The Moment of Complexity

"Mark Taylor climbs high and points a strong telescope (or is it a kaleidoscope?) at our turbulent world. The Moment of Complexity is heady, provocative, and altogether brilliant."—James Gleick, author of Chaos and Faster

"It is impossible to overstate the extraordinary importance of The Moment of Complexity. Many books have been written on the theme of complexity, in different realms of nature and human society. But only someone with Mark Taylor's breathtakingly broad interests and analytical acumen could produce a work that brings all the realms together, and in the process forge laser-like insight into what the new science really means for our future. This is a monumental achievement with lasting value."—Roger Lewin, author of Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos

"Taylor's book gives us a wonderful perspective on the new styles of questioning and answering that we will need to understand and survive the complexities of modern life and technology."—Stephen Jay Gould

A note about the illustrations:

Twelve illustrations for Chapter One in the printed book could not be reproduced here because of copyright restrictions. Instead you will find hyperlinks to similar illustrative material found on the WWW. Each hyperlink will open in a new window.

 

An excerpt from
The Moment of Complexity
Emerging Network Culture
by Mark C. Taylor

Chapter 1
From Grid to Network

SEPTIMUS: Geometry, Hobbes assures in the Leviathan, is
the only science God has been pleased to bestow on mankind.
LADY CROOM: And what does he mean by it?
SEPTIMUS: Mr. Hobbes or God?
LADY CROOM: I am sure I do not know what either means by it.
THOMASINA: Oh, pooh to Mr. Hobbes! Mountains are not
pyramids and trees are not cones. God must love gunnery and
architecture if Euclid is his only geometry. There is another
geometry which I am engaged in discovering by trial and error,
am I not, Septimus?
—Tom Stoppard

Collapsing Walls

At pivotal moments throughout history, technological innovation triggers massive social and cultural transformation. Apparently unrelated developments, which had been gradually unfolding for years, suddenly converge to create changes that are as disruptive as they are creative. We are currently living in a moment of extraordinary complexity when systems and structures that have long organized life are changing at an unprecedented rate. Such rapid and pervasive change creates the need to develop new ways of understanding the world and of interpreting our experience.

While moments of radical transformation can never be defined with precision, the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, signaled a decisive shift from an industrial to an information society. With the ostensible triumph of multinational, informational, or digital capitalism, walls, which once seemed secure, become permeable screens that allow diverse flows to become global. What is emerging from the flux of these flows is a new network culture. To understand the distinctive logic and dynamics of network culture, it is necessary to consider how it grows out of and breaks with previous historical moments.

Though 1989 marks a decisive juncture in the formation of network culture, this moment of transition had actually been emerging for nearly half a century. During the postwar years, modern industrial organizations, which had been so functional and productive during the first half of the century, began to change in ways that were not immediately obvious. These changes were, in large measure, brought on by new information and communications technologies. By the late 1960s, the proliferation of multiple media networks had created a world some were beginning to label "postmodern." Developments set in motion in the 1960s reached a turning point in the 1990s. As electronic information and telematic technologies became more sophisticated, their social, political, economic, and cultural impact became more significant.

In order to understand the scope and importance of these changes, I would like to begin somewhat indirectly by considering the work of three architects: Mies van der Rohe, Robert Venturi, and Frank Gehry. Architecture might seem to be an unlikely angle of entry for understanding the complex dynamics of network culture, but, as we will discover, architectural practices both reflect and shape broader social and cultural currents. After all, societies and cultures, as well as computers and software, have architectures as distinctive as any building. By examining the architecture of Mies, Venturi, and Gehry, it becomes possible to trace the movement from industrial society, through media culture, to network culture. This trajectory suggests that the moment of complexity can be understood in terms of the shift from a world structured by grids to a world organized like networks. Since the contrasting figures of the grid and the network return repeatedly in the following pages, we must try to determine what they are and how they differ.

What, then, is a grid, and what is a network? This question, which generates many more questions, is deceptively simple. We might begin to appreciate its complexity by conducting what Kierkegaard once described as a "thought experiment."

Imagine a grid.

What is its structure?
What is its function?
Are all grids the same or are they different?
           If they are the same, why?
           If they are different, how?
Do grids change or remain the same over time?
What is the relation of parts to whole and whole to parts in grids?
When did grids first emerge?
Where did grids first emerge?
Who invented the grid?
Where can grids be observed today?
What is a grid today?
What is not a grid today?
What is the function of grids today?
What is the architecture of grids today?
Are grids simple or complex?

Imagine a network.

What is its structure?
What is its function?
Are all networks the same or are they different?
           If they are the same, why?
           If they are different, how?
Do networks change or remain the same over time?
What is the relation of parts to whole and whole to parts in networks?
When did networks first emerge?
Where did networks first emerge?
Who invented the network?
Where can networks be observed today?
What is a network today?
What is not a network today?
What is the function of networks today?
What is the architecture of networks today?
Are networks simple or complex?
What is the relationship between grids and networks?

Picture two buildings: Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in New York City (1954-58) and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1998) (figs. 1 and 2).

What is their structure?
What is their function?
What is the relation of form to function?
How are these buildings similar?
How are they different?
What is the relation between interior and exterior?
What is the relation between structure and surface?
What is the relation between building and environment?
What do these buildings teach us about architecture?
What do they disclose about the architecture of the society and culture in which they emerged?
Is either building a grid?
Is either building a network?
Is either building both a grid and a network?

