SUR at MoMA PS1 by Xefirotarch (Hernan Diaz Alonso)

A specter is haunting the schools of architecture, and it is called “Triple O.” As a dense interpretation of the already obscure writings of Martin Heidegger, Graham Harman’s “speculative realism”—which his equally dense interpreter Ian Bogost has given the name Object-Oriented Ontology, and which he himself shortens to “Triple O”—this niche bit of philosophy would not seem like a promising foundation on which to base architecture projects. But it has become popular to the point that students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin (where I teach), at Yale University, at Texas A&M, and at SCI-Arc (where Harman now teaches) all claim to base their work on their understanding of what it means.

So what is Triple O? In its most bowdlerized version, it is the notion that all of the universe, including us, is made up of tools. As Harman says in his seminal book Towards Speculative Realism (Zero Books, 2010; all quotes here are from that volume), “all being is tool-being.” What is more, tools that happen to be rocks or pieces of steel are tool-beings equal to humans. What other interpreters have called “flat ontology” (“ontology” being the knowledge of the nature or essence of things) thus dethrones human being as the only subjects who can give meaning to an otherwise inert world.

At his most lyrical, Harman can describe a simple situation with the same evocative power that Heidegger could use to talk about a dam on the Rhine:

“Walking across a bridge, I am adrift in a world of equipment: the girders and pylons that support me, the durable power of concrete beneath my feet, the dense unyielding grain of the topsoil in which the bridge is rooted. What looks at first like the simple and trivial act of walking is actually embedded in the most intricate web of tool-pieces, tiny implanted devices watching over our activity, sustaining or resisting our efforts like transparent ghosts or angels. Each of these objects executes a specific effect amidst reality. Bolts and trestles are not neutral facts, but exert a definitive power in the cosmos on the basis of their particular thickness and tensile strength. Forever contending with one another, these tool-beings throw their weight around in the world, each of them ensconced in some small niche of reality.”

I am not sure whether I can follow Harman in how he gets to this point, but, if you make the leap of faith that this is what Heidegger actually meant and that it is a logical ontology, he does take you down some fascinating paths. Thus, Harman points out that all tools are themselves made out of different parts, and those parts out of substances that are themselves tools, down to the scale of atoms and subatomic particles. There is no reality to any tool, only a momentary effect—a “surface” or “mask”—which coheres in operation before falling apart again. Everything all around us is continually in motion at a scale and speed we cannot detect, and our interpretation of what he calls a “society” of interacting tools is itself a tool.

TBA 21 by Xefirotarch (Hernan Diaz Alonso)

Instead of human beings lording it over the world, both we and the stones under our feet are all “actors”: “What we find always and everywhere are simply networks of actors. The actor is not quite an object and not quite a subject; or rather, it can behave like both of these, depending on how we view it.” This means, ultimately, that reality withdraws into itself. This does not leave it mute, waiting for “presencing,” as Heidegger would have it. As Harman puts it: “My thesis, which will sound strange at first, is that everything in the world happens only on the interior of objects. Since objects cannot touch one another directly they must be able to interact only within some sort of vicarious medium that contains each of them. The inside of an object can be viewed as a volcano, kaleidoscope, witch’s cauldron, steel mill, or alchemist’s flask in which one thing is somehow converted into another.”

What we are left with is “surfaces”: effects that are not true or real, but themselves tools. These surfaces are being reduced further and further by technology. This will not lead to some sort of revelation, only to the continual destruction of the effects of images: “the progress of technology is leading us toward a completely de-fetishized world, a landscape of imperative simulacra, a planet populated with orchid-like residues, phantom objects devoid of any serviceability.”

How does this theory form the basis for architecture? Triple O has been most commonly used by those designers, such as SCI-Arc director and CEO Hernan Diaz Alonso and undergraduate program chair Tom Wiscombe, AIA, who rely on the semiautomatic, parametric, or algorithmic production of forms and images through computers to justify their activities. Their shape-shifting blobs and morphing patterns without any stylistic affect or effect are themselves going with the flow, becoming tools sliding into and out of images. For these designers, architecture searches for a way to be part of the society of tools. Others use the computer to collect and assemble existing objects, denuding them of associate meaning—this is the path the Yale professor and architect Mark Foster Gage takes to create his luscious images of skyscrapers and museums made out of objects he finds on Google image searches.

On a larger level, the theoretician Manuel DeLanda has offered the notion that urban and even national form comes out of the interaction not just of human beings but also of institutions, so that we might understand the effects as being themselves tools of the continual self-organization and reorganization of governments, NGOs, pressure groups, churches, companies, and every other assembly of human tools.

Perhaps another tack might be to ask what Harman’s “orchid-like residues, phantom objects devoid of serviceability” might be, and what we can do with them. I even wonder whether Triple O might be the basis for a new form of organic architecture, one that comes out of and continually disappears into its unfolding as a tool.

Ultimately, however, I am puzzled. Triple O would seem to give lie to the notion of design as the organization, framing, and defining of space as a way to create a relation between human beings and both other humans and the world they inhabit. Triple O is part of the branch of philosophy that argues, somewhat ominously, for the “post-human.” It would seem to continually pick apart of architecture as image and as coherent form.

Harman is dismissive of space: “Space, for example, comes to be defined as nothing other than the freeing of entities from the anonymous referential contexture, in such a way that they take on a specific unique location of their own.” His followers have used Triple O as a tool to argue for saving the planet, and to warn against both the fetishization and the denigration of the natural world. But how do we construct meaning and form in and out of such a world? Harman seems to indicate we do not, yet students of architecture hang on his every word now with as much fervor as they once listened to Manfredo Tafuri, the Marxist Italian architecture historian, tell them that all architecture was no more than an affirmation of capitalist guilt and sublimation. I can only wait to see how architecture appears out of Triple O.