An Ethics of Complexity for Architecture

How does one make decisions and judgments within the practice of architecture?  There are no answers to this question, only problems.  How one formulates the problem, that is constructs the problem of architecture, effects the nature of the possible solutions, the performance of the designed and constructed buildings.  Problems are as much a construction of architectural practice as the actual built building is.  As Kojin Karatani describes in his book Architecture as Metaphor, there is a tendency in western philosophy to architecturalize itself.  He goes on to say that this “will to architecture” is not limited to philosophy but is latent in much of western thought, from science to the humanities.1 The will to architecture is the act of to constructing thought.  It is an act of making.  For any conception of architecture must include an idea of making or construction.

As Karatani explains, architecture comes from the ancient Greek word architectonicé, which means the techne of the architecton.  Literally, this means the craft of the principal craftsman.  Yet techne does not mean craft or technology in the simple sense that we understand today, but the act of making in its most general sense. 2 So let us continue in laying out the field in which the problem is to be constructed.  For as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe in their book What is Philosophy?, every problem has a history or becoming in time and the problem must be contextualized to the given time and circumstances.3

To practice architecture is to construct, to intervene in the flows of matter-energy and produce a thing that can react back on those flows of matter-energy.  Such a thing constitutes a complex system.  Yet what do we mean when we say something is complex or simple?  What is complexity?  The Santa Fe Institute was created to study just this question and Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel laureate and co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute, describes current conceptions of the simple and complex in his book The Quark and the Jaguar.  Gell-Mann explains that complexity can be roughly measured by the shortest possible description of the system under consideration.  The length of this description is some relative measurement of the systems complexity.  Yet a totally random system, one in which there are no regularities, can not be said to be complex in the sense we usually mean.  For example, a string of 32 words can have many meanings in a language, but a random string of 32 words probably has very little meaning.  The random string does not behave in a complex way.  Yet the same could be said of a string of words made up of a single repeated word.  Only the regularities or relationships within the description are effective.  This means that the structure or relationships between the components of the system, is what constitutes its effective complexity.  Gell-Mann goes on to explain that the effective complexity tends to increase as a system moves from its most regular to more disorderly, yet on the other had the most disorderly systems gains more effective complexity as it becomes more orderly.  Gell-Mann says that the greatest effective complexity lies somewhere between the most ordered system and the most disordered system.4 Yet this structure can only be said to be virtual.  It influences the behaviors, capacities and affordances of the system but is not the system itself.  The actual system includes the irregularities that do not affect the behavior.  In this concept of effective complexity, we already have an idea of how to understand a problem.  For the act of describing the effective complexity of a system is an act of distributing what is important and what is trivial; what is singular and what is ordinary.  It is an act of construction or perhaps construing is a better term.

Implicit in the construing – constructing relationship is a production or becoming of a body.  This body is not a whole but a population of pieces arranged in such a way to create capacities to affect other bodies or be affected by other bodies.  The process of construing – constructing is one of determining the capacities of pieces to join with each other and the actualization of the joint.  Marco Frascari describes this double relationship as the “techne of logos” and the “logos of techne” or the craft of logic and the logic of craft.5 The craft of logic is the act of producing thought while the logic of craft is the act of actualizing that thought into a physical embodied construct, the joint.  Both are acts of construction.  Due to the fact that the joint or relationship between the pieces is what determines the becoming of the construct in the world, the joint is of great interest in any construing – construction process.  Yet the body that emerges from the event of the joint constitutes the lived reality of our world and the embodied nature of things and ourselves in the world and in the end the problem of architecture is to address this lived reality including the way human beings live in the world.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy is primarily concerned with bodies and perception.  During the course of his career, Merleau-Ponty became less concerned with how we gain knowledge through our perceptual field (epistemology) and became more concerned with how the perceptual field is our condition for being in the world (ontology).6 Throughout his career, Merleau-Ponty described our consciousness as being embodied in our flesh and that we can only know the world around us through the active engagement of our bodies with the world.  Our bodies are not just a package of physical matter but constitute our phenomenal field and exist with a kind of pre-conscious knowledge of the world which he calls motor-intentionality.  It is from this motor-intentionality that our consciousness emerges from and constitutes the ground on which we make conscious choices. 7 Gilles Deleuze describes this ability to interact with other bodies as an affect or percept.  Deleuze discusses how the body can form certain assemblages with other bodies and these assemblages form the affects and percepts that make up the lived world.8 The affects and percepts of our bodies with its environment make up what Merleau-Ponty describes as the flesh or that which makes us embodied in the world.  So our being in the world is the same as our ability to perceive the world which in turn is an ability to affect or be affected by the world.  Yet this knowledge or assemblage is only virtual.  It encloses the field of possibilities without being those possibilities.  Only through a process of actualization do these affects and percepts come to be our actual lived experience, yet they are not this experience.

