Adhocism by Charles Jencks, Nathan Silver
Trans. Jeong Hye Kim, Jay Lee
Seoul: Hyunsil Books, 2016 (expanded and updated edition, MIT Press, 2013) (from the translator’s afterword … draft)
When the extended edition was published from the MIT Press after four decades of the first publication, Financial Times reviewed that the book “now appears prescient, this is an exploration of an idea of design that blends Dada, high-tech and DIY. The result is close to contemporary ideas about hacking and mass customisation.” Jencks reminds of making as an alternative to the mass production and consumption, and emphasizes the reason why individuals need to create their own environment as follows: “By realizing his immediate needs, by combining ad hoc parts, the individual sustains and transcends himself. Shaping one’s personal environment toward desired ends can break the vicious circle of sensory deprivation; much of the present environment, blank and unresponsive, is a key to idiocy and brainwashing.” (p. 23) Furthermore, he claims that “Having architects represent the people’s design interest has the same drawback that representative government has: it can never be a complete representation and it actively discourages people from shaping their own locale and taking care of it.”
When I first saw this book, I was wondering the reason why Charles Jencks, who is one of the most renowned postmodernist architects, emphasized the importance of the ad-hoc so much as to coin the term ‘adhocism,’ and how postmodernism and adhocism are interrelated to each other. Postmodernism in the late-twentieth century was developed in different forms in art and architecture and the idea of adhocism hints at the expanded understanding and interpretation of postmodernist ideas and beyond.
On the one hand, postmodernist art, rooted in the criticism on white male dominaant Western modernist ideology, notably criticized the abstract [expressionist] art and the artists’ community, and developed in connection with feminist and postcolonial discourses. It made a critique on overall modernist social structures and representation through diverse visual forms as well. On the other hand, postmodernist architects, while exploring an alternative to the modernist architecture that had concentrated on the simple and functionalist, attempted eclecticism, parodies on the classical style, imageation of the façade and so forth. Although the two genres developed different forms, both were commonly began by critiquing modernism that was founded on reason, logic, norm, hierarchy and determinism. Meanwhile, adhocism, while including the critique on modernism, explored and practiced broader meaning of making and the essence of creation. Jencks, in this book, rarely mentions postmodernism. It may be because, as he said, “adhocism is not a unified world view in the manner of the more familiar ideologies or “isms” which are offered as such.” (p. 35). Adhocism is rather a mode of making, or even a mode of creation and production for the ground of life than a style that represents a certain period of time. Seen from this perspective, we can understand why and in what context the authors discusse cosmology, evolutionism and the process of revolution in the discourse of adhocism.
Environment of our own making
“R. D. Laing and other psychoanalysts show that men need to manipulate and form their local environment to sustain their identity and sanity.” (p. 23)
When the extended edition was published from the MIT Press after four decades of the initial publication, Financial Times reviewed that the book “now appears prescient, this is an exploration of an idea of design that blends Dada, high-tech and DIY. The result is close to contemporary ideas about hacking and mass customisation.” Jencks reminds of making as an alternative to the mass production and consumption, and emphasizes the reason why individuals need to create their own environment as follows: “By realizing his immediate needs, by combining ad hoc parts, the individual sustains and transcends himself. Shaping one’s personal environment toward desired ends can break the vicious circle of sensory deprivation; much of the present environment, blank and unresponsive, is a key to idiocy and brainwashing.” (p. 23) Furthermore, he claims that “Having architects represent the people’s design interest has the same drawback that representative government has: it can never be a complete representation and it actively discourages people from shaping their own locale and taking care of it.” (p. 65) Architects/designers are often worried that such approaches may lead the design profession to an ambiguous domain. Alternatively, however, we can conceive the role of the professionals not as the one that creates a form or style, but that proposes a better way for an individual to inquire into and set up one’s own environment, which will ultimately push the boundary of design as to include even more diverse genres and sectors. Chapter 4 on the consumerist democracy deeply examines the human being as a maker, proposing an alternative to the standardized and homogenized modern design environment.
