The Expanded Field— Stan Allen’s “Field Conditions” as a Reconstruction of Architectural Practice within Shifting Epistemological Paradigms
Written for “Histories of Architecture Theory”
Critics : Mark Wigley
In Points and Lines, Stan Allen attempts to propose new architectural strategies for practicing within the contemporary, urban condition, he juxtaposes speculative principles with his own specific projects to demonstrate an interplay of theory and practice. A seminal text contained within the manual, “Field Conditions,” establishes the idea of an architecture defined not by built structure, but by the relationships of forms within an abstract field of dynamic conditions. Stan Allen’s “Field Conditions” gestures, without an architecture without architecture; he postulates about an architecture defined by localized, pre-established circumstances, rather than through a predilection towards signifiers and unitary form. Allen attempts to redefine traditional concepts definitive of architectural praxis by subverting the relationships between figure and ground, object and process, invisible and visible, finite and infinite.
The landmark essay, definitive of Stan Allen’s wider oeuvre, underscores a paradigmatic shift away from the endemic dialectics concerning the primacy of architectural form and towards an architecture defined by systems, networks, and the relationships between objects in a theoretical field. To understand the motivations behind the development of such a heterodox text, it becomes necessary to contextualize the essay within the parallel changes occurring within contemporaneous academic discourse. In “Field Conditions,” Allen, grappling with epistemological shifts definitive of the twentieth century, discusses the dwindling significance of a discursive architecture defined by semiotics (a “self-referential system of signification”1), and the rise of an information-age architecture defined by empirical data; in relinquishing the architect of control of their traditional, hermeneutic domain, he attempts to open up the architect’s capacity to operate in a newly-opened, expanded field of potential practices.
An analysis of “Field Conditions” in isolation reveals Stan Allen’s preoccupation with the dismantling of residual, architectural tropes and norms crucial to the field—a preoccupation with unitary, morphological transformations operating towards a goal of compositional closure and the role of the building as a specific object. The field describes a space of propagation and effects, it concerns itself not with the form of objects, but the relationship of the aforementioned objects with each other; to Allen, field conditions are “loosely bound aggregates characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity, overall shape and extent are highly fluid and less important than the internal relationship of parts, which determine the behavior of the field . . . field conditions are bottom-up phenomena, defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.”2 Architecturally, the motivations of such a theoretical premise implies the unification of diverse, sometimes dissonant, elements within an established matrix, unified through their relationships in the field while still maintaining and propagating their intrinsic identities. Allen’s “Field Conditions” explores the abstract concept of “space” and “relationships” as primal subjects within architectural discourse rather than as concomitant effects to architectural forms.
Paradoxically, however, Allen acknowledges that his theory on field conditions eludes being systematized or manifested to produce specific, architectural form, stating “the theoretical model proposed here anticipates its own irrelevance when faced with the realities of practice.”3 The fluidity and malleability of Allen’s discourse here implicates an uncertainty within the genesis of his theory that casts ontological doubt on architectural tropes. In later interviews, Allen himself embraces uncertainty as an attribute that paradoxically grants him agency:
“. . . If architecture is a public art form, then it is, in the best sense of the word, the job of architects to open up that public world to a little bit of private uncertainty. That is to say that if there’s a germ of uncertainty in the work that actually finds its way into the public realm, it gives a kind of foothold for the public to exercise their own creativity—to respond to a building, or to respond to a landscape, or to respond to a public space in ways that aren’t initially programmed into it.”4
The inherent flexibility of field conditions as established by Allen, emphasizing the importance of nonhierarchical networks and the forms between things and deemphasizing of the importance of the forms of things opens architecture to a new range of potentials. The premise of the field conditions establishes the omnipresence of architecture and simultaneously democratizes it – people are no longer relegated to the sidelines in the presence of architecture, instead, they are active participants within an incredibly dynamic, ever-flowing field, and their complex behaviors and machinations likewise are constantly transforming the behavior of the field itself (a “complete examination of the implications of field conditions in architecture would necessarily reflect the complex and dynamic behaviors of architecture’s users.”5) By redefining architecture so that it becomes all-encompassing, “serial, expansive, non-hierarchical, open-ended,”6 Allen, now granting greater agency to the users of architecture as active participants within its shaping, concurrently restructures the figure of the architect, expanding the limits of their possible praxis such that it has potential agency over a greater field of forces in an incredibly complex world. Should Stan Allen’s theories be contextualized within the wider framework of epistemological shifts occurring within the twentieth century – the shift to a knowledge economy emphasizing flows of information, empirical data, and points in digital space – his theory on field conditions reads as a method of reconciling architectural principles and abstract ideas of space with a society (and by extension, academic field) now concerned with vectors and computational data over critical theory.
