filling up the

void with


Mario Carpo and Peter Eisenman in conversation with G and L. Recorded March 25th, 2014.

L: In Mark Wigley and Peter Eisenman’s conversation at GSAPP in September of 2012, “The Cat Has Nine Lives,” the discussion on subject of phenomenology was centered on the issue of ground.1 Also, going back to what Mario has said, the issue of Phenomenology in the digital realm has been defined as a digital metaphysics of presence, or a shift of the ground into the digital platform.

PE: First of all, the digital people are unaware that they have become phenomenologists. They are filling up the void with presence. It is not to deal with the absence of presence but with presence. What they produce is all objectification. We are talking about a new kind of Phenomenology—you see these strange shapes that are all figural, what Mario would call spline modeling.

L: Exactly. Mario’s essay in Log, “Digital Darwinism,” states that Parametricism and its supporters are trapped in this. Also, they do not fully engage with the tool where their architectural output lacks variety. Quoting Mario, They seem to be “stuck in this spline based visual environment as the ineluctable stylistic expression of digital making.”2 Then, to define digital Phenomenology, it represents a return of the designer, “to the artisan state and also the end of the Albertian paradigm.

The artisan does not analyze and quantify, but makes and senses through the body’s digitally mediated prosthetic extensions.”3 In line with this, “a new computational alternative is the cause of a revival of traditional, irrationalistic, or vitalistic, beliefs into the intuitive powers of artistic creation.” We see two sides of digital Phenomenology. The first is the group that remains unaware of the digital ground—even though I believe there is a new awareness that is growing.

PE: Let us assume that what you are talking about is largely unaware.

L: On the other hand there is the side of computational design that deals with irrationalism and intuition. Figures such as Antoine Picon and Michael Hansmeyer have also been writing about this possible return of ornament, and new space or possibility for meaning in the computational architecture and symbolism.

MC: I think for me, the key is irrationalism and vitalism as the animation of the inorganic. This is odd if you think of the computer as a machine. We do not think of machines as tools of irrationalism. Often times, like in the 90s, computers have been interpreted and seen in an irrationalistic way. We have a key word—which is problematic to use but it is embedded in this argument—which is the magic of technology.

Let us not forget that the inspirational text for Alberto Perez-Gomez’s Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science was not Heidegger, it was Husserl.4

PE: …which is a big difference in Phenomenology.

MC: Taken from the interpretation of science from the West is the idea of the enchantment of nature. The idea that there is magic in nature, which science thought it could explain. We can use these tools to dominate nature, to apply it to our views, et cetera. This is what many phenomenologists lament. The Scientific Revolution has taken this enchantment out of our view of the world. Ironically and paradoxically, the digital tools have been seen by many as a way to bring some of this enchantment back into our Weltanschauung.

The important link in this bizarre conceptual framework is the work of Ilya Prigogine, the post-modern philosopher and scientist who wrote Order Out of Chaos.5 This book was so influential for many people in the 90s. There is a chapter in Prigogine’s book titled “The Re-enchantment of Nature.” He uses quantum mechanics and thermodynamics to bring back indeterminism and magic into our view of the world by claiming that there are things in nature that we can never predict. Nature has its own will and can make things that no science will ever predict. This was before the digital tool.

When computers came, people said that computers were even more magical than quantum mechanics and thermodynamics because there is indeterminism in computation. This is where many strange things start to happen. Some people use computers as tools of rationalization. Some people use computers as a tool to extoll the indeterminacy, which they perceive is embedded in nature, which is very odd, yet many of our friends are subscribers to this notion.

PE: And this indeterminacy is what one would call either irrational or vitalism. That is the manifestation of it.

MC: Yes. It is the magic of nature. It is, by the way, a matter of pure ideological choice. No one can prove that nature is magic, but nobody can prove otherwise. If you drop a pen, most of the time it falls to the floor. I would argue, it will always fall to the floor, but I cannot prove it. There will be someone who claims, one of these pens will not fall to the floor. It will take a walk, go to Starbucks, and drink a cup of coffee. He cannot prove it. I cannot prove the opposite. It is pure ideology.

G: If it is a choice of ideology, why do you feel that majority of people choose to consider the computer as this magical tool?

MC: Because some people like magic.

G: There seems to be a growing awareness of inhabiting this environment, which coded with someone else’s rules and are trying to take as much agency back as possible from the software by committing what could be understood as violent acts against the rules that have been imposed on them.

