playtime 2

continued from playtime 1 


Feminist interpretations of gender symbolism offer an important way of correlating the social self and technology. In societies where the nurture of children is gendered labor, the birth of the psychological self is necessarily defined in relation to a mother-world. (An interpretation fetishized by Linneaus when he devised the term mammals, meaning "of the breasts", to distinguish the class of animals embracing humans, apes, ungulates, sloths, sea-cows, elephants, bats, and all other organisms with hair, three ear-bones, and a four-chambered heart.) The difficult and painful social labor of the infant is marked by the contradictory desire to remain in, or return to, oneness with the mother-world, but also to become a separate person. But that world is different for male and female infants, for the mothering received by boys and girls is different. According to Nancy Chodorow, Jane Flax, and other feminist interpretors of "object theory", mothers tend to experience their daughters as more like and continuous with themselves and to experience a son as a masculine opposite. As a result, the identity of the male child entails a stronger sense of separation and control, of self-definition in relation to persons unlike himself, while the female child continues to experience herself in terms of merging and identification. The male child consequently establishes relatively rigid ego boundaries, while the female's remain more flexible, Masculinity comes to be defined through the achievement of separation, while feminity is defined through the maintenance of attachment. The limitations of Banham's relation to technology may well derive from technology's role as a transitional object in a decidedly masculine project of autonomy and mastery. The solution seems to me to lie less in rejecting technology or radically opposing it to architecture but in recognizing the greater complexity of our relations to gender, nature, and technology. (and learning to play) 

For example, why does the computer mobilize issues of gender and identity? At a fairly simple level, the culture of the personal computer has been identified with the social modalities of "boys with toys," and thus constitutes a kind of continuation of masculine techno-fantasy. This culture takes the form of a kind of personal arms race: for the biggest, fastest, "bossest" machine. In architecture studios, an interest in technology and the sciences is still associated with masculinity. It is important not to underestimate the stakes in this identification. At a time when differences in physical strength between men and women can no longer carry the force of argument for gender roles, technoscientific aptitude and competence have assumed an overwhelming strategic importance in defense of the masculine. 

Do the various modalities of play I've been discussing offer any alternatives for dealing with the culture of computers? I think they do, if you begin to think of the computer as a social "transitional object," capable of assuming a range of both technological and psychic roles. Like the child's bit of blanket, the computer is functionally polymorphic. It not only emulates other machines-- typwriter, movie camera, television, drafting tools-- but suggests models of labile identity, and interchanges between human and machine. As a result, the computer has assumed a priveleged role in the psychic world of industrial societies. Like the infant's bit of blanket, its fate may well be to become gradually decathected, to lose meaning as its qualities become diffused, as they spread out over the whole intermediate territory between "inner psychic reality" and the whole cultural field. 

If the computer is today a social transitional object, the internet is today's holding or potential space. Here, once again, we have to recognize the continued legacy of the 1960s. The internet is often described in terms of addiction, as a psycho-stimulant experience. On the Net, Timothy Leary resurfaces as a media sage. Through Stuart Brand, the communitarian ethos of the Whole Earth Catalogue continues in the Electronic Well, giving "tools to the people." In Out of Control, Kevin Kelly describes a "hive mind," an emergent collective impulse capable of playing computer games and even guiding a flight simulator. The idea of a spontaneous self-organizing system, such as the "hive mind" or slime mold is culturally continuous with Woodstock. But today do we get Woodstock 2 instead? We should recognise the affinities between descriptions of " bottom up" self-organization and the rhetoric of democratic market capitalism. 

It is no accident that issues of gender roles, community, pornography, and sexual fantasy are being acted out in relation to the net, for it is currently a place whose boundaries are not fixed and where the boundaries of self and the world can be renegotiated. And is the net just one more step, albeit a gigantic one, in the long tradition that desires to transcend the limitations of the flesh (or meat) - as Banham said, sex left in, streptococci left out?

While these aspects of the internet need careful and critical attention, they do not overshadow the net's potential to offer us a means of modulating from old and increasingly less useful ways of understanding space to ways that engage our continuing need to experience places of rich pyschic density.


Like the work of the surrealists and the situationists, the contemporary double of the city is the world of hypertext and its psychogeography can be mapped on the world-wide-web. Today this transitional area is a prime site for architectural play that reconfigures topos and time in terms of chance and desire. Walter Benjamin once argued that technology was the "nature" from which modern culture would be made. Perhaps this question should be turned around today, to ask whether the computer provides a culture through which a new nature can be found. It has become something of a critical commonplace to express scepticism at the use of the word "nature." The idea of nature has been exposed as a mirror image of the society that uses it, as a reflection of the society's values and technologies, and, in Western patriarchy, as a vehicle for the legitimation of "marked" dualisms that include culture / naturemind /body, and masculine / feminine. There are important strategic reasons for describing nature as a social, and hence political, construct. In contemporary cultures, a committment to social constructionism is identified with belief in the potential for emancipatory change. But the ecological politics of extreme textuality are deeply problematic. The suggestion that nature can only be interpreted as a construct of human societies fits too neatly into a modality of separation and control. It is a species-centric viewpoint that reinforces the human presumption to be distinct from all other species and the world as found. 

