Generating and Limiting Orders (A quicky thought before I toddle off to bed...)

As avid readers of the Design Theory portion of the blog will be aware, yesterday I mentioned Padovan's note regarding the ideological focus of Van der Laan versus Corbusier (Empathic vs. Abstract) and the underlying idea that the two approaches to order are based on the need to bring meaning to the world. In other words, they are part of a coping mechanism that allows us to understand our environment.

Now, as you will recall, I mentioned that proportional schemes are a form of generative or limiting order. There are other types of generative/limiting orders (e.g. Constructivism was a popular one a few decades ago), but they all share the same basic mechanism. They embed within a design an order, whether overt or covert, which is intended to be picked up by our perceptual system (either consciously or subconsciously).

This plays on one of the great strengths of our perceptual system, namely the ability to pick out patterns and relationships in our environment. The basic idea here is that any animal living in a complex environment (think, for instance of a jungle), needs to be very good at picking out the subtle set of patterns which denotes a predator or prey in the environment (footsteps, symmetrical patterns, certain types of curves). At a less crude level, our perceptual systems are constantly trying to figure out the underlying patterns in the universe, to understand why and how in the hope of producing a model/plan that allows us to better cope with our environment. This aspect of perception is a simple survival instinct.

Any generative or limiting scheme produces in the design created a pattern or "story" which can be perceived by the inhabitant of the design. In some cases the pattern is quite trivial (think of the thousands of mock-Constructivist designs churned out in architecture studios every year "I took this big block and rammed it into this other big block, and look, the angle is exactly 30 degrees, isn't that clever, you see, it was drafted on a drafting board with a 30-60 set-square!") in others it is so hideously complex and abstract as to be impossible to ever imagine perceiving (recall here the fevered ramblings of "post-modern" literary critique as a basis for architectural design (common in Singapore still as a 1998, I'm told)).

Padovan notes a number of times the counter-argument against proportionality in building, namely that the user has difficulty perceiving exact proportions when inhabiting a space. He basically notes that we are pretty good at seeing proportions in 3D space, which is true. But even were we not able to so perceive, we would still likely use limiting and generating languages of some form or another. We like stories, we like ordered presentations and rational ways of understanding our environments. We crave order in our lives.

Which is not to say that we always crave simple or overt order. Padovan argues (and I have argued before, and obviously both of us owe something to Venturi) that the order of complexity in a work must go beyond the simplistic to be appreciated by the modern human. The reason for this is fairly obvious; we use art and design to help us understand the universe. Art which does not have sufficient complexity to address the problems (i.e. unresolved questions) we face in our lives fails to help us better understand our environment.

Beyond the simple orders, we crave orders that reflect something about our role in the universe. We are constantly looking for patterns which reflect the absolute, which give us some way of approaching the universe.

You will note there that I'm not arguing for the simplistic application of complexity. I'm not suggesting that we brush it on with a table-top that's just a little to high, or a white spot in the middle of a black floor. This kind of compositional operation is, I think it can be argued, part of why the general public rather mistrusts designers.

You see, there is a trust between the designer/artist and the society. In effect it is that the designer/artist is responsible for enabling our ability to cope with our environment. We trust that a designer will search for a greater meaning, a higher standard, a larger dream. So much of what we see, though, does not approach this.

Which finally leads us back to the topic at hand; proportional schemes and generating and limiting orders in general. Padovan highlights rather heavily (and rightly, IMO) the fact that all significant western proportional schemes are derived from or arive at the same (Pythagorean) roots.

Pythagorus' division of the octave, the creation of an ordered set of physical relations (lengths of string) which appear to have a resonance within the human ear, hinted at a universality, a connection between something simple and rational (whole number ratios) and something sublime (musical harmony). The further discovery of the almost magical ability of the derived shapes to be combined in non-simple, but ordered structures seemed only to reinforce the idea that there was something beyond mere composition going on.

A simple ordering principle which produces complex final results that hint at the order used to produce the system.

Now, let's quickly (for some of us must sleep this evening), turn our attention to the question of generative versus limiting orders in architectural practice. Padovan draws a strong distinction between idea of Schlemmer and Van der Laan (Proportion, pp 171), respectively the application of proportion as limiting language (applied as it were, as a structure that controls or revises expression to fit within a whole) and as a generative language (applied up front, generating measures and features from a given starting point).

I will broaden the discussion to all generative and limiting languages, simply because it seems silly to need to discuss it again later for all of the other approaches to ordering.

Padovan (for those unfamiliar with him) describes himself as a "disciple" of Van der Laan, so we can expect that he will argue for the generative role of proportional languages. Indeed, I find myself seduced by the ideological position that the underlying order of a design should be present at the start of the design, informing each choice, every nuance of what is done, to reflect in all aspects the patterns and ideas which are to resonate in the mind of the inhabitant.

But there are levels of generative and limiting languages. There are grand ideas and interesting topics, stories and narratives, dances and songs, proportional schemes and compositional mechanisms, there are textural and auditory impressions, program and budget. All of these things are, to some extent, pulling and pushing every project. Schlemmer, if I can be so bold as to interpret for him, having not read the original text, was speaking narrowly of proportion, and effectively was saying that it was naught but a limiting language, something to be applied after all of the important generative languages had been exhausted, a seive which lets you play with low-level perceptual impressions, but not something to be worried about up front.

In effect, Padovan is arguing that proportional languages should be elevated in the ranking of architects until they become a primary language in the design. I'll repeat this quote from Padovan (again):

"The role of the system he discovered, the 'plastic number', is not to help make a better architecture, but rather, the role of architecture is to embody the plastic number." (Proportion, pp15)

I won't pretend to resolve the issue here. Is there still much that proportional systems can teach us? Will they help us understand and cope with our environment better? Will the perceived order they provide allow us to better cope with the complexity around us by providing, in effect, an imposed insular environment (Padovan's thesis)?

And with that I shall off to bed.


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