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Collage of Isa Genzken's work
Collage of Isa Genzken’s work
The Algorithmic Form in Isa Genzken
Algorithmic Form, assemblage, attention economy, Collage, data architecture, hooks, Isa Genzken, montage, Social Architecture, social object, social science, surrealism
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What’s the Hook? Social Architecture? 

Isa Genzken’s work can be seen as a synthesis of the “social” and the “object” – a visual-sculptural art that reflects on the relationship between social happenings and the scale of architectural space. She was also one of the early explorers in the use of computation for art, collaborating with scientists in the generation of algorithmic forms in the 70s. But what is the social object? What can it mean for architecture? Just as Alessandro Bava, in his “Computational Tendencies”,[1] challenged the field to look at the rhythm of architecture and the sensibility of computation, Roberto Bottazzi’s “Digital Architecture Beyond Computers”[2] gave us a signpost: the urgency is no longer about how architectural space can be digitised, but ways in which the digital space can be architecturised. Perhaps this is a good moment for us to learn from art; in how it engages itself with the many manifestations of science, while maintaining its disciplinary structural integrity. 

Within the discipline of architecture, there is an increasing amount of research that emphasises social parameters, from the use of big data in algorithmic social sciences to agent-based parametric semiology in form-finding.[3] [4] The ever-mounting proposals that promise to apply neural networks and other algorithms to [insert promising architectural / urban problem here] is evidence of a pressure for social change, but also of the urge to make full use of the readily available technologies at hand. An algorithm is “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer”.[5] It is a finite sequence, well-defined, with performance based on the length of code – how fast and best can we describe the most. In 1975, Gregory Chaitin’s formulation of Algorithmic Information Theory (AIT) reveals that the algorithmic form is not anymore what can be visualised on the front-end, but “the relationship between computation and information of computably generated objects, such as strings or any other data structure”.[6] In this respect, what stands at the convergence of computable form and the science of space is the algorithmic social object. 

Figure 1 – Algorithmic Social Science Research Unit (ASSRU) and Parametric Semiology – The Design of Information Rich Environments. Image source: ASSRU, Patrik Schumacher.  

Social science is the broad umbrella that encompasses disciplines from history and economics, to politics and geography; within which, sociology is a subset that studies the science of society.[7] The word ‘sociology’ is a hybrid, coined by French philosopher Isidore Auguste Comte in 1830 “from Latin socius ‘associate’ + Greek-derived suffix –logie”; more specifically, “social” as the adjective dates from the 1400s, meaning “devoted to or relating to home life”; and 1560s as “living with others”.[8] The term’s domestic connotation soon accelerated from the realm of the private to the public: “Social Contract” from translations of Rousseau in 1762; “Social Darwinism” and “Social Engineering” introduced by Fisher and Marken in 1877 and 1894; “Social Network” and “Social Media” by the late 20th century from Ted Nelson. Blooming during a high time of the Enlightenment and the rise of the positivist worldview, sociology naturally claims itself to be a science, of scientific methods and empirical investigations. The connotation of –logie has been brilliantly attested by Jonathan Culler:[9] 

Traditionally, Western philosophy has distinguished ‘reality’ from ‘appearance’, things themselves from representations of them, and thought from signs that express it. Signs or representations, in this view, are but a way to get at reality, truth, or ideas, and they should be as transparent as possible; they should not get in the way, should not affect or infect the thought or truth they represent.” 

To claim a social study as a science puts forward the question of the relationship between the language that is used to empirically describe and analyse the subject with the subject matter itself. If it should be objectively and rationally portrayed, then the language of mathematics would seem perfect for the job. If we are able to describe the interaction between two or more people using mathematics as a language, then we may begin to write down a partial differential equation and map the variables of it.[10] Algorithms that are inductively trained on evidence-based data do not only seem to capture the present state of such interaction, but seem also able to give critical information in describing the future evolution of the system. This raises the question of computability: what is the limit to social computation? If there is none, then we might as well be a simulation ourselves; so the logic goes that there must be one. To leave an algorithm running without questioning the limits to social computation is like having Borel’s monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter, or to apply [insert promising algorithm here] arbitrarily for [insert ear-catching grand challenges here].   

Figure 2– Borel’s infinite monkey theorem in 1913. Image source: Wikipedia. 

What’s the hook? 

