Saturday, August 30, 2014

Precise Ambiguity

It’s time for another excerpt from the late Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook SYNTHESIS. In the selection below he acknowledges the richness, complexity, and indeterminateness of truly responsive architecture by defining the timeless virtues of "precisely ambiguous" spaces and places.

Like some of the previous passages I’ve extracted, this excerpt hints at Bill’s restless mind. He had a tendency to cram too much information into a single sentence. His liberal and sometimes grammatically improper deployment of parenthetical remarks, ellipses, quotation marks, and upper case text for the sake of emphasis betrayed a keen interior monologue. Some of his run-on sentences were epic.

I like to think he simply felt he had too much to share with us. I sense his enthusiasm, conviction, and passion whenever I read my various editions of SYNTHESIS (I have three). There was a stream-of-consciousness urgency to Bill’s writing. No one else I know or have known writes or wrote like he did. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Any building, or “physical accommodation” (a description which we tend to prefer today because it makes us sound less “object oriented”), will have a shape, be complete, and determine its own extremities. This is so because, in the first place, it must be constructed . . . a process which begins at a point in time, lasts for a period of time, ends at another point in time and results in something relatively solid and permanent (we are not yet able to make the construction process self-correcting, self-adapting, and therefore continuous).

But, since we have already admitted that we don’t like to be classified as “object-oriented,” we try our best to modify these obvious and inevitable characteristics of what we make. This has been expressed in comparisons of the old architecture (with its emphasis on form, shape, objects, arrangement, and composition) and the emerging architecture which does not even want to be called architecture but rather “environmental design” (with its concern for sets, systems, process, frames, and human responsiveness).

Why is this so?

We are in an age of fantastically complex problems. We learn more and more about these problems (whether we like it or not) through the new communication media which also, because of the new speed of message transmission, suggest the interdependence of the problems; how one affects or changes (or eliminates or intensifies) others, and how it seems impossible to deal with one without dealing with all. People have never been so aware of this as they are now. This has given rise to the new sciences of “systems analysis,” “action-feedback recycling,” “sociological accounting,” “simulation testing,” and “human responsiveness and behaviorism.”

Out of this context and response has come a compelling sense of urgency and necessity; a kind of mutually interacting system in itself, which causes the desire to make places that will permit and cause all people individually to realize their potentiality as human beings (insofar as physical environment can contribute to this) . . . and this as a matter of course . . . as a normal part of daily life. Many designers now have some understanding of how to deal with complex, interacting, changing systems. They also have some understanding of non-physical or intangible human needs . . . and their complexity, their variety, and their vulnerability to shifting values. There is an increasing concern for particular situations, for real actions of people, for particular people, individual people and their experiences (or lack of them), and for the differences among people, for varieties of experience, and for change over time.

All this has led some environmental designers to conclude that the shape of what they make is not so important; except insofar as it contributes to the experiential enclosure for people to use, think about, modify, and otherwise make part of life. Attention is focused on the range of activities to be accommodated, the nature of the people who will be engaged in those activities and, most important of all, their capacity for expanded experience and expanding the experience until it is a new and different scene, or scene within a scene (another system), and then perhaps back again to what it was before. It is clear that environment for this kind of activity should evoke, but not dictate; help, but not limit; be powerful, but not over-powering; be exact, but not too particular; particular but not closed; in short, it should be precisely ambiguous . . . an intensifier of the experience of life, ourselves, and others, a developer of our capacities to respond, feel and, as Louis Kahn says, wonder.

This brings us to the realization that what this emerging architecture is trying to be is a genuine art form for our time (and therefore nothing really new after all).

WK / 1968

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