Architecture’s Engagement with the Real


The initiators of Concrete Geometries call for an evaluation of the impact of digital forms and geometries that have emerged over the past decade, ‘beyond performance driven issues’, and, thus, an evaluation in broader, societal terms. And they have good reasons to do so. The new geometries of folds, blobs and all sorts of digitally generated forms tend to be easily claimed as more engaging with the real than earlier architectural geometries that derived their legitimacy from lucid design processes or from abstract categories allocating ‘meaning’ to architecture and its form. More often than not, such inventive design processes hardly impressed in real space, while, likewise, the search for ‘meaning’ outside the realm of architecture (for example in philosophy or social theory) may have worked well in theory; in practice, architecture proved driven by a much more complex set of agencies than ‘meaning’ alone.
The new concrete geometries, by contrast, claim a better performance in the real. Their engagement with the real is sometimes claimed quite literally through processes of ‘event’ and ‘emergence’ (from the real), such as by folding the ground, by generating smooth and fluid forms that seamlessly connect with the environment, or by animating surfaces as to mimic (sensory and other) interactions (and thus engagement) with the surroundings. By now, numerous debates and critiques have been centred not so much on the performativity of these new geometries, but on their claims for a new form of criticality, a new politics that supposedly is offered by such geometries. It is, indeed, arguable that the fluidity and smoothness of such new geometries often prove, in reality, rather rigid and artificial. No matter how fluid and digital forms may have been in their conception and creation, once realised, they grow in inertia by their sheer materiality and are somehow immobilised by time itself (they are to last, as any architecture, for a certain period of time). Is it this unbearable confrontation with the weight of reality and materiality that has driven digital geometries into ever more ambitious, daring (and excessively costly!) engineering, research, and construction costs, hoping to safeguard as much as possible of the virtual, smooth and fluid? And are it not precisely the financial excesses, construction-extravaganza, and the clash between virtual promises and material achievements, that make it so hard for us to recognise any political or critical agency whatsoever in these new geometries?
However, questions about critical engagement and thus about societal concerns, do not just apply to these new geometries, but to a whole array of recent architectural practices that have emerged under the banner of ‘architectural pragmatism’. Even traditionally oppositional and subversive areas of architectural discourse and practice, such as those on the everyday and participation, have made important pragmatic turns.
For example, the re-emergence of the everyday in architecture covered a whole array of gradations of critical engagement with the real that no longer necessarily derived from the subversive-transformative project as proposed, most notably in architecture, by Henri Lefebvre and Michel De Certeau. The new everyday practices would now share a pragmatic-realist approach vis-à-vis criticality, a renewed attention for inter- and transdiciplinary working formats, and an experimenting with collaborative constellations and representation tools. The criticality of these practices, however, spanned everything from zealous but phoney community architecture to compliant iconic architects; from developer pragmatism to downright social activism; and of course a plethora of ‘pragmatopic’ approaches that balance in-between pragmatism/realism and criticism/utopia.
Also participation traditionally resided in the oppositional camp on a par with resistant, empowering proposals for agency-versus-structure and the numerous variations in empowerment models in planning, in the wake of Paul Davidoff’s Advocacy Planning and Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation. Also community participation, however, would derail towards pragmatic ends. Not only would it become the preferred vehicle for certain architects to ‘sell’ their style preferences – or is it really possible that all consulted communities prefer traditional, vernacular or neo-classical aesthetics? Moreover, citizen participation, and even grassroots activism, would be shamelessly enhanced as the ideal corrective measures or leverage for neo-liberal urban politics.
Additionally, apart from such ‘democratic deficits’, those everyday and participatory practices that did still prove largely critical and transformative often proved to suffer from ‘design deficits’. Either they failed to translate their critical, social project into appropriate, corresponding design proposals (think of examples as diverse as Lucien Kroll’s ‘built’ participation of La Mémé, Jean Nouvel’s struggle to safeguard the ‘social’ within the strong aesthetic desires in his Nemausus project, Everyday Urbanism’s cramped attempts to reconcile ‘what the people want’ with the aesthetic preferences of the architect, in the Chatsworth Metrorail Station and Childcare Centre). Or they made such abstraction of the architect’s aesthetic needs, creative urges, and desires to distinguish his work, that they are doomed to fail on a broader professional scope.
In other words, the plethora of pragmatic practices that emerged from the 1990s, may have demonstrated a shift away from theory, ideology, and transcendental utopia as the ideal loci for critique; they have not shown, or at least not convincingly, where then resides and what shapes their new critical posture. Architecture’s longing to balance out and organise this ambiguous situation, is perhaps most exemplary expressed by the recent, rather artificial, attempts to split the debate over a critical theory and projective practice camp.

Architecture’s inter- and trans-disciplinary workings

Rather than fighting the same old questions along the same old rifts – between (critical) theory and (projective) practice, critique and compliance, ideology and pragmatism, top-down and bottom-up, structure and agency – I would argue to focus on what is so specific to architecture yet so evident and thus easily overlooked: namely, its simultaneous inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary requirements in order to give shape to architecture’s complex and multifarious agency in the world.
The Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research, published in 2008, defined interdisciplinary research as ‘a form of coordinated and integration-oriented collaboration between researchers from different disciplines’. This interdisciplinary relationship has been worked out quite thoroughly, and with many ups and downs, within architecture theory and research, not the least when it comes to the understanding of architecture’s critical and societal behaviour (critical theory, for example, has borrowed extensively from philosophy, social and political theory, human geography…).
But architecture is, apart from a discipline, also, and perhaps primarily, a practice organised as a profession. This double role (discipline and profession) requires also transdisciplinary research in architecture, which is exactly where many of architecture’s tensions come in. The Handbook defines transdisciplinary research as ‘needed when knowledge about a societally relevant problem field is uncertain, when the concrete nature of problems is disputed, and when there is a great deal at stake for those concerned by problems and involved in dealing with them.’ Now, isn’t that precisely what architecture is all about? According to the Handbook, the process for such transdisciplinary research is made out of three phases: problem identification, problem analysis, and ‘bringing results to fruition’. Of interest is (1) that these three stages do not necessarily occur in the given order, and (2) what it means to ‘bring results to fruition’, because it is precisely here that architecture starts to act and intervene. ‘Bringing results to fruition’ is not what is often called problem solving nor does it, again according to the Handbook, appear at the end of research. It is what takes place ‘in the course of the research process in order to enable learning processes’ and it is achieved ‘in the form of a real-world experiment, so that its impact can be observed and lessons can be learned for the following phase’. In architecture, transdisciplinarity would, thus, not dismiss architecture as a discipline (theory/history, and with it, social critique and ideology) for being not directly useful, for being insufficiently ‘at the service’ of practice, for being incompatible with the profession’s necessary compliance with the real. It is about taking into account architecture as a discipline and profession, and about taking into account the engagement of both with broader societal concerns. This is what the Handbook called a ‘cooperation within the scientific community and a debate between research and the society at large’. It is about the inclusion of the multifarious issues at work in architecture: from engineering, to aesthetics, ethics, critique. It is about the allowance of learning processes, experimentation, and intermediate rather than results that are fixed for once and for all (‘bringing results to fruition’). It is thus about open-endedness, only temporary fixations, and thus, about the inclusion of post-occupancy, of the use and consumption of architecture. It, as such, accepts rather than counters that which is, as Jeremy Till argued so vigorously, natural to architecture and yet, against all odds, so vividly denied by the architectural practice and profession, namely that architecture is a pretty messy endeavour and that it is a dependent discipline.

