Architectural Thought or the Theoretical Object

“What does it mean for a painter to think?” – this is the old question to which Hubert Damisch has returned in connection with the art of this [20th] century, and which he alone in France seems to take seriously. Not only what is the role of speculative thought for the painter at work? but above all what is the mode of thought of which painting is the stake? can one think in painting as one can dream in colour? and is there such a thing as pictorial thought that would differ from what Klee called “visual thought”?

Yve-Alain Bois


This is the source of my obsession with the idea of disciplinarity as opposed to inter- and multi-disciplinarity in architecture. While Damisch is not speaking about architecture he sees art, and painting in particular, to have a specificity that allows it to have its own particular mode of thought. That is, not a way of thinking about painting, but that painting itself is a way of thinking. I believe that architecture possesses its own specific mode even though it is so obviously related and connected to many other fields (physics, drawing, representation, economy, culture, writing, etc.). Although architecture as a practice works across a set of distinct fields not architectural in themselves – but merely incorporated in order to make it possible – it has a characteristic that parallels that of pictorial thought in painting. That characteristic is spatiality or what I often call spatial form. This is the spatial or three-dimensional organisation of form through which use is made possible but which also contains its own mode of thought. By ‘own mode of thought’ what I mean is that it is possible for architecture to construct ideas which are not directly translatable into words, texts, drawings, or photographs (to name a few representational systems). Because we can think through architecture (and here I refer to the thing, the building, out there and not its drawings or any other transcription) we are able to ‘say’ or invent ideas which are not possible in other media, just like there are things that can be done in painting that words, texts, and photographs cannot do.  Damisch refers to this as having the capacity to be a theoretical object – it (in this context, painting and architecture) can generate theory rather than be simply an object of theoretical inquiry, that is, something to which theory is applied.

I am helped along in this by Damisch’s own attempt to clarify this with respect to architecture in his essay ‘Against the Slope’ in which he proposes that Le Corbusier’s La Tourette is a theoretical object. It is a building from which theory emanates.

“…La Tourette [is] a theoretical object par excellence, a model of its kind, understood not only as an object that gives pause for thought and opens the way to reflection, but also as an object that, when examined more closely, itself secretes theory, or at least directs it, feeds it, informs it – in other words, secretly programs it.” (p.30)

I can no longer recall where I became aware of the difference between the pictorial or visual aspect of architecture and its spatial conditions – but Damisch refers to this as well:

“…it does not suffice to borrow from Le Corbusier, himself inspired by Choisy, the concept of promenade architectural to exhaust its phenomenology, which his not limited to visual effects along – meaning the optical effects of which the building is host.” (p.31)

Damisch is suggesting that there is something other than what it seen in architecture – literally ‘I see this and that happening in this building’ referring to what is transcribable to a photograph. Here, there is a danger of confusing this other something, this specific architectural thought, as metaphor. This is too easy and has been done exhaustively in architectural writing, history and theory. This other something is the experience of physical space which may include metaphorical allusions but is not constructed visually. Again Damisch:

“Wherever the lumpy raw concrete walls make the strongest demands on our attention, it is their tactile aspect, rather than their optical one, that does so. And from the stairs of the residential floors to the inclined ramps of the conduits, another kind of experience imposes itself that we might describe as kinaesthetic.” (p.47)

“…travelling through the place is not reduced to a promenade across an essentially visual space but occurs through the experience of walking.” (p.48)

This last statement sounds like we are speaking about phenomenology – and that is nothing new. But architectural phenomenology is too often visually biased when not seen as existing entirely in the mind, nearly independent of external effects. This is likely not what philosophical phenomenology is meant to do but nonetheless its architectural counterpart is not as nuanced. Instead, I suggest that the ‘kinaesthetic’ and ‘experience of walking’ is closer to the idea of the everyday. What the high priests of phenomenological architecture too often do is put material expression in your face – they aestheticise, amplify and broadcast the tactile and experiential. This results in a kind of monumentalisation or extraordinariness of experience which lifts it out of the everyday.

Why the everyday? Because it is about ‘that which falls below visibility’ and it makes us think about things beyond the visual. But also because the everyday, particularly in de Certeau’s terms, links rather than separates the subjective (and internal) with the objective (and external). From this point of view spatiality includes the act of walking, its timing, cadence and rhythm along with what is walked on, through and around. I have always thought that space and spatial experience constitutes what Michel Foucault called a discursive formation – but that is probably best left for another paper.* This view of spatiality is difficult to translate – and that is my point – it eludes drawing, photographs, and words. This does not mean we cannot talk about it or try to grapple with it in drawing. It would mean that the idea of drawing, its purpose, changes – for example, it would be drawing whose intention was not graphic, pictorial or compositional.

I have written elsewhere about the work of De Vylder Vinck Tallieu (DVVT)– their work exemplifies an approach that understands architecture as something more than its visual content and for this reason their drawings are unlike those of other published architects. I have, for many years, tried to pin this ‘architectural thought’ on form – that is, argued that it was a property of form. DVVT and Damisch’s essay, however, has brought the idea of construction (of being constructed) to this. It is not just form but how it is made (again, ‘made’ needs to be seen in both sense, conceived and physically assembled).

Finally, to close this short journey, I return to the issue of disciplinarity. I can sympathise with the desire to work with architecture and ________, but each instance of this seems to me to displace the opportunity to think through architecture and its spatiality. Instead, we decode, code, and re-code architecture through film, photography, philosophy, cybernetics, software architecture, scripts, and so on. Meanwhile, the art of architectural thinking, as demonstrated by projects like the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo or Le Corbusier’s La Tourette is slowly atrophying if not dying out altogether.  


*In my hypothesis statements consist of acts of walking, the structure of space, the forms that define the space, the rules of use of the space, and so on. Per Foucault, a discursive unity can be understood to include differences as well as similarities among individual statements.


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