ALF 06

Indrek Rünkla - About Fragments and Wholes

Architect has considered herself to be the one responsible for integrity, the creator of wholes. The professional requirements standard for architects in Estonia uses the word ‘whole’ or ‘wholesome’ 5 times in its very first passage comprised of 4 sentences. It is like a mantra, a magical formula that is supposed to convince everybody of the importance and exceptionality of the profession.

For me this has been a mystery. What are the criteria for wholesomeness? What are the conditions of integrity? Do they vary as we propose different projects – an office building, a development plan for a residential district or an urban strategy? Are there compulsory components that ought to be present in each proposal for it to be considered “a whole”? Is there a protocol of integrity? This confused me many times during my studies. I thought I saw it in my fellow student’s project on a review, the one that was praised and prized. Next time I tried to include the same considerations in my own line of thought, I seemed to advance quite well, but eventually the proposal “lacked integrity” and was not very well received. Another time I was careless and ironic, but the project seemed to gain much more attention and positive feedback with a special remark about the “conceptual integrity”. I felt that I had a lot to learn.

I still do but I have developed a certain way to cope with this specific confusion. This can be called the principle of fragmentary instrumentalism. It has enabled me to overcome the magic and to resolve the big wholes into series of fragments that tend to collect other fragments around them like flesh on a bone. This concept has been invented in the course of practice and research for my PhD thesis. It has been a constant mutual feedback loop where the research has induced the conceptual framework, while practice has provided a laboratory to check its adequacy. For now it seems to be stable enough to present it for disputation.

I am writing this essay as an architect. When I refer to us then I mean architects. As I cannot fully assume that all the readers are architects, let this us have both inclusive and exclusive character. The reader can choose if she prefers to be included in us or not.

Jacob von Uexküll was a Baltic-German biologist who initially proposed a theory to model different beings[1]. His Umwelt-theory has become world-famous and has been elaborated into different domains, quoted by various scientists and philosophers dealing with rather different problems.[2] His main statement is that the cognition system of a being forms a whole with the operations the same being has to do. This correspondence of the two realms–operational and cognitive–constitutes the inner world, Umwelt of the being. The most well-known example by von Uexküll is the tick. A tick is a creature who has three basic sensory signals and three corresponding operations that go with those signals. First, it can sense light to start moving upwards a leaf of grass. Once the tick has reached the top, it starts to look for another signal, the odour of butyric acid which informs it about a warm-blooded animal somewhere in vicinity. Once the smell is at its peak, the tick jumps from the leaf and hopefully lands on the prey it has been smelling. The third sensation of the tick is that of touch, which helps it to find a spot with skin soft and hairless enough to latch upon. The Umwelt of the tick is made up of those three sensations–the light, the odor and the softness of the skin–combined with three corresponding activities–climbing, dropping oneself and latching.

Now, I have made a generalising assumption that each one of those activities can be seen as independent. Each sensation can be sought for while ignoring the other ones. If the tick is on the ground, it won’t start looking for a soft spot to latch, but it heads for the light to increase the probability of ending up on a catchable mammal. All three mechanisms are eventually serving the reproductive purpose of the specimen and the species, but for a current period only one of them is active.

This is the key principle for the fragmentary instrumentalism to emerge. For a tick, for a human being, for a non-human being, for anybody with any agency, the current operation always determines the articulation suitable to perform that task. When we read a book we look for characters and words, passages, pages, meanings and lines of thought; when we eat we concentrate on edible portions of organic substance, the taste, the smell; when we walk we look for flat surface, traffic signs, other moving objects and beings etc. Each and every activity makes us focus on the things that are vital for us to be successful in the act. Each time we switch our activity we concentrate on next articulations with indifference towards the previous ones. In our practical life we are quite comfortable with the fact that some articulations that are claimed to be universal (like elementary particles) do not help us trying to overcome a bad day at work or to enjoy a concert. In the same sense light does not bother the tick once it has reached the top of the grass-leaf and has set itself ready for the odour of butyric acid.

