Abductors of Architecture

Mohamed Sharif



“It is clear that ever since Homo sapiens first appeared, there have been apparatuses; but we could say that today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated, or controlled by some apparatus. In what way, then, can we confront this situation, what strategy must we follow in our everyday hand-to-hand struggle with apparatuses? What we are looking for is neither simply to destroy them nor, as some naively suggest, to use them in the correct way”

From Giorgio Agamben’s What is an Apparatus? p.15


There exists a strange, wayward species of contemporary architects whose works confound commonplace assumptions about what architects do (and, better yet, don’t): how they operate and intervene in the world and to what ends. In a time of self-satisfied parametric certainty - when naïve neo-functionalists (how much more naïve the nth time around?) cluelessly flirt with fascistic bio-political determinism, crass commerce and data-driven developer-speak – theirs are deliberately agonistic and skeptical practices.

Hacking and un-doing, they mischievously contaminate and manipulate computational and organizational protocols to produce weird, wild and wired things whose limits, real or other, invite further transgressions of architectural propriety and utility. Of this species anarchist François Roche is most likely a patron sinner. David Ruy – despite well advertised adherence to Graham Harman’s anti-Latourian ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ – may understandably be mistaken for one on consideration of a few of his practice’s interdisciplinary projects (for example see Ruy Klein’s ‘Bioprinter’ or ‘TE-1’.) Closer to home, Hirsuta founder and UCLA A.UD Faculty Jason Payne, like Ruy, could also be mistaken for one. For not only do his enigmatic objects flirt with information networks and chemical concoctions but more fundamentally his pedagogical frameworks habitually frustrate the relationship between means and ends. Likewise our genteel UCLA A.UD Fellow, Gabriel Fries-Briggs exhibits such tendencies despite his genteelness. For there is a flawless dirtiness and calibrated mis-calibration to his techno-bricoleuresque work that makes for artifacts and constructs that uncannily imbricate high and low taste with high and low tech.

Discomfited and discomfiting, these technologically immersed yet technologically disobedient types could be described as Abductors. This is to say that their speculations begin with what scientific philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s termed ‘Abduction’, the oft-overlooked and underestimated initial step in scientific reasoning, which provokes a culture of experimentation in which the very nature of information (input, output, matter and mind) itself is open to new manifestations, relations, and sublimations as “abstract machines” (Deleuze, 1988, p. 37.) Importantly, their reasoning forecloses neither ‘Deduction’ nor ‘Induction’, the other two modes of scientific inference, but reminds that those should not be regarded as experimental default settings that confirm only a priori matters of fact and consequently short-circuiting the potential for new discoveries, ideas, and knowledge. To wit Peirce’s contradistinctions are instructive: “Deduction proves that something must be; Induction shows that something actually is operative; Abduction merely suggests that something may be” (as cited in Bergman & Paavola, 1998, Abduction section, para. 10.)

This species also echoes Bruno Latour’s rejection of “matters of fact” in favor of “matters of concern” because facts, as Latour exhorts, are devoid of complexly layered existences and histories and are therefore “a poor proxy of experience and of experimentation” (Latour, 2004, p. 245.) Abductors also manifest something of Latour’s (2004) compelling reconsideration of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s distinction between ‘Objects’ and ‘Things’, where - focusing on Heidegger’s etymological study of ‘Thing’ - Latour reintroduces ‘Gathering’ as one of its undervalued proto-spatial roots. Imagined as such, a ‘Thing’ connotes both something outside of us and something in which we gather (Latour, 2004, p. 233.) Such a shift ushers in alternative horizons where “all entities, including computers, cease to be objects defined simply by their inputs and outputs and become again things, mediating, assembling, gathering many more folds than (Heidegger’s) united four” (Latour, 2004, p. 248.) Thus expanding the idea and limit of the ‘Object,’ Latour pushes it beyond phenomenological essentialism towards a relational political realm, which he identifies as ‘Dingpolitik’ (Latour, 2009.)

