To the list of Postmodernism, Post Modernity, Late Modernity, Retro Modernity, and every other conceivable way we describe our current era, let us now add Postorthographic. According Harvard Professor John May, who may not have coined the term but is its prime proselytizer, we have, until recently, lived in an orthographic world, which simply means that we inhabited space defined by geometry and its representation. In his book Signal. Image. Architecture., published last year by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, May makes a larger claim, however:
The city was an orthothesis: an orthographic idea-object born out of continual interplay, over several thousand years, between writing and drawing. It was the shared geometric basis of those two technical gestures that served as a platform for the polis, and politics, at its base, was a fluid technical field established between the discourse of written laws, constitutions, decrees, dissent, and the silence of drawn plans, sections, elevations, and surveys.
In other words, drawing, writing, and every other aspect of communication was part of a system of controlled and measured relations that also included laws, regulations, political and economic relations, and every other form of human ordering. All that escaped from that real and notional prison grid was art and self-expression. As May writes, that included
formal categories of expression such as poetry, music, mathematics, sculpture, ceramics, and architecture, as well as innumerable categories of formless expressiveness—ludic dance, intoxication, bathing, hunting, feasting, sexuality, exercise, calisthenics, athletics—all of which eluded the discursive precision of phonetics simply by realizing dimensions of experience that discourse can never contain.
Into this world of imposed order and expressive resistance (one that resembles, more than anything else, the analysis of our condition propounded by the late French philosopher Henri Lefebvre) came the computer, which, as if by magic, changed everything. The computer and its related devices don’t necessarily produce orthographic projections but rather tend to generate free-floating images made up of data sets that are infinitely malleable and extremely slippery. As May writes:
The radical difference between imaging and previous forms of simulation is that what imaging simulates is not specific ideas or gestures but rather thinking itself. If photography was an attempt to externalize the retina, imaging is an attempt to externalize the entire nervous system … we trade the historical consciousness of hand-mechanical orthography for the statistical consciousness of real-time computational images. In a deeply technical sense, both irreversible and unavoidable, we leave behind the time of historical thought, where all contemplation and reflection once found a home.
This is not something we should not fear, but embrace, according to Mays: “We should find ways of becoming image—of establishing meaningful expression within imaging itself, all the while acknowledging that our images no longer mean anything at all.” The image, as he sees it, is not constrained by logic, meaning, or economics (all part of the orthographic empire), nor is it purely a reaction. Rather it is Postorthographic, although what that might mean he leaves open.
An image from "Assorted Demo Scenes," an exhibit by Office Ca at the Knowlton School of Architecture
The young academic Galo Cañizares, in his 2019 book Digital Fabrications (Applied Research + Design Publishing) tries to define the term, at least for architects: “we can situate the architect as a figure whose principal task is not only to translate between drawings and buildings, but also to translate across a vast, ever-updating landscape of standardized file-types and graphical user interfaces.” “Thus,” he writes, “software is no longer a vehicle of simply communicating that which we blindly create in our heads, but rather, much like analog drawing, contributes to the formulation of that very thought from our first encounter with it.” Quite simply, “the postorthographic material very much embodies the aesthetic of data and computational logics.” His final vision is stirring:
[The Postorthographic era] suggests that we no longer think in geometric terms, but rather through telematic means ... Here we see architectural media that expands and makes use of simulation, animation, automation, communication, synchronization, and visualization technologies … It also rejects the status quo, but does not linger at the loss. Instead, it accepts our informatic, data-driven society, and asks how art can be extracted from such a viscous layer of convoluted systems. Those working under the umbrella of postorthographic, whether explicitly or not, use the underlying substrate of computation as a medium for critical experimentation as well as representation. The work, therefore, takes on new forms of expression, such as simulations, real-time animations, misuses of programs, bespoke software, or hacked infrastructures.
So what does this mean in practice? Cañizares, a professor at the Knowlton School of Architecture at The Ohio State University and a co-founder of the research collaborative Office Ca, is allied with a group of architects and teachers who previously published the book Possible Mediums (Actar, 2018). They have a fondness for low-resolution forms, shapes, images, and spaces (though this group isn’t particularly interested in the latter) that confound our expectation of what it might mean for something to be resolved, beautiful, or functional. Cañizares cites the work of MOS (the firm run by the architects Michael Meredith, AIA, and Hilary Sample, AIA), for instance, because it has “engendered a kind of deadpan critique of contemporary architectural practice. They advocated for primitives over complex surfaces, screenshots over glossy renderings, and repetition over novelty.”
Office Ca's "Handle with Care," a collection of handle prototypes displayed at the "Unsupported" show at the Parachute Factory in Lexington, Ky.
I have a hard time making the translation from theory to practice, even though I know that such a distinction means I’m caught in the web of orthographic thinking, in which the labor of design and the work of theory are both intertwined in the service of creating an ever more rationalized and functional society. Cañizares, in the end, makes an appeal to mysticism, believing that “conceiving of screen space as an ever-changing, infinitely deep orthographic space can be a productive way to advance our perceptions of these virtual realities.”
I am sympathetic to the notion that “delving into” the screen and questioning the political and economic nature of both hardware and software is an important way to understand where architecture is today. Cañizares illustrates how, decades ago, Christopher Alexander’s use of a certain kind of computer (the IBM 7090) led directly to his systems-based approach to architecture, while those who worked with computers with graphical user interfaces experimented in freer ways. In general, Cañizares makes it clear that hacking, experimenting, and deforming the tools we have is more productive in making architecture that is liberating—as opposed to following the dictates of BIM or staying within the bounds of Rhino’s sets. Nor should we waste time being nostalgic for an era that we cannot recapture, like those who say they are “postdigital”; he calls that a “melancholy reaction to the ubiquity and stylistic positivism associated with parametric design. At its core is a desire to represent certain constants from the human condition, such as materiality and narrative … postdigital aesthetics … [is] a return to low-fidelity modes of operating.”
Let us then move boldly forward into the Postorthographic world, then, even if a precise definition remains elusive.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.