Article, Readers' Picks, Volume 10 Years

Volume #2 — Mark Wigley: Towards a History of Quantity

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2015 marks Volume’s 10th birthday. The coming weeks we’ll republish our readers’ favorite articles. If you feel tempted to highlight yours with a brief motivation, please send an email to 10years@archis.org.

Today we feature a personal favorite of Gianluca Croce, an avid Volume reader. Gianluca is currently finishing his Masters of Science in Architecture at the Facoltà di Architettura, Università degli Studi di Trieste, Italy.

“I met Volume about four years ago, thanks to the suggestions of my thesis supervisor, and it was love at first sight. What I felt was lacking in the major magazines of the discipline (i.e. topics that go beyond the simple stylistic or technical features of architecture) I found in the many enlightening articles of your magazine. From that moment I started collecting them! Volume #2, Doing (Almost) Nothing, is definitely one that offered me food for thought, especially Mark Wigley’s article ‘Towards a History of Quantity’. The perspective offered by Wigley poses an interesting tool for decoding architectural production as “the very image of quantity in the first place.” This allows us to overcome the stereotypical ideas about its excesses (the so-called starchitecture), but also to conceive and elaborate its counterpart (the reduction or even withdrawal). The issue lends itself nowadays more than ever because the succession of various crises (economic, environmental, humanitarian, ideas, etc.) requires a radical approach to design themes that go beyond the sterile and empty slogans of sustainability.”

1.

Not having enough to do, architects often do too much. Devoted with masochistic fervor to a profession whose expertise is routinely ignored, they treat each project as if it might be their last, turning it into an ark loaded with their best ideas compacted into an intense display of effects. Such buildings act as efficient broadcast devices, projectors that continuously launch a barrage of images as missiles. Projects turn into projectiles and architectural quality is judged by the number of images that land around the world. Hyper-concentrations of image power develop a kind of blinding light that throws the rest of the world into shadow. Critics complain that the resulting spectacle services the machinery of the global marketplace by distracting us from the realities of contemporary socio-economic life. Excess in particular sites is broadcast across the planet to mask deficiencies in the wider terrain. In the end, this criticism of the spectacle in architecture is basically about quantity: the escalating size of the images, audience, flow, density, frequency, resolution, colors, channels, bits, feeds, frames-per-second, and so on. That is, the exponential increase in bandwidth. Contemporary architecture has become a highbandwidth medium produced and monitored in new ways necessitating a recalculation of the field’s basic assumptions.

Before demanding less from our architects by joining the protest about the blinding spectacle of contemporary designs, we need to check the basic story about quantity. Nostalgia for a pre-spectacular past is not supported by the numbers. It is just contemporary vanity to think that there is more imagery, information, and blindness today — that saturation is new. To take the most obvious examples, the medieval cathedral was a dominating, spectacular, three-dimensional image system and the revered Parthenon called attention to itself on the Acropolis above the city by posing in its coat of brightly colored paint packaging a 40 foot tall gold and ivory statue of Athena. The buildings were precisely designed to support multi-media spectacles through a collaborating array of banners, clothing, texts, rituals, music, speeches, dance, insignia, furniture, processions, animals, food, poetry, and smells. The extraordinary complexity of these operations and the relative simplicity of the buildings, even the largest and most ornate, shows the basic efficiency of architecture, its ability to leverage between a little and a lot. Architects develop singular forms that incubate and multiply diverse effects. Contemporary media Increasingly allow buildings to extend their impact into an ever bigger domain, magnifying their leverage, yet we have no reason to think that the historical stone images securely grounded the people who encountered them, that we have invented alienation by collectively heading deeper into multiple layers of representation that distract us from basic realities. Indeed it might be argued that high-bandwidth architecture is simply a response to the public’s ancient capacity to absorb and integrate image flow, that people are less overwhelmed by architecture than ever. Far from succumbing to the media, buildings, as one of the oldest form of communication, have now been joined by so many others that the burden of defining social space is now shared by a wide array of channels, of which the solid object is but one.