For the sake of highlighting the political import of the Abductors of Architecture, Latour’s elaboration of the very term itself bears repetition (Dean): “The political was always about “things”. However, when we read political philosophy, we do not hear about “things”. There are innumerable treatises addressing how we will create the procedure, which is going to absorb different affairs as if the procedure itself was set. As if whichever matter entering the parliamentary, executive machine would come out in the form of laws and solutions. This is what we now call governance. It is a managerial version of politics. Underlying this understanding of politics are a number of presuppositions: the existence of institutions, instruments and techniques of representation, which are “across the board”, which would equally absorb questions of ecology, economy, everyday life etc. The word Dingpolitik signals the implausibility of this theory of the political. It is not a new politics but what I call object-oriented politics. Since the very nature of the political always was to be concerned with objects, can we imagine techniques of representation – including artistic and scientific representation – that appropriately render this new pixelisation of the political? The politics of things is not a novelty. It was always there: the ding, and exists in all European languages. In Greek, αίτια. Does it also mean an assembly? It is a juridical term.”



Such thoughts and observations were initially spurred by a similarly inclined friend’s attitude and work a few years ago in an haute coffee shop on a cold and sodden March night in Silver Lake, where I anxiously awaited the arrival of Juan Azulay. I was there with another friend, who was writing an article on contemporary Argentine architects practicing and teaching in the United States and Juan was to be one of the interviewees. Given the inclement weather and the notorious Angeleno vehicular paralysis that precipitates at the merest sign of even the faintest drizzle, Juan was running behind schedule. It was getting late and just as my dread of wading back through the waterlogged parking lot to the car seemed to have matched the levels of the clogged storm-water drains on Silver Lake Boulevard, Azulay suddenly burst through the door. Apologetically taking his seat without removing his water-slicked trench coat, and very soon revived by a couple of steaming double espressos, he darted indefatigably across literary and filmic landscapes whose complex narratives and references frustrated the very nationalistic premise of the interview itself.

A distant descendant of a Sephardic Jew from Tangier, Azulay seemed a natural-born wanderer, an inevitable cosmopolitan whose trajectory from Buenos Aires to New York to Los Angeles and to other metropolises amounted to a voluntary vagabondism and a refusal of concrete affiliations, domiciles, origins and termini. Caffeinated, with fingers restlessly raking through his rain-dampened hair, he jumped from themes post-humanist to post-nationalist; from tales of an adolescence haunted by the ghosts of the nefarious apparatuses of oppressive political dictatorship to mischief-laced accounts of a design practice whose body politic and codes of conduct spoke more to piracy than propriety.

Most intriguing among his stories that night was the one of his recent acquisition of a shipment of salt, or 35,000 pounds of the stuff to be exact. As it turned out, it was a rendezvous with this 17 ½ tons of internet-sourced mineral at a suburban storage facility not the rain impeded Los Angeles traffic that was the real reason why Azulay had kept us waiting. Why and for what on earth, I asked, did he need so much bloody salt? He grinned offering only that it was to play a significant role in “Vivarium”, his upcoming installation in the gallery at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) in Los Angeles.


Parametricks for a Theater of Cruelty

“The young man held a gun to the head of God
Stick this holy cow
Put the audience in action
Let the slaughtered take a bow.”

(Ash, D., Murphy, P., Haskins, D. & Haskins, K., 1983)


The following are recollections from Azulay’s installation opening, which took place a few weeks later (compiled from prior recollections for a short review in Log – see Log 19 – which I later utilized in part for an ACADIA conference lecture in 2010):

Confronting the audience, immediately on entry, was a massive, distressed graphite pyramid flipped on its side at the end of the double-height room. Glowering, its base lodged in the wall and its vacuum-formed, permeable panels molting it seemed as if its contents were under assault. Closer to the gallery entrance was that infamous salt arranged serenely in two mounds, flanking a bank of computer monitors streaming collaged real-time and fabricated imagery of the imperiled, unseen inhabitants of the pyramid–purportedly, fresh and saltwater algae, beetles, crickets, robots and brine shrimp.

