Songs of Birth

September 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Embryos do not sing.

For embryos do not live in a probabilistic world, there is no need for the negotiation of codes and playing with them, both the codes and the negotiations. We even may not ask how the world could look like for an embryo, because there is no world. The vast majority of all relations of an embryo are purely internal. Obviously, the embryo exhausts all its possibilities of becoming when submersed in a tank. Embryos are professional solipsists. They are their own environment.

Embryos are able to absorb violent transformations that are dictated by its plan. The condition of the embryonic transforms the plan into morphogenetic processes. Foldings, transfers, inversions, and above all, melting of tissue. The fingers of the hand of vertebrates, including humans, do not just simply grow out like a branch in a plant. Fingers exist because tissue is removed by melting and “recycling” it. Between the DNA and the body there is the embryo. It constitutes even a different kind of corporeality.

As always with the particular factuality of biological systems we have to take it along the road into abstractness if we would like to learn from it. This road is, of course, not prebuilt. It is never, to be more precise. If we will build it in a proper way, we will find neat junctions into architecture, urbanism and the theory of machine-based episteme as well. Of course, we are not the first ones delving into this subject matter. Think of Simondon and his individuation, or again Deleuze, to whom we owe so much also for this essay that actually is about the principle of embryonic with regard to Singapore, Rem Koolhaas and his writing “Singapore Songlines”.

Anyway, these transformations that embryos undergo, this violence is a direct consequence of the simultaneity of the presence of a plan and the absence of play. We may even turn this relation around: Wherever we find a plan and processes that implement its actualization we may describe the respective context is an embryological context. Wherever we find violence (of one kind or the other) and its tolerance (of one kind or the other), we may describe the respective context as an embryological context. Yet, we must be careful regarding our valuation. From the perspective of the embryo, even the most brutal processes of folding, melting, secondary morphogenesis and renewal are perhaps not brutal at all.

Here we also find cybernetics as a symptom for a societies’ infancy, if not for still being embryo. It is not by mere chance that Michel Serres came up with the idea of Hominiscence only in the late 1990ies (published 2001), well after the retreat of cybernetics. Any cybernetical structure is the materialized plan, it is apriori closed, anti-probabilistic, any structural extension would result in its collapse. Cybernetic structures—which are actually quite rare in natural systems—may be regarded even as being proto-embryonic, as they can’t result in morphogenesis. Cybernetics works only for perfect solipsists like embryos, or, in a slightly different perspective, for perfectly constrained sub-systems.

Embryos may be conceived as instances of a principle or a concept that actualizes the possibility of material differentiation and growth. Embryos develop. Etymologically, to develop relates to replace, unwrap (like the German “entwickeln”, Swedish “utwickla”, or Portugues “desenvolver”), the particle “en” melted away from “des-en-velop”. The something that needs to be there as the entity is going to be unwrapped is the plan.

From here we can develop this concept of the embryo in a straightforward manner. It is a construction by inversion. Inversion here means to select one of the key “properties” or elements of the concept and to invert it, which of course generates something very different, compared to its ancestor. Remarkably enough, “construction by inversion” also goes far beyond of negation and dialectics, it is a deeply positive move.

Well, in our context, there are two main routes for doing that. Either we drop its inherent solipsism, confronting the becoming with the probabilistic, open world. If we still focus on the more material aspects, we arrive at the concept of evolution. The second route of inversion drops the focus on the material. Usually, we call differentiation and growth in the domain of the immaterial.1 “learning”. Hence, it would not be reasonable at all to say that embryos learn, or that they evolve. Concerning the general concept of differentiation we found now a trinity of only slightly overlapping language games, comprising development, evolution and learning, or embryos, populations and brains, or plans, probabilization and mediatization. Admittedly, minds create secondary, immaterial or virtual embryonic morphogenesis as well as probabilized and highly volatile populations. The immanence of thought is located between populations of informational germ layers of interpretation, where the respective morphology settles in the realm of the symbolic. In more philosophical terms, we could express this trinity as form, process and virtualisation, and even more abstract the particular, the species and the general. By means of all these parallel perspectives it should be clear for now that this trinity establishes a fundamental space (which is an aspectional space) for the language game of change.

In any real system, these three aspects of differentiation as mentioned above overlap, of course. For there is, for instance, no clear separation between the material and the immaterial (see footnote 1); there is also no perfect solipsism, which could claim that there are no relations to some kind of “outside”. And everybody knows that plans are subject to failure precisely due to the probabilistic influences from this outside as well as from the processes going to implement them.

In biology, these three aspects are handled by, or even just applied as three perspectives for asking about the underlying mechanisms. During the last two decades or so, biologists started to drop the idealistic distinction between the individual and the species by talking about the respective problematic field as evo-devo. Both, evolutionary and embryonic differentiation are characterized by constraints and potentials that are inherently implied by the process “it-self” .

So what’s about other domains, such as the Urban.2, or machine-based episteme? Urban environments are full of change, are representatives of change par excellence, and so is the condition of the Urban. In many cities, even rather small ones, we find urban planning agencies or urban development offices. In Singapore, however, which will constitutes our target in this piece, we find an Urban Redevelopment Authority—note the “re-“ here! Yet, so far we won’t find any Urban Evolution Department… How to speak about change processes without invoking ideology, and, most significant, beyond the particularity of a given “case”? Could the concept of the abstract embryo be helpful for that? And if, how?

