From Adversity to Predictability By: Melissa Meyer
Rafael Moneo, in his essay, On Typology, acknowledges that to question typology in architecture is to acknowledge the nature of its existence and its significance relative to each new generation of human beings. It is the nature of each new generation to analyze, question and ultimately form its own theories about typologies in architecture. The very act of using language to describe an architectural object is in itself an act of typifying that object. At the very moment that the architectural object is given a name, and that name is uttered by a human being, it is destined to enter the evolutionary stream and is condemned to an eternal life of repetition and refinement, repetition and refinement, repetition and refinement and it becomes a family of objects that become the basis for other objects, other families, forever linked to the origins of their conception. The inherit desire to ignore the lineage of the object, in an attempt to disconnect it from its origins and create something new, represents the natural process required to produce the next generation of the object. It may be altered, manipulated, transformed, converted, radicalized or bastardized, but it can never escape its heritage. Anonymity is but a mirage, a gimmick. It is the quest for anonymity that becomes the genesis for evolution.
Turning ones back on history and the act of reducing architecture to its most basic elements of point, line, plane and volume is itself an acknowledgement of the past. To reject something is to affirm that it exists and to defying its existence is to testify to its importance. Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand’s act of freeing classical architecture from the “tyranny of the Orders,” gave him the opportunity to re-examine the changing needs of the society. Architecture was no longer just a display of cultural power, a way to pay homage to the gods, and a demonstration of skill and artistic ability. The changing needs of civilization required architecture to become more versatile, more functional, and more economical. Durand’s response was to expand Quatremere’s notion of type. In Durand’s broader translation, type became genre. Form was broken down to its essential elements; the elements were categorized and reassembled into a composition that responded to the new demands of the culture. Durand’s new organizational tools, the grid and the axis, became the framework in which the essential elements could be composed, based on functional needs. “Style” became separated from structure and form and was a luxury that could be imposed on the composition later. The evolution of the grid and the axis was a direct result of Durand’s rejection of order as seen by Quatremere. The rejection of the grid and the axis gave rise to subsequent theories.
Garth Rockcastle, in The Value of Types: A Debate, affirms the contradictory nature of typologies, sighting that typologies can “liberate or oppress, condone or reject, instruct or blind.” He proclaims that, “The value of a type depends more on how, why, when, and where it is used and who uses it, than on the fact that it was used. Paul Tesar, in his essay, The Other side of Types, provides insight, by citing Knotig’s Principle, as to why an attempt might be made to blindly choose a typology to artificially inject a place with meaning and order. Knotig’s Principle characterizes the nervous system of all higher forms of life as inheriting a tendency to achieve the highest degree of predictability of the environment with the least amount of information processing effort. Predictability feels safe, the unexpected is threatening, and so it stems to reason that the organizing of one’s environment to keep it familiar and to make it manageable and convenient enables the evolutionary process to continue on a steady path with minimal effort. The quest for predictability is a direct response to adversity. Adaptation to the environment or adaptation of the environment is an endless path that takes us further from adversity and brings us closer to predictability, but the only truly predictable state of being is found at the end of the path, in death.
Paul Tesar tells a story by linguist, S.I. Hayakawa, in which four men perceive different characteristics, based on their frame of reference and on their particular interests, of the same two groups of animals and bestow different names upon the two groups, none of which are superior or inferior to the other names and none of which are deemed to be correct or incorrect. Hayakawa concludes that there is no “real name” for anything and he questions what we might mean by the notion of a “real name.” Who gets to decide what the name of something should be? Who decides what characteristics are superior? Based on what? Garth Rockcastle attributes types, i.e. the naming of objects, to cultural manipulation. “Types sanction conformity and homogeneity. Why does Leon Krier argue type as a populist tool? Who controls the formula and who benefits from its use? These are the questions criticism has the responsibility to ask,” he writes.
Paul Tesar looks to a project by Viennese architect Jan Turnovsky which demonstrates twenty different ways to sew on a button, each representing a different meaning from “conservative”, to “undecided”, to “frustrated,” with the “conservative” button at the top, representing the “conventional way” to sew a button and the subsequent buttons representing various degrees of deviation from the conventional. Systems of meaning and the many variations of the conventional can be found at all levels of society. Garth Rockcastle asserts that, “type relates a thing to other things or reasons for being, killing our chance to truly know it for itself.” Perhaps the only way to truly know the true nature of anything, including ourselves, is to resist our inherit desire to subscribe to a system of classification.