Thoughts on a critique of interdisciplinarity, subjectivity, & creativity

What could one possibly have to say against interdisciplinarity, subjectivity and creativity? Nothing. On their own, there is nothing wrong with words and their meaning. However, in the context of how they are used in practice, sometimes misunderstood, stretched too far or simply abused there is much that can be critiqued. This is, therefore, no an argument against any of these categories – it is a critique – or as the title suggests, notes towards a possible critique. To be clear, a critique is not a stance against something – students often misunderstand what is meant by critique, but we are, I believe, also losing the habit of critique, a culture of questioning, debating, interrogating and probing the origins and structure of ideas, methods and concepts. It is in the absence of this that problems arise with interdisciplinarity, subjectivity and creativity.

Interdisciplarity

I have nothing against the idea of inter- or multi-disciplinary knowledge or practice. I was trained as an architect but also learned to paint and produce digital music among other creative practices. Architecture is not only well suited to interdisciplinary practice it often demands it. But one problem is the limited scope of fields outside of architecture that are actually engaged with. Painting, sculpture, film and philosophy are commonly referenced but typography, economics and politics are rarely consulted. Interdisciplinary exercises are also often carried out without great knowledge or understanding of any of the fields being worked with. It has become all too easy to apply the latest software technologies to an architectural process to generate novel results. Yet the reason, character, and purpose of the results (and necessity for them) remain obscure and unquestioned. For example, the current fad for parametric design processes often takes place in isolation without any reference to the economic, social, environmental or political ramifications of the method and its results. The results are frequently both formal and ahistorical. This points to one of the misuses of interdisciplinary practices – the foregrounding of process over questions of intent, purpose or the absence of clear questions or problems that are being addressed. Projects and research bids alike are often based solely on the premise that such-and-such field has never been combined with such-and-such field. Of course the results of any new collaborative efforts are bound to be novel, but how does what assess their value? Are value, import and effect even categories that interest anyone today?

Subjectivity:

“The legacy of cultural and architectural relativism over the last three decades has proved devastating. So private are our worlds, critical practice struggles, as it must, to create any shared ground.” Roger Connah

It is easy to dismiss any critique of subjectivity as wanting to emphasis objectivity, but again, the issue is not about subjectivity as a negative category in itself but of its misuse. Postmodernist theories have contributed a valuable and important shift from the objective and progress based modernist practices that preceded it to a greater understanding and emphasis on the role of subjectivity – particularly of how users and consumers contribute to the construction of meaning from things and situations. But this has had the negative effect of allowing designers, makers and producers to relinquish any responsibility for what they construct. One can no longer question processes, methods or results on the basis of an analysis of how it an object was made. To do so would supposedly devalue the role of the consumer in constructing their own meaning while privileging the idea that meanings are produced by the maker or inherent in the object* itself. Yet, what is it that is being interpreted? From what is meaning being made if not the object being consumed? This does not mean that meaning emanates from objects but that they are the basis of interpretations and subjective experiences and that as such they delimit, suggest, frame or steer the possible range of subjective reactions.

In an effort to shift emphasis away from objects the processes of their making has attained greater and greater significance both in educational and practical contexts. We no longer uses design processes to arrive at finite, objective solutions to things but rather use processes to multiply possible and potential meanings. This suggests where the emphasis on interdisciplinary processes may have come from. Process are no longer methods that are meant to arrive at conclusions but acts of constructing which are continued and completed by consumers (e.g. ‘the text is made by the reader’ or ‘the reader completes the process of writing’). It is ironic, however, how a focus on process has turned into an emphasis on the maker and paradoxically relies heavily on the idea of authorship (even if it is no longer a single author producing a coherent and unified product). Consequently, we see a re-emergence of the idea of the ‘aura’ of authorship (re: Walter Benjamin). While such paradoxes and complexities may provide richness to certain art practices, they are anachronistic in architecture. There are few fields more collaborative, less pure from an authorship perspective – yet is there a field of production where the stamp of the designer or author is more privileged? That is, privileged in the sense that the name of the designer on its own ensures certain values, in particular the aura of the singular and individual masterwork? In academic contexts processes focusing on the construction of narratives to inform design concepts often end up being about fully resolved, hermetic or self-contained stories derived from the author’s perspective. So although they may be subjective and interpretative insights into contexts, briefs or histories behind a design project they are also highly individual and authoritative while simultaneously reaffirming the designer’s point of view as having greater importance than any other. In short, it reinforces a hierarchy with the designer’s capabilities and unique (unique in the sense of better not different) insight at the top. Architectural criticism dances around this issue questioning the rise of ‘starchitects’ and iconic architecture, but nowhere does it question or uncover this regressive condition. Architects, it seems, have not accepted the death of the author.

