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Julian Varas

{Operative Systems (OS)}

In popular parlance, operative systems refer to a low-level software interface between a hardware device, an application and a user.Yet what might this expression imply for architectural practice? Based on a series of teaching experiences that took place recently at the ETH Zurich, this text attempts to describe its potential meaning in the framework of an emerging model of research-oriented architectural education. As a response to the thematic and scalar variety of the projects, it is an effort to rationalize the terms of a parallel investigation at a more abstract level, one that might contribute to establishing a realm of continuity across them and help to orient future activities. At the root of this investigation lie problems that pertain to the construction of knowledge: how can large-scale processes be articulated with local decisions? What kind of techniques can efficiently integrate disparate kinds of information? Although they have taken place in a strictly academic setting, the projects confront us with a reality that is not totally unlike that of the practice of architecture in the real world. Architects who can not restrict their field of operation to a narrowly defined territory face essentially the same question: how is it possible to navigate across different fields without falling prey to the constrained realities and specificities involved in each particular project? And, further, can operative systems dissolve the contradiction between the architect as a specialist and as a generalist? If the architect has always been an ‘agent of the outside’, the need to develop an ability to oscillate between those two positions might prove this statement to be truer than ever before. SPECIALIZATION WITHOUT FRAGMENTATION Beyond differences in their local conditions, many universities in Europe and South America are now engaging the question of how the education of architects has to be orchestrated with renewed interest and vitality. Whether they place architecture within the polytechnic tradition of engineering or, as is the case with many South American universities, within the slightly more critical perspective of a socially aware form of professionalism, the traditional systems of education are exposing their inherent limitations. It has become evident that the professional field of architecture has diversified to the extent that a single coherent course of studies can no longer cater for the specificity of the issues posed by an increasingly multifarious and technically challenging professional life. The most important universities were gradually outpaced by the world of material production and are now compelled to urgently respond to it by offering a broader menu of educational choices. Admittedly or not, the Anglo-Saxon system, with its characteristic fragmentation of the curriculum into two halves, has already emerged as the best performing teaching platform within the present context.

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The question of specialization in architecture or, more precisely—since the complexities involved in the organization of the material world already imply a de facto distribution of competences—the issue of how the actual organization of production can inform a reconfiguration of educational structures toward further specificity is therefore a relevant one.Yet it is important to realize that while the structure of the Bachelor-Master system that is being adopted seems more apt vis-à-vis the need to offer a wider set of choices, the academic system is now facing a unique opportunity to formulate the conditions of a model that progressively resolves the contradiction between the service-oriented formula of the polytechnic schools and the critical approach fostered by the liberal arts models. Even if the need for diversification in architectural education is conspicuous, the ongoing transformation might not necessarily contribute to the improvement of the current conditions if not enough effort is made to theorize, incorporate and augment an ethics and an epistemology of research in design practice. If design practices aim to maintain a certain degree of internal cohesiveness, it will be necessary to envision a model that operates consistently beyond the generalist-specialist polarity. Given the inherently tactical nature of all disciplinary knowledge in architecture, an ethics of research in education might prove to be the only meta-domain potentially able to ensure communication across fields, the continuity of the work, and perhaps even material quality. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY OF ARCHITECTURAL KNOWLEDGE Cyclically eroded by movements of destabilization, the discipline of architecture is not excepted from the paradigmatic shifts that affect the economy of knowledge as a whole. While its voluntary alignment with foreign discourses has proved to be an effective deterritorializing device against its own stagnation, the lack of proactive engagement of academia with the sphere of material production has led in recent years to its isolation and selfreferentiality. Perhaps the most conspicuous example of this situation has taken place within the Anglo-Saxon system, where an explicit distribution of social competences between universities and professional associations has had, among other effects, that of confining practitioners to very fixed and narrow fields of operation, usually defined by typological, programmatic or operational types of expertise. Acknowledging the influence of educational systems on this schema, Bob Somol points out the limitations of the simulative model usually deployed by professionalist schools—a self-fulfilling prophecy that mythicizes professional practice and therefore can hardly introduce any innovation. At the other end of the spectrum, as Alejandro Zaera Polo has corroborated, arts schools appear increasingly inept in generating performing architects. Their traditional resistance to incorporate the conventional constraints of technology, logistics or management, has promoted their critical distancing from practice. Consequently, the majority of graduates from arts schools tend to remain on the fringes of the profession, either by ideological choice or simply because of deficient preparation. As opposed to the Anglo-Saxon system, many German- and Spanish-speaking countries have traditionally relied on universities as the primary source of formal validation for all of the professions associated with material production. With their specific way of organizing the chain of control over the production processes, the prevailing polytechnic educational system has implications that go way beyond the sphere of the strictly disciplinary world. As a result of the internationalization of architectural culture, it has become apparent that these divergent tendencies in education are in turn promoting a very specific division of responsibilities on a global scale: through their declared autonomy, the advanced institutions of the Anglo-Saxon world have generated a steady output of design research, yet its repercussions in the construction industry (and the ensuing quality of the built environment) have been very moderate compared to more bureaucratic but consolidated systems such as the Swiss one. Although the actual educational landscape is not as ‘pure’ as this skeletal depiction (our own teaching practice at the ETH attempting to become an exception to that rule), the fact is that a large part of the research projects running at prestigious institutions in Europe could be smoothly transferred to an engineering department without any noticeable impact on their content or methodology. These rather schizophrenic conditions, where either research is progressive yet unable to have a significant impact on the construction processes, or where it is enslaved to the necessities of material production and therefore unable to introduce an element of alienation, constitute the ground from which the need for new systems of teaching and practicing architecture has emerged.

