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Thomas Mical

The informal Dispositio of the "Soft Machine"

Jan Kaplincky, Selfridges Building, Birmingham (2003)

Jan Kaplincky, Selfridges Building, Birmingham (2003)

This essay examines conceptual details and consequences of a soft form of Vitruvian “dispositio” as lattice in the contemporary architecture-urban interface. Today the tendency towards the soft and informal in architecture and urban design creates new inflection points in the conceptualization of the urban fabric. The social processes of assemblage of components today are processural improvements, a soft “dispositio” in the shifting phase-spaces of urban life replacing the prior modern abstract spatial logic of machines, striated space, and functional determinism.

The partial swerve towards haptics, pneumatics, and soft systems animating select neo-avant-garde practices of postwar art and architecture has a obscure (retroactive projected) source - the literary experimentations William S. Burroughs, especially in the fascinating figure of the “soft machine” in the 1961 “cut-up” novel of the same name. (1) Here the human body, as original soft machine, challenged the technological determinism driving design thinking, reviving the then obsolete (Vitruvian) epistemic core of designed spaces. This soft machine as rhetorical figuration was also a call for softening the conceptual structures and urban fabrics dominating the later (post-human) machine age. (2) By the time of the subsequent revolutionary 60s, in industrialized economies the architectural / planning corporate building-machine ordering systems (3) delivered self-same architectural and urban “solutions” in the manner of conventional arrays and configurations of functional spatial grids and lattices. From the Vitruvian origin, we know early machines followed two models of motion: linear or cyclic, and in different scaled configurations, in multiple combinations of machines producing machines and scaling outward across the city fabric. (4) The early 20thC industrialization of the construction site had become the unconscious default position of all post-war architectural decisions, preceding the imagination, already determining a preformatted unconscious. (5) The slow movement from machine age into information age, from architectural processes inflected by industrial production to architectural processes inflected by cybernetic control systems, the machinic schematization of lived space (and valuations) was the intellectual background radiating around the human “soft machine.”

The rise of advanced architectural intelligences – defined here as the intersecting and nested knowledge domains that in their interaction give rise to advanced architecture and cannot produce new schemas without or outside architecture – creates a pressure upon architecture and urban practices, and especially the growing attention to the architecture-urban interface. The increasingly complex relations of evolving building systems and the parallel reflexive emergence of more complex cognitive systems infiltrate the imagination, visions of fabrication, and designed effects which all register of the shifting architecture-urban interface. The prior reactive city scenes framed by high-tech and low-tech surfaces, previously slices of life delivered in the television age as episodes of that 70’s corporate aesthetic, pushed the city and its spaces to calibrate the ratio of chance and control. Then working on the city created design processes operating formatively behind and beyond the structures of the conventional horizontal plan (6) - the video animation reinforced the visionary capacity of designers to absorb experiential-cinematic “mobile-sections” of a city as always unfolding, thus interlacing apparatus and perception of hard and soft machines – a permanent type of operational disposition. For the architect (and to a lesser degree the planner) the composed and calculated micro-disposition of internal ordering of the canisters and organs of space, routines, and signification codes drove functional programming which contoured form-making in the typologically manufactured carburettor logic of building-machines under guidelines and thresholds of measured performance criteria calibrating the social through (or around) the aesthetic.

The millennial turn towards architectural atmospherics and affect (7) in our hypermodern present signals both a movement away from such linear development design processes and protocols, as well as marking a heightened sensitivity and reflexivity of the forces (as causes) for more responsive / adaptable / sustainable architectural and urban configurations. In particular, the rise of ephemerals and contingencies as new forms of generative soft models and increasingly open processes are not a turn from control or computation, but increasingly the goal of these advancing visualization tools.  Starting in the 90s, this progression from linear planning to experiential flexible design scenarios was clear. (8) In the published chronicles of the design process of Studio UN, for example, the typological past recedes as the design of architecture becomes the design of different conceptual models of architecture (9); in the case of Toyo Ito and SANAA (10), the emblematic architectural diagram retracts much technical information into simplified abstractions - leaving the spatial as a continuous void “white space” / “white noise” - as opening for projection of affect, an architecture near degree zero whose content is increasingly the movement of bodies, particles, and gazes. The structural turn to the methodologies nominated as the structured informal (Cecil Belmond) and the artistic turn to the informal and the formless (Yve-Alain Bois) characterize the dissolution of the hard modern. (11)