During the 1970s and 1980s, rapid technological change combined with the privatization and deregulation of major industries to create the conditions for the emergence of a new political and economic order. The New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman argues that in the 1990s a new international system emerged, which has replaced the Cold War system that had governed the world for half a century. Globalization, he explains,

has its own defining technologies: computerization, miniaturization, digitization, satellite communications, fiber optics, and the Internet. And these technologies helped to create the defining perspective of globalization. If the defining perspective of the Cold War was "division," the defining perspective of globalization is "integration." The symbol of the Cold War system was the wall, which divided everyone. The symbol of globalization is the World Wide Web, which unites everyone. The defining document of the Cold War was "The Treaty." The defining document of the globalization system is "The Deal."
These processes of globalization are now creating a new network culture whose complex logic and dynamics we are only beginning to understand.

The contrast between grids and networks clarifies the transition from the Cold War system to network culture. The Cold War system was designed to maintain stability by simplifying complex relations and situations in terms of a grid with clear and precise oppositions: East/West, left/right, communism/capitalism, etc. This is a world in which walls seem to provide security. Walls and grids, however, offer no protection from spreading webs; as webs grow, walls collapse and everything begins to change. A new economy displaces the old and a "new world order" appears on the horizon. In this situation, the structural oppositions, which had long informed thinking and guided policy, unravel and the political balance of power disappears. Whereas walls divide and seclude in an effort to impose order and control, webs link and relate, entangling everyone in multiple, mutating, and mutually defining connections in which nobody is really in control. As connections proliferate, change accelerates, bringing everything to the edge of chaos. This is the moment of complexity.

The Edge of Chaos

Complexity is both a marginal and an emergent phenomenon. Never fixed or secure, the mobile site of complexity is always momentary and the marginal moment of emergence is inevitably complex. Far from a nunc stans, the emergent moment, which repeatedly constitutes and reconstitutes the flux of time, harbors a momentum that keeps everything in motion. It is significant that the word "moment" derives from the Latin momentum, which means movement as well as momentum. Though often represented as a simple point, the moment is inherently complex. Its boundaries cannot be firmly established, for they are always shifting in ways that make the moment fluid. This is the intermediate domain that complexity theory attempts to understand.

As I have noted, though the dynamics of chaos and complexity share certain characteristics, they also differ in important ways. Chaos theory was actually developed as a corrective to the closed and linear systems of Newtonian physics. Rather than the absence of order, chaos is a condition in which order cannot be ascertained because of the insufficiency of information. While Newtonian physics imagines an abstract world governed by definable laws that are completely determinative, in the "real world" things are never transparent because adequate information necessary to establish laws and understand their operation is always unattainable. Though there are many reasons for this situation, two are noteworthy in this context. First, finite systems are not closed but are open and thus incomplete; and, second, some systems involve recursive relations, and cannot be understood in terms of linear models of causality. In many open, recursive systems, it is impossible to measure initial conditions with enough precision to determine causal relations accurately beyond a very limited period of time. Unpredictability, therefore, is unavoidable. Unlike linear systems, in which causes and effects are proportional, in recursive systems, complex feedback and feed-forward loops generate causes that can have disproportionate effects.

In contrast to chaos theory, complexity theory is less concerned with establishing the inescapability of "determinate chaos" than with what John Casti aptly labels "the science of surprise." Falling between order and chaos, the moment of complexity is the point at which self-organizing systems emerge to create new patterns of coherence and structures of relation. Having grown out of investigations in the biological sciences, the insights of complexity theory can be used to illuminate social and cultural dynamics. In his wide-ranging study, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, who is one of the leading figures in complexity studies, writes:

For what can the teeming molecules that hustled themselves into self-reproducing metabolisms, the cells coordinating their behaviors to form multicelled organisms, the ecosystems and even economic and political systems have in common? The wonderful possibility . . . is that on many fronts, life evolves toward a regime that is poised between order and chaos. The evocative phrase that points to this working hypothesis is this: life exists at the edge of chaos. Borrowing a metaphor from physics, life may exist near a kind of phase transition. Water exists in three phases: solid ice, liquid water, and gaseous steam. It now begins to appear that similar ideas might apply to complex adapting systems. For example, we will see that the genomic networks that control development from zygote to adult can exist in three major regimes: a frozen ordered regime, a gaseous chaotic regime, and a kind of liquid regime located in the region between order and chaos. It is a lovely hypothesis, with considerable supporting data, that genomic systems lie in the ordered regime near the phase transition to chaos. Were such systems too deeply into the frozen ordered regime, they would be too rigid to coordinate the complex sequences of genetic activities necessary for development. Were they too far into the gaseous chaotic regime, they would not be orderly enough. Networks in the regime near the edge of chaos—the compromise between order and surprise—appear best able to coordinate complex activities and best able to evolve as well.
While the networks with which Kauffman is primarily concerned are biological, his analysis can be extended to social and cultural dimensions of experience. Poised between too much and too little order, the moment of complexity is the medium in which network culture is emerging. With these insights in mind, let us return to grids and networks.

