Diary of Knowledge

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Tag: self-deception

Architecture and Order

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 [1981], 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.


on politics, contingency and technology

.1) U.S and Europe seems to have some common trends in how they view each other and politics during the ongoing recession. In Europe a majority of the (interviewed) citizens were discontent with the last years of national financial politics. The only countries where people generally trusted how their politicians have handled the Euro crisis were Sweden and Germany. In Sweden 74% were favourable towards the reigning financial politics. Yet, according to the latest polls, Moderaterna are down by 4 percentage points since last year. So are we voting by the wallet or not? Or do we think to be able to get it even better with a Social Democratic government? Or, maybe the most probable conclusion, we shouldn’t care too much about mid-term political polls…

.2) I just started reading “Architecture Depends” by Jeremy Till. Ever since reading this (which is basically the second chapter of the book) I’ve been really interested in his writings. Here I will only comment on one small paragraph of what I’ve read so far.

On p.20 Till describes what still is one of the “criteria” for great architecture, namely autonomy. Great architecture is more than the life that surrounds it, it is untouchable by the taint of everyday life. What this is effectually doing is widening the gap between architects and non-architects. It’s a false division, in place to maintain power structures. Architecture is pure, people contaminate it, and great architecture defies this contamination. If we follow this line of reason, then great architecture is by definition inhuman.

Till is further arguing for this point by pointing out the (symbolical) relation between philosophy and architecture. Philosophy, trying to create the true/untouchable in the immaterial domain; architecture, trying to create the true/untouchable in the material. Till provides with ample examples of this relation.

Another example comes to mind. In “In Defense of Lost Causes” Slavoj Zizek argues that any ethics focusing on humanity itself by definition becomes subjective and thereby relative. The only set of ethics able to become eternal would thus be an inhuman ethics, ethics projected onto something else than humanity. Exactly where Zizek is trying to take this is somewhat unclear. We will have to wait and see. It is however basically the same argument as Till makes, just from the other side.

.3) Robert J Gordon argues that the time of economic growth might be over, that it was just a brief 250 year long period in human history. His argument is that growth is the byproduct of technological advancements, and that most productivity increasing inventions already have been invented. As written on “The Economist”, this might be a simplistic read of the latest decade if inventions. Some objections to Gordons argument:

1) The latest set of IT inventions are not per say productivity increasing, meaning that the benefit from them can not (yet) be counted in GDP per capita increase/year. IT is mainly about efficiency and streamlining, meaning chopping of the parts of production you don’t need rather than expanding production.

2) Cloudcomputing, crowdsourcing, digital layering of reality, 3D-printing and so on and so forth are still fairly new inventions. It might still take at least some more time before we can see their full potential.

3) Some (i.e. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee) follow Gordon’s argument to some degree, but claiming us to just have reached a new threshold; “autonomous vehicles, effective machine translation and voice recognition, and artificial intelligence are or soon will be deployable realities”.

.4) Google has now designed an online tool for you to create your own online courses.


Slavoj Zizek makes another point in “In Defense for Lost Causes”; we make a difference between what is natural (and thereby non-changeable) and what we can actually effect. For this, we don’t want the representational democracy to actually be a direct consequence of our (common) will, but rather something else. There is a need for discrepancy, for the unknown, for things to be non-fixed and even contingent. By not really being able to effect the outcome (except by ONE vote) we have to perceive it as decided, as “natural”. This is what gives representational democracy its legitimate power. Okay, Zizek is sort of a nut-head. But there is some sort of truth to it, the insecurity before each election, the polls and wagers. This could help to explain the strange relationship Swedes seem to have with our government. We applaud the financial politics during the Euro crisis, but we don’t want to feel responsible for it; we want someone to decide for us, we still want the enlightened despot.

We could add the Jeremy Till paragraph to this. We (as people in general) have an inclination towards the natural/eternal/true, but this perception is to 100% produced by ourselves. We are, basically, fooling ourselves; we want to lift “whatever” out of its dirty and normal context, creating something larger and holier to which we can belong. No matter how you look at it, it is a lie. Question, is it good to lie to ourselves? And can we still create, maintain and love the lie as soon as we know it is a lie?

A quick answer, once again following the reasoning of Zizek. In the end of his rant on Ecology Zizek states that “Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points and nonetheless the person is absolute for you”. Following this train of thought, the only conclusion can be to search for “truth” and to embrace it (contingent as it is). It could here also be noted that lying to yourself might make you happier, but then there is of course the difference between happy and being right.

