Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowledge of Change of Use

Guggenheim, M. (2011). Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowledge of Change of Use. Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge, 9-36.

This article reflects upon the lack of a formal theory regarding the change of use within buildings. A literature comprehensively categorizing change of use, in the mind of Guggenheim, does not really exist, and instead architects tend to make pointlessly specific observation or rely on metaphor as a means of describing it. Guggenheim specifically focuses on architecture writing on the subject of change of use.

Guggenheim breaks the discourse he criticizes into three different areas; namely, semiotics, sociological implications and technologies. If my thesis is to cover a system for understanding and developing architecture over time, the three criteria presented by Guggenheim for understanding change of use can be understood. As his critique is a synthesis of many arguments of other architect-writers, his point that each one of these methods of judgement is flawed on its own, points to the notion that one can better understand buildings over time (implicit in the notion of change of use) through the synthesis of these three criteria.



The authors are permanently confused by the very features they observe: They only see typological change in the buildings and are unable to grasp the process-related changes. They see first a building described in terms of type, style, materials, architect; they see a second building described in the same manner. 


Understanding buildings as technologies assumes that buildings directly affect how users act. [...] The understanding of buildings as technologies is central to architectural thinking and notions such as "function" or "type."
Understanding buildings as signs [i.e. semiotically] assumes that it is not the material aspects of the building that operate on the user, but rather its semiotic properties.
Understanding buildings as defined by interactions [i.e. sociologically] implies that it is neither their material nor their semiotic properties, but through the actions of the user that define the building.
When a building is converted, a shift occurs in the way we comprehend and describe it: a shift from noting primarily its technological characteristics, towards its semiotic and specifically its interaction-based properties. A building is erected and in our perception, its technological and semiotic properties are more or less intact, stable, and guide users. By changing its use, which can happen without material change to the building, the sociological properties take command: the building is not defined largely by its uses. 

These three characteristics present a starting point for how architecture can be understood over time. From this understanding, a building may start out characteristically defined by semiotics and technology, but changes of use tend to be more visibly noticeable from a sociological perspective. I would argue that this straightforward change of use without significant physical alteration constitutes a shift from a condition of spatial permanence and material permanence to one of spatial (or experiential, perhaps) ephemerality.

One Times Square, first in 1908 and then shown today. The change in both semiotic and sociological characteristics of the building has almost entirely erased the original technological, sociological, and semiotic intent. 

The Marienplatz in Munich, shown devastated in 1945 and the present day reconstruction. In this case the semiotic, sociological intent of the square was preserved, despite the complete substitution of all materials. The technological intent of the spaces may have changed, as a result of construction in he city center.  Is this an example of spatial/experiential permanence yet wholesale ephemerality? Part of being able to test a system, or language, for understanding architecture across time is to be able to contextualize all possible conditions within the system.

The Marienplatz in Munich, shown devastated in 1945 and the present day reconstruction. In this case the semiotic, sociological intent of the square was preserved, despite the complete substitution of all materials. The technological intent of the spaces may have changed, as a result of construction in he city center. 

Is this an example of spatial/experiential permanence yet wholesale ephemerality? Part of being able to test a system, or language, for understanding architecture across time is to be able to contextualize all possible conditions within the system.

To add nuance to this discussion straightforward typological change without significant material alteration is not always possible. Buildings subject to typological change often are subject to significant physical renovation, to the point where the material elements are demolished or obfuscated entirely. I see this in the vision for One Times Square, where all original semiotic and sociological elements indicative of the original office building have been actively erased to transform the building into a structure for the support of the billboards on the facade. This could conceivably be understood as a vision for both experiential ephemerality and material ephemerality, given how apparently little of the original building visually remains. This does pose the question of how one should characterize such material change; surely since the overall structure of the building remains intact does that overshadow the veneer of the facade? How much has really changed? When looking at experiential/spatial versus material change, it is clear that the former has unquestionably altered, but the degree with which one judges the latter seems to be self evident. In this case, to better understand buildings over time, the framework by which one does so may be better expressed by something other than literal material change. 


Our building-specific vocabulary describes states and not processes. If we call a converted building a church, it is unclear whether we are referring to the original or resulting use. The only way out is to give a description of the process such as " an apartment building converted into a church" or "a church converted into an apartment building." [...] Due to the poverty of our language, architects have resorted to description, metaphors and other verbal tricks to refer to all examples of conversion.

This is a profound observation that ties, perhaps, into why I found the passage about the strange biological metaphors about architecture relevant to the abomination that I presented on September 26. They are, undoubtedly disingenuous and developing a language for which to explicitly discuss change in architecture that is neither reliant on describing states nor resorts to obtuse biological metaphors.

Besides failing to establish a set of terms, the literature on change of use fails to classify its object. To classify means to introduce an ordering device by selecting and categorizing objects according to features. [...] Classification has profound consequences. Whether one is considered to be a man or a woman or healthy or mentally ill has directly impacts our lives. Similarly, whether a building is considered to be a mosque or a school is not merely a theoretical question, but has implications for who can use it and how. 


A central task of architectural writing is to bring order to the realm of buildings; the resulting architectural classification is a prerequisite for everything from the writing of history of architecture to maintaining a contemporary discourse. Change of use, however, seems to defy classification. This is not the authors' fault, but inherent in the object itself.


[...] The analysis of literature demonstrates the limitations of only conceiving of buildings in terms of their limited dates of completion. A book, say, about "modernist hotels" implies a typological and stylistic definition about the time of a building's design and construction. Furthermore it implies that later conversions are irrelevant if not detrimental to the understanding of these buildings.
A processual view of buildings would allow for the description and understanding of buildings based on the convergence of technological, semiotic an sociological perspectives. It would try to account for the relative importance of each level at different stages in the life of a building. A processual view of buildings would not privilege the original stage in relation to all other stages, but describe buildings in a presentist mode, understanding a building as a sequence of many moments in time. 

Guggenheim's thesis in this paper is that an understanding of a building can come through viewing it as a sequence of moments in time. At the same time, he laments the notion that we must understand buildings as states. Unlike the loft—the only typology he points to that invokes a delineated change—does this notion of understanding buildings as a series of states conflict with the stated agenda? Is there a vocabulary that can immediately invoke a state of flux, or must it be seen from the perspective of a snapshot?

Learning From Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities

Lyster, Clare. Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016.


Excerpts + Quotes


In an era of increasing metabolic flow, we can no longer afford to read the city solely in terms of the architectural object—traditionally the lens through which architects have interrogated the city. Instead, if designers are to stay relevant in human matters, we must shift to engage the city from the perspective of its operational systems and procedural flows. In the absence of all but a few historical frameworks within the discipline to conceptualize urban space in this way, it behooves us to hijack other flow models as a way to think more critically about the city as a fluid condition and this revitalize the agency of urbanism and planning in the age of globalization.


#mobility #logistics #technology

We live in an era of extreme mobility made possible by technological innovation, and globalization and logistics constitute the latest stage of technological progress in the urban environment. While the city has always been shaped by production and distribution flows, from the trade routes of the middle ages to the steamship, from the telegraph to the railroad, since the 1970s a new set of time-space networks has been radically reformatting the built environment and recalibrating how we live. These networks manage the fast and efficient flows of products, people, and information across cities, regions, nations, and the entire world.



Despite the overwhelming mobility that characterizes today's society, there are surprisingly few methodologies in place that analyze the production of space as a fluid condition.


#network #geography

Geography is no longer a prerequisite for urbanism; the network is. At the same time that logistics denies place, however, it would be misleading to say that it is completely a-geograhphic. Logistics upends the city's traditional reliance on geophysical qualities to facilitate new possibilities for where the city might be and what it might look like. If the city is no longer a product of geography, what becomes of the age-old relationship between a city, its context and its identity?


#ryanair #place #disaccociation

Ryanair expanded upon Southwest Airlines' model of point to point. Taking it a step further, Ryanair found success in offering service to out-of-the-way airports and often dubbing them for major cities they avoided. Frankfurt-West Flughafen, that Ryanair servers is more than 110km away from Frankfurt proper. London Stansted Airport, their center of UK operations, is more than 60km away from London. Ryanair transformed nearly-abandoned regional airports into relevant ones through reassociation, and in turn created entire new airline markets connecting second- and third-tier cities.

In disassociating the notion of "place" from a location in a particular country and considering it as a moment in a larger set of processes, in this case a destination in a continental air traffic network, logistics liberates a city from traditional territorial constraints and instead positions it within a larger mesh of connectivity.
In summary, the most notable effect of a point-to-point air network [...] is a new urban field at a transnational scale, a field where urbanity burst its seams to extend beyond oceans and regions and encompasses a sort of continental urbanism, overcoming geophysical barriers and hierarchies that previously organized the territory. The city is not just nowhere and anywhere, it's everywhere.


#logistics #lifestyle

Not until the 1970s, when logistical systems began to penetrate daily routines, did the a-geographic tendencies of neoliberal production flows really start to reshape perceptions of the city (and thereby definitions of place) by finally severing the city's flailing reliance on territorial relationships. 


#lefebvre #urbanmesh

For example, if I turn attention back to the Ryanair route map, if might be that the 120km distance between Frankfurt and Ryanair's airport at Hahn or the area between Hahn and Luxembourg already reinforces the concept of Lefebvre's mesh. In having passengers travel for two [extra] hours to reach their destination, Ryanair extends Frankfurt to Hahn (or vice-versa), rendering it as one continuously, although uneven, urban vector.


Chicago and LA illustrate the role of industrial-era network formations (rail, water and highway) in the planning and identity of the city. 


#logistics #newworldorder

In being big, centralized and in control, logistics exhibits how the networks of communication and transnational corporations of postindustrial society have become the new authorities in the organization of space. In fact, with the dematerialization of the nation-state, the traditional purveyor of sovereignty, and the corresponding institutions of modernity (the school, the factory, the prison, the hospital)—Michel Foucault's disciplinary societies—communications networks including the logistical oligarchies that are the subjects of this book emerge to become what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe as the next imperial order: the new Empire. What's more is that we, the dumb users, [...] only play into the hands of these actors while we lack the knowledge of their complexities, these networks extend their colonization to encompass all relationships in what Branden Hookway describes as their fluid command hierarchies and interconnections. Our ignorance only amplifies their influence.


#topdown #urbanplanning

Architecture's use of the terms top-down and bottom-up is imported from business and management and describes forms of decision making. Top-down typically implies a visionary overview that encompasses and anticipates all aspects of the system up front, while bottom-up involves decisions made by a group of individuals and usually focuses on one or two submits of the system (a part of a detail) rather than the overall idea.
[...] In the discipline, the term top-down connotes architecture with a capital-A, something that is heavily authored [...]. Top-down presupposes an ideal and optimized scenario and a linear standardized process decided upon from the outside.
  • Pope Sixtus V — Rome
  • L'Enfant — Washington D.C.
  • Hausmann, Mitterand — Paris
  • Robert Moses — New York City
Top-down also characterizes unrealized utopian plans from Thomas More to the Ville Radieuse, that project cities as what Michael Sorkin terms "one dimensional fantasies." [...] For the most part, especially in the US, top-down as a planning approach is no longer encouraged or practiced.


#urbanplanning #bottomup #2trendy4me #precedents

Bottom-up, on the other hand, is less strategic and more incremental, and involves individual or community participation.
Recently, the term has come to underlie everything from grassroots community activism to "participatory urbanism" to "guerrilla urbanism" to "tactical urbanism" to "pop-up urbanism" [etc.], all of which build up on earlier interpretations beginning in the 1960s such as "unslumming" (Jane Jacobs), "Non-Plan" (Paul Barker), organicism (the Metabolists), indeterminacy (Archigram), pattern language (Christopher Alexander), adhocism (Charles Jencks), "bricolage" (Fred Koetter and Colin Rowe), "do-it-yourselfism" (Marshall McLuhan) and ephemeralization (Buckminster Fuller).
These approaches allowed users to adapt buildings to their own lifestyles, and were developed in architecture formally as space frames (Yona Friedman and Konrad Wachsmann), kits of parts (Sears to the Eamses), clip-ons (Reyner Banham), capsules (Warren Chalk and Kisho Kurokawa), plug-ins (Peter Cook), robotic units (Archigram), serviceable surfaces (Superstudio) and intelligent machines (Nicolas Negroponte).
EX: MVRDV's Oosterwold planned for an area of undeveloped land on the eastern side of the Dutch town Almere, is to be developed by the people who live there. Residents may develop lots individually or in collaboration courtesy of a website, with the help of an area manager, who provides guidance of rules according to the lot chosen. In addition to formulating one's space, users contribute to shaping collective infrastructure such as energy, roads, water, waste and urban farming as well as shared public space. In this way, the neighborhood is realized in a step-by-step format and not all at once. Not unlike Kickstarter, small collectives of like-minded individuals can work together to develop larger parcels [...]. 

What all of this indicates to me is that modular architecture is a failure. Despite the superficial allure of promoting individualism, a modular system is not really individual at all. In our era of the neoliberal id, a modular system for living is a vast ideological collectivist construct that one must buy into, and is hence wholly incompatible therewith. 

Economically speaking, there are advantages to modularity that have been globally executed; the most successful iteration of this global modularity has been the shipping container. In spite of political differences, and across continents and language barriers and systems of measurement, the standardized shipping container will fit on virtually any ship, truck or train. The economic justification for the adoption of modularity in other industries reinforces the idea that modular disassemblability is economically wrong for architecture, yet architects to this day push it as a realizable vision. I'm certainly guilty of that. But after decades of theorization regarding superstructure frameworks and movable, changeable parts, the only versions of it that yet exist are prototypes widely regarded as failures. The Nagakin Capsule Tower, for instance, has had none of its capsules switched out in spite of that being the original intent. Rather, economic pressure is building to simply tear the whole thing down. Is a single building simply too holistic of a product to have bits and pieces switched out? Maybe the rhetoric where buildings are regarded as being alive is true, especially given that one cannot simply rip out one's liver and plug in three new ones without consequence. Why do we want to see buildings as modular when they clearly are not?


#failure #bottomup 

In a 2008 lecture presented at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, Stan Allen proclaimed that self-organization (commonly used as another term for bottom-up plannning) is a myth. Firstly, in the case of natural landscape, creating and implementing a natural ecology to take care of itself does in fact require a great deal of [top-down] design, including the control and maintenence variables involved, secondly, in urban environments, programmatic indeterminacy—the artificial equivalent to a natural ecology, i.e., the notion that space is a program itself—is problematic and nothing more than an alibi for non-design.
[...] Malcom Gladwell argues that at a certain scale the lack of leadership in large networks renders them ineffective despite the contributions of their large populations, and that successful networks exhibit hierarchical characteristics like discipline, organization, strategy and so on. [...] "There are many things that networks don't do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don't have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have a real difficult time reaching consensus and setting goals. [...] How do you make difficult choices about tactics and strategy when everyone has an equal say?"
David Harvey Sums up the the flawed results on individualism when he writes, "This is a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and it's cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action becomes the template for human socialization"
Finally, as a cultural project, bottom-up has not transformed the city to reflect (or lead) vis-a-vis our current lifestyles, nor has it introduced larger discourse on what the city should look like.

Taken as a whole, the lackluster implementation of bottom-up design methodologies looks like as much of a dead-end experiment as the preceding top-down structure of modernist planning. It's quite clear that the decentralization of American planning, coinciding with a neoliberal culture that increasingly idealizes independence, has dispelled the notion of effective low-level organizational structures as a means for urban progress. 


