The Renewed Novelty of Symmetry [1]
Greg Lynn

The title of this text attempts to combine two familiar architectural concepts in a slightly unexpected way; that is, that novelty is the organizer of symmetry rather than vice versa. Symmetry continues to be conceptualized in architecture as one of the characteristic underlying organizations upon which variations are ordered. The relationship between order (of which symmetry is perhaps a primary example) and variation or novelty has been critiqued elsewhere [2]. The critique has been focused primarily on "phenomenological reduction through iterative variation" in architecture. Rather than these reductive theories of "eidetic types" and ideal essences a generative theory of complex variation involves a reappraisal of "vague" organizations through "anexact yet rigorous" geometries.

Idealization and differentiation have been the constituents of any concept of organization based on repetition. Previous theories of variation have structured their relationship around the concept of "iterative reduction to ideal essences." The design process of this project and the theoretical materials referred to in this short text could be characterized by an alternative conception of repetition that can be broadly understood as evolutionary, flexible and proliferating. Alfred North Whitehead has described evolution as the "creative advance into novelty." This project and text attempt to develop theories and techniques of repetition that incorporate two kinds of differentiation; endogeneous (the unfolding of unmotivated internal directives toward diversity) and exogeneous (the infolding of external constraints toward adaptability). This dynamic combination of systems of internal directed indeterminacy and external viscissitudinous constraint leads to organizations that can not be reduced to any ideal form or any single order or cause. Complexity is an integral, generative and stabilizing characteristic of these two-fold systems of organization. In order to theorize these kinds of differential organizations, new concepts of "order" and "difference" must be developed that are distinct from received notions of "typology" and "variation."

In this economy of order and difference, novelty, rather than being some extrinsic effect, can be conceived as the catalyst of new and unforeseeable organizations that proceed from the interaction between freely differentiating systems and their incorporation and exploitation of external constraints. Novelty and order are related in an autocatalytic rather than binary manner as they are simultaneously initiated from a constellation of viscissitudes [3]. This regime of dynamical organizations should not be understood as either Neo-Platonist or Neo-Darwinist as they are neither reducible to merely external nor merely internal constraints. It is the resistance to both fixed types and random mutation that makes flexible, adaptable, emergent and generative systems so provocative at this time. Through the development of abstract techniques of organization, the project for the Cardiff Bay Opera House explores architectural concepts of symmetry in this dynamical style.

The competition brief for the Cardiff Bay Opera House was explicit about two expectations for the project. First, that it must have a symmetrical horseshoe Opera Hall, and second, that the primary urban concern was a strong relationship to the historic Oval Basin. Initially, it seemed odd that in 1994 the authors of the competition would ask for both a new architecture and would legislate formal symmetry. The dillemma inherent to these seemingly contradictory constraints became the catalyst for the project. After rejecting the revolutionary potential of opposing these requests, and rejecting the reactionary possibilities of supplicating to a predefined catalogue of Beaux-Arts parti, our design team decided to take a monstrously evolutionary position by incorporating both oval forms and symmetry so thoroughly that they could proliferate wildly in unexpected ways. Thanks to the competition organizers we became involved with a renewed attention to symmetry. Our engagement with symmetry began not with its valorization as a central organizing principle but rather with an assumption of its bankruptcy. This is only to say, that the competition brief for the Cardiff Bay Opera House initiated the present discussions of novelty and symmetry. It was this strange coupling of requests for newness and symmetry that instigated this text and the project.

The project became an experiment in the development of new concepts and architectural techniques for contextualism. The task was to develop a monument that could be understood as absolutely continuous with its context while having a distinctly new identity. The new, or unattributable difference is defined as that quality of a difference that is unattributable to any previous system, yet that has nonetheless been sponsored by extant orders. While setting the terms for continuity with a context there was also an attempt to develop such a new unified identity that could be understood as emerging from its urban, institutional, temporal and cultural setting. To avoid the mere reproduction of the existing context, unification was approached through processes of differentiation rather than simplification, through mutation rather than duplication. Like a monstrosity that despite its difference can still be understood as inhabiting the familiar class of the normal, the Opera House project attempted to turn the indigenous information of its context into an alien novelty. In the design of the Opera House the context was understood as a gradient field of generalized and unorganized information rather than as a repository of fixed values, rules and codes. Our tactic was to exploit the rusting technological husks of the ship building industry such as the Oval Basin as the chrysalis for the symmetrical proliferation of a new urban structure. The maintainance of the Oval Basin and the compulsion toward symmetry became the internal motor of differential growth. The progressive assimilation of differences within this continuous system led to an emergent organization that was unpredictable at the outset and irreducible at its conclusion to either the external constraints of its context or the internal parameters of the competition program.

