6:20 pm: Starting in ten minutes: Harvard GSD Symposia on Architecture / The Eclipse of Beauty: Parametric Beauty (with Mario Carpo, Michael Meredith, and Ingeborg Rocker.) Symposium co-convened by Antoine Picon and Preston Scott Cohen.
Here's the short description from the GSD website:
"What has happened to architectural beauty? It used to be the fundamental value of architectural theory and practice, the touchstone of every conceivable achievement for a discipline that considered itself primarily as an art. Today, the word is seldom pronounced by theorists and professionals, at least in public. Even critics and historians tend to avoid the loaded term."
"What has happened to architectural beauty? Its eclipse is all the more surprising given that architectural aesthetics is everywhere. The architectural star-system is to a large extent based on signature forms that herald the originality of their authors. The so-called "Guggenheim effect" has fundamentally to do with the visual seduction exerted by Frank Gehry's project on a large public, from connoisseurs to simple passers-by. It has paved the way for all sorts of prestigious architectural commissions, often linked to the cultural sector, museums, libraries, opera houses requiring visually striking answers that can be appreciated by a broad audience. Usually entrusted to a relatively small cohort of elite architects, these commissions nevertheless contribute to define the tone of contemporary architectural debate. Even if the term beauty is rarely invoked to characterize their power of seduction, the aesthetic dimension plays a determining role."
Download the full description (pdf) of The Eclipse of Beauty symposia here.
6:35: Scott Cohen is making introductory comments. " ...And yet... in the past twenty years we've witnessed developments that we might call revolutionary which have begged the problem of beauty to return to the fore.. Probably the most importantly the rise of digital media. ...Beauty seems frivolous, decadent, or worse--to return us to a certain kind of elitism. ...The denial of taste and the idea of performativity allow an elite within architecture to submerge the idea of beauty. ...But tonight we'll look squarely at parametric design."
"...and all sorts of other curving things."
6:45: Mario Carpo, my former boss' boss at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, is taking the podium.
Mario Carpo: "I shall not discuss specific problems of digital form-making, such as curvilinearity, angularity, exuberance, elegance, or minimalism--if there is a digital minimalism, which I doubt. I shall not discuss more general problems of digital poetics, if there is a poetic of digitality. I will not discuss subjects, although some may argue that beauty may have something to do with them. I will only discuss objects--not natural objects, but human-made objects, objects of design. Human-made objects are no longer what they used to be. Parametricism has changed how we make objects--and consequently, what we make with them and what we make of them. And it has changed their market value. This applies to objects d'art as well as objects of daily use, to media objects and physical objects."
"For the last few centuries, and until recently, we had two ways of making objects: hand-making, and mechanical machine-making. For human-made, think of a signature: no two signatures are identical, even though they're expected to be similar from the same person, or they wouldn't be recognized. Then there are mechanically-made objects. Once the machining matrices are made, because they are expensive, their cost must be amortized by using them as many times as possible."
"Digital making does not work this way. Digital notations are constantly in drift; digital scripts are increasingly designed for variability, or open-endedness, right from the start. Variation can be mass produced--in theory, and I underline in theory--at no extra cost. And modern authorship is replaced by a kind of hybrid or participatory agency, a joint venture among any combination of human and technical actors and networks. Whether we like it or not, the hybridization of agency is an essential aspect of digital parametricism. The possibilities are infinite, but most of them are outside the control of the author of the original script."
"At the beginning of the digital term, Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Cache invented a term to define this new kind of technical object, an objectile."
"In Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, Erwin Panofsky outlined...that Gothic architecture and scholasticism were both engaged in articulation, and in generating variation within a class. Windows in a cathedral are similar, but rarely identical. The analogies between the Gothic, scholasticism, and today's parametrics are vast and wide-ranging, and are not limited to form or style. Participatory, collective, and often anonymous making, that area of the Web 2.0, was the rule on most medieval building sites."
"Yet, Bernard Cache, has recently concluded a thorough investigation of Vitruvius' design method, and has proven with compelling architects that the method of Vitruvius was also quintessentially parametric. Yet Vitruvius was no Gothic. The game here is a bit different: in classical architecture, in a Greek temple for example, most capitals in the same row in the same building are quite identical. But the algorithmic design process does not control the final finished shape of each Doric capital; each maker will need to employ his will, and at the same time comply to Vitruvius' rules."
"...This is the opposite of mechanical making, which creates mostly identical copies of archetypal visual models. This parallel between hand making and digital making, and between the alphabet and the algorithm, may look like a truism. But if it is true, its consequences are staggering. In this new world, objects and their outward and visible forms are only the occasional and ephemeral epiphany of a script embedded in use."
"In the mechanical age, our apprehension of human made objects depended on identicality. In a parametric environment, identification is based on similarity and reassembly, just like in nature, where identical copies are the exception."
[He's showing a slide of two strikingly good-looking identical twins...could they be the Wincklevi?]
"Richard Krautheimer tried to account for the medieval capacity to identify objects of all sorts as equally valid copies of the same model. The look-alikes didn't look alike, and they were modeled after an original that nobody had ever seen. Krautheimer concluded that, by modern standards, medieval visuality appeared to be, I quote, "almost entirely nonvisual."
"...In short, the beauty of parametricism is that by making our life more difficult [I think because we have to identify things that aren't identical?] it will oblige us to become intelligent human beings once again."
7:05 pm: Scott is introducing Inge: "...Currently her projects extend the indexical approach she developed at Peter Eisenman's studio, by what she calls 'versioning'..."
Ingeborg Rocker: "I took on first the question of 'what is beauty' because I couldn't think about its eclipse until I knew what it was."
"What is beauty, and why does parametric design eclipse beauty? In the past, beauty was associated with the bridging of the divine and the sensual. This idea of beauty extends to trees, humans, gods, and philosophical concepts. In medieval times, Plato's comprehension of beauty was taken up and contextualized in the Christian comprehension of the world. The world's sensual beauty was not only a reminder of god's perfection, but a direct image of god's perfection."
"...These characteristics of beauty would survive through the 18th century. The repetition of nature did not suggest the copying of nature, but the mimesis of nature's beautiful perfection."
[OK, I can't keep up. She's picking up the pace here, moving through the centuries.]
"...With Kant, a Copernican turn was taken, and beauty was detached from any divine or metaphysical objectivity, no longer had an a priori detached character."
"Throughout modernity, the term 'beauty' became contested, as neither its former associations with moral and ethical values founded in Christianity's belief system nor its association with subjective judgment seemed an appropriate reaction and assessment of modern production processes and life. ...Beauty became [relative]."
"...It is in this sense that any new media device introduces new modalities of reality: the microscope, the computer."
[And she, at great speed, describes the eclipse of beauty in modernity.]
"In claiming it eclipsed, Antoine and Scott make beauty again the center of discussion. Why is that? Does beauty...indicate a secret desire for orientation, for possibilities of judgment, but also for a realization that reality is based not only on cognition but also on sensuous experience?"
"It could be suggested that most recent uses of computation, in particular the parametric approach of architecture, eclipse beauty: if we link beauty to the genius artist setting form...obviously parametric design, the automatic generation of objects families, eclipses beauty."
She's showing her work for the Venice Biennale 2010. "It's a criticism of...letting the machine run. We set up a series of towers, each which follows a series of rules, each which is the same height. I'm not arguing that these towers are beautiful in the naive sense that we think of beauty. I argue instead that this type of project would allow us to comprehend the condition of the author and the object in different terms, and therefore it is beauty as it allows us to set forth a different understanding of reality and object for the subject."
"And thanks to [my M.Arch.I classmate] Wes Thomas, each elevation is placed automatically on the page [in grids, showing dozens of little towers on a page] and we have produced a book of 400 pages."
