“Architecture in the New Paradigm”: a Response to Charles Jencks’ “The New Paradigm in Architecture”

The problem with Charles Jencks is that he is too old to recognize the new paradigm as anything more than a new opportunity to recount the buildings of his personal favourite architects.

The paradigm shift he is looking for in the grammar of a handful of landmark buildings will forever elude him: the new paradigm is not formal, it is purely relational.

Mr Jencks had been onto something ever since his Architecture of a Jumping Universe, where he sought the first effects of the sciences of the 20th century on architecture. Unfortunately, now as then, he insists on looking for the formalistic applications of the metaphors of say, quantum theory’s particle-wave duality, and misses the point totally: when I was researching my own book Quantum City, I was excited to discover the title, but immediately disappointed by his insistence that a world made up of quantum waves meant a world made up of wavy stone patterns or wavy metalwork on his garage gate…

In his article ‘the New Paradigm in Architecture’, he gives us more of the same; there is a new paradigm somewhere, obviously not with the Bush Junta, and there are a series of new buildings that look to him ‘different’, hence there must be a new paradigm in architecture. Yet he fails to put his finger on it. Why? Because most of the examples he is looking at have nothing to do with a paradigm shift: they merely represent a greater permissiveness of form.

A paradigm shift is a major change in the worldview, and that is historically the result of a shift in the belief system or in the knowledge base of a particular culture, that seems to occur a couple of generations after a major scientific (or philosophical) discovery. It is the time it takes the generations who are taught the new knowledge since their childhood as a matter of fact, to grow up into decision making positions. They are the generations whose very lives would have been shaped by the culture created by the application of the new knowledge.

The generation that represents the paradigm shift of quantum theory’s second age -the practical applications and experiments (lasers, TV, computers, non-locality, the Hubble telescope…) that permitted the development of the genome project, fractals, chaos theory, internet, self-organisation, and emergence theory, is not Libeskind’s or Eisenmann’s. It is the “thumb-generation”, the Playstation and text messaging generation.

For that generation, the ‘fractal’ patterns of Federation Square or the tilted windows of the Jewish Museum are nothing special. They might even think they are boring in their self-consciousness. The video games they play daily subject them to architectures a hundred times more overwhelming to their senses, and I do not know what architecture their generation will end up building.

In the meantime, the current generation of architects in their thirties and forties sits at a threshold between two worlds: one that keeps jumping with excitement at any new building form that doesn’t look like a shoe box and another that is born to be jaded by form.

This gives us, the current generation, a difficult responsibility, but an exciting challenge: our role is to see the paradigm shift through, to ease it through, and translate between our precursors and our successors.

I believe the key to this role as an interface lies in recognizing the shift in the knowledge base itself: the new sciences have shifted from a mechanical, Cartesian worldview, to an organic, quantum one. The main difference is in the recognition of the limits of objectivism and the rehabilitation of subjectivism – and subjectivity – even within the realm of the hard sciences. It is a shift from a world of cogs and atoms to one of potentiality waves and interactive randomness: a shift from form to relationship.

The new paradigm will not play itself in architecture building by building. As much as Mr Jencks would like to call the new blobs a shift away from Cartesianism in Mr Foster’s repertoire, the Swiss Re remains as Cartesian in its thinking as any Miesian building. The Cartesian paradigm is one of repetition, rationalisation, mechanisation, and objectivism. Seeing it as a gherkin or a phallus is no different from earlier generations seeing shoeboxes or tombstones in the first parallelepiped skyscrapers.

The new paradigm will show up in urban design, it will emerge at the level of the city, at the level of the interaction between people. After all, the science of emergence, like the science of self-regulation, only works in the presence of a vast multitude of interactive elements. This is why LAB’s Federation Square is a success: it is the urban space it generates that expresses the language of the new paradigm, not its mosaicised, whimsical façades. Bilbao wasn’t Gehry’s first sculptural-waveform building, witness the total pointlessness of his American Centre in Paris. But his Guggenheim is so potent thanks to its relationship to the city, and the extraordinarily eloquent upgrade it did to Bilbao’s image.

The relationship between our worldview (our paradigm) and our cities is not a new matter. From Babylon to the Cité Radieuse, our cities have always been the physical translation of our worldviews. What is exciting this time around is that, for the first time in three hundred years, our scientific paradigm itself is organic once again. Yet as practicing professionals and theorists we are still using the language and worldview of the old mechanical paradigm.

We should learn, as architects and urbanologists of the Threshold generation, to understand, teach and apply the relational language of the quantum paradigm. Only then will our cities take on the form that synchronizes best with the vision of our children. It is our role, it is our responsibility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *