Chris Hildrey finds liberation from disciplinary constraints in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter
This book brings together maths, music and art. I was introduced to it while researching emergent systems as part of a collaboration to reinterpret the works of Philip Glass with Max Cooper, a DJ with a doctorate in computational biology. The work looks at fractal forms at multiple scales so I found myself reading a lot about emergent and recursive behaviour across both visual and behavioural systems. All these things come together in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
First published in 1979, it looks at how systems develop characteristics that their constituent parts don’t display thanks to the interactions between them. Almost acting as proof-of-concept for the theory, the book itself finds its richness in the way it forges a path across disciplines without regard for their boundaries.
This sense of being loyal to an idea, wherever it may take you, is something that appeals to me. The notion that there is a prescribed role of architecture that is anchored to the realisation of buildings alone strikes me as a great shame. Architects are equipped with a fantastic skillset and to limit the result of this to a specific output, when other forms of intervention into the built environment may also have value, seems to be a missed opportunity.
Several years ago, I carried out some post-graduate research at the Bartlett into unpaid overtime in architecture and it became clear to me that the pressure being faced by the traditional role of the architect is an inevitable consequence of the increasing sophistication of building technology and the resulting need for more aggregated expertise. I decided to respond to this pressure, not by resisting it, but by seeing it as a sign to diversify my output and broaden the ways in which I apply my own skills.
This approach has been most visible in my ProxyAddress project: a system to identify the address data of empty properties and use it to provide those facing homelessness with a stable address throughout their period of instability, reestablishing access to the support services they need. The research that led to this needed to ignore typical disciplinary boundaries; not one person I spoke to found themselves in that situation as a result of issues that respected disciplines. The problems were messy, tangled, and generally created a situation worse than the sum of its parts. As a result of chasing the problem rather than following a prescribed route, I was able to identify the fact that address data has moved from locating place to become a de facto means of ID. I was told at the outset of the research, ‘just don’t design a better tent’ and it was by disregarding the expected output of my role as an architect that I was able to get where I am now. We’re now approaching live trials of the system in London.
Though not an architecture book per se, I find my most important lessons don’t come from examining past works or biographies of other architects, but by learning through analogy. In terms of both content and method, Godel, Escher, Bach has been a real source of inspiration in how to examine a problem in an unconstrained way.
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter, Basic Books, 1979
Chris Hildrey is director at Hildrey Studio