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New Subjectivity:
architecture between Communication and Information

Antonino Saggio
[in italiano]
[im deutsch]

The aim of this paper is to ask a question: "What developments do we hope to see in architecture over the coming years?" And, to make the question more tangible, we mean the next years so that in 2006 we will be able to check what has actually been achieved.
The question appears to pass over an aspect that, far from being negligible, is indeed crucial. We are talking about Digital architecture or Computer and architecture only as a means of achieving a new phase for architecture as a whole. The formula of the IT Revolution in Architecture emphasises the rate of acceleration that we are currently experiencing.

Oosterhuis.nl, Noord-Holland pavilion for the Floriade 2002 exhibition.

It has revolutionised the creation of every product in the modern world, with evident economic and social repercussions, and it is now ready, as this exhibition itself demonstrates, to become a subject for reflection for all architects.
Before we even start answering the question about the developments we hope to see, we must take a step back and draw a deep breath. The run-up that I suggest making only has two stops: one in 1997, and the other in 1926.

THE REDISCOVERY OF NARRATION. The new Bauhaus building was opened in 1926. In Dessau all links with past building styles were drastically severed. In particular, the new building ruled out any idea of a building typology, of structural continuity, urban morphology, a perspective framework, a historic style and lastly, a role as a cathedral understood as a symbolic and communicative role attributed to architecture. This was a painful elimination, especially because the image of a cathedral created by Feininger was in the first programme for the school drawn up by the new director in 1919. Walter Gropius also affirmed that "the new building activities of the future… would rise towards the sky like a crystalline symbol of a new faith being born." (Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau, Margret Kentgens-Craig (Hrsg.), das bauhausgebäude in dessau 1926-1999. Basel, Berlin, Boston 1998, p. 6)

Lyonel Feininger, Cathedral,
woodcut, cover of 1st program
of Bauhaus Weimar, April 1919.

Seen from the angle that interests us now, the key aspect is precisely this disappearance of the cathedral. The architecture of the Modern Movement could only communicate its function in tautological terms. The end form was determined by meaningless abstract signs (pilotis, the two-dimensional plane, the glass slot), put together, like pieces of meccano, based on rules of pure syntax. Called by postmodern historiography of "inibition" towards form, this approach was profoundly motivated because it symbolised the way in which machines were conceived, designed and constructed.

But when the objectivisation parameters for functions, the standardisation of components, the uniformity of solutions, the serialisation of processes and the entire industrial production system entered a period of crisis (and it is well known that the crisis rampaged for most of the Seventies and Eighties), aspects that had previously been excluded were reinstated. In other words, the narrative, symbolic and communicative importance of architecture.

The earliest sign of this process of re-introducing meaning and symbol into a language derived from the Modernist movement appeared in Jørn Utzon's project for the Sydney Opera House in 1956, but the process only really gathered strength more recently. In particular, in 1997 it became evident for the first time to all that architecture had reacquired its value as a means of public communication (or to use the pejorative form: publicity communication). For a variety of reasons, we have used the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as a marker of this change (but the same could be said of the Amsterdam Science Museum or the new wing of the Jewish Museum in Berlin). Today everyone goes to Bilbao as if fulfilling a pilgrimage to this lay cathedral of culture designed in a contemporary language. But what has this to do with digital architecture, with the architecture of information, and above all with the future and the developments we hope it will bring?

COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION. This major comeback of communication as the driving force behind a new phase of architecture is a fact that is structurally linked to the IT revolution. It is an aspect that is often underestimated and misunderstood.

Fredy Massad, New York Spring, 1996.

The potato that we buy at the supermarket is 90% information (research, marketing, distribution), the same is true to an even greater degree of household appliances or cars and an increasing number of people produce goods that are "pure" information. Information is the real added value of any product. And what makes it competitive is the real added value. Information also means narration, image and design. Take a watch for example, or a car or even architecture. First of all we buy the narration, the lifestyle utopia, then the form, while the fact that the product works is absolutely taken for granted. The container wins hands down over the contents.

NEW ISSUES. But, obviously, this first narrative and metaphorical level is only the start and, we might say, that there is a very superficial relationship between Architecture and the IT revolution that does not affect the real issues at stake today. A parallel example of our particular situation today can be found in Bruno Taut's Glashaus at the Werkbund Exhibition of 1914.

Bruno Taut, Glashaus, German Werkbund Exhibition, 1914 Cologne.

