Designing Reflexivity in a Second Modernity

Self-published as the introduction to Robert Cowherd, ed., Responsive Architectures, Reflexive Cities (Boston: Wentworth Institute of Technology, 2012).

The most interesting and forward-looking architecture and urbanism emerging at the turn of the 21st century exhibit the characteristics of “reflexivity,” the key attribute of what some social scientists have identified as the age of second modernity. In light of a growing body of evidence of reflexivity in design, the question is whether or not this work contributes to the collective task of developing more effective design responses to contemporary challenges. This blog post presents the notions of “second modernity,” and the conditions of the “risk society” out of which they emerge, in order to set the stage for the evidence and interpretation that might follow. The urgency of this task is heightened by the fact that even in sociology where these terms of reference were first developed and articulated, concrete examples are few and far between. This work proceeds on the premise that, as has ever been the case, the conditions embodied in buildings and cities, and the experiences they coproduce with their human inhabitants, offer the most compelling evidence in support of what would otherwise suffer the fate of other abstract conjectures in history. Beyond simply supporting one of many possible historical framings of the recent past, the conceptual framework of the second modernity resonates with emergent modes of human engagement that are more holistic, flexible, participatory, and subject to continuous course corrections. To attempt to characterize epochal historical change without the benefit of a century or two of hindsight is to guarantee failure. But if carefully designed, incremental failure is one of the most effective strategies of the second modernity. Let us then deploy it, reflexively, on the study of modernity itself.

Historiographic Framings

Though the agricultural age has passed, our food is still largely grown, even if, for the moment, it is largely an industrial agriculture. In this spirit, we resist here the tradition of successive avant-gardes in which one period consumes the last. The trope of rupture, as in the premodern-modern-postmodern formulation, has distorted our understanding and undermined our capacity for effective action. Academic replication of capitalism’s planned obsolescence has driven tenure decisions at a high cost. Against the hubris of a collective Oedipus Complex that would leave us few forefathers with whom to stand with against the questions of history, we instead embrace what has come before as we acknowledge the rise of familiar forces even as they assume a novel dominance. They may augment or even eclipse, but rarely do they erase the previously dominant order of things.

If the early postwar period of high modernism can be identified by its large-scale interventions organized and executed through the agency of similarly significant and powerful state and corporate institutions, the period of the late 20th and early 21st century has been characterized, in contrast, as a time of rising fluidity, flexibility, and rapidly shifting associations. Corporations and nation states still dominate but have had to dramatically alter their capacity for rapid response and reconfiguration to survive. As the less agile of the two, the nation state has shown signs of weakening as the foremost structural feature of the global stage. Non-state actors, regional trade agglomerations (European Union, ASEAN), the city state (Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Tokyo), and the Internet are ascendent global structures. Just as economic and environmental flows are oblivious to political jurisdiction, so too are the networks of communication and collaboration that are mobilized in response.

In the marketplace of ideas, the currency of social sciences’ evolutionary emergences maintain a more stable exchange rate than the volatile boom and bust cycles of art and architectural periodizations. Freed from the self-destructive habits of aesthetic theory, the industrial age, gives rise through the “new international distribution of labor” to account well for globalization, the information age, and the “Network Society.” Within the humanities and social sciences, two of the more significant evolutionary emergences since the 1970s are found in the rising value of two key factors of analysis: culture and space. Even if slow to recognize the significance of the Cultural and Spatial Turns—terms of reference still rarely found in design disciplines— many have found it useful to extend more familiar methods of formal investigation and analysis to considerations of the social and cultural operations of space. Pierre Bourdieu’s mid-century anthropological research in the Algerian highlands instigated a path-breaking conceptualization of embedded systemic truths (doxa) and associated socio-spatial structures (habitus) that condition social behaviors and expectations. Once identified, Bourdieu was compelled to pursue his fieldwork conscious of the multiple ways that his Frenchness and his anthropological expertise fundamentally colored his observations and conclusions. His efforts to account for and see beyond the mental structures that he himself brought to the observations of village life were the beginning of his seminal explorations of “reflexivity.” Bourdieu’s ideas of reflexivity exerted a strong pull on Michel Foucault’s ideas of episteme as the basis for power and Gilles Deleuze’s writing on structure and agency. But it is in the work of continental sociology where we find the most direct source of the term “reflexivity” and the other keywords of the work that follows.

