Daniela Fabricius: Calculation and Risk

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Daniela Fabricius

In this study, calculation, and the related concepts of risk and rationalization, will provide the central mode of understanding a series of practices in West German architecture between the 1960s and the 1980s. As it will be defined here, calculation is distinct from the more rarified topic of mathematics in architecture, with the potential to address not only questions of aesthetics, form, and design but also those of economy. Mathematics has traditionally held a privileged, even mystical status in architecture; calculation, by contrast, is usually associated with the drudgeries of labor. Yet calculation has an expressive quality and proper aesthetic beyond that of mere number-crunching. Nor is it free of mystification, as the seemingly objective nature of calculation, its claims of exhaustive evidence, proof, and mastery (hence the shared etymology of accounting and accountability), make it particularly vulnerable to misplaced faith.

Calculation is a form of prediction used to manage uncertainty and risk. In the 1980s, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens argued that modern industrial society was no longer instrumentally rational as it produced a series of new risks. These risks are not eliminated, but managed and integrated, forming a “risk society.” Several aspects in West Germany in the 1970s correspond to this theory, and indeed set the historical stage for Beck’s formulation. As West German architects turned increasingly away from functionalism and its perceived risks one paradoxical response was the return of a “radical rationalism.” Even with the influence of the Frankfurt School`s critique of instrumental reason, rationalism not only lingered, but intensified. Politically progressive architects like those at Ulm and the TU Berlin looked to systems theory and sociology for alternatives in architecture and planning; however, these were also used to rationalize government bureaucracies, industry, and national security. This universal use of calculation is one of the reasons why it is difficult to identify an architectural project in West Germany that used calculation in a manner consistent with an avant garde.

Case studies will focus on practices in West Germany that prioritize and thematize calculation visibly. Architecturally, this can be seen in an interest in abstract languages, numbers and formulas, quantifiable information, statistics, parametrics, and typology. As architectural information was quantified, calculation took place both at the scale of the building and of the city. Early examples will center around the Ulm School for Design, which was instrumental in introducing calculation into German architectural practices in the 1960s and 70s. Other case studies include the optimization of form in the experimental engineering of Frei Otto, and the  of geometric and typological systems in the work of Oswald Mathias Ungers. The development of Frankfurt am Main into a city of skyscrapers in the 1970s will illustrate the use of calculation and risk at the level of the postmodern city that became a financial capital.

In the two decades that will be studied here calculation increasingly loses its basis in the real and approaches simulation in the form of predicted and projected futures. No longer applied teleologically, numbers are abstracted from their material referent. The examples here share a tendency towards the numerical on the one hand but also the production of a symbolic economy. With the absence of function, or more specifically Zweck, an architecture of calculation accumulates other meanings. Questions emerge around form, language, symbol, and utopia. But even these architectural examples cannot escape the “real” effects of calculation that occur on a social and economic level.