Of many new phenomena in the twenty-first century, rapid technological development, an awareness of and changing attitude toward environmental degradation triggered these movements become more significant. Due to the paramatrix technologies and computer programs using indeterministic algorithm, designers are now able to create products or structures of all forms. As general users as well as designers use 3D printers, customized production and consumption will be even more prevalent. In response to the decades of conspicuous consumption, the depletion of resources, and severe damage to environment—still more severe in this century than the times of first edition was published—, people have sought for a new mode of production and consumption. Reclaiming reusable products or parts of the product is the primary and highly efficient method of recycling because it does not cost the reprocessing costs. Jencks found the origin of such alternative consumption in the counter cultures of the Hippie and Yippie! who resisted the consumerist culture in the 1960s. He also extended the boundaries of the recyclables from product to urban space to virtual media space. While mentioning the degree to which recycling of product and space would contribute to reducing the urban poverty, Jencks points out the nexus where the environmental issues and social inequality interconnected. Above all, he suggests the ways in which we could reuse abandoned spaces, including those are unused at night and private ones that are used inefficiently. This may suggest a breakthrough in the increasingly deteriorating urban housing issues and unequal use of space—the use of private space for public purposes indeed remains as a challenge particularly in the legal sense. In addition, now almost all the media systems, the biggest influence on the social, cultural and political decisions, are becoming privatized, and thus we also have to seriously take into account the ways in which we can fairly distribute the time (time as spatial concept) of media and use it for public purposes.
Indeterminacy and combinability
“‘Everything can always become something else: this is the liberating slogan inherent in creations …” (p. 23)
Adhocism, using the available resources properly ‘for this immediate particular need and purpose,’ is premised on that the purpose of all resources is indeterminate. Adhocism allows plurality as much as the use and function of the material are widely open. With regards to diverse interpretations of the material’s use and function, Jencks places emphasis on the indeterminacy of the material itself rather than seeing it as contextual shift of meaning. In chapter two, he points out that only pluralistic open interpretations lead to the division of knowledge, while explicating the philosophical meanings of indeterminacy and uncertainty through pluralist cosmology. He also argues that pluralism and politics can be possible only when the final purpose is not determined and open discussion is allowed, and then extends the discourse of adhocism to the social and political dimension. (p. 33-36)
Jencks conceives making, creating and construction itself, as well as recycling, can become one fashion of regeneration through functional shift and assemblage of parts. All things do not come out of Tabula rasa but of Tabula script that is full of historical records. This is the reason why the author mentions the evolution theory in chapter three. Jencks takes a stand that the internal selection, rather than the external conditions, leads to a variation based on the idea that every form has the ‘limiting potential’ and thus every sub-structure selectively combines with each other within the net of reciprocal relations. The primary premise, here, is that there are pre-existing sub-structures that would evolve into a new form or species through structural combination. He uses a metaphor of palimpsest to explain the evolutionary processes, describing it as a repetitive writing over the past scripts. The concept of palimpsest is perhaps the most appropriate and crucial in the discussion of the ‘city’ in chapter five. City is a space of complexity of dynamics and cultures of diverse groups, which continues re-morphing through scattering and gathering throughout times. Many cities including modern metropolises, however, have attempted a totalitarian development, restricting active voluntary growth and micro orders of the city. (p. 33, p. 81) Jencks asserts that human beings in the flow of space and time experience the urban space as articulate segments, and that complexity must be distinguished from confusion or indeterminacy. Since the city is an organic complex consisting of a combination of articulate components, building a new town upon tabula rasa after erasing the pre-existing complex orders is not only unable to create a better environment, but often endangers the relative orders that create and maintain the city as a social domain.
