Alternative Spatial Metaphors

It’s time to play “Disrupt the Hegemonic Spatial Metaphor”!

At the end of the second chapter of Genesis, Adam and Eve are just hanging out in the Garden of Eden, naked and shameless. Chapter three is comparatively less paradisiacal – in particular, the part where God tosses them out of paradise, leaving them to spend the rest of their nasty, brutish lives lamenting that they didn’t eat from the immortality-granting Tree of Life while they still had the chance.

The “walls and mortality” theme comes up in the Buddhist origin story as well. Growing up, Siddhartha’s dad keeps him cloistered inside the palace to prevent him from discovering such things as old age, sickness, and death. Of course, one day the prince goes cruising outside the palace walls in a chariot, where he comes across an old man, a sick man, and a dead man. Channa, Sid’s royal servant, finds himself in the unenviable position of explaining this afflictionary triumvirate. Siddhartha takes this news kind of seriously, has a lengthy affair with asceticism, rejects it, and ends up the Buddha.

Fifteen centuries later, Tom Stoppard protagonized (inventing words and I just can’t stop) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to raise a compelling objection to the veracity of the Buddhist narrative:

ROSENCRANTZ: Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering – stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality.

You’d expect, Ros thinks, that even in the absence of palace walls and a father determined to prevent you from stumbling across mortality, there should have been a time in your life before you encountered death – experience is limited by time, not just space. But if the threshold between the ontological side of the issue (i.e. being mortal) and the epistemological side (knowing you’re mortal) is significant, why don’t we remember it? Rosencrantz can only think of one explanation: there are no walls, and there was never a time of ignorance.

In the Biblical and Buddhist versions, a spatial transgression accompanies the shift from being mortal to knowing you’re mortal. In both stories, this shift is also associated with becoming truly human (or at least understanding humanity). We empathize with Adam and Eve once they become tragic figures; in the garden, their total innocence makes them unrecognizable. Siddhartha’s condition is similarly incomprehensible until he gets beyond the palace walls.

While the older stories would have it that one has to get “outside” to understand one’s place, Stoppard has Rosencrantz postulate that there is no outside. Yet his play does explore an analogous divide, most clearly manifested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s continually frustrated attempts to leave the stage (in fact, Stoppard’s script never gives them a final exit; the stage directions merely state that they “disappear.”) The players continually problematize the relationship of the actor (who, the player reminds us, is the opposite of a person) to death, and the conclusion is essentially an extended meditation on the Shakespearean metaphor of the world as a stage, its men and women players, and each with their entrances and exits.

It’s difficult not to see in these summaries that classic modern-postmodern binary where the older, theological narratives associate knowledge with “getting outside,” while Stoppard’s more recent narrative disavows this possibility. The existential confusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – as well as Rosencrantz’s specific claim that we are born knowing our mortality – can easily be interpreted as a nod to the Heideggerian “always already.” But the schema’s superstructural spatial metaphor is out of alignment with the specifics of these narratives: the cliché associates knowledge with being above, not outside, and this privileged spatial-epistemological condition is associated with objectivity and transcendence, not humanization and the existential crisis (which the theological narratives resolve through transcendence) inherent in the meaningless quotidian milieu.

The “superstructural spatial metaphors” I referred to above could also be described as diagrams. The diagram for what I think of as the generic modernist epistemology consists of an objective, omniscient point from which one looks down on the earthly plane. This spatial relationship – which permits one to see everything – is understood to entail understanding everything. But that isn’t the diagram we encounter in these narratives. First, this diagram is rotated. Instead of a vertically oriented “above-below,” we discover a horizontally related “inside-outside.” The second difference, which emerges from the visual-epistemological implications of the diagram, is equally profound. The vertical paradigm is unidirectional: “above” looks at/understands “below.” But in the horizontal diagram, “exterior” doesn’t look back to “interior.” (Dumbly, the wall forbids this visual relationship, with epistemological consequences.)

Thus, the Platonic cave – despite its apparent horizontality – actually belongs to the vertical regime: by getting outside the cave, the philosopher discovers the truth behind the “reality” of the cave’s interior. While the horizontal diagram shares with the Platonic allegory the idea that interiority is a condition characterized by naïveté, the spatial threshold is opaque. The horizontal diagram implies that the knowledge gained from being outside has no bearing on life on the inside, because the interior is not a truly human realm.

