Bois/Banham mashup on drawing

“A great modern attainment is to have found the secret of expression by colour, to which has been added, with what is called fauvism and the movements which have followed it, expression by design; contour, lines and their direction.” The problem lies in the phrase ‘expression by design’: not only is there no word in French corresponding to the concept of ‘design,’ but more importantly (since the term could have been used to translate a periphrasis), nothing could more alien to Matisse’s thought. Indeed, the concept of designing presupposes a kind of plastic grammar transcending all genres, all media, a kind of Esperanto allowing for a flatting out of all differences, and an escape from the dictates of materiality: for a ‘designer,’ scale does not count; he sketches a cigarette lighter as if her were dealing with a scale model of a skyscraper, or plans a skyscraper on the basis of a mock-up the size of a lighter. Design is an entirely projective practice (the designer, imitated all too frequently by architects, projects on paper in a priori fashion what others will go on to realise); for the designer, the formal idea is prior to the actual substance: all of Matisse’s art is violently opposed to such tawdry Aristotelianism. ‘Expression by design’ is impossible, a judgement confirmed at the end of the same sentence, where Matisse speaks of ‘contours, lines and their directions,’ in other words, drawing (dessin).”

 Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’’ in Painting as Model

 

“While we await their eventual revelation, what are we to make of architecture? No longer seen as the mother of the arts, or the dominant mode of rational design, it appears as the exercise of an arcane and privileged aesthetic code. We could, perhaps, treat it as one of the humanities, trivial or quadrivial, since its traditions are of the same antiquity and classicist derivation as the others. We could stop pretending that it is ‘a blend of art and science’, but is a discipline in its own right that happens to overlap some of the territory of painting, sculpture, statics, acoustics and so on. And we could halt the vulgar cultural imperialism that leads the writers of general histories of architecture to co-opt absolutely everything built upon the earth’s crust into their subject matter.

To do so is to try to cram the world’s wonderful variety of building arts into the procrustean mould of a set of rules of thumb derived from, and entirely proper to, the building arts of the Mediterranean basin alone, and whose master-discipline, design, is simply disegno, a style of draughtsmanship once practised only in central Italy. I am increasingly doubtful that the timber buildings of northern Europe, for instance, or the triumphs of Gothic construction, really belong under the rubric of architecture at all. […]

Recognising the very straitened boundaries of architecture as an academically teachable subject, we might deceive and confuse ourselves less if we stopped trying to cram the whole globe into its intellectual portfolio. We could recognise that the history of architecture is no more, but emphatically no less, than what we used to believe it was: the progression of those styles and monuments of the European mainstream, from Stonehenge to the Staatsgalerie, that define the modest building art that is ours alone. […]

We might also be more securely placed to study the mysteries of our own building art, beginning with the persistence of drawing – disegno – as a kind of meta-pattern that subsumes all other patterns and shelters them from rational scrutiny. Even before architectural drawings achieved the kind of commercial value they can claim nowadays, they had such crucial value for architects that being unable to think without drawing became the true mark of one fully socialised into the profession of architecture.”

Reyner Banham, ‘A Black Box: The secret profession of architecture’ in A Critic Writes

 

I have nothing to add to this. Just think about it. There’s some seriously contentious shit here. Not so much to me, but to most of the profession (practicing and academic) out there.

