A Call for Kami: Talking to Marcos NovakTuesday, May 17, 2011 11:45
On 12 February 2011, RIEAch’s Per-Johan Dahl met with architect and media theorist Marcos Novak at Novel Cafe in Downtown Los Angeles to talk about current conditions of space making. Sitting just a few blocks from SCI Arc, the discussion circulated around issues of algorithms, cultural connections, and the need for kami in contemporary discourse.
Per-Johan Dahl: I’d like us to start talking about spatial perception. It can be argued that our spatial perception was transformed during the 20th century with the introduction of montage theory. Beginning with Choisy’s Acropolis, artists, filmmakers, and architects deployed the montage, both for spatial representation and for spatial construction. Examples are Dziga Vertov’s movies, Eisenstein’s practice, Le Corbusier’s houses, Mallet-Stevens’s interiors, Rauschenberg’s Flat Beds, Ed Ruscha’s photo-strips, and zillions of music videos from the ‘80s to the present. Hence the successive replacement and juxtaposition of fragmented, overlaid, and augmented images, which characterizes montage space, became a common perception during the 20th century that shaped the way we understand and navigate buildings and cities.
Currently our spatial perception seems to be transforming again. You talked already in the late 1990s about montage being replaced by morphing. You explained the difference by arguing that “collage merely superimposes materials from different contexts, morphing operates through them, blending them.¹” Today, your argument is backed up by other media theorists, such as Lev Manovich who traces a new mode of spatial perception that is not so much about a series of frames (i.e. montage) but about exploring “the space in-between juxtaposition and complete integration” of different media². Hence, the way we understand and navigate space seems to be in transition and I am curious about how you think this will change the form and content of buildings and cities.
Marcos Novak: If you look at architecture right now, it has undergone a huge transition in form.
Certainly, if you go down the street and look at SCI Arc, you see all the projects that the students are designing. They look fantastic. And if you look at the fabrication of actual buildings, they are very close.
Today, any form is manageable. You can build it. The Disney was an early version of that³. Our control of form and fabrication has gotten more and more powerful. But you said form and content. For me there is a critical issue, and that is that the form can be controlled in any way that we want, but what is communicated by whatever we build is actually the same. So there is emptiness to form. There was an event last year at USC called Intensive Fields, which had to do with parametric design and the city4.
There is an incredible and fantastic body of knowledge about how the most sophisticated architecture in the world, which is the architecture of living things, is actually assembled. And that’s what we need to know.
PJD: You refer to the conference on parametric urbanism, right
MN: Yes. I made a comment there that as long as we are working for the Pharaoh it doesn’t matter what shape we make; we still work for the Pharaoh. We do as the Pharaoh bids. It might be swirly, it might be angular, it might be smooth, and it might be parametric; but it is still in effect a pyramid. Because it doesn’t say anything else. It is like going to a shoe store where they have a million kinds of shoes with all sorts of design intentions. But in the end they are all commodities and they really don’t say anything but ‘buy me’. So interwoven in the question about computers and technology and cyberspace and all this, is the question of the value system by which things are actually committed – or commissioned – or to what they are beholden and what it is they are trying to convey.
PJD: So, you consider the value systems being a critical factor in the transformation of spatial perception? The value systems of early 20th century emerged from the social reform movements that, for example, influenced modernism. How would you say the discussion on value systems meet with contemporary discourse?
MN: Well, right now a lot of things happen on a vernacular level because that means that they can happen at the fringe without a lot of consciousness. But on the whole, most things seem to be swept into the same category.
If you look at most of the things that made “Zaha Hadid,” as a persona, and then on to Patrick Schumacher’s work, it came from Constructivism. But the Constructivists were actually trying to change the world. They were not selling buildings. They actually had a conception of, for them, a better society. Their experiment may have run into all sorts of problems, but it was an incredibly creative period, with a purpose.