As a visual clue, take three well-mediated examples of the formations of the apparently “soft machine” rising in cities: Jan Kaplincky of Future Systems design for Selfridge’s in Birmingham (2003); Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s Kunsthaus Graz (2003); and most recently the enigmatic project by Fernando Romero (with Arup and Gehry), the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City (2011). Each derives its specificity and formal softening from the static planometrics to concave and convex surfacing revealed eventually through visual experience, and his this non-standard geometric bending opens up other uncertainties in relation to inherited surrounding urban context of gridded city fabric. In the skins we see a composed and calculated surface logic of repetition and minimal difference, and in the spatial logic we see the soft machine of open and closed spatial services configured and attached to the open and closed surfaces of the immersive and surrounding city.

This new softer machine disposition of the architecture-urbanism interface is of extreme importance today. The prior speculative projection of alternative futures around haptics, pneumatics, and soft systems are today bio-mimetic, animate matter, invisible technologies, and new forms of responsive / smart / sentient architectural propositions switching risky variables to cool constants – done under the efficiency-ethic as the new (efficient) rationalism. Taken literally, the face-off of architecture and urbanism at the building facade has always been a high-resolution and high-stakes enterprise: here building image branding, building envelope performance, and partially submerged agendas and biases all register in the design development, which to outsiders may only be sensed in the fleeting impressions of the discontinuous surfaces of the machine-city. With the previous examples of a new range of soft dispositio/ns, soft arrangements, flexible and tenuous correlations / linkages, increasingly informal or non-hierarchical geometries, and increasingly hybrid-flexible building and urban systems (hard and soft infrastructures at multiple scales), there is less pressure on consistent uniform linkages or imperatives of continuity (“ordinatio”) in the designed environment. The social and political pressures to do so have new media, and thus new imaginaries, driving the model and processes of urban formation. For example, nested geometries and scalar transformations, like a new app, have overwritten the prior episodic televisual city.

The new soft machine “dispositio” – the informal “disposition” – is increasing in significance as the range of processes and models increase. Hybrid building typological stacking, or re-generative infrastructure design are both replacing old-fashioned urban block design. The potentialities of new models and processes in amplified by the architectural theory codes today structuring architectural thought around mutable field conditions (Stan Allen) and fluctuating phase spaces (Manuel Delenda), contra the prior latticed axiality of striated space and layered ratios of the default modern metropolis – “smooth” or “holey” is selected to overcome or to subvert the generic flexibility of “striated” space. (12)  The soft machine is also naturally predisposed to soft assemblages – as in Kiesler’s “wet grid” – “it must be a heterogeneous assemblage of multiple dimensions… patches of weakness and patches of strength together make up the hybrid of softness.” (13) Assemblages, more so than networks, tends towards bending, extension, and slow fluidity in their components and relations. (14) Indeed processural aesthetics indicate that the connections arise from the pulsating effectual conditions – the agility of attributes – of a specific milieu / spaces / urbanism generative of soft (transitory) assemblages, without the hard necessity of object-identities preceding relations preceding networks. In a soft machine assemblage, the smooth space has no single dominant centre but circulates a thousand inflection points in a feedback-driven meshwork of informal architectural valves, movement-spaces, and minimized systems. (15) 

The soft architecture-urbanism interface is no longer held together in a uniform plenum of empirical “universal space,” but only occupying the shared tension of omni-transparency that situates urban proximities of movements, near misses, with a range of unusual mutable latencies infused throughout – close to the original Vitruvian possibilities of “dispositio.” In this soft machine thought structure, an informal “dispositio” is still able to work as a reflexive and recursive design process of forms of organization of spatial attributes and potentialities, eschewing single fixed identities and 1:1 formal clothing for these identities in favor of the dynamics of the soft machine of emergent urban architecture. Here design becomes the recursive architectural refinement of models and processes, each iteration neither a perfection nor erring, but always tending towards alternative assemblages, blocks of sensation approaching smooth space, transforming or dissolving the fixed imperative diagram with deliberate entanglements of loops and coils that can become propositional future potentialities.

