Caught between technophilia and technophobia, the fields of architecture, landscape, and urbanism are unable to articulate the material and epistemic conditions under which they labor today. Architectural techniques and tools remain consigned to the celebratory rhetoric of scientific discovery and technical innovation, whose principles now govern design practice and pedagogy simply by way of theoretical exhaustion. Speed, exactitude, acumen, efficacy, expertise, efficiency, and other trusted axioms of modern life can no longer conceal the political and existential silence that resides at their core. The Instruments Project is an excavation of that silence: its continuities and divisions, its hidden historical impulses, and the forms of reasoning and representation resident within it. Through sustained attention to instrumental processes that are, by design, simultaneously material and metaphysical, the project works towards establishing the technical dimension of architecture, landscape, and urbanism as a legitimate site for historical inquiry and philosophical reflection.

The project proceeds from a twinned assertion. First, there is no “pre-technical” form of life, and therefore no possible epistemology in which technics simply follow from other domains of knowledge. Second, technical conditions are never “merely technical” but rather open onto the whole of lived life. Against that background, The Instruments Project undertakes a series of basic questions: What is an instrument? What does it mean to undertake even the (supposedly) most rudimentary technical operations—scanning, modeling, specifying, rendering, sensing, timing, imaging, automating, using—whose present semantic emptiness is matched only by their historical and philosophical richness?

This line of inquiry has given rise to series of concerns that cut sideways across those initial questions: What counts as evidence within architectural reasoning today? Not so long ago students of architecture hung plans and sections of historical precedents on the wall to account for their work during reviews. Today, it seems, the same walls are covered with numbers on energy generation and consumption, flow diagrams showing water usage, images of brain scans, maps of transportation networks, models of thermal distribution, etc.—in other words, “data” in various guises. This renewed reliance on the empirical natural sciences is not unique to the discipline of architecture; about a hundred years ago the disciplinary boundary between the natural and the human sciences was drawn at universities in the West —however problematically—along the criterion of normativity. Now it seems that several well-established humanities disciplines are turning towards the empirical results of the natural sciences in settling the epistemological questions in their fields.

This project, then, is also an attempt to come to terms with a specifically contemporary form of naturalization—or neonaturalism—and its primary unit of knowledge: “data.” What is data, and what has it meant to intervene in the world on its basis? What would a history of data look like, and how does it differ from the history of “facts?” To what extent are some of modernity’s most intractable philosophical anxieties—regarding risk, uncertainty, probabilism, perception, and embodiment—concealed within its seemingly mundane instrumental operations? And how exactly do these operations expose architectural reasoning to a far more expansive metaphysics, lurking all along beneath modernity’s most prized technical concepts: automation, mechanization, standardization, signalization, and control? Ultimately,what would it mean today for architecture to take technics seriously as a site for historical and philosophical reflection?

"Neo-Naturalism" presented by co-directors Zeynep Çelik Alexander and John J. May
Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative Fall 2013 Conference, September 20, 2013

Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape & Design, University of Toronto

Zeynep Çelik Alexander


Assistant Professor

History and Theory of Architecture
University of Toronto

Zeynep Çelik Alexander is an architectural historian. Her work focuses on the history of modern architecture since the Enlightenment with an emphasis on German modernism. After being trained as an architect at Istanbul Technical University and Harvard Graduate School of Design, she received her Ph.D. from the History, Theory, and Criticism Program at MIT. She has received research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and a postdoctoral fellowship from Columbia University. Alexander is completing a book titled An Epistemological History of Aesthetic Modernism. Alexander’s writings have appeared in several edited volumes as well as in journals including Harvard Design Magazine, Grey Room, Journal of Design History, and Centropa.

