Architectures, Natures & Data: The Politics of Environments Conference Tallinn

Tuesday March 14th 2017 by Peter Thomas Lang

Department of Urban Studies, Faculty of Architecture, Estonian Academy of Arts


Architectures, Natures & Data: The Politics of Environments

20-22 April 2017
Tallinn, Estonia
Estonian Writers’ House, Harju 1

April 20-23, 2017

Two themes stand out prominently in discussions, projects and strategies that are at the forefront of contemporary urbanisation. It is, on the one hand, the question of ecology, where the city and architecture are reconceptualised in “green” terms, such as sustainability, resilience, metabolic optimisation and energy efficiency. On the other hand, there is the cybernetic question, where the futures of architecture and urbanisation are staked upon the pervasive use of digital communication, interactive technologies, ubiquitous computing, and the “big data”. Moreover, these two questions have become increasingly intertwined as two facets of a single environmental question: while real-time adjustments, behaviour optimisation and “smart” solutions are central to urban environmental agenda, the omnipresent network of perpetually interacting digital objects constitutes itself as a qualitatively new environment within which urban citizens are enfolded. But, as digital networks become our “second nature,” we also hark back to the models derived from the “first nature.”

There is growing pressure on architects, urbanists and planners to deliver ecological and techno-informational solutions, with (self-)monitoring of citizens “behaviour”, optimisation of the buildings “performance” and smoothing of urban “flows”, along with the respective substitution of democratic politics by automated governance models. As such, it is ever more important to interrogate the historical, theoretical, methodological and epistemological assumptions beneath the above set of processes that can be described, following Michel Foucault, as environmental governmentality. These questions will be explored under three thematic tracks.

Optimised urban ecosystems

While urbanisation had for centuries relied on nature as its constitutive outside—as a resource and as a fantasy—it is only during the 1970s that the urban-nature dichotomy was subjected to the paradigm of limits and risks. Protection, conservation and sustainability had been institutionalised as regulative planning ideas in the following decades and the city itself was thereby reconceptualised as an ecosystem. More recently, however, urban “ecosystems” are being subjected to the criteria of resilience, and the ideals of harmony and balance replaced with emergence and complexity. Urban planning and development are transformed into variants of metabolic governance, the objective of which is to optimise energy flows, smooth eco-infrastructures, and stimulate ecosystemic self-organisation, even at the price of insulating the optimised, smooth and self-organised from the labour on which it essentially rests.

What are the histories and futures of sustainability, resilience and ecological optimisation and how can they be addressed as epistemic categories beyond their implied “solutionist” imperative? What roles have architectures and urbanisms played in these epistemic transformations? What are the broader political consequences of thinking the city as an ecosystem and urbanisation as a metabolic flow? To what extent is the widely analysed shift from planning and government to management and governance (or from Fordism to post-Fordism more generally) itself rooted in the urban ecological imperative of the last 40 years?

Architectural turn to nature?

In terms of their relationship with nature, urbanisms and architectures today are caught in a peculiar paradox. On one side these disciplines recognise that there is no pure nature, that nature has been “planetary urbanised”. On the other hand, they are drawn to the idea of pure nature as a blueprint for spatial action. The morphology and morphogenesis of biological organisms inspire ostensibly resourceful tectonic solutions and efficient material performance. The evolutionary model and the ecological cycling of nutrients inspire ostensibly non-deterministic, open-ended models of urbanisation.

But why and how have biomimesis and ecomimesis come to constitute an unquestioned ideal for architecture and urbanism in the first place? What is a more fundamental historical and epistemological stake underneath their biomimetic and ecomimetic impulses? Why has nature, as described by natural sciences, been appropriated as a model and a teacher? Why is nature viewed as inherently efficient and intelligent and how does current architectures’ “turn to nature” differ from earlier such turns? What are the social costs of urbanisms’ green, “clean-tech” imaginations?

“Big data” and urban subjectification

Similar questions can be directed at the notions of human nature and subjectivity. As the proliferation of data de-stabilises human subjectivity, rendering individuals into profiles and substituting individuation with algorithmic personalisation, the idea of a human-friendly city continues to inform urban design. While we expect that “big data” will help us to better design “for people” and make cities more “liveable”, we tend to ignore how these data simultaneously undo the very meaning of people and life. The ultimate embodiment of this paradox is the “smart city,” wherein puerile idea of a desirable urbanity correlates with the transformation of life into a data stream.

How have the environmental powers of architectures and urbanisms mutated since these disciplines started to unfold subjects in cybernetic environments? Who are the past, present and future subjects of digital governmentality-through-environments? Who is the “smart”, optimised, efficiently behaving and algorithmically desiring citizen? And, in what sense, if any, can they be called a democratic citizen? Have social classes and political parties been replaced by de-territorialised swarms? Has government been replaced by environmental modulation?

