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Discreteness beyond modularity

Discrete design is not a return to modularity. The modular and the discrete differ at an ontological and ideological level. As we will examine later, the modular movement was founded on how standardization can lead to a homogenization of industry producing large efficiencies in production. Discrete design, still in a stage of formalization, aims for a distributed and open-ended form of tectonic coordination, where families of compatible parts are able to define valuable patterns in their local context. Discrete is a movement of social participation, coordination and distributed value production with inevitable formal consequences to the constituent parts of buildings.

The notion of modularity popularized by Le Corbusier with “Modulor” in 19546 was understood both as a design system of proportions as well as project for standardization of building components. The adoption of a modular framework became an effort of dimensional coordination in the industry. Christine Wall has done a thorough anthropological study of the motivations and circumstances that led to the creation of the Modular Society in the 1950s, understanding the interest in establishing a mechanism of modular coordination and establishing industry standards for the reduction of the cost of buildings:

The Modular Society campaigned for the universal dimensional coordination of construction components. This, it was argued, would reduce the wastage involved in traditional building, as modular structures would be built to order and fitted together on site. In turn, this would transform the construction process, from muddy chaos to clean and rational orderliness. The idea was a logical progression from pre-war prefabrication methods but instead of using a large range of different systems, the Modular Society promoted rationalization through a unified system of components, which would be chosen by the architect from a catalogue and fitted, ideally without any adjustment, on site.7

The Modular Society established a four-inch grid condition for industrialized parts. The modular was understood as the smallest indivisible dimension in a system of correlations or coordinates. While used for dimensioning material components, this grid condition antecedes any unit, as it is a property of space. It is a pre-established coordination aid for the arrangement of disparate elements.

Le Corbusier8 and Walter Gropius9 studied the implementation of modular frameworks based on the notion of human proportion to establish principles for the unequivocal combination of modules into meaningful wholes. These attempts were meant to generate a compositional unity that would demarcate order and an economic rationale for the optimal use of materials and space. Christine Wall identified that the Modular Society saw great potential in methodologies that would reduce the cost of buildings. Using this perspective, human scale influenced the design of building components through an evaluation of the efficiency of labor. As she explains:

The object of the new Society will be to contribute toward lowering the cost of building by coordinating dimensions of materials, components and fittings on a modular basis. At present we are not getting full advantage of flowproduction because standard and customary sizes of different components do not fit together."’

The inherent pursuit of optimizing and increasing revenue is intrinsic to all capitalist enterprises. However, there is something valuable to be understood in a project of coordination, as it bears the seeds for collaborative production. The problem of modularity has less to do with its ambitions for economic efficiency and more to do with its universality, which is predicated on the notion of the “average man.”

While the modular project seeks to establish a framework for unity, the discrete paradigm seeks to establish a framework for diversity. The discrete emerges as a way to consider serial repetition that utilizes the economics of standardization without the universal framework of modularity. Central to the discrete is the coordination of different stakeholders in the economy and the development of open standards for compatibility and coproduction.

Discreteness is not a property of space as modularity is but a property of compatibility; e.g., a property of links. The construction of a discrete framework aims to reconsider parts and their relation with a totality, placing at the foreground the autonomy of units over superimposed structures such as a modular grid. Such a framework needs to allow incoherence, or the lack of compatibility between families of units. This is inevitable and celebrated, as no universal framework should override the possibility for the emergence of local codes of meaning and value. The framework trades economic efficiency for redundancy and open-endedness, understanding that it is impossible to forecast the value systems that might make a design pattern relevant.

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