Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Architecture, space and informatics (Pt I)

Yesterday I went to Brian Lonsway's lecture at Carleton's School of Architecture. Currently, he is Assistant Professor of Architecture and Director of the Informatics and Architecture program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and his research focusses on the relationships between architecture and informatics (cf. Hayles and Haraway, the critical study of computation within social and political contexts). More specifically, he spoke about the need to develop meaningful definitions of space within computer-mediated, interactive spatial environments. Right on.

Unfortunately, I found his talk a bit hard to follow, but I have tried to turn it into something meaningful and useful to me:

First, he distinguished computing from computation and informatics. Computing, he argued, is something we do with computers, or get computers to do for us. Computation is something that engages the essential (logical) aspects of computing. And, as mentioned above, informatics is the critical study of computation. He spoke of "mistaken dimensionality" or mistaking computing for computation, and called for a renewed and critically aware understanding of how space is organised or assumed in computation.

The first type of spatial organisation he discussed was metaphysical - the type of approach that breaks down space into discrete entities and works hard to find universal patterns and grammar. (Remember that metaphysics is concerned with the true nature of the universe.) The related desire to find a language for architecture draws on the work of Chomsky, and is well known from the work of Lynch, Alexander and Mitchell. These approaches to architecture and space emerged alongside the philosophy of cybernetics and the development of modern computing, so it should come as no surprise that they share many assumptions about what constitutes space and spatial experience (i.e. Cartesian and cellular). However, in part because these histories and philosophies are connected, they are also often taken for granted and thus "scientistic" architecture has been subjected to little or no critique.

The second type of spatial organisation he discussed was differant - the type of approach that searches not for universals or essences, but focusses on difference/différance (cf. Derrida). It is concerned with spaces of ambiguity and negotiation, rather than certainty and predictability. In linguistic terms, it is concerned with neither signifier nor signified, but rather with the space between the two. In other words, it seeks to understand de-temporalisation and de-spatialisation: interstices, gaps and fragments. This space is, by definition, critical of, or even opposed to, the types of metaphysical organisation described above. As such, its primary concern is critique: to find all the bits that get left out of, or contradict, metaphysical approaches. In my mind, the usefulness of these ways of thinking is found precisely in the ability to engage the differences between the virtual and the actual.

It strikes me that the virtual most often stands for "that-which-may-as-well-be". In that sense, we are able to experience it as "real". But many social and cultural theorists argue that the virtual shouldn't be contrasted with the real, it should be contrasted with the actual. What's the difference? Well, when I watch videos on MuchMoreRetro, I recognise "the 80s". More accurately, I recognise the (static and universal) myths and symbols of the 80s. In other words, what I'm watching is the virtual 80s, which is plenty real, but isn't much like the actual 80s of my experience. This sense of the virtual, or the abstract(ed), is not unlike Baudrillard's simulacra.

The problem, we can argue, is when this sense of the virtual or might-as-well-be, is used to build places that ostensibly represent or recreate things as-they-really-are. What we quickly see is a disjuncture between the pattern, the model, the equation, the algorithm, etc. and people's actual lived experience. Brian Lonsway gave the example of a care facility built for Alzheimer's patients. Designed according to the understanding that people suffering from the disease still had long-term memories, it was assumed that a place that recreated their past would make them feel more "at home". In this case, the care facility did not look like a hospital, but rather like a 50s theme-park. Of course, this is a virtual 50s that was designed - one where women were not stuck in the home and Black people were not segregated. What's important here is that this virtuality had actual consequences: it erased particular histories and experiences.

Another example Brian gave was the Celebration Health Imaging Center, located in Disney's town of Celebration, Florida.

"At the Celebration Health Imaging Center, we understand that our guests may be intimidated by the sights and sounds of the large equipment usually associated with CT Scans, MRI scans, and other tests. We are committed to changing the way you experience health care. We feel the key to helping patients overcome their anxiety and discomfort is to create a healing environment that replaces traditional settings. This is the premise behind Seaside Imaging. This peaceful virtual beach is designed to immerse our guests in a relaxing experience and furthers our dedication to providing a healing environment."

Again, although this is a real (virtual) space, the actual consequences include a masking or hiding of technology, as well as a rather disembodied (eased) experience of the (dis-eased) body.

Now, one of the ways architects are moving away from metaphysical organisation and towards differant organisation, Brian argued, was through what he called organisations of agency. Rather than treating space as inactive, or acting only as a repository, we could organise space as monadic (not cellular) or Leibnizian (not Cartesian). We could also find ways to think about data subjectively, rather than as truth. We could focus on designer agency and motivation, as well as on design as relational and contingent. The closest architects are getting to this way of thinking, he argued, is with parametric design.

Rather than pre-conceptualising form, as patterns tend to, parametric modelling focusses on assembly, or what in my discipline is referred to as becoming. Parametric design is iterative and changes are easily made through(out) the process of assembly. As such, it is never really done, and follows principles also advocated in notions of adaptive or hackable design. Work that falls within this type of spatial organisation includes that of Greg Lynn and Michael Silver - and with any sort of luck will find a voice at next week's Non Standard Praxis: Emergent Principles of Architectural Praxis With/in Digital Technologies conference at MIT, the bastion of metaphysical ways of organising space and culture.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot!
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