Systems Everywhere: On the Incorporation of the Vocabulary of Systems Sciences in Architectural Discourse during the Second Half of the 20th Century
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Through a consideration of well-known architectural sources, this paper will take inventory of the divergent, contradictory, and sometimes productive ways architects and architectural writers came to rely on the language of systems sciences in the second half of the twentieth century. For example, in K. Michael Hays’ anthology Architecture Theory Since 1968, the word “system” appeared 640 times. Alberto Perez-Gomez used the word 51 times in his short introduction to Claude Perrault’s Ordonnance to explain methodological changes occurring in seventeenth century France. There are other examples, of course: What Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi intended to learn from—far more than Las Vegas or Levittown—were “communication systems;” Jane Jacobs used complexity theory; Christopher Alexander said the city is a system not a tree; and even John Turner, an architect best known for self-build housing in Peru, used Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety (more commonly known as the first law of cybernetics) to argue against corporate and state power. As Ludwig Von Bertalanffy said in his influential book General Systems Theory, “systems [were] everywhere.” In this paper, I will untangle this complicated encounter between architecture and information sciences in two ways. First, I will show how systems metaphors have been used as a conceptual tool to define what has been called “architectural autonomy.” This includes writers who created a systematic traceable relationship between organizational protocols of architectural form to define architecture as separate from culture, politics, or ideology. Second, I will show examples of how systems have been used as an operative tool for the designer; specifically, architects and city planners who used new sciences of control to solve large complex problems.