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Presentism

“Presentism happens when any theory conforms its critical insights to the very theory late capitalism offers of itself. More specifically, presentism results when critics adopt decidedly even and indifferent models of the present, like networks, rhizomes, flat ontologies, vital materialisms, and object ontologies (to name but a few). These are all ontologies of the present. As such, they are the identities of our age—that is, the new philosophies of indifference tasked to elbow out the old philosophies of difference.
Networks, I admit, have a certain counterhegemonic, democratizing appeal. They are vast, interconnected in infinite ways, multi-nodal, decentralized, nonhierarchical and feature agency distributed to every actant, mediation for every action, translation for every relation, and so on. they are so resilient as to be eternal. Yet they are still systems in which a permanent interruption or systemic die off ends everything in a flash, if not a boom. And then what? Rhizomes, if you know anything about plants, grow by dying, the “node” being as much about death and disconnection as it is “life” or connectivity. Rhizomes also perish when the conditions around them aren’t supportive. Multiplicities—rhizomes by an-other name—exist only on the “plane of consistency” (after Deleuze and Guattari), which means that they are even and smooth through and through. I’m not confident that these formulations help us think our uneven and troubled present. Rather, they seem to stylize it.”
Andrew Cole, ‘The Function of Theory’
The interesting thing here is not the term, ‘presentism’ nor is it the critique of rhizomes but rather what it says about our relationship to theory. I have often argued that theories or bodies of knowledge, or for that matter, ways of doing things, aren’t automatically supplanted by what comes after. Yes, in some cases a new theory exposes such weaknesses or blind spots in a previous theory that make it difficult to persist with them. Often, however, a new theory is simply another way of seeing or offers another aspect into what objects are or can mean.
I have often found myself at the pointy end of discussions when it comes to architectural ideas, theories and methods; I am often seen as Luddite or just old-fashioned (I was once accused of the following: “you seem to believe architecture ended in 1975”). I’ve never claimed that structuralism offers a complete explanation of things, but it’s a damn good way to start thinking about things. The fact that all things can be identified by their opposition to other things, rather than by intrinsic and identifiable qualities, is a useful thing to know. The pressure to adopt new theory and reject the old is something the art historian Yve-Alain Bois has referred to as ‘theoretical blackmail’. Often accused of being a formalist and using only ‘outdated’ theory to talk about art, Bois in fact is happy to utilise deconstruction when the object in question suggests it might be a fruitful way to think about the work (for example, see ‘Matisse and arche-drawing’ in Painting as Model). If I can be accused of a particular tendency when it comes to contemporary theory then it is scepticism. Cole’s thoughts are one reason to be sceptical, though I wouldn’t dismiss (and I don’t think he does) contemporary theory outright.
Finally, the closing line suggesting that when theory sits too closely within the world-view it is attempting to analyse or critique (‘Rather, they seem to stylise it.’) is extremely powerful and perhaps goes some way to architects and architectural theorists tendency to treat theory as style.

Adrian Forty

Adrian Forty’s writing – more, his approach to writing and research – stands in stark opposition and resistance to our contemporary attitudes towards research, writing and history. Forty, a historian and academic, recently retired after 40 years, has ‘only’ written three books: Objects of Desire, Words and Buildings, and Concrete and Culture). The first two have become classic texts and the third is destined to become one as well. Along the way there has been a small clutch of journal articles. If he were starting out today it is doubtful that he would be a ‘successful’ academic given the various pressures on research today: publish often, pushing towards interdisciplinarity, demonstrating impact, and generating income through research grants. Forty is one of the last great classic academics. He publishes only when there is something to say, and therefore, nearly everything he has written is worth reading (certainly the three books are required reading in my view). Forty demonstrates the worth of quality over quantity. If the majority of academics today took his lead we would probably have one-quarter to one-third the number of journal articles and books published, but they would be worth publishing and worth reading. Libraries, journals and bookshops are now bursting with wordy texts that say very little by using vague and suggestive language, with barely disguised previously-published work (sometimes three to four incarnations), or rehashed readers with poorly translated or yet-again-republished versions of ‘key’ texts. And it now makes our job harder sifting through all this to find relevant, carefully researched and well-written work.

