The end of the millennium is simultaneously defined by two opposing trajectories. The first is inescapable, and is represented by the second law of thermodynamics, (the entropy law) which states that elements will be reduced into smaller, simpler compounds over time. It is grounded in the laws of science and nature. The second trajectory is the apparent tendency towards complexity in modern life; the increase in stimuli, information and choice available to people. It is grounded in our desire to better ourselves through technology. How we mediate between this apparent contradiction, on one hand the simplification of matter and on the other increasing complexity, poses a particularly interesting question at the fin de siecle.
In recent years, some architects have begun focusing less on the deconstruction of complex forms, and more on the expression of multiplicitous relationships within a single surface as a means of registering fluidity and change. The dilemma between reduction and complexity raises some interesting questions on the connection between architecture and landscape, or more specifically, between topology as an architectural expression and topography as a description of terrain. Both seek to re-ground architecture in landscape, or alternatively allow the ground to be constructed as architecture. As Stephen Perella acknowledges, the move towards topology has pushed architecture towards a ‘smoother and more landscaped form’.1 Similarly, the growing usage ofwords such as contour, geography, terrain, field and landscape within architectural discourse suggests more than a superficial relationship between the two. What, then, are the implications of an architecture that is more like landscape, or simultaneously, of a topological landscape?
Topology & Topography
Based in the Greek origins of the words topos, meaning place, and logos, meaning description or thought, it is clear that both topology and topography become grounded in the search for something specific, local, and particular. Topography represents the practice of describing a specific place, or, as Paul Carter calls it, ‘the lie of the land’.2 Thus, topography reflects how we might traverse the ground, both physically and culturally. Because landscapes are inherently mutable, contiguous surfaces, topography is often thought of as the continuity of change expressed across a single geographic surface. Topography can thus manifest itself physically in a series of geographical features, such as rivers or mountains, or more abstractly by the fluctuating political boundaries between warring nations. Similarly, the gradual emergence of a ‘goat track’ or desire line, connecting points across a surface, iS also an expression of the latent topographic qualities inherent within a landscape.3
However, while landscapes may be inherently topological, this does not necessarily imply an obvious presence or connectedness. Paul Carter wryly observes the ambiguity of this assumption and the fact that ultimately ‘many layers come between us and the granular earth’,4 often prevented or disguising the topological presence within landscape. Carter’s call for the ground to rise up to resist us”5 alludes to the failure of many modernist landscapes through the repression or erasure of topography.
In an architectural sense, topology refers to the architecture of single, mutable, curved surfaces that are transformed over time. Topological architecture becomes the representation or confluence of external and internal forces on and within a single pliant surface. Implicit is a sense of change and mutability, hence the use of the word topology to describe the branch of mathematics concerned with transformational geometry.6 It is intrinsically morphological, with an emphasis on formation or, perhaps more accurately, deformation. Perella defines topology as ‘the mutation of form, structure, context and program into interwoven patterns and complex dynamics’.7 Thus it concerns itself with multiple values expressed across single surface, and thus becomes a relevant expression of the prominent pre-millennial condition of ever increasing entropy and complexity.
Does architecture’s tendency towards topology infer the mutation of object into surface, moving architecture towards a condition more in common with landscape? The platonic architectural object, which once floated freely in abstract Cartesian space, is now mediated by different and changing external and internal conditions. It is no longer self-contained, allowing a registration of alternative forces and flows to occur. Such design Is often described as organic because the forms are irreducible to any particular formal strategy. The severance of the connection between building and site formulated by Le Corbusier and the resulting abstraction/ungrounding of architecture into a pure, international language has been superseded. Topology acts to re-ground architecture in landscape and as such can be seen as a decisive break from the Modernist separation of building and terrain into figure and ground.
Subtraction & Deformation
The rebellion of topology against pure Cartesian space devoid of forces other than gravity leads to the question of alternative forces and their influence on surface structure. Greg Lynn suggests the example of the burrow as an appropriate architectural model for space that responds to ‘differential gravities’8 This analogy raises the interesting comparison between architecture as additive and landscape as subtractive.
The construction of a burrow and the resultant removal and re-shaping of existing earth has more in common with the subtraction or deformation of topography than the additive construction of architecture. Topology begins to respond less to a single autonomous force such as gravity and it’s resultant emphasis on verticality and more to the local conditions that may prevail at any single point in time. Thus the process of creation becomes one based more on deformation than construction, more on the realignment of existing forces upon a surface than the assembly of discreet parts. The beautiful models of Noguchi’s ‘New York’ (Fig. 1) clearly indicate a sculptural process of subtraction, as does Michael Heizer’s massive ‘Double Negative’.
Given the emphasis on deformation in topological design, it becomes important to examine the difference between deformation and deconstruction. Deconstruction implies the taking apart or fracturing of objects and the re-assembly and juxtaposition of the discreet parts. Deformation, on the other hand, suggests a more contiguous exercise in manipulating surfaces through variable fields of influence. Deformed surfaces act like earth moving exercises, maintaining a smooth. unified surface while accommodating change and exogenous forces. The deconstructivists’ interest in formal conflict is replaced by what Greg Lynn describes as ‘a smooth transformation involving the intensive integration of differences, within a continuous yet heterogeneous system’.9 Thus, topological design moves beyond the nihilistic tendencies of deconstruction, (i.e. the loss of centre, total schizophrenia) and attempts instead to seek out and represent in architectural form a condition of connectedness. Cut and paste becomes more push and pull.
Horizontal / Mergance
Another obvious tendency of topological architecture is the move towards horizontal architectures that can be read as landscapes. Not that this is new; Wright’s Prairie style drew inspiration from the flat, horizontal landscapes of the Midwest. However, recent architecture has sought to express a synthetic mergence of architecture and landscape, of vertical and horizontal, where the long held symmetry and assumptions of architecture (floor, wall, ceiling and enclosure) have dissolved into a more fluid and ambiguous development of form. The Yokohama Port Terminal competition held in 1996 has become a seminal project in exploring the possibilities of horizontal architectures, with a number of celebrated entries exhibiting structures that read more 25 landscapes than buildings. The winning entry from Foreign Office Architects (Fig. 3 & 4), as well as proposals by Greg Lynn and Rieser + Umemoto all exhibit habitable surfaces that blur the distinction between interior and exterior, vertical and horizontal, natural and artificial.
Concurrent to this were the design propositions offered by West 8 for vertical landscapes in New York (Fig. 2), were the architectural model for the office tower was reversed, instead becoming vertical parks planted with dense vegetation. Projects such as this represent the inversion or contamination of landscape back into architecture, fifteen years after the celebrated OMA scheme for La Villete first proposed the flattening of the high rise office across a horizontal public space. While hypothetical, these propositions seek to redefine the relationship between architecture and landscape.
Procedure / Process
Inherent in the search for a topological architecture is the rejection of the authority of the designer. The architect as creator drawing from her bag of platonic solids is dismantled, replaced by the vision of the architect as conductor, orchestrating the process that leads to form and not the form itself. The liberation from merely formal considerations renders the process open to transformation and nuance. In a recent interview in Transition, Greg Lynn articulates this concern; ‘it is not an aesthetic or stylistic question of shape as much as it is a question of organization. The role of architects is to organize processes rather than make beautiful shapes’.10 Similarly, Brain Massumi argues that ‘new form is not conceived. It is coaxed out, flushed out of virtuality. The architect’s job is in a sense catalytic.’ Thus topology refutes the modernist ideal of heroic architecture created by the masterful arrangement of ideal forms. Architecture becomes post-heroic, in doing so allowing for the possible unification of architecture and landscape.
At one extreme of the process driven approach lies the purity of the mathematical algorithm used to describe a single surface or object. One such example iS the work of the industrial design firm Objectile who have discarded the traditional platonic solids in favour of mathematical equations that define form. Through the union of technology and philosophy, people like Bernard Cache are developing procedures for ensuring highlytopological, differentiated products of mass production within a global structure of automation and homogeneity. (Fig. 5 & 6 ) Objectile’s recent facade for a house by dECO suggests that topological design is not necessarily mutually exclusive to global trends, merely cognizant to maintain independence from trends towards homogeneity. It is curious that the results of many of these mathematically sculpted forms have a direct similarity to landscape and terrain and raises the question of underlying orders and disorders within nature. Similarly, the precise indeterminacy allowed for by parametric design methods such as Parascape allow for complex data sets and relationships to directly shape form.
Decay / Ecology
Because procedural design introduces a degree of indeterminacy, or asymmetry, within the form producing equation, it asserts itself through an indeterminacy of outcome that it supposed to render new and previously unthought of forms. This argument aligns itself with recent discussion on complexity and chaos theory, which suggest leaps in complexity occur with the introduction of indeterminacy into the equation. Greg Lynn argues strenuously in his article ‘the Novelty of Symmetry’ that asymmetry is in fact a measure of greater organization and incorporation of information, leading to ‘the specific unfolding of polymorphic, dynamic, flexible and adaptive systems’11, key goals for topological architecture. This ecology is often regarded as something beyond the construction of person, and as such moves architecture away from its anthropomorphic origins.12 No longer is architecture based around the representation of the body at the centre of Cartesian space. Instead a growing number of architectural projects propose alternative self organising systems that exhibit tendencies more commonly seen in natural states and where the classical notions of order, symmetry and proportion are eventually abandoned.
Inherent in the definition of topology is an acceptance of change and the possibility of decay. It refutes the notion of permanence in architecture and that the object should stand defiant against time. It thus aligns itself with landscape and more complex notions of ecology because of the realization that time inevitably yields change, regardless of intent. Topology becomes an exploration of the inherent structure of materials and the manner in which certain surfaces can accommodate change. Live materials such as vegetation become acute registers of changes taking place in the environment. Similarly, poured sur- faces and fabrics offer a degree of pliancy that deforms to the surrounding conditions. As such, the greater the degree of a pliancy within a surface, the more animated it becomes - hence the interest in an architecture that moves, or is animated. It is more suggestive of a symbiotic or parasitic relationship with the environment, where architecture grafts itself into an existing, complex ecology. As Reiser + Umemoto acknowledge ‘we seek to encompass the general functional imperatives of place and the specific civic possibilities by using this inherent duality — between global systems and the conditions of the specific sites upon which such system’s cross-as a quality to generate self a organizing processes.’13
Recent projects such as Parascape undertaken by dECOi and Mark Burry explore the possibilities of parametric design were relationships are established between site and form such that variations in one affect the other, mimicking the types of complex relationships already present in nature. (Fig.7)
Facilitated by the number crunching abilities of current technology, parametric design frees the designer from the conception of end form, instead focusing attention on the many possible relationships that exist between elements. In this manner, a three dimensional form can be deformed or altered by any data set. for example weather information or demographic data, and is suggestive of possible ecologies between the natural and artificial. The initial results from Parascape have produced highly topographical surfaces that resemble animate, organic terrains.
The fluidity of recent architectural form may also be a reflection of the increasing complexity of the urban condition and the growing need to accommodate different and often incompatible programmatic functions within a single structure. This condition has led to the abandonment of traditional architectural models in favour of more pliant structures as containers of multiple functional possibilities. Tschumi’s notion of transprogramming, and Koolhaas’ discussion on Bigness argues for singular urban containers of multiplicitious events, and are suggestive less of singular architectural edifices and more of complex artificial ecologies. This expansion of function also encompasseslandscape, with the new urban park increasingly becoming complex amalgam or ecology of architecture and landscape.
Similarly, the land art movement has produced a number of celebrated procedural designs where end form becomes secondary to the process that conceives it, perhaps most notable being Robert Smithson’s famous asphalt pours (Fig. 10) and Walter de Maria’s Lightening Field. These projects are suggestive of the inherent topological qualities within landscape and the possibilities for conceiving topographical space.
Accident & Ugliness
In accordance with its interest in the local and subjective, topological architecture also has a particular interest in the accidental. This interest stems from the desire to incorporate some implicit variable beyond our control into the built product (indeterminacy), such that over time a process of adaptability, flex and change begins to inform the architecture. Because some projects are enacted as procedures where there is no surety of outcome (i.e. there is an acceptance of possible failure), anomalies become possible. Contained within such anomalies is the prospect of newness itself, and as such, makes us confront directly our traditional notions of beauty and proportion. It is through this confrontation that the decision making process is rendered visible, making obvious when decisions are based on traditionally accepted notions of order and control.
Rather than being seen as problematic, accidents become enabling factors that can contribute to the emergence of more appropriate topological form. The desire to produce safe and predictable things is replaced by the desire to ‘incorporate possible malfunctions in the planning process, and to use the accidental potential of products to enhance their performance. ’14 Paul Virilio’s discussion of the potential of accidents suggests that the design of every object also implies it’s ultimate destruction; hence our use of crash test dummies in the ongoing process to improve vehicle safety. It suggests a search to a imbue greater intelligence into built structures. The relationship between topological surfaces and the accident is explored in J.G. Ballard’s book Crash[^15] where the deformed, mutable surfaces of modern society leave their bruising imprints on the delicate human body. Although extreme, Crash can be seen as a reading into topological/topographical space where exogenous and endogenous effects both leave their permanent imprint on mutable form.
The idea that a surface can become pliant enough to accommodate accidents has taken physical manifestation in the Park, The Power of Reversible Destiny in Yoro, Japan, where artists Arakawa and Gins (Fig. 9) have created a disturbed landscape designed to upset our sense of balance and utilize the potential inherent within every accident. Through the use of deformed surfaces and juxtaposed elements, the individual is forced to re-evaluate modes of perception and recognition in an attempt to break free from existing structures. As Tschumi would say, it is primarily about the thawing of frozen rituals. While any explanation of the park must be firmly rooted in contemporary post-structuralism theory, the park can also be read as a phenomenological experiment designed to make aware our bodily interaction with our surroundings. In this sense it is about the immediateness of space; it cannot be seen, but must be felt. It is only through traversing the terrain and negotiating the disruptions that meaning can be gained. It is suggestive of a topological/topographical space that is all about sensation and movement in time.
Topology falls at the boundary between building and terrain. It is suggestive of a new relationship between architecture and landscape that breaks free from the modernist separation of figure and ground and the nihilistic tendencies of deconstruction. Topology and topography both seek to reground architecture in landscape, or alternatively as Paul Carter comments, allow the ground to rise up and meet the building. The landscape becomes the repository of variable interactions, the landscape becomes empowered. Perhaps it is through this development that this country is dichotomous relationship between city and bush, between artifice and nature, is broken down in favour or a more fluid, descriptive and emotive landscape language suitable for the next millenium.
- Perrella, S. 1998 ‘Hypersurface Theory: Architecture > < Culture’, in Hypersurface Architecture, ed. S.Perella, Architectural Design133, London, p. 7.↩
- See Carter, P. 1997, The Lie of the Land, Faber & Faber, London .↩
- One of Australia’s great topographical/logical surfaces is Uluru, created by the subtraction of weaker material around it, and eroded more recently by the foot traffic it receives from tourists intent on climbing.↩
- Carter, P. 1997 The Lie of the Land, Faber & Faber, London, p. 2.↩
- Topology - the branch of mathematics concerned with those properties of geometric figures that are invariant under continuous transformations. A continuous transformation is a one-to-one correspondence between the points of one figure and the points of another figure such that points that are arbitrarily close on one figure are transformed into points that are also arbitrarily close on the other figure. Two figures are topologically equivalent if one can be deformed into the other by bending, stretching, twisting, or the like, but not by tearing, cutting, or folding; thus topology is sometimes popularly called rubber-sheet geometry. (www.encyclopedia.com, 1999)↩
- Perrella, S. 1998, ‘Hypersurface Theory : Architecture > < Culture’, Hypersurface Architecture, ed. S. Perrella, Architectural Design133, London, p. 11.↩
- Lynn, G. 1998, ‘Differential Gravities’, in Folds, Bodies & Blobs - Collected Essays, La Lettre Volee, Bruxelles, D. 95.↩
- Ibid. p.95↩
- Transition 57/58, 1998, ‘Interview with Greg Lynn’, p. 111.↩
- Massumi, B. 1998, ‘Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible’, in Hypersurface Architecture, ed. S. Perrella, Architectural Design 133, London, p. 16.↩
- Lynn, G. 1998, Folds, Bodies & Blobs - Collected Essays, La Lettre Volee, Bruxelles, p.70.↩
- Isozaki,A. & Asada, A. 1997, ‘The Demiurgomorphic Contour’, in Anybody, ed. C. Davidson, MIT Press, New York, p. 38. UH-EZe↩
- The Art of the Accident - Art + Architecture + Media Technology,1988, NAI Publishers / V2_ Organisatie, Rotterdam, p. 2.↩
- The Art of the Accident - Art + Architecture + Media Technology, 1998, ‘Surfing the Accident’, NAI Publishers / V2_Organisatie, 1000 tena, Rotterdam.↩