Saturday, February 27, 2010

It's been brought to my attention that the Eisenman debacle, which I described in a previous post, is a bit more extensive than I expected*. In addition to his lecture at the AA, he has apparently made reference to GreyMatters on several other occasions. In an introduction to Anthony Vidler's Histories of the Immediate Present, Eisenman writes the following:

Of all the terms in the architectural lexicon, or, for that matter, those of painting and sculpture, the one most laden with social and political opprobrium is formalism. To be a formalist is to be a target for everyone who feels that architecture is a social project full of rhetorical symbolism. Yet I was struck, while on a recent jury at a prestigious East Coast architecture school, by the pervasive influence of a new, perhaps more virulent breed of formalism, more virulent because it was posed under the banner of a neo-avant-garde technological determinism. The nexus of this formalism lay in advanced computer modeling techniques generated out of complex algorithms that produced parametric processes of enormous complexity and consistency, replete with their own variability and distortion. The range, variety and energy of this work should have appealed to me personally, not only because of my memories of that particular institution as a bastion of intellectual conservatism, but also because this cutting-edge-process work was close to an idea of autonomy inherent in such authorless processes. Instead, I felt that something was radically wrong, something that speaks to a more general problem of architecture today. It was an autonomy freed from any passionate or firm ideological commitment.

He goes on to describe a more satisfactory definition of autonomy, which can be categorized under the rubric of the word "formal," and which he differentiates from a passionless and voided sense of "formalism." "Any internally generated forms," he writes, "that are part of a critical system in one sense could be considered as autonomous, independent of social or market forces, while still offering a critique of these forces." In other words, Eisenman clearly sees the value of autonomous systems within architecture, and respects them as a formal device with the capacity to react and respond to non-formal issues surrounding the discipline. Perhaps he is imagining these systems as a kind of grammar or visual language that indexes these non-formal issues and changes according to a predetermined set of controls. I might be misinterpreting his definition of autonomy as such, but oddly enough if it in fact has anything to do with indexicality, it seems that he has incorporated a more recent line of architectural research into a line of thinking that he established as far back as the beginning of his academic and professional career.

To stay on the topic of autonomy, I cannot contradict Eisenman's definition, especially with regard to a critical formal autonomy. But I would like to argue against the notion that the present line of digital research in architecture lacks an ideological commitment, or that it is laden with a technological determinism. In the right hands, this kind of autonomy can be tied to a true architectural criticality and a passionate intuition. The only impediment to accomplishing this ideology is the author's experience and fluency with digital technique, similar to any architect gaining fluency with the generative tools and intellectual media of his or her time. A clear ideology can only be expressed with control over those tools and an experience with those media. More importantly, a recognition of this ideology requires one to be able to discern between those with this ability and those without it. These two skills, experience and recognition, are inseparably tied to each other, both requiring curiosity, passion, ideology and, of course, practice, practice, practice.

* If anyone has access to a video archive of Princeton's lecture series, apparently there is another reference in a recent lecture he gave there. Thanks to EG for sharing her colorful memory of that event.


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