This is a short essay I wrote for the course “Architectural Theory and Critical Theory” at the Urban Studies program at EKA, Tallinn, Estonia. It was last edited by 2012-05-14, but could probably need some more working through. Exact references exist and can be provided upon request.
The essay is basically a critique of contemporary architectural discourse and the role of the architect. I am using Jeremy Till’s article ”Architecture and Contingency” as a base for the analysis of writings of architectural theory, focusing on discourses since modernism and onwards. While going through major architectural theorists I aim to discuss (and present a personal view on) what truly is the role of the contemporary architect or urbanist.
Architecture and Order
– a short investigation in architectural discourse from modernism to today –
I have, during my last years of study, come to a rather straight forward conclusion; Architecture is self-deception. It has created, and is living, its own lie.
The architectural discipline today exists in a self-proclaimed state of autonomy, seen as a great art with its own intrinsic set of goals and problem definitions, totally disconnected from worldly issues and creating its own contextual domain. Instead of dealing with socio-spatial issues at hand, using knowledge from social science, architecture is mainly self-referential (or with slight input from (abstract) philosophical ideas).
Architecture has, since the writings of Vitruvius in the first century BC, preoccupied itself with the notion of order as its prime question.
In his ”Ten Books on Architecture” Vitruvius established the triad of ”utilitas, firmitas, venustas” (referred to by Till as commodity, firmness and delight) which became the main foundation on which architectural work is judged. This Vitruvian Triad forms a totality, where the three aspects rely on each other to create an ordered whole.
Vitruvius repeatedly used the architectural metaphor of ”the body”, i.e. the body seen as the human body, a totality or a perfect whole. The role of architectural production is thus to recreate this body, a symmetrical, autonomous and balanced singularity. This notion of order and a singular whole is not only predominant in architectural works but rather in the discipline itself.
Till here goes further in his analysis of the implications of the Vitruvian notion of order. It defined the architectural discipline and, more importantly, society itself as ordered wholes or bodies. ”The Vitruvian body, on which so much architecture still leans for support, is thus much more than a nice metaphor of coherence; it designates a ’closed, homogeneous, monumental, centred and symmetrical system.’”
During modernism order and wholeness was aggressively propagated in architecture and city planning; as an example we can quote Le Corbusier himself:.”The engineer, inspired by the law of Economy and guided by calculations, puts us in accord with universal laws. He attains harmony”.
The engineer, from whom the architect should draw inspiration, is the constructor of order and harmony. The architect is (through the ordering of Euclidean forms) the creator of beauty.
In dichotomy to this, Le Corbusier places disorder and arbitrariness. Two passages in Toward an Architecture show Le Corbusier’s discern for disorder most clearly. When describing the architectural process he argues that ”The plan is the generator. Without a plan there is disorder, arbitrariness.” and continues to claim that ”The obligation to order. The regulating line is a guarantee against arbitrariness. It brings satisfaction to the mind.”
In a short remark on the contemporary dwellings of industrialists he states that they are riddled with “[…] clutters of useless ad disparate objects […] in all manner of styles and ridiculous trinkets.”
Le Corbusier’s architectural ideology is a perfect example for the conclusion Till made on the Vitruvian Triad and its implicit ridding of incoherent elements. Just as the city can be described as the body, civil disorder can be described as illness. This metaphor, in conjunction with Till’s conclusion, is perfectly exemplified in the following quote of Le Corbusier: ”in city planning ’medical’ solutions are a delusion; they resolve nothing, they are very expensive. Surgical solutions resolve.”
Robert Venturi seems to advocate an architecture more accepting of contingent elements. When comparing Crawford Manor and Guild House (in Venturi’s terms a duck and a decorated shed, respectively) he clearly seems biased towards the latter. He argues that the plastic flowers decorating the homes of the latter building are ”[…] pretty and ordinary, they do not make this architecture look silly as they would, we think, the heroic and original windows of Crawford Manor”. At a first glance, one could interpret this stance as tolerant and inclusive; architecture welcoming contingency.
The problem is that this is not the defining trait of the architecture proposed by Learning from Las Vegas. Izenour, Scott Brown and Venturi undermine their own importance by admitting their analysis to be solely on an visual plane. The matters of ”[…]process, program and structure or, indeed, social issues in architecture […]” are not included.
Furthermore, this acceptance of contingency is proved invalid by their elaboration on the typology of the decorated shed. Their prime example is the Las Vegas strip casino, a building comparable to the Guild Hall only through the visual and eclectic use of symbolism. The aforementioned social analysis is non-existing.
I argue the Casino to be a disastrous example, utterly negating the tolerance of Guild House. It is a totally controlled space, every corner monitored in order to extinguish unwanted elements. Or as the authors themselves put it: ”Henri Bergson called disorder an order we cannot see. The emerging order of the Strip is a complex order.”
