The possibilities of architecture lay in its capacity to represent what it truly means to be human. So, can modern architecture be responsive? It might be the equivalent of asking if the ancient man can be enlightened? Or if the medieval man can be modern? We see these man-characters as absolute symbols of distinct instances in time rather than the outcome of a manifold of historical processes that overlap, entangle and connect. 

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Wallstreet_©Paul Strand

Human evolution is multilayered, and thus architecture as the mediator between man and nature, the expression of human beings in the world. 

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The Art Critic, Raoul Hausmann_©tate.org.uk

In 1950, Mies van der Rohe summed up history when he defined architecture as. He went on to say, “Architecture wrote the history of the epochs and gave them their names. Architecture depends on its time. It is the crystallization of its inner structure, the slow unfolding of its form.” In a sense, architecture performs like a cognitive map of society and its complex structures to give shape to an epoch’s precise nature. In that case, what are the forms of the modern and responsive architectures? 

“Form follows function.” 

During the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, modernism broke from the past and became a testing ground for searching for new forms of expression. The rapidly changing world demanded architecture to answer a need for realism and functionalism while coming to terms with the potentialities offered by new material and construction technologies. Meaning, finding ways to exercise aesthetic control, standardization and mass production to tame the overwhelming flood of industry⎯”machines for living” became the ultimate expression of the modern man. 

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Villa Savoye, Le Corbusier

The implementation of steel, glass and reinforced concrete in the built environment meant, for the architect, the ability to realize a wide variety of spatial intentions and develop an architecture able to express its own ideals. For example, for the Barcelona Pavilion, “[The] solicitation of experience is intrinsic to the meaning of the work; it serves to identify and individuate the work itself as an event having sensuous particularity and temporal duration, both of which are infrangible to its capacity for producing and conveying meaning.Michael Hays, in his essay on Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form. 

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Barcelona Pavilion, Mies van der Rohe_©Fundació Mies van der Rohe

“Form is memory.” 

Nicholas Negroponte first brought up the term responsive architecture during the nineteen sixties and further developed it in his book Soft Architecture Machines. He explains, “The industrial revolution brought sameness through repetition, amortization through duplication. In contrast, information technologies—soft machines—afford the opportunity for custom-made, personalized artifacts.” 

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Suitaloon, Archigram_©Michael Webb

In the face of a more-than-ever volatile society and the loss of significance of the individual, the latest cybernetic theories combined with cutting edge technology can turn architecture into a continuous reflection of the environment surrounding it and a direct response to the desires of its users. Memory, as the manipulation of information, becomes the means to connect it with the physical world. The computational revolution replaces the remnants of building technologies as a direct result of the industrial revolution. 

Instead of viewing the built environment as – Negroponte puts it – an “efficient corpus”, he interprets it as a three-dimensional language, subject to contextual variations, susceptible to unique situations and dependent upon personal experiences. “This would imply that my behavior within the built environment and the meaning I attach to that environment are as important as (I really believe more important than) the physical thing itself.” Negroponte resolves. 

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Dome City, Buckminster Fuller_© medium.com
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Arctic City, Frei Otto_©medium.com

Can modern architecture be responsive? 

Through form, history and materiality, architecture is called upon to do nothing less than representing the truth and produce an understanding of a particular moment in history. In the end, the truth lies in experience, and as buildings become more context responsive, their response starts to concern more and more on the needs and senses of their inhabitants. 

While modern architecture rested on a poetic expression of an entire age of industry, responsive architecture’s intrinsic phenomenology conveys meaning through our own perception and subjective experiences to potentially express the spirit of the contemporary. 

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Vertical City, Ludwig Hilberseimer_©archiobjects.org

It was a reflection of the technological and cultural conditions of its time. It is a radical response to a conflicting post-war era and a universal desire for experimentation, examination of the aspects of existence, and the determination to reshape the environment within a utilitarian spirit. 

Cavern paintings become pyramids; Greek temples transform into modern machines; gothic cathedrals mutate into skyscrapers. The representations of man’s existence in the world evolve and change, propelled by the vital forces of history. At the same time, architecture becomes a link between the memory of the past and the possible futures. 

If the past’s architecture was reinstated to turn into future architecture, this would mean a series of intentions never fulfilled. An obsolete form would inevitably develop imitative properties instead of turning into a true representation of contemporary culture. Mies considered this matter closely, “It must be understood that all architecture is bound up with its own time, that it can only be manifested in living tasks and in the medium of its epoch.” 

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Acropolis drawing, Le Corbusier_©researchgate.net

It is not a condemnation of the architecture of the past. It is the comprehension of architecture as the expression of the will of a particular time, history as a constant moving force driven by desire and conflict, and evolution expressed through the transformations of the interaction between man and nature.  

Manuela Tafur
Author

Manuela is an architect from Bogotá, Colombia. She has a special interest in architectural theory believing architecture results from the human understanding of the world and its place in the universe. In films, books, and finding unique spaces in cities, she recognizes society's memory and essence.

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