Complaints about high-bandwidth architecture depend on the image of a singular historical trajectory with each generation succumbing more to the lure of representational systems, an image which is based on the seemingly commonsense idea that representation comes after, and is subordinate to, the authentic presence of real material conditions. Representation is treated as an extra, an optional surplus over and above the basic facts. Representation is never simply a surplus, however. Indeed, it is representational systems that construct the sense of an elemental physical world before them. Precisely by cultivating the distinction between basic and surplus, representation itself is fundamental yet defines itself as an extra that has to be controlled. The history of architectural theory is the history of the attempts to control surplus, regulating all forms of excess, whether ‘physical’ or ‘representational’, by controlling quantity. Architecture is the surplus added to everyday life that exemplifies the control of all surplus. It is the very figure of control. In architecture, despite all the apparent nuances of our discourse, quality is almost always a quantity. So to get a sense of the strategic options open to designers in a high-bandwidth environment, we need to reconsider the structural relationship of the architect to the question of quantity. Before addressing the quantity of images, we must consider the architect’s strategic role in producing the very image of quantity in the first place.

2.

The figure of the architect was constructed in the 16th century when Alberti and his colleagues argued that the designer is a thinker rather than a worker, producing drawings rather than objects. The institutional magic of the drawing is precisely that it is almost nothing, the lightest of traces on the lightest of materials. The permeable membrane of the paper being as little material as possible so that it could catch immaterial ideas, bringing their shadow out of the invisible world of abstract thought and into the visible, material world. Alberti privileged the word disegno because it referred at once to the idea and to the drawn figure. The drawing is neither physical nor ideal. The heavy substance of a stone wall is reduced to a single light line so that it can be deflected by delicate thoughts. The capacity of the heavy material of architecture to articulate immaterial ideas is seen to be dependent on the almost nothingness of the drawing.

The architect becomes an architect by promising not to work, offering the unique gift of doing almost nothing. The mason as craftsman gives way to the architect as an imaging machine—scanning, then processing, then projecting. Not just images, but also words. The architect has an expert ability to blur the distinction between words and images, going beyond simply juxtaposing words and images to treating images as words and words as images. The architect is a unique kind of talker, a theatrically articulate figure who explains his or her work and produces work that explains, a public intellectual who acts as if the building itself speaks, that architecture, in its very substance, is a mode of thought. Because this almost nothing of the architect’s gift is difficult to value, impossible to quantify, the status of the profession is forever ambiguous. To choose architecture is to choose almost nothing in order to hover thoughtfully, if impractically, over the entire material world, unable to recognize a site where your skills would not be a key asset, yet rarely asked to use them.

The paradox is that architects work so hard at not working, sacrificing evenings, weekends, retirement, and even old age. The architect is a piece of equipment that is always on, with a screen saver of routine activities that represents action when nothing is happening. Every casual look when walking down the street or into a room is turned into an analytical, dissecting gaze. There is such a fear of inaction in the profession, a professional fear, even when most of the constructed environment does not involve architects. The state of architecture is mainly defined by what doesn’t happen, yet magazines and schools obsessively monitor only what does. It is as if architecture, the art of almost nothing, is a technology that must produce a continuous, reassuring sound, a steady, almost innocuous hum.

The dedicated architect labors away at this non-working work, hoping to add something to the world and magnify the effect of that object. In crude terms, buildings are seen as lumps on the land. Architecture is usually conceived of as an addition and the architect as someone who adds, projecting buildings onto the site rather than extracting or carving them out of it. Yet a crucial role of architecture is subtraction — not just the subtraction that inevitably occurs before the construction of the building, but the subtraction made by the building itself. Each design provides a set of filters, efficiently absorbing and organizing the myriad, overlapping flows that impact the site. No matter how excessive a building seems, it is a huge reduction of the forces at play. Architects are primarily editors and their designs are editing machines. Their role is to provide the hesitation in daily life that makes reflection possible, an opportunity to think or perhaps live differently. Action for the architect is the production of a gap or delay in the flow. This sense of the designer as one who adds, but adds in a way that subtracts by building an opening in everyday life, creates a unique calculus of architectural practice with a set of intractable paradoxes. To do a lot can be to imperceptibly go with the flow. A loud building in a loud environment makes no audible noise. By the same token, to do little can be to do a lot and to do nothing can be a radical act. To do almost nothing becomes the most powerful intervention. Yet architects are so used to hearing the word ‘no’ that they are afraid to use it themselves. The powerful weapon of doing nothing, or, better yet, almost nothing, is abandoned in favor of a routinely efficient leveraging of a little into a lot.

3.