As complex beings we have developed systems of articulation that are useful for numerous tasks. Language, for instance, articulates the world into portions that can be used for multiple purposes. Concept like “bread” can be contemplated while eating, baking or accounting. “A building” is a fine concept also for many things. “Space” starts to be more ambivalent and once we get to “integrity” we must start to specify our current aim.  Even “bread” is actually very much depending on the operational vicinity of usage.

Trying to define an architect as a tick, a being with a distinct Umwelt, is not an easy task. When we think about the operations an architect performs, they diverge into many different assignments, each with its own conceptually suitable cognitive units. An example would be handy. Nowadays we tend to see the world as divided into functional elements. A simple case of a commission for a villa is initially composed of a living room, a kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, wardrobe, storage closets and a garage. They tend to come with proposed sizes in square meters and then the architect starts to mate them with the plot. Or does she? Sometimes we find a starting point in a formal layout of volumes in abstract space and then start to assign functions to the units in this layout. Or we invent an abstract machine that generates series of spaces that need to be organized into something that is liveable. Or we start with a garden and try to compose a lifestyle around it, a house being a part of this frozen lifestyle. Or we problematize spatial and directional circumstances on the site to let them guide our lines for thought to end up as an architectural proposal. Each one of those numerous approaches presupposes a different set of entities that start to operate in a generative drive. But in each case we would be able to discern those entities when following our gaze and focus. Even if the assignment is eventually the same–to design a villa–the cognitive path is variant.

Other creative practices function in a similar way. We tend to be inventive on articulate level in the architectural field. We construct novel entities, comprised of spatial and social elements, of aesthetic and environmental compounds, of volumetric and energetic flows. They start to mould the design, the geometry, the functional program, the façade, the courtyard, the bedroom, the shape of the roof etc. Each generative force has its own endpoint where it calms down, turns aside and lets other forces decide on other features of the proposal. An architectural proposal is always a result of a battle between different forces that have tried to take control over the course of events, over the decisions.

A project is a combination of the fragments that have passed the test of other forces. The fragments are combined into an aggregate that can take various forms. It can appear as a tree which has a trunk, branches and leaves. This implies a main concept that is then sided by others, all of which can be seen as growing out of the core. It can be a chain with fragments linked to each other. The chain may be long or short, the fragments at the ends of the chain might be totally unrelated, but the in-between rings hold them together. The aggregate can also be totally rhizomatic with fragments intertwined and interlocked.

The components defining an architectural project vary. As it is an inventive practice, it is almost unpredictable which fragment will take the lead in the next assignment. Thus the wholes of different projects are composed of different elements. Those elements are variously combined, but they always get packaged into a presentable form of a proposal. The proposal is then assessed by various parties–the commissioner, the local city government, the community, a jury, other architects or supervisors in the case of school projects.

Now, a controversial transition takes place in the ways we look upon a project during this event of completion. While a project is still in progress we tend to work on fragments, openly and honestly. We do so while practicing, we do so when supervising and also while commissioning. We are talking about specific functional flows, contextual traits, usage of secondary energy sources, structural concerns in specific locations etc. Once the proposal is packaged we lose this interest in small features and zoom out to see the design as a whole. During my years of study it was even very common to avoid oral presentation of the project–the graphics were supposed to communicate independently. From a distance it seems quite obvious that it did not. Or if it did, it probably spoke the language that the reviewing jury was able and willing to comprehend instead of the language that the student was intentionally trying to speak. The ‘wholes’ as seen by the assessors were composed of different fragments than those considered conceptually relevant by the architect.

To my mind this double image haunts the professional self-consciousness on multiple scales. I tend to see this difference in looking at our craft reflected in the way we wish others to see our profession. Internally we work with fragments, but externally we only present wholes. We wish to avoid public discussion about the fragments, about the ways they combine into wholes and about the extractability of each fragment from the whole. We are reluctant to give up the reputation of a magician who has an inexplicable skill of creating and seeing wholes in the world where everyone else is seeing fragments.