It is important to note that, to defend and define his theory, Allen, while appealing to both built and unbuilt architectural projects such as the Great Mosque of Cordoba and Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital scheme, draws from and creates parallels to broader cultural movements. Allen constructs his exegesis of field conditions by isolating specific pieces of sculpture to identify tangible evidence of his theory at work within contemporary artistic practices. To situate his ideas, Allen refers to a dichotomy concerning minimalism and post-minimalism, aligning his theories with the latter movement. Minimalism, a movement representing a “decisive tectonic shift activating the viewing space and [reasserting] the artwork’s condition as ‘specific object’” and a “significant overturning of prewar compositional principles” simultaneously to Allen was incapacitated by its reliance on a reductive system of formal semiotics and its handling of materials;7 in minimalism, the aspirations are “toward unitary forms, direct use of industrial materials, and simple combinations: a ‘pre-executive’ clarity of intellectual and material terms . . . minimalism develops in sequences, but rarely in fields.”8 Of note is the manner in which Allen compares postminimalism with minimalism to construct the narrative of field theory. In contrast to the minimal, the postminimal (an artistic movement occurring contemporaneously with minimalism rather than after it) is characterized by “hesitation and ontological doubt . . . it is painterly and informal where the minimalists are restrained . . . [postminimalists] introduces chance and contingency into the work of art, they shift even more radically the perception of the work, from discrete object to a record of the process of its making in the field,”9 therefore thoroughly dematerializing the “idea of sculpture as a delimited entity, an object distinct from the field it occupies.”10
The parallels between field theory and the ideas embedded within postminimalism according to Allen are unmistakable. Minimalism, just like prior architectural practice, was concerned with unitary form and the permutation of the relationship of various parts to create various wholes; this however still places certain importance on the compositional relationship of various elements, something Allen seeks to deconstruct in his search for a new theoretical register to situate new forms of architecture. He elaborates further that the narrative of postminimalism was formulated by the adoption of a primal, compositional principle: “the displacement of control to a series of intricate local rules for combination, or as a ‘sequence of events,’ but not as an overall formal configuration . . . the artist simply cannot exercise a precise formal control over the material, instead the artist establishes the conditions within which the material will be deployed, and then directs its flows.”11 Reflecting the malleability of field theory as a concept and its relinquishing of control to numerous factors and forces occurring within the milieu of a particular locality, postminimalism, like Allen, is concerned with the deconstruction of authorial agency to paradoxically create new modes of working. The practices of architecture as established by modernism in the twentieth century are compared here to the premises of minimalism, Allen’s field conditions stand in direct opposition to these practices and aligns itself with the inclinations attributed to postminimalism.
The relationship Allen enforces between an architectural theory and a set of artistic principles calls into question ideas of media specificity and the ambiguity between sculpture and architecture. Allen divulges quite bluntly that field conditions cannot generate a systematic theory of architectural forms and compositions that assist the figure of the architect when confronted with practice, nonetheless he keenly argues that field conditions can be identified (and therefore, exploited and produced) within the field of art. In blurring the distinctions between these two fields and exploiting their ambiguity to support his argument, Allen recalls Anthony Vidler’s “Architecture’s Expanded Field,” a text (itself acting as an extension of Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field) detailing the architecture’s tendency to extend supremacy beyond the previously accepted limits of discipline. This extension of architecture’s domain gives rise to architectural products that are, in Vidler’s words, “not-exactly architecture. Or at least ‘not-exactly-architecture’ as we have experienced architecture to the present.”12 In the text, Vidler questions “how do we define, and thereby ensure the individual integrity of each art as a practice when there no longer seems to be any division between the spatial and the textual, or more problematically in the case of sculpture and architecture, between the aesthetically constructed spatial and the functionally constructed spatial?”13 Vidler further alludes to a series of artists similarly introduced by Allen to reinforce the ambiguous boundary between the two fields, citing the work of postminimalists like Richard Serra and Dan Graham to illustrate that the “expanded fields” of sculpture have invaded architecture, and simultaneously to demonstrate that the architectural has become the sculptural. Allen’s field conditions, through his argument framed within the context of both art and architecture, appears to exist within the overlapping, hypothetical boundaries that Vidler establishes, allowing himself to produce a new form of architecture (“‘not-exactly-architecture’ as we have experienced architecture to the present” that exists within the domain of what can be conventionally described as architecture. In establishing this dialectic between his own architectural theory and the artistic disciplines, Allen instigates a theory that becomes profoundly interdisciplinary, opening the domain of other practices for architectural experimentation due to the incapacity of contemporary architectural practice to reconcile itself with the new conditions set forth by Allen’s discourse.
