Etiquette and Architecture

A few months back, I was surprised to receive an email from Senator Franken’s daughter.

Dear Joseph,

Mom had a great idea. Our dad’s birthday is coming up — and the last thing he needs is another pair of socks. So, this year, we decided we should get him what he really wants — the support he needs to keep fighting for Minnesota families.

For every $1000 donated, she went on to explain, they’d light one of the 61 candles on his birthday cake.

It’s a strange and wonderful time to be alive. I, a guy living in Texas, can get an email from a Minnesotan senatorial staff collectively posing as their boss’s daughter. Their email even includes the forwarded email from mom (Al Franken’s wife Franni), with the original birthday gift idea. By the time I’ve reached the bottom of the email, my generosity is implicated not just in the happiness of the Senator’s 61st birthday, but the future of Minnesota families. Specifically: if I didn’t donate, Al Franken’s celebrations would involve a cake studded with unlit candles.

But the broader situation is equally absurd: what about the fact that we don’t think about how weird it is to get this sort of email, that we even expect it? Thousands of people must have seen this email. How many of them believed this elaborate fiction? And, whether or not they believed the senator was unaware of a plot to blackmail his supporters into donating by holding hostage the candles on his birthday cake, how many actually considered the concrete facts of this melodrama while making the decision to give him birthday cash?

A critical reading of this episode might suggest that Al Franken’s staff believes his supporters are morons. This would, I think, also be an incorrect reading, to which I’ll propose the following alternative: this modality of “fictionalization” is just the way things are done, or said, today. We expect to be bombarded with such calculated narratives from every direction. It’s a kind of discursive etiquette, by which I mean the fictionalization might be wholly transparent (i.e. we don’t buy it), while still having pervasive and subtle social effects. Our awareness that it’s a performance changes the effects and meaning, but they’re still there.

To apply all this to the e-mail above: we know it’s a ruse, but it’s the kind of play we anticipate. In any case, it’s slightly more interesting than another generic plea for money. It’s so normal that I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the only mention of this bit of absurdity in the whole wide internet. (For what it’s worth, thirty seconds of Google searching corroborated this hypothesis.)

Our everyday is packed with exaggerations that uplift quotidian events to the status of narratives, thickened and punctuated with plots and characters. This is explicitly the role of art in Camus’ and Arendt’s writing. Camus argues, for example, that the novel’s essential performance is to oppose the absurdity of reality with a world that, for justices and injustices, beginnings and its endings, is comprehensible and meaningful. Something of this understanding is shared in Arendt’s description of art and, in particular, the public monument: Action echoes and ripples infinitely and endlessly outward, but art can memorialize it, giving to certain events the permanence that Action lacks. Both authors have a sense that reality is too complex and too fast – inhumanly so. The narrative constructs a world alienated from our immediate experience, one where things are organized, curated, and broken up so that they can be gawked at, and perhaps understood. We know these stories aren’t “real,” but – like etiquette – they’re useful.

Here’s the big surprise: I think this is all directly related to architecture.

Reinier de Graaf goes to the Berlage and gives his lecture on megalopoli(tic)s. At the end, the event’s host asks him about AMO’s methods. De Graaf is initially reluctant to give away trade secrets, but eventually he relents: “We operate on hunches.” A student jumps on the word:

STUDENT: Hunches. . . correspond to Freud’s working way. . . . And today he’s been extremely discredited in the psychology world because he was not… this way of working on hunches was not believable today. And so his theories are really not taken seriously in today’s… given the level that psychology science has reached.

DE GRAAF: Yes, but at the same time Freud is great, because he’s so persuasive. And that he has in common with Le Corbusier and that Freud has in common with Karl Marx. Because ultimately all that they produce is in a form of persuasion, but I think – be that as it may – it still makes the work very powerful, even though one could argue the damage Le Corbusier’s thoughts have done to the city is enormous, it’s at the same great. I hate to read psychoanalysis; I love to read Freud. I hate to read about Karl Marx; I like to read Karl Marx.

In my half-joking, half-serious post before, I put “psychology” on both lists for precisely the reasons that bubble up in de Graaf’s response. Freud’s “hunch-based narrative” of psychological (and even historical) development provides artful, compelling explanations that make his work – discredited or not – enjoyable to read. This rhetorical strategy is apparent not only in OMA/AMO’s oeuvre, but in de Graaf’s decision to end his lecture with a series of provocative images – the US flag all in Communist red, for example – and his claim that the lecture is “partly a joke,” by which he meant it was a story and not necessarily all “true.”

