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  • Kivi Sotamaa

Adventures In Form

Operating Outside Existing Codes

Published in the 2001 book Dreaming for the Future. Edited by Anna-Maija Ylimaula.

My aim is to find design solutions that can overcome the constraints of cultural locality and operate more generically. Instead of seeking out origins or essences, developing genealogies, defining boundaries or inventing languages, I research and develop techniques for operating outside existing codes and systems of representation. I attempt to release the interpretation of architecture and design from cultural bonds and to operate outside the axis where things are ‘understood’ or "not understood’ or judged as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

My hypothesis is that architecture which is de-coded in terms of cultural references can respond to the challenges that the reality of the contemporary cities pose, such as cultural heterogeneity and the unpredictability of economic phenomena, by incorporating the unpredictable and the heterogeneous in the city The incorporation is made possible through forms which are incomplete and left open for interpretation - forms that engender, enable, and provoke activities and functions without prescribing them.

The Fluid City

‘We are always of the city before we are in the city. The city makes us as those who make it, before we make it’(1)

Urban reality today is characterized by unpredictable and continuous change; shifting social conditions, changing power structures, fluctuating economic flows, and effects of global convergence. The new population of urbanites that make up the cities come from various cultural backgrounds, are brought up to different systems of value and signification and used to taking an active role in defining new urban cultures. The modern consumer has become an unpredictable animal. This new urban breed of consumers and producers intensify, mould and synthesize individual and collective identities. The new urban cultures produce ever-new mixities at the same time enhancing awareness of the different cultural influences that are sampled.

The characteristics of the contemporary in urban reality are closely linked to the development of information and material technologies and especially exchange-facilitating transportation and communication infrastructures. The new increasingly "intelligent environment, made of elements that have been designed with the help of information technology, and elements where information technology has become embedded in the material composition itself, forms a complex, interactive and integrated organism. ‘A type of word seems to emerge whose material, technical, and architectural articulations no longer simply objects, structures, or ‘buildings’ but electro-material environments at all scales’ - ‘a world where everything flows seamlessly together in real time. The complex interpenetration and integration of technical, architectural, biological, and social structures into a single, multilevel fluid’ (2)

The dynamic and fluid organizational nature of the contemporary city poses a challenge to the role of the architectural object. The complexity and fluidity of our environment makes it increasingly difficult to predict the behavior of the dynamic systems underlying the formation of cities, and thus understand the complex web of relationships that architectural objects form in the city.

The Evolving Object

To illustrate the complexity of the relationship of the object to the city I will (mis)use the model of the epigenetic landscape(3) developed ty a British the theoretical biologist Conrad Waddington in 1957. The model was developed to explain how a genetic type (a cell or cluster of cells) becomes differentiated, even though its development is over-determined by DNA. Here the model is used to explain the development of an architectural type or object. Below are two views of the model one from above and the other one from below.

Imagine that the ball is the object building, piece of furniture - that you have designed. The top surface is the world with which the realized object is in touch, the downward slope the direction of time, and the strings holding up the surface of reality are the complex forces - economic, cultural, ecological - that shape the world.

It is to some degree possible to look at the strings and to try to model them, i.e. model the dynamic forces that shape the surface/world. The modelling would allow us to learn something about the behavior of the forces and to predict the form the surface might take at any given moment, i.e. the situation that the object would enter when it is released into the world. Thus, it would be possible to take these formative forces into consideration when designing the object, to consider and anticipate the way the object would function in the world. However, in reality the complexity of the interdependent dynamic systems - the strings- that shape the world is too much for anyone to model comprehensively.

Once the ball/object is designed and dropped into the world, on the surface, it starts rolling down the slope, following a path which is defined by the tendency to seek the lowest point of the topography of the surface- a topography which is constantly fluctuating in form as a result of the dynamic forces underlying it. The position of the ball at any given moment represents its definition in the world.

To complicate the issue even further, the ball has its own weight and when placed on the surface it deforms it. It is perhaps possible to exercise a degree of control over the deformation and to anticipate the direction of the path of development, but its specifc form emerges in the complex interaction between the object and the forces underlying the surface and can only be observed in real-time. The formation of the definition of the object takes place through the relationships it forms with the world which is emergent and can only be observed real time.