In addition to framing his argument through disciplinary exchanges with artistic movements, Allen also attempts to parallel the theory of field conditions with contemporary discussions occurring within mathematics, data interpretation, and computational science. Even when focusing his argument on postminimalist art, Allen relates the generation of such art to affiliated mathematical processes, as “the generation of such form through ‘sequences of events’ is somewhat related to the generative rules for flock behavior or algebraic combination.”14 He later elaborates on the specific relationship between the mechanics of flock behavior and field conditions, expounding furthermore that the architectural premise of field conditions, though paradoxically incapable of producing holistically architectural products at a material scale, could be observed in domains tangentially related to architectural practice, therefore arguing for an architecture that, at the cost of some media specificity, is granted new agency through its interactions with overlapping fields and disassociation from discursion. For instance, in his discussion of the artificial intelligence experiments of Craig Reynolds, attempting to simulate and demarcate parameters for flock behavior, Allen posits:
“the flock is clearly a field phenomenon, defined by precise and simple conditions, and relatively indifferent to overall form and extent. Because the rules are defined locally, obstructions are not catastrophic to the whole . . . Without repeating exactly, flock behavior tends towards roughly similar configurations, not as a fixed type, but as the cumulative result of localized behavior patterns . . . Aside from the suggestive formal possibilities, with these two examples architecture could profitably shift its attention from its traditional top-down forms of control and begin to investigate the possibilities of a more fluid, bottom-up approach. Field conditions offers a tentative opening in architecture to address the dynamics of use, behavior of crowds, and the complex geometries of masses in motion.”15
Here Allen proposes and relates an architectural condition to a novel mathematical concept definitive of contemporary, scientific discourse, and in doing so validates his own architectural premise. In mathematics, computation, and data science, Allen begins to see architectural opportunities not previously offered due to architectural discourses’ previous fixation upon semiotics and self-reference; opportunities that allow architecture to serve as a democratized platform from which complex issues affecting society can be more acutely addressed. In searching for spatial, architectural relationships within a burgeoning field of study, Allen establishes architecture’s continuing relevance in a rapidly-evolving knowledge economy.
What is particularly notable about the way Allen attempts to rationalize the field condition as a legitimate driver of architectural practice is the method with which he attempts to grant further specificity to his relatively ambiguous ideas in later parts of the text. For instance, to bridge his framework concerning the artistic (minimalism, post-minimalism, etc.) with his appeal to the mathematic (flocks, schools, swarms, crowds), Allen adroitly, albeit briefly, discusses what he refers to as the “moiré.” To Allen, the moiré is a figural consequence generated by the superimposition of two, regular fields, a consequence that haphazardly produces:
“unexpected effects, exhibiting complex and apparently irregular behaviors result from the combination of elements that are in and of themselves repetitive and regular. But moiré effects are not random. They shift abruptly in scale, and repeat according to complex mathematical rules. Moiré effects are often used to measure hidden stresses in continuous fields, or to map complex figural forms. In either case there is an uncanny coexistence of a regular field and an emergent figure.”16
When this definition is read alongside his prior structuring of the definition of the field itself (“all grids are fields, but not all fields are grids . . .”17), Allen’s argument against the alleged arbitrariness of the moiré – and, by extension, the field – can be read as an attempt to cast off the apparent randomness of the field condition, particularly as illustrated by his previous examples concerning the postminimal. Whereas Allen previously seemed to embrace the spontaneity of postminimal artists and their surrendering of agency to a process that “introduces chance and contingency into the work of art,” in explaining the moiré, he attempts to differentiate his own field conditions from what has previously been established by postminimalism.18 Despite any exhibited randomness, Allen does not give over his theory to a simple series of successive movements eventually relinquishing himself of any architectural agency. By contrast, he makes it clear that the field, the field condition, and the moiré (heretofore seen only as an anomalous byproduct of overlapping, regular fields) function holistically according to a set of measurable, if not immediately perceivable, mathematical principles.