The traditional, vertical diagram is geometric and spatial, but it is not architectural. The point above and the plane below exist only in terms of each other, their relationship is unmediated. The horizontal diagram is, however, architectural. The interior and exterior don’t exist in direct relation to one another; they are defined by their relationship to a third term: the threshold.

Skeuomorphism III and the Semiotic Ghosts

Here, in the third and final part of this exploration of skeuomorphism (which sometimes might have leaned more toward the skeuomorphish than the skeuomorphic), I’m going to look at how it relates to an idea I’ve thought about quite a bit – what I call “materialist indexicality.”

Skeuomorphism and indexicality have quite a bit in common. Neither can be understood autonomously, as they’re defined by their participation in a sort of generic historical narrative. They both pursue legibility through a kind of “rehearsing of the past.” Through the skeuomorph or index, the current design is understood in relation to a past process.

You could object that there’s an important difference in what past is being referred to: while Eisenman’s early experiments in indexicality produce forms that refer to the design process itself, skeuomorphism pursues legibility through reference to past, external precedents. But this assumes too narrow a definition of indexicality: Eisenman quickly shifts from self-referential, autonomous indexicality (e.g. House II) to archaeological indexicality (e.g. the Wexner Center). This evolution doesn’t stop there. “Historicity” is a rather arbitrary qualification once you’ve recognized external inputs as a potential influence on form. For example: if architecture can index the historical urban grid, why not reflect a mathematical idealization of flows of people across the site? At this point, software developments (Maya in particular) fuse with this conceptual expansion of indexicality, allowing for experiments in what Jeffrey Kipnis called “hyperindexicality” (“Performance Anxiety,” 2G no. 16 vol. 4).

I’ll come back to hyperindexicality, but first let’s finish this simplified history of indexicality. The next episode sees the index tethered to materiality. If Eisenman’s early exploration of the index can be connected to an interest in testing Derrida’s ideas in architecture (this is not to say that it was done without translation or inventiveness), materialist indexicality has its own practice-theory pairing in Reiser + Umemoto and Sanford Kwinter, epitomized by his introductory contribution to their Atlas of Novel Tectonics.

Kwinter begins by describing their work as “new materialism” and ends with the suggestion that it “may well be a new expressionism.” The reference (“expressionism” is the last word in the essay) can’t be taken lightly. Kwinter plays a rhetorical game here: the historical connotations of Expressionism, signaled by putting the word “new” in front of it, are completely antithetical to what he means by describing their work as a new expressionism.

Rather than attempting a real summary of “old Expressionism” here, it’s sufficient to merely point out a key, uncontroversial characteristic: Expressionism’s conceptual investment in the way art reflects the artist’s subjectivity. This could not be more different from Kwinter’s description of R + U as “chemical engineers” whose work “transmits” / “reveals” / “discovers” / “deploys” / “expresses” material potentials by applying diagrams to them as “reading devices.” Kwinter works hard to make sure his terminology avoids implications of authorship. In Kwinter’s telling, the design process sounds like a chemical reaction, and the architect-engineer watches while flows of matter-information shift from one metastable state to another.

Between the agenda of “revealing material potentials” and the conceptual debt to Deleuze’s antihumanism revealed by Kwinter’s rhetoric, we have the making of a decidedly materialist agenda. But what makes it indexical? This time, the answer is best discerned by looking at a point of continuity rather than a contrast: the shared reliance on the diagram.

In the formalist architectural analysis of Rudolf Wittkower and Colin Rowe, the diagram played the same role that rhyme scheme annotation plays in formalist poetry analysis. Between reading Terragni’s Casa del Fascio and designing his House series, however, Eisenman went from using the diagram to describe (etymologically “write down,” i.e. “record”) architecture to allowing it to prescribe (etymologically “write before”) architecture.

The diagram mediates between forces (commonly described as “flows”) and form: it’s an explanation, in a sense, but it also claims to determine the translation of inputs into a formal output. The determinacy of this process entails the collapse of description and prescription. The temporal superposition of product and process inherent in the collapse of description and prescription is the essential characteristic of indexicality.

The implicit objectivity and directness of the relationship between conceptual input and design output underlies Kwinter’s anti-subjective account of new expressionism. One of its more problematic secondary effects is that this “new expressionism” risks appearing as “architecture without subjective agency.” This is a misreading. Kwinter’s account does not remove subjective agency (let alone creativity) from design. Rather, by taking the implications of indexicality to their logical conclusion, it resituates agency as a series of curatorial acts: the selection of properties to express, of flows to index, of diagrams to accomplish the translation of the virtual into the real.

If we now turn our attention back to hyperindexicality, we see clearly what makes it such a radical break: it is indexical architecture without the goal of legibility. Inputs produce formal outputs, but the diagram that accomplishes this translation is too complex to permit the aforementioned temporal collapse of description and prescription. And yet – conceptually speaking – this collapse is still in place. We know that in fact there’s a set of inputs being mapped onto a formal output. We’re left with the diagram as a promise of this translatability and the building as an image that refers us to the design method and its attendant ideology.

Another way of addressing this break between indexicality and hyperindexicality is by trying to relate the latter to skeuomorphism (as I did with the former at the beginning of this essay.) To restate: skeuomorphism justifies itself on the grounds that a legible relationship between past and present increases functionality. Hyperindexicality is interested in the mere existence of this relationship, independent of whether or not it can be discerned. The translation of this idea into skeuomorphism dramatizes the difference: it would be as though a designer argued that historical references were productive even if they couldn’t be recognized as references.

Stated this way, we see that indexical legibility has a fundamentally semiotic dimension (something which is not necessarily  the case for hyperindexicality, which isn’t interested in this sort of conceptual legibility.) Since we can’t literally have the past over again, indexical (or skeuomorphic) legibility depends upon reference. House II is not literally its process of formation; it uses semiotic techniques to evoke this process. This extends to the way material Eisenman’s used materials: when he clads the Aronoff Center in EIFS, he’s not deluding himself that “EIFS isn’t a material”; he’s thinking “EIFS will contribute to my desire that the building be understood as not ‘about’ material.” The semiotic dimension of indexical legibility is admitted and instrumentalized.

If we look at hyperindexicality, we see a sort of (often, presumably, unintentional) referentiality: as I argued before, these projects refer to the design process that bore them in a way that might be described as “ideological,” but they also engage in this sort of “cross-scale inauthenticity” where the aggregation of assemblies at one scale refers to its prior, virtual existence as pure, plastic geometry.

This is where, in my view, things start to get prickly for indexical materialism. This referential operation is forgotten in material indexicality, which pretends that the result (e.g. a building) is a direct consequence of the process, rather than a system of signs that refers to that process. A “fold” in contemporary architecture is not an actual fold, but an assemblage intended to look like a fold. In other words, it’s skeuomorphic: these “material expressions” consist in the reproduction of a material property which is “authentic” in one context in a new context in which is it “inauthentic.” The digital reproduction of a leather texture has the same relationship to real leather that the façade-scale reproduction of a fold does to a bent soda can.

While we can see how Kwinter’s description of R + U’s design process as akin to a chemical reaction could maintain the designer’s importance as a curator of material expression, it is difficult to see how this “mere expression” can be reconciled with the fact that the building is not the direct result of this process, but an image that refers to this process. Moreover, the “actual” process – likely far more complex and dependent on such concrete and messy things as trucks, screw guns, plotters, city officials, laborers, etc. – is elided.

Just as I argued that inauthenticity was not necessarily a problem for skeuomorphism, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for materialist indexicality (though it does force on to question whether the philosophical implications of “materialism” are appropriate in this context.) But there’s something bothersome about the fact that the architectural version of skeuomorphism believes itself to be free of semiotics while producing designs that rely heavily on metaphors. Ultimately I think this cognitive dissonance reflects a disciplinary problem. Even in the absence of a “reading subject” who beholds the architectural object, semiotics often plays an unacknowledged role in the design process. “Conceptual architecture” – since Eisenman at the very least – has never been content to have a concept, it must make the concept legible.

To close the gap between “authentic expression” and “legibility,” these conceptual projects make recourse to a kind of “semiotic overstatement.” This is why Banham writes that Archigram’s genius was to understand that, even if a computer city might look like nothing, it had to look like something. This is why architecture generated by algorithms intended to maximize the efficiency of its flows is curvilinear. It’s why Greg Lynn moves from buildings whose rectilinear geometry indexes the virtual curves used in the design process to actually building those curves. Architects interested in exploring materiality produce hyper-articulated details: it’s a way of not just having materials, but of drawing attention to them. It’s why we take smug pleasure in knowing that Zumthor’s walls at Vals are not actually composed of enormous stones, and it’s why architectural minimalism is a design aesthetic, not a construction method.

Some Thoughts on “Notes on the Doppler Effect” 10 Years Later

(Note: I’m still working on Skeuomorphism Part III. The short explanation for this is that, unlike its companions Part I and Part II, the subjects dealt with in Part III intersect with a line of thinking that I’ve been pursuing for some time, and consequently it’s taking me a while to get to new conclusions that I’m satisfied with.)

Two semesters back I was a TA for the intro to architectural history/theory course at Rice. Toward the end of the semester, we read (well, I re-read) “Notes on the Doppler Effect,” an article penned by our very own Sarah Whiting and her frequent conspirator who, for at least those six pages in Perspecta 33, styled himself “Robert Somol.”

The essay begins with a deeply historical introduction to “critical architecture” as plotted by Tafuri, Rowe, Hays, and Eisenman. Next, Sarah and Somol juxtapose the last figure in this genealogy with a new protagonist, Rem Koolhaas, while emphasizing the difference between the index and the diagram. And then they’re off: extrapolating from this opposition (and, as always, sprinkling McLuhanian terminology as they go), they launch into a sort of manifesto for projective practice.

This reading assignment did not elicit an awkward “Kids, this is what your mother was like before she had you” moment – it’s not as though Sarah has dropped the projective practice thing. But, from my perspective, there was still a strangeness about this confrontation. It wasn’t because they struggled to reconcile the image of this radical upstart with the dean they know and love, but because it was difficult to convince them that these views were radical in the first place.

I know what this looks like: a distasteful combination of pedantry and a sort of “meta-prudishness.” But there’s more to it than that: the standard narrative for that scenario involves a set of widespread social norms that become irrelevant to the point where the younger generation can’t understand why the older generation ever cared; it doesn’t seem scandalous to them. For at least three reasons, I don’t think this narrative can – or should – be applied to the recent history of architecture:

  1. Whether we’re speaking empirically or normatively, the norms of critical practice are not irrelevant.
  2. There is a more complex reason that the Doppler Effect article might not appear radical to a new generation of architecture students.
  3. The fact that it doesn’t appear radical should concern us.

I won’t dwell on the first because (a) I’m not interested in discussing the normative value of criticality here – which would require a very substantial amount of dwelling – and (b) the relevance of criticality in an empirical sense isn’t particularly contentious. Criticality remains relevant to architecture because it’s still a major component of the pedagogy of most institutions and the agenda of many architectural practices. Moreover, architectural discourse is not autonomous, and criticality remains influential in the larger discursive territories where architecture operates or at least dabbles from time to time.

But things get more interesting with the second point, which is where I propose my own explanation for why projective practice doesn’t seem radical to freshmen architecture students. This alternative explanation was inspired by an event I’m deeply grateful to have witnessed: Sarah came into the class after the students read the Doppler article and gave a short lecture reflecting on its context and its long-term consequences.

Sarah loves to historicize things: her approach manifests itself as a delightful cocktail of anti-structuralism (not post-structuralism, though she claims to be fond of that as well), fascinated psychologizing, and just the faintest hint of Marxism. It’s a hobby brought to bear on herself as much as on anyone else, so it was no surprise to hear her say that while the angst which motivated the Doppler Effect article wasn’t overtly expressed in the final text, it was in terms of this context that she wanted to explain the essay.

In my recollection of Sarah’s description, the article was born not out of frustration with the immediate status of the discipline at large, but the more specific concern that architectural theory had created a context in which a project was “good” even if it only criticized existing conditions, rather than projecting new solutions and new possibilities. Clearly, this criticism reflects her view of what ought to be involved in good architecture. There was a second concern, however, which was more pedagogical in nature: the techniques deployed to produce such “critical projects” required little design effort, novel thinking, or consideration of economic, political, or social realities – in short, little judgment. Instead, they merely demanded a sort of intoning (my term, not hers) of well-established conceptual tropes, often extra-disciplinary ones.