Though one would not have instantly guessed it, the salt was quite the culprit in this monochromatic crime scene as it performed catalytically, clandestinely undertaking the pernicious task of slowly dehumidifying the gallery air; impairing the ability of the pyramid’s oblivious inhabitants to draw water from the atmosphere it would ultimately disrupt their homeostatic drives. One wondered if perhaps the pyramid’s peeling panels were themselves double agents secreting the deathly accelerant of sodium chloride into its depths? Or had the audience members themselves become unwitting accomplices to the sinister experiment by intermittently skewing the ambient temperature of the gallery to hasten the pyramid-dwellers’s demise. More disturbingly, one wondered if some had half-knowingly sensed their complicity in the controlled slow-motion race between a mix of species and mummification processes beyond their control. Hanging over the two overlapping habitats of observers and observed was an eerie soundtrack, which further amplified the fearful sense that something bad, or wrong, was happening, had happened or was about to happen. Indeed when referring to the entire set up as “whatever it is that Juan has done,” SCI Arc director Eric Owen Moss amplified the sense that a crime, or at least misdemeanor, had taken place (Azulay and Moss, 2010.) A forensic air pervaded the scene and in the midst of all of this sparseness one sensed the spectral presence of what the architect had described as architecture of “no shadows” (Azulay and Moss, 2010.)

Indeed the assemblage of partial totemic volume, wired props, sound effects, and actors of variant species amounted to boundless theater of apparitions and fragments. Over-determined and impossible to unite as a tangible whole, the iconoclastic spectacle diabolically unhinged architecture’s holy trinity of ‘Firmitas,’ ‘Utilitas,’ and ‘Venustas’ in a suspenseful play between form and formlessness. Like Cold War cloak and dagger adversaries all involved became ambivalently suspended in triangulated worlds, their fragile landscapes held together only invisibly with the unfathomable fear of mutually assured destruction. Further subterfuge abounded through montage techniques, which scrambled footage from surveillance monitors mounted behind the pyramid’s walls putting in question the duration, sequence, and veracity of unfolding events. This instantiation of fiction as the sole constant within “Vivarium” rendered the only visible evidence of events paradoxically as both disinformation and misinformation in black, white, and digital green camouflage.

Certainly “Vivarium” was quite unlike many of the computationally driven and derived installations to which audiences have become regularly accustomed in architecture exhibitions in the recent past. While his design protocols and techniques appeared to derive from the same milieu, Azulay swerved away from the creeping neo-functionalism and positivism of recent, hackneyed algorithmic and generative design culture with darker manner and matter. Slyly utilizing film as mediating artifice, the architect instantiated unlikely combinations of times and events, facts and fictions. Though solemn and suggestive of otherworldly rituals, this was no church of performative prototypes, no temple for the exaltation of scripting as Scripture. To Parametrics Parametricks, Parametricists Parametrickery.

Employing the term fabrication in its fictional capacity, “Vivarium” spun a brutal performance akin to an Artaudian ‘Theater of Cruelty’ whose bleak mise-en-scène brought the audience in close quarters with a discomforting experiment—drawing them into a pensive sci-fi setting with the unsettling narrative of life becoming death. By so intermingling architectonics, audiences and events, “Vivarium” implicated the prescriptive imperatives of architecture within Giorgio Agamben’s (2009) notion of the ‘Apparatus’ as a disciplinary framework to be undone. In this manner “Vivarium” stood as an example of Agamben’s call to “Profanation” (2007.) For Agamben, following from Walter Benjamin, to profane is “to defile, desacralize, give back a sacred object to profane use” (de La Durantye, 2008, 54.) “Profanation” is a “special form of irreverence” by those who “lose their reverence for what are held up as sacred truths” (Murray, A and Whyte, J. Eds., 2011, 163-164.)

Like any laboratory experiment worth its proverbial salt, “Vivarium” flirted with the unknown, taking on a vast array of sizable and complex issues in a socio-technical network of interplay between animate, inanimate and animated protagonists. In a sense it spoke to what sociologist Bruno Latour describes as a “second empiricism”, or a scientific quest resolutely unconcerned with starting or ending at unswerving facts (Latour, 2004.) As a microcosmic laboratory whose specimens and equipment were both co-apparent and co-extensive, “Vivarium” set the stage for abductive thinking, comprehending that both architecture and its relations are “fragile and thus in great need of care and caution” to be carefully engaged as “matter(s) of concern” rather than “matter(s) of fact” (Latour, 2004, p. 225.)


