Object Oriented Ontology

Architecture’s Next Ontological Innovation
Patrik Schumacher, London 2012

Bill MacDonald and Erik Ghenoiu asked me to write a “critical assessment, counterpoint, or position statement in light of this issue’s material, showing both the importance of, and problems with, the arguments that have been emerging in architecture’s reception of object-oriented ontology and the new thinking about the natural sciences, and how this material is being applied to ongoing debates in our field.”

The reception of new science – under the auspices of the complexity paradigm – is a long, fruitful, ongoing process of learning, inspiration, self-transformation, and empowerment within architecture. In contrast, the reception of object-oriented ontology is a much more recent and narrow event. Accordingly, the fruitfulness (or sterility) of this reception is as yet unclear. The question of which philosophy architecture should consult and be guided by, for instance whether or not it should adopt an object-oriented rather than a relational ontology, cannot be answered in advance of working with such an ontology. The adoption of an “ontology” within a discursive field like architecture is more than the mere adoption of certain basic concepts and propositions. The adoption of a new ontology worthy of this title would have to include the adoption of a new set of primitives and operations within the design process. In this sense we can also infer the implicit ontology of contemporary architecture, and it seems that architecture during the last fifteen years has been working towards an ever more relational ontology, both conceptually and operationally dissolving the idea of architectural design as the aggregation of autonomous elements or objects. Indeed, thinking in terms of forces, correlations, fields, networks, and transformational series, and working via generative scripts and associative models has been the recent path of architecture’s progress, inscribing a “relational ontology” within architectural discourse and practice, both implicitly and explicitly. It is this very widespread and by now pervasive (and as I believe very productive) ontological investment that has prepared the ground for making a contrarian proposition (like object-oriented ontology) appealing. However, there can be no question of a return to the modernist object. Neither is Harman’s object-oriented ontology a simple return to Aristotelian substances; so what we would expect from a revival of the object concept within architecture is something new, something that sublates the insights and gains of relationism. Whatever object-oriented ontology becomes within architecture, it must be post-relational in the way Derrida, for instance, was post-structural. For now my attitude remains “wait and see,” while my own intellectual investment is following a different path altogether, which I will outline below.

No more Master-discourse: How Architecture Intersects with Philosophy

The validity and fate of object-oriented ontology within architecture is a matter of architecture’s autopoiesis. It does not depend on the success or failure of this approach within philosophy. If anything, the inverse is true: a philosophical doctrine or system succeeds or fails to the extent to which it is adopted, adapted and operationalized within the specialized, professional discourse-practices (societal function systems) like business, politics, the sciences, medicine, engineering, and architecture, among others. Philosophy does not have its own domain of practical engagement and responsibility. Rather it is both a conceptual agent provocateur and exchange hub relative to all the other function systems. It gathers, compares, abstracts and distributes the most advanced modes of conceptualization from each field. Philosophy is also to some extent creative and proposes its own conceptual inventions1 in response to what it observes in the specialized discourses. It has often aspired to construct an overarching conceptual system that somehow tries to cohere and encompass all or most of the specialized discourses. However, philosphy is no master discourse that could settle conceptual questions and instruct all function systems accordingly. No specialized professional discourse can be effectively refuted on the grounds of its philosophically questionable ontology. This is a simple statement of fact from the sociology of knowledge about how our society works. Indeed the philosopher’s themselves have given up their former stance of mastery and accept this reversal of power. For instance, actual scientific practices refute philosophies of science rather than vice versa. This is a simple fact of the autopoiesis of philosophy.

The more general and comprehensive a philosophical system tries to be, the more vague it must remain, and the more degrees of freedom it will have to leave to the various specific domains that might (or might not) appropriate, adapt, and apply it. The appropriation, adaptation, and utilization of a philosophy is always decided upon within the various societal function systems. And this in turn depends upon its local pragmatic viability and fruitfulness. This is ultimately a question of expediency in terms of mnemotechnical economy and operational efficacy (and very difficult to predict). The question of “truth” has long since been dismissed or reinterpreted in such pragmatist terms. Pragmatism is not only the underlying meta-consensus within philosophy – one can observe a “pragmatist convergence” involving both the Anglo-Saxon and the Continental philosophical tradition – but it is also implicit in all the other discourses of society, although not explicitly stated.

The adoption of certain basic conceptual schemata (ontologies and logics) is constraining but not determining for the further evolution of a discourse; there remain considerable degrees of freedom. Similar insights can be captured and articulated and similar operations can be effected on the basis of different ontologies. Different ontologies (or different conceptual elaborations of a given ontology) might thus be equifunctional. (One might compare this to the way different mathematical formalisms or different algorithms might be (more or less) equifunctional with respect to solving certain problems or questions, for instance, in computational geometry.)

The “truth” (pragmatic efficacy) of an ontology cannot be universally asserted, but only evaluated discipline by discipline. Further, the question of its fruitfulness within a specific discipline cannot be settled in advance. One simply has to try to work with a certain ontology. So it is prudent to adopt a ”wait and see” attitude, that is philosophical tolerance rather than philosophical fundamentalism. The criteria of success are different in each discipline (function system), based on the respective discipline’s societal function. All justification can only be function-system-specific. This in itself does not preclude that multiple disciplines can benefit from the same philosophical influence and ontological innovation. Conceptual harmonization across disciplines could indeed be advantageous, but there are inherent limits to such a harmonization, due to the ultimate incommensurability of autopoietic function systems. Harmonization must remain a secondary agenda.
The societal function, and thus the criteria of success, is different in each autopoietic function system. Terms and conceptual schemas shift meaning as they cross system boundaries. Science, engineering, architecture and design, politics, economy, et cetera, are self-referentially enclosed, autopoietic systems of communication. So we should not expect overarching movements and discourses. The different discourses are in fact conceptually incommensurable. Therefore full conceptual integration is out of the question. However, this does not exclude that irritation or even inspiration operates between autopoietic systems. An irritation or inspiration is not a rigorous conceptual operation. It is a perturbing impact that might be absorbed within the observing (receiving) system on its own terms. Philosophy often acts as an exchange hub or transmission belt for conceptual innovations or irritations between different disciplines. In this way post-structuralism as well as the new science of complexity (chaos theory) were appropriated and interpreted within architecture, on architecture’s own terms. There is no point in complaining or worrying that architects misunderstand and misappropriate the concepts of philosophy and science; that is to be expected.

The different autopoietic subsystems of world society are both evolving internally and co-evolving. We might expect radical transformations in society to be somehow reflected within all subsystems, albeit in rather different ways and somewhat asynchronously. The transformation of the economy from the Fordist to the post-Fordist regimes of reproduction might be cited here as giving an important impetus to the emergence of Parametricism in architecture. Parametricism responds to the increased complexity and dynamism of post-Fordist network society. Both transformations are related to the absorption of the possibilities offered by the micro-electronic revolution. The shift in science towards the study of non-linear dynamics, chaos, self-organization, and the emergence of complex systems is a parallel transformation in the sciences that has indeed inspired Parametricism. However, such observed parallels must not be taken to infer the possibility of an integral master-discourse that unifies the distinct function systems under a single, coherent theoretical system and system of values. Practical attempts at such a unification would reduce and blunt the complexity of a functionally differentiated society, and would imply a form of totalitarianism. There can be no single, overarching master-discourse, nor a single control-center within contemporary society. Architects are thrown back onto their own unique collective discourse and have to self-regulate their collective analyses, values, methods, and criteria of success, rather than hope for instruction from elsewhere. Inspiration is different from instruction.

In my estimation architecture (Parametricism) has successfully adapted and operationalized the relational ontology drawn from Post-structuralist and Deleuzian Philosophy as well as from complexity theory (inclusive of the paradigm of emergence). The elements or primitives of architecture have become parametrically malleable and remain dynamically embedded in networks of dependency, including multiple aspects of the context; all subsystems are internally differentiated and are to be correlated with (all) the other subsystems. More recently architectural organizations are the emergent result of (self-organizing) multi-agent interaction. The conceptual innovations of complexity theory were indeed operationalized. Alisa Andrasek and Jose Cadilhe’s contribution to this issue (“Synthetic Ecology: Recomputing Nature” p. 43.) delivers compelling evidence of this. However, the success of the new philosophy or ontology should here be measured not so much in terms of the close adherence to the philosophical sources or models from the natural sciences, but ultimately in terms of architecture’s own, unique criteria of success in line with architecture’s unique societal function. Confusion abounds about architecture’s societal function and core competency. In particular, the demarcation against the engineering disciplines is not always clearly observed. (Evidence of this can also be found in Alisa Andrasek and Jose Cadilhe’s contribution.) In particular, in the context of the ecological challenge, it is important not to confuse architecture with engineering.

