Architectural Context Part 9: Physical Context, Summary
Excerpt from: Architectural Context in the Age of Big Data
All case studies presented earlier although might seem distinct share a series of fundamental properties. These theories about the city are striving to discover or induce a category of order. They are intellectual constructs attempting to “measure” and describe the complex relationships occurring within the city, rendering the ambiguous relationships between architectural context and architectural form more precise. All mentioned theories employ the figure-ground principle with various degrees of abstraction, where ground and figure no longer refer to merely visual domain but rather imply an understanding of ground as an abstract substance from which a figure entity emerges. This abstraction allowed to extend the understanding of what constitutes as a ground of architectural context and what kind of figures can emerge from it.
Additionally, these works illustrate how the notion of context was gradually expanded by consequent generations of architects each slightly extending its boundaries. The idea of context that was present in the work of Camillo Sitte in the form of simple geometric correlations laid the foundation for following generation of architects to expand upon. Aldo Rossi extended the understanding of context by highlighting the significance of the temporal dimension of the city and arguing that the collective memory of the city leaves its imprints on the formal vocabulary of urban artefacts. He proposed a model for the creation of urban artefacts that perform as an assemblage of different architectures, where each fragment of the building would respond and signify a particular aspect of the history of the city. Collin Rowe, in his turn, suggested that the role of an architectural artefact within the urban fabric can alternate depending on its contextual relationships with other parts of the city, resulting in the creation of urban pochés. He advocated the creation of collage cities where a multiplicity of distinct visions of a city could coexist within the whole through the politics of bricolage. Venturi further extended the concept of context by illustrating the immense variety of contextual forces that act upon architectural form, arguing that that the complexity and contradiction that architectural discourse has come to face should be embraced by the discipline. Koolhaas showed that the emergence of new typologies and surrealist programmatic mutations is a byproduct of the metropolitan culture of congestion. He proposed that the departure from the traditional understanding of context opens up the buildings to their inner programmatic logic that is capable of generating new formal and programmatic organizations. Eisenman’s work attempted to open up the interiority of architecture by disjoining the concerns of function, meaning, and metaphysics from the discourse on architectural form. He created a diagrammatic language that can be used to formalize the design process and see it as a systematic, step by step generation of a formal system under the influence of rulesets as well as internal and external forces exerted upon it.
This historical cross-section is by no means a complete overview of all the changes that occurred in the understanding of architectural context and its relationships with architectural form, but it is sufficient to recognize the pattern of rising complexity and subtle formalization attempts that were happening with the arrival of the postmodern movement. The level of complexity that architects had to operate with by the end of the twentieth century is well illustrated in the image produced by Bernard Tschumi In “Advertisements for Architecture” series. Tschumi represents architecture as a system with composite restricting rules and nodes suggesting that this undeniable complexity should be a subject of delight (Figure Below).
Additionally what can be seen in this sequence of works is how the conception of context was undergoing a radical transformation throughout the twentieth century. The vague and abstract nature of context was gradually being replaced by a more formalized methods of analysis. The focal point of twentieth-century architects was shifting from external phenomena to processes internal to architecture. This change can be already seen in Koolhaas’s and Eisenman’s work. Koolhaas’s work was an attempt to open up architecture to its internal programmatic logic while Eisenman’s work was aiming to open up internal formal logic of architecture.
The exponential rise in the complexity of architectural context inevitably provoked a need for establishing new methodologies that would allow the discipline to produce inherently coherent orderly systems. In “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture,” Venturi critique of modernism showed that modernist architects were highly selective in determining which problems should be solved. Thus, the modernist method of dealing with the complexity of contextual relationships was an oversimplification. The postmodernist view took the opposite path of inclusiveness. Instead of “either-or” the postmodern movement preferred “both-and.” ¹ Motivated by creating architectural artefacts inclusive in nature, the postmodern movement employed the system of collage as a predominant methodology. Whether its Rossi model for architecture where the building is a collage of different historical influences or the paranoic-critical method advocated by Koolhaas they all operate through the juxtaposition of conflicting substances. Collage as a method allowed postmodernists to combine distinct influences present in context into a single body of an architectural artefact through collision. The edge where two fragments of a collage collide results in an abrupt change, a radical event of alteration and tension. The edge here is to be understood in its abstract sense as the edge between parts of the whole, between inside and outside, between context and artefact. This strained condition of the edge is what Venturi described as “richness of meaning” and considered it preferable to the “clarity of meaning.” ² However, as Eisenman points out:
While the work of postmodernists used strategies of fragmentation and materiality to critique the modernist idea of the whole, the fragment cannot help but to recall an absent whole…³
Collage as a whole operates through the contrast between its integral fragments. Each fragment of a collage brings its own internal order and clash of two systems of order produces an element of disorder, compromising the coherence of the whole. ⁴ This characteristic of collage is also acknowledged by Venturi:” When circumstances defy order, order should bend or break: anomalies and uncertainties give validity to architecture.” ⁵ The postmodern approach of dealing with complexity was resolved through systems of collage and their inherent contradictory meaning. However, what can be seen in the early work of Eisenman is precisely the opposite that is a move away from considerations of meaning, function, and social aspects of architectural form and a move towards a formalized discourse. Within the next several decades it is precisely Eisenman’s early work that would formulate the basis for a different approach to unfold and offer an alternative to the systems of collage. The edge of the collage will be reconceptualized as the edge of the conceptual fold. The edge of abrupt change will be displaced with smooth transformation, continuous differentiation, and repetition of difference allowing smoothness of transition between the different parts of the whole. Offering a possibility for new methods of ordering that incorporate complexity and result in a new form of part to whole relationships.
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: Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern art,1977), 16.
: Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern art,1977), 22.
: Peter Eisenman, Ten Canonical Buildings 1950–2000 (New York: Rizzoli, 2008), 202.
: Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 3.
: Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: The Museum of Modern art, 1977), 41.