In this sense, OMA’s “hunches,” Freud’s writing, and Al Franken’s donation request all recognize the performative potential of a sort of “narrative exaggeration.” But the architectural use of this strategy is not unique to OMA. Isn’t Tschumi’s circulation diagram of Lerner Hall a “joke” in the same way as de Graaf’s presentation? What about Peter Eisenman’s projects, whose diagrams are both more and less than the buildings themselves? Alejandro Zaera Polo’s “Hokusai Wave” article is clearly about how architects tell stories, but what if he had successfully justified the Yokohama project to a client in its original Kwinterian vernacular? Wouldn’t he still be telling a story to grant the design a kind of singular, virtual-conceptual coherence that the experience of the built work would never possess?

One problem with these examples is that they start to suggest the fictionalization ends when the design has been explained. But my intent with introducing this kind of storytelling outside the architectural context (i.e. with the Al Franken email) was to emphasize that our lives are saturated with these narratives. We’re not just dealing with architectural marketing (or even the design process); the narrative modality is always operative. These narratives don’t paper over a separate, “authentic” reality, they are part of our experience of that reality (or architecture project), and they constitute our experience as much as they reflect it. When we diagram a building, the fact that the diagram doesn’t “authentically” reflect the experience of that building doesn’t change the fact that using a diagram to design the building has an effect on what the building does. Again, Al Franken’s daughter didn’t really send that email at her mother’s prompting, but the implicit narrative that this introduces still effects its social performance.

The problem for architecture is the need to recognize that, because there is no one-to-one relationship between narrative and effect, we can’t just hold ourselves responsible for the former. If every story we told came true, we would only be responsible for telling the right stories. Instead, we’re in a much more precarious position: we tell stories that might come partly true, and then we’re culpable for the way the whole thing unfolds – happily ever after or otherwise. We have to remember that our stories are stories without concluding that this means they’re powerless. We don’t think etiquette is “true,” but we know these rituals are influential. More importantly, knowing this gives us the option of not following them when it comes to it.

Inverting the Natural Order

In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau won first prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Académie de Dijon. His essay, Discours sur les sciences et les arts, was basically an extended condemnation of the things in its title. In the state of nature, he argued, life had been simple and people had been good – until someone made the stupid mistake of trying to improve things by inventing the arts and sciences. Suddenly, people were unequal, life was complex, and things were generally worse in every way.

Three years later, Marc-Antoine Laugier published Essai sur l’Architecture (I’ve remarked on the entertainment value of the extended title elsewhere.) In the primitive hut, Laugier argued, things had been simple, and architecture had been good. Then architects went and mucked things up by inventing such architectonic chimaeras as pilasters, square columns, and the placing of columns atop pedestals. In short, architecture became more complex and generally worse in every way.

Preceding this list of “defects,” Laugier’s Essai retells the hypothetical trials and tribulations of a man whose circumstances appear similar to those one might imagine in Rousseau’s state of nature:

Let us consider man in his first origin without any help, without other guide, than the natural instinct of his wants. He wants an abiding place. Near to a gentle stream he perceives a green turf, the growing verdure of which pleases his eye, its tender down invites him, he approaches, and softly extended upon this enameled carpet, he thinks of nothing but to enjoy in peace the gifts of nature: nothing he wants, he desires nothing; but presently the Sun’s heat which scorches him, obliges him to seek a shade.

We know what happens next: Laugier, apparently having reached the limits of his narrative creativity, steals the plot of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. First, the primitive man seeks shelter under a tree, but the rain penetrates the leafy canopy and he gets wet. Next he hides in a cave, but it’s too dark, and the air is musty. Finally, driven by the “inattentions and neglects of nature,” he turns to architecture as a last resort.

But if times seem tough for our primitive man, they’re tougher for Laugier’s argument. In his origin story, shelter is the first “need” which goes unmet by nature. Laugier, however, wants architectural principles to accord with the natural order – the one he just argued architecture necessarily suspends. In an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction between origin and teleology, Laugier declares that good architecture consists in “the imitation of [nature’s] proceedings.” There is, of course, quite a difference between the descriptive claim that “architecture is part of the natural order” and the normative claim that “architecture should imitate the natural order,” but the latter is problematic even apart from this comparative context. Since Laugier describes architecture as the consequence of nature’s insufficiency, the reintroduction of nature as architecture’s proper muse is somewhat baffling.

Laugier’s conflation of “is” and “ought” is exactly coincident with the need for a mimetic accommodation of their inherent contradiction in the context of his argument. Moreover, it reflects the divergence between Rousseau’s and Laugier’s narratives. Rousseau’s state of nature operates historically (even if this history is a hypothetical one.) By comparison, Laugier’s state of nature is an ahistorical set of conditions; if they are broken out of necessity, they will be restored through proper imitation.

Today, at least from a scientific and philosophical standpoint, this paradigm has been inverted. Mimesis of nature is generally viewed as arbitrary, or it cloaks itself in the “performative” dimension of biomimicry. Meanwhile, today’s post-humanist scientism postulates that the conceptual opposition of Nature and Culture is false: everything is always-already acculturated, and part of what we might describe (admittedly with a slightly different and less mystical meaning) as “the natural order.” But it doesn’t seem coincidental that the diminution of pseudo-deductive rationales for design and the ascendency of inductive justifications based upon “effects” and “performance” have reintroduced a set of distinctly Rousseauian anxieties. The pessimism surrounding politics today, our concerns about the future of the environment, and our conflicted view of scientific and technological “progress” resonate with Rousseau’s cautionary reflections on the assumed Goodness of civilization in eighteenth-century France. We have, interestingly, come to the same conclusion as Rousseau: we don’t have the utopian option of waking up tomorrow and throwing off these trappings, so we’ll do what we can to live with them.

Some Architects Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Jump the Shark

The discourse on architectural preservation has dreamt for itself an antagonist. He sits in the meeting and shouts “Everything should go back to the way it was!” He appeals to Authenticity, Nostalgia, the Good Ol’ Days, and so on. Then the architect in the back of the room stands up and gives a passionate and outrageously reasonable Sorkinesque monologue in order to enlighten this doofus. “What about the drop ceiling added in the 1960s?” our hero asks. “Does that bit of historical authenticity deserve restoration?”

The fact that this drama is largely hypothetical hasn’t stopped it from distracting us. Even though we know the right answer, we keep pretending the question is “Preservation or adaptive reuse?” Today, the important question is “What strategies and tactics should be deployed in adaptive reuse?” (After all, there are more abandoned warehouses that need to be converted into industrial-chic lofts than there are Colloseums.) While we sit and mock the conservatism of our imaginary straw man preservationist, adaptive reuse gets a free ride as the enlightened position. Given that the actual milieu of adaptive reuse tends to include gentrification, higher tax revenues, and a singular aesthetic style, it’s strange to think of it as the controversial position, let alone a critical one.

OMA’s past contributions to the adaptive reuse genre (built and textual), though in part responsible for inventing this discursive bogeyman, have not fallen prey to the problem of “simplistic opposition.” But a pair of articles in Domus about their proposal for Venice’s Il Fondaco dei Tedeschi has me a bit worried. The first article, “For a reflection on res publica and construction of new economies,” by Matteo d’Ambros, argues for a deeper debate about the abstract (social, economic, political) issues the project raises. In response, Michele Brunello – a Venetian – wrote an article titled “The Battle of Venice,” which agrees, but expresses the further concern that what’s really lacking is willingness to engage the specifics of OMA’s project in relation to those larger questions.

Brunello’s article is somewhat more explicit than d’Ambros’s in terms of the results it wants out of that initial discussion about the “big questions.” In having that debate, Brunello hopes, Venice will remember it’s a city, not just a commodity. In fact, for the second discussion to be valuable, we need the criteria for judgment that would emerge from the first discussion.

OMA and AMO sell their projects on edgy narratives – often recognizable as manifestations of Rem’s interest in the paranoiac-critical method. Brunello’s call for attention to the specificities of the Fundaco project reflects his concern with embracing that sort of audacity for its own sake. The project was inevitably going to be controversial: it’s the conversion of a thirteenth-century palace into a department store in the middle of Venice. The problem with this project is linked to the problem identified in the introduction: instead of talking about what the project does (or even should do), the question is whether or not the project should be done. Because the project occupies the “correct” discursive position (“Adaptive reuse in Venice!”), there’s no debate about how it occupies that position.

Architects are used to fighting for their work and for new ideas; this does not mean that a project which provokes a fight is a good project, or that it’s a good fight. The latent source of discomfort in Brunello’s article is that Rem is committed to the idea that Venice (and eventually Europe) cannot be anything other than a theme park. Indirectly, Brunello’s op-ed is a dramatization of the implications of Rem’s bombastic theorizing. Suddenly the amoral edginess that was so seductive when used to criticize airport interiors seems a bit scary. It’s one thing for Rem to say Venice is a museum; it’s another to read the anxious testimony of a citizen being transformed into an exhibit.

Simplistically, the project description for the Fondaco is the same as usual (for OMA, that is – we’re not talking about Renzo Piano’s stance on preservation here). There’s the radical reinterpretation of context. There’s where they lay out new tactics for operating within that context. There’s the quiet pause that emphasizes their adamant refusal to give a conspiratorial wink. There’s the avowedly subversive fusion of norm and projection. We see this, for example, in the repeated insistence upon the limited scope of intervention. This deflects the anticipated criticism that the project damages the continuity of the city’s historical image. Equally, however, it serves to verify OMA’s critical narrative that sees Venice as akin to Disneyland. Another point of emphasis – the high ratio of public space to commercial space – possesses similar multiplicity. Although OMA’s project description never mentions it, the client is not the city of Venice (as one might imagine given that OMA does call attention to the building’s current use as a post office and to its historic status), but the Benetton Collective (of Colors of Benetton fame.) By highlighting the relatively low volume of explicitly commercialized space, OMA seeks to paint the project as civically minded, an oblique reassurance in the face of the city’s apparently imminent privatization. But this, too, fits with one of OMA’s standard narratives, initiated in their Prada projects’ claims that a store might also be a museum and that shopping is the last vestige of public life.

So the narratives woven through OMA’s Fundaco project clearly pick up on older narratives from their oeuvre. But, as d’Ambros and Brunello argue, there’s no critical or public attention to whether or not they’re the right narratives. People will accept privatization of their city as long as a certain percentage still operates as public space, so we’ll do architecture that gives them this privatized public space. The city is a museum, thus we make architecture that’s reproduces the city as a museum. The worst thing that could happen to OMA is for it to become content to reify existing narratives – even their own – without questioning them.

Back in college, some friends and I came up with a fairly elaborate and well-evidenced theory that Jeff Goldblum wasn’t supposed to be in Jurassic Park. Rather, we suspected, a drug-addled Goldblum had stumbled onto the set one day during filming and hadn’t realized he was in a movie. (This would be the ultimate “cool performance” in the Whiting/Somol sense.) His unscripted musings and wholly authentic reactions to the animatronic dinosaurs added so much to the film that Spielberg decided not to dispel the delusion.

With the Fundaco proposal, OMA has outdone Goldblum: the circumstances are the same, except that you have to replace Jeff Goldblum with Michael Crichton.

Old-School Titles

I’ve been looking at a translation of M. Laugier’s Essay on Architecture. Here is the full title (as best as I can reproduce it given the limited typographic capabilities of this medium):

An ESSAY on ARCHITECTURE; IN WHICH Its True PRINCIPLES are explained AND Invariable RULES propoſed, for Directing the Judgment and Forming the Taste of the GENTLEMAN and the ARCHITECT, With regard to the Different Kinds of BUILDINGS, the Embellishment of Cities, And the Planning of Gardens.

Oh yes, that’s a long-s in “proposed.” Also, to get a sense of the full awesomeness, you’ll have to imagine for yourself the liberal use of small-caps.

Two Critical Problems

I was recently called out for something I said in the post about Sarah and Somol’s Doppler Effect article. To paraphrase myself in an imaginary newfound Texan twang: “What we need’s a good ol’-fashioned critique of criticality!” Obviously I didn’t write that critique. If I were to write it, it wouldn’t be here – the style of writing I’ve adopted here (i.e. the only one that can prevent me from getting bogged down and writing nothing at all) doesn’t seem appropriate for that endeavor.

Still, as someone who complains about writing of the “Towards a…” persuasion, I’ll at least concede my hypocrisy and try to be more specific in my complaints about critical practice.

The “Towards a…” reference is a bit misleading given that Corb’s seminal contribution to that genre had ‘scriptions of both the pro- and pre- variety, so let me explain what I mean by that. The “Towards a…” genre is the one where someone just lays out a foundation and then proposes that something more projective/productive (architecture, arguments, whatever) should be erected upon it. For example, if you only read the first part of Zaera-Polo’s “The Politics of the Envelope,” you’d think it was an example of the “Towards a…” genre, because (in my recollection at least) it basically ends by entreating architects to consider the latent potential of the architectural envelope. But in Part II of the essay, Alejandro establishes his dimensional typologies and points to specific social, environmental, and economic implications of each, absolving the essay of its earlier “Towards a…” sins. Part I points in a direction and says “Let’s go there!” Part II goes there.

In a sense, this “postponement” is inextricable from the dialectical methods of modern criticism: all critical practice thinks of itself as operating within the caesura between (to borrow from Marx again) “is” and “ought.” But different discourses make different judgments about what constitutes “fashionably late” in terms of arriving at the various “ought” parties they’ve planned. Architecture has a pretty good sense of when to show up, but tends to just bring the half-empty 40 it drank while walking from some other party that was getting a bit slow for its taste.

Generally (and productively), architecture keeps the “critical pause” fairly short (as with Zaera-Polo, who limited it to the time between publishing Part I and Part II of the same essay). It gains this ability by being pragmatic about the “oughts” it pursues and how it pursues them. But sometimes architecture is convinced (from within or without) to adopt more utopian goals and to discover the patience that traditionally belongs to other discourses. This is the first risk of indulging in critical practice, and it brings us to K. Michael Hays and his essay “Critical Architecture.”

Every good critic needs antagonists. Hays defines his in the essay’s subtitle: “Between Form and Culture.” Each term corresponds to a critical position: the former considers “architecture as autonomous form,” while the latter engages it “as an instrument of culture.” Hays criticizes these paradigms for the narrow view of architectural agency entailed by their interpretive frameworks; unsurprisingly, he concludes that each falls short for failing to include the contributions of its opposed term. Hays seeks to validate an alternative interpretive framework through a close reading of Mies’ architecture, one which reveals the critical potential of a more complex encounter between form and culture.

Hays’ first step is to provide Mies with his own antagonist – a target for whatever it is that’s critical about the architecture. In his first examples, the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper and the Alexanderplatz project, he argues that Mies has his sights set on the problems of the modern metropolis described by Georg Simmel. “The problem for the intellectual,” Hays writes, “was how to oppose this debilitating dismay, but first how to reveal it – how to provide a cognitive mechanism with which to register the intense changes continually experienced in the modern city.” (K. Michael Hays, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form” Perspecta 21 (1984), 18).

There’s the postponement: we’re told about the problem (the despair of life in the city), but it’s asserted that, rather than solving it, intellectuals first needed to see it (“better,” one assumes). In this regard, Hays points to “the [twentieth] century’s early artistic experiments,” which depicted “the abject despair of the individual caught by impersonal and comprehensible forces.” Disregarding Hume’s warnings, Hays takes an “is” (actually in this case a “was”) and makes it into an “ought”: the fact that early twentieth century artists adopted “revelatory” strategies when faced with urban despair doesn’t suggest this is what should be done. Hays never justifies this preference for strategies of revelation rather than resolution.

Despite this initial historical argument, which seems to suggest that critical agency ends with the ability to point at the antagonist (again: “Let’s go there!”), Hays proceeds to provide evidence for rejecting this circumscribed view of architectural agency. Describing the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper and Alexanderplatz project, Hays suggests that these dark monoliths could provide respite from the sensory overload of the urban environment. In doing so, Hays recognizes – very briefly – that architecture can do more than just point out what it doesn’t like: it can provide an alternative.

Unfortunately, his argument immediately runs into another of the classic mistakes of critical architectural practice: the conflation of “critiquing” and “being of The Critical.” Symptomatically, his consideration of the Friedrichstrasse skyscraper’s curtain wall goes beyond recognizing that its reflective surface forces passersby to confront the specular image of urban chaos; it’s read as a sign of the building’s abstract, critical-oppositional status. (Notably, Hays’ examples from fine art and literature wouldn’t have permitted this confusion: the content of a Kafka novel is critical without being about criticality.) Moreover, if Hays drew this distinction lightly in his analysis of the Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz projects, he erased it completely in describing the Barcelona Pavilion. There, all reference to a specific antagonist is gone: Hays declares that the Barcelona Pavilion is critical because it “tears a cleft in the continuous surface of reality” (25). In place of a particular political, cultural, and/or social agenda, we’re left with the abstract image of critical architecture as “architecture against reality.”

Although Hays didn’t pursue it (to his credit and our misfortunate), there’s an even more problematic potential embedded in this trajectory of critical practice. This possibility is more easily discerned if we simplify our genealogy: if the Friedrichstrasse and Alexanderplatz projects had in mind a specific antagonist (i.e. the inimical overstimulation of the metropolis) and the Barcelona Pavilion was generally critical (i.e. in opposition to reality itself), a synthesis of these two positions was inevitable: a specific critique of unreality.

The “unreality” of this new critical modality is discerned in the utopian or dystopian context (and/or justification) for many contemporary architectural projects. This evolution is something Hays seems not to have foreseen: in the end, architecture would oppose itself to imagined antagonists.

It’s not like we lack for real problems. Critical practice tilts at windmills while it should be building them.

…I mean, if the economy picks up.