Apart from Forty’s ethos, there is the writing and the way he handles topics. His prose is always clear and careful (not to mention precise) with its language. And language, in fact, was the topic of his second book, which demystifies a number of terms that too many of us were willing to use without questioning their meaning. My reading of Forty always saw his work as political, but never in a straightforward or obvious manner. His article ‘Europe is no more than a nation made up of many others: thoughts on architecture and nationality’ reads like a classic historian’s text, uncovering and using archival process drawings and correspondences to carefully place the genesis and rational behind two particular designs (The Taylor Institute and Martyrs Memorial in Oxford). It discusses the different takes on architecture’s relationship to nationality, but it did so at a point (1996) when this type of conversation was becoming popular once more in Europe. Forty didn’t just randomly pick the topic but carefully used history to warn us of the problems and possible mistakes that can be made when going down this trodden road. He does a similar thing in ‘Being and Nothingness: Private Experience and Public Architecture in Post War Britain’. Here the questions are around the value and possibility of public space and of public ownership and it is, again, published at a time (1995) when we are seeing a critical shift in the definition, make-up and discussions around urban public space.

A good deal of his work does this, without ever coming out and saying – “this is an argument for….” There is no need for this because the writing is more of a warning, a warning about how ignorance of history (yes, here comes the cliché) condemns us to repeat it. And it is also a lesson: that history isn’t just marginalia and trivia about the past but that is can teach us things about ourselves in the present. And it is also a lesson that this kind of history and writing only works when it is done with care, un-rushed and without the pressure of artificial targets or outcomes. It is written because it needs to be. So if it takes seven years between books, then that’s what it takes. The wait is worth it because what he has to say is worth it.

Unfortunately for the rest of us the academies, governments and modern economic principles will not tolerate waiting when it is much more profitable to churn out words and buildings.

There are two reasons for reading the work of Adrian Forty. It should be said that Forty’s work doesn’t tell you what to think yet it informs you in a way that makes you more knowledgeable. Forty’s work demystifies things rather than make them more mysterious (which for some curious reason is what some academics think their role is). It gives you deep knowledge because it often focuses on where ideas came from and how we use language to talk about them. You get to the bottom of things and from here you can make your own individual progress. But you should also read it as an example of how to do good history – from both the writing perspective and from an ethos that resists the commodification of this beautiful and important discipline.

Robin Evans: Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries

Translations-from-Drawing-to-Building-and-Other-Essays-Evans-Robin-9780262550277Paradoxical Symmetries is not an essay that I come back to often. I’ve only read it, perhaps, three times. But it has something that has stuck with me, more as a model of writing and thinking about architecture and its history, than about the specific arguments or anything to do with Mies van der Rohe. Yes, it takes the Barcelona Pavilion as its object of study, but it puts more effort into challenging the various myths surrounding the building as well as reminding us that we can be rather sloppy in our thinking about concepts. To start with the first, Evans shows us how the building, praised for its asymmetry has a fair amount of symmetry in its architecture. Secondly, before doing this we are reminded (or chastised) that our architectural use of the term symmetry is rather limited and basic (reflective or mirror symmetry). This unraveling of complex concepts continues with the way Evans reads the relationship between the truth of structure and expressing the truth of structure. More, we are given an interesting reading of what is structural and what is not (is it the walls or the columns or both and if the latter, which is primary?). But Evans isn’t interested in any idea of an ultimate truth about the building but more in how it communicates various different things often at the same time. The critiques suggesting the walls should not have touched the underside of the roof or that the columns should have been left out miss the point. Yes, it might have made things clearer but that wasn’t what Mies was interested in. There is something wonderful about the way Evans suggests that various readings can make sense but don’t quite. This isn’t a flaw in the architecture and neither is it a flaw in wanting to read it a particular way. Just like my take on Peter Collins’ history of concrete – it is not entirely logical but it makes you think – the value is in the way the architecture (or a way of looking at it) makes you think, imagine or invent alternative concepts or explanations.

The deep message in this essay is about the assumptions we make when thinking about architecture – and how nonsensical they actually are, when you stop to think about them.

“I recognize plant life when I see it, and I recognize rationality in architecture when I see it, because I begin to understand, after much practice, what the word is applied to. I am then tempted to think that all things bearing the same name, whether or not they are architecture, must share an essential property, but this is not necessary, nor, in this instance, is it likely. We may choose to believe that squarish, simple things are tokens of rationality in some wider sense, and that curvaceous, complicated things are tokens of irrationality, but our highly developed powers of visual recognition are exercising no more than a prejudice when we go out hunting for items to pin these terms to.”

This is, for me, one of the most beautiful and important passages ever written about architecture. Everyone thinks Mies is a rationalist because of this misconception and everyone thinks Gehry is an artist for the same reason. And in the case of someone like Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas you get either fans or detractors neither of which ever look at the work closely enough.

The essay continues to discuss issues of ‘appearance’ which is not to say ‘image’ and the role this plays in Mies’ architecture. And there is even a little phenomenological moment invoked by an understanding of how formerly blind people perceive space. It finally moves into a consideration of its materials and reflectivity. Along the way more conceptual traps and simplifications are exposed and exploded.

The final point I’d like to make about this essay is that it is somewhat academic in tone but not slavishly so. We have lost the ability to write this way. It is observant in an extremely precise way but it is not concerned with presenting itself as a piece of academic writing. That is, it is more interested in scholarship than expressing (the rules and tropes of) scholarship. This allows Evans to be very honest about the fact that a lot of what he is saying is simply about what he sees; yet it is all there, it is verifiable, it is subjective and factual at the same time. It is, come to think about it, very much like Mies’ architecture.

In fact, I wonder now why I don’t come back to this essay more often.

Peter Collins

Peter Collins Changing IdealsThe relative obscurity of Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture is one of those facts that exemplifies the historical amnesia we so carefully nurture today. If you are picking up a history of modern architecture book, this is far from the easiest one, but the fact that it is so utterly unlike the others (Frampton, Curtis, Benevolo, Tafuri, Scully) means it fills a gap no one else has filled. The clue is in its title – changing ideals. This is not a history book that trots out a chronological catalogue of modernist icons (either in the popular or esoteric sense). In fact, there are precious few images. Le Corbusier and Wright get mentioned, of course, but Rietveld and Schindler do not. This is because it is not a history of notable architects or buildings, but a history of the ideas that underpinned them. It is not a book that I have absorbed. That is, I haven’t read it and kept a shorthand ‘copy’ of it in my head. It is a book that I struggle with each time I dip into it because it is challenging. One of the parts that struck me the most is the one on ‘Functionalism’. Having read through so many regurgitations of the same definition of this idea, Collins breaks down this part into four chapters titled: The Biological Analogy, The Mechanical Analogy, The Gastronomical Analogy, The Linguistic Analogy. All of a sudden the concept of functionalism opened up and became more complex – but I also felt as if finally someone had illuminated the subject. The first thing to note is that all four categories are analogies. We find that all the talk about function were based on believing that because things worked (functioned) in a certain way in another field that they could (or should) work the same way in architecture. Bodies function in a particular way, so why not attempt to make architecture work this way? But then machines also work in a particular way, and we have yet another kind of functionalism. This is fascinating not just because it debunks a lot of nonsense about functionalism in modern architecture but because it actually makes one realise how rich it can be if it hadn’t been taken so literally. And who knew that there were architects who actually argued for gastronomic functionalism in architecture?

When I mention historical amnesia, I do so because of the revival of biological metaphors in architectural theory today. Though, again, those adherents don’t realise that it cannot be anything more than a metaphor, and in the end nothing more than an applied or illustrated narrative. The mechanical analogy is also alive (reanimated) and well, as machines (particularly prosthetics) are quite popular again. This time it might be more in the realm of digital machinery and software but nevertheless, it’s just another analogy. And so, although I see student after student make attempts at biomorphic architecture, they remain blissfully ignorant of Collins’ text in the belief that they are novel creators, innovators and inventors. And at best they will reinvent the biomorphic wheel (how many have taken a close look at Keisler’s Endless House?) but this time rendered in photorealistic glory.

concreteI am not suggesting that Collins got everything right in his summary of the development of modernist ideals. His other important book, Concrete, is flawed in some of its historiography and arguments, but they are nonetheless worthwhile reading. The flaws do not render everything incorrect, nor do they stop one from thinking about the questions asked. There is something perversely beautiful about the idea that classical architecture was invented by the Greeks but with the intention that it needed concrete to render it complete. It’s a beautiful yet obviously wrong argument that is full of things that make you understand both concrete and classical architecture more deeply. And given that Collins give so much space to August Perret the book is sometimes criticised for being an homage to the architect rather than a history of concrete. Maybe, but what an homage it is. This is perhaps an illustration of my belief that fiction is sometimes better at saying something essential about things and ideas than history is.