A hook “is a musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in popular music to make a song appealing and to catch the ear of the listener”.[11] It is a monumental part of Web 2.0 that takes user attention as a scarce resource and a valuable commodity – an attention economy. Music is an artform that takes time to comprehend; as it plays through time, it accrues value in your attention.  

Figure 3 – Drum beat to Empire State of Mind, Nick’s Drum Lessons, “‘Empire State of Mind’ Jay Z – Drum Lesson”, October 5, 2014 

This is one of the most famous hooks of the late 2000s – Empire State of Mind came around the same time as the Web 2.0 boom, just after New York had recovered from the dotcom bubble. The song was like an acoustic montage of the “Eight million stories, out there in the naked’, revealing an underlying urge for social change that was concealed by the boom; just as we see Jay-Z in Times Square on stage under the “big lights that inspired” him rapping: “City is a pity, half of y’all won’t make it”.[12] It was an epoch of R&B, rhythms of cities, of the urban sphere, of the hightech low life. Just the first 15 seconds of Jay-Z’s beat is already enough to teleport a listener to Manhattan, with every bit of romanticism that comes with it. The Rhythms and the Blues constructed a virtual space of narrative and story-telling; such spatial quality taps into the affective experiences of the listener through the ear, revealing the urban condition through its lyrical expression. It is no accident that the 2000s was also a time when the artist / sculptor Isa Genzken began exploring the potential of audio in its visual-sculptural embodiment.  

The ear is uncanny. Uncanny is what it is; double is what it can become; large [or] small is what it can make or let happen (as in laisser-faire, since the ear is the most [tender] and most open organ, the one that, as Freud reminds us, the infant cannot close); large or small as well the manner in which one may offer or lend an ear.” — Jacques Derrida.[13] 

Figure 4 – “Ohr”, Isa Genzken, since 2002, Innsbruck, City Hall facade, large format print on flag fabric, 580 x 390 cm. Photograph, galeriebuchholz 

An image of a woman’s ear was placed on a facade by Genzken, personifying the building as a listener, hearing what the city has to say. At the same time, “The body is objectified and made into a machine that processes external information”.[14] The ear also symbolises the power of voice that could fill a place with a space: an acoustic space. As much as a place is a location, geographically tagged, and affects our identity and self-association of belonging; a space can be virtual as much as it can be physical. Such a space of social interaction is now being visualised on a facade, and at the same time, it is being fragmented: “To look at a room or a landscape, I must move my eyes around from one part to another. When I hear, however, I gather sound simultaneously from all directions at once: I am at the centre of my auditory world, which envelopes me. … You can immerse yourself in hearing, in sound. There is no way to immerse yourself similarly in sight”.[15] This is perhaps a prelude to augmented virtual reality.  

Figure 5 – The Surrealist doctrine of dislocation, the romantic encounter of urban objects is “as beautiful as the chance meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” – Lautréamont, Canto VI, Chapter 3. (a) The cover of the first edition of the Rem Koolhaas’ book Delirious New York, designed by Madelon Vriesendorp. (b) A photograph of New York by Isa Genzken, New York, N.Y., 1998/2000, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne. (c) A photography by Man Ray 1935 © The Man Ray Trust / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 

As much as Genzken is interested in the ‘‘exploration of contradictions of urban life and its inherent potential for social change”, Rem Koolhaas shared a similar interest in his belief that it is not possible to live in this age if you don’t have a sense of many contradictory voices.[16] [17] What the two have in common is their continental European roots and a love for the Big Apple – Genzken titled her 1996 collage book “I Love New York, Crazy City”, and with it paid homage to her beloved city. Delirious New York was written at a time when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy, yet Koolhaas saw it as the Rosetta Stone, and analysed the city as if there had been a plan, with everything starting from a grid. It was Koolhaas’ conviction that the rigor of the grid enabled imagination, despite its authoritative nature: unlike Europe, which has many manifestos with no manifestation, New York was a city with a lot of manifestation without manifesto. 

Koolhaas’ book was written with a sense of “critical paranoia” – a surrealist approach that blends together pre-existing conditions and illusions to map the many blocks of Manhattan into a literary montage. The cover of the first edition of the book, designed by Madelon Vriesendorp, perfectly captures the surrealism of the city’s socio-economy at the time: the Art Deco skyscraper Chrysler Building is in bed with the Empire State. Both structures were vying for distinction in the “Race into the Sky” of the 1920s, fueled by American optimism, a building boom, and speculative financing. [18] Just as the French writer Lautréamont wrote: “Beautiful as the accidental encounter, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, surrealism is a paradigmatic shift of “a new type of surprising imagery replete with disguised sexual symbolism”[19] The architectural surrealism manifested in this delirious city is the chance encounter of capital, disguised as national symbolism – an architectural hook.  

Data Architecture 

Figure 6 – China Central Television Headquarters (CCTV) and Genzken’s Gate for Amsterdam Tor für Amsterdam, Außenprojekte, Galerie Buchholz, 1988.

Genzken’s sense of scale echoes Koolhaas’ piece on “bigness” in 1995. Her proposal for the Amsterdam City Gate frames and celebrates the empty space, and found manifestation in Koolhaas’ enormous China Central Television’s (CCTV) Beijing headquarters – a building as a city, an edifice of endless air-conditioning and information circularity wrapped in a structured window skin, hugging itself in the air by its downsampled geometry of a mobius loop. Just as Koolhaas pronounced, within a world that tends to the mega, “its subtext is f*** context”. One is strongly reminded of the big data approach to form-finding, perhaps also of the discrete spatial quality coming from Cellular Automata (CA), where the resolution of interconnections and information consensus fades into oblivion, turning data processing into an intelligent, ever mounting aggregation. In the big data–infused era, the scale boundary between architecture and urban design becomes obscured. This highlights our contemporary understanding of complex systems science, where the building is not an individual object, but part of a complex fabric of socioeconomic exchanges. 

Figure 7 – The Bartlett Prospective (B-pro) Show, 2017. 

As Carpo captured in his Second Digital Turn, we are no longer living in Shannon’s age, where compression and bandwidth is of highest value: “As data storage, computational processing power, and retrieval costs diminish, many traditional technologies of data-compression are becoming obsolete … blunt information retrieval is increasingly, albeit often subliminally, replacing causality-driven, teleological historiography, and demoting all modern and traditional tools of story-building and story-telling. This major anthropological upheaval challenges our ancestral dependance on shared master-narratives of our cultures and histories”.[20] Although compression as a skillset is much used in the learning process of the machines for data models, from autoencoders to convolutional neural networks, trends in edge AI and federated learning are displacing value in bandwidth with promises of data privacy – we no longer surrender data to a central cloud, instead, all is kept on our local devices with only learnt models synchronising. 

Such displacement of belief in centralised provisions to distributed ownership is reminiscent of the big data-driven objectivist approach to spatial design, which gradually displaces our faith in anything non-discursive, such as norms, cultures, and even religion. John Lagerwey defines religion in its broadest sense as the structuring of values.[21] What values are we circulating in a socio-economy of search engines and pay-per-clicks? Within trends of data distribution, are all modes of centrally-provisioned regulation and incentivisation an invasion of privacy? Genzken’s work in urbanity is like a mirror held up high for us to reflect on our urban beliefs.  

Figure 8 – Untitled, Isa Genzken  2018, MDF, brass fixings, paper, textiles, leather, mirror foil, tape, acrylic paint, mannequin, 319.5 x 92.5 x 114 cm. David Zwirner, Hong Kong, 2021.

Genzken began architecturing a series of “columns” around the same time as her publication of I Love New York, Crazy City. Evocative of skyscrapers and skylines that are out of scale, she named each column after one of her friends, and decorated them with individual designs, sometimes of newspapers, artefacts, and ready-made items that reflect the happenings of the time. Walking amongst them reminds the audience of New York’s avenues and its urban strata, but at 1:500. Decorated with DIY store supplies, these uniform yet individuated structures seem to be documenting a history of the future of mass customization. Mass customisation is the use of “flexible computer-aided manufacturing systems to produce custom output. Such systems combine the low unit costs of mass production processes with the flexibility of individual customization”.[22] As Carpo argued, mass customisation technologies would potentially make economies-of-scale and their marginal costs irrelevant and, subsequently, the division-of-labour unnecessary, as the chain of production would be greatly distributed.[23] The potential is to democratise the privilege of customised design, but how can we ensure that such technologies would benefit social goals, and not fall into the same traps of the attention economy and its consumerism?  

Refracted and reflected in Genzken’s “Social Facades” – taped with ready-made nationalistic pallettes allusive of the semi-transparent curtain walls of corporate skyscrapers – one sees nothing but only a distorted image of the mirrored self. As the observer begins to raise their phone to take a picture of Genzken’s work, the self suddenly becomes the anomaly in this warped virtual space of heterotopia.  

Utopia is a place where everything is good; dystopia is a place where everything is bad; heterotopia is where things are different – that is, a collection whose members have few or no intelligible connections with one another.” — Walter Russell Mead [24] 

Genzken’s heterotopia delineates how the “other” is differentiated via the images that have been consumed – a post-Fordist subjectivity that fulfils itself through accelerated information consumption.  

Figure 9 – Attention economy and social strata as refracted and reflected in (a) “Soziale Fassade”, Isa Genzken, 2002, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, and (b) “I shop therefore I am”, Barbara Kruger, 1987 

The Algorithmic Form 

Genzken’s engagement with and interest in architecture can be traced back to the 1970s, when she was in the middle of her dissertation at the academy.[25] She was interested in ellipses and hyperbolics, which she prefers to call “Hyperbolo”.[26] The 70s were a time when a computer was a machine that filled the whole room, and to which a normal person would not have access. Genzken got in touch with a physicist, computer scientist Ralph Krotz, who, in 1976, helped in the calculation of the ellipse with a computer, and plotted the draft of a drawing with a drum plotter that prints on continuous paper.[27] Artists saw the meaning in such algorithmic form differently than scientists. For Krotz, ellipses are conic sections. Colloquially speaking, an egg comes pretty close to an ellipsoid: it is composed of a hemisphere and half an ellipse. If we are to generalise the concept of conic section, hyperbolas also belong to it: if one rotates a hyperbola around an axis, a hyperboloid is formed. Here, the algorithmic form is being rationalised to its computational production, irrelevant of its semantics – that is, until it was physically produced and touched the ground of the cultural institution of a museum. 

The 10-meter long ellipse drawing was delivered full size, in one piece, as a template to a carpenter, who then converted it to his own template for craftsmanship. Thus, 50 years ago, Genzken’s work explored the two levels of outsourcing structure symbolic of today’s digital architectural production. The output of such exploration is a visual-sculptural object of an algorithmic form at such an elongated scale and extreme proportion that it undermines not only human agency in its conception, but also the sensorial perception of 2D-3D space.[28] When contemplating Genzken’s Hyperbolo, one is often reminded of the radical play with vanishing points in Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, where the anamorphic skull can only be viewed at an oblique angle, a metaphor for the way one can begin to appreciate the transience of life only with an acute change of perspective.  

Figure 10. (a) ‘The Ambassadors’, Hans Holbein, 1533. (b) “Hyperbolos”, Genzken, 1970s. Image source: Andrea Albarelli, Mousse Magazine

When situated in a different context, next to Genzken’s aircraft windows (“Windows”), the Hyperbolo finds association with other streamlined objects, like missiles. Perhaps the question of life and death, paralleling scientific advancement, is a latent meaning and surrealist touch within Genzken’s work, revealing how the invention of the apparatus is, at the same time, the invention of its causal accidents. As the French cultural theorist and urbanist Paul Virilio puts it: the invention of the car is simultaneously the invention of the car crash.[29] We may be able to compute the car as a streamlined object, but we are not even close to being able to compute the car as a socio-cultural technology.  

Figure 11 – Genzken holding her “Hyperbolos” in 1982, and “Windows”. Eichler , Dominic. “This Is Hardcore.” Frieze, 2014.

Social Architecture? 

Perhaps the problem is not so much whether the “social” is computable, but rather that we are trying to objectively rationalise something that is intrinsically social. This is not to say that scientific methods to social architecture are in vain; rather the opposite, that science and its language should act as socioeconomic drivers to changes in architectural production. What is architecture? It can be described as what stands at the intersection of art and science – the art of the chief ‘arkhi-’ and the science of craft ‘tekton’ – but the chance encounter of the two gives birth to more than their bare sum. If architecture is neither art nor science but an emergence of its own faculty, it should be able to argue for itself academically as a discipline, with a language crafted as its own, and to debate itself on its own ground – beyond the commercial realm that touches base with ground constraints and reality of physical manifestation, and also in its unique way of researching and speculating, not all “heads in the clouds”, but in fact revealing pre-existing socioeconomic conditions.  

It is only through understanding ourselves as a discipline that we can begin to really grasp ways of contributing to a social change, beyond endlessly feeding machines with data and hoping it will either validate or invalidate our ready-made and ear-catching hypothesis. As Carpo beautifully put it:  

Reasoning works just fine in plenty of cases. Computational simulation and optimization (today often enacted via even more sophisticated devices, like cellular automata or agent-based systems) are powerful, effective, and perfectly functional tools. Predicated as they are on the inner workings and logic of today’s computation, which they exploit in full, they allow us to expand the ambit of the physical stuff we make in many new and exciting ways. But while computers do not need theories, we do. We should not try to imitate the iterative methods of the computational toolds we use because we can never hope to replicate their speed. Hence the strategy I advocated in this book: each to its trade; let’s keep for us what we do best.” [30] 


1 A. Bava, “Computational Tendencies – Architecture – e-Flux.” Computational Tendencies, January. 2020.

2 R. Bottazzi, Digital Architecture beyond Computers Fragments of a Cultural History of
Computational Design (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020).

3 ASSRU, Algorithmic Social Sciences, (Accessed December 18, 2021)

4 P. Schumacher, Design of Information Rich Environments, 2012.

5 Oxford, “The Home of Language Data” Oxford Languages, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

6 Google, “Algorithmic Information Theory – Google Arts & Culture”, Google, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

7 Britannica, “Sociology”, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (Accessed December 18, 2021).

8 Etymonline, “Etymonline – Online Etymology Dictionary”, Etymology dictionary: Definition, meaning and word origins,, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

9 J. Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

10 K. Friston, ”The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory?“ Nature reviews neuroscience, 11 (2),127-138. (2010)

11 J. Covach, “Form in Rock Music: A Primer” (2005), in D. Stein (ed.), Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. (New York: Oxford University Press), 71.

12 Jay-Z. Empire State Of Mind, (2009) Roc Nation, Atlantic

13 J. Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation ; Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. Otobiographies / Jacques Derrida, (Lincoln, Neb.: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1985).

15 Kunsthalle Wien, “Kunsthalle Wien #FemaleFool Booklet I’m Isa Genzken the …,” (2014).

16 W. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, (London: Methuen, 1982)

17 R. Koolhaas, New York délire: Un Manifeste rétroactif Pour Manhattan, (Paris: Chêne, 1978).

18 Kunsthalle Wien, “Kunsthalle Wien #FemaleFool Booklet I’m Isa Genzken the …,” (2014).

19 J. Rasenberger, High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present, (HarperCollins, 2009)

20 Tate, “’L’Enigme D’Isidore Ducasse’, Man Ray, 1920, Remade 1972”, Tate., (Accessed December 18, 2021)

21 M. Carpo, ”Big Data and the End of History”. International Journal for Digital Art History, 3: Digital Space and Architecture, 3, 21 (2018)

22 J. Lagerwey, Paradigm Shifts in Early and Modern Chinese Religion a History, (Boston, Leiden: Brill, 2018).

23 Google, “Mass Customization – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, (Accessed December 18, 2021).

24 M. Carpo, The Second Digital Turn: Design beyond Intelligence, (Cambridge: MIT, 2017).

25 W.R. Mead, (Winter 1995–1996). “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles: The End of the Postmodern Moment”. World Policy Journal. 12 (4), 13–31

26 U. Loock, “Ellipsoide und Hyperboloide”, in Isa Genzken. Sesam, öffne dich!, exhibition cat. (Whitechapel Gallery, London, and Museum Ludwig, Cologne: Kasper, 2009)

27 S. Baier, “Out of sight”, in Isa Genzken – Works from 1973-1983, Kunstmuseum

28 R. Krotz, H. G. Bock, “Isa Genzken”, in exhibition cat. Documenta 7, Kassel 1982, vol. 1, p. 330-331, vol. 2, p. 128-129

29 A. Farquharson, “What Architecture Isn’t” in Alex Farquharson, Diedrich Diederichsen and Sabine Breitwieser, Isa Genzken (London 2006), 33

30 P. Virilio, Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology (New York: Columbia University, 1986).

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