Evans, Robin, Towards Anarchitecture; 1970 The idea that we, as designers, are committed to providing maximum “choice” or maximum “freedom” seems to be arousing us to unprecedented heights of metaphysical speculation; although it is hardly our task to dictate the pattern in which the world is going to change. Positive interference is any change in the ambient universe that allows an expansion of possible actions but does not produce any restriction of existing possible actions. Negative interference is the converse of positive interference. It involves changes that restrict possible actions without producing any extra or alternative actions that were not viable before. Synthetic interference. Almost all “interferences” are, in reality, syntheses of positive and negative interference. They thus involve restrictions to existing possible actions while adding novel possible actions of a different character. This is particularly a case with large-scale changes in our surroundings, such as those associated with planning and architecture. Positive interference can be most vividly seen in telephones. The presence of a phone does not make any difference to the physical conduct of life. The thing is available if you want to use it. The walls of a prison, on the other hand, are there for the sole purpose of frustrating certain kinds of action. They are pure negative interference. Probably the simplest example of a synthetic system is an ordinary road: if a main road is laid along someone’s frontage it may well mean that he can cut his home/work travelling time by half. The road is giving him, in this way, more time free of specific constraints, and is therefore positive interference. But it may also mean that his wife has to ferry the kids to and from school because of the heavy traffic, and this is negative interference. This is all very well but there is some doubt as to what we are actually interfering with when we talk about positive and negative interference. To give interference a more substantial aspect, it is necessary to consider it in relation to actions. Whatever one says about action, it is impossible to extricate oneself from the cerebral, and therefore non-quantifiable, judgements of what the action is for, about, or at least how important it is to the parties involved. We soon find ourselves steeped in the despondent slough of metaphysical quicksand. The point is that human action towards a goal cannot in any serious way be used as a design criterion. To add to the many divergent intentions and goals surrounding actions, there is a fact that new intentions and goals arise from novel conditions. It is possible to list innumerable examples of novel actions that depend on the artifacts and support-systems available at the time. There are always going to be additions to the complete set of “possible actions” as time goes on. It thus arises that freedom of action is never a de facto established condition but always a nascent possibility. There are two ways in which physical systems provide “possible actions” or create positive interference: 1. They can compress events in time. 2. There are also donative physical systems which do not replace or minimize ready-made tasks, but are original human time-consumers in their own right. The camera, for example, was originally a substitute for the timeconsuming representation of events and persons by painting, but its speed of operation and simultaneity of image meant that other uses, quite unforeseen, and impossible for the artist, were soon being exploited. The two types of system-compressive and donative-complement each other. It was said earlier that physical systems can have two kinds of effect on human action: positive or negative. We need an indicator of how much the system frustrates or frees. The decision is at any given time a binary yes/no, but such is clearly not the case with the deciding factors. The variables effecting the action itself, take place in the physical world and are thus affected by the physical world. The physical world can then be considered to offer a kind of variable resistance to the accomplishment of human desires. Three modal situations involving resistance can be illustrated: 1. That in which the resistance of the ambient universe is low enough to be overcome by the volition in question. 2. That in which the volition is too weak and the resistance too great for the action to be attempted, or, if attempted, to be carried through. 3. That in which a surrogate goal is substituted for an original goal associated with too great a resistance.
Obviously in this formulation it is not some abstract political concept that determines the plausibility and expediency of any intended course of action, but rather the capacity of things in the ambient universe to encourage or resist certain human responses. Maybe it is not so much a society that is “permissive” as the things a society uses. Needs are never satisfied by “good” environments, although they are met with greater facility in such surroundings. However, the less tangible factors of custom, approbation, consent and habit also intervene. Suffice it to say here that they can be regarded as acting in a way very similar to physical resistances. The idea of cultural relativity is based on the over-rationalized supposition that social structure is a good thing to stabilize. The idea of imposing central values on a large-scale human assortment is inadmissible because they are affected by proxy - at a distance, without the involvement of those whose lives are being changed. Effective individual and social morphology does not occur in this way, but by subtle processes of infiltration and goal-reorientation. The social-art philosophies of Ledoux, Pugin and Ruskin were dominated by this aspect of the matter. But the modern movement, with nascent perspicacity, has dissociated itself from this kind of charism-architectural logic and, with incipient idiocy, has attached itself to another, the logic of social manipulation. It is fortunate that our incompetence as planners means this is more a matter of intention than actual effect. It would be sheer delusion to put forward the idea that all positive interference is acceptable, and all negative interference unacceptable. Most of the deliberate and conscious formulated rules by which we live our lives are of a deliberately negative nature. They are defensible only by virtue of the belief that “freedom” and “order” go hand-in-hand. It is not necessary to structure human patterns of action to obtain anti-entropy of the overall social system. The aptness of the computers systems to the task of ordering materials is a function of their complexity and speed of operation. It is the liberator of some of entropic man’s most distinctive characteristics: non-predictability and deviation. A good argument could be made for the Third Reich as man’s greater anti-entropic achievement. Many opt for ordering people so they don’t make a mess, on the grounds of conceptual simplicity, but it seems to me that it should (at least in our capacity as streamlined homo faber) be opting for ordering physical support-systems to minimize or eliminate mess, on the grounds of literal humanity. Most relevant purpose might be to cause a shift of emphasis away from the canonical creed of functions and needs. The utilitarian basis of architectural functionalism has tended to simplify notions of purpose, and has given us only the ankle-cartilage of what is a much more complex affair. The architectural see-saw is between form and function, meaning and purpose, symbol and utility, commodity and delight - up one side and down the other. It is a compelling game but we must be ready to ignore it when necessary. Keeping the game simple at the expense of its co-ordination with reality is a species of sell-out. The world is not a giant artwork any more than it is a mammoth boiler house. It is, to use a cliché, a stage … a stage for action, not our action but their action.
Published on Mar 22, 2010
This essay is over 30 years old, and still very valid today. In it, Robin Evans reviews the meaning of 'freedom', and the ways in which any...