Craig Martin on Adhocism

Adhocism: Open Materiality and Localised Solutions

by Craig Martin

“One factor is constant through all the vernaculars: energy” (Jones, 1951:11)

It was an ad hoc summer of sorts.

On a recent research trip to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides examples of ad hoc practices abounded: the historic island black houses fashioned from local stone and driftwood; simple bungee ties utilised to hold down the lids of wheelie bins; discarded telegraph poles lashed onto the corners fittings of a shipping container to hold it in place against the windy torrent that batters the island. The container itself repurposed as a storage space for a croft house.

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Also this summer, at the Royal Geographic Society—Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference in August a session was convened by Philip Crang and Mia Hunt on ‘Ad Hoc Geographies’.

What perhaps links these two instances is an interest in the ad hoc as a way of acting in the world: a way that is attuned to the localised immediacy of need as a form of practical necessity. The examples from Lewis speak of the urgency that is required to combat the weather conditions on the island. Rather than tie down the container with a standardised, mass-produced solution the use of redundant telegraph poles highlights a sensibility that is aware of both the economic commonsense of doing so, and crucially the immanent potentiality of ‘things’ to become something else. It also testifies to the inherent inventiveness in recognising the value of these discarded items. Such practices can be seen as processual enactments of the everyday where individuals negotiate with the things to hand and the problem to be resolved. In this way seemingly mundane, practical approaches to the material world foreground a range of contemporary debates within the field of design cultures, including open materiality and localised solutions. I think through these two main areas in this short piece.

Interest in the ad hoc has been particularly enlivened with the republication in 2013 of Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver’s book Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation, originally published in 1972. Its re-emergence at this time is telling, for the book’s expanded and updated sections locate the adhocist sensibility with the self-organisation of the Arab Spring uprisings, through the issue of intellectual property in the digital age, to the ‘third industrial revolution’ of rapid prototyping and 3D print technologies (Birtchnell and Urry, 2013). Linking these diverse socio-cutural changes are the politics of self-organising systems, open source design, and consumer empowerment. However, such shifts in the social fabric were already present in its original guise in 1972: for Jencks and Silver an ad hoc approach challenges the apparent centralised power of Modernity. Opposed to the passive acceptance of standardised solutions the adhocist forefronts the role of improvised negotiations within the localised contexts of place, materiality, and vernacular technology. The consumer is not passive in the face of professional planning and mass-production – rather, they are active participants in the material engagement with and constitution of the world.

The book, and the ad hoc more broadly, is clearly aligned with Jane Jacobs’ (1962) work on locally-generated urban vibrancy, James C. Scott’s (1998) critique of centralised planning, and of course the long genealogy associated with the bricoleur (Levi-Strauss, 2004), where the engagement with the material world is a process of ongoing negotiation with extant things. The definition of adhocism as “a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand” (Jencks and Silver, 2013:9) locates it squarely within the territory of the bricolage. Other important precedents resonate with the Jencksian version of ad hoc practices. Within the field of the sociology of systems design Robert Boguslaw’s (1965) The New Utopians: A Study of System Design and Social Change argues that an ad hoc approach differs from other forms of design thinking in that it is not beholden to a particular paradigm, rather it is employed when there is a problem “for which no solution currently exists” (Boguslaw, 1965:22). This suggests the unfolding nature of the ad hoc: the attuning to a particular moment, purpose or locale. However, for Boguslaw the ad hoc approach is an interim solution, only valuable until such a time that a longer-term solution is available. He sees it as unpredictable and beholden to the temporary. Jencks and Silver revel in this: they celebrate what Boguslaw disparagingly terms “a seat-of-the-pants technique” (1965:22)

The implications of this ‘seat-of-the-pants’ approach are telling. In the context of materiality a thing is not fixed in its designated purpose: it is part of an ongoing movement of change, open to a shifting realm of usefulness (and redundancy). The telegraph pole appears stable in its initial role, however such seeming stability is never permanent. Either through happenstance or design its new life as a brace against the Hebridean weather highlights its open, unfinished qualities. Ad hoc things can be described as undergoing “continual development so that they are no longer fixed” (Julier, 2009:96). They produce new formations as they unfold over time, or enter into new interactions with unexpected others, both human and nonhuman (see Michael, 2000:42). Utilising Heidegger’s concept of phüsis Cameron Tonkinwise notes that, “all things are in motion, especially those concrete everyday things which we moderns think are ‘at rest’” (Tonkinwise, 2005:23). Objects are always in a state of transformation, even though, as Tonkinwise states (2005:25), the finished state of mass-produced objects affords them a sense of remaining static. The adhocist recognises the twitchiness of things: their unruliness and propensity towards change. But they also recognise the latent potentiality of the thing, particularly its material affordances. The telegraph pole has the potential to become something beyond its intended function (Redström, 2008). The pole contains its other use as a brace. According to the psychologist J.J. Gibson (1986:127) affordances are offerings. In the original context he describes the way a specific surface affords, or offers, an animal a ground on which to lie. A soft blanket of leaves has a different set of affordances than a stony path. Gibson’s theory of affordances has become an important resource within design theory particularly in relation to the notion of use. Donald Norman (1999) has argued that affordances are revealing, for they are concerned with how “the appearance of [a] device could provide the critical clues required for its proper operation” (39, my emphasis). Gibson’s own work takes a less deterministic approach to affordances, insisting instead: “the fact that a stone is a missile does not imply that it cannot be other things as well. It can be a paperweight, a bookend, a hammer” (1986:134). Adhocism then nestles nicely with Gibson’s notion that the affordances of material things are open to a multitude of uses (and abuses). The telegraph pole can be a brace against the harsh conditions on Lewis, just as it can be a battering ram.