Whatever its cultural resonances, nature today cannot be separated from technology, and the role of computers in conjoining them cannot be underestimated. The figures of contemporary science reflect this interpenetration. Fractals, (like imaginary numbers before them) for instance, have passed from being mathematical monsters to describing the " geometry of nature," as a direct result of the ease with which they can be recursively computer generated. 


As "process structures" fractals have enabled a conceptual understanding and aesthetic perception of a vast range of dynamic natural phenomena in terms of what D'Arcy Thompson called " phase beauty." Many of the very images of the world which we appreciate today are themselves made possible by fractal image processing. The scientific use of topographic metaphors such as basins of attraction or epigenetic landscapes underscore these links between technology, scientific concepts, and nature. It is becoming increasingly clear that the historic dimension of the missions to moon was not in setting foot on the moon, but rather in sending back the view of the earth rising, the earth both spaceship and goddess, whose beauty is made all the more visible by complex technological systems like satellites and image processing. (see gaia

I believe that the cultural project of architecture today should be to give form to the new synthesis of nature and technology, and that this project should include the entire range of architectural expression and procedures. 

Today, for example, computer programs allow the possibility of introducing gradients into architecture--visible, for example, in smooth (or continuous) variations of size and shape of repeating elements--which can register natural fieldsof force and provide analogical or instrumental bridges between the technological and the organic. Emergent patterns of gradients are defining features of complexity. This renegotiation of the smooth and the striated in building is also analagous to the negotiations of continuities with discontinuities in digital images and pattern recognition. More importantly, it is becoming possible to imagine "growing" architectural and urban structures whose interdependence of parts would satisfy Kant's criteria for the organic. 

Have biologists, fluid dynamicists, primatologists, and students of complexity simply replaced the engineer as figures of "science envy" for architects? Yes and no. We definitely want to share the worlds they have opened up, but they should no longer provide us a masculinist role model, whose "hard" science yields predictability through reduction, whose technologies are pure manifestations of a will to power. In short, we want to think science and technology as play. 

wo scientists are discussing complexity. In exasperation, one says, "complexity is just what you don't understand." The other responds, "You just don't understand complexity." 

In recent years the sciences of complexity have generated great interest to architectural culture. Although this new affinity has largely been discussed in formal terms, I think it has--or could have--just as much to do with efforts to renegotiate the issues of sociality and subjectivity I have been discussing. The scientist joke reveals some similarities between the "new" sciences and play, for it returns us once again to the question of "finding" and "inventing". Is complexity a phenomenon that exists independently, or is it a concept invented by scientists and enabled by the computer? The answer can only be both. Complexity seems equally found (in the world) and invented by the observor. Although inextricable from computer simulation, it nonetheless affords a way of understanding a broad range of natural phenomena. Thinking about the sciences of complexity requires us to suspend the dualities of technology and nature, to accept paradoxical relations between subjectivity and objectivity, in short, it requires us to play


trilobite governor's island project 1998

If there is a possibility of a new "organic" architecture today, it is through the possibility of a form of play which suspends the question of "Did you find that (in the world) or did you make it up?," in which the ambiguities of a desire for both nature and technology are its source of creativity. end slides It is in an architecture of playful engagement in technoscience whose design process is "finding (in the world)" as much as it is "creating", where design loses some of its patriarchal authority in favor of a more pastoral form of "shepherding," perhaps of electric sheep. This contemporary desire for the symbiosis of nature and technology finds one expression in the idea of a partially autonomous design process, run on computer "power tools," for the creation of a new kind of natural form. Rather than imitate the appearance of " organic" forms, this new attitude towards nature as continuous "becoming" stresses continuities between organic and inorganic processes. It proposes a "natural" architecture homologous with a " computational" nature, and establishes a smooth continuum between simulation technologies, scientific theory, and manufacturing technologies. 


It is deeply interesting today to ask in what ways can buildings be alive. 

I believe that both an enlarged practice of architecture and an enriched discourse can emerge from attention to these issues. end slides While I do not embrace contemporary technoscience with Banham's Futurist abandon, I believe that some of the current deadlock between architectural theory and practice could be overcome by an optimistic interpretation of these contemporary ideas through play. The sort of play I am describing is not pure "freeplay" , or deterritorialization. It shifts the focus to our connection with the world, to our embodied and positional interactions, rather than our separation from it, and rides the cusp between constructed concepts and the flux beyond. In the face of the panoptic possibilities of contemporary technologies and their implication in regimes of hyper-rationalization, be they military, economic, or political, it may seem infantile to suggest play as a model, but, echoing the liberatory politics of the 1960's, I would like to encourage some such regression, specifically for its exploratory possibilities, for its pathways for reconfiguring relations between self and the world.
Can play become a basis for community? I would like to dedicate this lecture to the bonobos, a species that makes me more optimistic about being a primate. Theirs is a female-centered egalitarian society that substitutes sex for aggresssion. When they use play and casual sex instead of force to alleviate stress, they turn the politics of gender into a whole different game.