Through this we can see that Till’s conclusion of architecture as withdrawn from social matters and mainly self-referential holds just as true for the postmodernist architecture as it did for the modernist era. It exists to establish and justify order, in this case a more complex one.
Bernard Tschumi claims society to have become, as a result of ongoing modernisation, fragmented and dismantled. The regulating forces of society have moved from the centre of the city to its periphery. In the pre-modernised society there was a direct ”cause-and-effect” relationship between rules and everyday life, a relationship that now is lost.
His conclusions from this statement are seemingly humble. He only states this change in power hierarchy to have happened; ”de-, dis-, ex-. These are the prefixes of today. Not post-, neo- or pre-.”
He doesn’t say whether it is for better or worse or give any direct proposals of how to deal with it. It is merely a problem formulation. I would however argue that he by doing so, implicitly rather than explicitly, makes this to the core issue of contemporary architecture, ie. How do we handle the transformation of order and hierarchical structure?
In another chapter of the same book, Tschumi directly addresses the notion of order: ”As in the theoretical project The Manhattan Transcripts , and the built Parc de la Vilette, what is questioned is the notion of unity. […] The idea of order is constantly questioned, challenged, pushed to the edge.”
I would classify Peter Eisenman to be of the same line of thought as Bernard Tschumi, though maybe not drawing exactly the same conclusions.
In ”In Trails of Grotexts” he offers another angle of the same idea, initially presented as an argument made by one of his clients (I would here like to go slightly off topic; is this not the same as when we want to share something embarrassing about ourselves and project it onto ”a friend of mine”, efficiently freeing us from any responsibility or shame?).
”’Man overcomes nature through things that are rational, which are good, which are truthful, and ultimately these take on the characteristics of the nature itself, i.e. the beautiful.’ […] ’Today,’ he said, ’this is no longer the problem which science is addressing.’ […] the problem today for man is to overcome knowledge.”
Eisenman then goes back to the Vitruvian Triad and, with the invocation of Kant, reinvigorates the dialectic relationship within beauty itself; (natural) beauty and the grotesque. To address the displacement of objective from ”overcoming nature” to ”overcoming knowledge” he superimposes this dialectic to science instead of beauty (the word Grotext can be understood (not only as a play of words, but also) to fill the counter-role of (natural) science, much like Kant’s Grotesque in the case of beauty).
”The fear of uncertainty is now doubly present; the previous uncertainty of the natural, as well as the uncertainty of something other than the liminal, that is the uncertainty of knowledge that is within knowledge.”
In ”The Overexposed City” Paul Virilio writes on the same subject as Tschumi and Eisenman, there are obvious similarities (Tschumi even quotes Virilio in his text De-, Dis-, Ex-).
He argues that a fragmentation of society has taken place mainly through older, spatial relations in the urban context being replaced by virtual or technological relations. Technological advancement has brought along rapid cultural changes, changes for which ”Urban topology has, however, paid the price […]”
Virilio states that ”If a crisis exists today, it is first and foremost a crisis of references (ethical, aesthetic) […]”. Upon this statement he build a crisis of the Grande Narratives (rather than a crisis of modernity) and a transition to micro-narratives.
Tschumi, Eisenman and Virilio are all discussing the topic of order, the rapid displacement of order due to modernisation and ultimately what this means to architecture. If placed along an axis, measuring how to (physically) solve the problem the fragmented society, graded from more abstract to less abstract, I would put them as follows: Virilio (the most abstract), Tschumi and last Eisenman (most concrete).
Correlating to this axis is a second one; let us call it an axis of importance to (the discourse within) the discipline of architecture, measuring from more important to less important. Here the order would be the same: Virilio (the most important), Tschumi in the middle and last Eisenman.
There is a failure in how architecture tries to grasp this fragmentation of society and find architectural tools to interpret it. Let us here momentarily return to Jeremy Till: ”Contemporary architectural theory is thus littered with references to philosophical text with hardly a nod to current social theory.” This is the exact problem. As Tschumi and Eisenman tries to realise the implications of this newly emerged, displaced order, they stay in the self-referential realm of architecture. Even when Tschumi states that there is a constant questioning of order, or Eisenman argues that architecture must be more than simply a symbolic representation of displacement, they are truly superficial.
I argue that architecture, in the traditional meaning of the word, lack the tools necessary to deal with most contemporary problems. One narrative would be to say that architecture has lost the tools along the way, that architecture could not keep up with modernisation and that society evolved faster than architecture could handle.
However, I take it for much more credible that architecture never even had the tools to begin with. Architecture has never aimed for solving socio-spatial issues (solve should here be read as ”to create a beneficial solution according to utilitarian standards”).
