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Mark

Wide Open

The ability to change and adapt is a necessary condition for the successful fit of an organism within its environment.
This should be true not only within nature but also within the architectural realm which, to remain current and ‘future-proof’, needs to be constantly morph itself to the current socio-economic and natural environment.
Architecture though is still very much conceived and treated as a static, lifeless, entity. This vision of architecture aligned to a utilitarian paradigm reflects a static and outdated vision of society.
It should instead be conceived like a living organism whose survival in the hostile environment depends on its possibility for change and adaptation within the context of conservative use of resources[1].  
The ever-changing contemporary urban and sub-urban condition require this more sustainable and dynamic model: the fast turning economic instability has revealed the shortcomings of the contemporary built environment, designed and built to last but not to adapt. The modern and post-modern architecture attempted to address change by developing
‘generic’ building within rigidly ‘zoned’ planning strategies. This model proved its dramatic shortcomings when faced with the new needs of a changing world order.
The radical avant-garde of the 60’s and 70’s explored extensively the notion of a more nomadic, flexible urban condition.
These were seductive vision of the glamorous futures of the machine age, leaving however both social and environmental issues unaddressed.

Many years later, the questions posed by the late XX Century avant-gardes are still relevant and open to multiple radical interpretations. How can architectural design address the need for a more adapting built environment while retaining the necessary social functionality as well as its qualitative relevance? In other words, how can we design our buildings and cities in a context where change and uncertainty seems to be the only sure thing?
Today more than ever, the role that the avant-garde played in the XX Century seems even more poignant: the search for innovation, in fact, represents not just a vital form of speculation and critique; it becomes an imperative character of the fittest to survive the contemporary social, economic, technologic and environmental challenges. How does architectural design seek relevant innovation and novelty?
Evolutionary biology offers an interesting perspective on the unpredictable nature of the future and change. In nature, evolution and adaptation occur through the specialized use of biomechanical characteristic employed for tasks that were different than the ones initially utilized for. In other words, it is through the specialization of (initially) marginal tasks that living forms evolve and adapt to unpredictable future circumstances. Our hands, for instance, have the same characteristics of the hands of the primates: their capacity of playing musical instruments is a functional adaptation initiated as a specialized path. Thus, evolution occurs via the latent capacity of living forms to specialise tasks and adapt to unforeseen needs.
In this case the randomized nature of evolution and specialization is what defines the capacity for living forms to adapt. The human eye, for instance, probably descends from light-sensitive cells. These photo-receipting tissues have transformed along an extended and non-oriented path: initially driven by chance and then regulated by natural selection.
The casual specialization of tasks towards the not-yet-defined needs or functional purposes is what guides the evolutionary process and allow the fittest to adapt to the changing environment. In nature, adaptation is addressed through the redundant capacity of living systems to perform multiple tasks within an economic use of their resources: nature does more with less. A spider, for instance, uses its silk web to create its habitat and perform a multiplicity of different tasks. The spider, eats, moves, sleep, constructs its living space with the same material using the same construction process.
In this sense, the impossibility to predict the future scenario is addressed by the redundant production of multi-directional specialized solutions. Moreover, moving away from the idea of innovation as a (sophisticated) response to a specific need/scenario opens the way to a new understanding of sustainable design.
A novel architectural sensitivity is blossoming out of the current crisis: one that sees the biological paradigm as the starting point for new architectural experimentation. Leaving aside the ideological approach to the idea of progress, contemporary avant-garde architecture is turning towards an opportunistic pragmatism that is replacing the dogmatic
idealism of the late XX Century.
Technology plays a paramount role in shaping the horizon of possibility. Advances in material science and construction processes are among the most impactful undertakings of the new Century.Many are already predicting the advent of self-constructing, moving architecture built out of organic, self-healing matter. We can’t certainly predict what the future will be like. What’s certain is that tomorrow’s ideas are already circulating and will soon turn into built forms.
The paradigmatic shift introduced by novel fabrication processes - from file to fabrication-, together with the innovation in material sciences and computational technologies - from product to process- allowed the introduction of a novel approach towards architecture and its relationship with the environment : from context neutral to context-aware design.
The systemic integration of architecture with the environment and within its constituent parts is one essential feature of the new architectural paradigm. Architecture as a system has a twofold characteristic: systems as whole and generating systems[2]. The former is concerned with the holistic property which can only be understood as a product of interaction among parts. The latter – generating system- is a kit of parts, with rules about the way these parts may be combined.
Every “system as a whole” is generated by a generating system.
“To ensure the holistic system property of buildings and cities we must invent generating systems, whose parts and rules will create the necessary holistic system properties of their own accord”. (C. Alexander)[3].
Finally, a new kind of architecture is emerging: one that privileges the ephemeral over the static; the temporary over the firm; the contextual over the generic; the hybrid over the homogeneous; the informal over the rigid. The field is wide open.

[1] Pierce, Introduction - structure in nature, in Structure in Nature is a strategy for design, Edited by MIT Press (1990), xiii.
[2] C. Alexander, “Systems generating systems”, in Computational Design Strategies. Edited by Achim Menges and Sean Ahlquist (Wiley
AD 2011) , 58.
[3] Ibidem





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