The use of glass and transparency was a romantic hymn at the time, an expressive and poetic inspiration that had no influence whatsoever on the real issues at stake. We have to wait until the Bauhaus movement before it was understood how glass and transparency could act as the catalysts for a new vision of architecture.

Walter Gropius, Bauhaus, 1926 Dessau.

In Dessau transparency becomes the issue of Gropius message. An aesthetic, formative, practical, functional and philosophical issue. This underlines Gropius's view that transparency is the objectivisation of function, namely architecture's capacity to annul "every communicative aspect", presenting itself alone. "Neue Sachlichkeit" would not have aesthetics, but only ethics, if it were not for transparency.

THE NEW "HOW". A further comparison with Bauhaus is required here because the architecture that will be built over the coming years cannot avoid being overwhelmingly and dramatically different from the Modern Movement. Gropius vanquished the five-headed dragon of traditionalist architecture by adopting 1. free bodies adhering to each function instead of a priori schemes for individual typologies; 2. a centripetal system of conquering space rather than closed blocks on the road; 3. construction based on structural skeletons rather than continuous walls; 4. a dynamic language instead of a figurative one anchored to history and renaissance perspective and 5. the elimination of every form of symbolism.

Greg Lynn FORM & Fabian Marcaccio, Installation The Predator, for the show Suite Fantastique, The Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus Ohio, 2001.

Today we are trying to understand how the same elements discovered by Gropius and declined in different forms by Mies or Mendelsohn and others will radically change once again. And they will be forced to change because, as was pointed out earlier, this outburst of technological innovation will inevitably have repercussions on our field.
In his closing remarks at the 1930 Werkbund congress in Vienna, Mies Van Der Rohe stated that: "New time is a reality; it exists irrespective of whether we accept or reject it. It is neither better nor worse than any other time, it is simply a fact and per se unaffected by values. What matters is not 'what' but merely 'how'." (Fritz Neumeyer, Mies van der Rohe. Das kunstlose Wort. Gedanken zur Baukunst. Berlin 1986, p. 372)
My generation of architects and critics have started to piece together quite a few ideas about the "how" concerning the New Time of Information. Some of these are pretty clear-cut.

Pongratz+Perbellini Architetti, Piazza cittadella, Verona.

The free unfurling of the functions that, from an industrial point of view, represented the idea of an expanding machine now increasingly tends to be replaced by a logic based on the space between. There is a tendency to work "in between", also because we are forced to do so by the presence of existing buildings. The idea of efficient building structures and frameworks is replaced by the formula "engineering is the art of the possible".

Frank O. Gehry and Associates.
Experience Music Project under
construction, Seattle, 2000
(photo Bruce Lindsey).

Frank O. Gehry and Associates.
CATIA drawing, The Peter B. Lewis
Campus of the Weatherhead School
of Management at Case Western
Reserve University in Cleveland
Ohio. Completion 2002.

Building takes any shape and is accomplished in any way. Take the example of Bilbao again (also because in many cases building costs represent a much smaller percentage than in the past), Gropius's centripetal movement in space is replaced by many others based on the figures of the palimpsest, spiral, partial emersions, supporting an idea of space as a system of interacting forces between the interior and exterior. There is no machine that expands freely into its surroundings, but rather a series of interrelations between objects. Taken to an extreme there are no more primary elements (atoms, functions or 2D planes), but only "connections". Lastly, in a city which itself has been designed as if it were an assembly line (this is where we live, work, rest and spend free time), we are replacing it with an increasingly mixed, hybrid, multifunctional city, open 24 hours a day and above all "anti-zoning".

ABOUT INTERACTIVITY. We are working towards a complete replacement of Gropius's discoveries, not because we do not like them (on the contrary, we continue to love them like we love Piero, Michelangelo or Caravaggio) but because our modern world is totally different.
We are not wondering how to create architecture that makes superficial use of information as communication or narration ? as happened during the Nineties ? but on the contrary, how to ensure that information becomes the very essence of architecture.

Now, if information (its classification, diffusion, transmission and above all its formalisation) is the driving force behind change, and if it is true that the motor that has enabled this new development is the electronic digitalisation of data (in all fields and in all sectors), it is also true that these two levels, albeit having an enormous impact, would be non-existent without a thinking mind, which is the true issue of the information revolution. It is well known that this mind consists of the dynamic interconnection of data. Today we have the capacity to create extremely mobile models governed by one or more functions, which can generate different models just by altering a single input of information. We are immersed in a cloud of information that is constantly changing.

