Book review: Complexity - Andrea Gleiniger

Mar 09

This booklet is collection of eight essays on the notion of complexity, considered from an architectural and scientific perspective. Obviously, the roughly 100 pages are hardly enough to do the subject justice.

There are two short contributions from two protagonists in the debate around architectural complexity: Robert Venturi shares some notes on and excerpts from the thesis he wrote at Princeton in 1950 and which provided the basis for his “Contradiction and Complexity in Architecture” more than fifteen years later. In that book, Venturi relies on Gestalt-psychological principles to introduce a notion of complexity that emerges from the interplay between building and context. In her short essay for this volume Denise Scott Brown argues that context in itself needs to be put in context of the operative cultural, social and economic setting: “the architect who cares not at all for context is a boor; the one who care only for context is a bore”.

Andrea Gleininger discusses how post-war reactions to modernist architecture remained all mired in abstraction. Venturi wrestled a notion that was firmly entrenched in the fields of cybernetics and information technology “to restore to both art and everyday life the rights they had been deprived of by the strategies of simplifying systematization that governed the abstract model of architectural design prevailing in Modernism.”

Georg Vrachliotis usefully retraces three lines of development underlying the concept of complexity in architecture: a Gestalt-psychological line, a cybernetic and a biological-algorithmic line. These progressively come closer to an operationalisation of the complex by means of sophisticated software tools. Kostas Terzidis builds on this by pointing out how cellular automata and genetic algorithms provide designers with novel, open-ended heuristic strategies, disclosing solution spaces that designers didn’t even know existed.

Mainzer’s rather unimaginative treatment of the core ideas underlying complexity science is dispensable. Rather awkwardly his discussion links into trendy notions such as Web 2.0 and virtual reality. Johann Feichter’s discusses how predictive models allow us to come to grips with the extraordinary complexity of nested feedback loops in the climate system.

The volume closes with a short contribution from philosopher Clemens Bellut who interestingly points out how modernity has an ambiguous relationship with complexity: on the one hand it laments the unknowability that comes with it and on the other hand it fetishizes complexity as a token of its proper sophistication.

Most essays are translated from German and at times it shows. Notably Andrea Gleiniger’s rather academic prose has not been able to fully free itself from its rather lumbering cadence. Disturbing (or amusing) idiosyncracies are scattered throughout the text (“symbolicity”? “viable insights”?).

All in all a neat little book but not indispensable. I’d give it 3,5 stars.

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