The Societal Function of Architecture

How then should we define the unique societal function of architecture and design and thus its core competency? If my demarcation thesis is correct, architecture must be defined in terms that cut across any potential confusion with engineering. Before presenting my definition let me gather some of its readily recognizable moments or implications. While engineering is (should be) primarily (exclusively) concerned with issues of technical feasibility, architecture is (should be) primarily (exclusively) concerned with social functionality.2 While architects are always invested in the formal resolution of the project, and place value in aesthetic concerns, engineers do not claim competency in this respect. This is an indication of the fact that architects are prone to reflect their designs with respect to their impact on users understood as sentient, socialized actors, while engineers consider the safety and comfort of users understood only as physical or biological bodies. This implies that the essential function or contribution of (the discipline of) architecture is no longer the provision of physical shelter; this is now the responsibility of the engineering disciplines. To grasp the unique contribution of architecture we must understand another, less obvious but more profound contribution of the built environment to the evolution of society, indeed a crucial contribution to the very emergence of mankind from the animal kingdom.

Society can only evolve with the simultaneous ordering of space. The elaboration of a built environment, however haphazard, precarious, and based on accident rather than purpose and intention, seems to be a necessary condition for the build-up of any stable social order. The gradual build-up of a social system must go hand in hand with the gradual build-up of an artificial spatial order: social order requires spatial order. The social process needs the built environment as a plane of inscription where it can leave traces that then serve to build-up and stabilize social structures that in turn allow the further elaboration of more complex social processes. The evolution of society goes hand in hand with the evolution of its habitat understood as an ordering frame. The spatial order of the human habitat is both an immediate physical organizing apparatus that separates and connects social actors and their activities, and a material substrate for the inscription of an external ”social memory.” These ”inscriptions” might at first be an unintended side effect of the various activities, then given spatial arrangements are functionally adapted and elaborated. They are further marked and underlined by ornaments which make them more conspicuous. The result is the gradual build-up of a spatio-morphological system of signification. Thus emerges a semantically charged built environment that provides a differentiated system of settings that help social actors orient themselves with respect to the different communicative situations that constitute the social life-process of society. The system of social settings as a system of distinctions and relations uses both the positional identification of places (spatial position) and the morphological identification of places (ornamental marking) as props for the social communication process. Indications for this formative nexus between social and spatial structure abound within social anthropology, attesting to the crucial importance of cross-generationally stable spatio-morphological settings for the initial emergence and stabilization of all societies.3
On the basis of these observations and reflections we can now answer the question concerning architecture’s societal function. The question was posed and answered in Volume One of my book The Autopoiesis of Architecture4: The societal function of architecture is to frame communicative interaction.

Appropriately designed places regulate social communication by helping to define the situation, reminding the actors about who they are, ordering the actors into their appropriate relative position, for example, the place at the head of the table for the focal communicator of the group. The semiological dimension of the built environment is already coming into play here. As the built environment develops from the state of vernacular tradition to the state where it is advanced by architecture as an academic discipline and sophisticated, theory-led profession, the task of conscious semiological articulation arises. The importance of the spatio-morphological setting as a defining frame for social communication has also been recognized within sociology. Erving Goffman, for instance, was very much aware of the need for frames and ”assemblages of sign-equipment” that structure social communication: “First there is the “setting,” involving furniture, decor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within, or upon it. A setting tends to stay put, geographically speaking, so that those who would use a particular setting as part of their performance cannot begin their act until they have brought themselves to the appropriate place and must terminate their performance when they leave it.’5 This is still true under the condition of contemporary network society. The built environment remains a powerful tool of organization, sorting, and ordering people and their activities or communications. All problems of society are problems of communication. Every society needs to utilize articulated spatial relations to frame, order, and stabilize social communication. The built environment plus the more mobile artifacts such as furnishings, tools, clothing, etc., together engage in the staging of social interaction processes. Architectural settings are to be designed as framing communications, as permanent broadcasts that function as constraining or enabling premises for all further communications that are to be expected within the respective space. Architectural settings are communications that help to define and structure social institutions.

The life process of society consists of a rich, diversified panoply of institutions and communicative situations. In order to communicate within specific situations, the relevant participants have to first find each other and gather in particular settings, be brought into particular spatial constellations, and be enveloped by specific atmospheres that prime and prepare the participants with respect to the appropriate moods and modes of communication to be expected. This sorting, ordering, orienting, and framing is achieved by the designed or built environment. To get a grasp of the importance of the ordering capacity of a complex built environment, we might consider the following thought experiment: imagine that the population of a metropolis like London is thrown naked onto an undifferentiated tarmac surface. Nobody would know where to go or what to do. Nobody would even know who they were anymore. What is being erased is all the visible information about society’s order and institutions. The built environment is society’s material memory. It functions as a slowly evolving system of signification.

A new ontology for architecture: all architecture is communication

My theory of architecture – the theory of architectural autopoiesis – is based on an explicitly contingent theory design decision: to theorize architecture as a system of communications.
According to this (Luhmannian) ontology there is only one basic type of entity to be considered: communications. In this sense the proposed ontology is a radically flat ontology. It is, however, also a radically relational ontology. Communications only exist within systems of communications, as relational nodes in endless chains and networks of connected communications. The very existence, individuation, and persistence of a communication depends on its connections and on its position within an ongoing network of cross-references. Communication processes are rule-governed, rule-reproducing, and rule-evolving. That is why we speak of autopoietic (self-referentially enclosed) communication systems. While we might imagine the beginnings of communication as initially isolated instances in order to then think of networks or systems of communications, the analysis of our contemporary social communication leads to the opposite proposition: all communications are always already systemic. Communications are thus as it were “constituted from above,” as moments of a system. There is no communication without referential embedding, without a system reference, and its very individuation, identity, and meaning depends upon the system within which it is defined. That is radical relationism. My claim with respect to architecture is: All architecture (and design) consists of nothing but communications.

This way of theorizing architecture is based on Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. For Luhmann society consists of communications rather than human beings. Human beings might still be taken as part of nature, as organisms that exist prior to society. Communications are not nature in the sense that they constitute an emergent phenomenon of cultural (rather than natural or biological) evolution, a new and decisive ontological stratum and evolutionary achievement.6 Luhmann’s cybernetic ontology distinguishes three ontologically separate types of autopoietic systems: living systems, psychic systems, and social systems. All these systems are autopoietic systems in the sense that they are self-referentially enclosed systems that themselves produceall the components and structures their respective metabolisms (life, consciousness, sociality) require. Living systems are self-referentially enclosed metabolic networks. Psychic systems are self-referentially enclosed systems of mental states. Social systems are self-referentially enclosed systems of communications. All these types of autopoietic systems are self-stabilizing within an unstable, irritating environment. Social systems are systems of communications within a complex, layered environment that comprises social, psychic, organismic, and physical strata or aspects. Luhmann’s social systems theory focuses exclusively on social systems of communications. My theory of architecture embeds itself within this social systems theory. Therefore the ontology I propose for architecture is exclusively an ontology of communications. The category of communication comprises both actions or activities and designed artefacts (including architectural spaces). Accordingly Autopoiesis re-theorizes architectural functions in terms of (dense) action-artefact networks7.

Luhmann proposes to conceptualize the life process of society as a communication process rather than as a material reproduction process. This is – of course – a radical abstraction. However, I think this is a rather pertinent and powerful abstraction. All problems of society are problems of communication. Both the problems and the solutions of mankind have to do with society’s self-generated complexity. Even on an individual level, all our problems are problems of communication. Even those problems where the materiality of our life seems to assert itself transform right away into communication problems. For instance, when you fall sick you need to communicate with passersby or friends to call a doctor; then you need to communicate with the doctor and worry about your health insurance, etc. When you want to travel to Australia the physical distance to be overcome is no longer your problem; your problem is whether you can apply for and get a visa; whether you can afford to buy a ticket; whether the congestion and security controls are well managed; and whether you know how to navigate the congestion and security controls, etc. The same applies to architecture. The critical issue for an ambitious architecture that wants to contribute to the next stage of our civilization is not the technical-material problem of how to create an envelope that protects against the elements and beasts, buthow a designed territory operates as sophisticated framing communication that gathers and orders relevant (socialized) participants for specific communicative interactions. So I believe that communication-theory provides a parsimonious, productive framework for architecture’s reflective self-description. However, as I elaborate in the Epilogue of Volume Two of Autopoiesis, this theoretical perspective is coherent with an ultimately materialist underpinning. After all, communications are also material processes based on the material media of communication and the material media of information processing. What is important to note here is the fact that, although the proposal to posit communications as the ontological grounding of architecture is radically new, it has been theoretically elaborated in great detail in the 1,200 pages of my Autopoiesis. I have also initiated attempts to operationalize and apply this new ontology in my design research at the AADRL and elsewhere. The validity of this proposed new architectural ontology depends upon its consequent elaborations and conclusions – first theoretical and then practical – rather than on its initial appeal when stated and proclaimed as program. It must convince via its results. It is certainly not a question of “philosophical truth.”

