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Instabilities and Potentialities:
Notes on the Nature of Knowledge in Digital Architecture
Matthew Allen

Chandler Ahrens and Aaron Sprecher

It is an odd book that begins by suggesting that we read another book, but there it is, in the fourth sentence: Georges Teyssot exhorting us to buy the recent translation of Gilbert Simondon’s early masterwork, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, originally published in French in 1958 (viii). Here we find in miniature the conundrum at the heart of what has been called “digital architecture” for the past thirty years: computational techniques have proliferated even as their original philosophical raison d’être has languished. As Mario Carpo argued in The Alphabet and the Algorithm (2011), the agenda of “the digital” was only incidentally related to computers; it depended fundamentally on a conceptual retooling that never came to pass within the architectural discipline at large. The “nature of knowledge in digital architecture,” as this volume edited by Chandler Ahrens and Aaron Sprecher has it, concerns a philosophy of technology exemplified by Simondon. Instabilities and Potentialities is among the most convincing recent efforts to think through this philosophy of technology again in light of contemporary practices in architecture.

Simondon’s epistemology has challenging implications. Architectural historians, theorists, and critics have long been familiar with architectural practice, but to keep up with contemporary developments, they would now need to be conversant in software and fabrication methods that change from year to year. This is where Instabilities and Potentialities comes in: thirteen of its twenty essays include case studies in contemporary digital practices. (The remaining seven are more theoretical and historical in orientation.) The volume is divided into sections on “Images,” “Objects,” and “Discipline,” but this is a relatively loose categorization. It should be taken instead as a burgeoning cornucopia. Several computer-aided fabrication techniques are presented, along with practices of simulation and modeling, sensing and feedback, image manipulation and visualization. Bewilderingly, each architect appears to have cobbled together their own complex technical assemblages and workflows. This material is of profound interest to those of us trying to understand the state of knowledge in this architectural subculture and to architects curious about directions of research currently underway.
A more thorough reading of Instabilities and Potentialities yields a further wealth of theoretical insights. Ahrens and Sprecher’s volume builds on two major developments of the 1960s. The first was the computer revolution. As Arindam Dutta explained in his introduction to A Second Modernism (2013), the vast technical apparatus assembled by American military and business organizations was concretized into intricate room-sized devices beginning in the 1940s, and—by a quirk of the military-industrial-academic complex—artists and architects in the 1960s were sometimes allowed to use these devices for their own purposes. The second revolution relevant to digital architecture was the rise of what François Cusset called “French Theory.”1 It began with figures such as Simondon and Georges Canguilhem in the 1940s, and it was wrapping up in the early 1970s with the mid-career works of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. This correlation with French critical theory is evident in the volume’s focus on technê, such as Alvin Huang’s claim that “technê is an embodied knowledge, a sensibility, that is a result of the tools (technologies), techniques (methods), and contingencies (possibilities) of a discipline that guides them in practice” (126). Teyssot turns to the example of Simondon “refusing any idea of a general history of technics” and instead generating “phylogenetic lineages” to define the “specific, precise operations” of technical objects (ix). More simply put, this volume affirms that there is no substitute for embodied knowledge—a maxim that was also central to the epistemological revolution of the 1960s. Foucault wrote about disciplinary practices as embodied knowledge; Simondon wrote similarly about engineers and combustion engines. Mark Linder even quotes constructivist artist Naum Gabo, who was in vogue in the 1960s: “We know only what we do, what we make [sic] what we construct; and all that we make, all that we construct, are realities” (26).

Figure 1. FreelandBuck, Detail of Spherical lens, Dodecahedron, Parallel Hatching (2016). This version of the image appears on the FreelandBuck official website:  https://www.freelandbuck.com/speculations/projections/.

Instabilities and Potentialities is not explicitly about these earlier events. One of its shortcomings is that it reaches back only sporadically. In their introduction, Ahrens and Sprecher repeat the platitude that “prior to the last 20 years, information technologies were considered outside of the architectural discipline” (1), thus effacing the pivotal work of earlier figures and generating a form of disciplinary amnesia. The last essay in the volume—written by Theodora Vardouli on architect Lionel March—directly contradicts this trope, as does other recent scholarship, such as Molly Wright Steenson’s Architectural Intelligence (2017). Ahrens and Sprecher’s oversimplification is understandable: the architects who took up computers and French philosophy early on were not charismatic designers in the classic mold, and thus they do not fit easily into the epic tale of “the digital” that architects have wanted to tell themselves. Interviews with Greg Lynn and Thom Mayne, transcribed in the book, confirm that the primary subject of Ahrens and Sprecher’s volume is recent architectural practice.

