Open for interpretation | François Roche’s architectural self-organisation got my brain going

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“I’ve heard about something that builds up only through multiple, heterogeneous and contradictory scenarios, something that rejects even the idea of a possible prediction about its form of growth or future typology. Something shapeless grafted onto existing tissue, something that needs no vanishing point to justify itself but instead welcomes a quivering existence immersed in a real-time vibratory state, here and now.” – François Roche – “I’ve heard about”

In 2012, I attended a lecture at UTS by French architect François Roche. It was fascinating. Here was architect tackling themes of emergence, self-generation, growth and decay both conceptually and practically. His philosophy of research as speculation was also fascinating, and something I’m only now fully coming to grips with. I took some notes at the time, and have only recently returned to them given my thoughts about symbiosis in performance. I was aided in making these connections by a brilliant app called Mohiomap, which allowed me to map hundreds of notes from my Evernote library into organic, typological graphs – showing connections in my writing I wasn’t aware of.

Roche’s talk focused upon his conception and use of organic processes in his practice, and how this can be harnessed within architecture. He spoke at length about the way in which tools for architecture need not be specified, and that the way in which we look at the way something is created needs to be taken from another angle. An example of this is rendering a movie of an envisaged biological/cyborg process creating a structure. The way in which the structure is created in the first place comes out of the way the process is defined. It is only after this that the means by which the thing can be constructed can be envisaged.

This is fascinating on a number of levels. Firstly the idea that one might ‘outsource’ the specifics of a design to an semi-unpredictable process, an algorithm, a biological model. Of course there are clear links here to evolutionary systems but also politically a rejection of top-down hierarchical structuring of elements. The process itself is defined, and the interacting of the individual elements is the thing that specifies the final design. He spoke of the need for architecture not to be thought of as something fixed, something as a finished and crystalised rendering of a pre-conceived idea, but (if I understand it correctly), as something that can be a particular snapshot of a process not completely known in advance. Taking this idea further are projects that are not snapshots, but constructions in a permanent state of change and completion. Architecture as something living, something definitively un-fixed. Designing environments that are an escape from the real world through metaphorical associations, but also ones that live and breathe with the environment in which they are placed, they become part of the environment itself. Things like this include his structure that grows through electromagnetism, collecting pollutants and allowing this inherent environmental factor to contribute to the overall design of the structure.

This process focuses upon the relationship between a structure that is fabricated in this way and the world in which it lives. However, the way the building/structure is perceived or experienced by the outside world is not something that he spoke much about at all. To me this is especially important given that we generally consider architecture as fixed, as something that structures and defines everyday existence in space. The fact that a structure might be built to be specifically affected by its environment turns this notion on its head. Despite the focus upon evolutionary typographies, and the distancing of control of the architect over the structure itself, there are still aesthetic questions here of course – there would most certainly be a set of desired attributes for such structures. The question then in this type of work is whether or not generally understood aesthetic criteria are irrelevant, or is loss of control and specification of a beautiful ‘process’ more important? I guess what I’m wondering then is where the interface lies between the human relationship with the environment. There are low-level models of biological activity that are creating these structures, these works of art in livable form, however the interface with human inhabitants/audience members/receivers, is this relevant?

This is where I’m beginning to make the link with musical generation of this kind, specifically in the context of musical performance and improvisation. Self-organisation in such processes are appealing in these contexts because the enable a different conception of what it means to present structures of many kinds – architectural, artistic, musical etc. In addition, the fact that such processes stem from our understanding of living systems provides a concrete link to those observing/interacting with the result of such processes. We recognise our collective selves, our social and biological nature reflected in the design and implementation of these cyborg constructions. My questions in the context of all of this work stem from higher up however. Whist appreciating the autonomous nature of such process, implicitly understood to be derived from the very same organisation as living systems such as ourselves, can we recognise us? Can I recognise me? In interfacing with a technological construction (art, architecture, performance etc) should be able to recognise me amongst the design? Is there a political statement being made in such types of work about the separation between collectivism and individualism?

If I zoom out a little I find that its all relative to context, and also to different levels of agency, interaction and causality. Take for example a building. The design of the skeletal structures can be informed by longer form collective interactions, things that are perceived on a low level – biological interaction between components, networks and the like. These things are models of evolutionary systems, or at least inspired by them. I understand them to represent processes that make up me, only through abstraction and scientific explanation. However, they cannot represent me as I perceive and know me, for practical and social reasons. A construction in space of the scale of a room or a building is a social space, to be perceived and experienced socially. It therefore makes sense that for a structure such as this represent or be inspired by ‘me’ as related to the world, as part of a collective universal me. Breaking me down into components that are universal requires a very low-level approach, a consideration of where the fundamental rules and logic of biology and social organisation comes from. Building a structure such as this reflects then – in the design process and perhaps also in the continual fabrication process (those structures that continue to mutate and change) – the interactions between low level components common to humanity, but also to life in general – to darwinian evolution.

I have lots of questions. My thought here then is that the concept of agency in both the design, generation and appreciation of such work is somewhat of a contradiction. Agency and autonomy as we conceive of them as intelligent beings are much richer than these low level, long-form associations between individual components. Autonomous and self-organising structures are of course fascinating and rich, over many iterations and longer forms, and these things are perfect for exploration and inclusion in social and environmental spaces. Does this mean however that in turning to such ways of generating and presenting work that there is also some kind of mistrust of individual will and intentionality? Or are we simply not willing (pun unintended) to engage with the generative genesis of such fundamental concepts that make us human – our notion of self identification? How can we as designers, artists, musicians and creatives reconcile the inevitable abstraction from biological models (those that exert real autonomy and self-organisation on a low-level), with our inherent understandings of human will and intentionality? Is it possible to acknowledge creative intentionality and at the same time distance ourselves from it? What does this mean for authorship and those who are perceiving the result of such processes? Is the conceptual space in which such approaches present themselves bound to be perennially open for interpretation?

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