The diagram, once endowed with design super-powers, is still a powerful communicator and synergiser of complex systems
To raise the spectre of the diagram leads to uncomfortable associations, akin to resurrecting a dangerous monster or flogging a dead horse – hardly surprising, given the rampant ‘diagrammania’ of the late 1990s-2000s. In the era that endowed it with design super-powers and used it as an ideological weapon, the diagram was so broadly defined as to take on a set of near-impossible inclusive traits – as an analytical and projective tool, an abstract and concrete means of visual representation, both liberating and controlling the design process.
Attitudes should be less extreme, given how resilient the diagram has proved as a design tool in the profession. Its long disciplinary history spans from Piranesi to Eisenman, Le Corbusier to Koolhaas, and persists in BIG’s site reductions and cartoons, the serial prototyping of MVRDV and animated scenarios by OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. But how well do we really understand diagrams today – what they can and cannot do, how and when should we use them?
The rise of the diagram in the 1990s was linked to a widespread infrastructural turn in architecture, with a focus on systems and processes in place of conventional structures, forms and geometries. In the literature, the city was described through agents in non-linear interaction, underpinned by systems and flows, defined by points of attraction and lines of connection. This kind of city was evasive and near invisible to the conventional modes of representation, and so we turned to maps, charts, graphs, and mostly diagrams as a way out of the perceived crisis.
Programme diagram of Peruri 88 in Jakarta, MVRDV/The Jerde Partnership, 2012
Influential texts – such as those by Dominic Boyer, Edward Soja, Henri Lefebvre and Manuel DeLanda – placed an emphasis on dynamic systems, complex infrastructures and non-linear processes, and were crucial triggers to the expanding use of the diagram. There was also an unprecedented interdisciplinary invasion of discourse on ‘abstract machines’ and patterns of organisation that originated in philosophy and the sciences of complexity (as in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari or Henri Bergson). While such influxes were invigorating, they left us vulnerable to the unforeseen consequences of the uses and abuses of the diagram.
As an analytical tool, the diagram promised to fuel our projects with key underlying forces, relations and the logic of the city. In certain practices, especially Dutch firms such as OMA, MVRDV and UN Studio, it became a part of a magic design formula: deep analysis, mapping and statistical simulation of the site occupations and deficiencies; abstraction and approximation of systems and flows; cross-matching between dysfunctional elements and the programme model; and, ultimately, its rapid conversion into form.
Dr1995 0252 621 mm
There were early signs of trouble. The fast track from analysis to proposition through the diagram oversimplified the idea of ‘context’, and short-circuited its influence on design. All the flows, fields and ecologies turned into forms, plans and graphic patterns fairly quickly. This could be attributed to a number of oversights. First, ‘network fever’ and ‘systems re-turn’ never fully acknowledged relationships with the preceding late-modern chapters and their struggles with formal expression, as seen in the work of Constantinos Doxiadis, Team X and Cedric Price. Further, two important, yet very different, strategies were collapsed together – ‘infrastructural urbanism’, which aligns the project with larger urban infrastructures (heralded by Stan Allen) was conflated with ‘infrastructuralism’, an indexical relation between flows and form (advocated by Reiser + Umemoto).
All this led to a brutal awakening, characterised by a growing distrust and the subsequent deflation of the uber-tool. It is precisely its multi-functional, mediating abilities that came under attack as critics such as Pier Vittorio Aureli and Anthony Vidler exposed a number of inconsistencies with regards to direct links with the city, support for the processes of spatial production, and leaps from social to spatial orders. Aware of the leftover gaps and lingering oppositions, we came to view any further promises of the diagram’s superior conceptual and graphic powers with suspicion.
But it’s time to revisit the diagrammatic project. The unique incisiveness and economy of diagrammatic analysis and visualisation sustains the links between architecture, city and discipline. To make full use of our design arsenals, we need to understand the difference between dissimilar types of diagrams and their respective roles in constructing site contexts, managing programmatic structures, and testing relations between key elements.
The diagram’s unique capacity allows us to drive projects from within as well as without, balancing considerations for contingency and autonomy. If we can avoid the premature equation between diagrams of flows and diagrams of form, we might evolve a less-compromised breed of ‘infrastructural formalism’. But this would demand that we reconsider the co-dependency between these diagrams and design control.
Diagrams of function and form have different origins and histories. There are two distinct strands: one more formal and geometric, best for abstraction and analytical reduction, which runs through the work of Wittkower, Rowe, Eisenman and Lynn; the other is more programmatic, better for exploding or condensing social and spatial orders, as used by Le Corbusier, Price, Tschumi, Koolhaas and SANAA. These two types are not easy to mediate between, although there is a generation of theorists and designers – such as Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting – who cut across these camps.
For our purposes, diagrams of function and form switch power positions in a loose, non-linear design process, such as with Arnhem Central by UN Studio. Or they confront each other in exterior shapes of ‘decorated diagrams’, as in the ‘cake-tin’ architecture of OMA’s CCTV building or various zoomorphic projects by Neutelings Riedijk.
Dr1999 0646 mm copy
The diagram can allow for an expanded, open-ended understanding of a project, as opposed to totalising masterplans, fixed structures and predetermined forms. But is it possible to employ a ‘diagrammatic framework’ without the straitjacket of prescriptive geometric design? Extra-large and extra-long-term projects by James Corner Field Operations and Bernard Tschumi Architects have taken this approach. These practices define projects using diagrams of dynamic elements, yet seek to reconcile concerns between operation and appearance.
This kind of disconnect between diagram and form has been seen as a threat to formal rigour, as expressed by Peter Eisenman in his onslaught on the ‘green dots’ as the substance of architecture, referring to graphics used in the proposal for the Downsview Park, Toronto by OMA. However, we need a more indirect relationship between the diagram and its spatial manifestation. Future use of the diagram demands a healthy distance between conceptual ambitions and their material instantiation.
There are no quick ways around the persistent design tensions that exist with the diagram, such as the continual struggle with control, and conflicting desires for clarity and vagueness, permanence and temporality, definition and open-endedness, alongside other design drivers such as context and programme. Only closer study can inform the way forward. Looking at the diagrams and realised projects of the preceding generation could prompt us to evolve our relationship with this design method and tool. To adopt a more resilient, adaptive diagrammatic framework, we need to re-engage with theories and methods (beyond Modernist obsessions) and learn to track the inputs, sequences and intermediate diagrams we use to manage our design process.
‘We must use diagrams not simply as carriers of information, but as a means of exchange between spaces of architectural experiment and the urban and disciplinary contexts.’
Paying closer attention to key differences between various types of diagrams and their roles would allow us to make strategic choices in design approaches (and possibly even bring back the specialisations in pursuit of systemic versus morphological diagrams). This would help us see potential in gaps and misfits, nurturing a more plastic and provisional relationship between programme and form. Due to the fact that diagrams can handle a broader range of cultural and architectural constructions, they can also help us develop new ideas for intellectual and geometric consistency of multi-dimensional urban projects.
We must use diagrams not simply as carriers of information, but as a means of exchange between spaces of architectural experiment and the urban and disciplinary contexts. Diagrams that can consolidate, visualise and materialise architectural ideas can permit us to move fluidly between the abstract and concrete, while remaining in conscious control.
In combining the theoretical with the practical, we can begin to envision a new chapter of the diagrammatic project that might help architects address the larger issues – the shifting boundaries of the discipline and its relation to the city, our role as practitioners and the complex interplay between dissimilar domains and spheres – as we shape the projects to come.