PJD: Absolutely – and a value system…
MN: …and a value system. This isn’t the case now. You can admire the technical powers and at the same time observe that it is hollow. Basically there isn’t much being said today. OK, people are trying, and there is sustainability…my complaints are not so much about the architects as they are about the relationships between the architects and the value systems of the society that does – or does not – empower them to do things. Generally I think architects want to make better cities – they want to make better environments – but then they run into this society that doesn’t really care for those things. So the relationship is antagonistic. You try to slip through something wonderful, but in the end there is only one way to justify it, and the justification is generally about profit.
my complaints are not so much about the architects as they are about the relationships between the architects and the value systems of the society that does – or does not – empower them to do things
PJD: If we focus on the technical powers, you have suggested that an “algorithmic and computational critical discourse” enables architects to digest non-Euclidian conceptions of space and thus to produce an animated, interconnected, and fluid architecture.5.
During recent years, we’ve seen such a discourse emerge with the widespread use of parametric and scripting software such as Maya, Revit, and Grasshopper. However, as this new discourse has facilitated the development of intricate forms, it also seems to have spurred a renewed interest in the solid and the void. In contemporary discourse, hence, the figure, rather than the field, seems to constitute the terrain for critical practices.
What do you think about this condition? Do we experience a necessary phase in the process of mastering the potentials of algorithmic designs or have we failed to manage the new complexities that they offer?
MN: I think the idea of interest is like the idea of fashion. The reason there are shifts in interest is like promoting teenage pop stars with new ones already in line because they won’t be teenagers for very long. So you have to keep it moving – keep it moving – and you need new interests.
So, I don’t know that all the trends are the way to make sense of anything. And basically the trends have been following software. So, every new bit of software has a new capacity, and all of a sudden there is a new generation of buildings that look that way. And the smartest people pick up on that tool. And then more people pick up the tool, and so on… It is very transparent, but also very simple minded. It generates novelty. It doesn’t really generate innovation.
PJD: Yea, that’s a good way of putting it…
MN: The other problem is that the idea of solid versus object, or field versus object, is a polarization: a simple binary opposition.
This idea has a whole history of references, so you can connect it to other things. But I think if there is anything that is new, it’s neither. It is little like the idea of collage and blending…and that’s the reason why in 2004 the Architecture Biennale in Venice showed the AlloBio6.
I think the question of living as an algorithm is where a lot of the action is.
PJD: What do you mean with that? Living as an algorithm sounds interesting?
MN: Living is an algorithm. No question about it. There is an incredible and fantastic body of knowledge about how the most sophisticated architecture in the world, which is the architecture of living things, is actually assembled. And that’s what we need to know. It is one thing to write a script that does those things, even if they look pretty. It is an other thing to actually say “how am I going to learn with enough depth about how basically linear information – strings – become entire bodies that are alive, and then make a building that way?” But even then you wouldn’t be done because if you look at the whole picture, you would not only realize that anything of real complexity is made by algorithmic processes that are internal to an artifact, but that we are also in continuous negotiation with the materials.
I eat this because I need to build myself. My body needs to tear food apart and reassemble it into protein. And we are also doing the same things with our minds. We’re exchanging information with the environment and absorbing energy, and producing energy. So it is actually an ecosystem of biological algorithms.
PJD: How do you critically think about this in relation to the value systems?
MN: So this is where the ancient Greek part comes in. And I think Japan was that way and I think many cultures, other than ours, were that way, too. I grew up in Greece, I speak Greek, and I read ancient Greek. I have studied all the original texts of Homerand Aristotle to support my argument. The thing that comes out of it all is the motivation for the areti. Areti is a kind of excellence. It is a combination of virtue and excellence. To explain ariei, I have to refer to Japanese culture. Have you been to Japan?
MN: So, everything there is very beautiful.
MN: So why is that? Well, it is just because that’s how you do things. To me, Japan is important. I’ve been several times now. When I first went, I was surprised because there was so much beauty everywhere. In every culture there is beauty, but in that culture it was diffused much more widely. So you went to the store to buy something and they would make a package, and they would make in beautifully. They don’t think about it, it’s just what they do. That’s what is missing. And the reason that was important to me was that I saw a contemporary culture, which was Japan, operating in a way that I knew ancient Greece operated. But I hadn’t been to Japan so I didn’t know that this ancient ideal actually existed in the contemporary world.
PJD: So what kind of ideal is that? When I think about Japan in that manner, the beauty of it is, of course, the effort to care about any given ‘thing’. But it is also the ‘procedure’ of how you approach that thing.
Like, for example, when you enter a bar, you take off your shoes, you put them on a shelf, you borrow slippers, and you step up… then you move towards the bar… it’s a lot of procedures that I find very beautiful. So, what’s the connection between the ‘thing’ and the ‘procedure’ in Japanese culture?
MN: It is a fantastically clear connection when you see it. It all leans on respect, but, however, not respect in a western way. You may think it has to do with Zen, but it is actually older than Zen. So you have to study Shinto. And in Shinto you’ll find the idea of kami. Kami is often mistranslated into a kind of animism, or a kind of pantheism, but that misses the point. So, if you were to use the words you would have to add disclaimers to say: be careful, because if you use the words incorrectly they’re going to take you down the wrong path.
Respect for the One implies belief. It implies intolerance, it implies corruption, it implies right and wrong…we know that if you’re not on the side of the right you must be wrong.
If I am sitting here at this table, there are three kinds of kami: There is a kami for the ancestors; there is a kami for the tribe or group you belong to; and then there is a kami for nature and artifice. So, I am sitting here…the table is in disarray. But I move my head, and all of a sudden these things [which are three cups] line up like a painting. They are beautiful. In that moment – from this vantage point – there is now kami. If I move, it’s gone. You can’t see it, right, because you’re looking from a different perspective. But in that moment there is something here that I have to respect. And from childhood and on, and without a dogma and without holy books, people are taught to respect that whenever it happens.
PJD: Aha, so that’s a way of building a value system?
MN: That’s the whole point. But the connection is that the Japanese value system inherently respects many things. And the ancient Greek value system respected many things. The west used to have a similar approach, but historically it played out through religion. It actually has to do with respect for the Many versus respect for the One. In the west, the dark ages happened because respect for the One took over respect for the Many. Respect for the One implies belief. It implies intolerance, it implies corruption, it implies right and wrong…we know that if you’re not on the side of the right you must be wrong.
PJD: Yea, it’s like the Cartesian dualism.
MN: Right. That’s what happened. All things that we like as artists and scientists…all the people who are artists and scientists are actually generically predisposed toward the Many. But the mass of the culture is probably predisposed for something simpler. Less nuanced, easier to grasp, right or wrong, tell me what to do. Our side, your side…
PJD: That’s super interesting…
MN: It is validated. You can actually go through and find it. What happened was that the West was taking over the rest of the world, but some Greeks went to Italy and spread Humanism; they spoke to the Medici; started the first Platonic academy; started the Renaissance; fed the Enlightenment… Certain ideas came through and the ideas that came through were basically reason, which had been lost. Hence reason comes back to Europe and starts becoming powerful, because it was always powerful. It had just been denied. So it sparks things up and eventually comes to a point where someone like Nietzsche says that God is dead. So now you have this massive culture of the One, without a captain, because the captain is dead. And what takes its place?
MN: Evidently. So we now live in a monoculture without respect. The only thing we respect is profit. Every other thing has to be slid in by people who care, but they have to sneak it in.
PJD: You seem to be talking about a way to contextualize, or think about, the construction of a new value system…
MN: First of all you have to be able to articulate it, right? I have to convey it to you this fast…it has taken me a long time to put it together with confidence. I am not a historian, but I’ve had to do this because it doesn’t matter what I do with my algorithms if I don’t understand this.
So then the problem is: Once you understand this, how do you address it while also pointing towards the future? How do you construct a future oriented algorithmic cyberspace – a new space – that is multi-respectful? How do you construct a future that sees kami, or sees the thing that you find in the stories of these two cultures?
If you see these connections it is breathtaking because you see the bridge between the West and the East, which was actually a tangible thing. There are 800 years that as far as growing up in the West, even if you are highly educated and interested, you just don’t know about before you start looking.
There are 800 lost years – more or less 400 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. -, which are not talked about. Not really. Not substantially. Very few, for example, know about the Epicurean school, which is the atomic view of the ancient that lasted for 800 years. It is longer than all of our universities.
Very few know that some of Alexander’s generals, who stayed at different places along the way to the East, went to India and became Buddhists and took Buddhism to China, and through China it became Zen in Japan.
We live in a culture where things like kami are delegated to the supernatural, whereas the Greeks saw them as part of the natural. When that discussion comes up, for us it causes dissonance. And we have to reconnect. It’s not about metaphysics; it is all about the attention to the world.
Very few know that the first sculptures of the Buddha are actually made by Greek sculptors – Hellenistic sculptors. And by Greek at this point, I should say it is not nationalistic, it isn’t racial – because the Greeks themselves came up with the statement that anyone is Greek that has a Greek education. It was about the mind. They could say that some people were resolving problems basically superstitiously and that they were resolving problems by reason. So even if they believed in those many things, they believed in them rationally. That’s an interesting thing for us to learn. We live in a culture where things like kami are delegated to the supernatural, whereas they saw them as part of the natural. When that discussion comes up, for us it causes dissonance. And we have to reconnect. It’s not about metaphysics; it is all about the attention to the world.
PJD: Then it has been lost in discourse…
MN: What has been lost is basically this way of looking at the world, or looking at each other. There is, for example, something called syncretism, which is the attempt to reconcile contrary beliefs. So, the Greeks had a Goddess named Artemis, and the Romans had a Goddess named Diana, and they compared the two and they said: Aha, Artemis is Diana, good, now let’s go and have a drink. Whereas our present view is like: I have my God and you have your God, they are not the same God.
This other point of view is what has made the thing we call civilization. The really powerful things – the overwhelmingly beautiful things – have come from the respect for the sense of doing things for their own worth because you respect many things. If you respect a cup, you can design a very beautiful cup…it is just a cup, but it is beautiful. But if you don’t respect the cup, then the cup is disposable and the only reason you have is to make it as cheap a possible and tolerable, as marginally tolerable, as you can get away with.
PJD: You unfold a very interesting model that seems to be extremely relevant, especially today when the discussion about value systems is critical. The ideas you talk about open up a totally new way of thinking about value systems, which might be capable to challenge the more conventional models that still seems to be predominant in common practices.
If you respect a cup, you can design a very beautiful cup…it is just a cup, but it is beautiful. But if you don’t respect the cup, then the cup is disposable and the only reason you have is to make it as cheap a possible and tolerable, as marginally tolerable, as you can get away with.
MN: I think no one has said this in this way before… I am putting it together. But I think it needs to be said by someone like me – by someone like us – because we’re committed to making things.
So, if we go to the department of classics, for example, there are other people that know bits and pieces of this better. But they don’t know them from the point of view of making things – from making the world. So, for them, it is not urgent; it is not relevant; it is not productive… it is just on the shelves waiting for someone to use it. People in these departments know they shouldn’t forget this, but they don’t know what to do with it.
So what we have to do is turn it to the future. We have to inform ourselves. We have to realize where the problem is and then turn it around and demonstrate that if you look at the world according to this understanding you will produce things that are qualitatively different and actually saner.
If you look that far back, and then look at the science and the technology of the present, then it has a chance to open up and build the future.
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command: www.softwarestudies.com/softbook, November 20, 2008.
Markussen, Thomas , and Thomas Birch. “Minding Houses.” Intelligent Agent,no. 2 (2005).
Novak, Marcos. “Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City.” In Digital Delirium, edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, 260-71. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Novak, Marcos. “Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City.” CTheory (November 29, 1996).
Woods, Lebbeus. Earthquake! Vienna: Springer Verlag, 2001.
Woods, Lebbeus. Radical Reconstruction. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.
¹Marcos Novak, “Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City,” in Digital Delirium, ed. Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 266.
² Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command (www.softwarestudies.com/softbook, November 20, 2008.), 105.
³“The Disney” refers to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, located on 111 South Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.
4USC stands for University of Southern California. For more information on the Intensive Fields conferences visit the Intensive Fields 2009 website http://arch-pubs.usc.edu/INTENSIVEFIELDS/
5Marcos Novak, “Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City,” CTheory(November 29, 1996)..
6 The design of Marcos Novak’s AlloBio house integrates computer science with nanotechnology, molecular biology, and neuroscience to generate a building that, among other things, responds to Lebbeus Woods’s call for “invention of new architectures of and for earthquake.” Read about the AlloBio house in, for example, Thomas Markussen and Thomas Birch, “Minding Houses,” Intelligent Agent 5, no. 2 (2005). Read about Lebbeus Woods’s earthquake architecture in, for example, Lebbeus Woods, Earthquake! (Vienna: Springer Verlag, 2001). ———, Radical Reconstruction (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997)..