"So the work of architecture is no longer comprehended as unique, but as a series within a framework of rules and parameters, through which works may be computed. If this enough of a motivation to produce architecture, I am rather doubtful. Recent parametric designs have been obsessed with possibilities of computation. This has resulted in an exhaustive and often exhausting exuberance of form. As when Patrik Schumacher pretended to cope with societies' and life's complexity, while in fact they are at best an expression thereof, an empty gesture of a form-obsessed and strangely under-complex approach to architecture and urbanity."
"How can we think of parametrics as a new style of thinking that acknowledges life's complexity, and finally allow us to comprehend ourselves, including our cultural and biological production, as part of one and the same ecological system? ...I am not talking about sustainability here; Michael and I may discuss this later."
"Parametricism may allow for a radical change in how we comprehend and design our built environment. Computationally, any property, positional, geometric, material, characteristic can be associated with any cause or effect. Nevertheless, only if sociopolitical as well as technological, material, and organizational aspects are taken into the question, will we have a successful parametric approach. Only then will parametricism have matured enough to pose the first true challenge to the modern conception of modern man, modern architecture, modern urbanism, and the modern exploitation of the planet. It is then that parametrics does not cause the eclipse of beauty, but rather sets forth a beauty in the sense of an insight into reality."
7:30: Scott is introducing Michael Meredith. "...But it's the material treatment of the page, of its elastic potential, that I wanted to comment on. Look at it this way: that the parametrically conceived PS1 project turns out to be clad in what we can call wet dog fur..."
"...this is a new kind of architecture without an architect. It's forms falling into place by means of structural metrics, but not in ways that have to do with the optimization that Inge was talking about. He is one of the only architects who works both with and against the parametric."
Michael Meredith: [He reveals that he was asked to join this event at the last minute, as a replacement for Patrik Schumacher. And he introduces his talk as a response, in four points, to Patrik Schumacher's "Parametricism and the Autopoiesis of Architecture."]
"1. Parametricism = Positivism + Expressionism. What does it mean if you can produce Chopin through an algorithm?"
"2. Architecture as a discipline is in disarray. Discipline implies a shared knowledge and a set of values in order to evaluate and analyze the work. This value system allows for an autonomy, which is the discipline. ...The values are not absolute, they are constantly in debate. And we in schools are responsible for dealing with this--and frankly, I don't think we're doing a very good job of it."
"Exhibit A: In the nineties, it was representation, the end of history, process-driven methodologies, avant-garde...palimspest was a horrible word that was used a lot. And the magazines you wanted to be published in were the ones that explained ideas: Assemblage, ANY, and so on. And in the noughties (2000s), it was about realism, the end of representation, the built was better than the unbuilt, performance, rear-garde, the diagram, the photo-realistic rendering, BIM, Revit, Catia, Ecotect. And my friends and I all made an effort to be licensed. And the magazines that you wanted to be published in were the ones that you could get work from."
"3. A unifying singular style is an ontological impossibility. If the myth of modernism was that it operated at a scale across multiple registers, disciplines, as a search for an unprecedented unity via the Zeitgeist...and if post-modernism (not Pomo) was relinquishing the aspiration for utopian unification and instead instrumentalizing fragmentation, then our current moment is something else. We no longer lament the loss of the whole. Today even with the autonomy of our so-called discipline, everything has evolved into an archipelago of different positions--the digital freaks, the nerdy geometers, hipsters, do-gooders, etc."
"4. Architecture's political construction through Aesthetics. As noted in Point 3, parametricism as a unifying style for the discipline is a contemporary impossibility, but there remains the question of whether or not its a worthwhile ambition. ...One of the concerns I have with [Schumacher] is that it assumes that for architecture to be political, it needs to directly engage politics. This suggests that Formalism is not political. I believe that music is the most advanced and sublimated aesthetic project in America. Architects, like musicians and bands produce subjectivities and social and political space. Each genre has its own enthusiasts; for these groups, a particular music feels right or more interesting, more pleasurable, more complex."
"As an example, and although it's incredibly popular, I'm uninterested in most techno music. Techno is the aesthetic equivalent to the Parametric. For Patrik, the Parametric is about a dream of total control, an expressionism achieved through positivistic logic and repetition."
