Traces of Relativism

Avivia Rubin

Aviva Rubin is a researcher at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Rubin holds a Master in Design Studies from Harvard University, and a Bachelor of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University.



This essay traces a relationship between the arguments for parametricism and the theory of relativism. Picking up on insightful arguments made by Eric Owen Moss and Ingeborg M. Rocker in the recent issue of Log 21, this essay asks the question – does the “variegated order” of parametricism create relational differentiation in architectural space or merely the visualization of difference?1 Patrik Schumacher’s “Parametricism as Style – Parametricist Manifesto” advocates that parametric design facilitates the creation of “complex, polycentric urban and architectural fields, which are densely layered and continuously differentiated.”2 Schumacher implies in this text, with rhetoric like “self-identity” and “instantiation,” that through parametrics, architecture can reach relativistic space.

Breaking down this presumption, I argue that parametrics can never achieve the complexity of perceptual space that it simulates. Furthermore, reminded of Modern architecture’s failure in achieving total flexibility, I assert that architecture itself can never truly be relativistic.3 Challenging the space of relativism, I employ Pier Vittorio Aureli’s notion of “Absolute Architecture” and Constant’s New Babylon to dislocate relational being from architecture. This knowingly nihilistic argument instead espouses the imaginary, the artifact, the small scale, and the remnant as places of relativism. Analyzing Walter Benjamin’s “Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century” and Bruno Latour’s “Invisible City,” I aim to reground relativism in these traces of perceptual experience, through the urban space of Paris. This essay represents a small fraction of a much larger issue between architecture and relativism. I make no claims on the vastness of these subjects’ overlap; this essay merely seeks to serve as a provocation.





The Parameters of Relativism
Parametric design, as Patrik Schumacher argues, must define and strengthen the growing complexity and differentiation of the post-Fordist “heterogeneous society of the multitude.”4 Responding to the striated fields of contemporary society, Schumacher postulates an “ism” that utilizes parametric design systems as a figuration of a new style. Parametricism celebrates the diffusion of parametric design into all aspects of space, from urban to architecture to interior to product design. In “the scripted association of multiple subsystems,” parametricism generates a united form of “continuous differentiation.”5 Each instantiation of design concretizes the given relative conditions of the environment and establishes a fixed resultant. The adaptive, iterative, customized, differentiated spaces that Schumacher venerates, though, condition an absolute. The inter-articulation, accentuation, figuration, responsiveness, and urbanism of parametricism’s agenda shrink back from its goal of variation and differentiation. Relativistic space remains unattained. Parametricism becomes the “pervasive hegemony within the contemporary architectural avant-garde.”6 But, as hegemony, can dominant modes of spatial and formal practice ever produce relativism?

There are various forms of the theory of relativism, including its moral, cultural, linguistic, religious, epistemological, and cognitive conceptions. All contest the existence of an absolute truth or objective experience, and instead maintain that experience is relative to a specific framework or subjective position. In addition, this theory asserts that no experience stands privileged over another. Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus paraphrases a quote by the famous pre-Socratic relativist, Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.”7 These things, as feelings, judgments, properties, etc., exist only if the human mind receives them. From there, perception, as the mediator between cognition and reality, produces different conceptions of that which it receives. Perceptual relativism argues that neurological cognitive processes are not neutral, but dependent on theories, concepts, and beliefs as well as cultures, languages, and biology, and therefore shape infinitely differentiated perceptions. Conceptual relativism takes this one step further, arguing that even these dependencies are relative. The ontological world follows suit, denying any prefabricated relations, properties, or objects.8 Relativism concerning perception and truth conditions the physical realm of relativism.

Delimited Relativism
In order to postulate the physical space and form of relativism, I turn to its opposite conception – the absolute. Pier Vittorio Aureli’s recent book, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, defines the absolute as “the individuality of the architectural form when this form is confronted with the environment in which it is conceived and constructed.”9 In the context of urbanization, architecture reifies its surrounding forces of closures and containments to produce “the project of the finite.”10 All architecture, as Aureli advocates, exists as fixed, separated parts in a field that defines and restricts, generating an “archipelago.” Aureli’s conception of architecture acknowledges the limits of built form and locates them within the fluctuating urban sea. Architecture becomes “cities within the city,” termed by Oswald Mathias Ungers, as finite forms situated in the dialectical and varied space of the city.11 The productive agonism between architecture and urbanization generates stoppages and frozen instances of contextually specific conditions that are, in fact, distinct absolutes, not “continuous differentiation.” Aureli’s book exposes a weakness in Schumacher’s rhetoric and argument. One must accept the finitude of architectural form and with that, the fields and instantiations of parametricist architecture become inconceivable. Architecture thus remains absolute, relational only in the space between forms – in urban space.