Upgrading architecture’s social efficacy

All problems of society are problems of communication; the focus on communication upgrades architecture’s social efficacy. Especially within post-Fordist network society, total social productivity increases with the density of communication. The life process of society is a communication process that is structured by a rich, diversified panoply of institutions and communicative situations. It is the built environment that stabilizes this matrix in institutions andmakes this matrix navigable. The built environment is society’s physical memory; it functions as a system of signification that we all intuitively navigate to find relevant communication partners or situations. Post-Fordist network society demands that we continuously browse and scan as much of the social world as possible to remain continuously connected and informed. We cannot afford to withdraw and beaver away in isolation when innovation accelerates all around. We must continuously recalibrate what we are doing in line with what everybody else is doing. We must remain networked all the time to continuously ascertain the relevancy of our own efforts. We must be reaching out and get entangled all the time, everywhere. Telecommunication via mobile devices helps but does not suffice. Rapid and effective face-to-face communication remains a crucial component of our daily productivity. The whole built environment must become an interface of multi-modal communication, and the ability to navigate dense and complex urban environments is an important aspect of our overall productivity today.

Everything must resonate with everything else. This should result in an overall intensification of relations that gives the urban field a performative density, informational richness, and cognitive coherence that makes for quick navigation and effective participation in a complex social arena. Our increasing ability to scan an ever-increasing simultaneity of events, and to move through a rapid succession of communicative encounters, constitutes the essential, contemporary form ofcultural advancement. The further advancement of this vital capacity requires a new built environment with an unprecedented level of complexity, a complexity that is organized and articulated into a complex, variegated order of the kind we admire in natural, self-organized systems.

The city is a complex text and a permanent broadcast. All its spaces and territories are communications. Entering a territory implies the acceptance of a framing communication. All further encounters and communications are premised by this framing communication. Our ambition must be to unfold more choices in dense, perceptually palpable, and legible arrangements. The more free and the more complex a society, the more will it have to spatially order and orient its participants via perceived thresholds and semiotic clues rather than via physical barriers and channels. The territories and settings that architecture offers are themselves communications. They communicate about the types and modes of interaction that are to be expected within the respective spaces or settings. These spatial communications are premises for all further communications that take place within the respective space.

Everything communicates with everything. This is not a metaphysical assertion about the world but a heuristic principle for parametric design under the auspices of parametricism. In terms of urban environments this implies that we should be able to perceive and participate in as many events as possible, always remaining exposed to many further choices to select our next move. This is facilitated best, if the visual field presents a rich, ordered scene of manifold offerings and also provides clues and anticipations about what lies behind the currently visible layers. This is made possible by the smooth parametric differentiation of all urban and architectural subsystems, and by infusing further order via the employment of associative logics that correlate the different subsystems in ways that make them representations of each other, facilitating inferences from the visible to the invisible or not yet visible. The urban dweller should be able to read and navigate the built environment just like the natives of the Amazon read and navigate their jungle. Instead of the garbage spill model of development that allows the random agglomeration and collage of pure difference, I am calling for a spatially complex, variegated order comparable to natural ecosystems like the jungle. That’s the model of the parametricist city.

The speed and confidence with which one can make new experiences and meaningful connections is decisive. The designed urban environments that facilitate such hyper-connectivity must be deep, layered, and porous in all directions. The space allows us to follow different transformational logics and trajectories in different directions. This is the space of the ”parametric jungle,” giving the sense of being suspended within a structured, fully three-dimensional field of urban riches.