The positioning of the passage containing Allen’s definition and rationalization of the moiré within “Field Conditions” is of additional interest: Allen nimbly situates his aside on moirés between his texts appealing to postminimal art and the flocking behavior, therefore bridging the two, and clearly delineating his architectural, field condition as existing between these two paradigms. This is averred by his own statement declaring that the field condition acts as a “study of models that work in the zone between figure and abstraction . . . or systems of organization capable of producing vortexes, peaks, and protuberances out of individual elements that are themselves regular or repetitive.”19 The passage on moirés thus can be interpreted as an attempt to provide greater legitimacy to Allen’s concept of the field condition by granting it a rational, measurable basis, as opposed to a prior, possible reading that the field condition could potential serve wholly as a haphazard effect that might be produced ad hoc. To Allen, there is a method to the madness.
In the same passage, Allen’s argument for the legitimacy of the field condition is further predicated on possible situations and outcomes of its architectural application – although, as previously determined, Allen appeals to separate phenomena in art and mathematics to establish the tangibility of the field condition, the question of its conventionally-architectural premise would continue to linger without the example of the moiré. Allen proposes:
“In the architectural or urban context, the example of moiré effects begs the question of surface. The field is fundamentally a horizontal phenomenon – even a graphic one – and all of the examples described thus far function in the plan dimension. What these field combinations seem to promise in this context is a thickening and intensification of experience at specified moments within the extended field of the city.”20
What Allen proposes through his explanation of the importance of the surface and the horizontal plane, in addition to his emphasis on thickened moments of experience and intensity rather than grand gestures demarcating specified places, constitutes a vital rethinking of prevalent, architectural paradigms. Rather than affirming the semiotic power of unitary architectural forms, Allen instead places total importance on individual, architectural elements and their inherent relationships – he stresses not the form the surface takes, but the surface itself and the way any field acts as a continuous surface linking separate fragments. What Allen refers to as an ambiguous “thickening” and “intensification” is read as a subliminal consequence created by the relationships of any series of constituent parts forming “vortexes, peaks, and protuberances out of individual elements that are themselves regular or repetitive” on any infinite surface.21 The motivations for this include the production of variegation at smaller, localized scales while nonetheless reducing the pre-established architectural emphasis on unitary form. Allen responds to a pedagogical focus on composition by proposing non-composition, and the production of an authentic architecture composed by the relationships between elements rather than the elements themselves. The reading of the relationships of these elements form any number of fields, and these superimposed fields produce moirés, which in turn serve as grounds for additional fields of architectural intervention. Allen thus attempts to establish the agency of the architect in their own interpretation of and response to the field condition, and produces new modes of working relative to the field condition that can produce “authentic and productive social differences” that “thrive at the local level, and not in the form of large scale semiotic messages or sculptural forms.”22
Allen himself furthers the relationship between the field condition and the architectural by referencing architectural history – in particular, the history that the field condition stands opposed to; to Allen, the field condition represents a significant break from the modes of working previously established by architectural dogma, and to indicate this he situates the premise of the field condition (with its emphasis on the horizontal) against the typologies and tenets of modernism. Allen speculates, in his argument underscoring the importance of the horizontal, plan dimension to the premise of the field condition, that the “monuments of the past, including the skyscraper, a modernist monument to efficient production, stood out from the fabric of the city as privileged vertical monuments.”23 The language Allen utilizes betrays his feelings towards modernism in favor of his own field conditions; to Allen, the modernist skyscraper, predicated by its adherence to the vertical as opposed to the horizontal, stands in formal opposition to the city (which, Allen argues, is “distinguished by horizontal extension”).24 He posits thus that the field condition is better situated to the creation of architecture within the twentieth-century city. Rather than expanding upwards as detailed extensively by modernism, Allen proposes a continuous adaptation and re-adaptation of architecture along the horizontal plane as a more germane response to the ever-changing, contemporary city and its continual fluxes and flows. By enforcing his theory by placing it in opposition to modernism, Allen proposes a new model of working contrary to what he perceives to be a preestablished norm. That the essay “Field Conditions” was first placed within Allen’s monograph Points+Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City (which itself serves both as a retrospective detailing Stan Allen’s projects and as a theoretical manual proposing a series of strategies and principles for the creation of architecture within a contemporary, urban context) fully establishes Allen’s attitude towards the field condition. To Allen, the field condition is not random, uncontrollable, or inapplicable, rather, it acts as a potential new way of defining, measuring, and creating new forms of architecture against prevalent architypes and pedagogies.