Looking at architecture through the lenses of agency

What then can make us approach architecture as to take into account its complex workings, its messy engagement with the world, and its working as both a discipline and profession? If we want to allow concernedness (whether critical, social, or political) as an agency in architecture’s new pragmatic turn and the new emphasis on practice, we need to start imagining how we can define concernedness in practice. I use the term concernedness rather than criticality simply to avoid that an association with the critical theory legacy would provoke frontal attacks and untimely dismissal by the architecture practice.
What constitutes a ‘concerned practice’? Rather than dismissing theory altogether (theory is only problematic when it claims authority or ‘truth’), and rather than dismissing any critical or political potential in practice (for it is embedded in and thus compliant with the real), and, rather than choosing between theory and practice as the ideal loci for critique, the new task of theory is to finally start describing and understanding ‘concerned practices’. How can concernedness be processed through practice and design in a way that avoids naïve translations of oppositional ideologies into practice as much as it avoids to sacrifice aesthetics, creativity and the (architect’s) desire to distinguish oneself that are so inherent to architecture. So what we are looking for is a notion that allows us to encompass architecture’s broader engagement with the real and the individual agency of the architect as author/creator, and, thus, that allows, through such twofold working, for the processing of concernedness.
One way to do so is by looking at architecture through the notion of agency, because agency refers to the action or intervention of individuals (e.g. architects) aiming to produce effect, while it also refers to the delivery of a particular service to a client. Not surprisingly, agency has emerged as a promising theoretical and analytical tool. Agency allows to stop reducing the complexity of architecture and to no longer evaluate architecture through a priori ideologies, through theoretical constructs pursuing the decoding of architecture’s ‘meaning’, through oppositional pairs between which one has to choose, or through the reduction of architecture’s complexity to only a few stakes and stakeholders. It is what resonates with the Science and Technology Studies’ plea to study objects, or things, as ‘quasi-objects’, ‘hybrids’ or ‘matters of concern’, and, in specific relation to architecture: of ‘objects-in-flight’, ‘controversies’, or the ‘anthropology of architecture’.
These proposals (in architecture known primarily as Actor Network Theory and the work of Bruno Latour) have often been criticised for not processing criticality in terms of a transformative power and for not allowing a critique that can overthrow, and thus change, the existing situation – hence such approaches have often been associated with a post-political condition. It is argued that they may lead to a better understanding of the complexity of the world, and thus of architecture’s agency in it, but that they still leave us in the dark as to how it allows to define a better future, a ‘to what end’. What is the drive pulling us forward, and towards which end? Whereas the traditional use of agency (e.g. in the Bourdieu-sense) as a way to oppose against structure and domination, clearly incorporated this political empowerment, the new definitions of agency under STS and ANT, are accused for being less critical and not empowering after all. This is an extensive debate in itself that has been addressed in different contexts, and is beyond the scope of this article. What I would like to do in the remaining part of this article is to introduce the idea of ‘Ecology of Practice’, as developed by Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers, and to show how this opens possibilities for a concerned practice, such as, for architecture.
Towards an ‘Ecology of Practice’ for architecture

At the core of Isabelle Stengers’ ‘political ecology’, ‘cosmopolitics’ and ‘ecology of practice’ is the search for a proposal that attempts ‘not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought’, thus, the attempt of ‘making think’. Important for our search for a ‘concerned architecture practice’ is that such proposal is, firstly, a matter of ‘thinking through what is happening’, that takes place ‘in concrete situations where practitioners operate’, and, secondly, that it is, nevertheless, concerned, even if it is not directly interested in ‘what ought to be’. It thus is about a simultaneous focus on practice (what is happening) and engagement (criticality).
When Stengers claims not to be interested in ‘what ought to be’ this is not to be seen as a withdrawal from criticality, but as a refusal to aim for the creation of a ‘good common world’ for once and for all, but instead to slow down the creation of that world, to slow down reasoning, and by doing so, to ‘create a space for hesitation regarding what it means to say “good”’, and to allow different possibilities. Slowing down (ralentir) is needed in order to ‘create the occasion for a slightly different sensibility vis-à-vis the situations that mobilise us.’ Stengers’ cosmopolitical project is, therefore, utopian, but not in a transcendental manner – namely by denouncing the existing situation and sacrificing the present life in the name of ideals projected into the future – but one that ‘prompt[s] us to consider this world with other questions’.
And yet, Stengers’ focus on the pragmatics of practice and on a non-transcendental critique that resides in the present rather than in an ideal future to come, nevertheless allows concernedness and hope. This concernedness is of course enabled by her search for different questions, of a different sensibility vis-à-vis the existing situation, and, through that, by the fact that a focus on practice allows to think through one’s self-declared ethics, ‘”in the presence of” the victims [more generally: subjects; in architecture: users] of his or her decision.’ Only in practice one is fully exposed to the consequences of one’s actions. The possibilities for a different future, and thus ‘hope’, then reside in the distinction Stengers makes between probability and possibility, and between unity and convergence.
Stengers defines probability as ‘calculated anticipation, authorised by the world as it is’. It refers to a compliance with and acceptance of the existing situation, and thus to the exclusion of any form of hope. Possibility, by contrast, refers to the attempt to grasp what is lurking in the interstices, namely that which ‘escapes description because our words refer to stabilised identities and functioning’. Allowing events to take place in the interstices of the existing situation, is what hope is all about. Hope has, as Stengers argues, nothing to do with miracles or with overthrowing the existing as to install a new future, but about allowing resistance within the interstices, within the cracks of the existing situation or system. Only by slowing down, and creating room for hesitation, such interstitial events can possibly emerge, and new creations or connections can occur. Possibility thus refers to the belief that, when slowing down, events, and thus changes, can occur; but it never knows for certain that this will happen. As such, a situation may not change, but when the description of that situation changes drastically, this is an achievement in itself: it is an event that allows certain interstices to open up. At stake is the creation of the possibility for change to happen without being tempted to fully orchestrate and predefine that change (as is often the case with transcendental utopian schemes). An event, in Stengers’ definition, then is ‘something [we] can hope for but cannot master or decide’.
But Stengers makes another distinction, namely between unity and convergence. This distinction is in fact Stengers’ rejection of a too oppositional critique: because ‘it is not sufficient to think “against”, or try and define some fixed point around which to organise the opposition, a frontal opposition.’ Instead of such frontal opposition requiring unity (of force) and thus mobilisation of resources and people, Stengers proposes convergence. Convergence refers to the process, the approach toward something definite, toward an opinion, toward something fix; an equilibrium. As a process, it still allows to include also what disturbs the equilibrium or slows us down in our way towards fixities and definition. It is thus about allowing complex, conflicting and contradicting modi operandi rather than the cleansing march so typically associated with progress, and its enhancement of unity, exclusion, and mobilisation.
Possibility and convergence (rather than probability and unity) than allow for hope in the present, namely the possibility that by slowing down, by stopping to mobilise resources, hopeful events may occur in interstices, in those locations and situations that conflict with the status quo. Convergence allows hope during our struggles in the here and now rather than saving it only for after the struggle, after the fights (as is suggested by oppositional critique and transcendental utopia).

Towards an architecture of possibility and convergence? Towards an idiotic architecture?

By combining possibility with convergence, Stengers allows a criticality in practice that combines hope (rather than guarantee) for change with the acknowledgement of the contingency, conflict and unexpected agencies that typically take part in the production of architecture. Therefore it counters the fatalism or cynicism of practices that accept uncritically their compliance with the real (‘we cannot escape or transform the condition we work in’). But it as much challenges those oppositional critiques that pretend (rather naively) to translate undamaged, untransformed into practice. We meanwhile have seen the corruptions and perversions that take place along such translation processes. One can think of Community Architecture’s participatory processes that, quite suspiciously, result in the same recurring style preferences. One can think of the paradoxes embedded in much of traditionalist architecture (Reconstruction de la Ville Europeene, New Urbanism) such as the attempt to create the organically grown city, a city that was prefigured as a socialist city for the workers yet in reality often allied with an urban renaissance that disadvantaged precisely these target populations (through social displacement, extravagant building costs, and gentrification).
