In our class discussion on September 23rd, we discussed Mark Wigley’s essay entitled, “Resisting the City,” with particular attention paid to the pathology of the architect as a cultural figure. This early class discussion was meant to get the figure of the architect in close range such that we can plot that figure across the difficult terrain of contemporary American urbanism. The students were quite engaged in the conversation that ensued. I think not enough discussion in school is devoted to unpacking the disciplinary inheritance within architecture. Most assume the preeminence of the field and simply push forward while relying on the convenience of assuming architecture’s inevitable efficacy. I guess this position is okay for most courses, but this course explores territories and topics that are particularly challenging to the traditional figure of the architect and we need to prime the critical faculties early in the semester so as to not simply fall in line with the notion that architects have the answers, and if not those then the ready techniques to deploy at any rate. Our collective intent in this 3 hour session was to shift the pathology of the traditional architect out of the background and into the foreground such that the students could make decisions about how much of the pathology they wanted to push forward in their own practices and how much of it they might want to reject. The point being that how one might want to proceed as an architect should be a decision and not simply a “click to accept” notion. It was a good early session for our class.
I have thought and written a bit on this Mark Wigley essay and the invocation of irreducible strangeness of building. here is an excerpt of what I have explored in writing, starting with a interesting quote from his 2002 essay, “Resisting the City”
“Imagine that students arriving at every school of architecture would be told that physical order was an illusion and that spatial relationships have no connection to functional relationships. Most of the standard training and faculty could be thrown out. Programs could be trimmed down to that very small part of each school devoted to characteristics of buildings that subvert the traditional mythology of the functional object, devoted, that is, to the irreducible strangeness of buildings. These are perhaps the qualities that secretly fascinate architects the most, but their appreciation is hidden at the very heart of each school, surrounded by a massive defensive infrastructure. Schools work hard to hide the fact that the heart of the discipline is doubt, enigma, paradox, and insecurity.”
This provocative quote puts two conditions on the table; the two being corequisites of sorts, mutual constructions or approximations of one another, not a binary, not an opposition, even though I want to briefly make them oppositional to set up these thoughts.
My primary interest falls on the side of “enigma, doubt, uncertainty, paradox.” This is what fascinates architects and what is fascinating about architecture. I would like to place emphasis on this, to state clearly that this is what I am FOR. I am for the irreducible strangeness of buildings.
More on this in a bit.
The other interest: this massive defensive infrastructure surrounding what is deeply fascinating about architecture has everything to do with architecture’s institutionalization… architecture as a knowable discipline, architecture as an academic field and as a profession. Given that, why would schools work hard to hide the fact that it is the irreducible strangeness that is central to the discipline?
Perhaps it is connected to what Wigley also establishes in his essay, that is that the pathology of the architect is informed by the tonality of architecture itself as something meant to slow things down, impart order, to soothe and to fix. Architecture as a problem solving activity must demand that architecture be logically justified as opposed to based on something gratuitous or capricious, something such as enigma and doubt. Architecture is expensive, heavy, and permanent. As such, architects have to justify the expenditure and offset the permanence with a gesture towards social and civic good that will be maintained through the building’s persistence. Borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, if architecture is a medium, among its durable messages is its propensity to impart order, to be culturally relied upon through time (to be taken for granted, so to speak), and to function well. These things impact the pathology of the architect, constitute the agency of the architect as a cultural figure, and inculcate the need for seriousness, thoroughness, and astute rationality to permeate the work of the architect. Architects feel obliged to make sense, to be professional, and to transcend subjective opinion as much as might be tolerable or appropriate. One result of this pathology is the implicit apology embedded in what most architects say about the cultural relevance of their work. Indeed, the threat of irrelevance is a strong motivator for the defensive infrastructure surrounding the enigma about which architecture orbits.
If architects continue to apologize for their artistry and for their capacity to poetically reframe the ordinary as extraordinary, the discipline will not develop an intellectual dimension to the doubt and uncertainty that founds many of the preoccupations of architects. Architects will continue to hide, obscure, and fail to disclose the most important dimensions of the activity of making architecture. Through wrapping its obtuse and unjustifiable core with systems of rhetoric that purport to be logical and well intended within a culture that does not pay for things like “uncertainty” for example, architecture sells itself as scientific, philosophical, imminent, necessary. Meanwhile, behind the scenes architects everywhere sweat the details of being exposed, of being found out, of being called on their capriciousness and artistic underpinnings. Architects fear what many professionals and academics fear; namely, that they possess less expertise and less unassailability than the discourse might lead us to believe. The defensive infrastructures surrounding the enigmatic roots of architecture attempt to underwrite the reproducibility of the academic department, the canon of exemplary works, and the propriety of the professional.
My interest here recommends that architecture might lift its defensive infrastructure of rationality and supposed scientific objectivism; that architect’s might drop the problem solving posture and the desperate need to base their activity on utility above all else that is also there in the moment of architectural thinking and embrace the viability of architecture’s irreducibility, or its unlikeliness as qualification enough for the work architecture does culturally. Architects might move beyond defending their artistic dimension through obscuring its role in thinking/making architecture, and in so doing, get beyond resistance as emanating from what we do not want to do… and to get into a more affirmative frame of mind wherein we resist by means of standing for something, not in opposition to something else. Or, stated another way, we engage in a positive struggle… a positive struggle to embrace the irreducible strangeness of architecture. It has been my experience that architecture struggles with affirmation, paradoxically so, given that it is built primarily through it.
I would like to use some context provided by Paul Virilio to look again at the relationship between architecture’s defensive infrastructure and its irreducible strangeness. I want to overcome the binary I set up in the beginning.
Virilio tells us that the invention of the airplane was also the invention of its catastrophic crash. His theory of the accident is useful here as it asserts that the deferred reality of a primary discourse is often another latent discourse carried along by it. In his writing on dromoscopy and speed, Virilio analyzes the interior of the luxury car as a compensation for the imminent accident the lusciousness of the interior is meant to defer. I would like to bring this sensibility to the relationship between a discipline’s defensive infrastructure and the uncertainty and assailability that is veiled by it. If we could understand the defensive infrastructure as a device that both cancels that which should remain undisclosed –in my talk the irreducible strangeness that is so much harder to stand for than it is to hide from others – and preserves it, we might get beyond our reliance on the critical distance disciplines often set up between their inspirations and the manifestations of subsequent engagement with them. Like Virilio’s general accident, the accident that effects us all immediately, the irreducible strangeness of architecture is imminent in attempts to hide it. the defensive infrastructure of schools of architecture simultaneous offset enigma, uncertainty and doubt and force us back to them.
Maybe that is a cheap way out… maybe that is a reading too subtle to be operative… or maybe that is a recognition that the idea that architects are problem solvers, purveyors of useful things, narrators deploying the plausibility that something new will be well-received and whose cost will be justified by its utility and permanence must be refused in order for architecture to get better at dealing with its implausibilities, the unlikelihood that it would exist… its strangeness.
If this is a theoretical presentation, indeed if this is even a moment of theory within this writing, the theoretical ambitions could be well described by a desire to have the conversation out in the open, to affirm architecture’s wildness, to stand FOR its gnawing uncertainty in order to explore the inevitable shifts in practice that gain visibility once we are out from underneath the crushing certainty of a disciplinary and professional framework that fails to deliver the very thing it asks us to believe in.