Adhocism

After a protracted struggle with dense, recursive text, this weekend I finally made it all the way through Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. First published in 1972, it is a manifesto for readymakers, arguing that everyone is a designer and all the world is a mash-up of disparate elements. In some ways it is very of its time -- swept up in the hippie-futurism of Buckminster Fuller, Drop City, Stewart Brand, and Archigram -- but in other ways it is remarkably prescient, fully predicting the internet and the resurgence in maker culture that we are seeing today. 

 The original version was re-released this year, with a new fore- and afterword by the authors.

The original version was re-released this year, with a new fore- and afterword by the authors.

The book is divided into two sections; the first, by Mr. Jencks, is headlined with a manifesto and supported by an examination of the history and promise of adhocism. In the second portion, Mr. Silver delves into the attraction to, and consequences of, adhocism in practice. The actual manifesto is rather long, but a summary of its salient points follows:

"1. If necessity is the mother of invention, then combining previous systems is the father, and adhocism is the creative offspring.

2. In culture, combinations that display themselves, and explain their use and culture, are especially adhocist. 

3.  . . . adhocism is the style of eureka.

4. At a populist level, adhocism is radically democratic and pragmatic, as in the first two stages of revolution.

5. At an elitist level is is efficient and perfected in the parts. Like the Mars space program . . . there is tolerance, even love, of mongrel beauty.

6. Adhocism badly done is a lazy put-together of diverse things. It steals from the bank of the world's resources, pays nothing back, and devalues the currency.  

7. . . . adhocism tends to be open-ended like an additive list and encyclopedia.

8. If misusing a knife as a screwdriver is forgivable adhocism, then the Swiss army knife it its customized, evolutionary offspring.

9. Try a thought experiment with the smallest atom; hydrogen or deuterium. Even these simple bodies are a historical smash-up of different units . . . the rest of the world coalesced from difference.

10. . . . most everything on earth comes from something else and is compound . . ."

 At Drop City,  Steve Baer  pioneered dome designs made from old car roofs that he hacked out of the junkyard with an ax -- an adhocist pioneer, replaying America's creation myth with a new field of resources. 

At Drop City, Steve Baer pioneered dome designs made from old car roofs that he hacked out of the junkyard with an ax -- an adhocist pioneer, replaying America's creation myth with a new field of resources. 

That manifesto drives a wedge into a winding, convoluted seam in American culture. On the one hand, the history of this country has been ruthlessly grounded in Puritan notions of ordersettlers scraping the land clean, dividing into a grid, and building up shining cities. On the other hand, America is altogether adhocist -- our Constitution is sewn together from scraps of other failed republics and shot through with mechanisms for constant addition and revision. We are racially and culturally polyglot, united loosely by shared values and a geographic boundary. 

The design world, in the post-modern era, is similarly confused. Designers, artists, architects, and craftsmen have traditionally been an elite class -- homo faber -- subject to a rigorous education and engaged in producing structure out of a disorganized world. The first great disruption of that order in the modern era was the emergence of so-called "modern art", with bricolage images and Duchampian readymades radically de-skilling the practice of art. Now, presented with the wide-open wilds of the internet and an over-abundance of consumer goods, anyone so inclined can gin up what might be called design. Each generation of elites casts aspersions on the next -- Classicists vs. Modernists, etc. -- and we endure a series of battles that only resolves towards further chaos.

 One of the bastard chairs of China, a series of adhocist seats photographed by  Michael Wolf , via  Accidental Mysteries . 

One of the bastard chairs of China, a series of adhocist seats photographed by Michael Wolf, via Accidental Mysteries

I was educated in a strict Bauhaus tradition, where we were taught that design could be solved, equation-like, through relentless iteration and endless drawing. Such practice has led to many gorgeous buildings and objects, from Crown Hall to Apple computers. While beautiful, and perfectly resolved within their own boundaries, these pieces of design are closed systems -- resolutely anti-adhocist, resistant to modification, and unable to adapt without starting over nearly from scratch. These things, as flawless as they may seem, are also thrust into Jencks' pluriverse, an imperfect place constructed of bastard parts. An Apple computer, sleek and slim, connects to the jungle of the internet. A Mies building runs smack into the irregularities of sun, wind, and rain. Design as we might, the world will not cooperate. And, once time sets in, Silver says " . . . nothing looks so impure as dilapidated purism."

Not to harp on poor Mr. Rohe, but Silver further explains the difference between that type of designerly design and adhocism using him as an example. "Practical adhocism requires paying undue attention to the parts as parts, with consequent joints and connections. Mies van der Rohe's purist architecture needed joints, adhocist architecture needs only junctions." That quote, in particular, rang true for me. In my own practice, I think I strive to combine the best of both worlds -- the relentless iteration and striving for a solved object, rendered in common materials and industrial byproducts. I release the plans on the internet, and set the designs out into an open-ended system where they can be revised, edited, improved, and rebuilt by anyone. A little bit Bauhaus, a little bit Enzo Mari -- even my design philosophy is an adhocist construction. 

 Crown Hall, via  textosa.

Crown Hall, via textosa.

After spending some time arguing against all these essential ideas of design discipline, Adhocism turns to solutions. Jencks and Silver celebrate the everyday answers that people arrive at through expediency and wit, as if they had charmed the world into behaving for them. 

Silver writes: "The undiluted practical adhocism that prevails in vernacular architecture is stopped only through lack of further resources immediately at hand. Any sensible man would prefer a piece of corrugated board to a thatch roof unless he got rich and could afford to be romantic." That, in a nutshell, is call to action for our time -- in a world where we are constantly pushing against the boundaries of possible consumption, bumping up against exhaustion, striving for the next, ignoring the now and available, we ignore handy solutions at our own peril. In the consumer-industrial age, we are surrounded by bits and pieces that can be re-fashioned into whatever we need. We are surrounded by the tools of our own liberation, but, distracted, we fail to pick them up.

 Another adhocist manifesto, in a nutshell. This beautiful version produced by the clever folks over at  Baltimore Print Studios .

Another adhocist manifesto, in a nutshell. This beautiful version produced by the clever folks over at Baltimore Print Studios.