Grid Work

The grid is the figure of modernism. In the foreword to his 1924 manifesto, The City of To-Morrow and Its Planning, Le Corbusier suggests why grids and their geometry are so important for modern art and architecture as well as modern life:

Geometry is the means, created by ourselves, whereby we perceive the external world and express the world within us.
Geometry is the foundation.
It is also the material basis on which we build those symbols which represent to us perfection and the divine.
It brings with it the noble joys of mathematics.
Machinery is the result of geometry. The age in which we live is therefore essentially a geometrical one; all its ideas are so orientated in the direction of geometry. Modern art and thought—after a century of analysis—are now seeking beyond what is merely accidental; geometry leads them to mathematical forms, a more and more generalized attitude.
Consisting of ideal forms and perfectly precise lines, the foundational geometry Le Corbusier worships at this point in his career is Euclidean. Far from a mere aesthetic artifice, straight lines and right angles, he believes, characterize human existence. Indeed, people are distinguished from animals by their ability to follow a straight-and-narrow line:

Man walks in a straight line because he has a goal and knows where he is going; he has made up his mind to reach some particular place and he goes straight to it.
The pack-donkey meanders along, meditates a little in his scatter-brained and distracted fashion, he zigzags in order to avoid the larger stones, or to ease the climb, or to gain a little shade; he takes the line of least resistance.
But man governs his feelings by his reason; he keeps his feelings and his instincts in check, subordinating them to the aim he has in view. He rules the brute creation by intelligence. His intelligence formulates laws which are the product of experience. His experience is born of work; man works in order that he may not perish. In order that production may be possible, a line of conduct is essential, the laws of experience must be obeyed. Man must consider the result in advance.
"The Pack-Donkey's Way," Le Corbusier proceeds to argue, "is responsible for the plan of every continental city," which must be destroyed to make way for "the city of the future." In contrast to the accidental growth and arbitrary structure of cities in the past, the modern city "lives by the straight line, inevitably; for the construction of buildings, sewers, and tunnels demands the straight line; it is the proper thing for the heart of a city. The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous; it is a paralyzing thing." His drawings of the contemporary city underscore Le Corbusier's idealization of the grid (fig. 3).

Le Corbusier's argument as well as his architecture is structured by a series of binary opposites, which he does not always explicitly articulate:

The Pack-Donkey's Way Man's Way
Premodern Modern
Aimless Directed
Heedless Disciplined
Distracted Concentrated
Messy Exact
Accidental Essential
Paralysis Circulation
Disorder Order
Matter Idea
Body Mind
Feeling Reason
Curve Straight line
Errant Proper

These opposites obviously are not of equal value; in each case, Le Corbusier privileges the latter over the former term. Primitives and infants might be excused for being aimless, heedless, distracted, and messy, but if moderns display these traits, they violate the very essence of "human nature." So understood, Le Corbusier's binaries are axiological as well as temporal and historical. In the course of moving from premodernity to modernity as well as from infancy to maturity, human beings progress from desire to discipline. Straight lines and the grids they form both represent and impose the strict discipline through which the rule of reason is secured. As feelings and emotions are controlled, order is wrought from disorder. What Le Corbusier describes as the "march towards order" imposes disciplinary practices necessary for the efficient functioning of industrial society.

Philosophy, art, and life intersect in the architecture of the grid. Not only buildings but the city as a whole becomes "a machine to live in." Grids graph Cartesian space, which is supposed to be completely rational, maximally efficient, and perfectly transparent. Anticipating Joseph Schumpeter's principle of "creative destruction," Le Corbusier argues that the space of modernity is created by destroying everything that is both natural and premodern:

WE MUST BUILD ON A CLEAR SITE. The city of today is dying because it is not constructed geometrically. To build on a clear site is to replace the "accidental" layout of the ground, the only one that exists today, by the formal layout. Otherwise nothing can save us. And the consequence of geometrical plans is Repetition and Mass-production.
Inasmuch as the structure of this "formal layout" is the grid, the logic of the grid appears to be isomorphic with the serial logic of mass production.

The broader implications of Le Corbusier's argument for modern industrial society can be understood when his argument is extended from architecture to the assembly line. In 1913, Henry Ford created an automated assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan, which made it possible for the first time to produce homogeneous products by rationalizing, standardizing, and regulating management, the production process, and labor. Two years before cars started rolling off Ford's assembly line, Frederick Winslow Taylor published his influential Principles of Scientific Management. In a way unforgettably satirized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, machine, workers, and managers are coordinated to operate at maximum efficiency. Taylor summarizes his conclusions:

To repeat then throughout all of these illustrations, it will be seen that the useful results have hinged mainly upon (1) the substitution of a science for the individual judgment of the workman; (2) the scientific selection and development of the workman, after each man has been studied, taught, and trained, and one may say experimented with, instead of allowing the workmen to select themselves and develop in a haphazard way; and (3) the intimate cooperation of the management with the workmen, so that they together do the work in accordance with the scientific laws which have been developed, instead of leaving the solution of each problem in the hands of the individual workman. In applying these new principles, in place of the old individual effort of each workman, both sides share almost equally in the daily performance of each task, the management doing that part of the work for which they are best fitted, and the workmen the balance.
As described by Taylor, the labor process can be divided into discrete movements, which can be regulated precisely. So understood, the logic of the assembly line is obviously mechanical, serial, and linear. Separate individuals, entities, and events are joined in a predictable chain where effects are proportional to causes. The repetition of the process, as Le Corbusier stresses, results in the uniformity of the product. The revolutionary innovation of this mechanical logic is, in part, made possible by the identification of rationalization with simplification. Extending the principles of analytic reason to management and labor, the assembly line breaks down complicated processes into simple elements, which are then ordered through a series of discrete yet related activities. In addition to establishing a division of labor, the assembly line separates managers from workers: while managers plan and direct, workers implement and execute. The management/labor relation mirrors the mind/body distinction. As we have seen, these binaries tend to be hierarchical; in this case, management controls labor as the mind rules the body.