John J. May


Design Critic in Architecture

Harvard University
Graduate School of Design

John J. May is partner, with Zeina Koreitem, in MILLIØNS, a Los Angeles-based design practice with projects in Beirut and California. May previously taught design studios and seminars at UCLA and SCI-Arc. In 2012, he served as a National Endowment for the Humanities Visiting Professor in Architecture at Rice University, and in 2013 he served as visiting professor in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lucia Allais
Assistant Professor
History and Theory of Architecture
Princeton University

Lucia Allais is a historian and theorist who specializes in architecture's intellectual and political history since the Enlightenment, with a focus on international networks and institutions in the 20th Century. Prior to joining the Princeton faculty in 2011, she was Behrman-Cotsen Fellow at at Princeton Society of Fellows. She is at work on a book manuscript, tentatively titled Designs of Destruction: Architectural Preservation in the Age of Total War. Her work has appeared in Grey Room, Volume, Log, Future Anterior, and Perspecta, as well as several edited volumes. She has received fellowships from the National Gallery of Art, the Graham Foundation, the Krupp Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. Allais holds a B.S.E. from Princeton, an M.Arch from Harvard, and a Ph.D. from MIT. She is a member of the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, and an editor of Grey Room.
Ed Eigen
Associate Professor
Harvard GSD

Edward Eigen is Associate Professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is a scholar whose work focuses on the intersection of the human and natural sciences. He is currently preparing to publish An Anomalous Plan, which discusses the development of laboratory spaces in nineteenth-century France. He received fellowships from CASVA and the Dibner Institute. In 2009 he organized a conference at the Princeton University School of Architecture entitled “On Accident,” which will appear as an edited volume.
Orit Halpern
Assistant Professor
The New School for Social Research

Dr. Orit Halpern is an assistant professor in History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. She is also part of the new Design MA program at Parsons School of Design. Her research is on histories of digital media, cybernetics, art and design. Her current book project (forthcoming through Duke Press) is titled Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945and it is about the historical construction of perception and cognition in cybernetics, the human and social sciences, and design. Her published works and multi-media projects have appeared in C-theory, Configurations, Post-Modern Culture, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Technology and Culture, The Journal of Visual Culture, Public Cultureand at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. She has also published essays in numerous exhibition catalogs. She has an MPH. from Columbia University School of Public Health, and completed her Ph.D. in History of Science at Harvard University in the History of Science. Previous to joining the New School she was a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University. She has also received fellowships from the BMW-Herbert Quandt Foundation and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
John Harwood
Associate Professor
Modern and Contemporary Architectural History
Oberlin College

John Harwood's research centers on the architectural articulation of science, technology, and corporate organization. His articles have appeared in Grey Room, AA Files, and He is the author of T he Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976 (University of Minnesota Press). Harwood has been a visiting scholar or fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, at the University of Minnesota Institute for Advanced Studies, and at the Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism and History at the University of Queensland; and he has received the B. Wade and Jane B. White Fellowship and the Class of 1957 Distinguished Professor Award from Oberlin College.
Matthew Hunter
Assistant Professor
Department of Art History & Communication Studies, McGill University

Matthew Hunter's research focuses upon visual art and architecture of the long eighteenth century with special emphasis on their intersections with science. As in his forthcoming book, Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London (University of Chicago Press, 2013), his primary publications center upon early modern England. His broader research interests move between the early modern period and the contemporary moment to include theories of representation, models of artistic collectivity and “the artworld”, the limits of interpretative method and, above all, the interfaces between physical materials and cognitive processes—between making and knowing. His research has been supported by the Kress Foundation, Social Science Research Council, Whiting Foundation, Fonds de recherche du Québec–Société et Culture, and the Courtauld Institute of Art’s Research Forum, among others.
Michael Osman
Assistant Professor
Architecture & Urban Design

Michael Osman teaches courses in the history and theory of modern architecture. His scholarship focuses on the technological, environmental, and economic aspects of architectural history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His work has been supported by fellowships from the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright US Student Program. His published writings include “Banham’s Historical Ecology,” in the edited volume Neo-Avant-Garde and Postmodern (2010) “Architecture ad Absurdum,” in Log 22: The Absurd (2011), “The Managerial Aesthetics of Concrete,” in Perspecta 45: Agency (2012), “Listening to the Cooler,” Cabinet 47: Logistics, and “Preserved Assets,” in Governing by Design (2012). He is a founding member of the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative.

Instruments Exhibition

Princeton University School of Architecture


Exhibition produced by Elliott Sturtevant.

Graphic design by Multimillion.

We are grateful for the generous support of our institutional partners: