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Adhocism: A Disputed Theory of Improvisation

Four decades after the publication of Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s manifesto for improvisation, adhocism is still very much in vogue. Meanwhile a debate at the V&A unearths surprising disagreements between the two co-authors

There’s a common tendency to reduce the complex evolution of architectural theory to a list of names. This compulsion for biographical frameworks isn’t new – it goes back at least to Vasari’s cult of artistic personality – but it has intensified through time. Choose a major theoretical notion of the last century, and there’s likely to be a single name tied to it. Constructivism? Tatlin. Critical Regionalism? Frampton. The New Brutalism? Banham. This reductive tendency serves to perpetuate a distorted image of teleological linearity, at odds with the much more messy reality of culture and the creative process. As works of human intellect many theoretical frameworks are very much of their singular theorist but are intended for endless abstraction by others. It’s this vital friction between intention and application that grants theory its true power. But what about when one theory is born of two minds, each with a different view of its substance? Is its serviceability expanded or reduced?

Originally published in 1972, Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation is a collaborative effort between Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver recently republished by MIT Press. The book interrogates a timeless human process – the innovative manipulation of limited resources immediately to hand for the resolution of present needs. Now recognisable as one of the core post-modern texts, it remains equally subversive and sustainable, as much a manifesto of its time as a guide for the present.

The joint-work is enduringly influential but a recent public discussion between Silver and Jencks, organized as part of the London Design Festival, highlighted a surprising disparity in how each reflected on their joint theory four decades on.

Silver, an architect widely known for his biography of the Pompidou Centre, chose to talk briefly and almost entirely on the theory’s formal codification, offering various examples to substantiate adhocism’s tenets as he saw them. His pairing of arguments from original chapters with contemporary projects offered attendees ground for reflection on what has and hasn’t moved on in the last four decades.

The work of Herzog and de Meuron, apparently a favourite, made up a large portion of these discussions. In unpicking the adhocism staple of ‘addition as transformation’, Silver referred to the CaixaForum in Madrid, remarking on its ‘poised mediation of “original” versus “added”’. In a similar vein, he cited the practice’s design for the Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall in Hamburg as an adept example of ‘exaggerating the joints’ – for him another key adhocism principle. Both projects’ philosophies stem from the juxtaposed addition of new materials arranged to resonate with original volumes or geometries.

Silver’s observations on this approach, which he straightforwardly catagorised as ‘very overtly one thing added to another,’ might seem simplistic but it’s important to remember Adhocism’s original publication date. The obviousness of its ideas today is, if anything, a testament to its authors’ foresight. The clearest manifestation of this lies in the realm of building conservation politics. In recent decades there’s been an institutional move to sanction adhocist repurposing as a new approach to preservation. Ever the architectural magpie, Silver was unabashed in referencing recent Stirling Prize winner Astley Castle as his exemplar for his predicted revolution in conservation.

By contrast, Charles Jencks, landscape architect and godfather of Postmodernism in architecture, focused very little on architecture. Instead he devoted a significant proportion of his aphoristic lecture to a complex duck-billed platypus analogy. In essence, he explained adhocism far more loosely than Silver as the rare examples of true originality  – ‘the eureka moments’. He argued that designers claim to be creative but are uncomfortable with recognising that the majority of their output exists as modified iterations of earlier work where true creativity often lies.

Interjecting, the discussion chair and head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Glenn Adamson questioned whether instead of trying to maximise systemic improvement, as high Modernism strives to do, adhocism simply reacts to that which is served up, often with only “a kind of whimsical variant”. While Silver responded to this challenge cryptically pointing to the Centre Pompidou’s utilisation of indeterminacy (yet another tenet), Jencks remained philosophical. “There is good adhocism and bad adhocism”, he explained. Jencks was also much happier to admit the political context of the original book – ‘we’re kind of hung-over 60s people.’ His openness made it easier to understand the theory’s relationship to the ideologies of contemporaries such as Victor Papanek, another champion of democratic design, but brought into relief the question, why did MIT Press choose to re-release the book? – what’s its significance now?

There’s gratification to be found in using the text as a form of literary time machine. It enables you to understand how the future was envisaged over a generation ago. This possibility was clearly identified by the new book’s designers who’ve created a facsimile edition flanked by new foreword and afterword – a layout that successfully articulates the text’s historiography but there little only a limited attempt to update the message for a post-cold war, post-internet age of environmental and economic crisis.

In his opening remarks Adamson stated ‘In a world that is over-full of commodities that seem to exert more and more psychological pressure on us, the ability of the individual citizen to intelligently adapt that which is served up by corporate culture and make it meaningful, make it particular, and then apply it to a purpose has never been more important.’ In this spirit, it’s only right that Jencks and Silver have never attempted to reconcile their thoughts further. Their ideas are most formidable when mingling and interacting as call and response. Ultimately adhocist theory exists more than anything as their mutual insistence on the validity of individuality itself.

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