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Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation

Charles Jencks
Nathan Silver
with a new foreword by Charles Jencks
a new afterword by Nathan Silver
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    When this book first appeared in 1972, it was part of the spirit that would define a new architecture and design era--a new way of thinking ready to move beyond the purist doctrines and formal models of modernism. Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver's book was a manifesto for a generation that took pleasure in doing things ad hoc, using materials at hand to solve real-world problems. The implications were subversive. Turned-off citizens of the 1970s immediately adopted the book as a DIY guide. The word "adhocism" entered the vocabulary, the concept of adhocism became part of the designer's toolkit, and Adhocism became a cult classic. Now Adhocism is available again, with new texts by Jencks and Silver reflecting on the past forty years of adhocism and new illustrations demonstrating adhocism's continuing relevance. Adhocism has always been around. (Think Robinson Crusoe, making a raft and then a shelter from the wreck of his ship.) As a design principle, adhocism starts with everyday improvisations: a bottle as a candleholder, a dictionary as a doorstop, a tractor seat on wheels as a dining room chair. But it is also an undeveloped force within the way we approach almost every activity, from play to architecture to city planning to political revolution. Engagingly written, filled with pictures and examples from areas as diverse as auto mechanics and biology, Adhocism urges us to pay less attention to the rulebook and more to the real principle of how we actually do things. It declares that problems are not necessarily solved in a genius's "eureka!" moment but by trial and error, adjustment and readjustment.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31254-7
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Foreword to the MIT Press Edition: The Style of Eureka
    (pp. vii-xxii)
    Charles Jencks

    Adhocismis a mongrel term first used in architectural criticism in 1968. Born from the conjunction ofad hoc, meaning “for this particular purpose,” andism, shorthand for a movement in the arts, the combination thrives in many places. Adhocism denotes a principle of action havingspeedor economy andpurposeor utility, and it prospers like most hybrids on the edge of respectability. Basically, as in architecture, it involves using an available system in a new way to solve a problem quickly and efficiently.¹

    To understand the concept it is best to look at one exemplary object in some...

  4. Foreword to the 1972 Edition
    (pp. 9-10)
    C. J. and N. S.

    “Adhocism” is a term coined by Charles Jencks and first used by him in architectural criticism in 1968. It can also be applied to many human endeavors, denoting a principle of action havingspeedor economy andpurposeor utility. Basically it involves using an available system or dealing with an existing situation in a new way to solve a problem quickly and efficiently. It is a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand. Incidentally, the word adhocism has the property of itself beingad hoc.An initially clumsy parasynthesis like “oneupmanship” or “feedback,” it...

  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 11-12)
    Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver

    • 1 The Spirit of Adhocism
      (pp. 15-27)
      Charles Jencks

      Ad hocmeans “for this” specific need or purpose.

      A need is common to all living things; only men have higher purposes. But these needs and purposes are normally frustrated by the great time and energy expended in their realization.

      A purpose immediately fulfilled is the ideal of adhocism; it cuts through the usual delays caused by specialization, bureaucracy and hierarchical organization.

      Today we are immersed in forces and ideas that hinder the fulfillment of human purposes; large corporations standardize and limit our choice; philosophies of behaviorism condition people to deny their potential freedom; “modern architecture” becomes the convention for...

    • 2 The Pluralist Universe, or Pluriverse
      (pp. 29-37)
      Charles Jencks

      The man-made world is built up of fragments from the past.

      We live in a pluralist world confronted by competing philosophies, and knowledge is in anad hoc,fragmented state prior to some possible synthesis.

      We live with plural interpretations of a pluriverse rather than a unified theory of a universe. The speed of new cosmological theories follows the speed of scientific innovation: “a new cosmology every week.”

      This situation on a large scale reflects the local situation. We live in cities which are built up over time as a palimpsest of many cultures, while any large city is a...

    • 3 Mechanical, Natural and Critical Evolution
      (pp. 39-53)
      Charles Jencks

      Contrary to some theories, both design and nature are radically traditional; they work with subsystems which have existed in the past. All creations are initiallyad hoccombinations of past subsystems; “nothing can be created out of nothing.”

      The first bicycle and automobile were made up fromad hocparts; after their subsystems were refined and highly interrelated, these vehicles reached a relatively stabilized norm and the end of an evolutionary series. They became nonad hocor totalistic.

      Organic evolution proceeds by combining and modifying subsystems through the medium of genetic material. By these combinations the subsystems exert a...