Restricting questions about change to the level of the embryonic seems to be tempting. Yet, design efforts directed to the Urban hardly can be limited to the first level. Doing so instead causes strange conditions such as extreme forms of neoteny, or even embryoteny. From the perspective of a embryotenic entity, birth is conceived as a threat. Above we have seen that the embryonic level is closely related to the particular, restricting design activity regarding the Urban to the first level thus means to get trapped by a representational fallacy. Any prolonged development activity does not only deny birth and the possibility of learning as a mechanism of smooth adaptation, it necessarily results in “re”-development and the violence of the embryonic.

Of course, in such domains outside of biological structures we do neither find “eggs” nor “placentas”, even not metaphorically. We should avoid to call a city an “organism”, or “super-organism”. Yet, asking about the instantiation and orchestration of change processes in cities (regarding the Urban) or machines (regarding understanding and consciousness), we certainly can apply a sufficiently generalized concept of differentiation, such as we put it above as the trinity of plans (embryos), probabilization (populations) and mediatization (brains). This trinity establishes an aspectional space of differentiability and its expressibility. This space also comprises the Deleuzean concept of the differential (as a structure) as well as Simendonean individuation (as a process).3, both in their full complexity.

The obvious question regarding any designed process of change thus concerns about the mechanisms and the implied changes of quality when moving around in this space of differentiability. Practically, in actual cases we have to choose a particular differential weighting regarding the trinity of development, evolution and learning.

Not all moves are possible in that space, and not all possible moves are smooth and painless. We also should not expect that those somehow disrupting transitions in this space such as birth are taking place only once, or as a unique event. Perhaps, we should not conceive the moves and movements in this space as transitions, since the relation

Embryos are still not born..

This Essay

This essay is the third of a row about Rem Koolhaas’ trilogy4 comprising three texts titled “The Generic City”, “Junkspace” and “Singapore Songlines”. The former two are much more abstract than the third, which actually seems to strive for some kind of understanding the Singaporean condition. It is thus the most extensive in the trilogy, bringing in a wealth of details.

The resulting trilogy of our own, established by “The Generic City – a Précis”, “Junkspace, extracted”, and this essay accompanies our investigation about the possibility and the form of a “Theoretical Architecture” as well as a “Theory of Architecture” and the role of “Theory in Architecture”. These theoretical moves are explored under the umbrella of a philosophically guided approach that we call Urban Reason.

Here, our main subject of interest is Singapore and its particular quality. Such it turns also into a critique of Koolhaas’ investigation. Our main proposal about Singapore is that it is best conceived as an Urban Embryo, where the notion of embryo as well as that of the Urban is a rather abstract one, of course. Yet, everything in Singapore starts making sense only before this background.

The remainder of this essay comprises the following sections (active links):

Dreaming Koolhaas

Songlines refer to the cultural heritage. They convey something about the Life Form of the culture’s past as well as its presence, yet not about those things that could be clearly spoken about. Its a kind of myth, though it is less and at the same time more than a myth. Actually, even just referring to them establishes important constraints on any further individual and collective action. Songlines are like collective daydreams, often expressed in non-textual music or images or actions. Writing about someone else’s Songlines is thus a delicate issues, since one is going to confront the speakable with those issues about which we can’t speak, nor which we could show or demonstrate.

Previously, we called Rem Koolhaas a story-teller. More recently, his works showed a tendency towards cross-mediality and genericity. Such it seems as if he’d remembered his roots as journalist and experimental moviemaker. In an interview from 1999 (to a German newspaper), he describes himself, his major profession, as a writer and author—at that time—, yet not as an architect or even an urbanist.

Story-telling, .consolidated into a more or less secular and profane form first by Boccaccio through his Decamerone5 is a form and a mirror of human reason. Reason exceeds rationality by far, as for instance ethics can’t be fully determined by rationality, or the necessary contradictions inherent to complex, living entities and their social organization defy rationality as well.

At this point it is quite interesting to see that Koolhaas, in his earlier, still more modernist “configuration,” relates evolution and stories almost by definition. In Singapore Songlines [1]—which is from 1995—he writes:

Singapore is a city without qualities (maybe that is an ultimate form of deconstruction, and even of freedom). But its evolution—its songline—continues: from enlightened postwar UN triumvirate, first manifestation of belated CIAM apotheosis, overheated metabolist metropolis, now dominated by a kind of Confucian postmodernism in which the brutal early housing slabs are rehabilitated with symmetrical ornament. (p.1077/78)

Singapore Songlines appeared in S, M, X, XL [2], a remarkable cross-over-view about his oeuvre up to the mid-nineties. There he also demonstrates how AMO/OMA approached regional cultures, i.e. a particular city, by empiric studies for the purpose of learning about the city (e.g. the study about Lagos, Nigeria). In the case of Singapore, Koolhaas added a detailed investigation addressing the particular history of Singapore, resulting in an almost hermeneutical attitude.

The passage quoted above is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, he ascribes the historical course of Singapore a hidden tendency and consistency, which nevertheless consists for large parts of unintended effects (and affects), despite the particular culture of planning that prevails in Singapore.

Secondly, equating evolution with a songline, i.e. mythical sequential order of undefined dimensionality, but surely not of a single one. Such, he conceives of the evolution of a local cultural arrangement as kind of a generic story, but he also conceives of the songlines as evolution. The former bringing in inceptions, bursting fountains of dreamt cross-media from buried experiences, the latter invoking the element of probability, constraints, symbiosis, extinction and inheritance. The former purely immaterial, the latter constantly crossing the border between the material dimension of the differentiating body and the probabilistic, informational dynamics of populations

Equating both, .the songlines and evolution, is provocative in its own, especially if it is performed in such a parenthetic manner. Probably, it is used by Koolhaas to indicate a particular constitution regarding the “resistance of the existential”6. By qualifying Singapore as a “city without qualities” he is actually pointing to the same direction. In particular, Robert Musil described the advent of the age of the probabilized conditions—the times around 1910 in the agonizing Austrian monarchy—in his novel “The man without qualities” [5]. Far from being without qualities—his main figure Ulrich has been called of being without qualities as an offending act by another figure inside the novel—, Ulrich is described as a person who explicitly tries to develop the manifoldness based on his individuality, albeit he as an individual is detached from traditions and immersed into the upcoming “mass society”, that is, a population where everything gets probabilized. In his novel, Musil unfolded a broad view about the problematics of societal transformation, particularly the relation between the individual and the fundamentally changing society at large.

Without doubt, these references as introduced by Koolhaas en passant all apply to contemporary Singapore as well as to its history, the subject of Koolhaas’ 80-page essay. Yet, his piece constitutes also a particular point of departure for Koolhaas’ own Songlines, which should eventually be completed through “The Generic City” (also contained in S, M, X, XL) and particularly through “Junkspace,” besides his architectural works such as the Dutch embassy or the Casa da Musica.

In 1995, some seven years before his piece “Junkspace,” Koolhaas was still defending modernism despite he also felt uneasy about it. In his short critical piece “What ever happened to Urbanism?”, which also appeared in S,M,X,XL, he mentioned:

Modernism’s alchemistic promise—to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition—has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work.

His defense in the Singapore Songlines, though being an implicit one, goes by emphasizing that its goals should not be separated from its way of operation, namely a mechanistic and rationalist program. This, of course, means that he proposes to leave precisely these mechanisms intact:

In Singapore—modernization in its pure form—the forces of modernity are enlisted against the demands of modernism. Singapore’s modernism is lobotomized: from modernism’s full agenda, it has adopted only the mechanistic, rationalistic program and developed it to an unprecedented perfection in a climate of streamlined “smoothness” generated by shedding modernism’s artistic, irrational, uncontrollable, subversive ambitions—revolution without agony.  (p.1041)

Koolhaas’ argument here is almost a romanticist one. First, modernism is no exception to the general condition that the goals of a movement are often shaped by the mixture of historical facts and metaphysical beliefs. Obviously, Koolhaas suggests that it is indeed possible to separate the goals from the operational setup. Such, he fails to recognize the core modernism itself, namely the way that the metaphysical beliefs characterizing modernism—above all “independence”—leads to its particular arrangement of operations.

The point now is that a similarity in the operations is by far not sufficient to conclude about the similarity regarding metaphysical beliefs. Yet, what are the metaphysical beliefs of Singaporeans? And how could a member of a Western society relate to it? For Koolhaas, the latter issue is clear: don’t forget to confirm your return flight (p.1087). This clarity does not hold for the former part; as Koolhaas was not aware about his own metaphysical setup, he barely could get aware that of the Singaporeans. No wonder he feels the whole subject as a troubling one:

[…] the most disconcerting question is: Where are these urgencies buried? (p.1017)

The answer would have been, of course: in his own metaphysical beliefs. At that time, in the mid-1990ies, Koolhaas had apparently been puzzled about what he experienced in Singapore. He was neither able to think appropriately about differentiation , nor, as a consequence, he could find sufficient distance that would have been necessary for an appropriate comparison. I think that at least some important conclusions about Singapore are mis-spelled, at least. In turn Koolhaas misses to construct a launching site for a general theory of urban development. The first thing such a theory would need is an appropriate conceptual work. Elements that could serve as building blocks as well as a basis to speak about changing urban structures or processes.

Koolhaas describes his strategy for approaching the particular constitution of Singapore by reference to biological systems:

I have tried to decipher its reverse alchemy, understand its genealogy, do an architectural genome project, re-create its architectural songlines. (p.1017)

As we already noted, invoking the image of the “songlines” serves Koolhaas as a metaphorical placeholder for evolution and its historical fabric, its abstract tendencies, contingencies and non-linearities. Like in dreams, it is impossible to forecast the results of the actualization of evolution, yet, beyond the contingency there is also a certain consistency in both cases. Such, Koolhaas set up another tuple that reminds to the major domains of living systems: the combinatorics of molecules (chemistry), the basic encoding (plan, genome), its becoming (genealogy, differentiating individuation), and finally the level of evolution.

Unfortunately, this is the only case where Koolhaas’ essay exhibits a tendency towards abstract structuralism that is inspired by the perspectives developed in biology. Even worse, Koolhaas got stuck in an almost phenomenological habit, blending delving and drowning unwittingly into each other. Of course, Koolhaas essay is a great source for any thorough view onto the historical constraints influencing Singapore’s actualization. In this regard, Singapore Songlines his a highly recommended reading. Yet, Koolhaas tried to do more than just bringing together important sources and describing its history. As a story-teller about the Urban, he is interested in a generally applicable approach. It is regarding this “more” where he didn’t succeed.

We already mentioned that his affiliation to modernism could be seen one of the major reasons for this failure. Later, Koolhaas will depart more and more from modernism, resulting in a rather critical attitude towards modernism. This is reflected in his work as well, of course, which—at least regarding some instances—became more and more relational, and thus Deleuzean.

Behind the Curtains

From this context, given by Koolhaas and Singapore, there are mainly two questions that may appear significant. First, how could we approach the case “Singapore” in a more appropriate way? That is, how could we ask about Singapore and learn from it, rather than being drowned by the amount of particular bits of facts about its peculiarity? Second, how could we read Koolhaas’1995-writing with his more recent achievements?

