Contextual Scripting: A Critique of Performativity

Architecture enables a certain human behavior, and interaction is channeled into being a monitored, definite movement, not necessarily one that is momentarily influenced, but as a series of continuous structured loops influenced by a fixed dimension-space. Performance is typically not thought of as a medium in itself – it is an element of certain media that manifests itself differently in different media.[1]  How can architecture aim to provide an agile environment, where the users are driven to an extreme sense of being and belonging? How can architecture encourage people to become performers? This article ties politics and architecture through this veil that is performance, to emphasize the cliché that most things are scripted, something architects are highly skilled at doing.

“The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.” – Marc Andreessen

At most times, the practice of architecture is antithetical to performance. Drawing parallels across politics and architecture illustrate an ideology conducive to understanding how agility and the legibility are a part of the architectural discourse. There is an intersection in the times we live in where complex roles are carried out by individuals (who could be placed in different levels in the hierarchy of organizations if need be) in pursuit of shared goals. The architect could be an ideal example to illustrate this argument, by identifying four major archetypes.


Archetypes of the Architect



Note: These archetypes are all mutually exclusive, with no intersections between one another. The academician uses heavy programming conducive to the freedom of performance, making the discussion more subjective and agile. The builder is the pragmatist, designing a programmed, legible order of events and functions. The journalist in this case is the architect who is critical in a focused way, bringing out issues and formulating theories that may or may not be based on hard fact, reflecting on the subjectivity of the profession. The innovator is the designer, academician and the journalist, striking a balance between practicing and analyzing architecture.


Comparing the Galaxy Soho, COSMO by Andres Jaque or the Monterrey Housing by Aravena in Mexico, not by typology or scale, but strictly through the performativity of the space by the agency of design could further the discussion on designers, their buildings and performance. These examples almost contradict each other, asking the all-important question whether a building needs to be more agile than legible for it to be successful. The contrast between private and public space is harder to gauge because of the role public spaces play-as places of protest, as camp grounds, as places for leisure. From the Ganesh Visarjan processions in Mumbai that see tens of thousands of people take to the streets in celebration to the recent ‘Subway Therapy’ wall at Union Station in New York, the performativity of public spaces is now perceived as more malleable and conducive to varying degrees of occupancy.

Part 1: Legibility

Milo Yiannopoulos-Technology editor for Breitbart news

Whether it is Trump making Breitbart founder Steven Bannon Chief Strategist after he managed the former’s campaign, or whether it is Breitbart’s expansion into France and Germany, the growing success of the alt-right is far from being ignored. According to the Economist, Breitbart’s website had 45 million unique visitors in July this year and between May 13th and June 13th, they had the highest social media interaction for political content beating out all competitors. Heidi Beirich, in the Bloomberg article, about Milo Yiannopoulos says “It’s like he’s joking: ‘Haha, let me popularize the worst ideas that ever existed’. That’s new, and that’s scary.” The alt-right was hard to interpret, until now. We were introduced to new characters and interesting links making the narrative stronger and now, there is a plateau in mainstream media that I’m curious to see break. Richard Spencer’s recent speech reiterated the position of the alt-right, only heightening the base the alt-right have been building up and almost channelizing their statements through media in a pattern sequence that makes it seem rehearsed, and therefore, less interesting to me. What makes the alt-right different from other conservative groups is particular their way of performance and interaction with people-through the internet, media and designing their narrative to be provocative to anybody with a seemingly sane conscience. Our interpretation of the broader picture – trolling, wars in comment sections on alt-right videos on Facebook, racism on Twitter- it reminds me of a quote by Jack Bowman who said, “It (performance art) is difficult to censor since it has a good possibility of never being done before”. Their first step towards mainstream success was incorporating an unfamiliar ideology to most people in the context of a political campaign.


Patrik Schumacher followed this trend, and with his recent comments on de-regularization and the privatization of public squares in London, he claimed that his was “no more than a media caricature constructed to shock and entertain”. The example of the Galaxy Soho is relevant here because of its heavy contrast to the courtyard homes and the narrow alleys around the site.

When it comes to architecture, legibility by design, navigating through physical spaces and especially virtual representation techniques have constantly been evolving with the rise in technological interventions. It is almost harder to identify the architects behind the limitless designs and renderings of projects we see on the internet, because they speak a similar language, to strive for legibility amongst the broadest audience. Running grasshopper scripts for form finding based on parameters that are not necessarily well defined becoming commonplace in schools to the line blurring between vernacular and contemporary design, in the case of architects like Caruso St John reflects on the performativity of the built form and the perception of it, affecting both agility and legibility. For design to be legible means for it to be scrutinized by people on social media and other platforms, allowing for it to be judged on the agility of an entire scheme.

Part 2: Agility

In an article by Peter Pomerantsev on Surkov in the London Review of Books, he says that in today’s Russia, if you’re smart enough, you can be free socially and exercise your creativity as long as you comply to political ideologies when required. I find a great similarity to the work architects do. Whether it is for a competition for a public open space or meant for a private developer, the agility of the architect to perform, present and cater to multiple scenarios is noteworthy. Being optimistic and indeterminate may be lead to heightened agility, but that is a compromise on the legibility of the project. To be safe and ‘legible’, it’s safer to stick to the quadrant on the bottom right. The convenience of it seems like layers of agreements to portray stability in an unstable environment.  The reference to Derrida in Russian political discourse could be drawn in parallel to the duality of a performance- who is the performer and who is the audience, or in terms of architecture, how do you place users within fixed brackets today? In Russia’s society, this is hard to gauge. In architecture, digital tools for form finding, limitless resources for flexible programming, virtual and location independent design take center stage. Do we need to deconstruct and define one in order to define the other? The complexity in the system, and the complexity of a good performance or good design, in the context of Russia, US politics or architecture should be deconstructed to understand that dichotomies upon which the entire discourse is based are too simplified.

[1] Mal Alhern, Performance/Performativity, Winter 2003, The Chicago School of Media Theory