acritarchy.info archives: architectural ooo

 

  1. Studio-ooo 1

Here are some things that have become common in the graduate studios of certain mid-career architecture instructors:

.pdfs of “The Third Table”
The words “weird,” “speculative,” and “aesthetics,”
dazzle camouflage

These are all emanations of Object Oriented Ontology, a philosophical movement that entered into the architectural discourse in the early 2010s. Something in Object-Oriented Ontology (“ooo”) appeals to the theory-optimistic thirty-something studio critic. And these enthusiasts seem eager to feed it to their students—just as they, as the story goes, were fed Gilles Deleuze in their pupal years. But to what end? What is the effect on the student? And what is the effect on the philosophy itself, and its architectural ripples?

 

  1. ooo, briefly

ooo’s core is a simple[1] chain of arguments:

First: The universe is made up of entities (“objects”) with core identities that they keep hidden (“withdrawn”) from other objects.

Second: When objects do interact, they only engage certain of each other’s external qualities, which orbit the inner identity of the object like satellites around a planet. ooo considers this exchange to be an aesthetic encounter.

Third: Objects cannot be explained simply as a collection of parts (what they are made of) or as their relations with other objects (what they do).[2]

The first two arguments are immensely attractive to some architects—for example, Ferda Kolatan, who explains that “if we acknowledge that all real objects are withdrawn, and that they periodically come forward and outward to engage with the world and other objects, then this act of coming forward is an aesthetic act.”[3] Kolatan asks us, “is it not precisely this gap between objects and their qualities within which we as designers operate?” It is clear why this train of thought—which situates ooo as a thoroughly aesthetic philosophy—would be welcome for designers looking for an aesthetic rationale for design.

Yet when architects describe why they have become interested in ooo, they tend to emphasize the third argument—that objects cannot be explained merely in terms of their parts or their relations. Mark Gage, ooo’s east coast knight-errant, laments that pre-ooo architecture had become “paralyzed by an apparent obligation to simultaneously address sustainability, politics, economics, social relations, and context”[4]—i.e., external relations. Harman generally agrees that ooo slithered into architecture on a trail of boredom—boredom with Deleuze, with energy efficiency, and presumably with environmental consultants and the like.[5]

 

  1. ooo as alibi

These, then, seem to be the primary takeaways of ooo-architecture so far: that our primary engagement with the universe (and, consequently, with buildings) is through aesthetics; and that architecture should free itself from flows, networks, sustainability, and political correctness.

It is not immediately obvious why a fairly arcane philosophy such as ooo is necessary to argue these points. It is easy to imagine an architect who has become sick of LEED standards and dreams of producing weird and beautiful drawings—to engage the viewer not through the rational appreciation of stormwater management but aesthetically, in an immediate, arresting, emotional collision. We wish this architect success; and yet we must acknowledge that architects have been seeking to stir the soul since long before the early 2010s. It may be that today’s designers are asked to consider an unprecedented diversity of context, even to the point of crippling the “purity” of design itself. But this is, of course, a subjective opinion; and if ooo is primarily invoked in response to this specific circumstance, to justify the particular disciplinary prejudices of its individual enthusiasts, then the philosophy is in danger of being exposed as little more than an alibi.

One instructive example is Mark Gage himself, who had been championing aesthetics over relations for years before pledging allegiance to ooo. The landmark “Killing Simplicity: Object-Oriented Philosophy in Architecture” was published in 2015; but Gage had already written, back in 2009, that “our designs now visually entrap mostly abecedarian observations of programmatic, economic, or environmental phenomena.”[6] Gage had already embarked on his aesthetic crusade; ooo came along as the right fit at the right time.[7]

 

  1. Studio-ooo 2

This post-factum framing of ooo—as primarily about beautiful drawings and ignoring context, politics, and consequences—seems particularly dangerous in the graduate studio, where attractive material output is typically encouraged above all, and where students tend to be only nominally encouraged to read (and are in fact generally disincentivized from reading by the demand for “deliverables”). In this environment, ooo sound bites, without context, can easily be deployed by teachers as a theoretical-ish veneer on a pedagogy that emphasizes coolness and prodigious production. This seems like a waste of a perfectly weird metaphysics.

 

  1. Serious ooo-architects

Other architects have taken more rigorous stances on the possibilities of this new philosophy. David Ruy, who is canonically credited with introducing ooo to architecture, insisted even in 2012 that ooo does not mean “a simple return to figuration and detached massing”; nor does it mean “the abandonment of interest in current environmental problems.”[8] More recently, Ruy has proclaimed that “designing something to look weird is not the answer.”[9] But if the point isn’t just to “look weird,” the question remains of just what the point is.

