Exuberance and Digital Virtuosity

Exuberance and Digital Virtuosity (Introduction)
Colletti, Marjan.
Published in:
AD Exuberance: New Virtuosity in Contemporary Architecture (guest.ed Marjan Colletti), March/April 2010, Profile No 204, pp 8-15. 

In the history of civilisation, there have been regular waves of various manifestation of exuberance—in architecture, in the arts, in politics, in religion, in philosophy, in economics etc.—preceded and followed by more austere, spartan, strict periods. In architecture alone there have been too many styles, movements and individual architects that have pursued an exuberant, expressive, expansive vocabulary to possibly give an introductory historic account on exuberance. Thus it seems more appropriate to disclose the brief history of Exuberance, this very magazine. As it takes a considerable, but not excessive, amount of time to compile an AD issue, at face value, the guest-editor's bias behind title and content should not happen to change within the time frame between first draft proposal and publishing. Also, it is unlikely that the whole context per se would change. Yet this it what happened during the development of this issue. Twice. Perhaps the effect of those ripples that are formed in proximity of larger waves.

Exuberance: protest-manifesto-celebration
At conception, Exuberance was a protest. It was concocted to present a digital world of architecture that antagonised the engineered understanding of digital performance. The term was chosen for its politically incorrect bias—not optimised, not modulated, not algorithmic—and as a selection tool for filtering out most of the 'techy' and 'geeky' talk. Against such trends, I envisioned an issued that heralded a new era of exuberance in digital design. Having overcome the alienation and otherness of the cyber, having mastered the virtual qualities and protocols of the parametric, having achieved the intricacy and elegance of the digital, and having fully embraced the potential of 3D computer software and CAD/CAM manufacturing technologies, it was now time for architects, and not for engineers and programmers, to show off.

But then something seemed to be changing. Those clear and clever ideas that initially a few intelligent and very influential people were articulating became more repetitive, were copied intensively—daily routine in many architecture schools, in offices, in exhibitions. Just too mainstream to be avant-garde? The empiricist barricade got more crowded and hence got weakened. A different intelligentsia began articulating other digital things beyond engineered skins, and the few digital phenomenologists (me included) rejoiced. The system seemed to open up, to become more inclusive; more interpolated, inquisitive, impatient; more Baroque, even Rococo (Rococo being the feminine moment of the Baroque). And more excessive, extravagant, exuberant. Thus Exuberance turned into a manifesto. Of the pervasiveness of phenomenological aspects of digitality, of the varied approaches towards digital design, of the non-engineered intelligence of digital space, of the profuseness of digi-bio-techno ornamentation, of the abundance of CGI in Hollywood, of the excessiveness of computer games, of the lavishness of Middle-Eastern and Asian super-urbanism. But also of fluidity and elegance, of a rather sinister Neo-Jugendstil revival, even of a Neo-Rococo 'prettynisation' of the digital: the coloration had shifted towards darker greys and greens, as well as brighter pinks and blues. Morphological complexity was often applied—consciously—as decoration, and digital design intruded into bourgeois homes in shape of tea pots, lamps and coffee mugs.

A few months later, three main events in economics, politics and environmental sciences raised more serious new questions on what Exuberance might be. The global banking breakdown and financial crisis marked the end of the latest 'irrational exuberance' [1] period of the stock market. The election of Barack H. Obama to President of the United States personified the need for change of American and international policies. Simultaneously, the overdue political and economic acknowledgment of the acute seriousness of global climatic changes simply gave us no chance but to think consciously: lower energy consumption, reconsider aesthetics, and push sustainability. Suddenly, the Baroque macho excessive and the Rococo feminine pretty tail of digital architecture seemed endangered by these three concurrent events. Were we witnessing the initial sparks of a Neo-Enlightened spirit that would mark the end of digital prodigality, luxury and exuberance—albeit in its early stages?

In general terms, a few parallels to the beginning of the eighteenth century could be drawn. 1) Three hundred years ago, Enlightened politics triggered the Revolution and saw the monarchy as wasting resources. In recent times, was not former president George W. Bush impersonating a Baroque monarch, the figure of the hero and the saint, fusing church and state, religious fanaticism and undisciplined passions (i.e. war) together to keep hierarchical status? And was not the feminine Rococo moment in recent politics Condoleezza Rise serving as Secretary of State and Hillary Clinton's campaign in the Democratic primary in the 2008 presidential race? 2) Enlightened economics separated art from luxury, bourgeois saving from spending as status symbol, taste from fashion. The economists rejected the established hierarchies of the sword over the law over finance.[2] In present times, are not many governments spending enormous sums of money on wars? Is not the bailing out process of the banking system being claimed as the end of excess, of luxury and (super)capitalism; as a trend towards socialism, morality and modernisation? 3) Enlightened agronomics saw agriculture as the most virtuous and useful art, the way forward back to Nature and romantic sensibility, as well as to productivity and investment. Nowadays, is not the decision of governments to cut down carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, and in future the intense focus on the Bio—biotechnology, bioengineering—inevitable?

Consequently, the question raised spontaneously: did such a global downturn imply the end of exuberance? On the contrary. Digital exuberance is not to be misunderstood as luxury, superfluity or prodigality; it also is not the same as extravagant, weird, eccentric. Exuberant here equals energy, enthusiasm, excitement, and encouragement. Optimism. Thus, with the context having somersaulted twice, Exuberance became what it is now; hopefully stronger, certainly timely. Not a protest, not a manifesto, but a celebration. Of the prodigy, generosity and ingenuity of digitality and of architecture in general, and of the talent, the spirit and the virtuosity of some of its protagonists.

