It by Bit

by Prescott Muir

Abstract for a monograph on the philosophical underpinnings to the work of Prescott Muir Architects.

Strategic Position: This essay is positioned in light of the reemergence of the Baroque labyrinth in architecture that typically exemplifies a layer of complexity external to the mere building problem.  Lost in this condition is the historical position of modernism and its formulated resistance to experience, (the blank window) and its adherence to the importance of use and technique.  Modernism as expressed in a recent publication of Koenig and Eizenberg’s work has become just one more choice stripped of all the “fuss”.  Where as this essay poses opposition to the utter dismissal of modernism by providing an apparatus for extending certain viable and operative components from the canon into a relevant cultural discourse. 
The book should be of interest to academics, students, and practitioners who desire to research methodologies for creating a defensible architecture that is immune to power structures, preconceptions, and general co modification.

IT BY BIT The phrase “It by Bit” was coined by the physicist John Archibald Wheeler as a description for how the universe or other complex phenomena is comprised of the sum of bits of less complex or minute binary forms of information.  This is based upon small demonstrable issues that lead to greater complexity through a compilation of yes/no deliberations.  Truth can be derived from the analysis of simple controlled patterns or relationships that do not necessarily preclude the otherwise unexplained complexities of a whole system.  The “less is more” rhetorical model so often heard in architectural parlance under this analysis leads to a “more is the result of less”. At the risk of being labeled a positivist with a simplistic adherence to empiricism and the scientific method, I intend to argue in this essay with the aid of our architectural projects and other relevant examples, that a methodical interpretation of repetitive patterns borne of individual decisions based upon use, specific to site and time can result in a richly varied and more readily regenerative architecture.  However, given the less than successful attempts of Shadrach Wood’s to escape the entrapment of his own attempts at adaptability only to be frozen in time by the limits of technique, I fully appreciate the challenge of such an enterprise. The goal is to create an architecture that extends in an assertive way beyond the current negation of the cultural realm that certainly characterizes so much of the architecture being produced.  Each conscious act of measurement or assessment is an act of turning potentiality into actuality, which is, in my estimation, that which distinguishes the architectural.  The response to a specific direction, possibility or commitment derived from simple observation or calculation does not necessarily preclude other options, indeed it allows for exceptions to work within and acting against the normative elements of the design.  This is not an architecture of absolutes or utopian paradigms and thus its position noticeably veers from the historical origins of modernity. The post structuralist argument that one act of will invariably is accomplished at the expense of another, assumes that all acts are simply manifestations of desire rather than actions determined by a measureable physical world or, dare I say, the predictability of genetically coded behavior.  The Foucault argument is that each scenario represents fundamental manifestations of power.  As a resistance to this refusal to act, each bit of information or decision is reduced to a measureable occurrence, thus providing a beachhead for systematic engagement.  The alternative is a total subordination to will and the resultant alienation between content and representation, rendering the architectural irrelevant or simply interchangeable and unable to transcend itself. In this current era, where we have essentially conceded the impossibility of truth and beauty allowing them to be subsumed by any political chimera or co-opted by corrosive elements, there is a need to pose a viable process for rescuing the possibility of absolutes, if only at some fundamental and primitive level.  I think architecture can and should afford more nuanced meaning than mere reduction to the authenticity of gesture, accident, or churlish infatuation with one’s body.  Aristotle suggested that nature abhors a vacuum, I propose the following essay examples of “thought experiments” to provide a basis for natural regeneration.  We endeavor to resist an overriding methodology as much as any automatic aesthetic or figurative response.  I would characterize our approach as one of abduction as opposed to induction.  That is the body of work is based upon the mediation of multiple small issues or defensible observations.  The compilation of these monads defies preconception even that which can be suggested intuition.  The process being grounded in the programmatic and topological resists globalizing attributes and indeed suggests the impossibility of buildings reduced to mere ideas outside the nature of use defined by material boundaries. Whereas an inductive approach is one based upon a hypothesis in search of a program resulting in content that is transported in an alienated vessel.  Indeed the inductive or preconceived model speaks more to Keate’s notion of the sanctity of the creative act, more specifically in our time, the inadvertent gesture masquerading as some refusal to act.  I am convinced the inductive approach invites the very consumption or commercialization that the very gesture based approach aspires to negate.  The inductive work invariably becomes the “bloody Doric column” concealing itinerant political or commercial imperatives. The development of a principal based upon observation and measurement does not invariably lead one to a slavish adherence to standardization and production as Hannes Meyer advocated.  His was an infatuation with the pure determinism of production and labor, which we know to be problematic.  Equally challenging was Shadrach Wood’s simple formulaic adherence to the specificity of time and place organized in systematic and hierarchical composition.  Although I admire both Meyer and Woods for their pursuit of anonymous acts and desire to achieve a merger of culture and production, their work as Frampton notes is best known for its culture critique than any particular building.  Thus the objective and opportunities of subordinating the work in some cultural continuum is lost. The risk of embracing an overriding methodology or process is just as problematic as the pursuit of a grand idea.  Carlo Ginzburg in History Rhetoric and Proof observes that “experience always exists simultaneously as both fictional discourse and empirical event (with the impossibility) to decide which “one is the right one”.  An Architectural equivalent would be a demonstrative proof that contains both a compositional quality as well as material fact.  A concession to relativism is a denial of architecture’s redemptive capacity and extinguishes any opportunity to provide tropes upon which to invite future transformations.  Indeed though seemingly anachronistic, Francis Bacon’s observation that nature reveals truth only after it is subjected to the coercion of experimentation, is still valid, realizing that a regenerated nature may no longer be possible while ecologies are facing total collapse.  Especially challenging is the notion of coercion implying an act of will again the immutability of the cultural phenomena of architecture in order to reveal demonstrable levels of meaning.  Ginzburg goes on to state, “….sources are neither open windows (to truth) as positivists would argue or fences obstructing truth as the relativists argue but (are) distorting mirror….” The position taken in this essay and represented by a body of work is suspicious of and resistant to a purely intuitive or automatic process of composition.  It is based upon the persuasion of accumulated consistency of use or immutable materiality.  However, this is not the feel good pattern architecture of Christopher Alexander, it requires acts of compositional opportunism.  It is an adherence to a tempered process, accepting and indeed exploiting the tension between cultural and technology.  The intuitive and any utopian premise are extinguished in favor of a series of juxtaposed proofs or clues merely implying some plausible projection into the cultural realm.  If reflected impressions and obdurate patterns as in Duchamp’s Large Glass provide a reliable course of action, the resultant artifact thus deflecting preconception will imply possibilities and open-ended positions.  Potentialities provide a more useful template upon which to graft an affirmative future rather than nihilistic foils that are more complicit in than resistant to co modification.