    • 4 Consumer Democracy
      (pp. 55-71)
      Charles Jencks

      The prophets of the first machine age placed great emphasis on standardization, anonymity and the repetition of “perfect” forms. Ironically today it is the large corporations who continue to believe in the virtues of standardization; they have to repeat a form often enough to pay off the initial investments in retooling for production; they manage specific demand through advertisement, and offer the consumer a limited range of impersonal, stereotyped products.

      In opposition to this, new techniques and a new strategy have emerged. The electronic techniques of communication now allow decentralized design and consumption based on individual desire. “You sit there...

    • 5 Towards an Articulate Environment
      (pp. 73-87)
      Charles Jencks

      The present environment is tending towards both extreme visual simplicity and extreme functional complexity. This double and opposite movement is eroding our emotional transaction with and comprehension of objects.

      In opposition to this, adhocism makes visible the complex workings of the environment. Instead of an homogeneous surface which smooths over all distinctions and difficulties, it looks to the intractable problem as the source of supreme expression. From problems, from the confrontation of diverse subsystems, it drags an art of jagged, articulated cataclysms that shouts out the problem from every corner.

      By combining diverse subsystemsad hoc,the designer showswhat...

    • 6 The Ad Hoc Revolution
      (pp. 89-102)
      Charles Jencks

      The main causes of revolution are social and political.

      On a social level there is a cataclysmic imbalance in wealth between nations and within nations, while on a political level there is the slow curtailment of the specifically human virtue—freedom. All this oppression and covert violence lead to the explosive situation of revolution, but—unfortunately—revolution has been as virulent as the disease it was meant to cure.

      The time is ripe for redefining the theory and practice of revolution—beyond the Vulgar Marxism and liberal reaction of the present.

      First, the revolutionary interests should be recognized in their...


    • 1 Modes and Resources ofAdhocism
      (pp. 105-137)
      Nathan Silver

      As soon as one sees that there can be an actual policy of contingent, resourceful action, or adhocism, as Jencks and I call it, this mongrel creativity suddenly appears everywhere. Discovering adhocism isad hoc,and everyone knows all about it. “It’s what people do all the time,” according to an editor, or it’s “satisfyingly familiar” as one architect said, but unexamined, unexpressed, a basis of most human behavior: “you work with what you have,” as a painter put it.

      Jencks has shown the omnipresence of adhocism. I will go on to the swarm of particular questions which arise when...

    • 2 The Adhocist Sensibility
      (pp. 139-171)
      Nathan Silver

      The aesthetic tingle of satisfaction that comes from successful coping found its way onto the Letters page of the LondonTimeson 4 March 1972, when a number of readers suggestedad hocsolutions to a complaint about no corkscrews being available on trains. One wrote:

      I am sorry that Mr. Keith Ingham, in the predicament he described (February 28), was not so lucky as I was thirty years ago, on a wartime journey from Edinburgh to London.

      My travelling companion and I also had no corkscrew, and my bottle of whisky had a cork. We were baffled until the...

    • 3 Adhocism in the Market and the City
      (pp. 173-185)
      Nathan Silver

      Design is what everyone does all the time. Buildings are designed, as are “consumer durahies,” disposables such as clothing, and anything else—including food—that has been shaped and packaged for a market. Adhocism deals with the fact that choice and combination are more central to design than novelty. This is as true for the buyer as the seller: people design, notably, when they shop.

      The product marketplace is a great design resource that institutionally harbors all the cultural hardware currently in existence, for the community at large. There are still markets in the world, like one I visited in...

    • 4 Appendix: Miscellaneous Adhockery
      (pp. 187-199)
      Nathan Silver

      A photograph and a painting both have edges, and edges are responsible limits; the apparition works only within them and it stops with them. Lately both arts have settled mostly into a pattern of explorations in selection. Nevertheless, new concepts of naturalism have created new design principles in photography. The fundamental impact of photography (or at least its exclusive preserve) is its sense of authenticity; the ring of truth, fact, “givenness.” This authenticity need not be only composed, or caught at rest. It can also be captured, or programmed, in a different way; a way more characteristic of cinema. Through...

  8. Afterword to the MIT Press Edition: ISM or Is It?
    (pp. 201-215)
    Nathan Silver

    Making the case in print that a conceptual label helps to clarify something culturally pervasive is like trying to win over the driver with an argument in a taxi. The short time span makes it end inconclusively, and when the cabbie drives away, it’s usually forgotten. Our argument wasn’t. It’s been more than 40 years since that taxi dropped us off, but it seems that our case for improvisation still rides—which has made it enjoyable to take the trip and spin the argument again.

    One reader not long ago said that some parts ofAdhocism(1972) seem utterly up...

  9. Photo Credits 1972 EDITION
    (pp. 216-219)
  10. Index 1972 EDITION
    (pp. 220-234)