Risk Society

In the aftermath of Chernobyl the worst nuclear accident in history, German sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote Risk Society arguing in part that the human race could no longer consider the negative impacts of industrial technology and modernization as mere side effects to be remediated by further “technological fixes” and even more of same kind of progress. Instead, the emerging conditions of the risk society increasingly acknowledge the man-made nature of society’s most pressing problems, chief among these being threat of nuclear weapons, global climate change, and evidence suggesting the need to question the use of the word “natural” in reference to disasters. James C. Scott’s research yielded similar conclusions when he examined the strategies of resistance employed by indigenous cultures of remote Southeast Asia. Exploiting the weaknesses of state government formations, these “primitive” societies exhibit an unlikely persistence against state-sponsored acculturation campaigns. Scott noticed that these same weaknesses account to a large extent for some of the colossal failures of the 20th century state-led modernization project. Applying this analysis to 20th century planning, his Seeing Like a State became an instant classic in the history of modernization.

Recognizing uncanny resonances in their writing, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash jointly published extended essays along with Ulrich Beck in a single volume under the title Reflexive Modernization.  Rather than simply note the changing conditions of the historical moment in an all too common tacit acceptance that capacities for collective decision-making continue to erode, the authors point instead to emerging strategies sharing the attribute of reflexivity.


At the root of reflexivity is the notion of reflex: an action triggered by a stimulus without conscious thought as in a sneeze, laughter, or yawning. When the doctor’s rubber hammer strikes the tendons below the kneecap, she is testing a characteristic behavior pre-programmed into the human bio-mechanical system. Such a response is considered “reflexive.” A system characterized by reflexive response exhibits “reflexivity.”

A second meaning is exemplified in everyday life whenever a reflexive verb circles back to operate upon the subject, as when “I dress myself.” “Reflexive” is often wrongly conflated with “reflection” or “self-reflection” which is its more passive cousin. Beyond mere reflective observation, reflexive processes take action upon the agency that is acting.

Taken together, these two senses render “reflexive modernization” as the processes of modernization operating, in an automatic or semi-automatic manner, upon the agents themselves engaged in the act of modernization. We add “semi-automatic” here to account for reflexes that are themselves not biologically pre-programmed from birth, but that are the result of conscious design. We train ourselves to use our words instead of biting or hitting. We design and set the thermostat that ever after responds without our need to monitor the temperature.

Second Modernity

Although owing more to the literature of postmodernism than they may care to admit, the authors of Reflexive Modernization each report being driven to develop their ideas to counter what they see as its corrosive influences and culture of disengagement overseen by the intellectual left after 1968. Where postmodern literary techniques favor the deconstruction of meanings in whatever “texts” they may be found, these writers more precisely ground historical critique of high modernism identifying the rigid ossifications that constrain the kind of mid-stream course corrections that might have prevented Chernobyl. These are the conditions of the risk society in which we find ourselves.

The logic of high modernism continues. It manifests in a triumphal capitalism comforted by an abiding faith that market-driven technological innovation left to its own devices may yet resolve global climate change. The alternative presented by historical framings of modernity that have themselves been modernized—a perspective of “second modernity”—stimulates a questioning informed by systems and game theory: What accounts for the difference between Dutch water management landscapes and New Orleans prior to the man-made canal failure (triggered by the entirely ordinary hurricane Katrina)? Why did Scandanavia and North America so dramatically diverge in 1973 when confronted with the same global energy crisis and ecological devastation?

The shortcomings of deconstructionist approaches are found in their outcomes. The 2003 United States invasion of Iraq threw the champions of postmodern theory into an uncharacteristic spasm of introspection and self-doubt. They were suddenly ready to look at outcomes: What truth can be spoken to power once “truth” itself is the source of tyranny? What collective action can be mobilized against oppression once calls to action have been condemned as coercive? The response suggested by Jurgan Habermas, Richard Rorty, Bruce Lee, and the authors of  the second modernity is to focus less on “what is true?” to the more relevant questions of “what can be known?” and “what is useful?”