[Now he's talking about his own work]: "We are not trying to eradicate difference, or to turn everything into a swarm. We believe architecture exists in an object-narrative relationship. ...So when we say Beauty, we mean some kind of coherence, a sort of recognizable value. Any unifying style is an attempt at unifying values."
"And I was thinking about the beauty of trees, and I've never seen a tree that I didn't like. Same with these things [constructions of MOS, Meredith's firm, designed through Processing software, things like sets of objects that have all tumbled into place according to variations of the laws of physics.]...I never saw one I didn't like."
7:52: Antoine Picon: "OK, that was really very dense, so I'd like to thank our speakers. Mario, who recounted the parametric as the Gothic, Inge who recounted the history of beauty in 12 minutes, and Michael, who..."
"What struck me is how much your accounts of parametricism had to do with reconciliation: man and the planet, and if we follow Schumacher, we reconcile everything: politics and French cuisine, maybe. And it would be interesting to ask: where has the violence of beauty gone?"
"So I will begin, Mario, by pretending that I believe you on the Gothic. But the problem is that we don't know how the Gothics looked at their buildings. I was surprised by your Ruskin 2.0, because what Ruskin likes is variation...it's a kind of anti-Viollet-le-Duc position. So what do we like in this affair? Is it the script, or variation, or both?"
Mario Carpo: "As I assume you have noticed, I abstained from tackling the core of the assignment that was given to me. I am a philistine--"
Antoine Picon: "I know that."
Mario Carpo: "I am not a trendy person, I come from an untrendy part of the world, I have an untrendy accent, nobody understands what I say anyways."
Antoine Picon: "OK now, come to the point."
Mario Carpo: "...Media can only affect mediation. And parametricism, being a media change, is bringing about a revolution in our perception in the mediation between us and the built environment; a complete change of our scopic regime. The scopic regime of modernity was predicated on the replication of identical copies, but is now predicated on the replication of objects..."
Michael Meredith: "But for me, the question is illustration. It sounds fantastic; I want some, give me some. I want to know how this plays out in specific instances in the world."
Antoine Picon: "Are you interested in the dialectic between the variation and the rule?"
Mario Carpo: "And by the way, I don't want to become the speaker for the protagonist who is in question."
Antoine Picon: "OK Mario, come on."
Mario Carpo: "Registered icons: if they are not the same, they mean something else, or they mean nothing at all. But antiquity had ways of assign stable meanings to unstable signs. The icon of the Roman empire was the eagle. When the legions arrived, they had a metal eagle. Some of these still exist: but try to find two that are identical. They could have reproduced them, but they didn't. Some look like penguins, some look like eagles, some don't look like any bird at all. And yet nobody had any trouble recognizing it. But today, a trademark is legally protected, and if it's reproduced differently, it does not have that meaning. For example a cross; if you change it, it means Medicines sans Frontieres."
Inge Rocker: "I have to disagree. What we're hyping as a new novelty, has been in architecture all the time. Not the kind of literal flexing that I showed today with our towers, but..."
Antoine Picon: "I don't know if it's...cultural habitudes, but...you don't like cosmetics. And let me remind you that cosmetics and kosmos have a common origin so you should take appearances very seriously."
"These two regimes used to be incompatible. One was computation, which was supposed to be adverse to variation. But I'm having a kind of frisson with your idea of nature and computation; are you not afraid a little bit about that cocktail?"
Inge Rocker: "I'm not Karl Chu who thinks that the whole world is computation. But...if you think about us, and if you think that you will eventually die. And think about what will happen. You will go in the earth, and worms will come, and Antoine Picon will eventually disappear. So we have Antoine Picon, who came about as a collection of molecules, who eventually became a celebrity in history and theory of architecture, and so on. But I think our existence as cultural beings only exists because we also exist as nature. Now that does not mean that Inge Rocker will suddenly turn green if Mohsen likes it, but..."
