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Instrumental Architecture

Part 2 Dissertation 2008
Kyle Buchanan
Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL London UK
The thesis proposes an alternative approach to architectural thinking, and production, that challenges the Aristotelian opposition between form and matter, characteristic of much contemporary architecture. In philosophy, hylomorphism was overturned in the seventeenth-century by the Rationalist philosophers who proposed a new mechanically derived metaphysics. Instrumentation was key to the their exploration of the world, and scientific experimentation was fundamental to the formulation of their different accounts.

The thesis explores the role of the seventeenth-century instrument as a practical and symbolic device that unusually had a particular importance to both conceptual philosophy and pragmatic investigation. It attempts to demonstrate the significance of instrumentation as a metaphor for the way that contemporary architecture might operate in the twenty-first-century, and develop an approach to architecture that enables it to better respond to contemporary contexts of rapid change.

The thesis first gives a brief historical account of the development of instrumentation, in order to demonstrate its dual practical and representational nature. With reference to Descartes’ notion of substance, it shows how an instrumental approach can be used to resolve practical architectural problems at two different frontier sites on the Essex coast. Following this it looks at Spinoza’s geometrical treatment of Descartes’ metaphysics, and the new understanding of reality that he derived from this. I show that a similar reduction or rationalisation of a site can also result in new understandings and solutions, and, that in the terms presented by Spinoza, this representation is as real and relevant as the original site. I discuss the role of perception in the metaphysics of Spinoza and Leibniz as a way to bring together the different themes identified in the thesis.

The thesis concludes by presenting 'Instrumental Architecture' as a potentially new approach to the complex systems of operation that make up the reality of a site. As such Instrumental Architecture offers a potential departure from the current opposition in architecture resulting from the conceptual division of form and matter, and enables it to engage in a material world that is seen as a changing field of perception, understood as dependent on the engagement of embedded human beings.

Kyle Buchanan

Kyle’s thesis proposes a theoretical discussion of an ‘instrumental architecture’ that seeks to intervene in the conceptual division between form and matter inherited from Ancient Greek philosophy. He explores how seventeenth-century philosophical theories of substance challenge this division because they emphasise the importance of dynamic connections between the material natural world and immaterial ideas or perceptions. In turn, he shows that instruments developed in early-modern Europe, such as the sextant, are also empirical evidence of these dynamic metaphysical connections, making links between the material natural world and man’s perception of it. Developing from a seventeenth-century engraving of a surveying instrument used in the field, his thesis draws links between a series of different material and immaterial ‘architectural’ relations, in particular: 1. The geometric and spatial links established between the landscape and human activities through the development of practical instruments. 2. The link between visual and spatial relationships, embodied for example in the horizon, and the physical expression of immaterial ‘perception’ in the writings of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz. 3. The potential for a materialisation of these ‘instrumental architectures’ in two design proposals for communities on the mutable Essex coastline.

Consequently, the thesis suggests that an ‘instrumental architecture’ which expresses these connections may also, more appropriately, reflect conditions that inform the dynamic interaction between architectural design and changing coastal landscapes.

Dr Peg Rawes
Mr Mark Smout
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