A second Moment of Complexity

from grid to network

Enormous changes are afoot.

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 culture dynamics.

The grid = modernism. Purity of form. Le Corbusier.

Up the hill from my house, there's a Lutheran seminary. The chapel is a knockoff of Le Corbusier's church at Roncesville. The chapel is atop a hill overlooking the great valley of Tilden Park -- but the orientation of the chapel is such that you can't take in the beautiful view. At first I thought this really stupid. Having read a bit of Cobusier in this book, it was probably on purpose. Corbu though geometry was heaven-sent. He wrote, "Modern art and thought -- after a century of analysis -- are now seeking beyond what is merely accidental; geometry leads them in mathematical forms, a more and more generalized attitude."

Straight lines may not appear in nature but they prevent us from becoming distracted. Right angles are precise; the outside world is messy. Corbu was a champion of reason over feelin and of mind over body. The grid is what defines machines and order; the grid is where philosophy, art, life, and architecture converge.

Le Corbusier goes so far as to suggest that "We must build on a clear site." Chop down those trees and bulldoze the irregularities. Start sterile and end up clean.

Last year our family vacationed in Toronto. One day we walked ten blocks in the underground tunnel system and emerged in a complex of absolutely beautiful buildings by Mies van der Rohe. Four towers, each a black rectangle on stilts sheathing a major bank, surrounded a quadrangle where some musicians were tuning up for a lunchtime concert. The aesthetic was palpable. The drama of this complex outshown all the other buildings we saw in town -- and in Toronto, that's saying something.

"Less is more," wrote Mies, knocking some of the ornamentation off Corbu. Think of the Seagram Building. A simple box on stilts on an unadornted, expansive plaza. None of the gimcrack ornamentation that's pasted on the facades of classical, baroque, or Victorian buildings. Just pure form. Corbu's straight lines. The grid.

In 1972, Robert Venturi and his colleagues Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour ushered in the postmodern era with their book Learning from Las Vegas. Amazon's review notes, "Learning from Las Vegas created a healthy controversy on its appearance in 1972, calling for architects to be more receptive to the tastes and values of "common" people and less immodest in their erections of "heroic," self-aggrandizing monuments."

Venturi's take on Vegas was that its complexity showed through in its jumble of signs, facades, local oddities, casinos, and fast-food joints.

...the emerging order of the Strip is a complex order. It is not the easy, rigid order of the urban renewal project or the fashionalbe "total design" of the megastructure. It is, on the contrary, a manifestation of an opposite direction in architectural theory... Chaos is very near; its nearness, but avoidance, gives ... force.

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."

To Venturi, grid-thinking is over-simplification. There's nothing natural at all in Mies van der Rohe's boxes. To Venturi, "Less is a bore." However, he can't always pull it off. His firm has the most garish website I have visited in some time.

On a road trip a dozen years ago, I was appalled to find the same formula shopping malls in each of half a dozen cities across the U.S. Was I in Cleveland? Or Columbus? Or Dallas? Every two-tiered "galleria" mall had its Banana Republic, Limited, Victoria's Secret, Waldenbooks, Brookstone, Nature Company, Radio Shack, Tie Rack, Gap, Foot Locker, Old Navy, Sunglass Hut, Gymboree, Crabtree & Evelyn, The Body Shop, Lenscrafters, Talbots, and a food court with McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, and Sbarro's. No surprises.

Upon my return to Berkeley, a city with no shopping mall, I dreamed I was walking along a row of shops in an iffy neighborhood in Philadelphia. Junk stores, mostly, these were owner-operated. The range of things on the shelves was staggering. I was having a wonderful time because there were so many different things to look at. I didn't know what I'd find. Shopping was exciting, like wandering through the Paris Flea Market or an Eastern bazaar. Complexity erases certainty.

I remember going to the first Gap, the first Banana Republic and the first Nature Company. They were funky. They reflected San Francisco, Marin County, and Berkeley, respectively. On the way to franchising, rough edges were sanded off and local color removed. These one-time innovators were homogenized into standard mall tenants. The first Gap, which ironically sold only Levis, closed long ago. Gap, Inc., bought Banana Republic, but store #1 is gone. The original Nature Company closed, the company was purchased, the new owners foundered, and the Nature Company is no more.

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Architect number three is Frank Gehry, the postmodernist's postmodernist. The Bilbao Guggenheim was built for the post-grid age. Gehry always leaves things unfinished, allowing their complexity to ooze out. Gehry doesn't obliterate the grid; he uses the computer to twist and bend it. The Bilbao museum echoes its surroundings. Form itself becomes complex.

"Every architect who's any good, no matter what they say, is trying to make some kind of personal mud pie." -- Frank Gehry


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