It’s easy to be critical when you’re opposed to something. What’s more interesting is to try and understand the qualities that underpin a vision. All the more so when that vision and the accompanying experiment are revealed as openly and honestly and daringly as Lars Spuybroek reveals in his inspiring book Machining Architecture.
Clearly, the word 'blob' is far too simple and vague a notion with which to classify the work of NOX. Of all the blob-makers, Greg Lynn, UN Studio, Kas Oosterhuis, Maurice Nio and the many others, Spuybroek to me is the only one who genuinely experiments with the way in which structure and material can orchestrate experience freely and by way of association. How space is created using various routes, sound, the body, the eye, and perception. The blob-makers largely confine themselves to the beauty of the autonomous object. That is definitely not the aim as far as NOX is concerned. After all, the unpredictable result that Finding-Form generates often looks terrible. And a good thing that is, because otherwise the form would already have supplied the answer to the question whether it was beautiful or ugly. Architect Lars Spuybroek isn't interested in regulating functions and comfort. Instead, the technology he deploys as a destabilising force should steer our desire for chance occurrences and a diversity of possibilities and events.
But then the starting point. The various criticisms of Deleuze note that the feast of endless differences no longer guarantees liberation. Present-day capitalism has bid farewell to totalising regulation. Digital capitalism has even turned Deleuzian. The carnivalesque character of everyday life now guarantees high profits through the permanent revolution of its own order. The 'radical chic' of NOX is an expression of this. Instead of distinguishing between what is important and what not, we are burdened with a multitude of lifestyles that co-exist in sweet harmony. In embracing pluralism and the endless relations that an intelligent system can generate, more and more designers (NOX among them) are fearful of placing a particular antagonism or alternative above another for fear of choosing a faulty cause as already happened with modernism, communism and Maoism. The danger, however, is that the search for difference or the stimulation of the unpredictable is elevated to an absolute law, and the possibility of difference is fetishised. There is a big danger that the machines built by NOX engineer nothing but an advanced form of entertainment, precisely because in no way do they express support for or opposition to anything, except a desire to be self-organising and interactive. In the future it will, I think, no longer be a matter of machines that just generate difference. The collage has had its day. It will have to be about new forms of representation and action that make visible and productive differences that matter. That's why I'm looking forward to the next NOX experiments, which I hope celebrate more than just the Deleuzian paradigm.
This book is not a monograph as such, but a glimpse behind the scenes. It's a manifesto, a thesis, and a cookbook full of recipes for how to make interactive, complex architecture. Internationally renowned writers such as Andrew Benjamin, Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi, Detlef Mertins, and Arjen Mulder discuss the work of Spuybroek's office NOX from the perspectives of architecture, philosophy, history, (media) theory and biology.
The inspirational 'godfather' to all these authors is philosopher Gilles Deleuze. A child of the 1960s, Deleuze loathes every form of totalitarianism. Under no circumstances whatsoever may the human mind and body be terrorised by any formal system. Deleuze advocates open systems in a perpetual state of motion. He seeks experiments that proceed of their own accord, unimpeded by predefined standards. Every form of clichéd indoctrination, control, or silencing must be avoided. Moreover, the dialectic logic of progression-through-opposition, which is familiar to us from the Modern Movement and which eliminated history with the notion of tabula rasa, doesn't please Deleuze. Linear processes that hold out the prospect of a definitive and pure truth must be destroyed. After all, they result in totalitarianism. As an alternative, Deleuze and his colleague Felix Guattari put forward the idea of the rhizome as an alternative to the dialectic of negation. The rhizome – comparable to the (non-hierarchical) rhizome of the fern plant – has no beginning or end. Instead, it has a logic that begins and moves from the centre and through the centre, backwards and forwards, a logic that concentrates on the in-between and the line (curve) rather than the point. Central to Deleuze and Guattari's idea of the rhizome is their optimistic reading of mankind as a positive, pleasure-seeking 'machine' capable of establishing the most positive connections possible in every unique situation. Theirs is a call for active participation, a constant process of becoming without any form of discipline. In the words of the Slovanian cultural critic Slavoj Zizek: ' the aim of Deleuze is to liberate the immanent force of Becoming from its self-enslavement to the order of Being.' Man must be the producer of unpredictable creations, full of differences, intensities and permanent interaction. At the same time, he must embrace the reality of the virtual nature of our existence. The impressive thing about the NOX book is that it shows how this and other abstract concepts are translated into the practice of architecture. The book makes clear how the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari can be further considered in terms of structure, material and spatial activity. In that sense, this book is recommended reading for philosophers in danger of losing sight of everyday reality. Beyond that, the book forms an excellent introduction for architects to the ideas of Deleuze.
In the opening article Spuybroek explains that he is not concerned with architecture as an autonomous or static system but with perception, and with how the object can reconfigure itself through actions that take place within the structure. While 'traditional' architecture deals with formations that reflect assumed ideas like static mirrors, NOX tries to escape from every totalising representation by concentrating on the self-organising optical and haptic activities that can occur in a building. Spuybroek avails of inventive concepts such as Deep surface, Wetgrid, Beachness, SoftCity, Softsite to elaborate his designs. The Wetgrid concept is a good illustration of what Spuybroek advocates. For a presentation of 250 paintings, installations and drawings in Nantes, France, he devised a 'vision-machine'. Presentation, not representation, is what it's about. The vision-machine turns a dry, orthogonal grid into a Wetgrid. A geometric line that goes from A to B, says Spuybroek, doesn't have enough structure to compose a higher complexity. If you move point A or B, the line doesn't change very much. What the Wetgrid facilitates is the development of a system of paths that can be read as a curve with a multiplicity of variable openings. Spuybroek: 'on which one can partly return to one's footsteps, change one's mind, hesitate or forget. It is not labyrinthine, causing you to lose your way completely: no: it complicates your way, makes it multiple and negotiable.' What the Wetgrid creates in the exhibition are new and unexpected connections that the visitor can make between paintings that appear above, beside or below during a Situationist stroll through the perception machine. NOX is not concerned with 'Form-finding' but with 'Finding-Form', or as Spuybroek puts it: 'The arabesque order of the end result is in fact as rigid as the first gridded stage, but more intelligent because it optimizes individual necessities in a collective economy.'