This schizophrenic split is amplified by the denial of the split. We are very eagerly talking about the constant search for coherence while focusing on any disconnected issue that just needs to be solved and does not contribute to the overall concept of the design in any way. We are introducing new considerations to students, we are doing so by explaining situations where the same things have occurred before. Those past experiences do not connect to the wholes pursued by the students, they do not get dragged into new designs as ready-made aggregates but as meaningful or productive fragmentary concepts that can be seen as separate cognitive constructions. And then, during the review we suddenly say that each fragment loses its importance and we have to assess the proposal as a whole, at the same time avoiding the discussion about what does the whole consist of. As if it were either self-evident or at least mutually shared between the initiated members of the privileged board of assessors.

I find this controversy very immanently present in the image of the architect and I think this prohibits productive dialogue inside the profession as well as with the society. Architecture is as much about fragments as it is about wholes. Talking about a whole without referring to its components is as void as an empty signifier. There are architectural tasks that can be solved with a fragmentary proposal, just addressing one specific issue in the complexity of the world and providing a strategy for this aspect–being it functions, volumes, streetscape, greenery or insolation. There can be proposals that need to include all of those aspects. There are others that articulate categories anew and work with them. Architecture is not always about wholes but it is always about fragments.

To render this principle important in the future, we ought to modify our educational practices. There is a possible vantage point that is quite easily available. It seems to me that architecture and urban design are different in spatial and temporal scale. This allows to see architecture as a model for integral practice and urban design correspondingly suitable fragmentary practice. Architecture and urban design have been traditionally taught together in Estonia. We have found it important for architects to know the considerations of the adjacent scale–when planning urban environment, to know how the buildings will fit into it and while designing a house, to understand the connections with the surrounding structures. It has been a bad habit to treat urban design proposals like architectural projects. This has a direct connection with the treatment of fragments and wholes. I have started to look at urban design as a more fragmented practice which tends to be targeted on some specific goal that defines the regulation direction. The complexity of undefined future makes us admit the possibility of different strata to be out of planner’s projective control. This again lets us invent spatial strategies that could work for different futures. Those strategies tend to be fragmentary, pursuing one specific aim, expressed by concepts and articulations that are suitable for this specific purpose. When we package this trait into a compound that is coupled with illustrative layers of other features not essentially necessary for the abovementioned purpose, we should still be able to extract the initial strategic fragment. Otherwise, if we take the compound as an integral whole, we might prioritize totally different fragments, those that are initially meant to be illustrative.

We should avoid applying the double standards while supervising and reviewing. To do that we first need to admit the controversy to ourselves. Which might lead to redefining the practice of architecture in some aspects. There is a strong inertia carrying our comprehension of the world and unwillingness to change may lead to unwanted results. There are tendencies that could prove a more fragmentary structure of architecture to be adequate at some occasions. While designing buildings has been suffering under the rigid subordination of the capitalist market, the realm of urban design has started to show signs of change. There have been occasions where Estonian ultra-liberal planning policy has let down citizens’ expectations for good quality public space. This has been partly diagnosed as a failure of the property oriented planning practices. A demand for more democratic instruments has started to be heard. At the same time development of digital media has introduced novel ways for collecting and representing spatial data and proposals.  Integration of public agents as force fields, represented by various digital data, calls for new types of architects to emerge. The possibilities of democratic procedures development as a counterpart for the prioritized economic considerations could represent a path for architecture that might be better expressed in terms of strategy than a project. Strategies are fragmentary, even if their aim is total, while projects tend to be total, even if some of their integral layers are just illustrative. Then, instead of applying the rigidity of architectural design framework on urban design, we could see the architectural project just as a small scale urban design assignment.

Integrity is a word with double meaning. First, it stands for wholesomeness: “the state of being whole and undivided”. This is the aspect that I have been trying to discuss in this essay. It also means honesty: “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles”. I am hereby asking to pursue integrity in our attempts of self-definition in both terms. Design studios in architectural schools are the kitchens where the current divergent architect is constantly being reproduced. We can do better if we challenge the dominant image and reconstruct the profession. This is obviously not an easy task as there is a counterpart of this image in society, but there are also signs of change in the air.

[1]    von Uexkull, Jakob, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: with A Theory of Meaning, Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2010.

[2]    Jakob von Uexküll is considered a forerunner of biosemiotics. Wikipedia lists philosophers influenced by von Uexküll: Max Scheler, Ernst Cassirer, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humberto Maturana, Georges Canguilhem, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. The list is not concise.