Frank O. Gehry and Associates.
CAD software being developed to
facilitate skin design.

A few years ago now we showed out how to translate this into architecture, namely into apparently the most static thing that exists, and the same was also done by a small group of pioneering architects, most of whom are here today. It is called Interactivity and it will play the same role as transparency in Gropius's new objectivity.

INTERACTIVITY. Interactivity in architecture means at least three different things with increasingly levels of complexity, the most complex of which, namely physical Interactivity, contains the first two. But let us proceed in order. Physical interactivity means that the architecture itself changes. We know that intelligent houses already exist whose environment modifies according to the situation. There is the hospitality setting in which some lights are automatically dimmed, selected doors open, sliding partitions or false ceilings are moved, and the temperature and air flow are adjusted accordingly. Perhaps, and this is something that will become increasingly possible following the introduction of microfibres for furnishings, glass and some new marbles, even the physical characteristics of walls may interactively change in texture, porosity, the capacity to absorb sound or colour. Countless other scenarios are also possible. The application of these ideas as part of a more widespread practice, using them not only in affluent homes, as happens at present, but to an increasing extent in public buildings, museums and in certain areas of the city is one of the developments that we would hope to see in architecture over the next five years. And by 2006 I am almost certain that we will also see signs of a maturing "aesthetic" conscience in this field.

NOX (Lars Spuybroek with Pitupong Choawakul, Norbert Palz, Wolfgang Novak and Joan Almekinders) with artist Q.S. Serafijn, Interactive tower for the city of Doetinchem, 1998.

But in addition to the effective mutation of architecture, Interactivity also involves two lower levels that are simpler to achieve. The first is that today we can combine reality and the virtual in ways that would have been inconceivable in the past. Advances in the projection systems used almost under the skin of the building allow us to intervene with a sort of new mass media illusionism bringing vitality to degraded situations or circumstances in which it was impossible to intervene. Interventions of this kind have been carried out on archeological sites or in degraded suburbs or in some areas of historic city centres. It represents a decisive step towards the presence of IT within the city landscape and scenery. We predict the development of "an IT baroque": of the new Piazza Navonas, the new Trevi Fountains and the new Trinità dei Monti in 2006. We are working on it.

Gianni Ranaulo, Media building Pirelli - Milanocentrale Spa, 1999.

IaN+ (C. Baglivo, L. Galofaro, S. Manna), Underground Museum, Villa Medici, Roma.

Lastly, there is a third level that might be even more widespread. This takes the form of interactivity within the process of architectural design itself. Although few make effective use of this facility, it is now possible to move rapidly and easily inside the cloud of interconnected data that I described earlier, making ad hoc decisions regarding the shape we wish to give to the cloud. The process of first conceiving, then constructing and last of all managing architecture allows a massive flow of interactivity.

Wombat (K. Jormakka, J. Gargus,
F. Jamil, M. Ramirez), trailer that can
take three habitable positions.
Deleuzian position.

We are gradually drawing closer to the dream-like vision advocated by Chuck Eastman and other scientists working on Caad in the Seventies. Namely, having a single database of 3D information on a building, organised in hierarchical terms (therefore dynamically, as if it represented a mathematical equation), linked to external catalogues, tariffs, 3D models of the components and connected to expert systems for specialist tests. Efficiency is not the only advantage. Interactivity in the design process also means creating an increasingly fluid way of achieving the best possible architecture on each occasion. Certainly, in 2006 we hope for better architecture "tout-court", without adjectives, which will undoubtedly be triggered by this level of interactivity in the design process.

NEW SUBJECTIVITY. You will now understand why I used the term "New Subjectivity" in the title, since of all the predicted outcomes this is the most decisive. While the formula for the Modern Movement was rightly "Neue Sachlichkeit", today's formula can only be "New Subjectivity". Not "Existenzminimum", but rather an existence that is expanded and enriched to make individuals into increasingly alive and free persons, not just numbers in a statistical yearbook.

Peter Anders. Cybrid space in an architectural
office. Remote clients and consultants are ghost
like, architect is the woman. They are looking
at a model of a cybrid project. Both the model
and the architectural space are cybrids - part
material and cyberspaces

If transparency provided the aesthetics and ethics, the reason and the technique for a world that rationally wished to see the progress of civilisation, and better standards of living for the vast masses of workers in industry (and it succeeded!), I hope that interactivity may serve to focus contemporary thought on an architecture that, having overcome the objectivity of our needs, can respond to the subjectivity of our wishes.

Antonino Saggio


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