They are able to go very far in what they can command the computer to do for them on their own terms. I guess I am trying to understand when and where the magic happens with computation.

MC: The way that I am using magic may be seen as derogatory...Let’s talk instead about indeterminacy, a more neutral and scientific term. If you are looking for indeterminacy in computation you can find it. Many scientists will argue that there is a degree of high mathematics in computation, which can be described in indeterministic ways.

PE: I want to go back to something that you mentioned in passinG: the question of ornament. Jörg Gleiter, believes that you can have much more control over what you are trying to do using ornament than you would have over a full building.6 He is saying that at a limited scale of discourse, computation and the digital operate in an interesting way that produces things that are unexpected. These things are not vitalistic.

MC: Actually, it is quite the contrary. The point is that since these arguments are ideological and cannot be proven one way or the other, with the same tool, we will have people that use it in a scientific way and people in an anti-scientific way. There is no way that we can prove that either are right, or...wrong.

PE: As far as I am concerned, what is worrisome are the people who do not realize that computation could be a way out of the Albertian paradigm, but are stuck in something which will never get them there.

If you take Schumacher, he has a great desire to get away from spline modeling and homogeneous space, but he doesn’t. He is very serious about what he does, and very intelligent. You can’t say he is wrong, but he has a disposition. There is nothing without a certain level of authorial control. To me the authors running most of these parametric algorithms are phenomena oriented.

MC: From a historian’s point of view, computation has been hijacked from the beginning by tools of simplification, calculus and spline making. It was probably inevitable in the technological context of the time but it was still a very reductive use of computation. In the 90’s, they used computation to emulate calculus, to use calculus as a tool of design and a tool of fabrication. When Peter started to dream of computation, it was not to simplify things, it was to complexify. Then soon things went in the opposite direction because small data took over. There is the possibility today that big data may bring some of that complexity back into the game.

PE: You also make the caveat that big data will allow you to complexify, but limit authorial control.

MC: Yes. At some point when there is too much data, we need some simplification to make sense of the world.

Computers do not work that way. There is a disconnect between the logic of our minds and the logic of computation.

PE: Mario, the problem was exemplified in your conference, not only by Hansmeyer, but also by Philippe Morel’s chair. He said, “I can produce 50,000 of these.” To which I respond, “Why bother?” Each one starting with the first iteration is ugly. Anyone can make a chair that’s comfortable to sit in, but to make a chair that is comfortable and enjoyable to look at is a really difficult occupation. Phillippe Morel cannot design chairs.

MC: I don’t think that he can sit in them.

PE: You can’t look at them. And the real problem is looking at them.

MC: He invented voxelation, in a sense, and for that we have to give him credit. His voxelated chair will be as iconic ten years later as Greg Lynn’s teapot. You cannot make tea with Greg Lynn’s teapot. You cannot sit on Philippe Morel’s chair.

PE: They don’t have what I consider to be the formal characteristics of heterogeneity. Both the teapots and the chairs are homogeneous. The particular way they are put together does not allow for complexity because the same unit is repeated over and over again in a different staging, but it’s the same unit.

MC: In the teapot, these are continuous splines. In the case of the voxelated chair, you could make it more disjointed if you choose to do so. I think there is a need to not just have the perpetually new. Morel’s 50,000 iterations give you something new for a hundred years. However, there’s no way of choosing. Which one of these voxelated things is “good”? What are the criteria? In the mechanism, the algorithm that he has set up, good isn’t in it. In other words, what would make one select even a hundred of the 50,000?

L: That’s where the idea of the author that is getting lost in digital computation comes back.

PE: It’s a different author though…

L: It’s a double author. You are the author of a parametric system, then you (or someone else?) are the author of an evaluation system or logic, that then leads you to the final decision.

MC: The idea has been around for twenty years or longer. In some technical fields, it is probably inevitable. For twenty years we have been coping with this predicament, and it still does not make much sense to the design profession. Who wants to design a generic object, a family of objects which will only exist in an accidental instantiation which you cannot control?

When you design parametrically, this is the inevitable logic of a parametric system. You cannot customize each final end product one by one. You can only design the general system.

PE: Look, let me just say this: the people who go to Columbia, like you all, who learn how to deal with complex algorithms, proposing algorithms, dealing with animation, et cetera, often find themselves ending up doing computer games.

