Architecture Program


Date of this Version

Spring 5-10-2014


Bailey, Grayson D. "System Autonomy: A New Condition of Space" Master of Architecture Thesis, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2014


A THESIS Presented to the Architecture Faculty of The College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Architecture, Major: Architecture, Under the Supervision of Professor Steven Hardy. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2014

Copyright (c) 2014 Grayson D. Bailey


This thesis began with an interest in au­tonomous communities, and a question of how to consider and form the most basic meaning of ‘sustainability’, which is the ability to sustain. As simple as the word seems, the perspectives on how it is applied are diverse and connected to many abstract concepts, such as the ones investigated throughout this book. The expected resultant of the thesis was aug­mented multiple times, and the very scope of what was being researched also reori­ented based on the inevitable following of the rabbit hole.

The part and parcel of this work has a sense of being aleatoric and tangential, but that is probably because the end re­sult of the work during the past year is an odd mixture of research and written resolutions that circle around a shared identity. The process ended not in rote informational regurgitation, nor the ap­plication of previously applied methods, but in the half-way answer to an unclear question. I don’t believe that to be a failure of the work, as the clarity of the answer and question is something that needs to be worked towards - and this is the be­ginning of that work.

The study of autonomy is an immediate­ly controversial topic, especially in the context of architecture, space, and urban design, and this tension, in my opinion, arises because of the perceived claim of non-connection within a design field that is increasingly cognisant of the scalar affectations it both projects and is has projected on it by tangential fields. The assumption of an undefined autonomy is that it demarcates a ‘separate’ thing, an ‘unconnected’ thing, a thing outside the boundary of other things. While a portion of the following study of autonomy with­in development will focus on the exac­tion of the scope of the term, there are no definitions that will be used to claim the ‘separateness’ or ‘non-connection’ of architecture from influence. Rather, the subsequent pursuit of autonomy will be in direct recognition of how infinitely connected the built environment is, and in final will aim at the conception of autono­mous systemic spaces and organizations that are able to respond to the complexi­ties involved in ways more equitable and stable than previously achieved.

A more correctly oriented definition of ‘Au­tonomy’ in this context might be claimed as the absence of subjugation to hierar­chical models of control, and in this ap­plication used broadly as the eschewing of the belief that in systems of complexity, such as the many in which we practise in the built environment, that there are no elements that lack responsibility to the processes that support them. Self-suffi­ciency and sustained equilibria are at the very heart of this conception of Autonomy, though even those terms have dissonant connotations that work against the proj­ect goals. Rather than self-sufficiency, a better term might be system-sufficien­cy, a condition which ecological systems are constantly evolving towards, reacting to novel or recurring stimuli that provide moments of reorganization, central to the study of emergence and its relevance to the built environment, as is investigated by contemporary authors such as Michael Weinstock.

The project of Autonomy in this light is increasingly relevant to architectural and urban contexts in the methods that it im­plies the relationship between the built environment, the society which it contains, the environment in which it is contained, and the spatial complexities by which it is defined. The argument behind the push towards autonomous conceptions of space is predicated on the limitation and subjugation of each of these elements by the involvement of hierarchical models of control. I assume this is going to remain as one of the points of higher contention within the project, because of the political nature to the statement and the radical perspectives that it involves, but the ba­sic tenets that structure the argument are more and more clearly relevant within the contemporary era each time the premises are revisited.

The development of an understanding for System Autonomy and the ways that it informs the political subjectivity of the scalar contexts that it organizes, from the building instance to comprehensive urban context, follow a discourse that has been widely investigated with the acceleration of the applied sciences. The presence of systemically autonomous organizations has been highly developed in alternative fields, however progressed or not the re­sultants have been, and the application of the same type of thought is only of benefit to the field of architecture and built de­sign.

Agrarian systemic autonomies have been pursued through the work of Bill Mollison on permacultural structures for agricul­tural yield and Dr. Dickson Despommier’s work on the realization of vertical farm­ing techniques that would reconsider the monolithic and close-sighted agricultural methods that are currently used through­out the world to great consequence.

Technological system autonomies have been of interest since the development of modern communication tools, and specif­ically have been pursued and applied in response to Paul Baran’s On Distributed Networks in 1964. Even before the reali­zation of multiple and redundant sources of productive use as Paul Baran outlined, technological system autonomies can be seen in the visionary Science Fiction works of the golden age writers. In I, Ro­bot Issac Asimov details the global orga­nization and communication of system integrated computer control centers that monitor and adjust the operations of sup­portive systems worldwide, impressively aware considering the publication of I, Ro­bot in 1950 was a full 14 years prior to the publication of Baran’s work for the RAND organization.

Social system autonomies, born from the development of the technological net­works, now define an incredible portion of modern social interaction. The ability to communicate, share, and evaluate in­formation over network sites (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc.) is predicated on the autonomous ability of one to communicate to many as well as be communicated to by many, and even that level of social system autonomy relies on the siteless system autonomous technology nodes that the social network is accessed by, which we all walk around with in our pockets - for the most part.

Political system autonomies, following the master goal of creating social and orga­nizational models that limit the subjuga­tion of populations by hierarchical control, have a deep and well-built critical culture based in the writing of Kropotkin through Chompsky, and the productive work that has been written through the political per­spective has done more than any other critical interaction with Autonomy to define the context of ethics and social interac­tion that a systems model would include. Anarchist political and ethical theory are just as often assumed in connotations that irrationally define them based on pre­sumptuous conditions, but to understand the interaction of populations in systems autonomy is innately defined by the work that critical anarchism has done.

Already in the workplace has there been the implementation of non-traditional models of administration, most recently in the announcement that it is transitioning to a system of ‘Holacracy’, which redefines the authority structure of the presumed corporate model. Although ‘Holacracy’ is still very much hierarchi­cal in its organization, the degradation of traditional authority structures is an interesting signifier that shows corporate responsiveness to the heightened efficacy of work environments that are increasing­ly without explicit hierarchical control.

Specifically in the field of design, the cor­porate structure of IDEO and the basic arguments of Tom Kelly’s Design Thinking involve the abolition of hierarchical adher­ence based on the recognition that top-down hierarchical models are destructive to the design fields. Although the signa­ture of anarchist critical writing is routine­ly admonished and ignored, elements of hierarchical critique are now applied more and more commonly, which can be seen as frustrative dissonance that is limiting in fully understanding a comprehensive im­plementation.

Beyond tangential interest in system au­tonomies, there are several currents of similar interests directly within the context of architectural design, varying in level and specificity of implementation. The en­vironmental crisis and its specific claims against the responsibility of the built envi­ronment have resulted in various levels of interaction with the system interaction of the architectural project, from the efficient engineering and application of technolog­ical systems limiting emission and ener­gy use to the comprehensively passive and non-pollutant architectural instance as is seen in ‘Earthship Biotecture’ and the specific projects that it has inspired throughout the world.

Recognizing the legacies of these archi­tectural, tangential, and conceptual un­derstandings of the possibility of system autonomies, this thesis aims to under­stand, define, and visualize the framework in which systemically autonomous orga­nizations of space, both on the project instance and in the urban context, can be applied. Following Stan Allen’s reori­entation of the modernist ethic of space into the range of the field condition and how it ‘moves from the one towards the many: from individuals to collectives, from objects to fields,’ the intent of the follow­ing work is to complete the realization of the spatial responsibility to work within the system complexities that it exists, essen­tially moving from field to system, yet in a way that is more the destruction of binary thinking rather than a utopic vision.

Included in

Architecture Commons