To conclude, once an object is in the world, it enters into a complex of dynamic relationships with it. It is defined by the world, but simultaneously it has impact on the world itself, a capacity to change it. The object is not defined by the designers' intentions nor can it be comprehensively defined in retrospect by an analyst or theoretician, but its definition is continuously developing beyond the designer's or theoretician's control. The definition of an object is inherently dynamic; any definition one makes of an object constitutes only one defining moment among many others in the formative process. Any definition, once fixed, becomes immediately transformed.

The Challenge

The designer has very little control over the definition of his designs, the user of his designs, or any message or meaning of his designs. S/he has little means of comprehending the complexity of urban contexts, predicting their development and the relationships into which the designs would enter with them.

The question is: How does architecture, which is conventionally conceived of as consisting of static and fixed physical, programmatic and social forms, deal with the heterogeneous, spontaneous, evolutionary and undetermined nature of cities today?

The hypothesis I put forward is that forms that are incomplete, diverse, multiplicious and decoded have a capacity of adapting to unanticipated and heterogeneous elements in the city, and on the other hand, the capacity of being generative, i.e. of provoking, proposing, enabling and engendering use. They form a dynamic two-way relation with the users and the city.


In general, the act of designing has been an attempt to prescribe or fix the function and the signification of an object or space in a manner that leaves little or no space for innovation or interpretation on the behalf of the users. Design in this sense extinguishes the possibility for spontaneous events and it imposes values and lifestyles. So-called "de-coded" or apparently "non-designed" spaces allow for more spontaneous interpretation and occupation by the user. For example, abandoned industrial spaces have been used as dwellings, galleries, clubs, because they do not seem to bear ideological messages, instructions for use, or prescribed meanings.

An example of "de-coded" spaces that are diverse, multiplicious and decoded can be found in the natural landscape; forests, archipelago, rock formations, etc. Compared to industrial spaces, the natural landscape is rich, complex, heterogeneous and specific in nature, and because of its specificity it does not allow Or just anything, any interpretation, or any way of use, but is capable of engendering, enabling, and provoking activities, functions and interpretations. It is an example of a space that one could occupy and make one’s own through discovery and choice, instead or having to comply to prescribed instructions for use.

Especially in urban design, the dichotomy between the designed and the "non-designed" or evolved is strong - hard control master planning as opposed to freely evolving cities. It is obvious that there is a necessity to find a design approach between the two extremes - to assert a degree of control while remaining flexible to be adapted to unanticipated changes.

Incorporating Time

Rather than believing that it is possible to predict the future, it is possible to 'incorporate the future in the present as an insistent possibility’ (4). It is possible to let function emerge as a possibility of form, but in giving form one does not make any form, nor does one prescribe a specific function, but defines the possibility of 'alterity within function.' (5)

On one hand, the form becomes coded with a multiplicity of potential functions, some of which are anticipated by the designer, and others that are intentionally not prescribed but allowed to emerge. For this reason the object, while embedded with a multiplicity of functional potential, is, perhaps paradoxically, characterized by incompleteness in respect to any particular function. The form is more than required for any particular function and thus gives the impression of being incomplete, i.e. the object is not 'whole' - one object for one clearly defined function but appears incomplete and 'open-ended'. It seems to propose something new, something ‘other’, and its specific functionality emerges in real-time in the interaction between people and the form. ‘The incomplete becomes a way of holding onto the presence of function, while at the same time holding open its precise nature and thus the realization of the function.’ (6)

What is formulated here is not an expressionist, formalist architecture which is based only on formal innovation and is indifferent to function, an approach were function is introduced posthumously to an already formally resolved object. But an architecture that recognizes the interactive relationship of form and function allows function to emerge as a possibility of form, and in designing form considers the object's intended functionality and performance.

The Function

Is it possible to design simple potential for use, while letting go of some of the (illusion of) control over function and the formation of meaning? Is it be possible to let function and meaning emerge as a possibility of form without prescribing it, ie. wOuld it be possible to design an object that has a loose fit to function. It might work as a chair, table, slide or cave, depending on who you are, a child, old, fat, young, and what the social and physical context is-n party, bank lobby. gallery, or alone at home in front

of the TV.

Production of form

Operating outside existing codes

‘The modernist techniques of erasure and homogenization no longer seem to be appropriate ways of achieving integration, nor is the identification of historical, regional and linguistic types or figures of any use in achieving differentiation – because of their dependence on codes and systems of representation(7).'

Is it possible to design an object that eludes typologies and allows people to take an active role in defining its use and meaning? Is it be possible to build an object / environment that takes on an active role in its interaction with the user?

