In January 2015 a group of historians from both sides of the Atlantic gathered around a seminar table at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich to present research engaged in historicizing the relationships between architecture and technology.1 Given the symposium's title, Architecture/Machine, one could be forgiven for jumping to assumptions about the historical and theoretical subject matter based on the well-worn motif that has long underpinned conventional narratives about modern architecture: architecture as machine. For the most part, however, this metaphor and the various philosophically driven machine-related metaphors that have accrued over the past century were alien to the work of these scholars. The experts who gathered in the seminar room, including historians of architecture, science, and media studies, were more intent on what was represented by the three words of the event's subtitle, which followed the options implied by the “and/or” construct of the main title: programs, processes, and performances. These words signaled a methodological turn from investigations of machinelike metaphor or sociotechnical historical constructions toward a mode of research that attempts to track the concrete procedural networks and the materiality of cultural techniques that precondition architecture prior to its end form. At the Machine/Architecture conference the issue of whether or not architectural history is a media theoretical problem was not in question. The contents of the seventeen papers presented spanned more than two hundred years of history and engaged varied approaches to history and to architecture and its technologies. The differing approaches to research and analysis yielded much debate, which rarely succumbed to tendentiousness, as few presenters sought to close in on consensus regarding particular modes of working. The culture-laden semantic assumptions captured by the blinding sweep of the machine metaphor were displaced by approaches that looked to the heuristic of the technical a priori.2 This methodological turn leans on concepts and research strategies that have evolved over several decades within other disciplines, such as the history of science, science technology studies, media studies, and German media philosophy.3
The Zurich conference was a watershed event, bringing together researchers of different disciplinary registers and demonstrating the inclusiveness of a mode of working that considers architecture as a medium. The papers presented offer an opportunity to examine a methodological challenge that opens a discussion about architectural history where architecture performs as medium and infrastructure. The challenge to architectural history develops from debates within the loose and contested disciplinary domain of media theory. This is a discourse that deliberately unsettles culture-based studies through analyses that ask what “media do for and within culture.”4 In this sense, media are neither the extensions of humans nor prosthetic devices but can be defined as “the networks of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data.”5 Historian of science Hans-Jörg Rheinberger characterized an early iteration of this research orientation as a method of analysis that pursues the “biography of things as a filiation of objects, not as pictures of an exhibition but as records of the process of their coming into existence.”6 More recent descriptions, especially those that engage with the evolving features of a cultural techniques approach, characterize the theoretical spectrum as a pursuit of recursive chains of operations or the tracking of sequences of operations that precede concepts.7
The historian who deploys these approaches to architectural history is compelled to turn away from the primacy of architecture as cultural construct, from the architectural object as the effect of discursive processes, from a bias toward form or type, and from preconceived theoretical or interpretive frameworks. This mode of inquiry pursues the medial processes inherent to architecture, which inextricably bind technique to culture. As a medium—that is, a channel of transmission—architecture can make visible an intermedial dynamic of material, technical, and social consequence. Take, for instance, telephony and the insertion of the telephone within domestic space of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Carlotta Darò demonstrates in her paper “Sound Conduits,” presented at the Zurich symposium, the importance of planning by specialists and vested business interests before and beyond architectural design. In tracking the networks, or conduits, that domesticated the telephone, Darò does not merely confront a technical device. By following the wires concealed within walls as they become cables connected to junctions of distribution beyond, she tracks technologies and techniques into territorial infrastructures of electrification, to regional planning, and, importantly, to corporate power.8 Her pursuit of wiring as an infrastructural technology displaces focus on the design problem per se and the interpretation of the meanings or effects of technical transformations for social values at a specific historical moment. This mode of research tracks consensus-making literature, such as advertising on the necessities of the modern home, corporate telecommunications propaganda on strategies for incorporating home conveniences, and technical literature and existing accounts of architectural history.9 The technical, social, and political consequences of wiring and of electrification traverse distinctions of interior and exterior and call into question the inside and outside of architecture. Mediality delineates a shift in our conception of architecture from disciplinary framework or structure to its intermediality as a complex infrastructure.