Digital Virtuosity
The celebration of exuberance defines an architecture that begins where common sense ends. With the ambition to establish conditions beyond the usual, the known, the rational, the obvious and the simple. In the current global situation, the biggest danger lies in giving up creativity for inventiveness. It could be argued that architecture is not good at inventing things; engineering, philosophy and politics of course do it better. But it is unbeaten in its creativity to create, re-discover and re-invent itself, the environment and the human spirit. In fact the issue debates a plethora of intelligent ways in which experimental architecture manages to cope with the contemporary turmoil in global politics, economics and ecology. Here occurs the wonder: 'stuff' we are mostly familiar with is stretched to its absolute extent. Common sense becomes the experiment; beauty becomes the sublime, the grotesque, the blissful; the digital becomes the experiential, the anecdotal, the non-techy and non-geeky. Bring forth the new virtuosos (...although curiously some of them happen to be the old masters, and some others still students...):

In 'Interiorities', Ali Rahim confesses the purpose to generate architecture as rich in its 'level of designed luxury', 'coherence and precision of formal organisation' as the best known precedents; yes even 'the most filigree Gothic spaces or the most exuberant baroque or rococo interiors'. In ' Surrealistic Exuberance - Dark Matters' Neil Spiller explores the exuberant dark eroticism and its poetic potential of Baroque and religious imagery, and exploits them in the narratives and design of his Communicating Vessels project.

In 'Cultivating Smartcities', CJ Lim calls out 'for a new formal, textural and experiential exuberance' of urbanity with nature. A sensibly exuberant approach to deal with the exorbitant demand for food, and space, in the Far East. Whilst in 'Relying on Interdependencies', Kjetil Thorsen and Robert Greenwood mandate architects to 'act within the spirit of cooperation, alongside contemporary values without compromising long-term qualities or architectural integrity'. The featured King Abdulaziz Centre for Culture and Knowledge project is a showcase project for how environmentally complex scenarios like the Middle-Eastern desert can be engaged with by imaginative solutions far beyond common sense.
In 'Baroque Exuberance: frivolity or disquiet?' Robert Harbison introduces us into some of the many 'facile games', or 'profound exposures' that the Baroque spirit staged. The Baroque wish to defy gravity echoes also in Wolf D. Prix's article 'Let’s Rock over Barock', which highlights a cultural phenomenon of Austrian 'space inventors': the 'desire to celebrate space'.

In 'Exuberance, I Don’t Know; Excess, I Like' Hernan Diaz Alonso links exuberance to emergent qualities and to the notion of affect, yet at same time rejects it for excessiveness and arousement; aspects of greater intensities in his work. Also more towards the extreme than the exuberant tends Tom Wiscombe's 'Extreme Integration', its performance depending on 'messiness, excess, and jungle thinking'.
In 'Diving into the Depth-Scape - Exuberance and Personalities' Yael Reisner states that it is 'personality, character and poetics' that 'take part in exuberant expression'. The article is a clear invocation for emotion and intuition, evocatively illustrated by her Light and Acoustic Interior Installation project. Personality does certainly come across in fashion design, where couturiers are more often than not eccentrics. In 'Exuberant Couture', Judith Clarke reveals that in fashion 'exuberance in order to stay exuberant is always seeking new forms', as it is 'by definition performative'.
For decades Peter Cook has lectured on cheerfulness in architecture, and his oeuvre will leave an astonishing legacy of exuberant, flamboyant, clever projects. Out of his 'creative tank', New Delfina, purposely designed for this issue, did 'burst forth'. My articles feature mostly student work produced in Unit 20 at the Bartlett UCL, DS10 at Westminster University [3] and Innsbruck University; hopefully similarly exuberant, flamboyant, and clever.

In conclusion, I can reveal that it is no coincidence that such motley crew has one common characteristic (that all contributors are educators and hence good communicators), that Exuberance questions small and large scale (complexity on many layers), that the issue includes furniture, fashion, building and urban design (the pervasiveness of the digital), that some opinions differ (it is neither a protest nor a manifesto), that some aesthetics are sinister-dark and some other more romantic-flowery (the non-techy non-geeky talk), that some texts are more theoretical and others more practical (it crosses the boundaries between academia and practice), that it is indebted to Baroque theatricality—similarly playful, ebullient and slightly arrogant. But then again, as it emerges from new media and novel technologies, its palimpsest (to use twentieth century television terms) is more of a variety show than a theatre performance or a documentary. In truth, more of a reality TV show, really: only apparently unscripted, in truth heavily edited and post-produced.

1) 'Irrational exuberance' was the term Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve Board, first used on December 5, 1996 to describe the speculative mania of the 1990s stock market.2) For further reading: Rémy G. Saisselin, The Enlightenment against the Baroque. Economics and Aesthetics in the Eighteenth Century, A Quantum Book, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford 1992, p. 72-3.3) Unit 20 at the Bartlett School of Architecture and DS10 at Westminster University in London are both run by Marjan Colletti and Marcos Cruz. Other work by the studios have been published previously in AD Protoarchitecture and AD Neoplasmatic Design.