The notion of affordances is also useful for considering the role of methodological and spatial proximity within adhocism. Although one may be able to recognise the immanent potentiality within a mass-produced object, this is determined by the specific context of application. Rather than the generalised solutions of retail consumption an adhocist sensibility is localised, intimately attuned to the problem at hand and its various social and geographical circumstances. This resonates with the classic notion of the vernacular as a mode of social and cultural expression driven by local knowledge, traditions and materials. To once again take the example of the telegraph pole: the problem of holding in place the shipping container was resolved by an intimate awareness of the weather conditions on the island, the landscape, and also through the localised context of materials that were to hand. Whilst this was about expediency, and reducing costs, it was also driven by an understanding of the problem itself: to which there was not necessarily a standardised or ‘off-the-shelf’ solution. For Michel Serres the issue of localised proximity is central to the question of method. In his interviews with Bruno Latour he discusses the need to draw on “an appropriate method from the very problem one has undertaken to resolve” (Serres with Latour, 1995:91). Serres disputes the sanctity of the generalised qualities of grand theories, valuing instead an approach that is driven by local, grounded awareness of the situation at hand. One has to be as close as possible to the problem in order to fully understand how to deal with it. Reflecting upon his own method, Serres talks of how,

 “Singularities were important, local detail for which a simplistic passkey was not sufficient. On the contrary, what was necessary was a tool adapted to the problem. No work without this tool. You have to invent a localized method for a localized problem. Each time you try to open a different lock, you have to forge a specific key, which is obviously unrecognizable in the marketplace of method. Your baggage quickly becomes quite heavy” (Serres with Latour, 1995: 92).

Although the adhocist’s toolkit may be heavy the localised, singular approach to dealing with a problem is all about energy, both in terms of Barbara Jones’ (1951:11) reading of it as a liveliness of spirit, and also a form of effort. It may be hard work but an adhocist sensibility is rewarding as it forefronts how apparently minor inventive practices are inherently creative acts of ‘prosumption’ (Knott, 2013). Individuals and communities actively create their material environments. Opposed to a privileged group of practitioners trained in the ability to shape our material world the adhocist jettisons the need for the professional designer or problem solver (Beegan and Atkinson, 2008). In doing so they demonstrate a highly attuned knowledge and practical understanding of material objects and localised affordances. Theirs is an intimate awareness of the material potentiality of everyday things. Adhocism foregrounds the need to consider the active entanglement between things and their use; it propels us into engaging with the inherent openness of things. Above all, adhocism draws our attention to the “flood of new possibilities [that] enter the world” every time we encounter things (Jencks and Silver, 2013:43).


Beegan, G. and Atkinson, P. (2008). ‘Professionalism, Amateurism and the Boundaries of Design’. In: Journal of Design History. Vol.21(4). pp.305-313

Birtchnell, T. and Urry, J. (2013). ‘Fabricating Futures and the Movement of Objects’. In: Mobilities. Vol.8(3). pp.388-405

Boguslaw, R. (1965). The New Utopians: A Study of System Design and Social Change. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall

Gibson, J.J. (1986). ‘The Theory of Affordances’. In: The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. pp.127-143. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Jacobs, J. (1962). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. London: Jonathan Cape

Jencks, C. and Silver, N. (2013). Adhocism: The Case for Improvisation [expanded and updated edition]. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Jones, B. (1951). The Unsophisticated Arts. London: Architectural Press

Julier, G. (2009). ‘Value, Relationality and Unfinished Objects: Guy Julier Interview with Scott Lash and Celia Lury’. In: Design and Culture. Vol.1. No.1. pp.93-104

Knott, S. (2013). ‘Design in the Age of Prosumption: The Craft of Design after the Object.’ In: Design and Culture. Vol.5(1). pp.45-68

Levi-Strauss, C. (2004). The Savage Mind. Oxford: University of Oxford Press

Michael, M. (2000). Reconnecting Culture, Technology and Nature: From Society to Heterogeneity. London: Routledge

Norman, D.A. (1999). ‘Affordance, Conventions, and Design.’ In: Interactions. May-June. pp.38-42

Redström, J. (2008). ‘RE:Definitions of Use’. In: Design Studies. Vol.29(4). pp.410-423

Scott, J.C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press

Serres, M., with Latour, B. (1995). Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Tonkinwise, C. (2005). ‘Is Design Finished? Dematerialisation and Changing Things’. In: Willis, A.M. (Ed.). Design Philosophy Papers: Collection Two. pp.20-30. Ravensbourne: Team D/E/S Publications

craig_martinCraig Martin is Senior Lecturer in Design Context at the School of Design, The University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on three substantive areas within the social context of design and material cultures. The first of these is concerned with how distributive space can be used to critically interrogate the global contexts of commodity mobilities within the design process. The second considers new forms of material expression associated with 3D printing technologies, focussing on its impact on what material culture might become. Thirdly, he deals with the sense of place elicited through spatial atmospherics, particularly how we engage with the ‘feelings’ of a particular site.


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