Each phase of architectural history is defined by its particular theory of quantity. Removing the phrases from our discourse that involve quantity would leave very little left. There is some kind of calculus in every architectural statement, or rather it is architectural only because a certain kind of calculation is taking place — making sense of the seemingly arcane demand that every student must have done math before going to architecture school. What counts is counting. The architect is someone who counts in a particular way, working with the complicated logic of adding something that subtracts enough from the environment to release new forms of exchange. The goal is to avoid both insufficiency and excess, as specified in Alberti’s classical definition of beauty as the state in which nothing can be added and nothing taken away without destroying the effect. The key outcome of this principle is that the minimum and the maximum become the same thing. It is a zero-tolerance operation. Alberti, drawing extensively on Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, closely followed the most influential theories of economy, like every subsequent designer. Beauty and economy remain inseparable. Every type of architecture, including the most elaborate, presents itself as the most economic solution. Each condemns earlier work as excessive in order to defeat it with less. Yet what constitutes less keeps changing. The most creative acts move the concept of excess to a new location to legitimize different forms.

In these terms, modern architecture was nothing more than the latest attempt to move the category of excess. The countless drawings, essays, books, exhibitions, lectures and buildings were an extended commentary on quantity in an age in which the new economies of mass production meant that more could be had for less. Visible excess was transformed from the crafted sign of wealth into a new form of display for the other classes. In architecture, the possibility of more for less simultaneously triggered both a socialist call for more for those who had less and an elitist call for less for those that had more.
Most architects made this ambiguous double move, embracing all forms of efficiency while rejecting cheap industrialized decorative designs for the masses and praising luxury goods without decoration. Having repeatedly enlisted architecture in the egalitarian redistribution of resources for a collective society, Le Corbusier did not hesitate to use a smooth Hermes leather wallet as a model of architecture’s future. The socialist side of this double calculation took its most explicit form with the collective search for the existenzminimum (minimum dwelling) in the late twenties that explored the most efficient use of resources by stripping down the mechanisms of daily life to their most efficient support packages. The elitist side of the calculation was exemplified by the large modern villas for the rich of the same Years that demonstrated their luxury by the perfect control of surfaces seemingly stripped of all decorative extras. Less was turned into the sign of success.

In promoting such a free-ranging cult of ‘reduction’, modern architects privileged calculation and punctuated their polemics with data and charts. Numbers replayed their ancient organizing role in the discourse. Every architect was a statistician, accountant, and computer. The greatest counter of all was Buckminster Fuller with his endless pages of numbers and resulting porous designs where nothing was added beyond what was absolutely necessary. His delicate yet resilient structures are as close to nothing as possible, characterized more by the absence of material than its presence. Dreaming of ‘invisible architecture’ as the ultimate work, Fuller carried out the mandate of modern architecture to the letter but precisely in so doing missed his colleagues’ point. If their role model was the engineer, “inspired by the law of Economy and governed by mathematical calculation” in the opening words of Le Corbusier’s most influential book of 1923, the efficient work of the engineer had to be supplemented, even embellished, with the “essential surplus” of art. The modern architect’s dream was to combine engineer, who calculates neither too little nor too much material with artist, who adds as judiciously as possible such that the sum is articulate about reduction. The paradox is that something has to be added to the minimal structure in order to make its minimal quality evident as such. Indeed, it is more important to articulate reduction as a polemical goal than to actually accomplish it. The articulate addition is also a matter of counting, an “artistic calculation” as Karl Ernst Osthaus put it in 1910 when discussing the possible formal impact of concrete. The supplement of art is itself to be engineered, as when Hermann Muthesius recast Alberti’s formulation by calling for the architect to “remove the disturbing element, to add what is lacking” while equating the engineer and the architect along with Walter Gropius in 1913. Discourse about modern architecture was no more than a continuation of the ancient debate, trying To maintain the figure of the architect who does not add anything unnecessary through an engineering of artistic effect. As when the discipline was first established, the goal was again for minimum to also be maximum. Architecture remained the calibrated optimization of quantity.

If Fuller’s almost nothing structures were the endgame of the engineering calculation, the endgame of the artistic calculation was also the almost nothing threshold at which quantity just appears or disappears. It was Mies van de Rohe’s explicit dream to produce an architecture of “almost nothing” (beinahe nichts) through buildings with the same minimal quality as the most elemental drawing — the media with which the architectural discipline had been institutionalized now became the material effect of the work. Looking for the maximum effect with the minimum of apparent means, Mies famously concentrated on actively constructing a sense of ever so lightly punctuated emptiness or brooding silence. Yet his luxurious minimalism required more work than any other project. It was a colossal effort to construct the articulate effect of as little as possible, the effect being inversely proportional to the effort. Such minimalism had become a 20th-century extravagance. In the age of mass production and consumption, almost nothing had become the most valuable asset of all.