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RESEARCH AND INNOVATION Design research, an expression now featured in countless academic syllabuses, has become the umbrella under which a myriad of vaguely related practices legitimize their search for architectural innovation. In the best cases, it designates a form of investigation that articulates the rigour associated with technical education, with the ambition for experimentation that constitutes the traditional hallmark of the liberal arts schools. Through their appropriation of an epistemology that was previously reserved for the scientific practices, experiences such as the DRL at the Architectural Association have contributed to the consolidation of a model of education where theory, practice and system are intricately fused together. Unlike the programme of the early modernists for whom architectural innovation was mobilized by an external need (a programme of radical social transformation), today the ethic of research is grounded in the awareness that the discipline of architecture as we know it will be quickly forgotten if it is not able to expand its boundaries by internalizing emergent phenomena. Addressing the current materialist basis of the pressure for innovation, Patrik Schumacher recognizes that ‘the high art of architecture reproduces itself within the realm of ideology and is thus inherently conservative’. Rather than the medium for the expression of individual subjectivity, architecture is part of a larger engine of material production, to which it has to respond with agility. Thus, ‘the business of architecture is not excepted from the challenge of competitive innovation. The question is how the demands of an increasingly differentiated and fluid market can be met—that is, which new and relevant products or services are to be developed and which forms of organization will succeed within the evolving market and technological framework’. The reorientation of the current avant-garde from a position of resistance and critique to one of operativity can be seen as an acknowledgment of the fact that real innovation can no longer emerge from a discussion that confines itself to the interior of architectural discourse. DESIGN RESEARCH AT THE SWISS FEDERAL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY IN ZURICH In line with these considerations, the projects that follow were developed at the School of Architecture of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, as an attempt to engage with relevant actors of the industrial and service sectors. Unlike the production of Studio Basel which is mostly portrait-oriented, our search could be characterized as scenario generation-oriented. Without implying a particular chronological or hierarchical ordering, one could identify a number of initial methodological concerns that have consistently reappeared during the course of these exercises. Theming The fact that the projects work within laboratory conditions implies that before they can be framed as a response to a certain context or question, they need to be construed as a problematic field. The process of theming, i.e. the identification of the main lines of research, is initiated by the faculty and subsequently refined by the students. Each research theme is associated with working variables whose dependency on parameters pertaining to larger and smaller scale processes is diagrammed. Once these connections have been established, most of the links are severed in order to allow the study of their fluctuations in an artificially simplified environment. The academic status of the projects serves as a disclaimer against the regular accusations of incompleteness of the investigation. Projective Analysis There is no actual separation between project and analysis. The choice of the variables under scrutiny is empirical and projective, and so too are the analytical and heuristic methods employed to evaluate them. Rather than evolving from an analytic to a synthetic moment, the process involves a constant exchange of information between material and immaterial levels, between form and information, between actual and virtual domains. This enfolds a highly artificialized series of translation protocols that are not always made explicit in advance. Scenario construction In parallel to theming, assumptions about the existence of an objective ‘context’ need to be suspended, its construction being an integral, indeed critical, component of the investigation. Both radically optimistic and apocalyptic scenarios are explored in order to establish a range of permutations in which the projects have to develop a regime of sensitivity. These constructions demand the sharpening of an intuition that can grasp

