Planning the Stories that Buildings Write
Game Theory, Fiction, and Architecture
I seem then to have gone back to childhood in my thoughts and remembered a pal of mine whose surname was August - a handsome, breezy, freewheeling kid who used to yell out when we were playing checkers, "I got a scheme!"
· Saul Bellow on the inspiration for ‘The Adventures of Augie March’
Bellow’s literary inspiration is a tragic figure. The breezy kid with the scheme is from a broken family, taking care of his mentally ill mother and a kid brother, and suffering a bullying elder one. He wishes for a scheme, a plan for life - yet that never happens, and throughout the novel Bellow created from that initial spark, Augie moves quite entertainingly but pretty haplessly through life.
Augie March is not an architect, but he might well be: after all, architects are in the business of preparing schemes, and announcing them to the world. Architects are also in the business of failure: only a small percentage of designs ever get built. Even worse, somehow during the building process much of what looked good on paper gets lost; modern architecture is notorious for unfulfilled promises and disappointing outcomes, even from the best of intentions.
A scheme in checkers is essential: it is what game theorists call a perfect information game, without hidden moves or elements of luck - everything that is going on is known to both players. Game theory can tell us about likely outcomes of conflict situations: originally developed as a modeling tool for economics and other sciences, including sociology and biology, it looks at possibilities in the behavior and interaction of players - be they bacteria, armies, lovers, or companies. We find an applicable situation in planning too: several parties trying to achieve the best possible outcome for themselves. What are each of the parties actually interested in? What is their scheme?
Architecture and planning are no perfect information games, quite the opposite: it involves unknowns and hidden agendas, and lots of luck, good or bad. Players are numerous, and both human and non-human: clients, builders, financiers, the weather, general physics. Even if more information were available, it would be somewhat difficult to deal with: Christopher Alexander has involuntarily shown as much in his 1964 classic ‘Notes on the Synthesis of Form.’ Trying to describe the design process of a small village scientifically, he produced page after page of incomprehensible and ultimately meaningless numbers. We still need to use our intuition to deal with such complexity.
Like Augie March, architects are stuck in a reality full of unknown, unchangeable, or incalculable factors which promote or oppose their schemes. Whatever the other players’ interests might be, it is only the architects who want the building to appear as closely as they have drawn it; for them, any deviation is defeat. But since the outcome will be a compromise, defeat is a near certainty; purely aesthetic strategies are doomed.
This is a trap that is set almost automatically. Dealing with the physicality of things, architects are constantly faced with making decisions on objects. It is an abstraction to define why exactly certain things are chosen, and it is common to ascribe moral qualities to materials as a mental shortcut. In dealing with the physical world, the underlying parameters of why things look the way they do get lost in everyday battles. That way the perfect result of architectural design gets defined as an object, not as parameters, and change caused in the process of realization is a demeaning of intent. How often has one heard the architect’s complaint about the client who wouldn’t have this feature or that - the seamless ceiling, the gilded balustrade, the exposed concrete walls? And along with that, laments about how thereby the whole scheme was ruined.
To escape this trap requires a regular remove from everyday physicality, and asking a question commonplace in other professions: what does it do? The interesting thing about asking questions other than “what does it look like?” is that the aesthetic side can be rolled into it as well, getting rid of the functional/aesthetic divide. Instead of isolating aesthetic judgements as an aim in itself, viewing them for the effects they have on people can give us more intelligent clues about a building’s intention. As Churchill has said, first we shape our buildings, then they shape us. Why not turn this insight into a tool?
A recent development in the social sciences can be of guidance here. Actor-Network Theory (ANT) originated from the field of Science and Technology Studies that started an anthropological look at scientific methods of gaining knowledge. The core approach of ANT is to ignore the differentiation between humans and objects; instead, every part of a study is seen as an actor, human or non-human. Objects thus get equipped with a whole new palette of actions (with agency), and systems can be seen as more heterogeneous fields of actors - hence actor networks. These networks are not simple conducive meshes, but quite contrarily imply interdependence and unpredictability of translations between actors.
In an essay titled ‘Where are the Missing Masses’ Bruno Latour, one of the founders of ANT, shows the wide range of implications of even a simple automatic door hinge; he demonstrates how much of daily live is subject to the “will” of objects that coerce us into doing things we might not do otherwise. He shows consequences that objects have onto our actions. In a comparison with cosmology, where physicists’ models of the universe do not add up and leave them searching for “missing masses”, he says that social theories have not found sufficient reasons for the cohesiveness of societies in its human actors; what keeps societies from falling apart is not an innate human sense of moral purpose, or a strong set of laws, but artifacts: non-humans to whom have been delegated a large number of tasks.
Architecture forces us to do things in certain ways; yet architects have tended historically to concentrate on aesthetics, often leaving much of its workings to chance or convention, or worse, to expedience. Seeing buildings and environments as actors with many-sided impacts on other humans and non-humans can create a new set of criteria to evaluate architecture against, learning about the implications of buildings, and broadening the range of tools at our disposal.
In 1935 Le Corbusier was presented with the task of designing a modern holiday home in a then remote place on the Atlantic coast. He followed an unusual strategy: Villa La Sextant got built with little supervision, but with local construction methods and materials in mind. Made of rough-hewn stone and timber instead of concrete, steel, and glass, it is still a recognizably modern building, with the ideals of life in modern architecture firmly in place, even if it lacks some of the complexity of its more famous cousins at Poissy and Garches. The same concept is at work in the later Maisons Jaoul. These buildings succeed because Corbusier refused to tie up their sense of purpose with his aesthetic sensibility of the time; he focussed on what the building could do regardless of its style. This is not a matter of form versus content, or of function versus appearance. It is about how a building creates the story it wants to tell; writing its fiction eloquently in any material language.
Architects permanently create one kind of fiction that is called a design, and then another one, called planning documents, that aims to transport the first into a built reality, creating a script that actors should follow. But this is usually limited to physical fictions; why not include a bigger story line? Once a building is built, it is no longer just a solution: it becomes part of a story itself. Any site or terrain tells such a story; seeing buildings more as actors and less as sculptural objects, it is possible to create a role for them to play, and do so on many levels - as enablers, as shelter, and as a pleasure to behold. Seen this way, buildings become more like people, with a complex set of qualities that can be seen as a whole; objects with character, and actors, not merely containers of actions and things. What stories do architects want them to write, what roles to play?
Character is destiny, as Bellow has Augie March quote right on the first page of the novel, setting the frame for the whole book. For architecture this means expanding the fictional content of designing and planning - writing a story of what buildings should do, why, and to and for whom; defining their character. It takes some effort for the practicing architect to step away from the physical world and enter a different level of fiction, escaping temporarily the world of convention where things seem to always have been what they are; but as has been shown, the materiality game is one architects usually lose. On the other hand, life consists of making stories, and it is the eloquence with which they are told that makes it worthwhile.
Architects should relish planning the stories that buildings will write.
- Philip Roth, “‘I Got a Scheme’, The Words of Saul Bellow”, The New Yorker, April 25, 2005, pp72-85
- In: Shaping Technology-Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Wiebe Bijker and John Law (editors), MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1992