The attempt to remove the difference between minimum and maximum through ‘almost nothing’ was itself turned into a reductive mathematical principle with Mies’ infamous aesthetic dictum “less is more” and Fuller’s matching pragmatic dictum of “doing more with less.” The project to achieve the maximum leverage from the minimum elements was symptomatically captured in as few words as possible, a polemical efficiency that even infected those who opposed it in a series of ever more expansive reactions to the Miesian formula:

much ado about next to nothing. – Frank Lloyd Wright 1947
almost nothing is too much. – Reyner Banham 1962
less is not more. less is a bore. – Robert Venturi 1968
less is nothing. too much is never enough. – Morris Lapidus 1996
more and more, more is more. – Rem Koolhaas 2002

The implication of these successive formulations is a singular scale from nothing to everything along which each architect can securely position himself or herself by providing a matching theory. ‘Almost nothing’ and ‘excess’ are therefore not fundamentally different. They are simply images of relative quantities. The real issue then is another kind of almost nothing that allows such images to appear as such, the lightly punctuated emptiness in the environment that no architect claims, the unsigned gaps even within the work of signature architects, that allow the conversation about architecture, which is to say quantity, to take place.

4.

Those celebrating or condemning the cult of the spectacle in architecture overlook the huge effort devoted to creating the backdrop against which images appear. There are, for example, millions and millions of square kilometers across the world devoted to default surfaces of grey concrete, green grass, white walls and black asphalt. This barely perceived default setting establishes an almost nothing state to which things then appear to have been added as a visible quantity. It is what makes both the spectacle and resistance to it possible. The apparent excesses of imagery depend upon a particular unobserved effect of almost nothing. These seemingly innocuous surfaces covering the planet are the real site for Architectural production. Today’s high-bandwidth performance depends on the pervasive, anonymous presence of a seemingly low-performance medium. The evolution of this medium is much more significant than the events staged through and upon it.

To ignore this seemingly dumb landscape by simply adding dramatic projects to it, whether ‘minimal’ or ‘excessive’, amounts to little more than retransmitting generic architectural calculations. What really matters in any calculation is not the particular result, but the frame of reference, the assumptions built into the system of counting. To produce the kind of hesitation in the everyday fl ow that is the mark of the thoughtful architect may require resisting the temptation to simply add, to cultivate the capacity to say less or even to say no.

There are few role models for this more extreme form of minimalism. If Fuller represents the extreme of the engineering calculation and Mies the extreme of the artistic calculation, neither knew how to say no. That more radical step was made by Cedric Price. Inheriting Fuller’s ability to count anything and ruthlessly dedicated to the cult of reduction, Price became the high priest of doing almost nothing, of saying no when necessary. Working secretively in his polemically empty, white room, reducing every concept and drawing down to the minimum number of lines and words, he was able to challenge our understanding of quantity. Unafraid to offer nothing or a few temporary pieces of equipment while others would hand over monuments, his designs were almost nothing, or rather he designed ‘no’ as the ultimate Architectural intervention:
I make a moral judgment in the selection of work I undertake. This is based on an invariably faulty assessment of its future social benefit. This includes the benefit accruing from my inactivity.

Price turned the routine yet suppressed inactivity of the architect into an activist challenge — displacing the traditional sense of quantity. If a relentless logic of efficiency has been at work in Architectural discourse from the beginning, albeit often thinly disguised by allusions to the magic of immeasurable qualities, the apparent reductions of modern architecture and apparent excesses of the contemporary baroque spectacle are only minor variations in our ongoing discourse about quantity. To go beyond such ultimately inconsequential distinctions will require a heightened sensitivity to the sophisticated structural role played by seemingly inconsequential elements within the everyday environment. The architect’s capacity to make new kinds of calculation, to redefine efficiency and thereby rethink what it means to act, will involve identifying and embracing the pervasive structural role of almost nothing in the contemporary landscape. The thoughtful eye must turn to the edge of the blinding light of contemporary spectacles to catch a distorted glimpse of the barely visible media that allow the intense Architectural broadcasts to take place. Eventually a rich catalog of different forms of almost nothing will come into focus. Each of these overlooked, seemingly ephemeral conditions could act as the basis for the most substantial rethinking of our field. Almost nothing will again be the substance of almost everything.

Mark Wigley, ‘Towards a History of Quantity’, Volume 2: Doing (Almost) Nothing, pp. 28-32.