Antoine Picon: "That was brilliant, but OK, so I'm not dead yet, so I can respond. But why does nature matter so much? Is it nature or the environment?"
Inge Rocker: "It's eco-logic. Not differentiating between culture and nature but understanding everything in a feedback loop. And you don't have to be scared, we still have our department [GSD Architecture] in place--"
Antoine Picon: "Oh good. Because you scared me. ...But, Michael, are you really talking about politics, or is it ethics?"
Michael Meredith: "OK. Ethics. I take politics from a Ronciere point of view; politics is the space of debate over values, which is ethics, but--"
Antoine Picon: "Let's say I take a provocative stance. Let's say I'm sympathetic to Inge, and she's political, you're ethical.."
Michael Meredith: "Let's say the Prius. The Prius is interesting and operates aesthetically, but it doesn't really save the planet. You have a Prius, I think [pointing at Scott]. But there were other cars that were better for the planet before; it's not the best technology but it develops an identity around it. You do [turning to Mario Carpo] make me nervous as a historian playing with the contemporary, getting philosophical."
"And I think it's interesting to think about the space of production as flattened space. So if you think about Girl Talk--and the guy, Gregg Gillis, talks about the space he's operating in, and how it's all the same space, hip hop, rap, indie, and find some other aesthetic. And it's still dance music. And I'm very interested in this question of noise, it's almost unbearable noise."
Antoine Picon: "But do you produce noise through the algorithm?"
Mario Carpo: "In fact, we're not saying different things. If we play parametrically, we let things go out of control; the parametric lets things be incomplete. And you may work with that, and play with the loss of control, or work with the idea of agency."
Michael Meredith: "But I'm talking about parametricism as a style; I think we're talking about different things."
Inge Rocker: "I'm wondering if this is true, about being out of control. If you write a script and don't have any variable that is accidentally challenging, you will not have anything that is not predictable."
Mario Carpo: "You predict the limits and scope, and you decide not to decide what will happen with that range of variation. And that is the game, whether or not we decide to play that game. Many of us write a script, and then come back, and fix the point that before we let float."
Inge Rocker: "I disagree with Michael that aesthetics is already political. We just had Moneo and Eisenman talking about modernism in Europe, and how it had a very different political agenda from what was transferred into the USA. And to say that any aesthetic is already political; that makes me very discomforted."
Michael Meredith: "Mies in America vs. Mies in Germany; they're different things, internal to the discipline. I'm not talking about what my mom thinks about parametricism; it's us arguing--that's what produces the politics. It's not a huge audience. But you have a certain set of values or knowledge set that these things are in conversation with. So when I saw positivism and expressionism, I'm thinking about Eisenman and Mendelssohn."
Inge Rocker: "But if we look at Schumacher, there's variation but also homogenization. But the question for me is, what kind of society is behind that? Is there one mega-capitalist developer that goes in, or is it a kind of secret communism?"
Michael Meredith: "What we have for information is still one strange aerial shot with a couple of goopy towers, and we're trying to read into it is whether it's communism or capitalism and it's not really clear."
Question from the audience (Etien Santiago, M.Arch.II): "Aren't all of you getting rid of the very notion of design by getting rid of the idea of an author?"
Mario Carpo: "This is the humanistic and modern idea of design..."
Antoine Picon: "This is why the prophets of this new age are so obsessed with their egos. We live at the same time of authorlessness, but also of overinflated egos."
Inge Rocker: "But our team had a clear idea of authorship. There's no accident in what type of towers we've chosen to be seen; we have made very explicit choices about which five we materialized. So there's a bit of a myth, just like the myth of the possibility of continuous variation. We still make the choice."
"As I was also concerned that in the last symposium we never talked about nature, we have to talk about beauty here. It's not just whether I like it or don't like it."
Michael Meredith: "I put forward an idea of beauty: the unification of values is a classical definition of beauty. The goal for us, as practitioners, is not beauty. We play with aspects of positivism, but we always try to avoid beauty. We were talking about anamorphosis earlier--that was, historically, a way to avoid beauty."