Don’t pick up Collins expecting to be given the latest and most complete understanding of the history of modern architecture. That’s not the point of any classic text. Like I said at the outset, his history does something none of the others do and it’s something that takes aim at a good deal of architectural thought today.

Robert Slutzky

PaintingRobert Slutzky is best known for his essay ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’ written with Colin Rowe written in 1955-56 and published in 1964. My reflection here is personal having studied and worked (briefly) with Slutzky in the 1990s. His influence was significant but then again I was trained by and then worked with many of his former students or alumni of the Cooper Union and the University of Kentucky, School of Architecture. In retrospect, one of the fascinating things about Slutzky was that while he was a painter and architectural thinker (I think theorist is too loaded a word and his written output was not minimal) he was very careful about the differences between the two disciplines. Yes, he constantly drew parallels between the two and often compared the kind of spaces (phenomenal and literal) that each makes, but I think he always spoke as a painter about architecture. By this I mean what I think Le Corbusier meant when he said ‘everything is architecture’. This doesn’t mean that chairs, poetry, mountains, pencil sharpeners, and pictures are architecture, but that anything can inform architecture. Thinking about what film can make one rethink about architecture is different than making architecture-as-film. In this day of the tyranny of inter- and multi-disciplinarity, I think the distinction is an important one. Slutzky could often look at architecture as a painterly composition but this was never meant to be understood that architecture and painting are the same thing. He was careful to say in his lectures that what he was reading in architecture, specifically in the work of Le Corbusier, were a recurrent set of visual and spatial themes that were worth looking at, BUT that architecture, of course, included social, political and economic aspects. It was simply that he wasn’t talking about those things. We have been too quick to dismiss formal, compositional, and other ways of thinking about architecture-as-architecture because of the theoretical blackmail of postmodernist mind sets. Yes, social relations, representations of architecture, political and ideological undercurrents, are all highly significant in understanding a work of architecture but this doesn’t make the formal go away. I have, since the 1990s, become quite vocal about our neglect of the social and political aspects of architecture, but I believe that these have a stake in the formal conditions of architectural space. I never felt the need to renounce my understanding of how architecture works spatially, compositionally and formally in order to probe into its other ephemeral aspects. I can’t say that Slutzky was directly responsible for me thinking in this way but his care with words made me think deeply about what they meant and what his ideas were about.

Another ‘lesson’ I took from Slutzky was the relationship between thinking about something (analysing it) and making or creating work. After completing my studio project with Slutzky, he asked me to help him with a commission for a sculpture he was asked to do (something he had never taken on before). He sent me away with a ‘brief’ – the site, material, and general idea of what the sculpture could be. I came back a few weeks later with a model and some drawings. I based these on some of the many theoretical insights he had about his paintings compositions. Colour oppositions, mathematical relationships, progressions, permutations and so on. He looked at my model and said ‘what if we just move that wall from here to here?’ I said that that would mess up all the various relationships I had carefully set up. He said that it wouldn’t matter and that it would make it better and we’d worry about the arguments later. I was extremely confused and it took me a while to realise he was an artist after all. Making comes first. Theories were a way of trying to make sense of what you made. I later came to a more philosophical understanding of this idea via Hubert Damisch and the idea that works of art challenge the capacity of thought and language and this is what generates theory. This ‘lesson’ must have been behind my discomfort with the way that a lot of published architecture was self-conscious illustration of theory. It also made me suspicious of design processes that simply generated work, that is, where the process was the think designed and the output was simply a result.