It is important to stress that the principles of scientific management structure time as well as space. In ways Newton and deistic theologians never could have anticipated, the modern mechanistic world is a clockwork universe. The operation of the assembly line depends on the repeated execution of tasks carried out with precise timing. In 1914, Ford initiated an eight-hour day, for which workers were paid five dollars. Ford and his engineers realized that efficient production required the imposition of mechanical regularity on natural rhythms. The workers' day, like the assembly line, was divided into equal but separate parts. Within the all-encompassing logic of industrialism, work, leisure, and rest are designed to promote efficiency and thus increase profitable production. Workers not only have to produce but also must consume more and more products. Indeed, one of the first products of mass production must be mass consumption. For industrial society to thrive, a sufficient number of people must have the time, money, and desire to consume what they do not necessarily need. The intricate relation between production and consumption underscores one of the inescapable contradictions of capitalism. Profitable production demands, on the one hand, the rational control of emotions and desires and, on the other, the cultivation of the desire to consume, which often is unreasonable.

One way to mediate this tension is to regulate time by reconfiguring space. Mechanical engineering, in other words, cannot work without an equally calculated social engineering. Toward this end, social engineers develop strategies to separate work and home in a way that secures different domains for different activities. From Ford's early efforts to organize the lives of his workers and Pullman's town planning, to postwar American advertising and suburbanization, industrialists have realized that for capitalism to thrive, it must become a "total way of life." This totality is implicitly structured by a series of binary opposites, which, we have discovered, are never equivalent:

FactoryHome
WorkLeisure
ReasonDesire
ManWoman
HusbandWife

Since home, leisure, desire, and women are ordered to serve factory, work, reason, and men, industrial rhythms pervade all of life. Within this total way of life, nothing seems to escape the logic of mass production.

As we have come to suspect, the figure of this all-encompassing logic is the grid. The assembly line extended beyond the factory floor to create supposedly rational urban and suburban grids where workers spend what they earn and relax and rest so they can work efficiently another day. Within this economy, spending and play cannot become excessive but must be carefully monitored and regulated. The straight lines and right angles of streets and avenues as well as modern houses and buildings channel desires in ways that allow controlled moments of release necessary to keep the wheels of industry turning. This is not to imply that modern architecture and urban design originate with the assembly line. From the beginning of modernity, the grid functions as an instrument for rationalizing and thus controlling nature. Long before Ford and Taylor, Enlightenment thinkers saw in the grid a figure of universal reason and human equality, which, when effectively deployed, could level social hierarchies. In France, for example, commitment to the principles of Cartesian rationalism was expressed in the establishment of an all-inclusive grid of administrative departments throughout the country. The goal of this organization was to create governmental efficiency and political democracy. Importing the principles of the European Enlightenment, Jefferson imposed the grid on America, to create rational systems of regulation and control, which, he believed, would allow representative democracy and political equality to flourish.

There is, of course, a darker side to this idealized vision. The very structures that make possible democratic representation and egalitarian administration also create technologies of surveillance, control, and even repression. The invasive eye of reason can turn back on credulous citizens to destroy the freedom it is supposed to promote. This prospect becomes even more troubling with the recognition of the Eurocentric view of reason during the Enlightenment. All too often rationalization and colonization seem to be inseparable. When the ideal of universality is put into practice uncritically, it can quickly lead to a uniformity that excludes or represses everything and everyone deemed different.

By the beginning of this century, important transformations of basic Enlightenment principles were taking place. First and most important, with the spread of industrial capitalism, the notion of rationality changed from a universal capacity of the human mind to a strategy of calculation devised to maximize economic profit. Reasonable activity came to be associated with economic benefit. This redefinition of reason led to a second crucial revision of the Enlightenment worldview. The spread of reason does not necessarily lead to universal equality but tends to establish and reinforce social hierarchies and economic inequalities. These social and economic differences are exacerbated if the ideal of universality degenerates into the crude uniformity of standardized consumer products, which are mechanically produced and sold for substantial profits. Disequilibrium keeps this system running: social and economic inequalities generate desires, which strengthen the very consumer economy that enriches a few at the expense of many. Third and finally, by the early twentieth century, it became abundantly clear to people other than philosophers, writers, and artists that the problem of representation is an aesthetic as well as a political and economic issue. Inasmuch as art, politics, and economics mutually condition each other, the modernist dictum "Make it new!" intersects with the industrial requirement of "planned obsolescence," to extend the principle of "creative destruction." While appearing to escape the utilitarianism of industrialism, the founding principle of the avant-garde actually reinforces the system it is designed to criticize. A consideration of the interplay of the mechanical logic of industrialization and modernist aesthetic principles and artistic practices illuminates the complexity of these relations.

The modernist preoccupation with making it new represents a concerted effort to break with the past by living fully in the present. This present, Rosalind Krauss points out, is associated with the grid: "By discovering the grid, cubism, de Stijl, Mondrian, Malevich . . . land in a place that was out of reach of everything that had gone before. Which is to say, they landed in the present and everything else was declared to be past." The modernist present figured by the grid is not merely temporal but involves a specific mode of experience embodied in the work of art. In keeping with a tradition dating back to Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), modernist art is regarded as autonomous or self-referential. Fine or high art serves no practical purpose but is created and enjoyed for its own sake. Referring to nothing beyond itself, the modernist work of art provides the occasion for the experience of simple presence in the immediacy of the present moment. "The grid," Krauss concludes, "declares the space of art to be at once autonomous and autotelic."

Few architects have been more devoted to the logic of the grid than Mies van der Rohe. By leveling several blocks in Chicago to construct the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), he gave concrete expression to the principle of creative destruction. Both the site as a whole and the individual buildings conform to the austere structure of the grid (fig. 4). While IIT is the most comprehensive project Mies ever realized, the significance of his use of the grid can be better understood by considering his influential Seagram Building in New York City. Set back and elevated above surrounding Manhattan streets, Mies's structure rises as a monument to the elegance of simplicity. Unadorned by useless ornament, the building seems to turn in on itself to suggest "a world apart"; indeed, this pristine form appears poised to lift off and leave the weight of the world behind. This moment of apparent separation freezes the flux of the world and human experience until eternity appears to enter time to arrest its corrosive flow. Insofar as Mies's architecture captures this moment, its attraction is spiritual or even religious as well as aesthetic.

But separation is always incomplete, for we remain entangled with that from which we struggle to escape. Mies maintains that architecture does not express timeless values but always remains bound to its time. In a "personal statement" drafted in 1964, he confessed:

It was my growing conviction that there could be no architecture of our time without the prior acceptance of these new scientific and technical developments. I never lost that conviction. Today, as for a long time past, I believe that architecture has little or nothing to do with the invention of interesting forms or with personal inclinations.
True architecture is always objective and is the expression of the inner structure of our time, from which it stems.
If understood in terms of the inner structure of Mies's time, the grid work of the Seagram Building appears to embody the analytic simplicity and rational organization of modern industrial society. For Mies, however, the task of creating order out of chaos is never complete. Always dissatisfied with the present, he clung to utopian aspirations. Mies remained committed to the tradition of the modern avant-garde and thus continued to believe that architecture must be socially effective as well as aesthetically satisfying. The challenge for the architect is to transform the world into a work of art. Though a recurrent theme in European avant-garde art and architecture, this task was nowhere taken up with more vigor and consistency than at the Bauhaus. By bringing together artists, architects, and designers with the engineers of mass production and financiers of modern industrialism, the Bauhaus became a research and development studio for twentieth-century industrial society. In the Illinois Institute of Technology, Mies deliberately recreated the Bauhaus in the heartland of America. Following Le Corbusier, he never gave up his conviction that artistic and historical progress is measured by the "march towards order." Architecture, Mies repeatedly insists, is driven by the need to "create order out of the desperate confusion of our time."

Superficial Complexity

The confusions of postwar America were, of course, quite different from the confusions of war-torn Europe. Having suffered destruction that was not creative, Europe had to build the new from the ashes of the old. In America, by contrast, two world wars increased the country's industrial strength and economic power. When modern architecture was imported from Europe, it lost its utopian edge and quickly became the preferred style of corporate capitalism. In 1932, six years before Mies's arrival in the United States, this change was signaled by the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition on the "new architecture." Organized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, who eventually would become Mies's partner in the Seagram Building, the MOMA show introduced the American public to the revolution wrought by Europe's leading modern architects. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, which bore the significant title, The International Style: Architecture since 1922, Hitchcock and Johnson describe the new architecture in familiar terms: "absence of ornament," "functionalism," "principle of order," and, most important, "the formal simplification of complexity." "The finest buildings since 1800," they conclude, "were those least ornamented." There is, however, an important difference between Johnson's and Hitchcock's reading of modern architecture and the self-understanding of architects like Le Corbusier and Mies. In what seems to be a passing aside, the curators of the MOMA exhibition note: "The fact that there is so little detail increases the decorative effect of what there is. Its ordering is one of the chief means by which consistency is achieved in the parts of a design." Ornament, then, is not, as Adolf Loos insists, a crime but is a means by which the consistency of design is enhanced. Hitchcock and Johnson underscore this reassessment of the nature and function of ornament by labeling the modernist principle of universality an International Style. Instead of privileging function, this version of modernism uses formalism to achieve stylistic effect. The far-reaching implications of this development were not realized for over three decades.

In 1972, Robert Venturi and his colleagues Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour published the book credited with beginning postmodern architecture: Learning from Las Vegas. In the years following its appearance, the influence of this pivotal work extended far beyond the field of architecture. Venturi's attack on modern architecture and appropriation of popular culture quickly became associated with what Jean-François Lyotard describes as "the postmodern condition." Though rarely acknowledged, Venturi laid the groundwork for his criticism of modernism in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966. For Venturi, modernism's preoccupation with "the formal simplification of complexity" is ill-suited to a world that is becoming increasingly complex. Passing beyond the logic of grids, Venturi envisioned an architecture that anticipates the moment of complexity, which eventually defines network culture.

Venturi's best-known comment on Mies and the architecture he represents is his revision of the Miesian maxim "Less is more" to read "Less is a bore." Rejecting the rigidity of the grid, Venturi argues that "in Modern architecture we have operated too long under the restrictions of unbending rectangular forms supposed to have grown out of the technical requirements of the frame and the mass-produced curtain wall." The paradigm of this formalist tendency, according to Venturi, is Mies's Seagram Building. Mies and Johnson, he maintains, "reject all contradictions . . . in favor of an expression of a rectilinear frame." Indeed, "Mies allows nothing to get in the way of the consistency of his order, of the point, line, and plane of his always complete pavilions." For Venturi, the critical issue is not the technical requirements imposed by the materials and processes of mass production but Mies's preference for an aesthetic that represents values at odds with the complexities and contradictions of the contemporary world. Far from developing an architecture that is "the expression of the inner structure of our time," classically modern architecture actually represents devotion to puritanical moralism that is "dissatisfied with existing conditions"

Orthodox modern architects have tended to recognize complexity insufficiently or inconsistently. In their attempt to break with tradition, they idealize the primitive and elementary at the expense of the diverse and the sophisticated. As participants in a revolutionary movement, they acclaimed the newness of modern functions, ignoring their complications. In their role as reformers, they puritanically advocated the separation and exclusion of elements, rather than the inclusion of various requirements and their juxtapositions.
In contrast to the moralistic rejection of contemporary reality for the sake of abstract forms and ideals, Venturi proposes a "more tolerant approach" that accepts "the existing landscape."

The existing conditions Venturi seeks to accommodate differ in important ways from the conditions to which Mies and fellow modernists attempted to adapt. Venturi identifies some of the crucial differences between the modern and the postmodern condition by posing a series of polar opposites:

FormImage
Pure architectureMixed media
Instant cityProcess city
Nineteenth-century industrial visionTwentieth-century communication technology
The easy imageThe difficult image
The easy wholeThe difficult whole

The most prescient observation in this list is Venturi's recognition that the nineteenth-century industrial vision has given way to twentieth-century communication technology. In ways not fully evident at the time, this transition transformed the existing landscape. While Venturi usually is understood as urging architects to reflect contemporary culture by replacing pure forms and structures with images and signs drawn from popular media and culture, his point is considerably more subtle. Formalism, he argues, is actually ornamental: "Modern architects have substituted one set of symbols (Cubist-industrial-process) for another (Romantic-historical-eclecticism) but without being aware of it." What modernists declared to be the nonornamental foundation of the decorative façade is every bit as ornamental as ostensibly superficial decoration. With the recognition that style is all-encompassing, it becomes clear that there is no escape from the endless play of signs and images. Seemingly abstract forms and structures, in other words, are actually ornamental images reflecting aesthetic values. As we shall see in the next chapter, the implications of this insight extend far beyond the realm of architecture. Venturi is suggesting that in the world created by communications technology, there is nothing outside signs and images.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was impossible to anticipate the social, economic, and cultural transformations communications technologies eventually would bring about. While recognizing the importance of the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial society, Venturi's architectural revision remains bound to and by industrialism as it is embodied in the automobile. Unlike his predecessors, who were interested in the efficient functioning of rational machines, Venturi revels in the "messy" roadside culture automobiles spawn. The place where the changes in the postwar American landscape are most prominently displayed is, according to Venturi, the Strip in Las Vegas:

The emerging order of the Strip is a complex order. It is not the easy, rigid order of the urban renewal project or the fashionable "total design" of the megastructure. It is, on the contrary, a manifestation of an opposite direction in architectural theory. . . . The Strip includes; it includes at all levels, from the mixture of seemingly incongruous land uses to the mixture of seemingly incongruous media plus a system of neo-Organic or neo-Wrightian restaurant motifs in Walnut Formica. It is not an order dominated by the expert and made easy for the eye. The moving eye in the moving body must work to pick out and interpret a variety of changing, juxtaposed orders. . . . It is the unity that "maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but avoidance, gives . . . force."
The complexity of the Strip, then, emerges at the edge of chaos. This is not a world where chance is eliminated and control assured. To the contrary, aleatory associations and unexpected juxtapositions create "difficult" wholes that cannot be comprehended by the neat-and-clean distinctions of a logic of noncontradiction based on the exclusive principle of either-or. The Strip displays the synthetic or even dialectical logic of both-and. For Venturi, modern architecture's simplifications and rationalizations distort the ambiguities, paradoxes, and complexities of life in the latter half of the twentieth century:

The movement from a view of life as essentially simple and orderly to a view of life as complex and ironic is what every individual passes through in becoming mature. But certain epochs encourage this development; in them the paradoxical or dramatic outlook colors the whole intellectual scene. . . . Amid simplicity and order rationalism is born, but rationalism proves inadequate in any period of upheaval. Then equilibrium must be created out of opposites. Such inner peace as men gain must represent a tension among contradictions. . . . A feeling for paradox allows seemingly dissimilar things to exist side by side, their very incongruity suggesting a kind of truth.
Though posed in terms of the difference between the primitive and the modern or the infantile and the mature, Venturi uses the distinction between simplicity and complexity to differentiate high modernism from the postmodern architecture needed in today's world. Grids, which might have worked in industrial society, are obsolete in network culture.