Parametrick means and no ends

“A mass of facts is before us. We go through them. We examine them. We find them a confused snarl, an impenetrable jungle. We are unable to hold them in our minds. We endeavor to set them down upon paper; but they seem so multiplex intricate that we can satisfy neither ourselves that what we have set down represents the facts, nor can we get any clever idea of what it is that we have set down. But suddenly, while we are poring over our digest of the facts and are endeavoring to set them in order, it occurs to us that if we were to assume something to be true that we do not know to be true, these facts would arrange themselves luminously. That is abduction.”

(As cited in Bergman & Paavola, Eds., 2003, Abduction section, para. 13)


In approximate sum, “Vivarium” simulated a global ‘Dingpolitik,’ or perhaps less felicitously, the ‘Super Wicked Problem’ in and on which we reside: its systems out of control, caught in a race against the clock, derailed despite our best intentions and interventions with its long-term processes at volatile odds with our short-term ones (as cited in Lazarus, 2009, footnote 10.) In miniature, it both intensified the incomprehensibility of each architect’s context, with internally and externally driven diagrams of discipline and life entangled within a double bind of power and impotence. Yet despite the implicit futility of things, it did not stand as a prohibitive injunction condemning architecture to nihilism or disappearance. Rather it operated as an analogical prelude, or what it might mean to think paradigmatically before acting in and on a world whose natural and synthetic systems are to us, at best, abbreviated and one in which no one medium has extinguished another.

Following Agamben’s definition of the paradigm as “a form of knowledge that is neither inductive nor deductive but analogical,” we can imagine the architect as an abductor, focused on parallel strands of spatial, material and formal research before, during and beyond computation (Agamben, 2009, p. 31.) Wedged in a vital mix of competitive and co-operative forms, functions, and forces and welcoming information as raw material comprised of irreducible, kinetic amalgams where ‘Objects’ have become ‘Things,’ multi-liminal and multifarious, we can imagine the architect becoming attuned to Deleuze’s notion of an intermediary diagram as a something with interventionist agency whose goals pose alternatives to neo-liberalist use-value. Understanding that such diagrammatic states have “nothing to do with a transcendent idea or with an ideological superstructure, or even with an economic infrastructure, which is already qualified by its substance and defined by its form and use,” and that they are “highly unstable or fluid, continually churning up matter and functions in a way likely to create change,” the architect would be intelligently positioned to engage profound ideas of adaptation, resilience and tolerance without resort to infantile signification or lazy functionalism (Deleuze, 1988, p. 35 – 37.)

With this in mind we might understand Abductors to be “second empiricists” who act on a pressing hunch that beneath reason there “lies delirium, and drift;” and that reason is “always a region carved out of the irrational — not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors” (Deleuze, 1988, p. 144.) As “Vivarium” suggested — and as do works by practices like those cited at the beginning of this essay — abductors trickily speculate in the midst of tricky parametrics. With the doors and windows of their laboratories, their imaginaria, always ajar they invite risk and unstable factors into the fold. T/here in the fog and haze of myriad diagrammatic overlays, they furtively criss-cross multiple mediums that materialize uncommon interfaces with the common world. With operating platforms both analog and digital, software both proprietary and shareware; and versed in media and techniques like non-linear narrative filmmaking, live tissue printing and chemical cosmetology, their scripts are vehicles of provocative fictions, plural beings and plural temporalities (Nagel & Wood, 2010, p. 11.) Hyper-alert to ontological ambiguity, abductors tease out moments when seemingly un-mappable etherealities appear dimensionally, or when measurable corporealities diffuse ethereally; as if abducting, as if abducted.



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Mohamed Sharif teaches in the undergraduate and graduate design programs at UCLA's Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and is a founding partner of Bureau for Architecture and Design (BAD).