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Associate Professor of Architecture, Graham Owen publishes in ISP Architecture

March 07, 2016
Headshot of Graham Owen

Whatever Happened to Semi-Autonomy?, by Graham Owen

Writing in the Yale journal Perspecta in the mid-1980s, K. Michael Hays put forward an argument for “a critical architecture that claims for itself a place between the efficient representation of preexisting cultural values and the wholly detached autonomy of an abstract formal system”.  In setting up such a relationship between autonomy and criticality, Hays was elaborating his mentor Stanford Anderson’s efforts to promote a pragmatic ethical rapprochement – or compromise – between an autonomous practice that aspired to Kantian rigour and purity and the obligations of cultural – if not also social — engagement.  “Semi-autonomy” offered the possibility of an architecture resistant to instrumentalisation.

Responding to Hays’ text seventeen years later, Sarah Whiting and Robert Somol, in Perspecta 33, offered a “projective” alternative to “the now dominant paradigm of criticality”.  Where Hays had cited Mies’ exemplary status, Somol and Whiting invoke Koolhaas, but in both cases set their exemplars – either explicitly, or implicitly and somewhat conflictedly – against the experiments in formal autonomy of Peter Eisenman.

George Baird, in turn, responded in his essay of 2004, “’Criticality’ and Its Discontents”, drawing into his analysis of post-criticality the positions of Whiting and Somol’s fellow-travellers Stan Allen, Sylvia Lavin and Michael Speaks.  Noting that for Koolhaas, “if it turns out that ‘criticality’ constrains efficacy, then to that extent ‘criticality’ must give way”, Baird is nonetheless ready to allow him some remaining capacity for resistance, but is wary of post-criticality’s potential consequences.  To what extent, he wonders, will it develop models to measure “the ambition and the capacity for significant social transformation”?  “Without such models, architecture could all too easily find itself … ethically adrift.”

Were Baird’s apprehensions borne out?  And, in view of subsequent theoretical assessments, of Koolhaas’ own conflicted relationship with Mies, and amid present-day efforts to instrumentalise architecture once again – this time as agent of environmental and social redemption – has the argument for semi-autonomy come full circle?  (Full Text HERE)

Graham Owen

Harvard Citation Guide: Owen, G. (2014) Whatever Happened to Semi-Autonomy?, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 30 April 2014, Available at: http://isparchitecture.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2014].