The call to disorder

In a very widely read book of the late 1980s by James Gleick entitled Chaos, Making a New Science (1987),21 Heinz-Otto Peitgen, a physicist at the University of Bremen, is cited as observing that the attraction of the once very popular pure geometrical 'apartment blocks in the Bauhaus style... seems to have passed.' Peitgen noted that an 'enthusiasm [for a] new kind of geometry ... a different perspective of looking at nature' was emerging in the mid-1980s, characterized by twisted shapes, by stretched, knotted and weird floating particles. These strange structures looked like parodies of Euclid in their application to 'intractable' problems, or they simply resembled celebrations of chaos itself.

In the design of the Schullin Jewelry Shop by Hans Hollein (Vienna, 1972-74, pp. 72-73), which is in all respects highly finished, polished and well formed, a major crack in the facade destroys the subtle classical coherence of the work. The spastic geometry of disintegration is not arbitrary. It is the product of a carefully studied design act, meticulously drawn and fastidiously executed. Hollein's example was one of the first rare cases of such a display of chaos during the early 1970s, despite the fact that the anarchic, polyarchic, antiplanning ideas of the period welcomed celebrations of what Richard Sennett called in a contemporary work, The Uses of Disorder (1970), 'the promise and the justification of disorder'. Peichl's ORF-Studio of 1981 is another early example. The radiant explosion of its plan also manifests the destruction of classical ideas of coherence, a concept which in fact dates back to the late-1960s. One has to remember that the populist movement was explicitly anti-classical, and so were expressions of lyrical individuality, such as Hundert-wasser's in the 1970s. But these cases of anti-classicism did not have the paradoxically systematic character of the chaotic structures of the 1980s.22

It is only since the mid-1980s that the ideas behind Hollein's cracked facade and Peichl's exploded plan are being understood on the level of principles, rules and system. An increasing number of projects, first on paper, then built, emerged which contradicted all the tendencies of the period: the populist striving for a politically engaged design; the rappel a I'ordre to re-establish an autonomous tradition based on architecture; the functional and structural rigorists' attempts to introduce a higher level of rationality in building; critical regionalism's attempts to maintain the shaping of places with a sense of community.

In the past, there have been periodic eruptions of love for disorder and a desire to escape from the ideas of coherence and system of the type observed by Peitgen, cited above. At such times, a whole world view emerges in science, in literature, in the arts and architecture, which tries to subvert the coherent systems for thinking and acting then predominant. Such was the period that Eugenio Battisti called the 'anti-rinascimento' (1989), embodied in the anti-classical, anti-Ciceronian prose style of Montaigne's essays (1571-92) and also in the anti-classical composition of Michelangelo's Laurentian Library.23 Another such period was Constructivism in the 1920s. Yet in each of these recurring appeals to disorganization, there lies behind this seemingly negative attitude to order a highly consistent design thinking, a strong thematic continuity, and possibly even an equally rational scope of investigation. Thus, in the experiments of spatial composition by Gustav Peichl, Klaus Kada, or Michael Szyszkowitz and Karla Kowalski, Zaha Hadid, or Frank Gehry, we can discern an anti-methodical method: the high predictability with which unpredictable events occur in the work. This is why it is possible to recognize their projects and why we can sense intuitively their high quality in comparison with superficial imitations.

As with the other cases of apparently disordered architecture in the past, the rule behind the arbitrariness is that of canonically undoing the classical canon. Each architect, each project, takes its own approach to unmaking the coherence of the classical edifice, each arriving in the end at a consistent method and creating a work that manifests once more consistency, but of a different kind. To borrow Wittgenstein's famous metaphor of the city, it is like when one part of the city is built and 'circumscribed' with its own ideas of perfection, then another area suddenly draws people into it where they can build a sort of 'suburb' in an altogether different manner and with a different sense of perfection.24

Seemingly there is a destructive delight in this architectural exercise of shifting conceptions of order. It could be argued that there might even be a critical intention; that the architects of the 1980s are concerned with organizing anti-celebrations in opposition to those of mainstream architecture, or those of the architecture of other contemporary movements in praise of order. Yet these architects of the 1980s and '90s appear too positively predisposed to have the label critical' assigned to them. Their search for alternative spatial order does not seem to stem from their adversary stance so much as from their cognitive investigations.

