The architecture of indeterminism

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Juha Vuorinen

Master of Arts

Doctoral Student, Department of Art History, University of Helsinki
Add: Laivalahdenkaari 19 C 59

00810 Helsinki



Tel: +358-9-7274331/ 050-3502965

-Welfare State and the new university buildings
There is no need for monuments in the permanent cultural revolution.

(Shadrach Woods)

Modern architecture monumentalized a dated image of technologies rather than technologies themselves. Architectural discourse used to work hard to ignore this inevitably obvious point, and was quite successful. The institutionalized forgetting produced a singular image of modernity, one that has proved uncannily enduring in the face of its demonstrable fragility. As Mark Wigley has written, “this image of modernity officially preserved in the 1960s had already managed to escape time”.1 But we used to forget that the younger generation of 1960s architects had begun to re-examine the counterimage of the existing modern architecture.
My essay deals with the university buildings of the welfare state, because they were the biggest civic construction program in the 1960s. My critical examination will especially concern the context of the most radical university complexes, such as Freie Universität in (West-)Berlin, which had taken the modern avant-garde's commitment to the transience of the present to another level without changing the monumental stakes.
The difference between the pre-war world and the post-war realities lay not only in the physically devastated environment caused by the war, but also in the equally devastating unexpected economic miracle which succeeded it. These were years when economic indices seemed to have nowhere to go but up –even the early 1970s were fat years in the Dow Jones territory.
The growth was also a main theme in post-war universities, because many Western European countries were forced to adapt to the arrival of the babyboomers in the educational markets. This resulted in the quantitative and regional expansion of higher education as well as in the creation of a modern, state-direct and legislated policy governing higher education. Higher education consequently became a significant factor in the establishment and solidification of the welfare state. Welfare State policies indicated a new unity of the society's aspirations, a sense of "for all", which aimed to phase out both elitism and charity. The creating and reforming of these new institutions was a primary activity of the Welfare State and it seemed to require the utmost zeal. At same time applied sociology moved from serving certain social policy aims to the analysis of this social state of affairs as it existed.
The biggest problem for this economic growth which seemed eternal, was to combine the idea of unplannability with the notion of "planning for growth". It was the communication pattern of an institution that directed possibilities of growth. In environmental and architectural terms the expansion has provided unprecedented opportunity and made possible a burst of building which has been compared to the great cathedral building movement of the twelfth century2.
In the architectural "development" of universities we can clearly see a change of the climate in the 1960s. By that period the welfare state had moved from a climate of consensus-seeking to a climate of argumentativeness, with a new stress on "change" and "flexibility". The new liberalisation soon led to the advocacy of the new and unprecedented amounts of freedom and resulted in calls for outright rejection of all authority. The reduction of paternalism in educational discourses, the descent from the old high rhetoric of the beauty, the apparent designer modesty as well as the new planning "indeterminacy" and even the new urbanism; all this may be bundled together and taken as a new movement focusing on the users of the building. That is why many architects devised a new terminology of the user, emphasising a notion of user-freedom.3 While modernist functionalism had appeared serve well as far as many 50s and early 60s efforts were concerned, by the mid-60s its already appeared outdated. Then the new university buildings became the chief focus of architectural avant-garde effort. Educational reformism united with a new social and architectural impetus.
One of the main aspects in the development of the New Universities was the legislation. In Great Britain so called Robbins report from 1963 recommended a drastic increase in the number of students and a social broadening of the student base. It thus became synonymous with university reform generally. The Robbins report demanded and overtook an investigation of a hitherto unknown systematicity. There was a requirement for greater all-round co-operation. On the face of it, the "planning" of university buildings should be something quite straightforward. There were still a vast number of details, but once they are put into the right order, a complete and well-functioning whole should emerge. The "whole" in this context would mean precisely that: "completeness", maximal and optimal use. The architect's/planner's main task was to translate the requirements as stated by the academics and administrators into "space requirements". Architecture should not entail any additional cost. As a Canadian architectural journal wrote; “…the British slowly evolve prototypes of social forms…. [They] have almost eliminated the architect of individualistic talent.4 There should no longer be a difference, "architecturally", between a mass and an élite institution.