Is it possible to design simple potential for use, while letting go of some of the (illusion of) control over function and the formation of meaning? Is it be possible to let function and meaning emerge as a possibility of form without prescribing it, i.e. would it be possible to design an object that has a loose fit to function. It might work as a chair, table, slide or cave, depending on who you are, a child, old, fat, young, and what the social and physical context is - party, bank lobby, gallery, or alone at home in front of the TV.

Could one design an object that makes no claims to know the future, recognizing that it is impossible to predict, but incorporates it in the capacity of catering for a multiplicity of functions?

The Extraterrain(8), designed in collaboration with Markus Holmsten in 1995, was one of my first at tempts to find answers to the questions above.

The Extraterrain is a furniture object conceived as an extension of urban surface and social space into the scale of furniture. It does so by demonstrating the charging of a simple material surface with a gradient of potential ways of use. The topographically articulated surface of the piece is programmatically de-coded; in other words, the furniture gives no hint as to its proper use. Its utilization and usefulness unfolds in real-time through the engagement of a user with the surface.

Andre Bideau writes in his article Space as a Condition on the Extraterrain:

‘(It) is sensual and at the same time elusive. The prototype of Extraterrain, exhibited in Helsinki in 1996, is a design object that can be produced serially and a unique architectural item at the same time. Fabricated of hard plastic core covered with polyurethane, its fluent black form creates a three-dimensional landscape and is at the same time a space in its own right, inviting interaction. It is just as possible to present Extraterrain as a spatial installation or abstract artefact as it is to use it as an informal piece of furniture. Its ‘topological’ surfaces depict a continuous (urban) space appropriately to the borrowing that OCEAN have made from Deleuze/Guattari's Philosophical program of folded spaces. Extraterrain is neither an unambiguously concrete object nor an abstract representation of space, and raises the question of the observer's viewpoint The way it is fashioned and the complex possibilities it affords for perception and use blur the usual categories for classifying and evaluating design work.’

In general, it seems that highly specific architectural landscapes embedded with a multiplicity of formal material and technological affordances can incorporate heterogeneity and unpredictable change to a degree that conventional modernist architecture does not.

The Designer as a Choreographer of Material Organizations

In order to design objects and environments like the Extraterrain that are de-coded and embedded with n a multiplicity of potential for use it is necessary to operate outside existing (cultural) codes and to shift the designer from the role of the 'assignor of meaning' to the role of the 'choreographer of material organizations' This shift implies a move away from mimesis, representation, and reproducibility to the pragmatics of modelling. In the conventional architectural planning methodology interpretation and translation hold a central role, whereas the new role of the architect implies a move away from translation towards a diagrammatic practice which bypasses interpretative mechanisms. ‘A diagram architecture does not justly itself on the basis of embedded content, but by its ability to multiply effects and scenarios. Diagrams function through matter/matter relationships, not matter/content relationships. They turn away from questions of meaning and interpretation, and reassert function as a legitimate problem, without dogmas of functionalism'.(10)

The diagrammatic approach reintroduces the relationship of form and function to the centre of architectural design. Unlike the functionalist discourse where every form has to be traced back to a function the diagrammatic approach holds the particularly of the form of an architectural object as a key to its functioning and the precise nature of the relationship of form and function as the locus of the critical and the domain of experimentation. It is within this domain that my adventures take place.

It is never possible to define an object when designing it nor is it possible to define an object posthumously by analysing it. Regardless, it is necessary and possible to develop a degree of understanding over form and its relationships to function and social arrangements. Developing this understanding is the core of my research. Adventures in form, i.e. built and unbuilt architectural experiments in different scales, accompanied by critical observation, examination and theorizing are my way of conducting research.

1 JEFFREY KIPNIS, Forms of Irrationality, a text prepared for the talk delivered at the CIAU conference in 1998

2 SANFORD KWINTER, Soft Systems, Culture Lab 1, Princeton Architectural Press, 1995

3 ibib

4 ANDREW BENJAMIN, Opening Resisting Form, Reiser and Umemoto, Recent Projects, AD, London, 1998

5 ibid.

6 ibid.


8 The Extraterrain was designed by Kivi Sotamaa & Markus Holmsten and first exhibited at the Architectural Association in an 1996 OCEANnet exhibition entited Urban Surfaces.

9 ANDRE BIDEAU, Space as a Condition, Kunsthalle Basel 38/2000, Raumkorper Netze und Andere Gebilde, 2000

10 STAN ALLEN, Diagrams Matter, ANY Magazine 23, Diagram Work, 1998