The maturing style of Parametricism is geared up – in terms of its computational techniques and attendant formal-spatial repertoire – to build and order unprecedented levels of spatio-morphological complexity. Parametricism has the versatility, rich formal repertoire, and associative tools to build up the complex, variegated order that is called for in contemporary society. It has developed the capacity to intricately structure very complex urban scenes that nevertheless remain legible and navigable. The metropolitan condition that Georg Simmel first described one hundred years agoas numbing sensory overload becomes productive and transmutes into intense information processing,a place where we feel alive and productive. Its urban vitality is based on the high density of diverse communicative offerings that allows us to be both randomly freewheeling and to become highly selective within a split second. This is only possible in a build environment that presents and orders myriad communicative opportunities.

The Re-foundation of Architectural Semiology

It is generally accepted that all architecture and urbanism has an inevitable semantic dimension. However, so far nobody seems to have succeeded in making architecture’s semantic dimension an arena of an explicit, strategic design effort. Earlier attempts to develop an architectural semiology (under the auspices of Postmodernism and Deconstructivism) failed to convince and were rejected in the early 90s when “operativity” was counter-posed to “representation.” This opposition was the expression of a necessary retreat from an unproductive engagement with architectural symbolism. However, this opposition is ultimately a false opposition. Architecture operates and functions via its semantic associations as much as it functions via physical separation or connection. The built environment functions through its visual appearance, its legibility, and its related capacity to frame and prime communication. The built environment is not just channelling bodies; it is orienting sentient, socialized beings who must actively comprehend and navigate ever more complex urban scenes. A designed space is itself a communication, a framing premise for all communications that take place within its territory.

The theory of architectural autopoiesis8 posits the spatio-morphological framing of communicative interaction as the unique societal function of the design disciplines including architecture and urbanism. My attempt at formulating the axioms and heuristics of a viable architectural semiology is elaborated in the second Volume of Autopoiesis.9 There I propose a definition of architectural order that poses organisation, phenomenological articulation and semiological articulation (signification) as three moments of an architectural or urban design project. The three dimensions that together procure architectural order are conceptually derived via two binary distinctions as follows:

Organization is based upon the constitution or distribution of positions for spatial elements and their pattern of linkages. Articulation is based upon the constitution or distribution of morphological identities, similitudes, and differences across the architectural elements to be organized. Organization is instituted via the physical means of distancing, barring, and connecting via vistas and/or circulatory channelling. These physical mechanisms can (in theory) operate independently of all nuanced perception and comprehension, and can thus, in principle, succeed without the efforts of articulation. However, the restriction to mere organization without articulation, without facilitating the participants’ active navigation, severely constrains the level of complexity possible in the pattern of social communication thus framed. Articulation presupposes cognition. It enlists the participant’s perception and comprehension and thus facilitates the participants’ active orientation. The distinction of organization versus articulation is thus based on the difference between handling passive bodies versus enlisting active, cognitive agents. The two registers relate as follows: articulation builds upon and reveals organization. It makes the organization of functions apparent. In so doing it elevates organization into order.

The dimension of articulation includes two distinct sub-tasks: phenomenological articulation and semiological articulation. The distinction is between the enlistment of behavioral responses from cognitive agents and the communicative engagement of socialized actors. The phenomenological project enlists the users as cognitive agents, perceiving and decomposing their environment along the lines of the cognitive principles of pattern-recognition or Gestalt-perception. It is all about making organizational arrangements perceptually legible by making important points conspicuous, avoiding the visual overcrowding of the scene, and so on. This is a necessary precondition for all semiological codings that can only attach to the visually discernable features of the environment. Users can only read, interpret, or comprehend what they can discern. However, the comprehension of a social situation involves more than the distinction of conspicuous features. It is an act of interpretation, an act of reading a communication: namely the reading of the communication that the space itself constitutes as framing communication, and premise for all communicative interactions to be expected within its ambit. (These situated communications are attributed to the institutions that host the respective communicative events, i.e. they are attributed to the clients rather than to the architects or designers.) Communication presupposes language, that is, a system of signification. The built environment spontaneously evolves into such a (more or less vague and unreliable) system of signification. The task of architectural semiology as design agenda is to go beyond this spontaneous semiosis (that every talented designer navigates intuitively) and to build up a more complex and more precise system of signification. To summarize, we can thus distinguish the contributions that the three dimensions of architecture’s task make to architecture’s societal function:

task dimension
organisational project
phenomenological project
semiological project

framing contribution
as physical frame
as perceptual frame
as communicative frame

engagement of users
as physical bodies
as cognitive beings
as socialized actors

solicited response
passive movement
active behavior
communicative action

As urban complexity and density increase, effective semiological articulation becomes ever more important, and the other two aspects of architectural order are reduced to mere preconditions of spatio-morphological signification. To the extent that this is becoming prevalent, architecture’s ontology can be tightened to comprise only communications.

Every talented or successful designer adapts to and intervenes intuitively within the spontaneous and historically evolving semiological system of the built environment. My aim is to move from an intuitive participation within an evolving semiosis to an explicit design agenda that understands the design of a large scale architectural complex as an opportunity to design a new, coherent system of signification: a new artificial architectural language (without relying on the familiar codes found in the existing built environments). In Volume Two of Autopoiesis I set out an axiomatic framework for the elaboration of architectural systems of signification. For instance, I circumscribe the domain of architecture’s signified, i.e. the types of informational content an architectural communication might convey, as comprising the societal panoply of types of interaction (institutions, communication situations), here termed function type; the panoply of social status groups, here termed social type; and finallythe location type, implying that architectural systems of signification might systematically reveal positional information about what to expect when beyond the immediate field of vision. Another axiom stipulates architectural territory to be the minimal unit of communication. The sign-concept was imported from Sassure’s semiology into the theory of architectural autopoiesis as co-extensive equivalent to its central concept of communication. The more specific concept of architectural sign, synonomous with built architectural communication, is concretized by being identified with the concept of (designed and designated) territory as the minimal self-sufficient communicative unit within the domain of architecture; equivalent to the unit of the sentence as the minimal self-sufficient communicative unit of speech acts utilizing a verbal language. Architectural signs, as much as the sentences of a language, are composite entities. This composite character is not only observed in the case of larger territories like buildings or urban ensembles that can be analysed as aggregations of elemental territorial units, but most importantly, concerns the constitution of the elemental territorial sign-units from components that by themselves do not constitute autonomous communications. These components are not complete signs. They might be referred to as sign-radicals.10 They require each other to complete a sign. Architectural territories (architectural signs or communications) function as constraining or enabling premises for all further communications that are to be expected within the respective space.

Every communication is dialogical. Every communication offers itself to the binary choice of being accepted or rejected. A verbal communication, for example, in the form of a declarative sentence or assertion, is either accepted as true or rejected as false. It makes no sense to accept or reject single words unless they represent a compressed sentence. A command is either obeyed or resisted, etc. The acceptance of a communication allows it to become a premise and point of reference for further connecting communications. In the same way a territory or spatial frame can be rejected or accepted as a premise for further communications: the territory can be entered – which implies acceptance and engagement with the signified and anticipated type of social interaction expected within the entered territory – or the territory can be exited, or altogether avoided. This spells rejection and implies the refusal to participate in the signified social interaction. The acceptance of a communication allows for the connection of further communications that build upon each other.

The territorial unit functions as a communication that can be accepted or rejected. Any smaller architectural unit, below the level of the territorial unit, for example, a column, is not subject to acceptance versus rejection. The column’s muteness in this respect implies that it is not to be counted as communication. By itself the column means little, unless it is either establishing its own place or territory – perhaps for an intimate rendevouz. In all other (usual) cases it has only a subsidiary meaning as it contributes to the characterization of a territory. The definition and analysis of the general semiological base category of the sign is thus instituted by the architectural territory as follows: the framing territory is the sign, with the unity of its bounding and characterizing physical devices, together constituting the signifier, and the framed (expected) type of social interaction constituting the signified.