These interrelated achievements we already discussed previously, they could be summarized as three beyonds:

  • Beyond Erecting: story-telling (in its serious, thus playfully comparatist version) as a method and an effect in architecture, regarding the usage of the building—ultimately its Life Form—as well as the building’s relation to architecture itself;
  • – Beyond Form or Function: emphasizing relationality rather than individual form or functionality, with regard to the people using the building as well as the building’s embedding into a given arranged asset of other buildings;
  • Beyond the Differential Equation: employing time as an activated structural element or asset of building, overcoming the reductionist concept of time as a parameter or even as a (passive) dimension, as it appears in commonly used models of usage or change.

In more concise manner we could express these points also by saying that Koolhaas is on an evolutionary trajectory towards an animate architecture, where behavior is the main organizing paradigm. It is somewhat significant not to separate the three parts listed above. Story-telling does NOT mean that the architect is telling his or her own story as an egomaniac, a category populated by “star architects” and “deconstructivists”. It would be a serious misunderstanding to conceive of story-telling in the same vein as programmatic music once did (for instance Mussorgsky, and Bach earlier). Of course, these pieces can be beautiful, but you can’t listen to them very often. Programmatic, or theme-oriented, often also means “programmed”, i.e. closed.

It is much as Nigel Coates expresses it [6]

Heathrow has versions of Yates Wine Lodge. A debased form of narrative adorns every hotel lobby restaurant and ready-furnished apartment reaching out to the experience-hungry consumers. We live in a morass of meaningless quotation […] ( p.160)

It is more appropriate to conceive of story-telling as a particular game (or play) of braiding teller, listeners, the text, and the situation. The art of story-telling is to create a self-sustaining, nested story-process within each of the listeners by means of feeding and growing their interpretive activity. For good stories, and good story-telling events, the story told is never the story of the teller, it is always the story of the listeners. Having a rich history of telling is certainly helpful to create this, yet, it would be a fatal reduction to conceive of architects as “sources” of stories. Koolhaas referred to a similar issue in his essay about “Bigness”.

We repeatedly mentioned that modernism is characterized by the metaphysical belief in independence. As a corollary, time is usually conceived as a single thing, a primitive series of infinitesimal points. Change is usually described using this time as an external parameter, while the description itself, e.g. as some kind of formula, is symmetric with respect to time. this is paradigmatically realized in physics and, (not quite) astonishingly, also in modernist urbanism.

Taking historicity into consideration, as S.Giedion or Aldo Rossi did it, is just the first step towards a communal story-telling. Koolhaas, in contrast, applies a completely different concept of time. We could call this image of time semiotic (Peirce), cinematic (Deleuze), or complex (Prigogine). In any case, the naive physicalist image of time as a series of independent points vanishes. Not only is “presence” not point-like any more. Presence is as long as a particular “sign-process” is ongoing. There are also bundles of different times, created by different compartments that all host (more or less) separate forms of life.

But again, how would we start interesting communal story-telling? At first, it should be clear that there is always some story told by an urban context. For it is always possible to project some coherence to an urban arrangement, even if would be filled with crap urbanism, ugly store-houses, etc. Such, the mere notion of narrative architecture is just empty. What is at stake is the “proto-content” of the story and dynamics of its unfolding. I put it into quotation marks because it is of course clear, we just mentioned it, that the content can’t be predefined. The visible story is always and only the mediation of the actual story. And that is going to be braided by people, citizens, active listeners. Architecture and town design just has to provide suitable settings.

Nigel Coates tries to identify such elements of city design that could support a different kind of story telling. Yet, Coates fails, not only because he does not develop a proper theory of urban story-telling, which would include some reference or even assimilation of cultural theory. He also is not aware of city theory, e.g. that of David Shane. Yet, intuitively he strongly refers to heterotopias, albeit just by example, not by concept. Coates’ work generally suffers from the case-study approach, even as he tries to get some grip onto the more abstract level. In his advanced theory Shane, identifies several types of heterotopias. The common denominator for those is, however, complexity, either as we introduced it, or in the way Koolhaas is celebrating it as Bigness. Coates is far from understanding any of those. He just points to Koolhaas.

It is crucial to understand that those three beyonds  fom a few paragraphs above are deeply incompatible with the metaphysical belief system of modernism, first of all the sacrosanct independence as a primary element. To put it in another way, these three beyonds are actualizations of a deeply a-modern attitude. This includes any kind of post-modernism as well! Yet, so far Koolhaas didn’t develop his own songlines explicitly that follow these particular issues.

Teaching Singapore

Many people, at least the more sensitive ones, get irritated when visiting Singapore for the first time. Despite it reminds to Western urban arrangements at first sight, it turns out to be quite different. Despite Western guys may recognize some or even many elements that contribute to urban arrangements, at second sight these elements turn out to be choreographed in a strikingly different manner, or to establish a choreography of its own. In terms of animate architecture we could say, Singapore behaves differently.  (Just remember that we conceive of behavior quite abstractly, not in terms of organisms!)

Of course, we should understand that these “despites” are just evoked by underlying disappointments of illusions, created by inappropriate projections. In the case of Singapore the illusion that may be easily triggered by the visual similarity to sceneries in Western cities, perhaps spurred by a certain expectation regarding the effect of globalization. In a sense, traveling with a A380 is not traveling any more. There is just a little movement to and from the airport, but the flight as such is like staying overnight at a weird hotel.

Anyway, what remains is that difference at the second sight. And this difference is a very strong one. By now it should be clear that the peculiarity of Singapore can’t be found on the surface, where empiricists could hope that counting frequencies of whatsoever could show us “directly” the representative differences. Even a latent state variable analysis wouldn’t reveal anything meaningful. This applies, of course, not only to the case of Singapore.

Yet, again, what are the metaphysical beliefs of Singaporeans? Of which achievements are Singaporeans proud of?

In order to understand Singapore, on the level of the individual as well as on the level of the whole state, we have to be clear where they come from. In a sense, Singapore repeats the typical European transformation from non-urban to urban structures, yet in an extremely condensed form, both in the spatial as well as in the temporal dimension. This renders mechanisms visible that otherwise are hidden by vast amounts of historical and contingent particulars. To put it in Foucaultian terms: How could we describe the field of proposals, the space of everything that Singapore could think, and how could we describe the fields of forces that are at the roots of its specific governmentality? Such questions are part of what we could call “Archaelogy of the Urban”.

As a state, Singapore was born by an act of segregation. Yet, it didn’t set apart itself, it has been cast out by Malaysia. The Malayan government enforced the founding of the state because it considered the conditions on the island of Singapore as highly pathological, indeed so bad that it was considered as being incurable. Well, the conditions indeed have been quite bad. In the case of Singapore, the state was born into a chaos. The formal political state was not even accompanied by any organizational structure, nor such a thing as political awareness among its factual inhabitants. From the perspective of the perinatal Singapore there wasn’t anything to build upon.

At that time, in the beginning of the 1960ies, a lot of Chinese people have been living on the island. This brought the structure of the family as a clan into the political reality of Singapore, where it still prevails today. Undeniably, it is a kind of feudalism, yet, it can’t be directly compared to the European form of feudalism. After all, members of the clan are related to each other.

Operationally, the initial mess had to be cleaned up, and this wouldn’t have been possible without a strong plan of almost a military precision. Without any doubt, the political system was Singapore, and probably still is, an oligarchy, establishing a political elite de facto. Yet, it is also clear that it is not a tyranny or a dictatorship. The “big families” feel a serious responsibility about the welfare of the whole state. The political system is probably best described as a technocratic paternalistic oligarchy, using a parliament for the purpose of limited mediation. (In some way, not so dissimilar to the course of development of the E.U.) Else, in Singapore, you won’t see as much video surveillance as you could in London, and the reason is not a lack of potential funding.

In a sense, the Singaporeans did an incredible job. It is the successful improvement of the conditions by actualizing an incredible culture of planning that contributes most to the self-esteem of Singapore. This culture is orchestrated by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which spends a lot of efforts to inform the public about the result of the planning process, not however about the process of planning itself. The emblematic item of the Singaporean culture of planning is a continuous exhibition run by the URA. Below I show just a few images from this exhibition, which covers historical aspects as well as planning aspects.

Generally, the exhibition tries to smooth the history and align intentions, means and effects. Center of the exhibition is a large, representational model, approximately of the size 15mx6m, where one can find all built houses, and all planned houses.

Figure 1a: Partial view of the city model at U.R.A.’s continuous exhibition. In the foreground, you can see Marina Bay, which extends to Singapore River to the background and to the left. The blueish color of the indicated buildings (each model of a high-rise approx 15 cm tall) indicates “being planned” and contracted. The material of blue models is plastic foam.

Figure 1b: Marina Bay, now in wood indicating that it is being built or that it has has been built.

Figure 2a: Poster about the Master Plan 2008. You can see an enormous grade of details. It is indeed a plan, not an open program.

Figure 2b: Exhibiting proudness, the Singaporean way.

Really smart, one could think about such enduring success regarding the implementation of large scale plans. Yet, one also can feel that something under its hood leaves a trace of acid. so, what’s wrong with it? Deleuze frequently insisted on the distinction of reality vs. actuality and possibility vs. potential. Plans are already denoting the possible, everything that is possible (such as denoted by a plan) is already real. Hence, the poster above (Fig.2b) tries to feed on a contrast where actually is none. Deleuze also analyzed and described in detail the origin and the setup of such a misunderstanding, which according to him suffers from the representationalist fallacy (see our earlier discussion here). It is nothing else than a nice match and confirmation that he describes such thinking also as an instance of the “dogmatic image of thought”.

What the author of the poster most likely was referring to is what we described earlier as the existential. Yet, the existential defies any control, even to speak about it, which is quite the opposite to what “planning” refers to. The transduction and implementation of plans as something we then could experience as  something “external” may succeed only, and here we repeat ourselves, if the conditions of such an implementation are completely fixed. Plans could be implemented successfully only if there is no potential. Thus, exhibiting proudness about the successful implementation of plans may be well considered as nothing else than the embryo saying “I am”. The doubts appear much later.

Within a comparably very short time, and without externalized violence, i.e.  bloody revolutions and riots, they transformed their society from level zero into a wealthy third-sector society. Yet, Singapore feels strange for a Western visitor nowadays, as we already pointed out. The reason is that Singapore still behaves as if there would be chaos to fight against, as if there would be a serious lack regarding material supplies, as if Singapore still would fall behind developed countries regarding the economical figures. Employing the umbrella of sustainability (see the next figure below), the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) readily declares the alternative to planning.

Figure 3: Beautiful new world. How much halves of the full story are appropriate?

why do we plan

Yet the declared alternative is at least incomplete, if not wrong, in two ways. Neither is it a necessity that the absence of planning results in bad conditions of industrialization (evolution and learning as alternatives), nor does a polished city mean that this city runs well-balanced on a larger scale (costs are likely to be externalized). In fact, solar energy is almost unknown in Singapore, and the “adoption process” has not even started. All electricity is generated by three power plants running on mineral oil.

Figure 4: Screen shot from the official website of the URA, where it is providing a lot of video and images for a virtual visit. The image below is showing the Clarke Quay at Singapore River mouth, near Marina Bay, which would follow right-hand. In this area you can find a lot of restaurants (Chinese, Japanese, French cuisine), where every aspect of them is choreographed. Hence, the whole arrangement does neither feel “native”, nor “smooth”.