Venturi's efforts to capture this shift in his architecture, however, are less successful than his theoretical arguments. He rejects modernism's aversion to ornamentation but does not explore alternative architectural forms and structures. When Venturi translates his theories into practice, the complexities he probes prove to be superficial. The application of juxtaposed signs and images does not fundamentally change architectural form. Consider, for example, his famous sketch of a "decorated shed" (fig. 5). As this drawing makes clear, the decorative façade leaves the gridlike structure of the building intact. What is not obvious from the sketch is that Venturi directly appropriates the ornamental surface from a roadside sign. In a chapter entitled "Symbol in Space before Form in Space: Las Vegas as a Communication System," he notes: "The sign for the Motel Monticello, silhouette of an enormous Chippendale highboy, is visible on the highway before the motel itself. This architecture of styles and signs is antispatial; it is an architecture of communication over space; communication dominates space as an element in the architecture and in the landscape." This comment suggests the inspiration for one of Venturi's most influential buildings—The Vanna Ventura House (1963-65), where the shape of the façade is a literal representation of the motel sign (fig. 6). The influence of the Chippendale highboy does not end with this project. When Philip Johnson forsakes modernist formalism for postmodern decoration, he appropriates Venturi's appropriation of the highway sign. Johnson's AT&T building (1979-84) is obviously a comment on the Seagram Building on which he had worked with Mies twenty-five years earlier (fig. 7). By replacing the flat roof with a highboy design, Johnson adds the excessive supplement Mies had insisted on erasing. Inasmuch as Venturi maintains that the emerging landscape is being created by twentieth-century communication technology, it is significant that Johnson's signature building was done for the AT&T Corporation. Yet for Johnson, as for Venturi, surface differences do not signal profound changes; the formal structure of the AT&T building is virtually the same as the Seagram Building. The failure of classical postmodern architects to develop alternative forms and structures reflects a society that is no longer industrial but not yet postindustrial. By creating an architecture around the automobile, Venturi, Johnson, and others remain stuck along the industrial highway and do not venture into the world created by the information superhighway. Their complexities are not complex enough. In network culture, not only surfaces but structures that once seemed simple become irreducibly complex.

Net Work

What postmodern architects anticipate, Frank Gehry realizes. Consider the differences between Johnson's AT&T building and Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (figs. 8-11). In place of a decorated shed or an ornate rectilinear high-rise structure, Gehry develops a complex horizontal network of dispersed yet interrelated forms. Ever suspicious of simplicity, Gehry revels in a riot of forms that appear to morph even while standing still. From his earliest work, he has never found beauty in pristine forms and rigid structures. To the contrary, Gehry has always been drawn to raw materials and rough edges. The works he creates—be they buildings, cardboard chairs, or fish lamps—are neither autonomous nor complete but are deliberately unfinished or even broken. When Euclidean geometries are fractured, surfaces left unfinished, and forms rendered incomplete, structures are opened in ways that allow complexity to emerge in surprising ways. Having found the mechanistic logic of modernism inadequate, Gehry seeks an alternative logic that approximates the logic of networking. This is not to imply that Gehry simply negates modernism and the world it represents; to do so would be a thoroughly modernist gesture. It is as if the complicated lines of Gehry's buildings echo the lines Tom Stoppard puts in Thomasina's precocious mouth: "Mountains are not pyramids and trees are not cones. God must love gunnery and architecture if Euclid is his only geometry. There is another geometry which I am engaged in discovering by trial and error." Thomasina, whose nickname, Thom, is the same as the inventor of catastrophe theory, deliberately echoes the creator of fractal geometry. In the opening lines of The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Benoit Mandelbrot observes:

Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth nor does light travel in a straight line.
More generally, I claim that many patterns of Nature are so irregular and fragmented that, compared with Euclid—a term used in this book to denote all of standard geometry—Nature exhibits not only a different degree but an altogether different level of complexity.
While Gehry's forms are not precisely fractal, the new geometry he, like Thomasina, seeks, involves an "altogether different level of complexity."

In probing new frontiers of complexity, as I have noted, Gehry does not simply negate modernism and the world it represents. Instead of repeating modernism's gesture by destroying its grids, Gehry subtly folds the mechanical logic of industrialism into his work in ways that paradoxically negate and preserve its traces. This strategy is evident in his design process as well as in the finished building. Consider, for example, how the computerized rendering of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao translates his drawing into a schematic that can actually be constructed. For years, engineers told Gehry that forms he drew and models he created could not be built. It was not until new computers and software programs were created that Gehry and his associates could build what they had long imagined. When Gehry's office started using the software program Catia, his work took a sudden, and for many unexpected, leap forward, which would not have been possible without the convergence of art and technology. The new software not only enabled Gehry to transform his models into programs but also significantly influenced the structures he designed. What is intriguing about the plans generated by Catia is the way in which they torque grids to create complex structures embodying another geometry with a different logic. The grid does not merely disappear but morphs into forms that are dynamic rather than rigid, organic rather than mechanical, complex rather than simple.

In the completed structure, the interplay of grid and network extends from building to its surroundings. By weaving the museum into the industrial fabric of the city and vice versa, Gehry places it in the midst of a transportation network formed by intersecting roads, railroad tracks, and the Nervion river. When viewed from above, the museum appears to be a complex network of complex forms (figs. 8 and 9). Traces of modernist structures are incorporated only to be overwhelmed by shimmering surfaces and fluid shapes. Though the building's signature titanium surface is a grid, its structure fades in the constant play of fleeting images (fig. 12). Conversely, vital forms emerge from a fading grid as if they were faces of a Chuck Close painting or pixel figures displayed on the screens and scrims of contemporary media and information culture. With the moving images on these mobile surfaces, Gehry seems to achieve the impossible: he simultaneously sets forms in motion and gives movement form. Far from a static structure, Gehry's building is a complex ongoing event.

This sense of complexity and mobility carries over from outside to inside. Instead of removing structure from context by raising it on a pedestal as Mies had done, Gehry actually sinks his building into the urban environment. Descending the sloping stairs, one enters a space that is futuristic yet strangely familiar. The exterior steel and glass as well as the rich beige limestone are repeated inside, thereby creating an interplay of interiority and exteriority that simultaneously dissolves and maintains the walls (fig. 11). The resulting forms range from the rectilinear to the curvilinear as well as from the small and intimate to the vast and overwhelming. Though clearly distinct, these forms remain intricately interconnected; indeed, it is precisely their complicated relations that articulate their distinguishing differences. The complex structure of the museum is not quite in equilibrium and thus keeps everyone who roams through it slightly off balance. Since the forms are irregular and their relation unpredictable, the possibility of surprise lurks along every curve. Wandering through the museum's circulatory circuits, its structure seems to change repeatedly in unexpected ways. Instead of preprogrammed or permanent, the order of this structure is emergent and transient. It is as if the flow of the space follows the swirling eddies and turbulent whirlpools of the Nervion rushing nearby.

In the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, form itself becomes complex. The difference between Venturi's superficial complexity and Gehry's radical complexity is symptomatic of changes in social conditions that have occurred since the late 1960s. While automobile culture has not, of course, disappeared, its importance has been eclipsed by the extraordinary growth of the economies of information, telematics, media, and virtuality. What Gehry begins in Bilbao, he pushes to the tipping point in Times Square. The site is significant: as the node where information, finance, and entertainment networks converge, Times Square forms a lens through which the complexities of network culture can be glimpsed. Throughout the 1990s, this area of New York City was transformed from the seedy to the spectacular. Upscale hotels and expensive restaurants displaced peep shows and porno shops. No longer mechanically puffing smoke, signs have gone electronic and now display everything from high fashion to high finance. The studios of ABC, MTV, and ESPN confuse inside and outside until the street becomes a set for latter-day fl├źneurs to be actors and actresses in a show that has become global. On Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Streets, a stunning high-rise building is nearing completion. This is the new home of the global news and entertainment conglomerate Condé Nast, whose print and electronic publications simultaneously reflect and promote the crisscrossing circuits of contemporary culture: Vogue, The New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Traveler Magazine, Swoon, Epicurious, Investors Business Daily, Technical Analysis of Stocks and Commodities, and even Wired. In addition to offices for Condé Nast's multiple ventures, the building also houses the Nasdaq marketing center and ticker board from which fluctuating stock prices are telecast and webcast worldwide in real time. In Times Square, Nasdaq becomes entertainment competing with ABC, MTV, ESPN, and Disney for viewers and ratings. Surrounding Nasdaq's corner offices there is perhaps the most spectacular sign ever built: a 120-foot-tall $37 million cylindrical video screen displaying stock information and advertisements in 16.7 million colors. The 18 million light-emitting diodes (L.E.D.s) create a density of pixels that allows the transmission of colors and images of unprecedented intensity and veracity. In contrast to the traditional stock ticker projected on the Morgan Stanley Building at the other end of Times Square, the Nasdaq sign displays the vividly colored logos rather than the printed abbreviations of the companies driving the new economy. Here it becomes undeniable that "business art is," as Warhol insists, "the step that comes after Art."

Tucked away near the Nasdaq sign, Gehry puts the business of art to work to create an extraordinary environment. In the Condé Nast cafeteria, Gehry turns Bilbao in on itself to produce strange loops that surprise as much as they delight. Most important, the shimmering surfaces of Bilbao are folded inward and tinted blue to form the ceiling and walls. The result is a simulated sea or river, which is certainly not natural but not quite artificial. When transposed from outside to inside, opaque forms become transparent and translucent. Rippled surfaces of undulated glass shapes reflect the reflections of the titanium panels. Along a mirrored corridor, reflections of reflections of reflections create figures that flow, torque, morph, and liquefy only to reform and return to circulation. In this virtually aqueous environment, the surging currents of network culture pulsate through mind and body. As forms swirl and images flicker, everything drifts far from equilibrium and rapidly approaches the edge of chaos, where it becomes clear that this moment of complexity is where the action is.

 

Copyright notice: ©2001 Excerpted from pages 19-46 of The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture by Mark C. Taylor, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.


Mark C. Taylor
The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture
©2001, 352 pages, 25 halftones, 20 line drawings
Cloth $32.00 ISBN: 0-226-79117-3
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 0-226-79118-1

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