Signal, Image, Architecture. Design After Orthography

We labor over surfaces. We expend our energy pushing things across surfaces, and those surfaces constitute for us a kind of substrate from which we think about our objects, and their relation to the world around us.

For a very long time, architectural surfaces were orthographic (viz., just like alphanumeric writing, they were governed by rule-bound systems of geometric marks and hand-mechanical tools). Seen from an anthropological view, orthography is a geometric gesture that arranges marks into legible lines and texts. It originally imposed itself on a prehistorical world of magical images, and produced a framework for concepts and exactitude. “History” and orthography are co-emergent not simply because texts and lines allowed for the recording and archiving of events, but more profoundly because that recording and archiving capacity produced a collective sensibility in which the past was tied to the future.

The surface of architectural thought and experimentation has radically changed during the past three decades. Whereas we once pushed ink or graphite across various types of paper, we now push keys and buttons on electronic screens. If orthographic representational techniques aided in the establishment of a linear (“historical”) conception of time, “postorthographic” architectural technics enmesh our work in so-called “real time.” Unlike historical time, which is concerned to always relate present and future to the past, real time techniques continuously relate the present with all possible futures at once (or, more specifically, with as many futures as can be counted and computed). Our models now contain a running analysis of all possible future object-scenarios; formal parameters, tectonic limitations, construction costs, maintenance costs, energy consumption, etc. The “present experience of all possible future states” is a very different imaginative framework than the orthographic imagination, which always wanted to use the past to understand the future. This transformation, which has placed a series of novel, postorthographic operations—modeling, sensing, scanning, rendering, specifying—at the center of our representational processes, demands that we take seriously the technical basis of contemporary architectural thought.

The course readings—drawn from media theory, engineering manuals, science and technology studies, anthropology, and the history and philosophy of technology—cover a period ranging from 1870 to the present. Taken together, they mean to show that what at first appear to be merely technical issues are in fact epistemic, evidentiary, political, and ultimately existential questions. The course will build up a philosophical framework for exploring—without rhetoric or nostalgia—the technical collapse of a certain form of historical reasoning in the design fields.