Constant Nieuwenhuys’s New Babylon sought to dissolve the space of the absolute. Originating as early as 1950, New Babylon is anchored in the original program of the Situationist International, found in 1957, of “unitary urbanism.”12 Endeavoring to develop “situations” of total liberation, unitary urbanism argued for “a world in which all that is fleeting and transient has acquired the force of law.”13 Imagination, as sovereign law, organizes the geographical environment of the city through dérive, aimless wandering, and détournment, purposeful distortion. New Babylon attempted to concretize unitary urbanism, where individuals could create their own history and space, and all activity could occur unmediated, undifferentiated, everywhere. Producing the smooth space of Deleuze and Guattari, New Babylon covers the earth with “sectors” and labyrinths for nomadic existence, lifted on supports above the landscape.14 Rejecting permanence and boundary, Constant’s “city of the atmospheric milieu of being,” as he himself recognized, could not viably be realized.15 “New Babylon provides its own multi-layered commentary on the impossibility of giving utopia a concrete form: indeed, one cannot ‘dwell’ in New Babylon.”16 Architecture, as always-fixed space, lacks the potentiality for the unplanned and unbounded, and, therefore, it cannot allow for or produce the space for relativism.17

Traces of Relativism
The field of urban space, though, as Debord and Constant recognized, provides situations for imaginative flexibility that architecture can never produce. Paris, in Benjamin’s “Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century” and Latour’s “Invisible City,” serves as the urban context to examine the transitory and fluctuating perceptual experience. Exploring this subjectivity, Walter Benjamin’s essay positions modern man’s newly reconceived self in the arcades of Paris. “The interior was not only the private citizen’s universe, it was also his casing. Living means leaving traces.”18 For Benjamin, the arcades produced a threshold, a dialectical space of interior and expanse. Acting as a dream-image, the arcades evoke a standstill of the dialectic – utopia. The residue of this dream space of utopia drives nineteenth-century man’s reality. “We begin to recognize monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”19 The instantiation of form in urban space constructs its own conception’s death as well as its transformation. These remnants of architecture become illusions, and the city becomes a montage of these illusions. “Leaving traces” in the city and the imagination reassembles
relativistic experience.

Bruno Latour’s “Invisible City” structures a similar assemblage. The web-based project shapes the unanchored experience of Paris into 53 moments of ethnographic, theoretical, and personal stories that localize the view of the city. The “well-ordered zoom” of the panorama that attempted to totalize space in a single glance is replaced with networks of traces.20 Separated into four sections illustrating four paths through the city – traversing, proportioning, distributing, and allowing – “Invisible City” challenges the desire to isolate and fix experiences into an element or image and instead suggests various trajectories that intersect, overlap, and network. “The visible is never in an isolated image or in something outside of images, but in the montage of images, a transform of images, a traverse through different views, a progression, a formatting, a networking.”21 Each moment along the path holds a series of images and texts, layering in the complexity of each experience, and generating a non-linear use of the website, and, most of all, resembling the perceptual experience of the city. In Plan 36 in “Distributing,” Latour asserts that the self is consumed by a “multitude of beings, these proposed selves with whom it shares its habitat daily and whose recesses it lodges the folds of its multiple distributed body.” The body of Paris holds this mass of selves and subjectivities, comprising relativistic space into a network of potentialities.

It is tempting to continue to extract the traces of perceptual experience from various media. One could look to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless for how he matches the multiplicities of the city of Paris with the pluralities of selves of each character into a montage of illusions; or the May 1968 student protests in Paris, overlaying the slogans of posters and graffiti with the students’ interactions with the city and its institutions. These examples, along with the many more they suggest, construct a network of traces – of the imaginary, the artifact, the small scale, and the remnant. Each example illustrates not one, but multiple forms of relativistic space. Benjamin’s arcades serve as remnants in the small scale, stirring the imaginary space of its inhabitants’ personal interiors. Latour’s “Invisible City” traces the complexity of relational space through the accumulation of images and words. These become the artifacts – the “postcards, pictures, and vignettes”22 of the small scale. The imaginary, the artifact, the small scale, and the remnant shape “not a general rule but an example for the city.”23 The spaces of relativism can only be seen in examples – ones that continually shift themselves and the conception of place, subjectivity, and space.

