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Architectural progress

While the 1990s were a time for experimentation, delineating all the possible trajectories that architecture could take in the advent of computational technologies, the beginning of the 21st century has been marked by an actual realization of ideas that seemed inconceivable three decades ago. Architecture has experienced a time of incredible innovation. The advancements of the discipline are plentiful and in all areas of expertise. The computer has been adopted by the field to the point that it’s difficult to distinguish between digital and traditional practice.The discipline seems to be reinventing its possibilities at an incredibly accelerated rate.

Digital fabrication and robotic manufacturing has become a large field of research within the discipline, allowing for computer numeric control (CNC) manufacturing to profoundly alter the notion of seriality and customization in design. The blobs that occupied the virtual space seen through architects’ screens for many years have today been rationalized and fabricated. The development of software infrastructure that aids in the rationalization and construction of complex geometries has grown exponentially, opening a pathway for architects to become creators of the tools that they use. Parametric and BIM software have effectively been able to allow the accurate modeling of buildings, integrating systems and allow for associative geometries. Simulation has allowed the calculation of a building’s energy efficiency and sunlight penetration, anticipating the performance and perception of space prior to its construction. Data collection from completed buildings enabled the improvement of existing energy efficiency models and circulation diagrams that can anticipate the movement of people within a building. At a micro scale, material science has allowed for the creation of“digital materials” that can be engineered in its translucency and flexibility. Software tools can be used to model matter in its molecular composition and not just as a boundary representation of a solid. Composites allow for shells of minimal weight that use the directionality of fibers to calculate and resist large weight load.Today, the pursuit of efficiency turns toward automation and artificial intelligence as technologies that can fundamentally redefine labor practices.

The historic trajectory of innovation has allowed architects such as Patrik Schumacher to argue for a vector of progress in the gradual implementation of new geometric principles in architecture.1 For Schumacher, innovations in architectural geometry allow for new forms of order that in turn allow for framing and ordering social processes. What can be understood from Schumacher’s writings is a sense that architectural progress is associated with the formal and geometrical freedoms allowed by technological innovations.2

Architectural progress currently exists, as argued by Schumacher, as a self-sufficient autopoietic system, one that seems to operate autonomously from any correlation with the market, other disciplines or any social contingency. Schumacher argues that “Parametricism” or “Tectonism,” his proposed terminology for a 21st century hegemonical style, proposes architectural innovations on two fronts:

Parametricism’s radical ontological and methodological innovation translates into a massive leap in both dimensions of architectural progress considered here; i.e., it entails an unprecedented expansion of architecture’s compositional freedom and versatility and an unprecedented leap in architecture’s ordering capacity through the deployment of algorithms and associative logics.’

The compositional freedom that Schumacher describes follows a series of simple heuristics where malleable fluid forms interpolate between requirements, a formal organization structure that uses curves as a form of negotiation. The result of this “articulation” is the production of gradients that eliminate discreteness and autonomy between elements, resulting in the coalescence of larger wholes. Repetitive elements are to be avoided in favor of larger gestures that integrate layers of structural and performative requirements.

An autopoietic progress has been argued to be an emergent property of technology itself, defining an autonomous self-preserving pursuit of innovation.4 In a similar way, the introduction of the term autopoiesis in architecture attempts to define a disciplinary boundary and an internal code and value system with the purpose of its self production. Architectural progress can therefore be identified as an autonomous practice of architecture that seeks the advancement of a formal and conceptual repertoire of an architectural vocabulary.

Architectural progress becomes an end in itself, as it declares that the ultimate pursuit of the discipline is for the production of novelty, independent of its capacity to be effectively implemented in the world. Knowledge and creativity become a powerful commodity, as they encapsulate architecture’s value proposition, one of willingness to reinvent itself perpetually. The mechanism that is in charge of allowing innovation to permeate and reach society at large is that of “trickle down economics,” a theory that suggests that all innovation should happen in service of the most ambitious clients and that over time such innovation will make its way to the general public.

The narrative of“trickle-down economics” has become an alibi to pursue design commissions for the richest 1% of clients, obscuring the inability of the practice to contribute to a larger societal agenda. The scarcity of clients that can effectively engage with such definition of architectural progress naturally generates an aggressive competition between peers. The scarcity of commissions can be understood as resulting from the value system that the discipline has forged, one that is at odds with the market and the public. It is in this way that architecture has manufactured a structural improbability for success, celebrating elusive commissions that somehow manage to defy market logic. Architecture progress, in its current form, requires a form of subsidy, often fulfilled by philanthropy, free labor or wealthy clients with a unique understanding of the discipline.

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