Most grown-ups, especially those who went to primary school in the 1970’s, will remember having seen one of the animations inspired by the 1957 book Cosmic View: the universe in 40 Jumps by Kees Boeke in their classroom. The most famous amongst them is Powers of Ten, written and directed by the designer pair Charles and Ray Eames in 1977.

Accompanied by beautifully old electronic music we see two people installing themselves for a picnic in the park. Starting from the man, who is just about to peacefully fall asleep, we zoom out until their picnic cloth is a square in a giant field of green. We zoom out further until the lakeside park is seen between the slices of infrastructure of the city. Then ‘we see the great city on the lakeshore’, the whole of the Chicago city grid pushed onto the Michigan Lake. The city quickly transforms into a tiny dot on the continent, the Earth into the head of a pin within the Solar System and the Solar System into an unrecognizably small point within the Milky Way.

This dazzling movie, both fascinating and slightly frightening, illustrates the idea that the whole of nature exists of systems. The planet, Solar System and the Milky Way, and when halfway through the film the man’s hand is zoomed in on, an organ, cel, nucleus and molecule; all are unified wholes, centered densities of interacting particles that to a greater or lesser extent have the ability to maintain themselves. Every system is a particle of another, which is a particle of yet another. This exponential scale succession is named a panarchy by the ecologist C.S. Holling –  a ‘hierarchy’ of systems, though without any higher or lower positions, embedded in each other and interlinked in continuous adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring and renewal (Holling, 2001; Gunderson & Holling, 2002).

When looking at a series of stills from Powers of Ten, however, it is the man-made middle part of the scale-sequence in which the existence of wholes is less obvious. The series of forms, roughly in between the shape of the coast line and the two people’s bodies, is defined by lines, drawn to form arrangements (Tversky, 2016).

Fig i.1 – Sequence of stills from Powers of Ten. The man-made forms in the middle scales seem to be designed rather than emerged (based on Charles & Ray Eames, 1977, adapted by author)

An ellips divided in compartments arranges sports supporters visiting a match, and logically organizes them by club and ticket grade. Jetties arrange the moored ships by size and owner, and the highway arranges the cars in lanes by speed and destination. The horizontal and vertical lines constructing these alignments, that in Chicago even appear to lie perfectly parallel and perpendicular to the Equator (something that mostly seems of value for the satisfaction of the mapmaker), are hardly to be found in nature. They are characteristic of the designed world and, combined in surfaces, walls, roofs and boxes, create the human biotope of buildings, building blocks and the city (Tversky, 2016).

Fig i.2 – Still from Powers of Ten showing part of the Chicago development. The sports stadium arranges supporters, and organizes them by club and ticket grade. The jetties arrange the moored ships by size and owner, and the highway arranges the cars in lanes by speed and destination (Charles & Ray Eames, 1977).

i.1 Spontaneous organization

It was since the second half of the previous century that phenomena in nature were first explained as an outcome of the process of self-organization. Nature is not chaotic, but creates structure over time, through the simultaneous interaction between a countless number of interdependent particles. Complexity theory explains why molecules, cells, organs, and galaxies are closely organized systems that as a whole display more properties than the sum of their separate parts. The systems we so clearly see on the macro and micro side of Powers of Ten, have unfolded themselves over time, without the help of any external control.

In those middle scale levels, humans do, of course, have the ability to control their environment, leading to arranged structures with notably different form properties. The buildings and cities around us are created by conscious interventions, driven by ideas that are made possible through imagining future scenarios. But the fact that this happens does not by itself exclude the fact that processes of self-organization take place also here. The development of structure through local interactions is not scale-bound, and could create configurations also in our direct surroundings. Maybe this is just more difficult to see.