The transition from top-down to bottom-up planning has left architects on the sidelines of their own projects, and does not present a good future for our industry as a dominant paradigm. If—as the bottom-up movement asserts—design is better left to the participants, the role of the architect/designer becomes ancillary, therefore it's unsurprising that the profession currently faces such an identity crisis. These bottom-uppers are theorizing everyone out of a job.

Today, developers and public-relations consultants format the city, and decisions are made according to investment opportunity, market projections and political advancement, not really what the people want or what the city really needs; designers are left as form-givers for the decisions made by others.
With reduced funding, design departments in municipal agencies have shrunk, their main priority now is to keep projects under budget and avoid delays. Instead of fostering excitement, design (doing something different) arouses anxiety and fear.

Compounding the issue of "average architecture" is the fact that those who are truly designing it are not the designers at all. Architects seem to be more of a bureaucratic hurdle to construction certification, or a "form-giver" for a pre-established program that has no margins for creativity. Civic forces that ought to advocate for the architectural experience and the human factor of the built environment.... don't. Neoliberalism left no room for anything that cannot be commodified, and buildings and space are certainly things. How can architects embrace this system to maintain their relevance, rather than flounder within it by clinging to a forgone definition of the profession. 

More and more cities are becoming polarized territories for the poor (who have no choice but to stay) and the rich (who can have anything they want). Increasingly, those who leave the city do so because their choices are not being met, from affordable housing to public infrastructure and tolerable distances between work and home life. In San Francisco, housing costs now exceed 40 percent of income. In non-western cities, increasing urbanization combined with unequal opportunity means most residents live informally. Can we really blame the public for taking matters into their own hands? Is it really any wonder people have begun to design and build cities for themselves?

Well this certainly is a wicked problem. Can the justification for bottom-up, do-it-yourself design be reduced to the notion that the incentives of the built environment don't serve it's inhabitant's needs? Is there an economic case for finding value in addressing the shifting needs of a city, on a longer timeframe?

Scenario planning and emergent geometries have also seemed to address this inability to plan on both levels by offloading the design of cities—somehow—onto the physical characteristics of the built environment itself. I have yet to see an implemented version of this type of design, mostly because it relies on the presumption that inhabitants of such a generative geometry will unilaterally, unquestioningly follow, pay for and execute whatever got pooped out of a grasshopper script. 


#command #choice

Defining a city according to what is permanent and flexible or what can be centrally designed versus what is the responsibility of the user is a significant legacy of these projects, but it has been fifty years since the large space frame projects and one wonders how architects have advanced the idea. In a sense these projects were ahead of their time, even more suitable to our own contemporary culture of excessive individualism then to their own.
The freedom of choice promoted by a design of a kit of parts is actually achievable given today's production regimes and the delivery platforms that logistics itself has made possible.
The logic that planning could finally be organized around the precise design and detailing of large-scale infrastructural strategies that anticipate a plethora of tactical inputs by others is even more plausible.

Now that we have an economy tailor-made with complex supply chains designed to provide anything wherever it can be paid for, the modular, customizable dream seems more achievable than ever. Is architecture's shipping container moment imminent? 



Cybernetic and other systems thinking (participatory GIS and variations thereof) have figured into planning because of the number and complexity of public, financial, ecologic, social and governmental apparatuses that act metabolically, and, in addition, demand a transdisciplinary perspective on how cities work.
How do you think about a city cybernetically less as a data-driven project—a computer presupposes a closed loop—and more as a cultural and formal planning concept?
Conceiving the urban environment along the lines of a logistical model, means a city that is first conceived as a big, precisely designed, systemic organ. Only then can it suitably embrace improvisation, choice, anomalies, pluralism and smallness.
Bottom-up piggybacks on top-down
But thinking of the city as a neo-functionalist framework primed for participatory inputs does not mean giving up control or design. "Fox" personas might have trouble, as in this way of thinking, the designer moves closer to becoming a stylist of infrastructure—but that's a lot better than the middleman he or she is today [...]
Logistics comprises of absolute design; just think of the sequence of events required to get that FedEx package to you, the series of intricate, disciplined procedures that are all impeccably figured out and controlled. [...] Logistics [...] is fundamentally fashioned on totalizing visions, in the sense that every scale of its operation is equally considered—small details are awarded the same treatment as global strategies, and even these are constantly monitored and tracked. Every move and every second is accounted for. But it's also a kind of anonymous design. And this anonymity might just be it's greatest strength, for, unlike grand master plans in architecture, it allows big ideas to be implemented sans the claustrophobia of a single message [...].