Antoine Picon: "Or you could argue that anamorphosis has deeply to do with beauty, because it shows that beauty is not a fixed process. The pleasure of going back and forth between rule and variation today, is like then with anamorphosis, the vibration between understanding and not understanding."
"But while the digital is dissolving the individual, it is also constructing it endlessly--take Facebook for example--so it's a kind of vibration between one thing and the other."
Question from the audience (Matthew Waxman, M.Arch.I, I think): "Inge, you were saying that if the parametric creates new sensory experiences, then there's no eclipse of beauty. And I'm wondering that if we didn't create that sensory experience of the towers, if they were screen-shots, if we didn't put them on pedestals, they wouldn't be pretty? And Michael, your aesthetic is more like the screen-shot..."
Michael Meredith: "We have a name for our aesthetic. It's called rainbow vomit."
Matthew Waxman: "...but what is the best aesthetics of the parametric?"
Inge Rocker: "If we no longer have the artist as the author, then there's an eclipse because they're not doing that work; but if we have the computer...it...allows us to assess reality in a new modality, in the way that the microscope allowed us to see a new reality that we couldn't see before."
Antoine Picon: "But I have just one question, do you kill the author by the end? Are you still an author?"
Inge Rocker: "yes [still an author]."
Question from the audience (Theresa McWalters, M.Arch.I): "Maybe it's not so much not being authors but not being authors of beauty. We are becoming more authors of systems and logics; how can we create environments where the user becomes the author?"
Michael Meredith: "Do you mean, why don't we just create software and the user makes their own architecture? There's a difference between building and architecture, and the space between object and text is still where architecture is for me, which might be an old fashioned thing to say, but it's not about building or making building easier. That already is happening--you can click, and there's a building--but it's not architecture. Not that it has not chance of being architecture but until we bring that into the socio-cultural apparatus of people who care about these things, it won't be architecture."
Mario Carpo: "It depends on how you define author and user. In video games--I don't use them, but people tell me about them--"
Antoine Picon: "We'll buy you a game for Christmas."
Mario Carpo: "There are two layers of agency: the designer and the user of the system. One creates the system and the other plays the game of agency within an environment that is in some sense pre-authored by someone else. The end user is an 'interactor.'"
Question from the audience, Amy Garlock, M.Arch.I: "If one person writes the script, and another person picks the towers, then which one is the author?"
Inge Rocker: "The scripting, then stopping the script, then the selection of pieces, then the layout on a page, then the exhibition, then the choreography of the exhibition. It's a multi-layered authorship, like Mario was saying. If you look at the Barcelona Pavilion, it's shocking how few drawings he needed to produce this building."
Antoine Picon: "Don't be jealous."
Inge Rocker: "I am jealous."
Antoine Picon: "With that, we should close, but I don't know if you have noticed the continuity with last time, when we talked about all kinds of things but not nature. Now we are trying to eclipse beauty, talking about all kinds of other things, but the fine thing about an eclipse is that it allows you to see so many other things. So join us next time and we will see many strange animals in the dark."
8:50 pm: and...done!
In live blogging, while we gain in immediacy we lose in editing--but I hope, if you have made it this far, that you found something to enjoy here. And, whether or not it's relevant, just to mention that those of us in Piper had, in addition to the four points of view, the strange harmony of four different accents: Picon, French; Rocker, German; Carpo, Italian, and Meredith, American. They are a familiar crew to us--all but Mario Carpo teach in the M.Arch.I core program--and it was fun to see them go at it on a question that is of relevance, in some way or another, to all of us.
Thanks for reading!
P.S. You can watch the webcast of this event here.
If you're looking for other GSD lecture webcasts (not every event is webcast, but many are), you can find them here. In particular, two recent lectures that I missed out on blogging are Ben van Berkel's lecture and Arjun Appadurai's lecture on 'Architecture and Amnesia.'
Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around Cambridge...and once in a while, some studio and course work. Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in most cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.