Operationalizing the ontology of communication

It has now become both possible and necessary to enhance architecture’s capacity to organize and articulate the increasing complexity of (the most advanced centers of) post-Fordist network society through the refoundation of architectural semiology under the auspices of Parametricism. Correlation has become the new fundamental base concept of architectural design. We must take care to distinguish three types of correlation: formal correlations, functional correlations, and form-function correlations. So far the discourse on Parametricism has primarily focussed on formal correlation, the correlation of formal-spatial subsystems.11 However, it is pertinent to expand the concept of correlation to include form-function relations, i.e. including the correlation of the patterned built environment with the patterns of social communications that unfold within it. This is meaningful because the same computational techniques that operationalize the concept of formal correlation can now be applied to form-function correlations. How is this possible?

The functional heuristics of Parametricism12 propose to conceive of the functions of spaces in terms of dynamic patterns of social communications, i.e. as parametrically variable, dynamic event scenarios rather thanstatic schedules of accommodation that list functional stereotypes. It has now become possible – for the first time in the history of architecture – to model the functional layer of the city and thus incorporate it into the design process. This is made possible by computational crowd modelling techniques via agent-based models. Such models reproduce or predict collective patterns of movement including the emergence of formations such as stop-and-go waves and the spontaneous separation of opposite flows of pedestrians in bidirectional traffic.
Based on this societal function of architecture I have formulated the task of architectural design to proceed along three dimensions: organization, articulation, and signification. Accordingly, in the second volume of Autopoiesis I am proposing to upgrade the intelligence and capacity of the discipline along these three dimensions, and suggest that the design project can be divided into three projects: the organizational project, the phenomenological project, and the semiological project. These are general proposals that are initially independent of any investment into a particular style. However, I believe that Parametricism is best placed to take on these agendas. I have started to work with students on the idea of a parametric semiology where a complex design is built up as a complex system of signification, using agent-based crowd modelling (functional crowds) to set up systematic correlations between architectural features and behavioral responses.
Tools like “MiArmy” or “AI.implant” (available as plugins for Maya), or “Massive” now make behavioral modeling within designed environments accessible to architects. Agent modeling should not be limited to crowd circulation flows, but should encompass all patterns of occupation and social interaction in space. In fact scientists are already engaged in the underlying research. Such research takes place for example at the Center for Human Modeling and Simulation at the University of Pennsylvania, and at the Department of Computer Science at George Mason University. Jan M. Allbeck (from George Mason University) emphasizes this new departure away from mere crowd flow engineering to the programming of functional crowds:

”Most crowd simulation research either focuses on navigating characters through an environment while avoiding collisions or on simulating very large crowds. Our work focuses on creating populations that inhabit a space as opposed to passing through it. Characters exhibit behaviors that are typical for their setting. We term these populations functional crowds. … We use roles and groups to help specify behaviors, we use a parameterized representation to add the semantics of actions and objects, and we implemented four types of actions (i.e. scheduled, reactive, opportunistic, and aleatoric) to ensure rich, emergent behaviors.”13

This research seems primarily to be intended for application within the game industry. However, architects should start appropriating this research, both in terms of the tools and the analytic intelligence it provides.

The idea of functional crowds can be taken further: The agents’ behavior might be scripted so as to be correlated with the configurational and morphological features of the designed environment, i.e. programmed agents respond to environmental clues. Such clues or triggers might include furniture configurations as well as other artifacts. The idea is to build up dynamic action-artifact networks. Colours, textures, and stylistic features, that together with ambient parameters (lighting conditions) constitute and characterize a certain territory might influence the bevavioral mode (mood) of the agent. Since the ‘meaning’ of an architectural space is the (nuanced) type of event or social interaction to be expected within its territory, the new tools allow for the re-foundation of architectural semiology as parametric semiology. This implies that the meaning of the architectural language can enter the design medium (digital model). The semiological project implies that the design project systematizes all form-function correlations into a coherent system of signification. A system of signification is a system of mappings (correlations) that map distinctions or manifolds defined within the domain of the signified (here the domain of patterns of social interaction) onto distinctions or manifolds defined within the domain of the signifier (here the domain of spatial positions and morphological features defining and characterizing a given territory) and vice versa. The system of signification works if the programmed social agents consistently respond to the relevantly coded positional and morphological clues so that expected behaviours can be read off the articulated environmental configuration. The meaning of architecture, the prospective life processes it frames and sustains, is modelled and assessed within the design process, thus becoming a direct object of creative speculation and cumulative design elaboration. Architecture’s new prospective ontology of communication can thus be operationalized within the design model.



Categories: Theory


studying: architecture design


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