Zeynep Çelil Alexander, “Neo-Naturalism,” Log 31, Spring-Summer, 2014, p23-30.
Alexander presents a tidy analysis of “Neo-naturalism,” a contemporary zeitgeist (for lack of a better word) dominating the “design disciplines,” defined by data as the chief epistemological unit used for design production. Key among the many points she clarifies is the likely role advanced capitalism played in producing this trend, particularly capitalism’s invasion of the university. Equally significant is the grim and banal future imagined by the removal of the signifier as the glue of reality and its replacement by “dematerialized data floating in frictionless space.”
Alexander’s clarity and concision are truly things of beauty, and she aims them at the pedagogical landscape in which Neo-naturalism prospers. Gone are the days when historic precedent, theoretical investigations, or language served as design’s antagonist. In its place is a fascination with the hard sciences, natural processes, neuroscience, and diagrammatic flows of energy and/or resources. Underlying all these options is quantitative data, the new epistemological unit of the design disciplines. This is Neo-Naturalism.
The “turn” to neo-naturalism is commonly presented as a means of encouraging interdisciplinarity after the autonomous and introspective trends of the late 20th century, a healthy and practical response to 21st century challenges. Of course, interdisciplinarity is a praiseworthy agenda, but Alexander points to Barthes’ original definition of this idea—“creating a new object, which belongs to no one [subject]”—to show that this isn’t quite what neo-naturalism achieves. Instead, it seems be another justification for abstract formalism, and the “diagrammatic impulse in architectural schools appears to be the disciplinary equivalent of rearranging deck chair on the Titanic.”
Alexander explains that the extension of architecture and design into the realm of other disciplines—even if only an exploitive semblance; otherwise called “architecture’s expanded field”—is really predicated on a false topology of the Design that includes a hard core of the Architecture discipline and an expanded outer field of capital. But it seems more likely that neo-naturalism is used to bridge the isolation of design schools in their own universities, to prove their work less indulgent, more quantifiably positive, and therefore more worth funding. In this relationship we can clearly see that the expanded field of capital has thoroughly invaded the disciplinary core, which begs the question of how we may trust architectural academia’s agendas when it comes to the discipline.
By itself, neo-naturalism is a curious turn for design to take, given our centuries-long preoccupation with the humanities, but particularly after “the neo-Kantian view that the mind cannot be reduced to physical processes won out and became the dominant paradigm.” For architects and designers, “the arrival of neo-naturalism signals not only a turn to different subject matter but ultimately also to a different epistemological and ethical program.”
This different program is predicated on the replacement, with data, of the signifier as the key element that stitches reality together. Since Descartes, an object is outside the body and signifiers of objects structure reality. But neo-naturalism (particularly neuroscience) argues that an object is an object, not because of its sign (name or image) but because impulses in our brain make it so.
Neo-naturalism sees the world as a “a field of information, imagined as dematerialized data floating in frictionless space, as opposed to signification, whose very point is to identify precisely those moments of friction and pressure in the system.” By promoting data, neo-naturalism reduces design production to a continuous, “frictionless” field; any articulation in the field lacks justification and is instead merely proof of its own possibility. The project pictured with this section of the essay is Zaha and Schumacher’s Kartal Pendik Masterplan, which pretty much summarizes the point.
It is the removal of the signifier and the inarticulate field left behind that is problematic for architecture and design. “When data eclipses all other forms of evidence in the discipline, the world is rendered as an unbroken, uninterrupted field devoid of politics”—and we all know how valuable politics and interruption have been to architecture since the turn of the 20th century. Alexander takes this one step further, arguing that the “alleged death of architectural theory is not simply part of an anti-intellectual backlash against the excesses of critical theory,” but is a symptom of the epistemological and ethical shift.
It is fairly easy to recognize the parallels with Alexander’s Neo-Naturalism and Sherer’s digital regime, in terms of each’s hegemonic operation: their persistent reduction of the future and the removal of the qualitative from architectural production. Likewise, it is clear that when Alexander talks about architects’ use of Neo-Naturalism to justify formalism (instead of the lauded and false claims to interdisciplinarity) she is talking about the latest means of validating the abstract formalism that Jarzombek explains has dominated architectural production since the 80s. However, this last juxtaposition marks an interesting crossroads, imploring us to examine the intersection of Data and Utopia—both equally devoid of confrontation and “friction” as much as they are devoid of reality.
There is also the likelihood that Alexander’s concerns about neo-naturalism are construed, by some, as the vaguely nostalgic, backward-looking analysis of an architectural historian. The proponents of such an allegation would, of course, be those who’ve sold out to the dream of interdisciplinarity and quantitative systems as a legitimate future for the “design disciplines” (specifically not Architecture, but the group of interests marshaled under “Design”). And, more likely than not, these individuals would also be found in the halls of design’s academia. Yet, when sat beside Jarzombek and Sherer, we see a larger picture emerging of other academics bored with the computational abstraction that sees architecture as data (itself a metaphysical unit).