 

William Gibson once mentioned that Singapore is like Disneyland with death penalty. This of course is a deeply misleading exaggeration. The grain of truth in it is the particular silliness due to the still rigorous adherence to the paradigm of planning. Singapore is not threatened by chaos, predatory capitalism, democratic trash or mis-understood materialism of the Marxian flavor. Singapore is threatened by blocking itself from giving birth to itself. Its silliness derives from its neoteny, which in this case is even kind of an embryoteny. Embryos claiming to be fully alive look silly, or troubling at least.

Nevertheless, we should be cautious in our valuation. As it is the case for embryos, we simply can’t apply any of the categories we are used to refer to when thinking about Western societies as Western enculturates. Note that this is not a question of Western vs. Asian though, as Koolhaas repeatedly mentions in his text.

The mystery of how […] the strategy of modern housing that failed in much more plausible conditions could suddenly “work” is left suspended between the assumption of greater authoritarianism and the inscrutable nature of the Asian mentality. (p.1037)

Koolhaas fails to recognize the particular setup of Singapore as an embryo. For grammatical reasons, his conclusions are thus inappropriate, despite his hermeneutical and thorough approach. Singapore is an urban embryo in Asia, its parents gifted it with a potentiality that is Asian, yet, Singapore itself can’t conceived as an Urban body so far. In a sense, it is not even Asian.

The example of Singapore demonstrates that for embryos the dimension of history does not exist at all. Melting and folding erases the possibility for history. Instead, the embryo “knows” only about the future. Even the presence is irrelevant to it. Embryonic morphogenesis means to live inside the plan. If you know that a particular structure is necessary for the next step, but also that this awaited next structure needs to be melt down afterwards again, well then you would start to speak about continuous renewal. Plans reduce the potential to the possible, their purpose being precisely to expel the unforeseeable. Koolhaas is therefore wrong when he repeatedly reproach Singaporean authorities for a certain violence or cruelty. If you live inside a plan, then there is no cruelty except the plan’s rationality, which however is not visible from within. Actually, the perspective from within a plan renders concepts like violence, rationality or moral freedom even meaningless. They could not even be debated within the life form of plans. Perhaps, here we meet the major argument against any close ties between politics and plans, whether in the form of “normal” bureaucracy or in the form of centralized governments.

Such, despite Koolhaas is certainly right to expose a certain “violence”, he definitely fails to find an appropriate category for it. Calling it some kind of “war” is probably not quite correct: War is an extreme form of politically organized externalized violence!

A regime like the one in power in Singapore is a radical movement: it has transformed the term urban renewal into the moral equivalent of war, […] (p. 1035)

[…] a perpetuum mobile where what is given is taken away in a convulsion of uprooting, a state of permanent disorientation. (p.1036)

All the new housing, accommodated in high-rises, close together, entirely devoid of the centrifugal vectors of modernism, obscuring both sky and horizon, precludes any notion of escape. In Singapore, each perspective is blocked by good intentions.  (p.1037)

How would an embryo “escape”? If it “escapes”, we call it birth. More significant, the “escape” of embryos is equivalent to a vary fundamental change of the life form. Not only relations change, even what could be called a relation changes during birth. For Singapore, it seems to me, the appropriate question could be how to initiate its birth?

The delicate situation of the planning authorities, probably of the whole city all together is described by a serious kind of impossibility. It would be the first embryo thinking about its own birth.

Well, today the URA established a rule that spectators should be enabled too get a glimpse to the sea each from high-rise building. (Of course, Koolhaas meant a different thing here… :)

Living inside a plan, likewise we could say that living as embryo creates a strange attitude towards the presence. Everything is known to be potentially replaced quite soon. So, why spend any efforts to make things beautiful? As beauty always means some kind of sustainably encoded luxury, it should be clear how it feels to be in Singapore, strolling around. For a Western soul it feels sterile, sharp, uncreative. I say this without any notion of reproach, of course. Nevertheless, it remains at least exciting to observe how Singapore will proceed to turn its paradigm of change from development to evolution. Sustainable adaptiveness is achievable only through the latter, and in a smart way only by overcoming evolution through a further turn towards virtuality and learning.

It is very important to understand that this current Singaporean paradigm of renewal has nothing to do with an open evolution. Precisely here we find the suture for intensive conflict. Unfortunately, Singapore apparently didn’t recognize the necessity for proceeding towards a more open style of development. What the SG authorities try nowadays is to plan leisure and the play, i.e. the playfulness of its citizens, which indeed sounds somewhat perverse. You can’t issue commands like “Play!”, “Be creative!”, “Develop tolerable sub-culture!” Nevertheless, this is exactly what the Singaporean government apparently is heading for.

It is a period of transition, revision, marginal adjustments, “New Orientations”; after “urbanization” comes “leisurization.”  “Singaporeans now aspire to the finer things in life to the arts, culture, and sports …”

The recent creation of a Ministry for Information and the Arts is indicative. As Yeo, its minister, warns, “It may seem odd, but we have to pursue the subject of fun very seriously if we want to stay competitive in the 21st century …” (p.1077)

Not recognizing the embryonic form of life Koolhaas was tempted into a further mistake. It is plainly wrong to call Singapore a semiotic state.