Predicating his argument through parallelism in post-minimalism and computational mathematics, what becomes of particular note in Stan Allen’s “Field Conditions” is how the entire construction of the field condition can be contextualized within the contemporaneously evolving field of design methodology; it could be argued that Allen’s seminal essay is indicative of a larger epistemological shift occurring in the later twentieth century: the shift from an academic focus on critical theory and signifiers to an emphasis on statistics. Norman Bryson posits that this process, referred to by Zeynep Celik Alexander as “neo-naturalism” is defined by the replacing of the signifier with figures25 – neo-naturalism “imagines the world as a field of information, imagined as dematerialized data floating in frictionless space” as opposed to signification, “whose very point is to identify precisely those moments of pressure in the system.”26 Celik further hypothesizes “it seems like the boldest epistemological claims in the design disciplines today are being made through a diagrammatic impulse that is predicated on the epistemic unit of data,”27further establishing a dichotomy between signifiers and information as the fundamental unit of contemporary design discourse. Allen iconoclastically aligns himself with the neo-natural, maintaining that is field conditions are motivated primarily by the production of authentic social differences, which, he directly surmises thrive at the intersection of localized networks and “not in the form of large scale, semiotic messages of sculptural forms.”28 It can be inferred through this line of reasoning that design theories and methodologies that are data-based (such as Allen’s field conditions) serve as confirmation that architecture has begun to disassociate itself from self-referential, “formalist navel-gazing” and beginning to operate in what Vidler previously christened an “expanded field.” Allen’s argument for field conditions, grounded on points of data in frictionless space and the connection between those points, is symptomatic of a substitution of data as the primary epistemic unit – the rationale for – design, signifying a break from the modernist predilection for abstract “meaning.”
In “Field Conditions,” Stan Allen iconoclastically proposes an architecture not concerned with tectonic, built form, but primarily dealing with the abstract concepts of space and spatial relationships within a hypothetical, dynamic field. He looks to contemporary shifts in epistemological discourse, discovering novel ways of working to design more efficiently within the increasingly-complex machinations and parameters of contemporary urban conditions. Disassociating architecture from discursive practices and methodologies, Allen turns to other fields as a way of expanding architecture’s primacy and maintaining the relevance of architecture in a society increasingly concerning with data and mathematics as the primary episteme. machinations of contemporary urban conditions, Allen turns to other fields as a way of expanding architecture’s primacy and maintaining the relevance of architecture in a society increasingly concerning with data and mathematics as the primary episteme. By subverting the focus of architectural praxis away from signification and theoretical concepts of meaning, Allen iconoclastically reconstructs the figure of the architect, disassociating it from traditional architectural practice and establishing a foothold in other disciplines to generate new perceptions of architectural space and ensure the architect’s continuing hegemony as a designer of the built environment in an increasingly complex world.
1Celik Alexander, Zeynep. “Neo-Naturalism.” Log, No. 31. (New York, NY: Anyone Corporation). 24.
2Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 92.
4Allen, Stan, and Nader Tehrani. “Stan Allen.” Bomb, No. 123. (New York, NY). New Arts Publications. 61.
5Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 92.
6Allen, Stan, and Nader Tehrani. “Stan Allen.” Bomb, No. 123. (New York, NY). New Arts Publications. 58.
7Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 95-96
8Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 95-96
11Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 95-96
12Vidler, Anthony. “Architecture’s Expanded Field.” Constructing a New Agenda. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 319.
13Vidler, Anthony. “Architecture’s Expanded Field.” Constructing a New Agenda. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 322.
14Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 97.
15Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 99.
16Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 98.
19Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 97.
20Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 98.
22Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 97.
23Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 98.
25Bryson, Norman. "Introduction: The Neural Interface," in Warren Neidich, Blow- Up: Photography, Cinema, and the Brain (New York: Distributed Art, 2003), 14.
26Celik Alexander, Zeynep. “Neo-Naturalism.” Log, No. 31. (New York, NY: Anyone Corporation, 2014), 29.
28Allen, Stan. “Field Conditions.” Points and Lines. (New York, NY). Princeton Architectural Press. 97.