Urban Props

Juli 29, 2010

First model for the wrecking pendulum, Kuc's and my contribution for The Anxious Prop Case 2: [Eccentric] Have Balls

First model for the wrecking pendulum, Kuc’s and my contribution for The Anxious Prop Case 2: [Eccentric] Have Balls

Urban props have the remarkable ability to simultaneously critique and destine the production of new urban design. They orient urban practice on all scales, from the smallest urban furniture to the over-regional master plan. They do so by being essentially open and indeterminate and, at the same time, providing a stable common framework.

In the framework of a ‚layer modell,‘ which can be read both top-down and bottom-up, urban props can be analyzed heuristically through their categorical, conventional and semantic aspects. The categorical aspect enables urban props to organize the “discrimination, individuation, classification and predication of objects and events.”1 The conventional aspect points to the set of culturally and historically stamped instruments, methods, and habits that are established by an urban object. Such a set can roughly be termed normal science in a Kuhnian sense.2 The semantic aspect of urban props is evident in that it is possible to assign them with concrete truth conditions, meaning, and reference, speaking logically.

These three aspects are dynamically integrated and always relate to each other: the semantic properties depend on the underlying categories as conversely the applicability of categories relies on the possibility to be characterized semantically; and in the social/cultural practices within which urban props are in use the categorical and the semantic aspects meet in the correspondingly created and established operational procedures. The ability of urban props to catalyze the formation of new configurations in the urban fabric and thus also provide material for future critique can be addressed epistemologically through four characteristics: (1) perspective flexibility; (2) transgression of terms (German: “Begriffs-Überschreitung”); (3) epistemic indeterminacy; and (4) epistemic underdeterminacy.3

From the perspective of the theory of knowledge these four characteristics are central for the orientation of the urban prop towards the new. In the theory of knowledge, objects possessing these characteristics have recently been termed “epistemic objects” as they incorporate epistemic preconceptions, i.e. conceptions that rely on the social, cultural, and historic context of preceding knowledge formation processes.4

The fact (1) that urban props always relate to a specific point of view implies that other points of view are always possible (though not necessarily plausible).  As urban objects—like epistemic objects—always rely on a conceptual element, and there is no way to establish an unambiguous relation between a term and its content in a natural language, urban props (2) always bear the possibility to deconstruct the “thitherto governing concepts.”5 Following Willard v. O. Quine’s indeterminacy principles, indeterminacy of translation and inscrutability of reference also hold for urban props: (3) meaning and reference of urban props is always relative to a cultural, historic practice and can never be fixed definitively.6 This indeterminacy is logical in nature and can thus not be resolved by the collection of empiric data since (4) an urban prop always exceeds “all possible empirical facts”7 and thus is necessarily “empirically under-determined.”8

Even so, the processual aspect plays a dominant role in this conception; it is crucial to emphasize the materiality of urban props. As “objects of knowledge are inextricably entangled with the technical conditions of their production,”9 analyzing urban props’ materiality is the best considered via the conventional—contrary to Alberti’s conception of categorically distinguishing between creation and production.10 In the conventional aspect the conflicting impetuses of the categorical and semantic are constantly negotiated, the former centered on the concept of identity, the latter on that of difference.

If we want to better understand the city, we need to focus on the material urban practices and the related objects, institutions, processes—knowing, that our pre-existent theoretical concepts are always already incorporated in them, modified through the resistance of the empirical world, a resistance Gaston Bachelard has properly described as an “obstacle épistémologique.”11 Even so we are confronted with an “epistemological uncertainty principle”12 in which the conventional aspect of urban props is the plane, where the “externalizing of thinking”13 enters into public and thus allows for practical and discursive debate in the first place. Making urban props the center of urban design thus emphasizes the fact that objects of urban design are neither natural nor ideal, but public. Thus the suggestion to render the objects of urban design neither as objects nor as processes, but as props, since the concept of props from the outset sets the being-madeness of urban things at the core of the conception. Urban design neither deals with given objects nor with constructed processes that can be objectified through formalization, but always with historically, socially, culturally, aesthetically, and ethically contingent complexes of objects and processes within a public practice. It is precisely the tension of these complexes, and the embracement of multifarious processes, that demonstrate that the outmoded and inconsequential object designation should rather be termed urban props.

Urban conceptions and theory of knowledge

In the current debate on architecture and urban design the topics of process and performativity have become central fields of interest. What can be seen is a general shift from object directed what-questions to process directed how-questions; i.e. that the epistemological question of how the objects of urban design are constituted and maintained becomes dominant over the ontological question of what the objects of urban design are. This shift puts traditional urban design in a dilemma, as the focus on the processual nature of the objects of design conflicts with the traditional strategy in urban design to orient and to judge the design process by its objectual outcome. One practical implication is the urgent difficulty to find a proper form to present the results of design that addresses a multiplicity of processes. If the designed object is a process, it is not at all clear how this process can be brought to an adequate form of representation, as the traditional modes of representation stem mostly from an object orientated line of thought.

The emergence of this sort of questions in urban design is deeply interwoven with the cultural development of the modern age and immediately echoes current approaches in the theory of knowledge to establish the concept of epistemic objects as the centerpiece of the theory of science. The concept of the epistemic object aims at accentuating “the primacy of the status of being in-the-making of scientific experience, in which conceptual indeterminacy is not a deficit but the practice-governing principle, as opposite to its notationally consolidated results. It aims at a rehabilitation of the ‘process of discovery’.”14

A superficial view on the current debate and practice in architecture and urban design suffices to recognize that the old dichotomy between creative art and exact science cannot be right.  This artificial distinction placed urban design somewhere “in-between,” which is reflected in the struggle between positivistic empiricism and idealistic constructivism and the manifold accompanying dualistic distinctions such as nature and culture, subject and object, theoretical and empirical, material and immaterial, induction and deduction, observation and experiment, analysis and synthesis. These distinctions have recently (within the twentieth century) come under attack in epistemology and have been the subject of wide debate.15

The concept of epistemic objects in the theory of knowledge parallels to a stunning degree the debate about the concept of “props” in the realms of theater and film. Connecting these two conceptions discloses the possibility to shed new light on the question of what the objects of urban design are and provokes to ask the old question of the relation of the arts and the sciences anew.

Urban design

Analogous to the epistemic objects in science, urban props are the “real objects” of knowledge processes in urban design.16 They are generated in the conflicting practices of making-experiences, generating-concepts, and creating-facts.17 Urban props are neither preexisting urban elements in and of themselves nor do they provide an a priori method to modify the urban fabric. Urban props are essentially of an adualistic nature; they need to be regarded as the “inclusion of object and instrument in one and the same stable configuration capable of being subject to evolutionary processes.”18 This initial point, which has long been ignored in the positivistic line of the theory of science and that was also one of the main obstacles in the development of an adequate design theory due to its unreflected orientation towards the paradigm of science—or scientificity, for that matter—, is quite obvious in urban design: design always produces the objects it reflects upon itself. Since the “architect constructs objectual environments” he can be regarded as the “model subject par excellence for the examination of its objectual environment,” as Christian Posthofen has recently pointed out.19 Contrary to the sciences that have classically always intended to establish a neutral theory capable of accounting for all observable contingent phenomena, and also contrary to the arts, where the singularity of an artwork has always been a central topic, urban design is situated between this extremist conceptions of knowledge and creation. Therefore urban design has long been regarded as a hybrid composed out of different disciplines, and therefore being impure, neither a science nor an art. But is this really an adequate conceptualization?


The Wrecking pendulum is a Project with Miodrag Kuc for The Anxious Prop Case 2: [Eccentric] Have Balls.

  1. Günter Abel, “Epistemische Objekte als Zeichen- und Interpretationskonstrukte,” in Epistemic Objects, MPIWG Preprint 374 (Berlin: MPG, 2009), 49. Translated from the German “Diskrimination, Individuation, Klassifikation und Prädikation […] [von] Objekten und Ereignissen.” []
  2. See: Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962), Kap. II and III. []
  3. See: Abel, “Epistemische Objekte als Zeichen- und Interpretationskonstrukte,” 52 -55. []
  4. See: Uljana Feest, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, und Günther Abel, Hrsg., Epistemic Objects, MPIWG Preprint 374 (Berlin: MPG, 2009). []
  5. Abel, “Epistemische Objekte als Zeichen- und Interpretationskonstrukte,” 53. Translated from the German: “bis dato leitenden Begriffe.” This observation places the metaphor at the center of natural languages and draws attention to the normative aspects of the use of artificial languages in urban design. From this perspective the use of digital production routines needs to be further explored. Christiane Paul has pleaded in this matter for a careful distinction of mere computer generated art and a medium oriented digital art (Christiane Paul, Digital Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003). Achim Menges has also pointed to the necessity of distinguishing “digital craftwork” and computational design in order to understand the “new ornament” (at the conference “Digital. Material. Structural. Ornament Today,” Free University of Bozen, 1 June 2010). []
  6. See: Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1964), Kap. II, Translation and Meaning. []
  7. Abel, “Epistemische Objekte als Zeichen- und Interpretationskonstrukte,” 54. Translated from the German: “alle möglichen empirischen Fakten.” []
  8. Willard van Orman Quine, “On Empirically Equivalent Systems of the World,” Erkenntnis 9, Nr. 3 (1975): 313. []
  9. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Experimentalsysteme und epistemische Dinge (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2006), 9. Translated from the German „Wissensobjekte und die technischen Bedingungen ihrer Hervorbringung [sind] unauflösbar miteinander verknüpft”. []
  10. See: Friedrich Kittler, Unsterbliche. Nachrufe, Erinnerungen, Geistergespräche (Stuttgart: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2004), 11. []
  11. Gaston Bachelard, La formation de l’esprit scientifique (Paris: Vrin, 1938), 14–19. []
  12. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Epistemologie des Konkreten (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2006), 244.. Translated from the German “epistemologische Unschärferelation”. []
  13. Sybille Krämer, “Kalküle als Repräsentation. Zur Genese des operativen Symbolismus der Neuzeit,” in Räume des Wissens. Repräsentation, Codierung, Spur, hg. v. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Michael Hagner, und Bettina Wahrig-Schmidt (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1997), 115. Translated from the German: “Exteritorisierung des Denkens.” []
  14. Rheinberger, Experimentalsysteme und epistemische Dinge, 27. Translated from the German: “das Primat der im Werden begriffenen wissenschaftlichen Erfahrung, bei der begriffliche Unbestimmtheit nicht defizitär, sondern handlungsbestimmend ist, gegenüber ihrem begrifflich verfaßten und verfestigten Resultat zur Geltung […]. Es geht um eine Rehabilitation des »Entdeckungszusammenhangs«.” []
  15. Sybille Krämer, “Sinnlichkeit, Denken, Medien: Von der ‚Sinnlichkeit als Erkenntnisform‘ zur ‚Sinnlichkeit als Performanz‘,” in Der Sinn der Sinne, hg. v. Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Göttingen: Steidel, 1998), 34. []
  16. Abel, “Epistemische Objekte als Zeichen- und Interpretationskonstrukte,” 37. Translated from the German „realen Objekte”. []
  17. In German, the term “Tatsache” describes the fact that facts are made and are thus historically contingent. See: Ludwik Fleck, Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1980). []
  18. Rudolf Stichweh, “Zur Analyse von Experimentalsystemen,” in Objekte, Differenzen, Konjunkturen. Experimentalsysteme im historischen Kontext, hg. v. Michael Hagner, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, und Bettina Wahrig-Schmitt (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1994), 292. Translated from the German: “Inklusion von Gegenstand und Instrument in ein- und dieselbe stabile und evolutionsfähige Konfiguration.” []
  19. Christian Posthofen, Theorie und Praxis, hg. v. Arno Brandelhuber und a42.org / AdbK Nürnberg, Disko 5 (Nürnberg, 2007), 9. Translated from the German: “Der Architekt baut objekthafte Umwelt und ist insofern das Modellsubjekt in Auseinandersetzung mit seiner Objektumwelt schlechthin.” []

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