The composer, John Cage wanted sounds to be nothing but themselves. Not signifiers, not representations, not components of a formal system, just sounds. Cage wanted sounds to emerge “in accordance with nature in the manner of her operation”. In this, he was not evoking a romanticised, transcendental nature. Rather, he was alluding to the purposeless creativity of nature. To this end he adopted chance as a compositional tool to create music without purpose, denuded of signification and free of recognisable form. In contrast, there is nothing more purposeful, signifying and form-generating than an architectural plan. The teleological ambitions of the plan are perfectly expressed in Le Corbusier’s claim that “the plan is the generator”. Not only does the plan generate the specific project, it determines the very conception and limits of architecture itself. The plan is a projection into the future. Seeking to assert human agency over worldly contingency, it is the instrument of an ambition to control time and space.
The plan, thus, has much in common with the musical score. Plans and scores give the viewer oversight over the entire territory at a glance. They convert processes that are immersive and temporal into singular objects. They encourage preoccupations with concepts such as symmetry, proportion, repetition, language, narrative and formal coherence which lend themselves to transcendental significations. And yet to look at a plan and mistake it for the particular experience of an environment is not unlike looking at a score and mistaking it for the experience of listening to a performance of a piece of music.
For Cage, scores were not the drivers of the compositional process. Chance operations were the creators of scores. Sometimes elements of indeterminacy were included in the score. This permitted performer’s a considerable degree of scope for interpreting the work and allowed for alternative outcomes in its performance. Thus, the score’s traditional role as an instruction or definitive plan of action is undermined. There are correspondences between musicians’ experimental scores and the experimental drawings of architects. Similarly, there are correlations between the roles of composers, performers and listeners in music and those of designers, contractors and users in architecture. It is therefore possible to translate ideas that originated in music into design methodologies which challenge the very basis of architecture, in the same way that John Cage challenged the traditions of Western music. This, with particular emphasis on the implications for architectural drawings, is the subject of my proposed paper.
The paper will be an explication of research into the potential architectural outcomes of design techniques based on indeterminacy and chance and which raise questions about the role of plans in the determination of architecture. Issues explored will include: plans and the experience of buildings, the primacy of the visual in architecture, the roles of intentionality and authorship, the predominance of contingency in architectural processes and the nature of architectural meaning. The paper will also touch on the correspondences of this research with ideas in contemporary literature, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as music.
Sean Griffiths is a practicing artist, architect and academic.
Sean was a founder of the art/architecture practice, FAT between 1991 and 2014. He has practiced as an artist since 2014, working on large-scale installations and public art projects. He continues to practice architecture under the name, Modern Architect. Sean is Professor of Architecture at the University of Westminster in London where he researches the use of “Chance Operations” as design tools. He is also a Visiting Professor of Architectural Design at Yale University.
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