Vegetal Anarchitectures

Photograph by Tyler Allen

by

 Michael Marder

June 21, 2016

Anarchitecture is a neologism coined in the 1970s thanks to a collaborative effort by artists including Laurie Anderson, Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Bernard Kirschenbaun, and Gordon Matta-Clark. In March 1974, a group project under the same title was exhibited at 112 Greene Street in New York City. A revolt against architectural foundationalism, anarchitecture not only negates the preceding set of practices and their “products” but also shatters into a multiplicity of semantically indeterminate word combinations, jotted down by Matta-Clark in his notebooks: an ark kit puncture, anarchytorture, an arctic lecture, an artic tractor, an art collector, an ass reflector, an orchid texture, and so forth.[1]

The co-implication of anarchy and architecture is, of course, due to their shared Greek root arkhé. It means, above all, a beginning, but also a principle and a principal thing — a commencement that watches over, guides, orders and regulates the rest of the unfolding process. In architecture, the guiding beginning is unmistakably Platonic: a blueprint, an architect’s idea to be concretely realized in an actual building, an encompassing vision of the whole before it has been produced. Architects are the masters of beginnings, the principals of principles. Anarchy, far from dis-order and confusion, is the positive absence of a predetermined beginning, the lack of apriori prescriptions deigning to foresee future development. Anarchitecture is anarchic in this sense: it undermines the ideal unity of the whole  (building, project, etc.) and disbands the logic of coherent beginnings and ends.

Insofar as plants display something of a living architecture — or better, architectonics, a system of structures or an identifiable structural pattern — they are the prime exemplars of anarchitecture. In the first place, while the DNA of, say, a pine specifies the kind of tree that will germinate from a nut or a seed, it does not predetermine the precise shape of the tree, its height, the arrangement of branches along its trunk, and so forth. All these factors depend on the environmental conditions, that is to say, on what is exterior in relation to the plant itself. An architectural — an anarchitectural — equivalent to this phenomenon would be a building that would respond and adjust to changes in the surroundings by changing its structural and functional aspects, by expanding or contracting, opening up or closing unto itself. Generically preplanned, yet continually differentiated in keeping with the external conditions.

Flourishing between a seed and a seed, an insert and an insert, growing beings have neither a clearly demarcated beginning nor an end. They are an-archic in that they have no definite arkhé to speak of. They do not possess a clear foundation, whether we mistake the root or the soil for it. Rather, plants can grow on other plants (as mosses do) or in the water (think of bamboo shoots) and they can develop roots from virtually any part of their living extension. If growing/cultivating and building are the active substitutes for nature and culture, as suggested by Heidegger in his later writings, then these vegetal and architectural acts (together with the broader domains that accrete around them) are radically unfounded, dislodged from a secure substratum, the façades of permanence they present to us notwithstanding.

To add to the notion of phenotypic plasticity I have mentioned above, plants evince morphological plasticity as well. Vegetal structures do not correspond to specific functions but are malleable or plastic enough to play various roles if need be—something that allows plants to adapt to climate change.[2] Plants are highly circumstantial beings, not just responding but, to a large degree, defined by the occasion, by their ever-evolving contexts. What would circumstantial, context-sensitive buildings look like, the various spaces within and outside them assuming distinct roles and fulfilling different purposes in diverse situations? More than that, morphological plasticity permits plants to fine-tune their foraging behaviors.[3] Their anarchitecture is perpetually changing, passing into something else, becoming-other without an immutable standard for sameness. Is this relentless metamorphosis conceivable with respect to the anarchitectures of built environment?

Plants undermine the structure-function correspondence in yet another way, by — redundantly, it seems — replicating the same structure time and again. Their “organs” defy the very principle of organization, for what is an organism with 10,000 lungs (leaves)? Or with an open-ended number of limbs? In architecture, the excess has been traditionally confined to the ornamental, non-utilitarian fixtures that have often drawn upon vegetal imagery. In the world of plants, however, the parerga are the erga; the difference between the main being-work-organism and the supplements alongside it evaporates. An anarchitecture inspired by their mode of existence would no longer recognize as valid the distinction between utility and ornament, the necessary and the superfluous. It would, instead, branch out, absent a single source, a unified origin, or a rule distinguishing the usable from the useless, work from play. And it would do so by reiterations that are at once singular and repeated, not by producing copies of the same ideal design.

I note in Through Vegetal Being that plants provide us with a very peculiar dwelling: open to the outside, turned inside out, abiding in absolute exteriority.[4]  In this, too, they are quintessentially anarchitectural. At least in the West, buildings have been designed to separate their inhabitants from the anarchic world of the elements (the conditions of possibility for living dispersed among various substances), to shelter and to protect them within the house’s bowels. A good dwelling has been conceived of as a well-insulated delimitation of what is not included in it, or, in simpler terms, a container. What it contains is the will of the one who appropriates it, or the bodies of those it receives into itself. It is also meant to contain the elements, themselves vast and overwhelming, and foreign agents by not letting them inside. That is the work to which dwellings are put in our cultures—their activation or energy.

Caring for the interior, architecture has been unwittingly based on animal vitality. Vegetal anarchitectures demand something else altogether. They dare to dream of another dwelling, one that would put us in touch with the elements without simply leaving us at their mercy. Like a flower or a leaf, the skin of this other dwelling would be sensitive to the outside, unfurling to receive sunlight and contracting in adverse weather conditions. In a word, vegetal anarchitectures would substitute a plant membrane for the concrete walls separating the inner from the outer. I am not nostalgic for bamboo huts or houses with thatched roofs, cute and quaint as they might look. These constructions, using plant materials, let rain and wind through not because they welcome the elements but because they are materially incapable of discharging the task, with which they have been entrusted. The point is to change our attitude to dwelling, to embrace vegetal anarchy in our own sojourn on the face of this planet. To disperse the sovereign meanings of building, edifying, housing, and sheltering, so that their anarchitectural overtones would proliferate in the manner of adventitious roots and shoots.

 

[1] Stephen Walker, Gordon Matta-Clark: Art, Architecture, and the Attack on Modernism (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009), p. 152.

[2] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110316084909.htm

[3] http://www.bgu.ac.il/desert_ecology/Novoplansky/Plasticity%20course%202005-6/Grime%20and%20Mackey.pdf

[4] Cf. Chapter 1 in Luce Irigaray & Michael Marder, Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

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