This presentation of the article suggests its authors’ complaint is not so much directed at critical architecture itself as at the fact that academia continued to laud this special brand of complacency. In the “traditional” reading, the Doppler article seems to say “critical practice is problematic”; in this reading, it says “the architectural discipline has a problematic relationship to certain larger theoretical/scholarly trends, issues with its pedagogy, and needs to look hard at the role of the academy.”

Now, I don’t doubt for a second that Sarah’s academy-centric presentation of the text that day was influenced by the fact that she was in a classroom speaking to first year undergraduates, an audience who really can’t be blamed for the decadence of critical architecture. But, whether or not anyone outside the room that day could have understood the text in those terms, what’s interesting about this reading is the way it emphasizes the text’s critique of “the Critical” rather than its manifesto for “the Projective.”

What effect does this have on how we understand the not-so-chance encounter of a freshman at the RSA and an article written by their dean a decade earlier? Simply this: recognizing the text’s radicality depends on knowing what the text is reacting against, not just understanding what it proposes. It’s a manifesto, but – like the Communist one – its value lies in its diagnosis of/prognosis for its context, not just in its prescriptions for a new order. Generally speaking, freshmen architecture students haven’t internalized the historiography of the late twentieth century, so the latent critique of that context – the most important and radical aspect of the essay – isn’t discerned.

We can think of Sarah and Somol’s article as a plan for escaping the limits of the critical paradigm (a metaphor I suspect they would appreciate). The most important aspect of their plan is not its description of “the outside” (i.e. projective practice), but the moment when, like a pair of spies who blow dust into an apparently empty hallway before proceeding to crab-walk under the previously invisible lasers, Sarah and Somol revealed the invisible limits of criticality. I think this provides a better account of why the students didn’t view the article as particularly radical: once you’re outside the walls, you take for granted that there is an outside.

As I suggested earlier, there’s something concerning about circumstances in which this escape doesn’t look very daring. This brings my own recent encounter with a text – the one which inspired this post – Zizek’s (forgive the lack of appropriate diacritics) Repeating Lenin. At the very beginning of the book (the internetified version of the text was linked from Wikipedia, so hopefully my link here is kosher), he provides a description of Lenin’s status in scholarship today:

in the contemporary academic politics, the idea to deal with Lenin is accompanied by two qualifications: yes, why not, we live in a liberal democracy, there is freedom of thought… however, one should treat Lenin in an “objective critical and scientific way,” not in an attitude of nostalgic idolatry, and, furthermore, from the perspective firmly rooted in the democratic political order, within the horizon of human rights – therein resides the lesson painfully learned through the experience of the XXth century totalitarianisms.

Zizek’s conclusion is that “everything is allowed, solicited even, as a critical topic” (emphasis mine), because such criticality acts as a discursive “release valve” on sociopolitical tensions. The critical context, Zizek argues, converts/subverts potentially disruptive declarative utterances into benign descriptive ones. This point, which seems to me deeply indebted to Foucault, is also connected to Sarah and Somol’s complaint about critical architecture: their article points to the way that criticality produced a kind of disciplinary complacency, just as Zizek argues that criticism is permitted up to the point that it might really change things.

In light of this parallel, my concern is this: the fact that today the Doppler Effect article can be read as a mere manifesto – or, worse, as a pair of writers simply adding to the praise for OMA in the early 00s – suggests that certain limits are again becoming invisible to us. Frankly, I don’t think this is a symptom of projective practice’s status as a hegemonic apparatus that has successfully disguised its limits. Rather, it suggests to me that the implicit critique in the Doppler Effect article wasn’t enough: from time to time, architecture needs an explicit critique of criticality – one as radical as Zizek’s and as disciplinary as Sarah and Somol’s.

In Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, there’s a scene where Tom Waits explains to Iggy Pop that the best part about having quit smoking is that – since you’ve quit – you’re allowed to have a cigarette from time to time. I think critical architecture today operates in this Iggy-Waits paradigm: now that we’ve quit critical practice, we risk indulging in it with even less self-awareness. So long as critical architecture is not interrogated firmly and substantively in terms of its political, social, and ethical performance, it will remain “legitimate” because of its mere cultural relevance – relevance which the Zizek in the back of my mind whispers is proof it won’t change a thing.