As investigated at the Zurich seminar, the potential of a media theoretic orientation for architectural history methods challenged the determinism of the machine metaphor as a multipurpose concept. The research pressed against the limitations of contemporary architectural thinking about the materialities of media, techniques, and technology. This mode of inquiry, or orientation of research, implies a dramatic shift from text-based analyses and the traditional archive approached from the perspective of the historical a priori to the materials, hardware, and techniques of the technical a priori. This approach has evolved from Michel Foucault's characterization of the historical a priori as the order underlying any period of history combined with Friedrich Kittler's provocation that “media determines our situation.”10
Analysis of the catalogue documenting the Museum of Modern Art's Machine Art exhibition of 1934 offers a succinct illustration of the challenges of taking a historical perspective that pursues the procedures, programs, and processes of technology over the final form of the object. The catalogue depicts objects with the aim of establishing the aesthetic merit of industrially manufactured objects. In the catalogue, gigantic spring coils appear to mimic standing sculpture, and an airplane's propeller is presented as a wall-hung art object; similarly, the self-aligning ball bearing, vacuum cleaners, cookware, a cooking range, an X-ray unit, and a petri dish are displayed in pristine isolation. Despite categorization under prosaic rubrics, such as “household,” “office equipment,” “kitchenware,” and “scientific instruments,” the objects have been brought into cultural meaning by art as an institution. They are no longer part of the everyday or of the industrial. The processes of mass production and the techniques of standardization that produce the singular object are invisible and largely irrelevant. As representations of the machine metaphor, these objects are severed from the techniques and material processes that bind the cultural to the technical. A research orientation initiated from the perspective of the technical a priori seeks the evidence absent from the catalogue's photographic documentation: processes and procedures that produce the object prior to its abstraction as representation.
At the Zurich seminar symposium co-organizer Moritz Gleich used the phrase “processual research” to characterize a mode of inquiry that shifts from discourse analysis to discursive techniques.11 Processual research encompasses an orientation toward research and a “style of analysis” that investigates networks of exchange and infrastructural mechanisms—for example, the operating systems of post office sorting mechanisms, experimental practices such as the recursive techniques employed in patenting procedures, or the processes of materials standardization.12 The various modes of inquiry gathered under the rubric “processual research” compel the architectural historian to turn away from conventional archival sources and the written texts, images, and supporting institutions that typically secure objects within the domain of the cultural. The historian focuses, instead, on hardware, testing procedures, filing and storage systems, recording devices, and techniques of legitimation such as quantification and measurement. Laurent Stalder, professor of architecture at ETH and host of the Zurich seminar, argued that to approach architecture in terms of its performative aspects requires a shift from “discourse-oriented” perspectives of history framed from within textual analysis and given terms of history to an examination of the infrastructural ensembles of techniques. He advocated understanding infrastructure as an assembly of pieces and parts of material, historical, and organizational consequence or as a collection of various techniques, systems, and devices whose “performance is bound up with architecture.”13
This methodological turn from final objects to architecture as a cultural and technical medium is in part inspired by Reyner Banham and his attempts to confront the tendency to privilege architecture as structure and enclosure over its internal and invisible attributes. In 1960, the Architectural Review published Banham's “Stocktaking” series, which took aim at what he perceived to be architecture's failure to reconcile the old machine analogy with new technologies and techniques. In the series Banham speculated on the future impact of technological and scientific advances taking place in disciplines outside architecture. In the second essay in the series, titled “The Science Side,” he wrote predictively, “A generation ago, it was ‘The Machine’ that let architects down—tomorrow or the day after it will be ‘The Computer,’ or ‘Cybernetics or Topology.’ ”14 He made a playful jab at architects’ tendency to selectively interpret “concepts out of context” rather than attend to concrete scientific developments and technological processes. In his 1969 book The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Banham proposed a further attack on conventional social, formal, and aesthetic assumptions about architecture and the machine metaphor.15 He took aim at the privileged focus on the visible aspects of building, specifically, the overdetermined role given to structure in defining architecture. Banham sought to upend the “false hierarchy” between system and structure and, by focusing historical questions around less visible systems, such as ventilation, air flow, and exchange, attempted to redefine architecture as a system of environmental controls and performances.
And yet Banham's challenge stopped short when it came to asking whether or not his means of inquiry and analytical framework were adequate to the task of thinking about architecture as an assembly of components and regulating processes. Banham's historical method did not radically reinterpret the reversal of architecture's insides to the outside, reframe architecture's foreground and background, or document architecture from a different perspective. By contrast, the new research informed by media philosophies and cultural techniques finds it crucial to think about the materials under scrutiny at the same time it questions the historical method of analysis. These methods investigate architecture's mediality by looking at those instances in which architecture performs as an infrastructural mechanism that makes visible distinctions among possibilities, distinctions less definitive than the inside and outside or the internal and external of architecture. From this perspective the procedures, processes, and gadgets that differentiate between fresh air and contaminated air take on an importance equal to Banham's interest in air intake and output channels.