And to finally comment on the dystopian conclusions drawn by Robert J Gordon. Personally I’m not too interested in “growth”, and it might be true that the last decade of inventions are not as key as previous when it comes to accumulating resources (e.g. comparing the iPad with industrial farming). But IT has the potential of being equally revolutionary. Google’s “make your own online course” is just an example of it. Though probably seen as entertaining/commercial, the very idea of online education actually questions the whole school system; who is teaching whom what? Technology, created by capitalist giant Google, that could actually promote anarchistic ideas of education, where everyone is both teacher and student, on a global scale. I argue this potential to be equally revolutionary to the consequences of industrialised agriculture.

reanimation II: on illusions, individual and en masse

.1) Indian scientist showed that a ”weeping cross” could be explained by capilar power and a nearby leaky drain. For this statement he was charged with ”blasphemy”.

.2) Classical psychology experiment from 68’ shows that teachers who believe to have ”good” or promising students actually makes their students better. In 68’ this was shown by the (randomly chosen) student’s enhanced results at IQ-tests.
Main explanations are teacher becoming more enthusiastic about teaching and treating their students with more respect.

.3) UK publication showing most religious (christians?) have more ideals in common with left-wing/liberals than with the right-wing (e.g. acceptance of immigrants, progressive policies, equality, politically active, volunteering, charity work and donations).
Still, the right-wing has claimed the religious group (just as much as the left (due to Marx?) has forsaken it).

.4) Women drinking lightly during pregnancy have kids which less problems than ”absolutists”. The latter is definitely NOT a cause of the first, rather a corralation. I would argue that it has to do with the intelligence and mind of the parent. A woman who can critically analyze scientific/medical advice is probably more intelligent/has a better self-esteem/independant, something that is genetically passed on to the children.

.5) Living conditions in Sweden, with different (social) classes spatially divided, has been in practice since the early 1900’s. Even in some suburbs with mixed social classes, the different building typologies (rental apartment blocks, townhouses, villas) were spatilly segregated.
Christer Björk argues this is due to the ideological idea that identity and meaning most easily is created in homogenous groups.
This can be seen as classical modernism architecture/planning.
According to Jeremy Till (and his, in my opinion excellent, article ”Architecture and Contingency”) this goes even further back; (bluntly put) ordering, establishing and maintaining the hegemonic power structure is the foundation of Architecture.
I’m also interested in neo-liberal arguments.
My speculation: buildings associated with working class people would reduce value (selling price/profit) of upper-class villas; on the opposite, upper-class villas would NOT increase the value of working-class building blocks. If this is true, there is an economical incentive for spatial segregation.

.6) In the Occupied Times, page 12, Jeremy Till argues that scarcity (and by it austerity) is a constructed concept and not a natural one. We are not running out of food, we are simply not distributing it well (overconsumption in north, starvation in south).

Scarcity and Austerity are used as a scare-tactic to keep hegemonic power structures in place (i.e. the capitalist ideology), e.g. how shrinking national budgets are used as an argument for privatization (even though costs are not cut but increased) or food scarcity is used to argue for large scale industrialized farming and genetically modifed plants (even though crop yield is not increased). Till counterposes this with ”natural scarcity”, which (I guess) might be environmental and ecological effects and peak-oil.

I would prefer him to stay consistent. In my eyes, all scarcities are constructed concepts, even those of sustainability. Slavoj Zizek has a great piece on Ecology as Ideology, scarcity and austerity is used in exactly the same way Till mentions, but for the Eco-Ideology instead of a Capitalistic. All issues of scarcity are dependant on our relation and use of resources. If we believe 7 billion people should be able to eat meat, then yes we will have scarcity. If we believe 7 billion people to eat potatoes (and vegetables), not so much scarcity.

Maybe: instead of austerity, we need reformation and reorganization. Or are scare-tactics a necessary tool for transforming society?


Do not underestimate the power of self-deception. If we truly belive something it might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This also goes into social and political (critical) studies. It is far easier to change the illusions than reality, by making people believe in certain constructed concepts, the concepts themselves become reality. Scarcity, austerity, freedome infringements etc. All can be implemented with sufficient illusions.
And maybe that is the crime of the Indian scientist, the crime of destroying illusions.

(originally written 120415)