”Remember: architecture was first the art of measure, of proportions.” This is a quote from Bernard Tschumi which I argue to prove me right (even though Tschumi (probably) would be of opposite opinion). Architecture was about proportions, end of the story. Socio-economic issues in the early societies were left to someone else, and as such has the world remained. We will soon enough return to this discussion, but let us before arriving at any final conclusion investigate another architectural theorist.
Most interesting of the (somewhat) contemporary architectural theorists might be Rem Koolhaas and how he discusses this aforementioned fragmentation of society. Quite interestingly he does not address the problem in the same fashion as Tschumi or Eisenman, but rather opts to redefine the problem itself.
What modernity truly created was not the modernistic, iconic buildings by Le Corbusier and so on, but what Koolhaas defines as Junkspace. When comparing this to either Tschumi or Virilio you realise that fragmentation does not consist of nothingness, as a first impression might suggest. Its matter is Junkspace.
”Junkspace is what remains after modernisation has run its course […]”
”Junkspace is a Bermuda Triangle of concepts […]; it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realisation. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition.”
Junkspace is explained as the commercialised and symbolic space of our surrounding, shopping malls, airports, subway systems and eventually the traditional urban city core. Koolhas introduces a second concept of importance to this essay; Bigness.
Bigness is the state in which a building generates such a huge mass that it can no longer be controlled by traditional architectural tools. Bigness creates its own context, it makes architectural honesty (as understood through modernism) impossible, it transcends architecture and even urbanity itself. It coexists, and competes, with the city.
My personal reading of Koolhaas is that he creates a dialectic relation within modernisation (or fragmentation if one so wants). The two components, together creating the synthesis of our urban space, are Junkspace and Bigness.
Koolhaas initially describes Junkspace as something ugly and problematic. He then, in what I would say is a typical post-modern manner, turns the problem up-side-down; he simply declares it ”not to be a problem”.
So what remain of his dialectic? Bluntly put; Junkspace is a problem generated by Bigness and Bigness is the tool by which we can handle Junkspace (a perpetuum mobile one could say).
Finally, Koolhaas creates a last dichotomy. In ”Bigness or the problem of large” he argues that ”Bigness = urbanism vs. architecture.” This is a topic which comes back in full force in his text ”What ever happened to Urbanism?”
Koolhaas describes an, almost parasitical, relationship between the disciplines of urbanism and architecture. Where urbanism creates opportunities, architecture abuses and drains them; urban interventions would be the nutrition on which architecture sustains itself. Of more importance to the topic at hand is the following quote from Koolhaas:
”If there is to be a ’new urbanism’ it will not be based on the twin fantasies of order and omnipotence; it will be the staging of uncertainty […]”
No matter how seductive, playful and strong Koolhaas’ rhetorics and visions might be, I still find no comfort in him as a theorist. Even though I do agree with most of his analyses, I strongly disagree on many of his ideological points.
To create architecture and urbanism as a parasitic duo, where the first is a constant consumer and the latter the feeder is to me morally irresponsible (we could here argue that Koolhaas has made no claim of being responsible, but arguing from an utilitarian point responsibility is a necessity). Koolhaas argument is a psychological rationalisation, freeing the architect to pursue whatever goal s/he wishes, without any need for conscience or thought. I would even argue this split to be unfair; placing all responsibility on a the urbanist.
It should however be said that Koolhaas in no way tries to place any guilt on the urbanist either. ”In a landscape of increasing expediency and impermanence, urbanism no longer is or has to be the most solemn of our decision; urbanism can lighten up, become a Gay Science – Lite Urbanism.”
Also this paragraph I would simply argue against on moral / utilitarian terms. In an open lecture Slavoj Zizek discuss the meaning of morality and duty.He states that: ”For Kant, you are not only responsible to do your duty. You are also responsible to define what your duty is.”
Thus, the impermanence of urban environment is not a justifiable reason to forgo discussions on morality or duty. Instead of making urbanism less responsible, I would rather see architecture to actually become responsible.
Even though Koolhaas clearly states the ”new emerging urbanism” to be one of uncertainty rather than of ”order and omnipotence”, I read it differently than how I read Till. If one is to promote contingency, one must question what contingency truly is. Uncertainty or contingency is not a goal in itself. In Till’s argument, order is the ridding of the Other, contingency is the inclusion of the Other. This is a dimension which is fully lacking from Koolhaas vision.
Finally, I would argue this to be the case in all texts analysed. Even where the topic of order is directly dealt with, such as in the deconstructivist discourse, the matter is discussed in a self-referential or highly abstract way.
On the level of the society we cannot leave the importance of order, to do so would be to propose anarchy. To truly refute order would be to refute reason and logic as well. This is clearly not what I propose.
Instead, we must redefine order. We must look at what power structures are in place, what they suppress and how they correspond to our ethical guidelines. Contingency is not the lack of order, but the critical rethinking of order.
Ultimately, for architecture and urbanism to deal with this issue they must become political and critical disciplines, and by doing so – truly becoming inter-disciplinary.