A Science of Singulars: On the Nature of Architectural Science, #3: The Singular and the Particular.

By Otto Paans

ARTechnic Architects Japan (2014)



I. Introduction

II. Why Singulars?

III. The Singular and the Particular

IV. Singularization and Architectural Science

V. Conclusion



This is the third of four installments, and contains section III.


III. The Singular and the Particular

The notion of the spatial singular sits uneasily with our preconceived categories of thinking. Terms like “object” and “context” can be theoretically treated as separate entities, but in reality, they are makeshift notions that obfuscate as much as they reveal. After all, to speak of an “object” in a “context” is to idealize the complexity of the relationships between the two. To conceive of an object as something that can be entirely separated from its context is to make a distinction for the sake of theorizing, but it pays the price of oversimplification.

However, it is one of the defining features of design practices that this neat distinction is an impossibility. The reciprocal relations between a context and the objects embedded in it are central to the very idea of the spatial singular. And again, even in making this point, we have to resort to terms like “object,” “context,” and “embedded.” Although these terms are certainly useful as linguistic placeholders, they do scant justice to the actual and manifold interactions between the terms of the description.

A better word for the interactions of any entity embedded in a given context would be assemblage: the notion that all components of a given entity are intimately and dynamically related; moreover, that in actualizing their relationships, they bring something genuinely new into the world. All components of the assemblage can be identified, but their functioning cannot be analyzed apart from the relationships they have to the other components. If we transpose this into architectural terms, we can say that the object cannot be analyzed in a meaningful way apart from its context.

Certainly, it is possible to isolate an object in a series of representations, such as drawings or models. We might analyze the technical detailing of a piece of furniture in a public space, for instance. But the entire thought process that gives the details a distinct meaning and forms an aesthetic and functional response to the peculiarities of that particular location, cannot be grasped by understanding the object in complete isolation. Every design representation must be read with this fact in mind. No matter how remote a drawing seems from reality, the represented contents always have to bear some relation to the larger context in which they are embedded. The contents of the drawing simply cannot be meaningfully interpreted without an understanding of this necessary link. Once the necessary link between design proposal and manifest reality is lost, we end up in a superficial aestheticism.

The spatial singular, then, appears as an effect (or series of effects) in the physical world, but nevertheless has its own qualities and properties that set it apart in its contextual embeddedness. This formulation sounds paradoxical, but only because or usual concepts are too taxonomic and dichotomous, tracing divisions where there shouldn’t be any in the first place.

The singular always emerges from a context, even while it remains simultaneously a part of it. Models of thought based on decompositionality fall short for understanding both its nature and its impact. This point can be hammered home with reference to the first generation of design theorists, who attempted to understand design processes in decision-theoretic terms. While many of their individual insights were valuable, they didn’t — by virtue of their atomistic nature — add up to cogent picture of design practice and the role that creation plays in it. The very frame of reference that these design theorists applied to the question of the nature of design activity was directly reflected in the models they came up with. The very presuppositions built into their concepts in the end needlessly constrained the scope of their results. This problem can again be traced back to the mistake identified earlier: mistakenly treating a singular as a particular, and thereby applying an inappropriate set of categories and general concepts to it. Or, conversely, it is to treat irreducibly singular judgments as if they were determining judgements.

This singular-treated-as-particular fallacy has plagued design thinking for quite some time and has obfuscated viable theoretical possibilities that can be helpful to think about what kind of science Architekturwissenschaft is.

One of the clearest examples of the consequences of this fallacy is the erroneous application of the type-token distinction to designed objects. Simply put, if an object is produced in serial format (as indeed building components and entire designs are), then where is the individuality of the object located?[i] Is every individual object in the series a token (an instance) of an ideal (type)? And if yes, in what consists its aesthetic value? If — after all — an object lacks individuality, how can it possess that uniqueness and unrepeatability that we expect: that singular character?

How misguided these questions are becomes strikingly apparent when one realizes that the very concepts used for thinking about designed objects stem from the taxonomic mindset belonging to other scientific disciplines and the unconscious habit of slipping back into making “determining judgements” about situations and objects for which they are absolutely inapplicable.

The type-token issue surfaces only when an object is seen as something that can be neatly isolated from a context, and that simultaneously can be treated as the representative of, or proxy for, a set of similar objects. If a designed object is viewed this way, it is treated as if it does not have to function in a context. But context and object form a new assemblage, in which both entities are still identifiable.

The clearest example for illustrating this is possibly the widespread deployment of the microrayon. This modernist urban template was roughly standardized and implemented throughout the former Soviet Union. Despite differences, its manufacturing reached an impressive level of standardization. So much so, that the classic 1975 movie The Irony of Fate features a main character who accidentally unlocks and sleeps in someone else’s apartment because the multistory buildings are so identical, up to and including the door locks. But even in cases of extreme resemblance, the designed object still has to function in a regional, local, socio-economic, and environmental context that possesses always unique and unrepeatable characteristics, whether this entails climatic features, cultural customs, sheer human creativity, and local as well as regional connections and landscape features.

Even if two designs are similar in all details, materials and dimensions, they nevertheless differ, both qualitatively and numerically. Even while the physical properties of a given design may share many features with other designs (for instance, various office buildings may feature logistic or aesthetic details that are very similar across a range of cases), it remains a singular, and is not a particular by virtue of its resemblance to other designs. The reason all these designs differ is that they always have to function in a different context.

To disentangle object and context is to speak about a designed object as something contextless and disembodied from the manifestly real world. However, this is to underestimate the absolute singularity that such an object represents when it is actually embedded. Note here that the singularity of an object comes about by means of its emergence from in a context. It is not something that emerges only if all distracting features surrounding it have been brushed out. In an architectural culture where visual character is considered the core of aesthetic quality, it is tempting to isolate and elevate objects by making them visually stand apart from their surroundings, with noticeable visual salience as consequence.

However, there is an obvious objection to be made at this point in the argument: during the design process, an object — let’s say as represented in technical drawings — exists as contextless. Perhaps some of the design sketches contain some contextual features, but by and large, the objection runs, it is possible to consider a designed object in isolation, even if this isolation turns out to be virtual and methodological, instead of real and physical.

First, the mistake that occurs here is to view representation as a visual collection of particular features, whereas designing means conceiving a singular whole, even when one temporarily works on a certain feature of it. The isolation in which the object is treated is not a kind of hard-and-fast division between object and context. Instead, it is more akin to zooming in on a certain feature or relation. To equate concentration and focus on a given feature with isolation from a context is to mischaracterize what happens in design representation.

At the root of this issue is a serious misreading of Nelson Goodman’s concept of notationality.[ii] To see design representation as depicting a particular object instead of a singular one, is to confuse the application of a representational technique (i.e. depicting an object partially or from a certain viewpoint) with the status of the object as a whole. A simple analogy may illustrate this point. Both Bach and Beethoven wrote pieces in C minor, but that feature is where the resemblances between these compositions end. Likewise, it can be said, that both composers used musical notation in writing their compositions; but to say that the pieces they wrote are therefore similar is to mistake the pieces of the puzzle for the entirety of the puzzle. The notes are a means to an end, but they are meant to be played. And once this is done, they jointly result into something singular.[iii]

But again, the objection runs, then the type-token distinction still holds after all. Even if representation means to conceive of a singular object or entity, what happens in the case that a single entity is realized two times? If an architect designs one building that is realized twice what is the actual difference between them, apart from the fact that they are numerically different? Where is their singular character located? Is the representation not an ideal (type), and are the realized buildings not merely tokens of this type?

As in the example of the microrayon, we can return to the notion of the assemblage here. The designed totality and its enveloping context function as two complementary interpenetrating wholes, both of which combined effectuate something singular, and become something singular as a new, unified whole. By functioning in a context, the entities of which the assemblage is made up start to play roles that were only partially visible from on the drawing table, or that could only dimly be grasped non-conceptually or affectively.

In the case of the two similar buildings, we can imagine that they function in a different context. They may be located in different cities; or in different neighborhoods; or they may be surrounded by different streets; or inhabited by different people; or looking out on different landscape features; or being put to a different use. They are both entangled in different assemblages that makes their qualitative similarity disappear in favor of an irreducible, singular engagement with their respective contexts.

In addition, there is a striking difference between architecturally considering buildings as opposed to outdoor spaces. If we imagine that an urbanist who designs two different squares or parks, it is immediately obvious that they function in a different context, but due to the object-like character of buildings it is easier to imagine that they are really isolated from their context. In the case of a square or park, to imagine such isolation is much harder, as such spaces by necessity must connect to their surroundings.

Given the points laid out above, the root metaphor that underlies architectural design practices is the singular, with all the unfamiliar ways of thinking this implies. If a science has to organize its subject matter to make its internal structure tangible and communicable, it follows that its categories of thinking must correspond with it. And if the root metaphor for architectural design practice is indeed the character and production of the singular as opposed to the particular, then architectural science must be a science of singulars.

Summarizing now, I’ve introduced five statements that may seem paradoxical in relation to one another, but that nevertheless seem coherent and valid to me:

First, in the reciprocal transaction of effects between object and context, something new and singular emerges out of both components. Thus, both contain more than meets the eye, but these features are only brought out in active interaction.

Second, the singular object possesses its own qualities and properties that set it apart in its embeddedness. So, the qualities already inherent in the object come out through its entanglement in a context. The entanglement itself is required to bring them out.

Third, the spatial singular can always emerge from a context, even while it remains simultaneously a part of it. Thus, it sets itself apart at the same time that it remains a part of the context. Being part of a context does not imply loss of individuality.

Fourth, that the singularity of an object comes about by being entangled in a context. It is not something that only emerges once all distracting features surrounding it have been brushed out. The very singularity of an object is not something that has to be protected from external influences, but that instead is something manifests itself only in conjunction with other elements and objects within the context.

Fifth, singular objects effectuate unique effects, and become something singular as a new, unified whole together with the context they are embedded in. The object in a context is a whole, as is the context itself. There is no hierarchical or hard-and-fast difference between them.

These five statements may sound contradictory, or even nonsensical. Yet, they are defensible once we let go of the decompositional and reductionistic mode of thinking by which objects and contexts are neatly separated entities. If we perform this conceptual leap, then we can truly appreciate the singular character of designed objects.


[i] The question is introduced in (Parsons, 2016).

[ii] I deal with this point in more detail in (Paans and Pasel, 2018).

[iii] The same point can be made with regard to the status of the traces and inscriptions that make up design representations. They are not merely “instructions for realization,” but the very means through which creativity takes shape. See also (Paans and Pasel, 2018) for a discussion of this point.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 23 August 2021

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.