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developmental tendencies, but also found their system of interrelations. Political, social and techno-cultural milieus are scanned for opportunities. No explicit claims are made for the credibility or moral appropriateness of the constructions. Non-linearity (post-rationalization) The course syllabuses offer a procedural layout on which the research projects can unfold. With the aim of complexifying the time factor in the design process, this structure contemplates and promotes feedback mechanisms and retroactive motivation.Yet in practice the structure is seldom followed strictly. Accelerations, delays, inversions and all sorts of temporal warps are accepted as productive deviations that challenge any assumption of linearity in the process. Once it is accepted that the sum-total consequences of any design operation are indeterminate (at least in practice) the activation of the design process can be relieved from the need of relevance (at least in principle). Trial and error loops and post-rationalization become indispensable means to discover and productively incorporate the unforeseen implications of those actions. Simulation Simulations are incorporated as an important component of any training system aimed at developing practical skills. The proverbial accusations against the simulative model no longer apply when the different components of a practice are thematized and explored in isolation. It is assumed that the systematic exploitation of the conventions of practice can potentially trigger innovative architectonic products and methodologies. Negotiations, role-playing and digital modelling are utilized as means to develop techniques of formalization. Testing The emerging operative systems have to overcome any impending aspirations of (discursive) criticality as a necessary condition for them to play a critical (i.e. significant) role in the production process. This liberation turns them into a tool of urban or territorial optimization. Within this approach, the ideological bias of the work is rendered transparent, tractable. Simultaneously, the performance of the system can be evaluated non-ideologically. The mechanisms by which the fitness of the projects is assessed within a given framework constitute an integral component of the work. Feedback Every operative system evolves from several aesthetic substrates, each of which is itself a composite of innumerable layers, to the production of new ones. However, if beauty is considered as an emergence within a specific historical context, its a priori thematization in the design process is not necessarily productive, for it imprisons the discussion within the realm of what is already known. Feedback mechanisms can only function properly by deconstructingreconstructing any concept of beauty, by dissecting it and treating it as a working material. This is probably the only way in which the term beauty can play a constructive role within the discipline. TWO


CASE 1: ACTUALIZING THE LATENT AGENDAS OF THE HOSP ITALITY B USINESS. Developing the implications of ‘The Hotel of the Future’, a series of seminars conducted in collaboration by the EHLITE and ARUP, in the summer of 2003, a research unit was organized at the ETH Zurich School of Architecture. The unit was an attempt to test one of the operative modes that is being proposed for the organization of the curriculum once the MArch system is in place. Over a period of 12 weeks, the production was organized along three lines of investigation dealing with different scales, each of which yielded a series of concrete spatial studies and architectural scenarios. RESPONSIVE CONFIGURATIONS At the ‘micro’ level, an inquiry into the theme of the unit attempted to question the current status of the hotel room as a standardized, fixed set of structures and services. Since the advent of modernism, the idea of standardization has embodied an ethic of efficiency and egalitarianism. However, contemporary digital environments allow the

