Beatriz Colomina and the critic-architect.

“Greek legend insists that Daedalus was the first architect, but this is hardly the case: although he built the Cretan labyrinth, he never understood its structure. He could only escape, in fact, by flying out of its vortex. Instead, it may be argued that Ariadne achieved the first work of architecture, since it was she who gave Theseus the ball of thread by means of which he found his way out of the labyrinth after having killed the Minotaur.” Beatriz Colomina, ARCHITECTUREPRODUCTION, p.7

I’ve recently rediscovered this passage which comes from the second book of the Revisions study group – a group of academics and architects who met to discuss, debate and write about the changing nature of architectural theory and practice in the 1980s. The two books, Architecture Criticism Ideology and Architectureproduction, have fallen out of visibility but contain essays which are still benchmarks in the fields of architecture, politics and representation. This passage marks one of the earliest instances of a major shift in thinking about what constitutes architecture. The message is clear: the person who conceives or makes the building is not the architect, but rather the person who understands it, that is, the critic. It sounds outlandish when put so bluntly, but this idea is widespread, common and still extremely influential. Architecture has shifted from being about or focused around buildings to being writing itself, drawings, its representation or only in the mental and psychological experiences of the user or inhabitant, that is, it is anything but bricks, mortar, concrete, steel and glass; it is not walls, spaces, forms, sequences or anything so ‘banal’.

Architecture is very obviously a cultural product and as such it is useful to see how we speak about it and how that affects how we understand it. To see architecture as only the physical object detached of any cultural, social or political significance is reductive. But what has happened is that the object has been left far behind. If the thing, the building and its physical space, is of no importance then that lets architects off the hook. That might explain why this view has been embraced to such an extent. Architects do not make buildings; they construct critiques, enable events, and allow activities to emerge. And if such things do not work, you can always point the finger at the users for not making it happen.

Although extremely anecdotal I had heard long ago that the view that drawings and writing was architecture was propagated by critics and theorists who wanted to be architects but had no capacity for actual design. The solution was to redefine architecture in such a way that what you did was architecture. It’s far-fetched and maybe just a metaphor or vague quasi-psychoanalytic notion but then I think Colomina’s quote is also far-fetched. When I first read it, back in the early 90s, I went along with it because I believed that critical abilities and insight was crucial in making good architecture. So she wants to argue that Ariadne’s analytical take is an important aspect of doing architecture I think that’s fair. But it’s not what she is saying. The language is unequivocal in its denigration of the maker. But let’s dig into this legend a bit more – could it be just an accident that Daedalus conceived and made such a complex structure? It’s a bit disingenuous to think so. But even if Daedalus did not fully comprehend the complexity or meaning of the thing he made, this does not necessarily strip him of the title architect. The idea of the theorist-architect or critic-architect is a recent one. Manfredo Tafuri has argued that architects should just ‘do’ and ‘make’ and leave the historical and theoretical work to historians and theorists. This sounds a little too much perhaps, but the reason behind this is because of the way that architecture was turning into pictures of theory or critical sculpture rather than fully engaged socio-spatial objects.

I can’t say for certain that this specific quote or that this particular book was responsible for the shift in what architecture became. It is, however, very typical and indicative of the emerging discourse around the end of the 80s and early 90s. And, like many other statements and arguments along the same lines, it is deeply flawed.

Edit 21 February 2013

“The house, in a certain sense, is immaterial. That is, the house is not simply constructed as a material object from which certain views then become possible. The house is no more than a series of views choreographed for the visitor…”

Beatriz Colomina, Where are We? in Architecture and Cubism

Yet another example of the attempt to downplay, even deny, the physical existence of architecture. In this case she is speaking about the Villa Savoye, a project she has written about several times. What is wrong with accepting that the Villa Savoye actually exists as a physical things that takes up space in the world? And that it exists as a record of a series of concrete decisions taken about the brief, how one should move and what is seen? It is there, a material fact whose solids and opacities open up to allow the passage of individuals and which frame views. It quite easy enough to say that Savoye is primarily a house for choreographing views for visitors without insisting that there is no actual house there.

This critique of mine may seen utterly silly and pointless. You might counter: ‘Of course there is a building there, she doesn’t literally mean it doesn’t exist.’ I would agree. It is not that there is a serious assertion that things do not exist, it is that by continuously repeating it and shifting the emphasis to everything that is not material and physical (while simultaneously denigrating the physical) we stop asking questions about the role that the physical plays in architecture. We no longer see it as essential, necessary, certainly not of any importance. Yet, change any detail in Savoye and it ceases to be Savoye. Remove the cantilevers or regularise the irregular grid. Remove all the colour from the interior or change the materials, scale and grids of the various paving materials. Change the strip windows to more traditionally proportioned ones. Alter any of this and large swaths of what has been written about it falls away, is no longer true or relevant.

Architecture is a fascinating discipline because it can contain ideas and give rise to questions that have nothing to do with architecture. Architecture can be generated from concerns that ignore or downplay architectural interests. That is, it can be a theoretical or philosophical object, a mode of thought in itself. But what is it that contains those ideas? What provokes the questions? A thing, a building, a space and a configuration. And if it is able to evoke or ‘speak’ of such complex things then it’s physical ‘factness’ and the specific relationships and organisations made among all its elements cannot be irrelevant.


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