The emergent role of contingency at the turn-of-the-21st-century compels the counter-question: “useful for what?” The early modernists sought the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. Given the alternatives that have been tested since then, this answer is once more sounding pretty good to us a century later. With the post-Soviet triumph of capitalism, profit became more clearly the surrogate of this “good.” This condition was foreshadowed in the postwar mantra “What’s good for GM, is good for the country.” The eyes of a global media are glued to national economic speedometers to celebrate every sign of accelerating growth. But to do so requires a willful ignorance that the Gross Domestic Product ignores many “bads and disservices” as “externalities,” or worse, it registers the costs of war, ecological decline, prisons, etc. with the same enthusiasm as it does goods and services. The second modern perspective revives a capacity for judging outcomes against what can be known about reduced suffering and suggests that measuring “good” indirectly as per capita GDP is imprecise at best and cloaks problems of distribution.

Despite the obvious flaws in the “good” identified by the oligopoly formations of triumphal capitalism, its accumulation of power proceeds apace in part through effective deployment of reflexive feedback loops. The most effective loop is found in the global pyramid schemes of economic globalization. The machinations of this “world system” is veiled in the rhetoric of Adam Smith. Ironically, it is deployed to conceal the very extremes of capitalist formation that Smith and Marx both identified as a threat. Its attractive power lies in the elegant reflexivity of the free market’s “invisible hand”—even as it never rests in the systematic dismantling of the beneficially reflexive feedback loops of competition. The implications of a second modern perspective are equally unforgiving of the even more obvious rigidity of state socialism so rightfully vilified in Scott’s analysis of Soviet and Chinese agricultural planning.

Responsive Architecture, Reflexive Cities

The preceding serves as the framing narrative for an advanced undergraduate elective course taught in the summer of 2012. The students of this course each wrote a short chapter with an eye towards publication. When completed, this edited volume is the fourth in a series to have been produced out of advanced seminars examining the various topics falling within the larger conception of second modernity. In each case, the challenge has been to understand enough of the larger framework described in these concepts to speculate on the ways in which architecture and urbanism are playing out in our contemporary world. Despite the high enrollment numbers, each course has been taught in the manner of a seminar with weekly readings and short writing assignments designed to fuel vibrant, sometimes heated, discussions in class with light facilitation from the “tutor.”

The fourth Second Modernity Seminar was entitled “Responsive Architecture, Reflexive Cities.” The first class meeting attempted to lay out the terms of reference that constitute the framework of second modernity, although in more digestible terms than the ones appearing here. This was the only full-length lecture of the course. Given how challenging it is for young design professionals to gain traction in such a large-scale historical framing, first full week of the course was focused on the topic of phenomenology. Of particular interest, students were encouraged to identify the ways in which the five senses drive mental-visceral-spatial feedback loops that constitutes human experience of architecture.

The second week brought us into contact with a series of thinkers on the Cybernetics revolution and its influence in architecture. From the mechanics of a steam engine “governor,” to the postwar rise of computation, to the new age business culture of “continuous improvement” and Kaizen-style Total Quality Management, students gained confidence in distinguishing positive feedback (squawking microphones) from negative feedback (nuclear reactor control rods). Once identified, one of the challenges of any discussion of feedback loops is that they are so ubiquitous as to be rendered trivial. The if-then feedback loop of “contingency” mechanized in a vacuum tube, embedded in a transistor, multiplied in the k-zillions in computer chips is the key innovation of the information age. Identifiable in the operations of language, time, human interaction, it becomes the key feature of anything that can be called a “system,” accounting in part for the traction of systems theory approaches throughout the natural and social sciences.

Tethered back to architecture, the methods of using contingent relationships to generate form were traced through recent speculations of parametric and responsive architecture. Passing through the frozen movement of Zaha Hadid’s parametric forms, to the active mechanisms of Marc Goulthorpe and others, we debated what might be the useful outcome of all this responsiveness? Is it worth the risk of being crushed by my own moving wall? Even in the static outcomes of parametricism, is there anything that might be both quantifiable as a parameter, and useful? At the extreme edge where biological systems blur together with the mechanical we find the creepy interior world of Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground (figure 1). Are we destined to live as so many gastro-intestinal microbes inside the bellies of our buildings?

Despite the discomfort of moving walls within buildings, we are constantly negotiating public spaces with obstacles, projectiles really, moving at speeds that were beyond the range of human experience not so long ago. We are conditioned to constantly guard the boundaries of movement under pain of death. The unexpected license to occupy the streets, as in the liberated space of Times Square, can stimulate surprising euphoria.  A rich genealogy of scientific, sociological, and aesthetic work over the centuries have found confluence in sociography: the study of the spatial operation of social forces. Sociography provided the framework for examining the works of pioneering photographers of the 19th century such as Muybridge and Marey, the paintings and sculpture of Italian Futurists, the cinematographic analysis of William H. White, and countless scholars including Robin Evans, Jane Jacobs, and Kevin Lynch. Computer enhancements and video captures have extended the reach and impact of sociographic analysis (figure 2).

The reflexive feedback loops employed in the negotiation of the public realm is no more vividly demonstrated than in traffic. Tom Vanderbilt’s 2008 book is a treasure trove of evidence just waiting to be examined under the lens of reflexivity. To learn to drive a car is to train countless unconscious reflex reactions. To drive—even without texting, phoning, talking, singing, learning Italian, etc.—is to experience the miracle of reflexivity. The “traffic debate” class moved outdoors into Northeastern’s version of the Dutch “shared space” or woonerf streets where walkers, bikers, drivers are given no street markings, traffic signals or signs to give any single user a right-of-way. Instead, all is socially negotiated. One point after another was punctuated by evidence for or against playing out in real time inside our outdoor classroom.

Business gurus tell us: “to change something, measure it.”  My iPhone can measure every calorie consumed, burned, and stored as a way to drive portion control, exercise, and weight loss. How far we have come from powerless subjects ducking and covering against the inevitability of nuclear annihilation? With the claim that computer assisted games can change anything that is within our power to change, our devices make us the new masters of our destiny. What of design? Taking note that urban plans tend to be obsolete even before the PDF has uploaded, Winy Maas of MVRDV has developed the 21st century replacement of the planning report. It is a video game called Space Fighter. By articulating the specific rules that govern our actions as algorithms, the Dutch method of “extreme scenario testing” can play out in real time. Further, the dynamic interplay unfolds in response to changing conditions and unpredictable interactions with other players, something pioneered at MIT in the 1960s and by Buckminster Fuller in his “world game” (figure 3). Although the predictive value of the computer models in and of themselves is predictably low, the actual experience of repeated game play stimulates a feedback loop of learning. Players (planners) develop a degree of confidence in the kinds of reflexive relationships that yield beneficial outcomes, or reduce the probability of harm.

In week eight, the class was taken over by Bill Boehm and Felipe Delmont. Boehm led the students on an exploration of the “swamp,” a large dark area of Charles Jencks’ famous diagram of architectural “isms.” Buried in the swamp, the marginalized architectures of social engagement thrived in their isolation from mainstream architecture culture. Those who dare venture into this poorly-charted territory find that a thriving colony of worker bees get a lot done despite the conspicuous absence of any starchitect queen bee. Instead the emergent intelligence of learning by collective experience serves as well or better than the individual genius.

Felipe Delmont revealed the secrets of the “city of short steps” that has been found at the heart of the great cities of the world since humans first started living in close-knit settlements. Each of Delmont’s key characteristics of the “short steps” establishes an identifiable set of reflexive socio-spatial relationships.