For example, the threshold has historical and contemporary significance in defining the inside and outside of architecture. In “Turning Architecture Inside Out: Revolving Doors and Other Threshold Devices,” Laurent Stalder examines how the threshold, whether operating metaphorically, structurally, or spatially, has become an “infrastructural amenity that performs as an interface of regulation.”16 As considered by Stalder, the threshold goes beyond its role of delineating different, often opposing realms—the inside from the outside, the private from the public. From revolving doors, turnstiles, sliding doors, and air curtains to the attenuated experiences of the intercom and airport security, the threshold as interface partakes in the “double demand” of being both open and closed.17 The threshold conducts the flow of human movement and activates surveillance. It is a technological apparatus that makes inside and outside ambiguous and extensive, and yet, Stalder notes, the threshold “continually resolves into new coherent” material instances.18 This type of research allows architectural history to shift from hermeneutical and representational interpretations to the materialities of practices associated with cultural techniques that inform human behavior. The threshold holds the cultural and the technical in tension. As a machine, not merely a physical apparatus defined by machinelike functions, the threshold is dynamic and comprises various types of functionalities that have changed over time. The threshold as apparatus is an ensemble of techniques and historically distributive mechanisms; its intermediality animates a field of corporeal, object–architectural relations.
Research into architecture as machine from a “processual” perspective adapts methodological strategies from German media philosophy and media archaeology, among other approaches. It starts from Michel Foucault's discourse methods—his mode of inquiry into the social, cultural, institutional, physical, and administrative knowledge structures—which have served architectural history and its theories well. Foucault and his collaborators tracked discourses by focusing on texts and statements. Their analytical framework of the historical a priori privileges the text as the singular medium of the written archive. In the case of Les machines à guérir: Aux origines de l'hôpital moderne, for example, it supports the abstraction of the technological mechanisms of Jacques Tenon's hospital architecture into the metaphor of a “machine for healing.”19 Early appreciation and critique of the Foucauldian discourse method came from the philosophers and architectural historians associated with the Venice School, including Massimo Cacciari, Franco Rella, Manfredo Tafuri, and Georges Teyssot. In Il dispositivo Foucault (1977) and Le macchine imperfette (1980), for example, they grappled with both the contributions and the failures of Foucault's strategy for architectural history.20 Their criticism focused most persistently on Foucault's lack of engagement with architecture and its histories, with the materiality of the technical aspects of building programs and types, and with the material effects of the legal and social techniques of practice.21 Paradoxically, working from Foucauldian perspectives, they rendered abstract the concept of power associated with the architectural expression of technique.
Within the same time frame, literary and media theorist Friedrich Kittler critiqued and extended the Foucauldian strategy in Discourse Networks 1800/1900 (Aufscreibesysteme 1800/1900, 1985). Arguing that research influenced by Foucault depends on a single medium, the text, and privileges writing with the authority for processing, storage, and transmission of data in its various medial forms, Kittler launched a dramatic reassessment of human culture–driven history to focus on the technological a priori, the technical preconditions for history.22 As opposed to writing as a medium that privileges the human and the culture of the word, Kittler argued, as David Wellbery puts it in his foreword to Discourse Networks, for the “medial constellation of modernism” premised on the fact that the “emergence of technological media around 1900 represents a decisive historical and discursive caesura that alters the structure, placement, and function of cultural production.”23 Wellbery writes that Kittler's “decisive methodological step” was generalizing the concept of media to apply to all domains of cultural exchange.24
The new methodological strategies for doing history have evolved by engaging media studies, the history of science, and technology studies and have accrued more nuanced methods than initially configured by Kittler. Post-Kittlerian media scholars assert a correction to his perceived technological determinism and the supposed ambivalence of his political stance. This media-oriented research offers an opening to revisit the power-crisis endgame of the Venice School's Marxist architectural history. The expanded field of media studies is fertile, inclusive, and extraordinarily active. Therein lies an opening or opportunity for architectural historians to explore a mode of research not yet settled into canon or esteemed as the preferred new theoretical orientation. In an interview recently published in Texte zur Kunst, Reinhold Martin characterized the transatlantic reception of Kittler's thought as beginning to inform a way of “doing history with media rather than doing media history.”25 This mode of doing history engages the material, the technical, and the cultural in ways that cross outdated disciplinary boundaries, making complex the inside and outside of architecture and its histories, without erasing the specificity of architecture as a medium.26
The past fifteen years, especially the years since Kittler's death in 2011, have seen a plethora of translations, publications, and debates about media theory.27 For example, in an article aptly titled “After Kittler: On the Cultural Techniques of Recent German Media Theory,” Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan notes a “shared interest in describing and analyzing how signs, instruments, and human practices consolidate into durable symbolic systems capable of articulating distinctions within and between cultures.”28 This methodological approach is a research orientation that tracks systems and chains of operation while attempting to keep the cultural and technical in tension. What it holds for architectural history is yet to be fully explored. In light of the new research presented at the Zurich conference, it is certain that the contributions will appear nothing like the old semiological, content-based hermeneutical readings of representation or the metaphors attached to abstract conceptions of techniques and technologies.