Singapore is perhaps the first semiotic state, a Barthian slate, a clean synthetic surface, a field at once active and neutralized where political themes or minimal semantic particles can be launched and withdrawn, tested like weather balloons. (p.1039)

Embryos need anything but open interpretation. Koolhaas would even be wrong if he would apply the (open) Peircean concept of the sign (he obviously sticks to the mechanistic and closed Saussurean model). Yet, Roland Barthes himself preferred the Peircean conception. Additionally, Koolhaas seriously misunderstands semiotics, as it has been made available for architecture e.g. by Venturi. In 1995, Koolhaas was still following the common modernist misconception regarding semantics, namely that semantics and thus meaning could be determined apriori. Semantic particles can’t be launched simply because they don’t exist (they are impossible). In fact, the city of Singapore lacks semiotic anchor points almost completely (so far at least), except perhaps the exaggerated tourismic choreographies around Marina Bay, not quite surprising due to the same misunderstanding. The semiotics of a city depends on its history, as it is impossible to introduce a symbolic value by declaration. Yet, living inside the plan, such a history is impossible. Trying to enforce the presence of history—which is nothing else than to pretend it—results just in more silly artificiality—regarding the Western setup. Yet, if we compare it to things like the “historical district” in San Diego, Singapore may not be that far off.

SingaPure Conclusions

Given the unique conditions that we can find in Singapore, or as Singapore, it is not really a surprise to find two highly renowned technical universities engaged in large projects. The Boston MIT and the Zurich ETH run “laboratories” in Singapore. The total budget spent in the 5-year period since 2010 well exceeds 400 mio. $, shared between Singapore and the universities. Of course, both parties address technical questions almost exclusively, attracting reductionist practitioners of all sorts (For most of them “complexity” is an offense). It has been proven difficult to bring in a more cultural perspective. Encouragingly, or should we say ironically, the Swiss fraction is housed in a building called the “Create Tower”.

Singapore is indeed a laboratory, .though a very special one. Yet, like in an experiment conducted in material science, the basic setup is known. No new natural laws are to be expected7, the main target being optimization of the embedding system. In such an experiment, you know how to set it up in advance. Hopefully, the Future Cities Laboratory, as the Swiss branch is called, will recognize the subtle complexity of that naming. Hopefully, Singapore will not serve as a template for other cities. Yet, just his seems to happen in China.

The main lesson we can learn from Singaporean Songlines is what it means to become embryonic. Without the implemented example we simply would not know. It  would not be possible to set up a theory about change, particularly not about change with respect to the Urban. In turn we may say that the actual Gestalt of the Urban—as a concept and as a Life Form—is highly dependent on the way one actualizes the concept of change. Thinking change means thinking time. And this is definitely different all around the Asian cultures as compared to the Western concept.

In our summary we claimed that everything in Singapore starts making sense only before the background of its embryonic condition. .This may easily be generalized into a generally applicable principle: Nothing regarding the Urban Makes Sense Except in the Light of the Orchestration of Change.8

Of course, everything always changes. Yet, we deliberately emphasize its orchestration as the important aspect. Cities that are not aware of that, instead just reacting on a daily basis to the never ending challenges without any reflection about the conditions for these actions and reactions, can hardly maintain the quality of the Urban. Such, the Orchestration of Change provides the transcendental conditions for the particular quality of the Form of Life that establishes in a certain city, maybe even as the Urban. Thus, it is clear that mere size is only a secondary condition for the appearance of the Urban. (For instance, Munich has been dubbed as a “large village” by Karl Krauss in the 1920ies, and it is quite likely that he would label it the same today.)

The perspective expressed above includes, of course, the conceptualization as well as the socio-political instantiation of change, the former implying the choreosteme, the latter all the (usually) highly complex mechanism associated with it. We have argued that change always implies embryonic, evolutionary and learning aspects (all in its abstract form). In the opposite direction we could say that any process of change or differentiation can be situated in the aspectional space spanned by these three aspect. Such we can sharpen the perspective onto differentiation that we have been developing earlier, in our essay about growth, where we distinguished different modes of growth. Now, we are able to transpose the “observation of growth” into the abstract, which allows us to derive a general approach to change. A very brief remark should be allowed here saying that this aspectional space conveys precisely the attitude of the late Putnam regarding essences or prototypes. They simply do not exist for him outside the collective process of settling down at a particular configuration (which then is considered as being an “essence”). (cf. [7])

With regard to the Urban this is particularly interesting for shrinking cities or neighborhoods. Gaps and local meltdowns in urban assets are anything but defects or pathological. Shrinking processes do not provide any reason to become desperate. Yet, they definitely deserve a vision, a long-term perspective, even if it won’t be implemented as rigorously as it is done in Singapore.

Singapore demonstrates what it means to “become positive”. The embryo is wholeheartedly positive. It is a punch to representational negativity, blaming the Western flavor of urbanism that got infected by it. Koolhaas was aware of this (“What ever happened to Urbanism?”), yet at that time without being able to point towards a possible release of this deadlock.

Our amalgamated wisdom can be easily caricatured: according to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be Real, according to Virilio we cannot be There.

Of course, the actual issue with all of those three guys is that they are caricatures of themselves. Trying to reason about the whole and its actuality as romanticist hyper-modernists is a contradictio in adiecto. Methodological stupidity. It is stupid (or childish) to believe—as modernists actually do—in metaphysical independence of everything, thus splitting everything into metaphysical and empirical dust, and then at the same time tying to pretend to say anything about the imagined whole, which even worse is often assumed to be out there as such. Yet, the positivism of Singapore is just following the negative of this negativity, because it takes the positive itself again representational. There is no free choice in a plan. If it would, it would not be a plan anymore. The metaphysical setup of Singapore is characterized by the belief in transcendental identity as the primary element, shaped by the historic need for rigorous planning. We already have been discussing several times the problem with concepts that are based on the principle of identity. Yet, in an engineered city it matches the general habit.