At the same time, the hidden order of their works, their anti-classical 'chaotism', should be distinguished from the tradition of functionalist anti-classicism, a tradition which also created awkward geometries such as the angular, tortured shapes of bastions, the hornworks and hoardings of military architecture, or the utilitarian irregular configurations of our time in projects such as Claude Parent's Villa Drusch (Versailles, 1961-63) and Ivry Town Centre by Jean Renaudie (1970-78).

In the chaos-loving projects of the 1980s, their anti-classicism has a cognitive character. They suggest a process of undoing regularity which can tell us much about how the mind understands regularity. Coop Himmelblau's design for the Merz School in Stuttgart (1981 -never completed) or Rooftop Remodelling (Vienna, 1983-89, pp. 220-23) are two most striking examples; once one has contemplated these two structures, classical architecture will never be the same. The building is made to appear like an intricately assembled mechanism which can only be explained once it has been disassembled. This approach can therefore provide an understanding of cognitive structures of ordering space which are broader and deeper than those of the conventions of the classical canon. If artifacts are the outcome of thinking which takes place in time, and not only in space, then clearly this thinking process can be much more easily analysed if one's interpretation takes into account the aspect of time. But since buildings are space constructs, to convey time through their fabric is possible only symbolically - in other words, if the fabric of the building represents time implicitly. Thus, the time and process aspects of architectural conception are reconstructed in the mind of the viewers as they experience buildings as representations of time and process.

This collapsing of the four dimensions into the three-dimensions of buildings has precedents, of course. Sigfried Giedeon has made this point very clearly in his book Space, Time and Architecture, and as Peter Collins has observed in his Changing Ideals of Modern Architecture,25 the 18th-century designers of picturesque landscapes very consciously integrated the dimension of time in their projects. This was achieved by forcing the viewer to move through the spatial complex. In the architecture of chaos of the 1980s, the same object is achieved without necessarily making the visitors walk around the building. Instead,

Hundertwasser, house, Vienna (1985)

Michael Szyszkowitz and Karla Kowalski, addition to the Technical School for Forestry, Pichl Castle, near Graz, Austria (1982-85)

Günther Domenig, Nix-Nuz-Nix - 'Good-for-Nothing Bird', designed as a symbol for the Z-Bank, Graz, Austria (1983)

Miralles Pinos Arquitectos, Archery Range for the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona (1990-92)

they gaze at the static, disordered patterns of these complexes in the same way that they would contemplate a dynamic phenomenon in a disturbed, viscous fluid or, on a large scale, in the galaxy itself. And this experience is what makes cognitively intriguing the last decade's architectural explorations of disorder.

Despite their highly abstract character, these spatial compositions very often include iconic elements, mimetic images. Thus, the image of the bird forms a strange leitmotif of this architecture. The body of the bird appears, for instance, in Günther Domenig's Ornamental Birds (1980-83) and his Nix-Nuz-Nix ('good-for-nothing') Bird (Graz, Austria, July 1983). Although more sculpture than building, these birds serve as models for more complex buildings such as Domenig's Stone House (Steindorf, Carinthia, Austria, 1984-86). The bird-like geometry of his constructions implies time and process, not only because birds fly in time, but also because their very morphology results from a slow process through which the profile is carved and polished by evolution and time. This is why, in fact, in Domenig's designs the bird image echoes the image of craggy hills and rocks, and of broken tree trunks. These shapes are the outcome of natural processes of transformation, processes of destruction or growth, both dynamic phenomena occurring in time.

There is a strong zoomorphic character, picturing the formal explosion of a 'fractal dragon' rather than a bird in flight, which again implies movement as well as the natural process of evolution of form, in Aldo and Hannie van Eyck's ESTEC - European Space Research and Technology Centre (1986-89, pp. 230-33). Movement caused by the unleashing of the forces of nature is also suggested in the Archery Range of Miralles and Pinos (Barcelona, 1990-92). Its structures dug into their chthonic surroundings seem to wave and bend as if in the process of being rocked by an earthquake. The chaos wrought by Miralles and Pinos has a dynamic quality, each shed seeming to collide with the other in a mysterious propagation of movement.

Despite their apparent disorganization, the chaotism' of these projects was more obsessed with understanding in an abstract manner organization, construction and destruction, growth and decay. These buildings were not a comment on the distress and derangement of reality in the surrounding environment, either natural or artificial.

Greener Homes for You

Greener Homes for You

Get All The Support And Guidance You Need To Be A Success At Living Green. This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Great Tips on Buying, Designing and Building an Eco-friendly Home.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment