Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to attend ALIVE 2013, a one-day international symposium on adaptive architecture at the Chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design (CAAD), ETH Zürich. Organised by Manuel Kretzer, the day featured keynote presentations from Professor Ludger Hovestadt (ETH Zürich), Professor Philip Beesely (University of Waterloo) and Professor Kas Oosterhuis (TU Delft).
Throughout all three of the sessions, I was struck by the power of architecture (and particularly of contemporary architectural experimentation) to disturb any sense of a clear-cut boundary between the natural and the artificial, and to establish novel – and perhaps sometimes unnerving – material encounters. As Kretzer pointed out in his introduction, developments in both ‘smart’ materials and digital connectivity are facilitating approaches to architecture in which the built environment is no longer defined as that which resists change. The goal of the architect, therefore, is no longer to achieve rigidity in the face of an unwieldy ‘Nature’. Experiments in adaptive architecture challenge the assumption of a necessary antagonism between the human and its nonhuman milieus through productive encounters with concepts such as feedback, non-linearity and evolution.
This is not, however, to limit architectural design to an emulation of nature’s grand designs. Ludger Hovestadt, Professor at ETH’s CAAD, was perhaps the most forceful in making this point, purposefully troubling what it might mean for architecture to be inspired by nature. As far as I could make out, Professor Hovestadt takes issue with the notion that there is a model or ‘code’ to the way that Nature creates forms, and that, if we could only learn (or re-learn) to use these codes, architecture would necessarily be transformed into a more ecologically sustainable practice. The romantic tendency that associates sustainability with some kind of return to a forgotten Nature is highly problematic, not least because it places restrictions on what it means for architects to think, to have ideas and to innovate. For Hovestadt, the advent of what he terms ‘printed physics’ is fast enabling us to imagine a primary abundance of energy, in particular through the development of photovoltaic technologies. Such a scenario of primary abundance, Hovestadt argues, challenges the assumption of energetic scarcity at the heart of sustainability discourse.
I find Hovestadt’s project fascinating because it resonates in many ways with my own interest in using philosophy to explore ‘new’ modes of thought, particularly around the topic of materiality. To what extent, I wonder, does a particular idea of energy reverberate throughout contemporary thought – an idea that revolves around entropic decay? What if, thanks to its entangled trajectories with digital computation, energy itself is changing? And how might we design, create and think differently in a world in which information technologies shift the human relationship with energy from that of scarcity to primary abundance? I must admit I find this “Abundance Initiative” currently being explored by Hovestadt and his colleague Vera Buhlmann somewhat baffling – but baffling in a very exciting way. Whilst I can’t quite put my finger on it, there seems to be an intriguing resonance with what Felix Guattari calls “Semiotic Energetics” (see Schizoanalytic Cartographies, 2013), or a ‘machinism’ in which signs and codes are no longer mere representations of the physical world but instead generate energetic effects themselves. As Guattari writes:
“That machinic functions imply the putting into play of Assemblages of signs shouldn’t astonish anyone in the era of informatics and artificial intelligence! That Flows of energy are intimately mixed with signaletic Flows is an everyday experience (one need only think of the use of bank cards, which trigger the physical effect of distributing money, or the connection with P and T). But what is more difficult to admit is that it is the formalism as such that is the bearer of a certain type of energetic potentiality, independently of the fact that the signs and the figures that it animates are or are not magnetized, electronized, ‘cerebralized’ …” (2013, page 89).
For more on the Abundance Initiative …
http://www.caad.arch.ethz.ch/main/IAV.html (Laboratory for Applied Virtuality)
http://monasandnomos.org/documented-teaching/genius-planet-the-abundance-initiative (Vera Bühlmann, founder of Laboratory for Applied Virtuality)