an active diplomat in the recomposition of a new cosmos, capable of including human and non-human subjects through the overcoming of divisions between natures and cultures.

[x] I refer here to the theory of conscious agents expressed by Donald Hoffman in his book The Illusion Of Reality – how evolution deceives us about the world we see. “Conscious realism makes a bold claim: it is consciousness, not spacetime with its objects, that constitutes fundamental reality, and the most adequate way to describe it is a network of conscious agents” in Hoffman, D. (2020), The Case Against Reality. How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, ed. en. Turin, IT: Bollati Boringhieri (p. 283). Hoffman’s theory is interesting in that it is mathematically unimpeachable, even if profoundly counterintuitive, in that it describes the entire three-dimensional reality of our perception as a simplified user interface with a marked fitness for our perceptual-cognitive apparatus. Hoffman’s theory is interesting in that it is mathematically unimpeachable, even if profoundly counterintuitive, in that it describes the entire three-dimensional reality of our perception as a simplified user interface with a marked fitness for our perceptual-cognitive apparatus. Conscious agents come very close to Bergson’s concept of the image, for which perception has the character of objectivity (perception is the thing).

[xi] See the research of Professor Elena Manferdini at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, as well as her article inVISIBLE in 2020 (https://issuu.com/architettinotizie/docs/an02_2020_issuu).

[xii] See Lovelock, J. (2020), Novacene – The Coming Age of Hyperintelligence, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

[xiii] The Gaia hypothesis was born in the 1970s, when NASA asked Lovelock for a method to search for life on other planets. Lovelock replied that he would look for a reduction in entropy on the planets’ surface, as life organises its own environment.

[xiv] Appears in Sterling, B. (1991), Globalhead, ed. en. Cronache del basso futuro, Milan, IT: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore.

[xv] See Cache, B. (2011), Projectiles, London, UK: Architectural Association Publications.

[xvi] Every time we interpret the world we are potential victims of bias, especially in the construction of virtual simulations that can help us anticipate the future, as is the case, for instance, with the consequences of the new climate regime. Counterintuitively, we realise that the modelling and virtualisation of processes, in order to be effective, requires an even more vigilant and careful look at reality and, above all, at its variable component, since that is where the main biases lurk.

[xvii] The associativity of non-standard production processes could influence our way of interpreting reality, pushing us to see it as a set of continuous relations. In this regard, see what Bertrand Cache (2011) writes in his essay Towards a Non-Standard Mode of Production: “Associativity is the principle adopted in software that organises the architectural project in a long chain of relationships, from the first conceptual ideas to the guidance of the machines that will prefabricate the components to be assembled on site.”

[xviii] In Cache, B. (2011) Objectile: The Pursuit of Philosophy by Other Means?


Altri articoli