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customization of products and services, without necessarily imposing limitations on the processes of production, operation and management. Exploiting the opportunities created by such a context, the Hotel on Demand project proposes a series of prototypes that offer a fluid internal organization, able to maximize the adaptability of the system to market conditions. Based on a study of ergonomic optimization of a standard IBIS chain hotel room, the aggregate of functions known as ‘room’ is broken down into smaller sectional components, which are then rearranged following logics of clustering. Internal sliding partitions allow the possibility of reconfiguring the grouping of functions, thus offering a large range of combinations. The system is operated through a web interface that displays a series of alternative options for accommodation (combinations of services, varying sizes and location in the building) based on a negotiation of the guests’ demands and the available spaces. Because of its molecular structure, the system can adopt vertical, linear or horizontal configurations, depending on the context where it is deployed. ARCHITECTURAL SOCIAL MIXERS Examining the hotel building as a rich social system, the project Multi-Speed Community seeks to amplify the range and diversify the types of interaction among users. In an attempt to short-circuit the established patterns of relation between different typologies of guests, staff and visitors, the needs of each group are typified, analysed, segregated, quantified and transformed into virtual forces that organize a layout of dwelling units on an urban site. The residual spaces that result between units are programmed according to the types of units that cluster around them. URBAN SOCIAL MIXERS Within the line of inquiry that addresses the relationship between accommodation facilities and the urban structure, the Distributed Room investigates the possibility of a radical integration of the hotel and the city. The project begins by scanning the historical centre of the city for suitable locations for the insertion of accommodation units, with no direct physical link between them other than the city itself. The dissolution of the hotel as a contained entity is posed as the condition of possibility for the emergence of a new type of experience that fosters the integration of the tourist within a broader urban ecology. The prototypical accommodation units are customdesigned at two levels. Internally, the spatial organization shifts in order to provide different degrees of privacy (by altering the distribution of fixed furniture elements), and, externally, the enclosure system indexes the contextual conditions by adopting more porous patterns to allow certain views, or denser ones where the function of the skin is to visually protect the interior, or to frame fragments of the exterior world. Case 2: Retooling the periphery The completion in 2002 of a high-speed motorway link between the cities of Buenos Aires and La Plata represented the single most important infrastructural undertaking of the last decades within the southern metropolitan area of the agglomeration of Buenos Aires. Increasing the connectivity between the two cities, the highway opened up the formerly inaccessible intermediate territories, which were thus irrigated with an enormous potential for growth and inhabitation. The design research studio we conducted last semester attempted to identify the main developmental trends of the region, in order to envision future urban scenarios. The theming process yielded three areas of interest: environmental, demographic and lifestyle shifts. In the context of an increasingly ghettoized social and material fabric, where regulatory frameworks are almost inexistent, malfunctioning or have ceased to operate under duress, perhaps the main question that urbanism has to confront is how to deal with the competing forces of private urban development and the uncontrolled proliferation of slum settlements. FLOOD CONTROL SYSTEMS Based on projections that estimate an increase of almost one metre in the water level of the Rio de la Plata during the next century, the first group of projects investigates techniques to handle coastal defence. Presently, large sectors within the 40-kilometre stretch of land that defines our area of focus get flooded with a period of recurrence of about 10 years. Given that this situation will tend to recur with increasingly destructive effects, any development in the area has to be protected either by polders or by a general topographic reconfiguration that raises the level of the land by at least three metres. The projects began by inventorying and cataloguing the areas that deserve to