Instead of visually evoking the subjectivity of perceptual experience, I urge for honesty in architecture and the prospects of parametric design. Architecture can only shape the absolute – that much Aureli and Constant proved. The space for relativism lies within the momentary stoppages of movement in the field of the city – the smooth within striated space, the heterotopias of Michel Foucault. These spaces “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror or reflect. These spaces, as it were, which are linked with all other spaces,” are heterotopias.24 Relativistic space, as heterotopias, exists within and around the archipelagos of absolutes, with parametric design shaping the finite, not the malleable or continuously differentiated. Urban space offers a field for both the finite and the relative, allowing for the cultivation of architecture, as well as the imaginary, the artifact, the small scale, and the remnant. Relativism can only exist in these traces of perceptual experience, free from the absolute of all architecture.

1 Patrik Schumacher, “Parametricism and the Autopoiesis of Architecture,” Log 21 (Winter
2011): 76.
2 Patrik Schumacher, “Parametricism as Style – Parametricist Manifesto,” presented and
discussed at the Dark Side Club 1, Eleventh Architecture Biennale, Venice, 2008, also
found at https://www.patrikschumacher.com/Texts/Parametricism_as_Style.htm.
3 Eric Owen Moss, “Parametricism and Pied Piperism: Responding to Patrik Schumacher,”
Log 21 (Winter 2011): 84.
4 Schumacher, “Parametricism as Style – Parametricist Manifesto.”
5 Schumacher uses biological tropes to illustrate parametricism’s mimesis of the lawful forces of natural systems and the rising variations within society and its institutions. This suggests that nature, which parametricism simulates, is a highly integrated system that cannot be separated “into independent subsystems.” Schumacher, “Parametricism as Style – Parametricist Manifesto.”
6 Schumacher, “Parametricism as Style – Parametricist Manifesto.”
7 Plato, Plato VII: Theaetetus, Sophist, trans. H. N. Fowler (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1925), section 152a.
8 Mark C. Taylor, “Toward an Ontology of Relativism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 46, no. 1 (March 1978): 53.
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9 Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), p. ix.
10 Ibid., xi.
11 Ibid., 180.
12 Kristin Ross and Henri Lefebvre, “Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International,” October 79 (Winter 1997): 70.
13 Hilde Heynen, “New Babylon: The Antinomies of Utopia,” Assemblage, no. 39 (The MIT Press: April 1996): 26.
14 For more on smooth and striated space, see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “1440: The Smooth and the Striated,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 474-500.
15 Peter Sloterdijk, “Foam City: About Urban Spatial Multitudes,” New Geographies 0 (2008): 139.
16 Heynen, “New Babylon: The Antinomies of Utopia,” 38.
17 This issue provoked the split between Debord and Constant, occurring in 1960. “Unitary urbanism is the contrary of specialized activity; to accept a separate urbanistic domain is already to accept the whole urbanistic lie and the falsehood permeating the whole of life.” Heynen, “New Babylon: The Antinomies of Utopia,” 27. Showing the internal contradiction in unitary urbanism, this quote is from Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem in “Programme elementaire du bureau d’urbanisme unitaire,” Internationale situationniste 6 (August 1961): 16-19; English trans. adapted from Situationist International Anthology, pp. 65-67. Debord came to separate himself from unitary urbanism over time, while Constant remained anchored in its incongruous space.
18 Walter Benjamin, “Paris – Capital of the 19th Century,” New Left Review, no. 48 (March-April 1968): 84.
19 Ibid., 88.
20 Bruno Latour, “Panorama,” in Reassembling the social: an introduction to Actor-network theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 189.
21 Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant, “Invisible City,” [1998] trans. Liz Carey-Libbrecht and Valerie Pihet. Accessed March 2011, https://www.bruno-latour.fr/virtual/paris/english/frames.html.
22 Latour and Hermant, “Invisible City,” 90.
23 Aureli, The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, xiii.
24 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” Diacritics 16, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 24.