Political ecology would force architecture to never evaluate (let be celebrate) its theoretical manifestos, counter-projects (or drawing-as-manifesto), utopian schemes and all sorts of ‘paper architectures’, without a confrontation with and performance in the real (in practice, ‘in the presence of’). But it would as much challenge compliant practices, building on the probability of the course of reality. These practices may be more pragmatic or self-acclaimed realistic; by simply accepting the real as an unavoidable working condition, they not just (and perhaps rightly so) dismiss unrealistic oppositional critique (utopia, critical theory), but they risk throwing away hope for change altogether. The so-called ‘pragmatopian’ architecture practices have nothing to do with possibility or convergence, but are, even if they would be reluctant to admit this, still very much about probability and unity. Likewise, much of the new digital geometries in architecture are all about events, emergence and folds, and in that sense seem to resonate with Stengers’ Cosmopolitics, which is highly influenced by the Deleuzian event. However, these geometries tend to exclude that part of the event that is so central to Cosmopolitics, namely the idiot, a conceptual persona developed by Deleuze and Guattari, borrowing from Dostojevski. For Stengers, it is the idiot forcing us to slow down, to allow interstices to open, and to allow the emergence of not just events but unexpected events, disturbing events, and surprising events.
In architecture, however, folds, blobs and other emergent events are still primarily locked within design processes. Once realised, these digital, virtual or ephemeral events, are, often literarily, petrified, or at least stabilised and fixed. Not only do events occur more in design processes than in the consumption and reception of that design; such events, in any case, hardly allow for idiocy. Whereas surprise and distortion (complexity, chaos, entropy…) are increasingly qualified as constructive elements within design processes; once architecture is ‘in use’, the idiot is kindly yet insistently asked to leave the theatre. Architecture may gradually have opened up towards more performative aspects, such as use and consumption; it may have increasingly incorporated the user in its design processes, yet the idiot is still persona non grata. The at all cost avoidance of the idiot is shown as much by the ongoing black boxing of container principles such as ‘the citizen’, ‘the user’ or ‘the people’, as by the carefully orchestrated events and performances of new, digital geometries. In our neatly orchestrated built environment, there may be place for ‘the user’ whose behaviour can be nicely anticipated by participatory processes, community-based designs, and all sorts of consumer-oriented strategies. There may be (even if still very limited) some room for laypersons or ‘experience experts’ to complete expert knowledge on the built environment. But there is hardly any room for idiotic caprice, surprise or challenge, and for neither the possible problems nor the potential hopes that are brought to the fore by the idiot. In other words, both ‘good’ architecture for ‘the people’ and performative ‘spectacle’ architecture emerging from the pragmatics of the real, shun idiotic events.
Jeremy Till has argued that architecture is dependent, that it is a messy undertaking, and does everything to deny that. In addition, by denying the idiotic, while nevertheless eagerly embracing events and emergences, it is arguable that precisely those new concrete geometries give proof of a continuing failure to reconcile ideas and materialisation, design and implementation, intention and effect. By not letting go of their modern obsessions with control, progress, mobilisation, and orchestration, those advocates of emergent, eventful and performative architecture, may very well claim a so-called new form of politics, it is a politics that is not hopeful. It is not necessarily a politics that is no longer hopeful, or has lost criticality, as critical architecture theorists would perhaps argue. Maybe it has simply never been hopeful. Surprises, contingency, and the idiot may have been allowed as guests in certain branches of architectural design; when it comes to architecture’s concrete performance in the world, the idiotic event has been shunned with perseverance.
And thus, indeed, in all seriousness, what we need is perhaps to allow more idiocy in our architectural events.