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ADS4 Series 6

Nicola Koller & Tom Greenall

Writing a studio brief is hard. It takes us ages. All summer in fact. Now in our sixth year of teaching together, it isn’t getting any easier. We start by sending each other articles, papers, images and references that interest us and then we meet up week after week to chat about our thoughts. The trouble is we get distracted. We start doodling, watching YouTube, or more recently, watching an episode. Before we know it we have watched a whole season of Stranger Things. What is it about this form of cultural consumption that we find so easy to participate in? Why can't architecture (briefs) be this forthcoming? And what can we learn from watching television?

“I hate television.
I hate it as much as peanuts.
But I just can’t stop eating peanuts.”

~ Orson Welles

In America last year 113 pilot television series were made, 35 of those were chosen to go to air and just 13 of those were renewed for a second season. This year, the number of pilots made rose to 146. The cost of these pilots was somewhere between $300m and $400m a year [1]. That’s a huge amount of money with no guarantee of success, popularity or longevity. In this we see a similarity with the construction industry in which a large number of new pieces of architecture (as distinct from buildings) are conceived as prototypes, one-offs or indeed pilot projects.

While cities around the world continue to be burdened by unsuccessful, ill-conceived and expensive pilots, the world of entertainment is adapting to the contemporary desire for on-demand services. Despite only launching in the UK in 2012, Netflix now represents 20 per cent of all UK internet traffic. Combined with YouTube, these two video streaming sites use up more than half of the internet’s bandwidth. Cities are being dug up and telecommunications infrastructure redesigned to cater for this level of demand, demonstrating that technological innovation can emerge out of a desire for amusement.

Clearly the success of the Netflix model – releasing the entire season at once – proved one thing: people want control over how they consume culture. The current expectation for on-demand access – anything, anytime, anywhere – has been well observed in other sectors and industries, including transportation (Uber), food (Deliveroo) and accommodation (Airbnb). Theorist Benjamin Bratton discerns that these 'contemporary digital platforms are now displacing, if not also replacing, the traditional core functions of states, and demonstrating, for both good and ill, new spatial and temporal models of politics and publics' [2].

This year, ADS4 will explore the new publics that might emerge from these current forms of cultural consumption (in particular binge watching television series) and how the serialisation of everyday life might relate to the broader field of serialism in art and architecture. Might the consideration of design as a serial process help people participate more actively as consumer citizens? 

NAtional Sentiment: I'm going to need the finale of 2016 to have a dramatically uplifting and inspiring plot twist.
National Sentiment, 2016

Learning from Television

While the relationship between film and architecture has been studied extensively (arguable with little ground having been made to conflate the two), the increasing influence of television on our collective behaviour has been less well documented. But, objectively, our experience of television – and in particular long-form series formats – may be more relevant. In his essay, ‘The Fact of Television’, philosopher Stanley Cavell highlights that we maintain a relationship with a television series over a much longer period of time than we do with a film, often for years rather than just two hours. This duration is more akin to construction timescales and equally has to acknowledge the problems of ageing and shifts in taste. Secondly, Cavell suggests that, whilst film is categorised by genre (sci-fi, horror, western, rom-com, thriller, etc.), television is appreciated as episodes in a series [3]. Could an analogy be drawn between genre as programme and episode as typology to allow an interrogation of architecture through this lens?

Media culture is an undeniable force in our lives, a persuasive and pleasurable power that is now familiar to us as a space of fragmentation, plurality and difference – a space of numerous and multiple voices, conflicts, and diversities that deny distinctions between fact and fiction. Through an exploration of television formats and serialism in art and architecture more broadly, we intend to explore the use of fiction in the production of the world around us. How might the scripting of a fictional scenario help us to understand and manage the (sometimes uncomfortable) contingent possibilities of action? And might the impact of media culture on contemporary life be as profound as the introduction of mass production after World War II that led to the emergence of serial production in art and later architecture?

Stonehenge, Unknown Artist

Serialism in Art & Architecture

After the Second World War, manufacturers stopped producing things for the war effort and turned their focus to consumer goods. People were hungry to buy everything that was not available during the war, and companies developed techniques of mass production to fill the orders. Pop artists like Andy Warhol borrowed the materials, technologies, and imagery of mass production for their art, making art in multiples that was intended to critique the commodification of the art world at that period. Taking a cue from Pop artists, Minimalist artists adopted the technologies and materials of the factory and created works that explored the world of industrial, mass-produced beauty without resorting to personal expression.

Within architecture, the advent of projects undertaken in sequence and identified by numbers or letters is traced from the Californian Case Study Houses of the 1940s and 1950s through to John Hejduk’s Texas House series of the 1950s. However, very little has been done to consider serialism as an independent theme and there is no significant body of work or critical texts on the subject as found in music and art. Rather there are a number of disparate, loosely related experiments that first emerge in the context of debates around architectural signification after the perceived failure of modernism [4].

Serialism in architecture differs from serialism in art and music because of its engagement with the diverse representations of architecture and the ambiguity of architectural representation. Through developing a serial approach to design, might architectural drawings, models and buildings themselves become interchangeable and of equal status, such that the building comes to be seen as a representation of drawings or models rather than the other way round? The final building need not necessarily be
the ultimate embodiment of the idea.

Track Collection
Track Collection, Jim Golden, 2015

Emerging Technologies & Simulation as Serialism

Today we confront another gamut of materials and technologies that is potentially just as transformative as the advances in mass production in the post-war period that led to the emergence of serialism in art. From biotechnology to the Internet of Things to artificial intelligence and robotics to networked additive manufacturing and replication, this material palette provides for the recomposition of the world at scales previously unthinkable [5]. Yet, the era of cultural production we are currently traversing is arguably one of 'impoverishment and mediocrity', suggests Muteber Erbay and Sengül Öymen Gür; 'Everything is everything. Form has lost its value as a paradigm of meaning and as a sign of identity' [6].

