@ the columbia university
graduate school of architecture, planning, and preservation
Arguably the entirety of architectural production in the last forty years has been dominated by the problem of complexity. Whether architecture that wears the difficulty of complex programs and requirements of contemporary society on its sleeve, that tries to reduce such complexity by providing a neutral background, or that aims toward resolution through a complex but smooth multiplicity (be it a folded or bloblike), complexity is the main problematic facing architecture since high modernism.
This should come as no surprise. As a political project, modernism ran aground on complexity, its processes of abstraction unable to adequately describe the multifarious conditions of modern culture. Our society may well follow it. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter describes, complexity is a toxic by-product of advanced societies, slowly choking them as it demands such societies invest ever-higher levels of energy to maintain their structures. Our daily experiences with bureaucracy, jammed infrastructure, and failing technology serve as clear evidence of this.
Tainter offers two solutions to the problem of complexity. The first is collapse. Once societies can no longer provide sufficient returns, individuals make the choice to leave the complex society, to “walk away” from it all. As the society sheds layers of complexity, it reverts to a more primitive order. To a minor degree, last year’s stock market crash was an example of that, as society strove for a “reset” against the surreal complexity of financial instruments such as derivatives and credit default swaps. More dramatically, the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrates a condition where individuals left an intolerable condition en masse. Or in the case of the fall of the Roman Empire, for many of the individuals involved, the collapse seemed to be progress. The second solution is more optimistic and is the one that the majority, but not all, of the members of this school would support: technological innovation. Technologies that allow for greater efficiency or new sources of energy allow complexity to endure, even when it would have produced collapse under an older condition.
But collapse is hardly a model for a studio and endless promises of technological innovation lead to boredom. A third option, perhaps more potent option presents itself: evil.
If one simply does not care about playing by the rules of the game, but only about seizing power to further one’s own ends, it becomes possible to shed layers of complexity and thereby continue society.
The human cost, of course, is quite high, as Mussolini’s quest to get the trains to run on time in Italy demonstrates. Still, with the recent economic success of authoritarian regimes—and the open advocacy of such regimes as clients by notable architects such as OMA—evil is on the table again as an option for architects to pursue.
Nor is this new to architecture. The history of architecture is marked by numerous works for evil patrons, for example, the Tempio Malatesta, the Casa del Fascio, the Palace of the Soviets, the Zeppelin field at Nuremberg, the Glass House, Neverland, Ryungong, CCTV.
This studio is conceptual, aimed at developing arguments and polemics, but it sets out to do so using the tools of the architect. Dispensing with the prospect of realizing buildings as constructions of matter, we instead maintain that buildings can be constructions of thought, conceptual machines that produce arguments and state positions.
Although we expressly abandon any interest in construction, we nevertheless aim at designing buildings, or rather conceptual structures that look and perform very much like buildings. Our methodological inspiration is the radical architecture of the 1960s—e.g. Superstudio and Archizoom—but today we live in a world that has transformed more thoroughly than these architects could have ever predicted. Thus, we set out to seek other strategies and to look within architecture to seek what intelligence it still has to offer. To this end, this studio examines how architects can respond to evil. Irony, sarcasm, and direct complicity are too simple and are not options.
Against the dominant forms of architectural education today, this is not a scripting studio, nor a place for unbuildable Hollywood fantasy, nor by any means is it a last refuge of the real or its friend, tired from too many hours surfing the Internet, the hand. Against these outmoded positions, we propose architecture based on rigorous design, architecture as a system of thought that makes abstract knowledge experiential and conceptual thought objective, rigorous and understandable. In setting out to design buildings not diagrams, our goal is to see what the world is telling us, not what we are telling the world.