Creativity:

Creativity is at the centre of cultural production, design and making – it is perhaps for this very reason that it is rarely dissected. My basis for a critique of creativity, like the other areas, is based on misinterpretation and misuse. The problems I see with how creativity is constructed and the meaning that it is given is implicit in the two sections above. Firstly, many mistake novelty for creativity – they see creativity as imagining or making things that are as unlike existing solutions as possible. In addition, many believe (because they a taught) that creativity must be visibly present, we must be able to clearly see radical differences that announce the imagination and creativity of the author. Pursuing this line leads many to abuse interdisciplinary approaches, blurring, combining and overlapping various disciplines for the sake of expressive or visual novelty. Secondly, many see the source of creativity as originating from an expression of subjectivity, that is, creativity becomes synonymous with individualism. The originality or inventiveness of an object is then evaluated with reference to the author rather than against a particular challenge, other approaches or a historical context.

The worst misapprehension and abuse of creativity is perhaps found in the teaching of architecture practiced in many institutions. This consists of removing as many parameters and obstacles as possible and putting the student in the position of having to invent briefs, sites, approaches, methods, technologies and all the rest. Delimiting any of these areas is thought to impinge on the creative potential of the student and of the project. Yet how do you measure invention and creative capacity if you are allowed to make up, change and abandon design parameters at will? The situation has reached the point where the success of a design studio is measured by the extent to which each project is utterly unlike the others. Artificial diversity is generated on the premise of individual expression.

I would argue that parameters are a critical component of creativity. They form the basis on which you can measure your development or compare alternative approaches. Although there are no longer agreed criteria for determining value (function, beauty, unity, etc.) we can still, even in a postmodern mindset, establish evaluative criteria. Here it becomes necessary to make clearer distinction between art practices and design practices. Somewhere along the line design must engage with the solving of a problem, brief or aim. Although I believe that art also thrives when it engages with criteria and parameters I must leave this aside for now.

Two anecdotes:

1. When visiting Walter Gropius’s house in Massachusetts the guide told us about how the chair, a gift from Marcel Breuer, were prototypes he was working on at the time. During the restoration of the house it was decided to have them re-plated. The technician, having taken them apart for the process, couldn’t put them back together – at least initially. He had failed to notice that they were not four identical chairs. Each chair incorporated minor changes, tweaks and alterations. Because the chairs looked fairly similar to each other we can assume that the differences were to do with details or proportions, but most likely with how they were put together – with how they were made and assembled.

2. When Frank Gehry launched his bend plywood chair designs they were met with praise and enthusiasm. The Museum of Modern Art in New York put together a small exhibit on their design. What struck me were the drawings of the chair and the finished details. The chairs evolved through a series of squiggly loose sketches which very much fit the idea of the form. However, peering underneath the chairs to see how the bent plywood loops had been resolved structurally it turned out that they simply ended and were glued to the bottom of the seat.

Brueur vs Gehry

What these two chair designs demonstrated were polar opposites in terms of design process, material investigation, notion of creativity and the role of aesthetics. There is no doubt that Breuer valued the look of his chairs and that they were very much driven by a desired image but this creative desire was rooted in their making. Gehry’s chairs appear to be about material and technology but there is no evidence of engaging with the problem of connection or even of the formal challenge posed by designed with a loop. How do you terminate it? How do you create connections? It is not so much that glue was used but that in this particular case it simply sidestepped problems that were quite integral to the whole idea of the chair. Or were they? It would seem that the idea was simply the image and that how one gets there or how it is made no longer means anything (no longer means anything to the designer but also no longer has cultural meaning).

There is some form of creativity in what Gehry does – I can’t deny that – but it is, for me, a severely impoverished and easy creativity. Breuer’s approach accepted and ultimately resolved the aesthetic, pragmatic and technological issues associated with his chair. We don’t have to like the result, but as a way of understanding creativity as being more than ‘what you feel’ it can’t be faulted.

The sum of the combination of the last two categories has resulted in a curious paradox. Having been freed from the objectifying shackles of modernism, the more open and interpretative approach of postmodernism is resulting in ahistorical, formal and hermetic proposals. More and more projects become signature designs, referring more to the author as interpreter and subjective maker than to context. References to context (historical, cultural, or of place) are riddled through projects but only as validated (or cleansed) by the singular and individual creator. Two models emerge from this – I say two, but in reality they are the same, differing only in external appearance. One is the signature style we see coming from Foster, Rogers, Libeskind, Hadid, Calatrava and so on. The other is the chameleon exemplified by OMA, Neutelings and Riedijk, Herzog and de Meuron, Tschumi and Nouvel. It’s a big net to cast of these many diverse practices but the work begs the question of what we have gained by the loss of a collective base or ground for shared discourse for the sake of unleashing a proliferation of individual statements into something as socially constructed as architecture.

*I use object in the widest sense of cultural production so that it refers to things, events and experiences.

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One thought on “Thoughts on a critique of interdisciplinarity, subjectivity, & creativity

  1. Pingback: Structuralism | The Sleep of Rigour

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