Non-human intervention in the built environment ranges widely both geographically and temporally. One such example is El Palacio de Hielo, the hockey rink in Madrid that became a morgue when the city’s mortuary services were overwhelmed by COVID-19 in March, 2020. The ice rink became storage for the dead, the adjacent convention hall was gridded out for “socially distant” hospital beds, and the entrances to the building became sterilization chambers. This shift was undoubtedly an architectural one--circulation shifted and became regulated, new spatial divisions were created to separate sterile zones, and the circumferential logic of the rink changed to a dispersed, gridded field. However, no architect arranged these new spatial conditions. Rather, the architectural decisions made during the conversion were made out of human interest in health and efficiency, but not human interest in space or infrastructure. If one must identify the architect, the only place to look is the coronavirus itself.
One can similarly understand the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, an Afghani urban street constructed in the Mojave desert by the US military. Driven by fears of terrorism and the prediction of conflict in Middle Eastern resiential zones, the Afghani street introduced spatial hierarchy, cultural symbology, and performative material assemblies into an otherwise decentralized, anonymous, and unengineered landscape. While the street was built to ambiguously mimic the spatial conditions in a Middle Eastern city, its presence in the Mojave is a spatial phenomenon unto itself. One could dismiss this spatial phenomenon as an accidental byproduct of human military strategy and economics, but to do so would reaffirm the fantasy of an anthropocentric universe. The spatial phenomenon was authored by a non-human entity: Fear of Terrorism.
These examples represent a kind of unmitigated non-human authorship in which the appearance of specific spatial conditions are not part of the human intent at all. They make evident the impact that non-human authors can have on the built environment. One must assume, however, that non-human entities also have authorial influence in conditions where humans do have spatial and architectural intent; these authorships become entangled, and it is in this area of entanglement that architects should begin to operate.
Understanding non-humans and their realities might begin with an examination of Jakob Johann von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt. In the German biologist’s 1934 piece A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men, von Uexkull describes how every entity constructs the reality they occupy by synthesizing and interpreting information gathered with physiological sense abilities. Umwelt describes this self-centered world, which is necessarily unique to every biological entity. Von Uexkull’s work was some of the first to articulate that non-humans inhabit different worlds than humans, which decenters the human world by defining it as one of many. The umwelt as von Uexkull describes it, however, has limitations. Namely, it limits reality construction solely to biological entities. Moreover, von Uexkull makes a distinction between the umwelten of animals, which he describes as static and inescapable, and the umwelten of humankind; von Uexküll proposes that humans are able to augment or even escape their umwelt through technology. Technology, however, is a product of humanity’s physiological sense abilities, and thus it might not occupy a distinct or objective position.
The position of technology is scrutinized by Martin Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology (1954). In essence, Heidegger argues that technology is not just a means to an end or a human action, but is rather a mode of human existence through which reality is revealed. This idea, which he calls enframing, is made clear by Heidegger’s example of the hydroelectric dam on the Rhine river, which transforms the river-ness of the river into a standing reserve of energy. In this way, technology is a means by which humans comprehend their environment, and thus technology is part of the construction of the human umwelt. Heidegger’s suggestion that the more rudimentary technology of the bridge somehow preserves the nature of the river overlooks the fact that the nature of the river is constructed in the human umwelt as a set of relative qualities, which the bridge manipulates. The river becomes less violent, less divisive, more distant. The example is comparable to Paul Virilio’s discussion of the Atlantic Ocean as perceived from an ocean liner and from an airplane. Virilio argues that the Atlantic Ocean exists in both scenarios, but that it exists in a “state of disappearance” when comprehended from an airplane . From the airplane, the immensity, divisiveness, and insurmountability of the ocean are sidelined despite being part of what constitute the ocean’s “ocean-ness”.
Heidegger and Virilio lay bare the anthropocentric bias with which technology interprets and constructs the human world. Technology is not an infallible or objective tool for the expansion of the human umwelt. As a human construct, it embodies human biases and reaffirms their unquestionability, and it is entangled with the formation and interpretation of human space. It is an anthropocentric medium of reality-construction. Acknowledging technology’s existence as a fallible medium opens the door to reprogramming it so that it better responds to the agency of non-human entities. Architecture, as a form of technology, becomes an important arena for this reprogramming. If entities like COVID-19 and terrorism are partially culpable for the construction of a human reality (through the construction of spatial phenomena), then possibilities for change (social, ecological, political) in the human umwelt exist at the introduction of those entities into human architectures.
Recent acknowledgement of non-human autonomy has led many ecologists, urbanists, and others to explore the inert power that non-human entities have over the human experience. When grappling with non-human autonomy, there is a tendency to simplify or reduce non-human autonomy to the mere ability to exert force or influence. This tendency is exemplified in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, in which Bennett asserts that things (i.e. non-human entities) operate outside the limitations of their perceivable objects and exert a “thing-force” that shapes the way humans relate to each other and their environment.6 The relationship Bennett describes between humans and the thing-forces they encounter is circumstantial and reductive. In describing the pile of debris which revealed to her its material vibrancy, Bennett understands the moment as a series of chance interactions: “This window into the eccentric outside was made possible by the fortuity of that particular assemblage”.7 The impact of this material vibrancy is presented as essentially binary; the force is present, or it is not (rather, it is perceived, or it is not). The trap of operating within ontological flatness, as Bennett does, is that the acceptance of the existence-binary tempts the exclusion of characteristic differentiation. In essence, the vibrancy Bennett describes is relegated to “thingness” rather than to a quality or characterization. This is evident in her depiction of the Gunpowder Residue Sampler example, in which “expert witnesses showed the sampler to the jury several times, and with each appearance it exercised more force”.8 This scenario depicts the Sampler’s power as a product of Boolean exposure to the Sampler’s existence rather than a product of a complex non-human autonomy.
Across disciplines, this reductive approach to non-human autonomy appears. Franz Kafka’s character Odradek from Cares of a Family Man seems to operate merely by existing as an unclassifiable entity, which shakes the foundations of the narrator’s anthropocentric (and patriarchal) reality.9 Similarly, eco-theorist Timothy Morton conceptualizes
hyperobjects as objects whose massively distributed existence exposes the fragility or “lameness” of
the anthropocentric world.10 Bennett, Kafka, and Morton all seem to identify non-human autonomy
as essentially a binary force. But if one accepts the existence of non-human umwelten, then one must also accept their complexity. It is not enough to say that a thing’s existence is forceful; that thing exists in a complex reality of its own and has an accordingly complex autonomy which is not binary, but directed towards some outcome. The force we perceive is the manifestation of that directed autonomy in human reality.
Complex autonomies are explored by Keller Easterling in her e-flux article “An Internet of Things”.11 Easterling establishes the concept of “active form,” which describes organization (of information and mobility) as an autonomous form distinct from
more passive physical forms, which she calls
“object forms.” Notably, Easterling makes clear that the power of active forms lies in their “disposition.” Borrowing from classical physics, a dispositional property is a potential property given the appropriate stimuli. For example, the ability to exert gravitational force is a dispositional property of mass because it is only observable in the presence of other mass. Easterling describes the Deleuzian notion of the generative diagram as having a disposition towards formal production, and she describes sinusoids as functions with a disposition towards a particular curve. Applied to the built environment, the notion of dispositional qualities begins to look a lot like James Gibson’s theory of affordances.12 Gibson posits that the world is perceived not only in terms of object shapes and spatial relationships, but also in terms of possibilities for action. These possibilities for action only manifest when they encounter the needs of animals. While he limits discussion to modes of autonomy most familiar to humans, Gibson makes clear that it is the particular autonomy of the subject which manifests the affordances of the environment. In essence, subjective intent is the necessary stimulus to unearth dispositional qualities. Easterling’s An
Internet of Things does the work of removing the anthropocentric limitations of Gibson’s theory. The active forms Easterling describes, which bear likeness to Gibson’s niches, offer affordances to things both human and non-human and produce action that is both anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric. This entanglement has an important implication for architects: non-human things can exploit affordances in human productions.