A critique of modernist architecture and design
“The present environment is tending towards both extreme visual simplicity and extreme functional complexity. This double and opposite movement is eroding our emotional transaction with and comprehension of objects. (p. 73)
For Jencks, one of the most important purposes of suggesting adhocism is to criticize the modernist architecture. Mies van der Rohe and his buildings which are the epitome of the modernist style is the target of the criticism. Jencks found the most essential difference between modernist architecture/design and adhocism in its mode of problem solving. He points out that unlike modernist architects including Mies, certain architects came to terms with the fallibility of the actual world and saw its inconsistency as a metaphysical essence on a par with harmony. (p. 77) Admitting the value of disconcertedness—due to the limited external conditions, more often due to the capital—equal to that of harmony is not only a change of perspective but also a change of worldview. An honest and articulate revelation of the realistic limits in front of tricky problems can generate a new expression. Furthermore, at this very point arises the revolution, he claims. In relation to the main-sub relationships, we might be able to reconsider the role of decoration vis-à-vis structure. In this sense, decoration is not merely the covering of the problem (or the one that is regarded as problem), but an external presentation of the internal cause which often comes into problematic forms. It is, thus, not the counter-concept of the form that follows function or the essential cause of performance. Decoration does not refer to the functionless form but an articulate part in its own right. Postmodernist architecture shows more decorations than modernist architecture, in general. The decorative elements is not a meaningless functional interference into a smooth flow of form, but a presentation of the physical restriction confronted in the process, socio-economic limit, and transparent accumulation of time. From this point of view, we can re-view the architecturaland design history as a mode of making and making as a mode of life rather than a history of form and style created in the state of tabula rasa. The new approach will also help recover the value of thus far hidden architects and designers, and their works.
Critical evolution of natural, built and social environment
“Rather than understanding revolution just as an engine of social change, it makes as much sense to see it as a “natural process,” or at least a likely recurrent event for any society.” (p. 92)
In the new introduction to the extended version of the book, Jencks asserts the social meaning of adhocism including the importance of political pluralism and the ad hoc revolution, while taking the example of the ad hoc culture and public space appeared in the Tarir Square of Egypt, the mecca of the Arab Spring of 2011. This reaffirms the reason why he had to mention the historical revolutions and their development and failure along with their meanings in the present context. Chapter six, on the one hand, criticizes the historical revolutions based on vulgar Marxism which claims that human desire for power and material dominates history and human consciousness. On the other hand, the political organizations (of proper scale and form with which anyone can engage) and public space—the common conditions of all revolutions—still remain the crucial parts in social change.
Throughout the book, Jencks explains the evolutive processes, caused by ad hoc combination, along with analogies between nature, machine and society. In chapter three, he explicates the creations and developments in natural environment and built environment (things, machine and space), occurring through selective combinations upon a state of tabula script, from a critical evolutionary point of view that challenges the totalitarian determinism. Chapter six, as mentioned above, illuminates the ways in which society has evolved throughout history by way of apparatus for change—the revolution. Such analogous relations are premised on transversality across the natural environmental ecology, social ecology and human beings’ mental ecology.
In the new introduction, Jencks mentions the High Line of New York as an epitome of the adhocist architecture that links the city’s past with the present. For the High Line, the architects and landscape designers renovated the long abandoned elevated railroad once used for logistics transport into a park. They created the leisure space while preserving the natural plants, and made new spatial relationships between the structure and neighbouring buildings, which became one of the most exemplary cases of historical combination. With regards to its successful palimpsest combinations and achievement in ad hoc architecture, Jencks rightly analyzed and evaluated. However, he does not seem to be concerned with what has been occurring in the social ecologies after the environmental transformation. Since its opening in 2009, the High Line has become an internationally renowned tourist site, and accordingly, the real estate of the region has risen considerably. Therefore, tenants who cannot afford the raised rent have to move to more marginal regions. The renovation of the abandoned modern industrial facilities, compared to other developments, more rapidly shifts the existing use value into exchange value, accelerating the gentrification. This testifies that in urban landscape design, transversality—which crosses natural environment, built environment, and their social impact—is even more crucial than in any other fields.
A critique of the modernist thinking and design approaches that Jencks raised four decades ago is still valid, and even more elaborate alternatives are required now to respond to rapid changes in technological and socio-cultural environment. Adhocism has not become a significant mainstream style, yet has never lost and will never lose its ground as a mode of making and a mode of life. A continuing application of the articulate ad hoc methods to the present situation will open various thresholds, if not a complete solution or entirely new alternative to what is regarded as a problem.
Jeong Hye Kim
20 June 2015