When we zoom in on the smallest interactions between people and their surroundings, lying down in the grass, getting a book from a bag and passing on the salad, the decisions taken are no longer the result of predefined plans. They seem to happen quick and intuitively, but still, they generate form. Compared to the buildings in the city, this is form of a quite different kind. Does a picnic filmed from above, with plates, bowls and glasses circling around two people, not resemble a small Milky Way, a living organ or a giant white blood cell?

i.2 The Self-Organization of Stuff

As humans, we have the choice to arrange what is around us, but we also just live. A drawing table itself is not only a tool for designing, it is also a piece of wood, with paper, pens, pencils and an eraser, a cup of coffee and a chair. It is on the scale of stuff that our interaction with the world is so instinctive and direct, that it makes patterns spontaneously arise. On the larger scale of a house, stuff seems to live a life on its own even more. In the words of Brigitte Kaandorp: “Things form bonds, or so, they are friends. They find each other, and preferably in the most awkward of places. Stuff appears everywhere, and it is creeping me out.” (Kaandorp & Borst, 2008). Looking at a house by looking at the stuff inside, shows a complex ecology where we are not in control, but right inside of.

At first sight this may seem bothersome. But if stuff indeed ‘forms bonds’, it apparently has the ability to create structure without our conscious intervention. It forms a kind of order, but without anyone ordering. In a house, self-organization is a driving force.

The artist Daniël Spoerri experimented with these possibilities, as part of the Nouveau Réalisme in the 1960s. It was in this time that various disciplines of art experimented with aleatory elements, spontaneity and unfinishedness, not the least to criticize the suffocating sense of control operated by the government on the one hand and the elite expressionism of Modernism on the other. Spoerri let the activity of having a meal decide his tableaux pièges, tablecloths with everything left glued on and vertically hung up. His autobiography from the same period, An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, is based on all items on his blue table on the October 17th 1961, described and traced back in the history of his life (Spoerri & Filliou, 1966). “The Nouveau Réalistes see the world as a painting, a big fundamental of which they wish to make substantial excerpts their own”, their manifesto states (Restany, 1961, p.1). For Spoerri, these paintings of the world are tables full of stuff.

Fig i.3 – Daniel Spoerri: Tableaux Piège. Date unknown (±1960).

Spoerri’s topography is called one of chance, and at some points indeed shows the randomness of stuff (“a bent nail, I don’t know from what”) (1966, p. 135). However, it is not without reason that a two-dimensional map was made instead of just a list. The actual configuration of stuff is, when given second look, not so irregular at all, as it helps to trace back what has actually happened. To show his room was not always a mess, Spoerri later added a topographical map of order (1966), but this cannot communicate such a story by far. Also the tableaux pièges show no random chaos of items, but a meal. As was characteristic of Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus, the border between performance and object faded away (Schimmel, 1998). Art became a direct outcome of action, and in this case the result of the self-organization of stuff.

Fig i.4: Topographical map of chance,17 October 1961

Fig i.5: Topographical map of order, 21 February 1962.

Topographical maps from An Anecdoted Topography of Chance by Daniel Spoerri (1966). The first is the guiding drawing in the book, the second an appendix added later.

i.3 Research Aim

The alternation between human-made order and inevitable chaos seems too simple to describe the configurations formed by stuff. Therefore, this research aims to find a better explanation for this phenomenon, by exploring it from a complex systems perspective. In constructing an explanatory theoretical model and vocabulary that describe the constant displacement of stuff, lies the possibility to make our observations more specific. Stuff, especially when considered over time, very directly reveals processes of interaction between people and their surroundings, which is a fundamental topic for architecture. Although this research might not directly lead to guidelines or principles on how to design, any other way of looking at this relationship is inevitably related to all design decisions concerning people and their environment.

This exploration follows the architect and theorist N. John Habraken in the idea that the built environ-ment resembles more of an organism than an artifact. This idea in itself changes architectural decisions; intervening in a living body does not ask for artistic expression, nor for building to resist time (Habraken, 1998). Instead, this perspective implies a responsibility for the architect to make thoughtful choices, based on a substantiated understanding of what will happen over time. Habraken pleas for a systematic build-up of a body of knowledge that describes the behavior of the built environment (1998), an aim this thesis will try to contribute to.