System architecture and sociology
A crucial new shift was an increased stress on the links between functions, a new interest in circulation and its differentiation, in "connectivity". This meant a reduction in attention given to all that was merely stationary, to the individual functions themselves. The greater togetherness demanded by the educationalists led the architects to study much more intensively the nature of interaction between departments5. The complexity of methods increased quickly, and on the other hand there were doubts about the aims and the capacities of planning as a whole. The planners thus found themselves in a paradoxical situation where they appeared to want to know both more and less.
Architects wanted to hive themselves up to the higher plane of scientificness, using terminology from social sciences, management sciences and cybernetics. Terms such as "system analysis" or "operational research and design" came into current, the use of mathematical and computable models which can, firstly, predict, and then accommodate projected changes into their calculations. The work of the architect then is to organize, not to design.
Such complex institutions as universities invited architects to play the planning game. In the 1960s this consisted not so much of the issue of what was to be placed where, but designers were more interested in what happened in between the various fixed points, in the sociodynamics of the institution. One of the main source is to be found in some methods of sociology, namely the "sociograms" of sociometry or network analysis. They chart either organisational patterns and decisionmaking processes, or sets of psycho-social relationships between individuals or groups. In many cases these socio-diagrams serve not only as schematisations, but also as exhortation or evocation. It appears that the 1960s presented a particularly strong overlap between all the disciplines: the sociologists put an increased emphasis on real location, while the planners and architects abstracted and generalised to a considerable degree from locational-spatial reality.6
But by the mid-1960s even social space had become a problematic issue. All the factors earlier listed as relevant for the planner to analyse and to find forms for, such as the structure of teaching or technical equipment, were now considered to be factors of uncertainty. There was noted a fundamental change in the understanding of the institution from one that was expected to induce certain predetermined kinds of social modes to one which should principally encourage spontaneous social behaviour. Also, we noted the way in which sociologists, when asked for advice in these matters by architects, now maintained that they had not, as yet, done enough research. Planners adopted an attitude of indeterminism here, as proximity does not necessarily lead to an intensified socialisation.7 Hence, the interest for a central gathering space, for the forum or agora, waned. New universities most decidedly did not show such a centre; "No part of the university is devoted exclusively to social purposes; on the other hand, there is no area in the university which could not be considered as a social space"8. Architects wished to avoid the fixed representation of the monument. Such newleftist functionalism rejects both the hierarchy which a monument imposes on the space of the city and the hierarchical, anthropomorphical organization of a monument's interior.