What is most striking about Bateson's discoveries of the 1890's is the rethinking of the relationship between order and variation and homogeneity and heterogeneity. Bateson's insight, that was inherited by his son Gregory, was that a loss of information leads toward symmetry. This is obvious as iterative reduction through phenomenological variation is exactly that, the elimination of difference (or more technically what would be refered to as "alternations of deformation") toward a reduced eidetic type. This insight equates difference with information; Gregory Bateson has gone as far as defining information as "the difference that makes the difference." [4]

William Bateson did not arrive at this theory of symmetry through classical reduction to types but rather by beginning with a theory of variation itself [5]. What distinguished his views on symmetry and symmetry breaking was his explanatory rather than taxonomic perspective toward form, in order to theorize variation, outside of an irregular relationship to a norm. For Bateson, monstrosities and mutations were indexes of the polymorphic nature of repetition, growth and variation that responded specifically to particular temporal and environmental conditions. The similarity between this theory of polymorphism, Galton's "multiple positions of organic stability" and later Waddington's temporalization of the Galton-Bateson concept as epigenetic landscape has been argued by Gerry Webster [6].. Against Darwinists, Bateson postulated a theory of "essential diversity" rather than "random mutation" and organization through "discontinuous variation" rather than "gradualism." As a teratologist he realized that even monstrosities adhere to recognizable forms of those classified as normal and they therefore might lead to a theory of order which does not treat the variant as merely contingent or extraneous, as he notes; variant forms are as definite and well formed as typical forms. The variations of monstrosities led him to a theory of diversity and differentiation. Like the earliest experimental morphologists such as August Trembley, [7] Bateson looked for typicality in the atypical.

For example, in the two mutations of the thumb, the monstrosities exhibit higher degrees of symmetry about a mirror axis than is exhibitted in the normal hand. In the place of the asymmetry between four fingers and thumb there is a symmetry of four fingers reflected along the axis of the hand. In the other case within the assymetry of the thumb to four fingers is nested a second level of symmetry between the normal thumb and an extra thumb that is opposed to it in a mirror plane. This realization that there were classes of mutations that exhibited higher degrees of symmetry than the normal led to two possibilities. The taxonomic assumption would locate extra information at the point of mutation in order to explain the higher degree of symmetry and the increases in homogeneity and sameness. Bateson proposed an alternative whereby the increase in symmetry and decrease in complexity and heterogeneity was an index of a loss of information. Where the information for the thumb was decreased the growth reverted back to a default value of mirror symmetry. Thus symmetry was not an underlying principle of the essential order of the "whole organism" but was instead a default value of simple disorganization. Moreover, symmetry was not a global attribute of the whole, but rather was an aspect of generative and regenerative processes. The organism or order was not attributable to some reduced simplified type but was rather the result of dynamic non-linear interactions of internal directives, the viscissitudes of a disorganized context, and the organized context or generative fields that are configured by a flexible and adaptable system of integrating differences. For these morphological processes he invented the term "genetics." "Genes" were not generators but modifiers of morphology as his theory was that information was intermittently applied during growth and development to regulate more general autonomous growth processes. Genes did not provide a blueprint in his theory but would guide development at critical junctures.

The location of the information that makes the difference was still in need of theorization by Bateson. He argued that these variations were specific responses of a biological system to perturbations that could be either environmental or genetic (opening the door in a very provocative way to Lamarkian inheritance of acquired characteristics developed through somatic evolution). Therefore, symmetry breaking could be a sign of the incorporation of information into a system from the outside in order to unfold latent diversities.

Thus contexts tend towards entropy. Contexts lack specific organization and the information that they provide tends to be general. In this regard contexts might be understood as entropic in their homogeneity and the uniform distribution of differences. Information and difference are being used here almost interchangeably, and homogeneity is understood as a sameness of differences or a lack of information. Thus, homogeneity and disorganization, or lack of difference, is a characteristic of symmetry.

Adaptive catalysts configure that information into organizations by breaking their own internal symmetry or homogeneity. Symmetry breaking should not be confused with a simple dialectic of assymetry, just as exact geometries do not dialectically invert into inexact forms. Rather, symmetry breaking from the exact to the anexact indexes the incorporation of generalized external information into a dynamic, flexible, and temporally and contextually specific stability. Symmetry, and any exact form for that matter, indicates a lack of order due to a lack of interaction with larger forces and environments. Deep structure and typology are just what they seem to be; suspect, reductive, empty and bankrupt. But, once triggered by generalized and unpredictable external influences (it must be emphatically maintained that "context" is meaningless and in and of itself it is unorganized, and "organized context" requires an agent of differentiation) these "types" unfold through differentiation into highly heterogeneous yet continuous organizations. Once put into a non-linear relationship with external forces a directed indeterminacy becomes a robust system for the unfolding of unforeseen and unpredictable dynamic organizations and stabilities.

-Greg Lynn

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