Anvant-Garde and Glitch

“When all is said, what remains to be said is the disaster. Ruin of words, demise of writing, faintness faintly murmuring: what remains without remains (the fragmentary).”

Maurice Blanchot[1]


When talking about glitch, theorists and critics usually refer to a kind of aesthetic characterised by an ontological inconsistency resulting from the application of computational processes and co-related mistakes. More broadly, to talk about such an aesthetic concept, means to speak about the role of mistakes and errors in relation to the production of a work of art and, when related to Architecture, such a topic poses specific disciplinary problems distinguished by precise epistemological implications: any error, whether it is stylistic or technical becomes autonomous from the architect's intensions, assuming new and unexpected symbolic meanings. These issues become even more serious when, as in glitch art, the error is voluntary. Here the error - the glitch - is an instrument, it is a tool to produce a certain kind of effect through formal manipulations, use of geometry and a sophistically inappropriate use of architectural instruments (modelling softwares, scripting or sculpting). To talk about glitch means to discuss the issues of “virtuosity” and “form” as the centre of architecture. Glitch exists when geometry and technique are the fountainhead of architectural creation.


Glitch then, is an incorrect, yet fecund, way of using architectural language. For instance, in San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, Francesco Borromini, the architect who “introduced a new and disturbing approach to old problems”,[2] seems to make several errors if interpreted through the lenses of an orthodox classicist. One of these, is a glitch in the courtyard's balustrade where he alternatively inverts the balusters. Of course, Borromini cannot be accused of not knowing the classical language of architecture, on the contrary, it is pretty evident that these “mistakes” are made by purpose, they are in-fact attempts of innovating and expand the language of architecture through the denial of the classical modules, in turn replaced by geometric units and sculptural volumes. Moreover, the mistakes in the balusters and the breaking of rules are not just vague gestures of a “virtuoso”, they are instruments to produce new architectural effects (as the play of light in space) through the manipulation of a given language.


As Borromini used the deliberate manipulation of language to produce new effects, some architects do the same today. Glitch, which is becoming a more and more debated topic, is indeed even more appropriate if related to the digital heritage of architecture, since it is a concept usually defined as regarding mistakes occurring in computer-mediated communication. It is then possible to refer as glitch architectures all of those projects designed using specific techniques in the attempt of producing a kind of architecture usually referred to as “incongruous”, “ambivalent”, “volatile” or even “awkward”, in which the figure of the building, its silhouette and its shape are impure, broken apart, over-complicated or purposely messy. In these projects, geometry's function - the things it does other than being pure geometry - is to split spaces, generate fractures, produce discrepancies, weirdly connect different areas.


Given the current situation of architectural design, the real question is not then if it can exist a glitch architecture, but why it has become a “hot topic” these days. If examined from an historical perspective, all of the architects using glitch techniques for the design of projects, are easily suitable in the history of the kind of architecture, born as an avant-garde, that has been called as “digital” since the mid-90s. Hernan Diaz Alonso has often stated to consider himself as a developer of the digital language of architecture comparing himself to John Coltrane following Charlie Parker (Gregg Lynn)[3] and Andrew Zago, the theorist of the “Awkward architecture”, was already mentioned by Jeffrey Kipnis in 1993 as one of the architects creating the language of “DEformation”.[4] Such an historical position of glitch has then to be linked to architecture's present condition. In-fact, if the digital language of architecture has probably been the last of the shared languages by architects until a decade ago, today's architecture leave us in a condition of a total pluralism or,  in the worst cases, it presents us a panoply of originality: every project has to be new, innovative and smart, if not fit.[5] Once these two particular conditions are related, what the term glitch means for architecture becomes quite evident: it is the latest technique to implement a (formalist) language in the attempt of maintaining it new, fresh and estranging. In this sense, it is a kind of “informal turn” of architecture's digital language, as it happened for modernism.[6] If the informal, as theorized by Bataille, is impossible to be formalized, Rosalind Krauss and Yve Alain-Bois present it as the attempt of overcoming the dialectic between avant-garde and kitsch remaining in the aesthetic paradigm of modernism or, using Clement Greenberg's terminologies, it is the ultimate technique to criticize a discipline using its own techniques: Lucio Fontana often mules his sculptures with gold, green or red polishes without any postmodern irony, while Allan McCollum investigates the entropic features of a work of art.[7] These artists introduce the disgusting, the low and the “personal touch” in modernism, transforming kitsch, mess and gesture in positive values able to produce inedited effects.