Some architects have attempted to answer this question in more or less pragmatic terms. As discussed earlier, Ferda Kolatan encourages designers to aim for the gaps between objects and their qualities. Tom Wiscombe has abstracted ooo’s consequences into design strategies, such as the building as a “sack” of uncertain objects or an “implied outer shell” of invisible stamps.[10] Jason Payne has suggested that we investigate döppelgangers and other “immaterial things that are nonetheless useful for architectural discourse.”[11] Yet Wiscombe, Ruy, and even Harman himself are eager to emphasize that architecture’s incorporation of ooo can never be little more than a metaphor.[12]

 

  1. ooo is weird

And yet… ooo is so weird that one suspects and hopes that it must have more to offer than high-level design metaphor or shallow alibi. Not only is it weird, but it is new; there is still space and time for it to metastasize into something wholly unexpected.[13]

ooo promises to unlock a marvelous world of weird and wonderous objects; a “glittering coral reef” lurking beneath appearances;[14] a “shadowy thicket whose fast-growing vines begin encircling your legs as soon as you enter.”[15] In addition to this garden of wiggly delights, ooo seems acutely appropriate for the ecological crisis—not least because it treats humans and earwigs as existential equals.[16] In fact, some argue that only object-oriented thinking can cope with the scale of global warming, mass extinction, nuclear war, and other Anthropocene disasters.[17]

 

  1. ooo is doom

It is yet unclear whether architecture can take advantage of ooo’s profound alienness—whether architecture can engage with weird objects not simply as beautiful drawings of odd buildings, but as “entities [that] roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch.”[18]

ooo’s freewheeling chaos agent Timothy Morton has been feted by architects but is less willing to play along with the game of granting alibis to formal autonomy; his concerns are larger. Rather than imaginary skyscrapers with wriggling facades, Morton’s objects are doombringers, heralding “fate, destiny, death” for humans and non-humans alike.[19] In 2017 Morton visited the University of Pennsylvania in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and suggested that Houston might be fruitfully considered as a city for hurricanes just as well as a city for humans. That is a ooo-flavored provocation of design thinking; that is truly weird (rather than simply weird-looking).

 

  1. Fear of burial

The ooo-architects frequently express a fear of being “swallowed up” by adjacent disciplines, particularly ecological science. This disciplinary fear manifests literally in a parallel fear of the “landscape-building… often appearing in lump or hill-like formations.”[20] While ooo claims to swoon over H.P. Lovecraft, this fear of being buried alive canonically belongs instead to Edgar Allan Poe. It has also been adopted by Morton, for being swallowed up is one of the default states of interacting with hyperobjects[21]—like the sugary death and dissolution of “the wasp which sinks into the jam and drowns in it.”[22] Unlike the glossy, super-discrete renderings favored by ooo-architects (which take the “aesthetic object” to its superficially literal extreme), Morton’s favored art, like the wasp’s grave, is sticky, devouring, cloying, deadly, and indeterminate.

ooo-architecture’s fear of burial suggests a similar revulsion toward landscape architecture, not only as a discipline more generally concerned with the ground, but also as a potential bearer of ecological and contextual shackles for architects. However, Morton himself has suggested that “all architecture is landscape architecture”; and landscape architecture is clearly more comfortable working at the spatial and temporal scales of the hyperobject.[23] And if Morton’s model for ooo art is considered over Gage’s, well, landscape architects have a certain expertise with sticky, indeterminate, buried things.

But landscape architecture is not ready to take the lead in ooo-inclined design. How could it be? Landscape architecture cannot even really decide whether aesthetics has value, let alone universal primacy. Gage may boast that the time of flows and processes in architecture has passed; this is not so in the landscape departments, where becoming and fields still dominate. And yet landscape architecture has one powerful head start; it has realized that the construction of “nature” is neither real nor helpful (as stated clearly by Harman and Morton), whereas ooo-architecture still wriggles awkwardly around the subject.[24] Both disciplines should attempt to exchange qualities with each other; neither is yet poised to take full advantage of ooo’s alienness.

 

  1. Studio ooo 3

It may be that the tastemakers have already moved on from ooo-architecture; its buzz seems possibly to have peaked near the end of the Obama administration. In late 2016 Mark Foster Gage convened a conference titled “Aesthetic Activism” at Yale University. Kolatan, Harman, Ruy, and Morton all spoke, and one might have reasonably guessed, based on the conference title, that this would have been an opportunity for ooo-architecture to provide nuance to its general rejection of social context. This didn’t happen; Harman and Morton delivered their stump speeches, so to speak, and by and large ooo remained unmentioned on the sidelines of a diverse discussion of aesthetics across disciplines.