MC: Yes, where this logic works perfectly.

PE: As far as architecture is concerned, there’s no market for it. The difference in what they can make in architecture with this skill versus working for a computer game is enormous. It seems to me that architecture is probably one of the last places for this, because you ultimately run into phenomena. What’s very strange is that there is no such thing as a virtual house, whereas the virtual environments that are created in computer games have endless possibilities. They have an avatar that has nothing to do with phenomena. So what do we have? People walk by things and the color changes, because they want movement—architecture resists movement. Greg Lynn is now working with robots. He wants houses that change their orientation so that when you wake up in the morning, you’re upside down. That has to deal with basic Phenomenology, with gravity…

MC: With phenomena.

MC: Do you know the book by Leo Strauss called Persecution and the Art of Writing?7 It’s about Maimonides and the tradition of encrypting hidden meaning in esoteric texts. He finds traces of this in many traditions. That is the book that gave Carlo Ginzburg the idea of finding similar strategies during the Protestant reformation.

PE: You see, traces, by the way, are not phenomena.

MC: They’re indexes. It’s a text which has two layers of meaning. If you are initiated, or a wise man, you will find the flag. From the flag you will find the hidden meaning which is there, but not for all eyes to see. It’s a long tradition. Even Jesus Christ used it.

PE: There are two Derridian terms that I think are really important in “anti-context.” One is the supplement, which is not the thing itself, but the thing added to the supplement that is other than the supplement. The other term is the hinge, which holds together the supplement. The hinge—or briseur —is what Derrida was talking about. It is the thing that connects, the connector. It’s like the passé-partout in paintinG: the thing that connects the painting to the frame is the white paper. He would call that the briseur. The kinds of lexical items that you find in post-structuralism are just those kinds. See, I had thought that Phenomenology, along with post-structuralism, was dead.

I thought, “Phew, those guys are finally gone.” I wrote my dissertation in response to Norberg-Schulz. I thought these guys were gone, that post-structuralism had wiped them out. They are like a virus that has come back even more virulent than before. I think it is an amazingly interesting topic, by the way, because post-structuralism was really the antidote that killed off this first wave of phenomenology.

MC: Not entirely...

G: Mark Wigley talks about different examples of texts by saying that “you probably have this on your shelves but have never read it… but you have read it.” I think what has happened with Phenomenology, like you said, is that it has lingered, been embedded. People say them without thinking about it. It has become part of the everyday conversation.

PE: Well, they think that because they are dealing with architecture, they have to be dealing with presence.

G: I would say that during undergrad, I would have never been able to speak articulately about any of this. But I could have just as easily been accused of thinking phenomenologically.

MC: For a student, it’s in the air.

G: It’s in the air! I think that’s something that has permeated into studios.

MC: But we are lucky in one thing. The two parties—the old “phems”, if we can abbreviate, and the new “phems”—do not realize that they are part of the same family. The old guys still think that all that is digital is against them. The new guys, with a few exceptions, do not realize that the arguments that they are making. They do not recognize where they are coming from. This is good, because the time that they make the connections, we are done.

PE: In other words, if they make this connection, they should be able to solve the problem.

MC: But they never will.

PE: No, they should be able to solve the problem. There’s no question that the possibility of the algorithm gives that idea of a singular, heterogeneous complexity. So far, we haven’t seen it.

L: Are you saying that all of the designers that are currently working computationally are somehow going towards Phenomenology?

PE: The reason why they are in computation is that it promises salvation.

They think they can overcome the problems of the author, the problems of presence, et cetera. I don’t believe they realize the trap they’re in.

L: My question is: does a computational design that is not phenomenological exist at this point?

PE: There could be.

MC: There should be.

PE: There should be.

1 Eisenman, Peter, and Mark Wigley. “The Cat Has Nine Lives: Wobble.” Lecture. Wood Auditorium, GSAPP, New York. September 12, 2012.

2 Carpo, Mario. ‘Digital Darwinism.’ Log. Issue 26. Dec. 2012.

3 Ibid.

4 Perez-Gomez, Alberto. Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1985.

5 Prigogine, Ilya, Isabelle Stengers, and Alvin Toffler. Order Out of Chaos. New York: Bantam. 1984.

6 Gleiter, Jorg H. Ornament Today: Digital, Material, Structural. Bolzano: Bozen University Press. 2012.

7 Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Glencoe: Free Press. 1952.

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