This process of becoming actual of the virtual is at the core of Deleuze’s philosophy and can not be separated from time.  Deleuze uses Bergson’s idea of Duration in saying that the present and the past coexist at the same time:
… Not only does the past coexist with the present that has been, but, as it preserves itself in itself (while the present passes), it is the whole, integral past; it is all our past, which coexists with each present.9 That is to say that the entire past exists virtually in the present and can be actualized in the present (the becoming of memory).  But the virtual is not limited to the past, though the past is part of the virtual and affects it.  The virtual is just that which is immanent in things and that affects the field of possibilities.  This means the virtual does not resemble that which is actualized but is that which influences the process of actualization or becoming.  In this way an affect or percept is virtual and can be actualized in our lived experience through the flesh.  But it must be done through time and space, which is to say through movement.  Both Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty give a special significance to movement.  For Deleuze movement is the act of becoming of the virtual and it is only through movement do things become actualized.10 In a similar fashion, Merleau-Ponty says that motor-intentionality is the self-motivating movement of the body and only through this movement does perception and our lived reality exist.11 In this way the becoming of the affect is an event coexisting in the past and present and constituting a movement in that which it affects, bodies; a becoming that is constantly unfolding.  This is just to say that the affect is constructed.

As we have seen it is through the act of joining that the system gains a structure.  It is this structure that influences the behaviors of the system.  For the structure influences the field of possibilities of the system.  Yet the joint as an actual tangible construct in architecture carries additional importance beyond its role as a purely virtual construct.  Frascari says that the joint or detail is the basic unit of signification in architecture.12 Yet I would say it is more than a linguistic signification, but rather an affect, of which signification is one type.  These affects emerge from the event of joining and can also influence the pre-conscious or our motor-intentionality not just our conscious thought.  For affects influence the way we behave.  In the joining of tangible materials, affects emerge, for architecture is always doubled, it is both actual structure and virtual structure.  Architecture must always be construed and constructed.  The construed includes such disparate matter-energy flows as gravity, wind, light, heat, human behavior & experience, economics, vegetation, ecology of a place, and the physical structure of the building to name just a few.  Though the constructed is part of the construed, it is only through the constructed that all the rest of the construed can be actualized.  This means that the process of actually constructing the physical intervention in the flow of matter-energy is critical to the behavior of that physical construct in the world.  In effect, the physical construct affects the field of possibilities within it, the physical construct joins itself with the larger matter-energy flows that move through it and influence their behavior.

If architecture as a practice is the process of construing – constructing physical intervention in the world from which affects emerge that influence the behavior of the world, then to make decisions and judgments one must address the process of actualization of the construct (actual-virtual structure) in a way that produces complexity that is effective in nourishing the capacities of the bodies involved in the architectural system, i.e. human bodies, flora, fauna, the weather, etc.  In effect, the building is to nourish an ecology of bodies.  This means that the building itself does not have to be a complex construction, though it might be.  What the construction needs to be is robust.  Its physical joints must have the capacity to join in many ways with other bodies.  These bodies can include cultural images, the human body, other buildings, networks of communication, etc.  The key is to understand that the image of complexity isn’t what matters for it is just one body among many; one joint in the system.  The physical embodiment of an Architecture of complexity does not need to carry with it complexity within itself for it joins itself with other bodies in a virtual system that will in itself produce complexity in its behaviors.

  1. Kojin Karatani, Architecture as Metaphor, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), pg. 6.
  2. Ibid, pg. 6-7
  3. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pg. 27
  4. Murry Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1994), pg. 23-41
  5. Marco Frascari, “The Tell-the-Tale Detail”, Via 7, (MIT Press), pg. 23
  6. Taylor Carmen and Mark B.N. Hansen, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, ed. Taylor Carmen and Mark B.N. Hansen, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pg. 1-23
  7. Taylor Carmen, “Sensation, Judgment, and the Phenomenal Field,” in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, ed. Taylor Carmen and Mark B.N. Hansen, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pg. 50-73
  8. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), pg. 178-179
  9. Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Barbara Habberjam and Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Zone Books, 1991), pg. 59.  Emphasis in original text.
  10. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).  Differences giving rise to movements as the process of becoming is a basic premise behind many of Deleuze’s texts.
  11. Mark B.N. Hansen, “The Embryology of the (In)visible,” in The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, ed. Taylor Carmen and Mark B.N. Hansen, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pg. 231-264
  12. Marco Frascari, “The Tell-the-Tale Detail,” pg. 23

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