One might argue good riddance—that 2018 is profoundly different from 2016, and that in the post-Trump world of waxing fascism, it is dangerously naïve—and ignorant of history—to champion aesthetics over criticality. To complain that architecture has been crippled by its concern with “sustainability, politics, economics, social relations, and context” embodies precisely the sort of privilege that architecture—a discipline drowning in privilege—needs to be on guard for.

And yet ooo, especially as inflected by Timothy Morton, still holds an undeniable transformative promise—not only in the realms of metaphysics, aesthetics, and ecology, but concerning the most basic human interactions with the world.

If ooo is going to remain present in the graduate studio, instructors owe it to their students (and to the philosophy itself) to emphasize this thoroughly transformative nature, and to encourage a deeper engagement with the writers themselves—and with artists and ooo enthusiasts from other disciplines. If they just want student work that looks weird and cool, and are looking to avoid site research, that is certainly fine—but they probably don’t need such an elaborate alibi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Relatively speaking. Great complexity exists, for example in the writings of the US philosopher Graham Harman, ooo’s principal investigator. An exhaustive explanation of ooo is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] Graham Harman describes these two explanations as, respectively, “undermining” and “overmining.”

[3] Ferda Kolatan, introductory remarks, “The Aesthetics of Equality: Object Oriented Ontology and Social Theory,” session at “J. Irwin Miller Symposium, ‘Aesthetic Activism,’” Yale University, October 14, 2016. Accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07mSNQQreS4&index=3&list=PLqHnHG5X2PXAh0Fi0EJ0Eh3CDzdN-GQv2

[4] Mark Foster Gage, “Killing Simplicity: Object-Oriented Philosophy in Architecture,” Log, no. 33 (Winter 2015), 104.

[5] Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (London: Pelican, 2018), 247.

[6] Mark Foster Gage, “In defense of design,” Log, no. 16 (Spring/Summer 2009), 40.

[7] Gage’s dramatic pronouncement of ooo-architecture came in 2015 with the landmark “Killing Simplicity: Object-Oriented Philosophy in Architecture,” in which he describes relational, pre-ooo architecture as, variously, undermined and overmined; “a caricature of itself”; “a series of consumable sound bites”; and “invisible servitude as equipment designed for a functional solution to a limited set of perceived problems.”

[8] David Ruy, “Returning to (strange) objects,” in Adaptive Ecologies: Correlated Systems of Living, Theodore Spyropoulos, ed. (London: Architectural Association Publications, 2013).

[9] David Ruy, in Todd Gannon, Graham Harman, David Ruy and Tom Wiscombe, “The Object Turn: A Conversation,” Log, No. 33 (Winter 2015), 87.

[10] Tom Wiscombe, “Discreteness, or Towards a Flat Ontology of Architecture,” Project 3 (Spring 2014), 34-43.

[11] Jason Payne, “Projekti Bunkerizimit: The Strange Case of the Albanian Bunker,” Log, No. 31 (Spring/Summer 2014), 168.

[12] “The Object Turn: A Conversation,” 86.

[13] During a Q&A session at Mark Foster Gage’s 2017 “Aesthetic Activism” conference, Graham Harman responded to a question contrasting ooo-architecture to the better-established discourse of Actor-Network Theory, Graham Harman reminded us that ooo in the late 2000s can only fairly be compared to ANT in the early 1990s; twenty years is a long time for a discourse to grow!

[14] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 14.

[15] Jane Bennett, “Systems and Things: A Response to Graham Harman and Timothy Morton,” New Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Spring 2012), 225.

[16] Some even within the ooo-architecture camp seem to have disputed this ontological equality (“flat ontology”); Gage himself, when pressed by capitalist boogeyman Patrick Schumacher, conceded that “for architecture to be about the natural use of, or design of materials, or even about nonhumans—dealing with birds and bees and stuff. That’s fine, and maybe that’s interesting for people, but at a certain point someone has to do the built environment for humans.”[16] This is pure anthropocentrism; there is nothing flat in his ontology.

[17] Hyperobjects

[18] Graham Harman, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” in Towards Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Ripley: Zero Books, 2010), 95.

[19] Timothy Morton, “Ecology without the Present,” The Oxford Literary Review 34.2 (2012), 233.

[20] Wiscombe, “Discreteness,” 40.

[21] Morton uses “hyperobject” to describe immense, ancient, indeterminate objects that are so vast in size and lifespan that they distort time and space and cannot be rationally comprehended by humans as discrete entities. Some commonly discussed hyperobjects are global warming and nuclear radiation.

[22] Jean-Paul Sartre, quoted in Morton, Hyperobjects, 30. The original quote can be found in Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, [1943] 1992), 777.

[23] Timothy Morton, Lecture, “The Golden Stain of Time,” SCI-Arc, March 7, 2017.

[24] Wiscombe, “Discreteness”; “The Object Turn: A Conversation.”

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