Keynote speakers

Matthew Gandy

Matthew Gandy is Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, UK and the Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, UK. He is a cultural, urban, and environmental geographer with particular interests in landscape, infrastructure, and more recently bio-diversity. His book Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City (MIT Press, 2002) was winner of the 2003 Spiro Kostof award for the book within the previous two years “that has made the greatest contribution to our understanding of urbanism and its relationship with architecture”. His book The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity, and The Urban Imagination (The MIT Press, 2014) was awarded the 2014 AAG Meridian Award for Outstanding Scholarly Work in Geography. He is currently writing a research monograph on bio-diversity and urban nature. Matthew has been a visiting scholar at Columbia University, New York; the University of California, Los Angeles; Newcastle University; the Technical University, Berlin; the Humboldt University, Berlin; and the University of the Arts, Berlin. He was Founder and Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory (2005-11) and is a co-founder of the Urban Salon. Since 2013 he has been co-editor of The International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.

Antoinette Rouvroy

Doctor of Laws of the European University Institute (Florence), Antoinette Rouvroy is permanent research associate at the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) and senior researcher at the Research Centre Information, Law and Society, Law Faculty, University of Namur (Belgium). She is the editor (with Mireille Hildebrandt) of Law, Human Agency and Autonomic Computing (Routldege, 2011). In her writings, she has addressed, among other things, issues of privacy, data protection, non-discrimination, equality of opportunities, due process in the context of “data-rich” environments (the so-called genetic revolution, the so-called computational turn) with an approach combining legal and political philosophy. Her current interdisciplinary research interests revolve around what she has called algorithmic governmentality. Under this Foucauldian neologism, she explores the semiotic-epistemic, political, legal and philosophical implications of the computational turn (Big Data, algorithmic profiling, industrial personalisation). She explores the impact of algorithmic governmentality on our modes of production of what counts and accounts for “reality”, on our modes of government, on the modalities of critique, resistance and recalcitrance, and on processes of individual and collective subjectivation or individuation. She is also member of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS)’s Ethical Advisory Board (EAB) and member of the French CNIL (Commission Informatique et Libertés)’s Foresight committee.

Douglas Spencer

Dr Douglas Spencer teaches in the Graduate School of Design at the Architectural Association, London, and at University of Westminster, London. He is the author of The Architecture of Neoliberalism (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2016). Douglas is a critical theorist of contemporary architecture and its relationship to the production of subjectivity under processes of neoliberalisation. He teaches and writes on the history and theory of architecture, urbanism and landscape. He is a regular contributor to Radical Philosophy, has written chapters for recent collections on architecture, politics and critical theory – The Missed Encounter of Radical Philosophy with Architecture (Nadir Lahiji ed. 2014, Bloomsbury), and Architecture Against the Post-Political: Essays in Reclaiming the Critical Project (Nadir Lahiji ed. 2014, Routledge) – and has published numerous essays in journals such The Journal of Architecture, AD, AA Files, New Geographies, Volume, and Praznine.

Architecture, Nature and Data

Architecture, Nature and Data
Abstract. Cybernetic Forests/ Peter Lang
Around the late seventies the Florentine critic Lara Vinca Masini identified two
fundamental currents that could help explain an increasingly irreconcilable schism
dividing the arts and architectural professions. Vinca Masini distinguished topological
and morphological themes common to both art and architecture. As one of the
principle curators invited to develop the 1978 Art and Architecture Biennale in
Venice, Lara Vinca Masini expanded on the main themes of the Biennale, “Dalla
natura all’ arte, dall’ arte alla natura,” that can be read, more or less, as focusing on
the nature of art and on the art of nature. From Vinca Masini’s perspective, these
two categories replicated the split in the arts and most specifically in architecture,
where by 1978, two distinct camps faced off: under the headings “Topologia,” that
included the Radical, conceptual and experimental designers, who she considered
operating within multidisciplinary practices—politics, humanities, the arts,
architecture. On the other hand, “Morfogenesi,” described the autonomy movement
realigning architecture within the formal confines of its discipline, also known as “la
Lara Vinca Masini’s “Toplogia”category featured the Florentine Gruppo 9999,
renowned for having opened their experimental multi-media discotheque Space
Electronic in 1969. 9999 were involved in the electronic audio monitoring of trees, for
their designs of universities set in cybernetic forests, and the making of a domestic
house into a spiritual vegetable garden. Questions such as these related to
environmental systems, the politics of consumption, the degradation of the planet,
dwindling resources all remained central to how the Italian Radical movement
operated from the mid-sixties into the seventies. An important convergence came
about over the announcement of the competition for the University of Florence to be
set along the foothills of Monte Morello in Sesto Fiorentino, deliberated in 1970. The
competition became an ideal occasion for rethinking education within the context of a
new academic campus, and elicited a number of projects that crossed early
computer technologies with education, open infrastructures and environmental
The Florence competition triggered a set of proposals from such noted groups as
Archizoom, Superstudio and Gruppo 9999. Archizoom put forward a Climatic
Universal System, based on an infinite plan that was part of their extruded city series
(rendered using typographic symbols produced with a manual typewriter), while
Gruppo 9999 created a high tech university in the middle of the woods in the spirit of
St. Francis of Assisi. Between 1971 and 1972 Superstudio published 5 Fundamental
Acts: Life, Education, Ceremony, Love and Death. Specifically, “Education”
envisioned the making of an entirely decentralized educational architecture
composed of 5 continental systems each run by a central computer—networked via a
6th station on the Moon. This paper will review specific projects involving Radical
design and their hybrid cybernetic strategies, that include reflections on the future of
architectural education, the relationship between architecture and nature, and other
early cybernetic experiments.