1. The human-machine interface evolving towards software theories is here correlated with the provocative anti-novel by William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine, 1966.
2. This issue was explored in the “Softening the Urban Fabric” conference in July 2013 at the University of East London. The program can be found at:
3. This trajectory is found in Sigfried Giedion, Mechanisation Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, U. Minn. Press, 2014 (1948),  Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex, MIT Press, 2005; and see also Stewart R. Clegg and Martin Kornberger (eds.), Space, Organizations and Management Theory, CBS Press, 2006.
4. See Vitruvius on the war machines in Book X of De Architectura, also see commentary in Giora Hon, Bernard R. Goldstein, From Summetria to Symmetry: The Making of a Revolutionary Scientific Concept, Springer, 2008, pp. 99-106.
5. To explain this late capitalist reconfiguration, see Felix Guattari, The Mechanic Unconscious, MIT Press, 2010; else Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, MIT Press, 1993, else Frederick Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Cornell University Press, 1982.
6. See Jonathan Hughes and Simon Sadler (eds), Non-Plan : Essays on Freedom, Participation and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism, Routledge, 2000; and also Sean Lally, The Air From Other Planets: A Brief history of Architecture to Come, Lars Muller, 2003.
7. See Peter Zumthor, Atmospheres, Birkhäuser Architecture, 2006; and also P. Tidwell, Tapio Wirkkala,Architecture and Atmosphere, Rut Bryk Foundation, Espoo 2014; plus the vast literature growing on affect studies, such as Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth (eds), The Affect Theory Reader, Duke UP, 2014.
8. See Robert Kronenburg’s Flexible: Architecture that Responds to Change, Laurence King, 2007.
9. See UN Studio, Design Models, Thames & Hudson, 2006.
10. See Yuko Hasegawa, Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa: SANAA, Phaidon, 2006.
11. See Cecil Balmond, Informal, Prestel, 2007; see also Yves-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone, 2007; also see Zygmunt Baumann’s Liquid Modernity, Polity, 2000.
12. See Stan Allen, Points + Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City, Princeton Architectural Press, 1999 and see Manuel Delenda’s “Deleuze and the Use of the Genetic Algorithm in Architecture.” April 2001 (link at For more data on these Deleuzian distinctions, see also John Rachjman, The Deleuze Connections, MIT Press, 2000; and Ignasi de Solà-Morales, Differences: Topographies of Contemporary Architecture, MIT Press, 1997; and recently Simone Brott, Architecture for a Free Subjectivity: Deleuze and Guattari at the Horizon of the Real, Ashgate, 2011.
13. See Lars Spruybroek, ‪The Architecture of Continuity: Essays and Conversations‬, V2_ publishing, 2008‬, p.103.
14. See Paul Haynes, “Networks are Useful Description, Assemblages are Powerful Explanations “ / INGENIO (CSIC-UPV) Working Paper Series 2010/01 at link
15. On meshwork see Manuel De Landa, “Meshworks, Hierarchies and Interfaces” in John Beckman (ed), The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation, and Crash Culture, Princeton Architectural Press. 1998.

Thomas Mical is Associate Professor of Architectural Theory at the University of South Australia. He is investigating aspects of neo-metabolism in the soft infrastructure supporting urbanism, and is completing book projects on topics including Doorknobs (Bloomsbury) and Specifying Ambient Worlds (Ashgate).
Fernando Romero con Arup Group e Gehry, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City (2011)

Fernando Romero con Arup Group e Gehry, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City (2011)