Like the best teachers, Slutzky didn’t teach me to think what he thought. He taught me that seeing is a discipline. What he could see in an elevation, section or photograph of a building always astounded me – how was it that I didn’t see that first? This gave me a respect for what is there, the thing, the physical object and its space. Academics would balk at this, but Slutzky’s insights reminded me of Roland Barthes.

“To begin with, we have to look at things very closely, at the ends of our noses, as materially as possible, because only this slight nearsightedness frees us at the outset from the myth of depth. The real flavor is found in the grain, on the surface of things.”

Yve-Alain Bois on Roland Barthes method from ‘Writer, Artisan, Narrator’

Painting 2

So I’ve written all of this and I haven’t said anything about his work. They are beautiful but you have to see them in the flesh and be willing to work with them. In the tradition of Newman, Reinhardt and others, his work will elude you if you expect to ‘get it’ all in a glance. Slutzky was able to explain his paintings with layer upon layer of meanings and organisational or structural guiding principles. But, because he simply painted, there is never, in the end, anything mathematical about them. In his late paintings he became fascinated by what he called ‘the liquidity of paint’. Slutzky has, perhaps a greater reputation as a painter amongst architects, but it’s important to remember he was a painter first and foremost. We should look at his paintings as paintings and not architectural diagrams or demonstrations of architectural theory. To do so is to misunderstand all that he was about.

slutzky5

Texts by Robert Slutzky

  • Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal (with Colin Rowe), Perspecta 8, 1964
  • Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, Part II, Perspecta, Vol. 13, 1971
  • Apres le Purisme, Assemblage, 1987
  • Aqueous Humor, Oppositions 19-20, 1980

Structuralism

“You can examine a poem as a ‘structure’ while still treating each of its items as more or less meaningful in itself. Perhaps the poem contains one image about the sun and another about the moon, and you are interested in how these two images fit together to form a structure. But you become a card-carrying structuralist only when you claim that the meaning of each image is wholly a matter of its relation to the other. The images do not have a ‘substantial’ meaning, only a ‘relational’ one.”

Terry Eagleton

I don’t want to spend too much time trying to define what structuralism is for those that don’t know. I’m certain Wikipedia does a decent job. But it’s worth noting that it is no longer a commonly used or valued theory. As Eagleton suggests, it is primarily concerned with the structure of things. Its founder, Fernand de Saussure (1857-1913), has since come under a lot of fire, along with the structuralism itself. It is claimed it is hermetic, overly scientific, that it doesn’t account for history, that it is overly concerned with form, and so on. A lot of the criticism is fair, except it is characteristic of lazy and poor uses of structuralism, and less accurate with respect to Saussure’s development of the theory. Architects tried to turn structuralism into a design method, when its roots – in linguistics – were to describe and define. That is, it was an analytical device not a creative one. That’s the first point I’d like to make about structuralism. The other is that a good deal of its misuse came from people who never bothered to read Saussure. For example, he doesn’t ignore history; he is quite clear that it an axis of knowledge that is perpendicular to structure. That is, history is concerned with change over time whereas structure is interested in how parts relate at any given moment.

So what is so interesting about this theory? For me it has been the emphasis on relationships – that is, not so much on parts and/or their origin, but on how various parts are relationally structured and to what extend this generates a context for meaning. Put in architectural terms, form and space, if understood as something you experience (move through, use, absorb), can only be appreciated as a set or series of relationships. For example, solid to void, movement versus pause, open versus closed, heavy versus light. Now here we have one of the problems with structuralism in that it often sorts the world into a series of polar opposites. But this is not necessarily a given characteristic of the theory. When Saussure says that ‘dog’ has the potential for meaning because it is different from ‘cat’ it is also simultaneously different from ‘dot’ and ‘cog’ not to mention ‘asparagus’. Similarly, a wall is related simultaneously to the space in front and the space behind and any other elements surrounding it (another wall, opening, column). Yet, the fact that structuralists have tended to analyse the world in terms of binary opposites has been enough for some to dismiss the whole enterprise, lock stock and barrel. Seeing the world ONLY as a series of binary oppositions is problematic, to say the least, but seeing the world as containing binary oppositions is perfectly legitimate.