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be protected and then went on to delineate new coastal configurations. The alternative scenarios that are proposed emerge from the maximization of different variables. In Erratic Landscape, the protection system is generated through an extension of the existing circulatory network, which seeks to maximize leisure activities and public accessibility to the shore. The geometry of the coastline derives from the application of traffic rules and turning radiuses at different speeds. Dike City defines the field through Boolean operations. The elimination of the areas that are not regarded as having a great economic potential yields an extended coastline where the infrastructure accommodates a system of linear development, artificially increasing the size and complexity of the border. The topography of En-activate BA is a direct result of a traditional cut-and-fill technique, this time managed through constraints specifically derived from a low technology, labour-intensive construction system, aimed at generating the maximum number of jobs in an area where unemployment is extremely high. DEVELOPMENT SYSTEMS The gradual transition from railway to private automotive transportation that started approximately 40 years ago has had a determining effect on the lifestyles and modes of inhabitation offered by suburbia. The new emphasis on the car fostered a much more intricate integration of city and periphery, based on the emergence of a complex ecology of leisure, weekend houses, country clubs, golf courses and, more recently, gated communities for permanent dwelling. The immensely popular model of the gated community, seemingly the only activity in that part of the world that remains financially viable for urban designers, is the object here of a process of notation that seeks to extract a spatial narrative based on the visual ‘events’ that rhythmically punctuate the experience of movement. The notation machine picks up some structural elements from a foreign context and grafts them onto the site. These are then reinterpreted as public open spaces, able to congregate multifunctional areas, where the low-density private development model can be enriched through a diversified programmatic composition. DENSITY DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS Along the lines of demographic engineering, the last group of projects-systems presents alternative strategies for the distribution of an expected population growth of 750,000 inhabitants over the next three decades. Postcadalytical Method enacts an approach to urban design that aligns itself, on the one hand, with the zenithal painterly tradition of landscape designers such as Burle Marx and, on the other, with the radical challenge to planning (based on rational decision-making) as posed by deconstructivist theory: act first, rationalize later. An infrastructural backbone crosses the site from end to end, while a branching system of secondary connective roads is generated through the collaging of repetitive elements. Inconsistencies with the existing site features are typified and treated as anomalies that require local negotiation; architectural envelopes grow out of the infrastructural network. In Nodal Concentration, the investigation explores the architectural consequences of hyperconcentration as an alternative to the prevailing low-rise/low-density sprawl model. Acknowledging the need to preserve the site as a long-term natural buffer zone between the two cities, the project proceeds by adopting the cloverleaf highway exits as a default material organization from which building envelopes are extruded. The forthcoming population is distributed punctually along the highway with almost no impact on the rest of the site. Finally, the Transitional Fabric project maps out areas of opportunity based on various factors of desirability. It then deploys an adaptive gridding system by which property is subdivided into a wide range of plot sizes to allow different types of development to occur. Densities are distributed following a machinic logic that generates an initially random series of variations, which are later compensated by programming. Typological differentiation is generated top-down, by applying a gradient of control over the private development areas: from a relatively lax, almost de-regulated system that accepts the most conventional types, to an intricate intertwining of public and private areas where architecture is forced to take on highly specific forms, devoid of any typological precedent. During the development of the projects and especially after their formal conclusion, efforts were focused on rationalizing and codifying their procedures. In the last analysis, operative systems might be a new way to address style, if it is understood not only as a set of ready-made formal solutions, but also as a complex bundle of techniques, diagrams and translation processes that can be applied in different contexts. In this sense, we may have to relinquish most claims to originality: probably every architect that was ever influential became so because of their ability to carry out a consistent research programme that exceeded the specificities of a single site, programme or client.

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Not es 1

See Alejandro Zaera Polo’s lucid critique of the 1980s academ ic scene in the US, ‘A Scientific Autobiography’, in Harvard

Design Magazine no. 21, Fall 2004 / Winter 2005. 2

Robert E. Somol: ‘Operation Architecture’, in Marc Angelil: Inchoate: An Experiment in Architectural Education. Swiss Federal

Institute of Technology, Zurich, 2003. 3

Patrik Schumacher: ‘Business. Research. Architecture. Projects from the Design Research Lab’, Daidalos 69/70, December

1998/January 1999. p. 35. 4

Ibid. (my emphasis), p. 34,


An independent research unit based in Basel, led by Roger Diener, Marcel Meili, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.


Prof. Marc Angelil, Liat Uziyel and Julian Varas, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, in collaboration with the Ecole

Hotelière de Lausanne, ARUP and Architonic. 7

Prof. Marc AngÈlil, Cary Siress and Julian Varas, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, in collaboration with the

Centre for Advanced Studies of the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires.

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Operative Systems  

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