The last breath of avant-garde
Also the visual presentation of planning moved a long way beyond the traditional "plan of building". Building organization does not produce a picture. In fact, between the stages of the model and the construction, between the project and the building, the emphasis shifted to vertical surfaces. The new concept of construction at the end of the 1960s was not one of the complete determination of all the elements of a building, but the creation of a flexible framework of "modules" or "grids", with room for the desired variety and flexibility of infilling. The ubiquitous grid reads as refusal to represent. Now construction, that is the framework, is basic; "planning" concerns the detailed and varied infilling. Soon afterwards, planners would add a generalised notion of the services to this, viewing as equally important as, if not more important than the construction, in the "performance" of a building.
Architecture was viewed as inter-related systems of activities and places, so that a change to one part of the building-complex will cause changes to some other part. This was significantly a different way of examining and assessing development proposals from one typically undertaken by planners who conceive as planning largely in terms of design and aesthetics. There were serious questions whether it was appropriate to produce detailed "end-state" plans. The system theory, with its emphasis on activity, dynamism and change, suggested the need for more adaptable flexible plans. Architecture were seen an ongoing process of monitoring, analysis and intervening in fluid situations. The flexibility of the building was an attempt to foster via continuous present, to make the specificity of the form subject to human action and intervention, to anticipate the future in the present.
Two new and related ways of architectural thinking emerged; "change" and "indeterminism". These were two complementary ways to achieve community and democracy through design. A building cannot really be planned at all; "the built forms do not, in fact, control the activities within them"9. So, it seems that in architectural functionalism the subsidiary concept that shaping social relations is a requirement of buildings, was belief held by architects.10
It was change which preoccupied the planners' minds. While in the period of Classic Modernism “change" was chiefly an utopian or reformist platform, something that seemed to be seen urgently needed, change was now felt more as something that happens anyway, and happened even more rapidly. We meet, in advanced design and critical circles, a vast conglomerate of different opinions and viewpoints. Virtually everything that has been traditionally discussed in architectural circles was questioned. There was to be the end of the grand gesture, the end of any certainty in planning, and even, the end of the university as a self-contained institution.11
Virtually all the forms have disappeared. Other typical formulations of the direction taken by planning theory were from "static master plan" to "evolutionary plan", or from "recipe to problem". Those were the buildings which were intended to be, like city in flux, never finished, "in largely unknown state of becoming" –action architecture, or the architecture of the frame.
As a turnover of objects gets increasingly rapid, the capacity of any of them to interrupt the flow paradoxically increases. In modernism the most transitory objects attain cult value12. Most transitory object in the 1960s, Freie Universität Berlin (by Candilis-Josic-Woods, 1964), demonstrating us a plan to enter the sphere of a new kind of abstract planning thinking. Being extremely low rise, basically two storeys plus basement, this complex makes absolutely no impact on its indifferent suburban surroundings. There is no major entrance, let alone an entrance front, or any differentiation between a major or a minor side. There is no centre, or central focus. Like the cube variations of Sol LeWitt, the building’s spaces seem to be multiples themselves13.
The impact made by the Freie Universität was enormous. But only as an idea. In Finland, the early phases of the University of Oulu are one of the rare examples of the built “indeterminate”. Space of those universities is intended to maintain an alternative social order, like the structure of old Arab cities, and at the same time, an instance of one of the most ordinary spaces of our contemporary environment. For example Freie Universität has been described as a curious cross between an airport and a phalanstery.14
The study of these indeterminate universities has raised many problematic questions concerning the nature of the field I’ve chosen, Architectural history. In relation to the pseudoscientific-analytical method of Functionalism, architecture and urban planning were regarded as two separated disciplines, but in post-war universities the borderline between architecture and urban planning is not clearly perceptible. Urbanism and architecture were seen to be parts of a continuous process.
It is interesting to notice that the post-war universities after all evoked very little interest in the study of modern architecture which emphasized individual stylistic innovation. At this time, planning was already seen as a discontinuous, intermediary period and as regression in the evolutionary narrative of modern architecture, usually called "the crisis of 60s", or as Siegfrid Giedion canonically wrote; “In the sixties a certain confusion exist in contemporary architecture, as in a painting; a kind a of pause, even a kind of exhaustion. Everyone is aware of it. Fatigue is normally accompanied by uncertainty, what to do and where to go. Fatigue is the mother of indecision, opening the door of escapism, to superficialities of all kind...”15
Those “indeterminate” universities offer a window onto the politicized and optimistic discourse of the generation of architects who came of age after the Second World War. These universities were monuments of some kind, monumental not for their (usually formless) form but because of a unique imagination of what building might be, which transgressing the distinct boundaries of architecture and urbanism. Of course, we can blame -in your age of contextualism and cynicism- that they fell victim to environmental determinism and the over-optimism of architectural profession. Also those universities have mainly failed to generate connections with its context. But I claim that they also holds clues to the challenges of our contemporary environment, illuminating the debates around large projects of infrastructure, housing, public space and production in a post-industrial society. In fact, if one wished to remain loyal to the architects' stated intentions, the only fair way to discuss the history of these universities would be to chronicle their form as a site of human interaction, to insists that those buildings were the summations of each attempt to manipulate it physically, allowing the exigencies of use to offend theirs stability16.

1 Mark Wigley, The Architectural Cult of Synchoronization, October 94/Fall 2000, p.59.

2 Brawne, Michael, University planning and design, London 1967, p.7.

3 Muthesius Stefan, The Post-War University, New Haven & London 2000, p.287.

4 Canadian Architect 9/1962, p.55-66.

5 Muthesius, p.275.

6 ibid., p.88.

7 Vuorinen, Juha, Miten suunnitella avoin muoto? Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia 23, Helsinki 2001, p.106-109.

8 Linde, Horst, Hochschulplanung, vol. 2, Neustadt 1970, p.84.

9 Architectural Review 4/1970, p.284.

10 Lipman, Alan; The Architectural Belief System and Social Behaviour, The British journal of Sociology vol.XX 2/1969, p.190-204.

11 Muthesius, p. 268.

12 Wigley p.49.

13 Wagner, George; Looking back towards the Free University. Free University Berlin, Exemplary projects, Edit. Gabriel Feld, London 1999, p.17.

14 Feld, Gabriel, Shad’s Idée fix. Free University Berlin, Exemplary projects, Edit. Gabriel Feld, London 1999, p.115.

15 Giedion, Siegfried; Space, Time and Architecture. Cambridge, Massachusetts 1967, p. XXXII.

16 Wagner, p.15.

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