Diana Agrest, “Design and Non-Design,” 1974.
Diana Agrest was Mario Gandelsonas’s partner and their work bears down as a strikingly clear, fierce theoretical front against Structuralist interpretations of Design and loose architecture theory. This text, described by Hays as the “center of [Agrest’s] theoretical oeuvre,” lays down a definitive, though semi-permeable autonomy for Design, separate from all other cultural systems. It’s primary interest, though, is demarking a framework for investigating relationships between Design and all other cultural systems (collectively, “Non-Design”), how cultural systems interact in the field of Non-Design, and how their interactions can be productively read.
According to Agrest, all previous architecture theory concerned with culture is more interested in how culture should or should not be incorporated into Design’s language. None of them, she observes, focus on exactly how Design is situated within culture to form the built environment, nor are they interested in how cultural systems (Design among them) communicate values.
Design is exactly what is seems: architecture, urban planning, industrial design, theory and criticism, governed by internal ideology and rules. Design forms a single, full “text” and is institutionally maintained through its own apparatus of discourse, academia, and writing. Non-Design is everything else, all other cultural systems outside of Design, and both are responsible for the built environment. The relationship between Design and Non-Design is facilitated through Design’s semi-permeability—its ability to occasionally translate certain social codes into its own language and employ them according to its own “parameters.” Social codes are incorporated to “rejuvenate” Design and are more or less responsible for the history of architecture as we know it—its discipline, form, and theory.
The process of translating extra-Design codes into Design’s language has many simultaneous definitions in Agrest’s essay: their translation is their transcoding, is a metaphorical operation (based, familiarly, in metaphor-similarity and metonymy-contiguity) controlled through a code’s “specificity.” Specificity maintains the limits of Design and the level of its permeability to social codes. By this Agrest means that each social code can be categorically ranked by its potential specificity to Design and this governs how it may be translated into Design’s language (form, discipline, practice, theory). For example, there are exclusive codes (specific to design, i.e. plan-section), shared codes (shared among multiple cultural systems, i.e. space, icon), and codes that are crucial to one system but that could be translated into Design if they are transformed.
While Design is its own subject—both in terms of a separate discipline and as the subject of its own discourse—Non-Design is the product of the social subject and cannot be adequately discussed as anything other than a cluster of interrelated (non-autonomous) cultural systems. These multiple systems transfer social codes back and forth through the same metaphorical/transcoding operations that determine their translation into Design. (The difference between Design and the cultural systems that make up Non-Design is that Design willingly maintains institutional autonomy and a separate ideology and language. Other cultural systems responsible for the built world do not.)
This brings us to Agrest’s most fascinating proposal. Any attempt at “reading” the built environment—aka ‘producing meaning’ out of the built environment, an inherently ideological task—is thwarted by this simultaneity of codes, translations and metaphorical processes. No single reading can possibly begin to adequately understand all these codes. (This is evocative of Lefebvre’s inference of space’s multiple meanings.) Instead, Agrest proposes a fragmented reading, “mise-en-séquence,” of the built environment’s “spatialized text.” If the built world—product of Design and Non-Design—consists of multiple interrelated cultural systems, and therefore a legion of simultaneous translations of codes from one system to another, then the field of metaphorical operations is a spatialized variform supertext, a “density of meaning.”
Agrest embraces this overwhelming “semantic volume.” Instead of trying to produce a singular reading, a “productive reading” begins at one metaphorical operation and follows that fragment through “different texts in an intertextual network,” through translations, metaphors, metonyms, moving through different fragments like a dream. This is the opposite of any recognizable ‘language,’ is actually the “explosion of language,” but it is more “symbolic of the world outside the roles of Design and their internal ‘linguistic’ games, producing another logic that informs the ‘significance of building.’”
Agrest’s is a quintessentially anti-Structuralist proposal—not surprising, remembering Gandelsonas and the pair’s dependency on Althusser—presenting a chaotic but inevitable multi-textualism, with design approximately separate from everything else, with multiple readings and truths, all equally valid. Agrest’s ‘fragmented productive readings’ reminds me of my favorite lecturer in college, who would completely leave the subject of architecture history while curiously inscribing an arc of reading, meaning, and similarities through just about every field imaginable. To me this is more a practice of wisdom than theory. Nevertheless, it is crucial for its acceptance of space as a field of meaning to be read (see also Denise Scott Brown) as well as Design/Architectural autonomy, notably without discussing the internal issues of that autonomy.