As it happens in informal modernism; the Glitch techniques, incongruous figures, the “crossbred” and the awkward break the elegant smooth transitions of digital architecture, but always remaining in the same formal domain. There is no irony in these projects. In this sense, the example of Borromini is more pertinent than ever. The informal signals modernism's ultimate critical position, so it does baroque for classical architecture: the language is twisted, warped, strained and garbled, producing nothing but the impossibility of generating new features. The work of Piranesi seems to pose the question of what an architect can do after Borromini, while Allan Kaprow solves the impossibility of innovating abstract painting after Jackson Pollock inventing a whole new form of art: the happening. Once DEformation is over-expressive, once the Fold has become the mess, and once the generative has become the volatile, what can an architect do to implement digital language? The sublime forms, patterns and colours of architecture produced through glitch techniques try to be shocking, try to produce something new and to give new shapes to the “good-old” problems often justified by para-scientific explanations, but when the shock of the new has become a tradition, the attempt of implement and regenerate through new forms an architectural “research program” seems to be impossible. A strategy constantly bound to a romantic failure.


Glitch calls into crisis the last of the codified architectural languages, it leaves architects with nothing but the impossibility of producing the effect of the estrangement. Since the Digital has been unable to maintain the revolutionary promises of being a new and hegemonic architectural paradigm, becoming a decantation chamber for formalist experiments, glitch ultimately is a nostalgic concept, it is the latest and rebellious attempt to revive the revolutionary forms that could have been.

Being nostalgic, Glitch uncovers one the main features of modernity behind the shape it is produces: the need of an historical narrative. Doing so, it reveals itself as a pure act of rebellion against the present condition of architecture and, using Albert Camus words, it “expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being”.[8]


Finally, the final question to be posed is: can Glitch pave the way for new ideas uncovering a new essence of architecture?


Whether it can or not, the drawback could be death.


[1] Maurice Blanchot, The Wrinting of the Disaster, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995, p.33

[2] Rudolf Wittkover, Art and Architecture in Italy 1600-1750, Great Britain, Penguin Books, second and revised edition, 1965, p.197

[3] See: “Gespräch Hernan Diaz Alonso: Bauen für das Wurmloch der Zukunft”, in FORUM 17/08, 29. September 2008, pp. 4,5

[4] See: Jeffrey Kipnis, “Towards a New Architecture”, in AD Profile 102 (Folding in Architecture): Architectural Design vol.63 no.3/4 March/April 1993, pp.40-49

[5] Of course such a position is a simplification. Since the mid-80s there have been around words like “diagram” or “concept” alongside the “digital” but, as far as these terms were - and still are - important in the architectural discourse, those are techniques, not languages. They do not implicate a particular language or aesthetic, while the digital does so, turning out to be a proper language as it was the classical, the modernist or 70's postmodernism.

[6]  Interestingly enough, Anthony Vidler suggested that the digital itself (exemplified by the work of Greg Lynn and Bernard Cache) is a form of informal formalism already in 2000. Today, the issue to be addressed is to understand what does it mean the developing of new and extreme formal strategies in the digital (in)formalism.

[7] See:  Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: a User's Guide, New York, Zone Books, 1997

[8] Albert Camus, the Rebel, An Essay on Man in Revolt, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965, ed.Vintage, New York, 1991, p.105


Giacomo Pala, “Avant-Garde and Glitch“ in Burrasca issue#3, “Glitch”, Indipendent Publishing, 2015. (ISBN: 9788894046625)