Alejandro Aravena: The Forces in Architecture

Aravena, Alejandro. Alejandro Aravena: The Forces in Architecture. Tokyo: Toto, 2011.

Alejandro Aravena describes his philosophy towards the role of the architectect in an interview contained within The Forces of Architecture. Calling his practice, Elemental, a "Do Tank", Aravena stressed the importance of negotiating market and policy conditions to provide concrete solutions to poverty and inequality. He also understands the need to treat residences as the investments they are, and to create an architecture destined to increase in value by allowing occupants to literally modify it. 

This approach of design speaks to a new understanding of residence, where the residence is now an investment, a commodity, whose performance as a dwelling is coincidental. Traditionally, the poor have been overlooked by real estate's transition from residence into investment, and forced into smaller or less desirable dwellings. By creating public housing where occupants have direct control over its form and market value, Aravena has reimagined residental architecture for the poor in a commodified world. 

SQM: The Quantified Home

SQM. The Quantified Home.: An Exploration of the Evolving Identity of the Home, from Utopian Experiment to Factory of Data. Ennetbaden: Lars Müller Verlag, 2014.


Hill, Dan. The Commodification of Everything: On Restaurant Day and Airbnb

A new mentality is driving a new perception of space. An spare room is no longer more space, but an opportunity to make money. Airbnb transforms this unoccupied space from happenstance into a commodity advertised on a global market. 

On a similar level, through similar online means, Helsinki stages Ravintolapäivä—Finnish for "restaurant festival"—where Finns colonize underutilized urban spaces and serve street food. This grassroots festival circumvents stringent food hygiene regulations and urban zoning. This bottom-up temporary rezoning has proved incredibly popular with Helsinki residents, and shows a major gap in thinking between city leadership and the needs of citizens.

The requirements imposed upon capital-A Architecture seem lumbering and bureaucratic in the face of the shifting whims of urbanites.


Lange, Alexandra. Edited Living: On the Pinterest Home

Edited Living describes how Pinterest acts as a surrogate for the common (i.e. non-architect) interpretation of spaces. Pinterest is both and aspirational outlet for a specific quality of life. Unlike the aspirationally holistic viewpoint of architecture, Pinterest "architecture" condenses spatial experiences in to arrangements of products, details, and spatial tropes like subway tiles, sheepskin throws and clawfoot bathtubs. Greater images of buildings tend to fade into obscurity, with each white modernist roofline blending into the next.  The Pinterestification of architecture reduces individual architectural components into discrete commodities to be forgotten in an endless list of shifting trends.

Building A Circular Future

Jensen, Kasper Guldager, and John Sommer. Building a Circular Future. Kobenhavn: GXN Innovation, 2016.

This book provides fantastic insight from a Danish team dedicated to reducing waste from construction. This book creates a template for architects to design buildings from the beginning with as little waste as possible. The authors embrace the quantized nature of the world we live in and the planned obsolescence of building materials to create a rigorous vision for the future that embraces the ephemeral nature of current construction. What this book lacks is a philosophical vision for the ephemerality of space beyond the fact that it is sustainable; what does it mean when all space is acknowledged as temporary?

Green Dream: How Future Cities Can Outsmart Nature

Maas, Winy, Ulf Hackauf, and Pirjo Haikola. Green Dream: How Future Cities Can Outsmart Nature. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2010.

Green Dream describes the issues facing green and sustainable design in both broad strokes and minute detail. Rather than beat around the bush and repeat platitudes, the authors deconstruct tropes of green design. By cutting through the bullshit of greenwashing and criticizing the over-reliance on performance and symbolism, this book manages to capture the essence of what architects today need to focus on.