Figure 2. Pascal Werner, Johannes Rebsamen, and Matthias Vollmer, Gotthard Landscape: The Unexpected View (2014). This color version appears on the Christophe Girot official website: https://girot.arch.ethz.ch/research/gotthard-landscape-the-unexpected-view.

The essays by historians and theorists that do reach backward, however, are uniformly excellent. Teyssot’s foreword offers a sensitive reading of Simondon’s philosophy, which is echoed in the introduction and section prefaces by the editors and a fantastic essay by Alessandra Ponte that places Simondon in relationship to Jakob von Uexküll, Deleuze, and others in a vital lineage of ecological thinking. Laurent Stadler’s short essay places the beginning of the fascination with machines in architecture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Linder’s essay on image thinking is erudite and lively; it would fit well in a volume spanning the philosophy of science and visual studies. Nicholas de Monchaux’s tangents on Jane Jacobs and cybernetics prod us to appreciate the ambiguities of systems thinking as applied to the built environment; he reminds us, obliquely, that neither “the digital” nor “architecture” is straightforwardly virtuous.

Though the practitioners in the volume (David Freeland, Brennan Buck, Dana Cupkova, Viola Ago, John Carpenter, Volkan Alkanoglu, Alvin Huang, Pablo Lorenzo-Eiroa, Satoru Sugihara, Tom Shaked, Uri Dubin, and Jose Sanchez) rarely acknowledge their inheritances from within the field of architecture, their intellectual inheritances are front and center. Almost all these practitioners employ a related lexicon: emergence, complexity, generativity, potentiality, performance, and process. This is not simply jargon. Cupkova, for example, uses water flow and erosion simulation to imagine new forms of property ownership in Pittsburgh. Sanchez looks at labor models in video games to think through Donna Haraway’s polemic on sympoietic systems. In each case, concepts migrate between disciplines in an attempt to grapple with contemporary conundrums. This appears to be a generation of architects who are curious and serious about ideas.

Figure 3. Francis Galton, Examples of Number-Forms (1888).
Figure 4. Dana Cupkova, Nicolas Azel, and Christine Mondor, EPIFLOW: Adaptive Analytical Design Framework for Resilient Urban Water Systems (2015). This color version appears on the Epiphyte Lab official website: http://www.epiphyte-lab.com/indeterminate-set.

Instabilities and Potentialities presents a profound challenge. It will come as no surprise that Ahrens and Sprecher’s volume presents very little architecture in the sense of buildings. There seems to be little interest. Lynn speaks for many when he writes that “nothing could be more boring than talking about architecture in relation to art” (186). As a subject of inquiry, the appearance of buildings is deemed inconsequential: not smart, not performative, not innovative, not engaged with contemporary concerns. Lynn suggests that architects should listen to experts in other fields (e.g., material science and fashion) to figure out where innovation is happening. This may be solid advice, but it also perpetuates what I see as an unhealthy divide in the discipline of architecture. Many architects experiment with new techniques alongside traditional building practices; the new techniques are valorized (at least in academia) while the traditional practices are dismissed as nostalgia. Antoine Picon suggests, contra Lynn, that “it is probably better to acknowledge the presence of nostalgia side by side with the desire to disrupt the extant state of things that are actually inseparable from it” (229). Looking backward and launching forward need not be seen as contradictory.


François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

Matthew Allen holds a PhD in the History and Theory of Architecture from Harvard University. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Toronto. His dissertation describes how concepts and techniques from abstract art and concrete poetry made their way into architecture through computer programming in the 1960s. Allen’s current project has to do with heaps and assemblages of data – from 18th-century collections of fragments to contemporary digital hoards. His writing has appeared in LogProjectHarvard Design MagazinePerspectives on ScienceDomus, and many other venues.

How to Cite This: Allen, Matthew. Review of Instabilities and Potentialities: Notes on the Nature of Knowledge in Digital Architecture, by Chandler Ahrens and Aaron Sprecher. JAE Online. April 10, 2020. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/review/instabilities-and-potentialities#/.

All images originally published in Chandler Ahrens and Aaron Sprecher, Instabilities and Potentialities: Notes on the Nature of Knowledge in Digital Architecture (London: Routledge, 2019), 22, 47, 38, 156.