The final week of the formal course was devoted to the topic of “network space.” Helen Nissenbaum in discussion with Kazys Varnelis explore the ways that the Internet refuses to restrict itself to cyberspace. Instead, increasingly routine invasions of privacy on line are making insidious inroads in real space. The 73-page legal disclosures we supposedly “agree” to contain fine print that relinquishes control of anything that can be known about us. As we saw in our “Games” week, quantifiable information is powerful and it is a power to influence what we buy, where we go, what we know, and how we know it. The Internet has given birth to “the Internet of things” and a new generation of objects and clothing with embedded devices. The ubiquitous surveillance of underground transit systems or of central London along with face recognition software has transformed the experience of space as has drone warfare fought from a joy-stick half-way around the world. As the global commodity flows manifested as architectures of global colonialism, the global financial, and now information, flows are manifesting in novel and unpredictable ways.

The intention of the course, as with each of the Second Modernity Seminars, is to test the usefulness of these terms of reference. Judging by the always interesting, often surprising, and sometimes brilliant exchanges in class debates, the lens of reflexivity has a place in the arsenal of young design professionals. The chapters that follow offer a snapshot of designers on the cusp of their careers. Many will go on to graduate school, some to teaching, but if history is any guide, they will all put in time in professional firms. Even if the tone of this introduction is more grounded than the postmodern equivalents of the past, it would be wrong to presume that the perspectives outlined here will shift the playing field upon which the careers of these students will play out. Instead, the hope is that when confronted with emergent phenomena, feedback loops (positive or negative), or reflexive relationships, they will perhaps recognize them as opportunities for collective action.

One of the insights of this historiographic framing is that the biggest problems of the 21st century are the outcomes of most successful solutions deployed during the 20th century. It was the narrowly conceived expertise of isolated professionals that conspired to reduce or eliminate the chance to catch and prevent secondary side-effects from undermining the primary benefits of modern progress. In a presciently reflexive moment, Einstein pointed out that “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.” It should surprise no one if applying the same approaches, we accelerate our demise. The approaches favored in a second modernity offer the chance, at the very least, of making a different set of mistakes. With the design and construction of effective feedback loops, perhaps the harm of this new generation of mistakes can be reflexively curtailed even as they emerge. If nothing else, it is useful for the next generation to expect more from an education than just a knowledge and appreciation of the world. This is the prerequisite for an effective professional life but it is not nearly enough. In the age of second modernity, it is essential to go beyond just making sense, to making a difference.


Beck, Ulrich. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992 (1986).

Beck, Ulrich, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash. Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Beck, Ulrich, Wolfgang Bonss and Christoph Lau. “The Theory of Reflexive Modernization: Problematic, Hypotheses and Research Programme.” Theory, Culture & Society 20, no. 2. April 2003. 1-33.

Beesley, Philip, Hayley Isaacs and Pernilla Ohrstedt, eds. Hylozoic Ground: Liminal Responsive Architecture. Cambridge, Ontario: Riverside Architectural Press, 2010.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977 (1972).

———. Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Boyer, M. Christine. “Societies of Control and Chrono-Topologies.” Critical Studies 32. September 2010. 203-222.

Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, 3 vols., New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996-1998.

Cowherd, Robert. “Notes on Post-criticality: Towards an Architecture of Reflexive Modernisation.” Footprint: Delft School of Design Journal: Agency in Architecture: Reframing Criticality in Theory and Practice 4. Spring 2009. 65-76.

———. “Sociography: The Spatial Operation of Social Forces.” unpublished manuscript. November 2011.

Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Edited and translated by Seán Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988.

Eakin, Emily. “The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn’t Matter .” New York Times. 19 April 2003.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. Translated by Colin Gordon et al. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Graafland, Arie. “Urban Mapping.” Space Fighter: The Evolutionary City (Game). Edited by Brent Batstra et al.. Barcelona: Actar, 2007. 29-61.

Jencks, Charles. The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Postmodernism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Lefebvre, R. Craig. “The Change We Need: New Ways of Thinking about Social Issues.” Social Marketing Quarterly 15, no. 3. September 2009. 142-44.

McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Nissenbaum, Helen and Karzys Varnelis. Networked Spaces, Reconstituted Subjects. Situated Technologies Pamphlets 9. New York: Architectural League of New York, 2012.

Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

———. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1974.

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