Projecting complexity theory on stuff is possible with the inspiration of various other disciplines, that have proven that many natural phenomena can be more adequately explained by self-organization than by classical causal-mechanistic thinking. One field of study that already makes a link to the man-made environment is that of complexity theory of cities, that applies various theories of complexity to the study of cities (Portugali, 2011), through which it is able to describe global phenomena such as city growth and the pattern of  urban fabric as an outcome of local interactions. The fact that this discipline is already being developed gives a solid starting point for the translation to a smaller scale.

There is another opportunity for design in this outcome. Self-organization is a driving force, a spontaneous creation of structure and something Spoerri could even ‘paint’ with. With more knowledge about these processes, we may not only be able to design for the self-organization of stuff, but also with it. Maybe this energy, when extrapolated, could even create architectural form.

i.4 Research Questions & Methodology

This research is centered around a topography of stuff, not of a table, but of a room in the course of a year: that of my own. Since I moved in, exactly a year ago, it has been the arena for all sorts of stuff configurations: tidy, messy, but mostly consisting of all sorts of smaller systems around all sorts of activities. All dynamics of this room have been recorded, and its pictures are the main source of information, examples and illustrations in this thesis.

The method used is that of abductive reasoning, as proposed by Haig (2005). Different from hypothetico-deductive reasoning, it does not depart from a hypothesis, but from phenomena, empirical regularities obtained by data analysis. Once detected, plausible theories (or ‘educated guesses’) are constructed to explain the mechanisms behind them (Haig & Evers, 2016). This happens amongst others by the submethodology of analogical abduction, in which models from other disciplines are projected on the phenomenon in order to develop a specified theoretical model. This methodology proved of much value for the topic, due to the fact it affects behavioral science, in which the method is particularly relevant (Haig, 2005).

This method is used to answer the research question:  How can the spontaneous organization of stuff be explained from a complex systems perspective?

The structure of the abductive theory of method and its submethodologies are applied in three main parts:

i.4.1 Phenomenon detection (Chapter I)

The phenomena detection departs from two data sets. The first is the longitudinal study consisting of the photographs taken in my room in the course of a year. The second is more cross-sectional in nature, as it depicts stuff cells around different activities; although the data are not retrieved on one given point in time, there are no regards to differences in time. Both are analyzed in relation to the current dominant statements describing the dynamics of stuff, revealing that some forms and processes cannot be explained with these means.

i.4.2 Theory generation (Chapter II)

The first generation of theory is inductive, conducted by the sub-methodology of existential abduction, in which the existence of a previously unknown or unaccepted feature is introduced to explain the phenomenon. In this case a third organizational state is added to the existing paradigm, thus inducing additional transitional processes that are further explored.

i.4.3 Theory development (Chapter III, IV, V)

The main section of the research uses the submethodology of analogical modeling to develop a theory, meaning that various models are projected on the subject and through constant testing developed to give explanations as simple and accurately as possible (Haig, 2005). This is done in three parts, consecutively on complex system dynamics, processes of interaction and as a synthesis and test of the theory developed, the description of physical forms.

subquestion I – complex system dynamics: How do theoretical models of self-organizing processes describe the dynamics of stuff?

subquestion II – processes of interaction: How do interactions between people and their surroundings relate to the self-organizing abilities of stuff?

subquestion III – dissecting the stuff cell: How can self-organization explain the physical forms of stuff cells throughout time?

The construction of this theory has been a very dynamic course, since the search for underlying principles was a continuous strategy of observation and comparative analysis in the data and in real life. Theory here is a process, and the ‘final’ models not a finished product, but still an ever-developing entity (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). As the topic of the research, activity and stuff, is so ever-present, not only in daily life, but also in the minds of all introduced to this fascination – everyone intuitively knows about mess, organization, productivity and creativity – this is even more the case.

In the exploratory last section of this website, directions for design, various tools and methods for using this knowledge in the (spatial) design process are listed and explored. This will be a growing collection of insights, viewpoints and (downloadable) card sets, games, codes and other tools that help the design process.