So, I should preface this post by stating that these are my own opinions, and they have nothing to do with consensus or what anyone else was thinking at last night's lecture at Yale School of Architecture. Last night, it was Tom Wiscombe's turn at the lecture podium at Hastings Hall. We all know him, we know his firm, so then we are all familar with his concept of emergence. I'll fast forward a little bit to the end of the lecture, when the redoubtable, whip-smart Emmanuel Petit asked Wiscombe if what he was really deploying was a style, as opposed to some type of design methodology rooted in systemic biology.
Some thoughts about that latter concept ... Wiscombe started his lecture by showing clips of natural phenomena that typified the concept of emergence. While employing buzzwords like co-evolution and the like, as images of marauding packs of wolves and hyenas, schools of fish, and ant colonies danced on the screen thanks to his deployment of some inspiring Power Point fireworks, Wiscombe reminded us (via an overdetermined diagram) that the practice of emergence is based on notions of feedback and unpredictability. These are terms that he culled from the annals of systems theory, or so Wiscombe declares.
And it was at that moment that I started shifting restlessly in my seat, for I began to watch an accomplished, well-respected desginer not only misinterpret some concepts of systems theory and cybernetics, but I noticed that these glaring misreadings were deployed just to justify some fancy parametrics. This was not a Greg Lynn, who uses parametric modelling to stake claims about rapid prototyping. Here was Wiscombe, misinterpreting ideas from evolutionary and systems biology, in service of an aesthetic. In other words, Wiscombe was saying that his practice looks to dragonfly wings, ant colonies, slime molds as organizational models because he thinks it's "cool." I may be being a bit unfair, as Wiscombe was trained in the natural sciences and did work at NASA. Again, this is not to say that Wiscombe is not an accomplished man and provocative designer, for he is certainly both. I am not sure why but perhaps he was careful in not sounding too wonky or rigorous in his lecture.
But then, Wiscombe started playing curious games of historicism. Not only did he claim that Gothic architecture was more emergent than Renaissance architecture, a claim based on his observation that Gothic architecture was more tectonically sophisticated than its Renaissance inheritor (and this observation, in turn, was spurred by his own observation that pilasters had dubious structural qualities -- I think of pilasters as decorative elements, but i digress), but he made an arbitrary distinction between expressionist engineering and its more, computer-based and contemporary version. Thus for the former category, Wiscombe distinguished between an SNCF station by Santiago Calatrava, and Piano's/Rogers' Centre Pompidou. And here was a troubling distinction, for in Wiscombe's eyes, the Pompidou was not an example of high-tech work, but an emblem of something where technological elements were deployed for their expressive qualities. Troubling indeed, for, in the absence of making sweeping generalizations about historical precedents, one is hard pressed to lump a Calatrava bulding and the Centre Pompidou under the same rubric or category. These works were contrasted to the work of Frei Otto/Stefan Benhisch and Grimshaw -- and the implication was clear, Wiscombe was looking to style and formal moves to justify his historical observations, with nary a word behind the processes that underly the works of Frei Otto or Piano's/Rogers' works.
There, towards the end, Wiscombe showed an image of Frei Otto's Munich Stadium, a worthwhile emblem of surface modeling that relied on drawing ability as well as technological insight. However, Wiscombe forgot to mention one fact: it was John Argyris, the Greek Aerospace Engineer and member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, who engaged in all the technical and engineering research for Frei Otto's stadium. As a former NASA employee, I thought that Wiscombe would talk about that.
As Mark Wigley would state, here was a perfect Warholian fantasy ... the aphoristic echo of an echo.