Complexity – process of creating hammered copper vessels.


Simplicity – hammered copper vessel.

The vast majority of scientific research within the previous centuries has been governed by a purely analytical approach. This method of research directed inquiry into complexity through simplifying methods. Following the framework of such pioneers as Descartes and Bacon, an analytical process of discovery began by accepting the complex nature of an object and attempting to understand the object and its operations by continuously dividing it into a series of simpler objects and processes until it was fully understood. Under an analytical approach one merely had to analyze an object, take it apart in order to understand it and “behind blinding complexity lay, always, clear simplicity.”1 The analytical method of discovery relied on the acceptance of universal laws of nature governing all things. Such laws were immutable, timeless, and “valid beyond the reach of human sense experience, valid beyond the reach of human memory, valid even beyond the coming into existence of organic life on earth herself.”2 While this process of discovery maintained its potency for many centuries, its ultimate demise came with the advent of technological developments that proved objects and their behaviors do not always adhere to timeless, scientific laws, but rather operate within a framework of complexities at all levels. With the discovery of electromagnetic fields, radioactive particles, and thermodynamic relationships, the method of scientific inquiry shifted from an analytical approach to a systems approach. The timeless laws that once governed scientific thought gave way to the acceptance of variable, unpredictable, and complex systems of operation. Unlike an analytical approach, a systems approach to discovery “emphasizes information over structure, temporality over long-term equilibria, change over stability, [and] probabilistic statements over deterministic pronouncements.”3 Where the analytical method pursues complexity through simplicity, a systems approach pursues simplicity through complexity. In other words, such an approach takes for granted the complexity of all things, and seeks to understand it by engaging and controlling its simple results. The goal is no longer one of reducing systems to simpler and simpler parts because this would only lead to more complexity. Rather, the goal of systems thinking is to accept the variable, unpredictable nature of material interaction and “see connections instead of boundaries, irreducible organizations instead of well-articulated, interacting parts.”4

Given the over arching complexity that exists in our world, the architect’s method of inquiry into material development must be based on a systems approach to thinking. Specifically concerning the position of material development in relation to social, ecological, and economic constraints, architects must realize that in order to confront the possibilities inherent in materials, they must accept that all materials are multiples within a greater series of multiplicities. The discovery, use, and combination of materials in architectural discourse must acknowledge that materials cannot simply be reduced to their constituent parts, nor can they only be considered for their calculatable performance. By adopting a systems approach the architect is able to recognize the complex positioning of materials in relation to one another, society, the environment, and the economy. Further, they are able to see that materials provide the basis upon which space, environment, and atmosphere are constructed. If the architect was to address material development from an analytical perspective, the search for understanding and potential would be driven by a search for simplicity. For example, the study of the material, rubber, from an analytical perspective would lead the architect into research of the material’s constituent components and their individual behaviors. While this approach would reveal certain calculable characteristics of the material, such as its melting point, the process would inevitably leave behind a multitude of other characteristics and issues that define the material. Thus, if such a material is considered from a systems perspective, it is already assumed that the material itself is actually the simplest component of the system and seeks the underlying complexities (multiplicities) that ultimately define its potential as a material within architecture.


1  Arney, William Ray. Experts in the Age of Systems. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991, 38. 

2  Arney, “Experts in the Age of Systems,” 38.  

3  Arney, “Experts in the Age of Systems,” 46. 

4  Arney, “Experts in the Age of Systems,” 48.

First Image: Open source image acquired from the internet. 

Second Image: Smith, Cyril Stanley. A Search for Structure, 226.

Note: All written material is protected under applicable copyright laws. Reproduction requires the permission of the author and proper citation.


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