However, in recent years the emergence of rule-based and parametric procedures, facilitated by computers, has led to the conflation of serial techniques with those used in digital design. Theorist Marcos Novak claims that, 'for the first time in history the architect is called upon to design not the object but the principles by which the object is generated and varied in time' [7]. It is this focus on the design of the process by which the form is produced that links the digital production of architecture with serialism. And importantly, digital design no longer has to refer to the design of blobs and superficially complex forms. According to filmmaker and writer Hito Steyerl, 'Data, sounds, images and even buildings are now routinely transitioning beyond screens into a different state of matter. They surpass the boundaries of data channels and manifest materially' [8]. This transition of the digital into the physical is increasingly relevant to architects and designers, who are spending more and more time in the virtual world of the CAD model, a world often substituted for the real one. With the uptake of BIM in architectural practice coupled with advances in simulation software, soon all buildings will be realised as multiple iterations; first fully simulated in the virtual realm and then in the real. Through this form of serialism, might parity finally be achieved between drawing and building? And might we revivify the critique of representation and mimesis that has historically been the core motivation of serialism? 

Production, Reproduction and Imitation

Within the notion of the serial there is a clear connection to the idea of the copy, the reproduction, and the imitation. Looking at where we are today, it is often observed that much global architecture is becoming more and more similar to itself. Until recently it was commonly believed that it was possible for individual global firms to establish their own architectural language (a Zaha building is clearly a Zaha building, as with a Sanaa, a Gehry, a Rogers, etc). But this has changed. Today, more and more often, works designed by different international architecture firms and conceived for the most remote locations, thousands of miles apart, seem to be quite familiar. There appears to be a tendency to copy and replicate global forms instead of ideas. The key to this lies in the transmission of culture.

Until the invention of the printing press, architecture was thought to be the primary means of expression and communication of ideas, values, and beliefs in a culture. But as the speed with which information disseminates increases, architecture’s role as a carrier of culture has consequently decreased. Where once architecture was able to carry meaning, the building blocks of culture are now internet memes [9].

Coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe an 'idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture', the term ‘meme’ has since taken on new meaning, more often referring to an image that is captioned and shared over the internet [10]. The popularity of internet memes has been attributed to their low barrier to entry, their potential for cultural relevance, and the global, participatory culture that has developed around them.

Memetic principals have been fundamental to the development of architecture: From the Greeks, to the Romans, to the Renaissance, and so on, each time, the iteration of an appropriated language allowed something new to be said. But when it comes to memes, the simpler they are, the faster they can proliferate. Early modernist architects of the 1920s discovered this secret. They dropped all elements that made architecture individual according to context, reducing their buildings to simple forms and surfaces. By so doing, they attained the standardisation of architecture that was their goal. This style composed of architectural memes replaced architectural patterns, and spread around the world with astonishing rapidity [11]. This theory might be best exemplified by Le Corbusier’s Dom-ino house, which clearly has easy repeatability and high reproducibility – an advantage that singles it out as a replicator. Its simplicity makes it an easy prototype to copy, but importantly, the replication of the visual meme also sustains the architectural ideology of Modernism.

In the age of the internet, memetic communication has established itself as a medium for creative expression, undoubtedly making an impact on the world’s social, political, and cultural landscapes. Could the sharing of internet memes be considered as a current form of serial art? And can a serial approach generate a new memetic architecture?

Houses in the city of Jiangyin, China
Houses in the city of Jiangyin, China, Kacper Kowalski, 2014

World Building & Collaboration

As designers, we have the ability to extrapolate and project knowledge in order to imagine new worlds for others to inhabit. As advocates of Critical Design – a form of design practise developed by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby [12] – ADS4 uses speculative design proposals to explore and interrogate these worlds, employing strategies and techniques developed by other disciplines as our design tools. This year, ADS4 intends to continue its collaboration with Squint/Opera – a creative agency that produces work across a variety of disciplines, from video content and animation, to interactive exhibitions, branding, websites, design, games and strategy. Together we will question the potential of serialism in contemporary architecture, experimenting with scriptwriting, characterisation and narrative structures as instruments for both research and design.

Taught by Nicola Koller & Tom Greenall


  1. Kevin Spacey giving the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival []
  2. Benjamin Bratton, ‘The Black Stack’, E-Flux Journal The Internet Does Not Exist, 2015
  3. Stanley Cavell, ‘The Fact of Television’, 1982.
  4. Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, ‘Serialism in Art and Architecture: Context and Theory’, 2001.
  5. Benjamin Bratton, ‘On Speculative Design’, DIS Magazine, 2016.
  6. Muteber Erbay & Sengül Öymen Gür, ‘Universal “memes” of the global style in architecture and the problems of identity and place’, 2010.
  7. Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, ‘Serialism in Art and Architecture: Context and Theory’, 2001.
  8. Hito Steyerl, ‘Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead’, included in the E-Flux Journal The Internet Does Not Exist, 2015.
  9. An Internet meme is an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet. (Karen Schubert, “Bizarre goes bizarre”, USA Today, 28 July 2003.)
  10. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976
  11. Nikos A. Salingaros “Architectural Memes in a Universe of Information”, 2005
  12. Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby (Dunne & Raby) use design as a medium to stimulate discussion and debate amongst designers, industry and the public about the social, cultural and ethical implications of existing and emerging technologies.