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Politics and aesthetics in the wake of the reappropriation of the digital means of production



Illustration by Dhruv Shah Aka Lodaya and Bronte Allan, 2020.

The scent of revolution which emanates from the proposition of ‘redefining the entire production chain of architecture’[1] by the young advocates of ‘Discrete architecture’ in 2019 is as charming as it is scepticism-inducing. Set out to be a new framework to produce socially conscious architecture based on automation and robotics, the Discrete does not purport to define a new architectural ‘style.’ Nonetheless, on an aesthetic level, the essence of Discrete design - consisting in a return to experimentation with ‘the fundamental building blocks’[2] of architecture, implemented by the use of artificial intelligence - does consistently lead to a proclivity for rough and fragmented forms.[3]  It is for this reason that it runs the risk of being superficially labelled as a ‘style in opposition to Parametricism’[4] (which is characterised by continuous, curvilinear, and smooth shapes) as remarked by Neil Leach. However, the Discrete phenomenon ought to be understood beyond this definition because the reasons, and desires, that motivate its existence are not only in opposition to Parametricism, but also to the production logic of the entirety of contemporary architecture.


In a psychopolitical interpretation, as in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, ‘desire’ can be understood as the fundamental product of human psyche that, perpetually repressed by the prevailing culture of images and institutions, always ends up coinciding with objects external to its reach, unattainable by definition, and is therefore condemned to be unfulfilled and subjugated to consumerism. In other words, architecture and everyday life are generally unconsciously desired and produced to perpetuate the capitalist economic system instead of being spontaneously conceived to ease the human condition. In this light, new types of architecture are always a reflection of the contradictions of the capitalistic model of society: an expensive and unsustainable production process where workers are condemned to be unhappy, underpaid, and restless, although seemingly comfortable in their oedipalized state and with altruistic intentions in theory. As bitterly remarked by Manfredo Tafuri in 1974 any project that purports to ‘anticipate the conditions of an architecture for a liberated society,’ is an ‘illusion to be done away with’ if it does not first perform ‘a revolution of architectural language, method, and structure which goes far beyond […] the simple adapting of syntax.’[5]


The controversial lesson of Anti-Oedipus is the suggestion of ‘learning from the Psychotic to shake off the Oedipal yoke and the effects of power, in order to initiate a radical politics of desire freed from all beliefs,’[6] in other words unleashing the liberating potential of the occasional crisis of the capitalist system, by overturning its temporarily exposed production mechanisms and resuming more spontaneous modes of human production. Thus, the systemic failure of modernity to provide security and wellbeing fosters the attractiveness of a return to primitiveness, in psychology as in architecture. For, if capitalist and neoliberal values have corrupted and alienated the state of architecture, it is only in the roots of architecture and the deeply material and earthly nature of its matter that one can find the most extreme expression of its subversion. Revolution in Deleuze-Guattarian terms coincides with a charming, yet vague, return to primitive spontaneity: ‘desire does not "want" revolution,’ writes Deleuze, but ‘it is revolutionary in its own right, as though involuntarily, by wanting what it wants.’[7]

The Discrete proposition of revolutionising the current production process of architecture by returning to a focus on its fundamental building blocks in a strive to lead the field to a more sustainable existence within digital capitalism, is an example of such a ‘return to nature,’ insofar as it aestheticizes the intricate spontaneity of computer logic as ‘natural,’ similarly to the Deleuze-Guattarian symbolic identification of psychosis with freedom: it may be incomprehensible to the normative eye, but it is nonetheless a valuable expression of unconstrained primordial behaviour. The Discrete has essentially intercepted the recurrent contemporary society’s quest for a lost ancient humanity and ‘the logic of disinterest, […] of the nonutilitarian, which governs life in archaic societies’ which ‘represents the repressed par excellence of modern society,’[8] and found in the digital the so far unleashed means to resume those values in architecture without having to imitate ancient modes of production literally, thus ‘investing the nostalgia for a pre-capitalist past in […] a radically new future,’[9] embodying the spirit of the ‘revolutionary or utopian romanticist’ character defined by philosopher Michael Löwy.

In Discrete theory, ‘digital nature’ - as the logic of robots, machine learning and AI - is not unlike Deleuze-Guattarian ‘schizophrenia’ because a computer does not tend to develop an ego, a totality, an identity per se, but remains an expression of its partialities and of its discreteness made of bits of data and pixels. Essentially, where conservative digital paradigms tend to perform an ‘oedipalization’ on the digital matter, by forcing the naturally restless discrete network of data and pixels of artificial intelligence to assume a unitary smooth or organic form - as in the case of Parametricism - the Discrete proposition consists in embracing to an increased extent the digital ‘as it is,’[10] in its messy and dynamic non-human state. Although obviously digital matter in its purest state is unusable for human purposes, for an excess of chaos, we can affirm that the Discrete project is essentially an architectural ‘domestication’ of the schizophrenic state of digital nature, whose illegibility is scaled down according to human convenience, but whose digital natural spontaneity is never rejected.

[1] Gilles Retsin. ‘Introduction’ in Discrete: Reappraising the Digital in Architecture. (West Sussex: Wiley, 2019), 8.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Mario Carpo. ‘Particlised: Computational Discretism, or The Rise of the Digital Discrete’ in Discrete: Reappraising the Digital in Architecture, 88.

[4] Neil Leach. ‘A Critique of the Discrete’ in Discrete: Reappraising the Digital in Architecture, 137.

[5] Manfredo Tafuri. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development (MIT Press, 1976), 179.

[6] Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari. Anti-Aedipus; Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), xxi.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Michael Löwy and Robert Sayrep. Romanticism against the tide of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 239.

[9] Ibid., 72.

[10] Mario Carpo. The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 112.

Copyright of image: © Dhruv Shah Aka Lodaya and Bronte Allan

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