Programmatics; an architecture of utility

Not for some considerable time have architects turned their attentions towards the thorny issues raised by conditions of use. Indeed it must be more than fair to say that for some considerable time, certainly since the late sixties, architects have been driven by issues concerned primarily with conditions of form and of form making. I mean by this that they have concerned themselves with those aspects of architectural production which fall beyond the realm of use, beyond what was referred to by the Modernist faction as function and which in more contemporary circles has now been termed programme.


Since the sixties form and use have been divided. This dividing is not however, a condition of exclusion, such that form has excluded use, but rather a condition of authority, such that form and form making have dominated the intellectual researches of the architectural fringe, retaining issues of use as merely a foil to the primary work. This shift in the intellectual affections of architects reflected a general intellectual shift in the West away from Materialist instrumentalism towards a new Idealism and to an affection for form, pattern and structure. It brought with it also, a keen interest in diversity and complexity which from the outset had intrigued post-war architects and encouraged the best of them to seek wider anthropologically diverse approaches to conditions of inhabitation and use. The Smithsons, Aldo Van Eyke, Herman Herzberger established a social dimension and a new programmatics in which relevant social patterns could be examined as the basis of a programmatically driven architecture. This nascent social formalism was relatively short lived however, countered at the end of the Sixties by the radical materialism of the Situationist International and its popular re-presentation by Archigram. The mature and patient research of the Dutch Structuralist school, as it has since been erroneously named, derived in large part from the CIAM tradition, could not be sustained in the face of a single issue architecture. Concerns for complex problems of inhabitation, mass housing and social provision across the social spectrum proved less enticing than concerns for temporariness or moving architectures which had an immediate popular appeal fed by a spectacular graphic style.


It would not have proved so inimical to the state of architectural programmatics had a single issue formalism retained any political dimension. One harbours a distinct suspicion, however, that most of its appeal derived precisely from this fact. What followed is well documented, and usually in glowing terms, but a comprehensive understanding of precisely how the contemporary city is used, fell short of the Post-modern project in all its guises; Neo-Classical, Neo-Rationalist and Neo-Suprematist. From Ungers to Rossi, from Hadid to Eisenman issues of space were constructed from formal paradigms often collated from separate compositional traditions. Aspects of a socio-political analysis were understood to be of no particular relevance and part of the concerns of a previous generation of architects. The articulation and research of programmatic use found no champions during this period.


Commercial development, on the other hand was quick to claim new programmatic territories and to see the importance and relevance of new data collection techniques in order to improve and expand its business concerns. The hyper-mall and the theme park, a kind of pragmatic topographical demography of retail and leisure consumerism, were established, as the primary shibboleths of late twentieth century development culture, without a hint of prissiness.  As workload shifted from commercial office to commercial retail, no corresponding intellectual shift followed it. This shift, either misread or dismissed by the discipline in general was considered irrelevant to its predominantly formal concerns. It remained unexamined by the leading thinkers of the discipline until quite recently and in the absence of any perceived need to articulate the discipline’s contemporary relationship to a changing geo-demography and geo-economy will remain so for the foreseeable future.


There is something unsullied in pragmatics, unblemished, perhaps blameless, which has been ignored for far too long. In the doctrine of form to function, whatever the dismissals of the last years, there remains an opportunity to discard the irrelevance of ego-narcissism and to build a new programmatics based on social use. Contemporary information culture has restored the opportunities of mass observation without the cost and made geo-demographic information generally available to architects over the wire. A carpet of abstract data now covers little England at some considerable depth revealing every lifestyle habit and inadvertency. Its overwhelming presence demands a consequent plurality making it difficult, in the face of the body democratic, to venture into self-serving poetries.


What is left is a kind of compliance, an acceptance of the pragmatic terms of the everyday and the materially real. What might be constructed is a compliant and weak architecture forged from a programmatic intelligence sporting an unapologetic social agenda.


If we are to assume that architecture does not define itself as a covert solipsism; that it does not fall into an easy idealism and assume that its definitive qualities are intrinsic to the objects of its production and not consequent upon the contexts of its production; if we are to assume that it relies, not merely on the fact of architecture as physical mass, but also upon an audience to experience it; that it constitutes more than an internally determined problematic; that it remains grounded in the complexities of everyday life -its politics, economics and material conditions- then it must follow that the meaning of architecture, the sense that it makes for us, is constituted from at least two phenomena.  Not only OBJECTS, the physical displacement of matter in space;  but also EVENTS -the muti-valent, muti-layered social perception of objects in use.


It was the Situationist International which began to explore other  aspects of the materiality of urban experience, proposing, after Lefebvre, an architecture of events; of situations, of momentary ambiances and of everyday life. This constituted a radical shift in the nature of architectural and urban thought, moving it away from its obsession with objects and with objectness, towards a non-instrumental notion of occupation or inhabitation. Away from an idea of use; towards an idea of event. Once this separation of object and event was successfully inferred, an architecture which proceeded from the event pole of this object / event opposition could be conceived of. What made this radical, not to say revolutionary, was that an architecture of event, constituted a latent urbanism in which the city could be reconfigured by an act of mind. The programmatic territorialisation of the city could be transformed at will, without construction, as a product of re-occupation, removing any need for the profession of architecture as the primary modus operandi of the city as such. 


An architecture of event was no mere figment. Its presence for the S.I. as well as other radical groups of this period was constituted by the impending street revolution and by its eventual precipitation in May ’68. Its current presence can be traced within the  marginal territories of the modern metropolis, in areas of economic decline and dereliction where established programmes have undergone radical transformations unrestricted by the legal tourniquet of urban and state power.


For the Situationist International, placing issues of social occupation at the centre of its urban theory constituted a purposive shift away from the aesthetics of the Corbusian city. Its conceptual re-appropriation of the city as a gravid geography of productive ‘situations’, constituted a radical antithesis to the instrumental formalism of this object based architecture. And once a breach with the object had been made the conceptual transformation of building-use became the tool by which to provide a revolutionary shift in the programmatics of the city.


At the hands of a contemporaneous and de-politicized avant-garde , to wit Archigramme, Haus Rucker, Co-oP Himmel Blau, Super Studio, et al., the S.I.’s protean architecture of events suffered a chic reversal of its political intentions. Although providing the main conduit for a wider dissemination of these ideas, albeit in an altogether adulterated form, this gamut of self-styled traders and gallerists, abandoned the radical social teleology of the S.I.’s position and fatally isolated its conceptual urbanism, recuperating its radical politics by forcibly abbreviating what remained to the impotent terms of an ideology of objects and exchangeable commodities.


What endures of the original political critique of the Situationist International, its political bequest to notions of the contemporary city, must firstly be read through its successive recuperations at the hands of a host of reactionary heirs. To all intents and purposes it is omitted from any official urban or architectural history of the period; its achievements, considered illegitimate and irrelevant, are absent from the cultural record. Nevertheless an enduring and pregnant critique persists within the corpus of the S.I. project.






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