Both together, planning within the paradigm of identity, resulted in the city-state’s embryonic character. The abstract embryo is the only being that could claim identity, since it is the only being that also could claim being a solipsist. As it is typical for embryos, the Singaporean model is possible only on this apriori spatially restricted island of 600 square kilometers (a bit more than the Lake of Constance in the middle of Europe). Indeed, it could prove quite hard to adopt a more relational attitude.

No wonder Singapore attracts engineers and reductionist urbanists. By no means Singapore could be considered a “model” city in the sense that one could transfer “experiences” to other cases. (Except similarly brutal cases of city planning in China.) Time will reveal whether Singapore once will develop into a model case. For that, however, it must find some way to get born.

Regarding Koolhaas and his Singapore Songlines, we have seen that he was not able to depart far enough from his own modernist setup. Despite he is able to observe that…

Singapore is incredibly “Western” for an Asian city, […]. This perception is a Eurocentric misreading. The “Western” is no longer our exclusive domain. (p.1013)

…he is not able to develop an appropriate perspective to the change model that is implemented in Singapore. Neither the assignment of ugliness nor that of absurdity actually makes sense. Who would say that embryos are ugly? Or chaotic? Or a Potemkinic entity?

It is managed by a regime that has excluded accident and randomness: even its nature is entirely remade. It is pure intention: if there is chaos, it is authored chaos; if it is ugly, it is designed ugliness; if it is absurd, it is willed absurdity. Singapore represents a unique ecology of the contemporary. (p.1011)

The problem of Singapore, its problematic field, is provoked by its addiction to embryonism. In order to avoid an increase of the intensity of violence there is no other possibility than to transform the centralized, representationalist embryonism into its probabilized version, a steady, multiplied and manifold nativity on the level of the individual or small social groups. I am (not so) sure that they will find a plan how to accomplish this….

Notes 

.1. This distinction between the material and immaterial is a secondary distinction. Previously, in the essay about behavior, we argued that this distinction is due to the existential fallacy. That distinction implicitly assumes that we could speak about the material in its or as an existence before any perception, any language and any conceptual work. This of course is not possible. Distinguishing between the material and the immaterial pretends a problematics, yet it only gets trapped by a misunderstanding.
Thus, this distinction should be regarded as a coarse approximation only. 

.2. As always, we use the capital “U” if we refer to the urban as a particular quality and as a concept (particularly the one we are developing in this series), in order to distinguish it from the ordinary adjective, and additionally to avoid any reference to any kind of “-ism”. 

.3. For discussion of Simendon’s individuation see Bühlmann [3] who discussed him with respect to mediality; also see Kenneth Dean [4] who refers to him in a concise way: “Gilbert Simendon ( 1989; 1992) has analysed the process of individuation of living organisms, individuals, and social collectives. He argues that an individual is generated out of a complex metastable field of preindividual forces, potential forms, and possible coalescences of matter. The moment of individuation is determinative in physical processes, such as in the formation of a crystal. Even after attaining the consistency of energy, form, and matter that constitutes a crystal, the crystal continues to interact with its milieu, in order to maintain its consistency. In the case of living organisms, the realm of virtuosity Simendon refers to as the preindividual is carried along throughout the living being’s lifetime of continuous individuation. Thus, attaining a particular identity is only one, and but a temporary, aspect of a continuous interaction with the milieu, and a continuous process of individuation drawing upon the virtual, or preindividual, realm. Many of the forces that move through a living being undergoing these processes may be described as transindividual. This is particularly the case with regard to the establishment of an individual identity vis-a-vis a social collective.” (p.31). 

.4. Note that Koolhaas didn’t conceive those texts as a trilogy by himself, at least as far as I know. Rather, putting these texts into a close neighborhood is due to our interpretation.

.5. The Decamerone is commonly regarded as the first instance of the novel, (it. novella), indeed a novel thing, usually about novel stories, though the same stories have been told innumerable ways before.

.6. We introduced “resistance of the existential” as an accidens of corporeality. There is always something about the material arrangement that we can’t speak of, as any speaking or thinking already refers to modeling, or more precisely, to the choreosteme. Yet, despite we can infer any outside and its materiality only indirectly, we are faced with it. Saying this we also have to emphasize that materiality is not limited to the outside (of the mind, or the choreosteme), since symbols always acquire a quasi-materiality.

.7. Unless the experimentator does not just play around, as it happened in case of the discovery of ceramic high-temperature super conductivity by Bednorz and Müller in 1986. Accordingly, there is still no theory that explains the physical phenomenon of high-temperature super conductivity.

.8. This is a mirror of Dobzhansky’s famous “principle” for biology as a science. He mentioned that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, American Biology Teacher vol. 35 (March 1973)

References

  • [1] Rem Koolhaas (1995), Singapore Songlines – Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis …or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa.  In: O.M.A., Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S,M,X,XL. Crown Publishing Group, 1997. p.1009-1089.
  • [2] O.M.A., Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S,M,X,XL. Crown Publishing Group, 1997.
  • [3] Vera Bühlmann. Inhabiting media. Thesis University of Basel (CH) 2009.
  • [4] Kenneth Dean, Lord of the Three in One: The Spread of a Cult in Southeast China. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1998.
  • [5] Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities.
  • [6] Nigel Coates, Narrative Architecture: Architectural Design Primers series Wiley, London 2012.
  • [7] Ian Hacking (2007), Putnam’s Theory of natural Kinds and their Names is not the Same as Kripke’s. Principia, 11(1) (2007), pp. 1–24.

۞

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Songs of Birth at The "Putnam Program".

meta

%d bloggers like this: