Transmitting Architecture Revisited: on Occasion of the UIA World Congress 2008

Technochronology update, June 29th – July 3rd 2008: the XXIII UIA World Congress of architecture takes place in Torino. Its theme ‘Transmitting Architecture’

Marcos Novak

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AlloBrain@AlloSphere, Immersive environment created from fMRI scan data collected from Marcos Novak’s brain, from a series of ongoing experiments aimed at establishing the neurophysiological correlates of our assessments
of “beauty.” AlloBrain@ AlloSphere was the inaugural demonstration project at UCSB’s AlloSphere. The MAT AlloSphere is a 3-story high spherical facility used to create stereoscopic/stereosonic immersive and interactive virtual environments. It is envisioned as an instrument, in both the expressive and the objective senses (as violin and as telescope, for instance). Conceived and directed by Dr. JoAnn Kuchera-Morin, named by Marcos Novak

Transmitting Architecture Revisited
When I wrote Transmitting Architecture: The Transphysical City in 1995, the consideration of Architecture as something that could be transmitted – literally, not just metaphorically – was quite unheard of. The essay proposed that the transmission of
Architecture needed to be seen as the next step in the evolution of the mediated transmission of meaning, beginning with sign, symbol, text, sound, image, and moving-image into all aspects of lived-in Architecture (space, place, form, shape, structure, inhabitation, urban ecosystem, and so on), but also as abstract and dimensional
information structure, (allo)genetic code, and mechanism for morphogenetic development, and that this transmission itself, and the changed sense of space that it implied, needed to be understood as an inherently architectonic problem and opportunity. At the time, putting the word “transmitting” next to the word “architecture” was madness itself, just as phrasing “liquid architectures” had been before it. And yet, like “liquid architectures” it was a prescient idea.

Over the intervening years, as evidence has mounted that this conjunction is necessary, and, in fact, is indeed the case whether we, as architects or as citizens, choose to see it or ignore it, the influence of this idea has continued to grow, until now, thirteen years
later, it has arrived as the theme of a major world congress of Architecture, organized by one of its most august bodies, the UIA (Union Internationale des Architectes), counting, as the ubiquitous Wikipedia tells us, «over a million members in 113 countries».
Transmisson accomplished.

In 1995 the idea that architecture as something that could be transmitted – literally, not just metaphorically – was quite unheard of, 13 years later it has arrived as the theme of a major world congress of Architecture

From Zero
My interest in pointing out the connection between this UIA World Congress in Turin and my 1995 essay is not primarily historical, at least not in any narrow sense. The argument of the essay remains relevant to this day, its propositions remain strong and valid, and there is much it discusses that has yet to unfold and many ideas in it that it will take years to unravel.

It is being republished on the occasion of this World Congress, and the reader is urged to read it as it stands. In the spirit of the original essay itself, my preoccupation is with the future and how we make it happen by pushing strongly against the present, and my motivation is to take this opportunity to propel the essay forward into the next few decades. What might be added to what the essay argues for?

The title of the essay was prescient. The essay’s equally prescient reference to Futurism also bears nothing: it is remarkable that the essay anticipates such a connection, and that, indeed, the UIA WC is taking place in Torino, the city where, in 1910, 98 years ago, Futurism was launched.

The claim of the essay is that we are living through changes that make the changes the Futurists were reacting to seem as if moving in slow motion.

This was evident well before 1995, and is only more plainly visible today, and must be taken even more seriously today. It is in the nature of exponential change that we will always tend to underestimate it. To do so is a perilous mistake. The optimism of the Futurists was followed by two world wars that even they did not foresee. Global warming is the global warning that, by extrapolating linearly in the face of exponential change, we wait too long and react too weakly.

This was true one hundred years ago and is far truer today. As Marinetti (whom the essay quotes) stated, we must learn to distrust our antiquated linear thinking and improve our eyesight when it comes to anticipating the future: “Here and there, sick lamplight through window glass taught us to distrust the deceitful mathematics of our perishing eyes”.

Global warming is the global warning that, by extrapolating linearly in the face of exponential change, we wait too long and react too weakly

Zero Now
Often in the not-so-linear history of culture a solution is invented before a problem is recognized. When the essay was written, the most easily understandable context for “Transmitting Architecture” was that of telepresence and the inhabitation of virtual environments.

At that time, virtuality was intriguing, as it will continue to be for a long time to come. Now, however, with the growing recognition of globalization and global warming, two sides of the same vast coin, and the calculation of the carbon footprint of manufacture and transport, and everything else besides, “Transmitting Architecture” has also become a global imperative demanding a global architectural response.

New Steps
How has the world changed in the thirteen years that have elapsed between the original publication date of “Transmitting Architecture” in 1995 and the UIA World Congress of 2008? For some answers, we can look to the high end, to the global state of our knowledge, or to the low, our global vernacular experience, or to the bridge between the two, our global technological basis. The conclusions are remarkably congruent.

In 1995, the World Wide Web was still a novelty. Now, it is the scaffold and map for nearly all our undertakings. The Global Positioning System was then nascent, and is now prevalent. The Human Genome Project was a beginning, not an accomplishment. FMRI( functional magnetic resonance imaging) had not yet allowed us to map the workings of the brain. There were no rovers on Mars, no Cassini-Huygens spacecraft orbiting Saturn. There was no Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, no truly widespread social networks, no dominant markets for downloadable media, no online worlds. There had been no revolution in computer-controlled fabrication, no TransArchitectures symposia and exhibitions, no ArchiLab, no Non-Standard Architecture events. The computers with which we connected to everything did not yet fit into the palms of our hands. Telephones did not have GPS chips and 3D graphics accelerators and accelerometers and cameras. The dispersal of inhabitation into a fine-grain powder was a theoretical possibility, not a lived fact. These things have all now come to pass.

At the same time, while the world’s information is now more interconnected than ever before, we are more disconnected and held wider apart by alienation and fear and terror. And yet, even these ancient enemies have advanced in their use of transmission: friend and foe alike issue their messages over the same networks, employ similar strategies, employ techniques of asymmetry, indirection, and dispersal. Pilotless drones, robot warriors, and smart weapons constantly transmit, receive, and coordinate updated information about the space they are in. Sadly, they are more effective at intercommunicating than many of the networks we have to deal with disease, disaster, oppression, poverty, and starvation.

As Paul Virilio once pointed out to me, I am an optimist. I believe that in the face of undeniable problems, creative optimism is an ethical responsibility. Those of us who enjoy the gifts of freedom and talent must strive to end our criticisms and complaints with assertions and proposals for how to improve the world.

Those of us who enjoy the gifts of freedom and talent must strive to end our criticisms and complaints with assertions and proposals for how to improve the world

In preparing this short update to the essay, I reviewed all the Nobel Prizes awarded between 1995 and 2008, as well as many other such “epistemological registers”.

To begin with, in 1995, the Nobel Prize for Medicine was shared among the researchers upon whose work molecular and developmental genetics now stands.

That same year, 1995, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to researchers studying ozone depletion as a result of chlorofluorocarbons. A year later, in 1996, the Chemistry Nobel Prize went to the discovery of “buckminsterfullerene”. Year by year, distinct patterns become clearly visible: the environment and global warming, molecular biology and nanotechnology, developmental biology, neurophysiology and magnetic resonance imaging, superconductivity, conducting polymers and new materials, the economics of globalization and asymmetrical information, the physics of neutrinos or the Big Bang, are the topics that form our collective advances in how we know the world.

The plasticity of the world is clearer to us now, and we are making rapid strides in exercising control over it at fundamental levels. The scope is breathtaking, but it all hinges on a simple principle: our control of the very small. Designing the very small means designing the very many, which, in turn, requires massive coordination, communication, and feedback – in other words, the means for transmitting “architecture” not only as static shape or outcome but – especially – as fine-grain active mechanism and dynamic principle.

“Transmitting Architecture” has evolved. If, in 1995 it was understood to mean using artificial algorithms to create artificial worlds, in 2008 it means making use of the natural algorithms that are already acting directly in the world (polymerase chain reaction, for instance), being smarter, more balanced, more flexible, and more robust. It means being eco-systematic in harnessing processes that already exist, and learning how to become more powerful by being less forceful. It means that what is to be transmitted must be more like a request for proposals and collaborations among peers than like an ultimatum issued among unequals.

Morphogenetic development – the many processes by which we go from being a single cell to becoming a complex organism, is still the supreme example for what we need to accomplish. DNA transmits our architecture – but not like a message shouted into the void.
A balanced internal ecosystem is already presupposed, and the message itself is given in waves of chemotactic gradients, sequenced in space and time like a musical organization of qualia – qualities – whose interference patterns literally form our limbs and organs, our brains and minds and thoughts. How to operate this way is what we need to learn, both for our practices and for our understanding of what the material world is capable of providing for us.

“Transmitting Architecture” in 2008 is an alloy of message, mind, and material. It is a step toward building an n-dimensional transvergent and transmodal continuum that is self assembling and self calibrating, an artificial life-form that is both organism and environment and that spans the inner and the outer, the actual and the virtual, the visible and the invisible. I call this ‘transvergence and speciation’. Friedrich Kiesler called this ‘correalism’ and spoke of the ‘endless house’ – but his drawings clearly trace the connections between inner and outer worlds and show that he meant much more than fashionable curved shapes. Whichever name one chooses, the intuition is the same: everything is connected; everything is communicating; everything is transmitting; and everything is receiving, even when it is not listening.

unlike us, nature has infinite resources, and infinite patience. We are children in its playground. We have much to learn

AlloBio, my project for the 2004 Venice Biennale called for an architecture that is grown, not built. AlloBrain,my project for the UCSB AlloSphere, consists of virtual environments created using fMRI data from my own brain in action. Turbulent Topologies my current exhibition in Istanbul, contains both transmitted/fabricated piece and a large ‘invisible architecture/invisible sculpture’ work that is created using motion tracking technologies and that updates my previous work in Vienna, Orléans, the 2000 Venice Biennale, and the installation at the Palazzo Delle Papesse in Siena. These are not separate projects, they are the methodical building of this transvergent and transmissible living architecture. Little by little, the pieces are all falling into place.

In the end, there is no hard difference between nature and artifice. All nature is mechanism, artifice of a very high order, and all human artifice is as natural as it is for us to be human. The difference is one of degree – unlike us, nature has infinite resources, and infinite patience. We are children in its playground. We have much to learn.