Although another critique suggests that structuralism separates the object of analysis from the world its emphasis on relational structure means I never look at a work of architecture on its own. No matter how iconic and unique a piece of architecture sits in relation to its surrounding context, and in fact, it is this way of looking at it that exposes the weaknesses of iconic architecture. But we can take the relational analysis further. A particular work can have structural relationships to its predecessors, that is, to a historical context. I need not stop at looking at the work as a physical thing either – I can look at the structural relationships of use or occupation or of the rhythms of practice in space. The important thing to keep in mind is that it is one way of looking at the world – a rather incisive one, but only one.

I said at the outset that structuralism doesn’t have much active currency today, supposedly because things like post-structuralism and deconstruction have superseded it. The idea that theories ‘replace’ one another in chronological succession, however, is suspect. Structuralism has its problems, as does phenomenology, but it doesn’t stop one from learning about your object of inquiry by looking at it from a particular perspective. What is the point of looking at a calendar and deciding that because one came after the previous one is now useless? Yet this is largely the reason for the lack of interest or understanding of structuralism. It is passé, its time has passed, and it has expired, gone sour. I believe that the current lack of understanding of, or interest in, architecture as a spatial discipline and as one which is concerned with dynamic relational issues is due to popularity of theories limited to those which are newest. The emphasis on materiality and technical experimentation of surfaces has largely taken us back to a way of seeing architecture as merely and exclusively symbolic. And overly relativistic interpretations too often end up saying that architecture (and film, art, culture, society, subjects and objects) is fluid, ever-changing, fragmented, and relational. To what effect and for what purpose is of no interest. Note I’ve used the term ‘relational’ just now – but this is in the sense that one says ‘everything is dynamically related to everything else and so there is no point in trying to make sense of it.’

In the hands of Roland Barthes structuralism became something that taught us that detergent advertisements were slippery, yes, but also ideological and one could unpick and describe some of the multiple meanings that images and words were carrying. Barthes never claimed such meanings were the ultimate or absolute ones, but his analysis of the structure of the advertisements were compelling because they revealed underlying structures. They were describable if not permanently fixable. In a lot of ways the way I use and think about structuralism sounds like what others call post-structuralism – but though they are related if also somewhat opposed in the world-views they engender, I never found post-structuralism satisfying. This is probably for the same reasons that structuralism itself fell out of favour; the lazy and sloppy misuse of its best ideas by too many critics, theorists and historians (not to mention architects). But even amongst its most talented advocates there was always a tendency to make things evaporate through post-structural analysis. Architecture becomes the fluid and constantly shifting sum of all its discourses (drawings, words, images, buildings, texts, experiences, memories). Yes, all of these are part of architecture, but they don’t all work in the same way all the time. There are moments when the physicality and thingness of a work of architecture has an impact and in which photographs and words and text have no bearing. Again, it is from Barthes that I learned to be very attentive to the detail, grain and texture of things, not because they contain truth or ultimate meaning but because there is content there. It does something.

For me structuralism simultaneously roots me in the real world while pushing me to see the invisible threads of the many relational vectors that pass through any object. It, in the least, provides me with the possibility of beginning to speak about things even if only to question the very words and ideas I am saying.

Other notes:

There is whole area of architectural semiotics and even a design school called ‘structuralism’. The first suffers a great deal from both a visual bias (what things look like rather than what they do) and a tendency to claim ‘absolutes’ (‘this is how it is’). The second is not without interest – there is much to admire in the work of Hertzberger, Candilis et.al., and others – but it’s easier for me to take it as a design approach that happens to share the same name. It is important to be attentive to the shifts in the theory when it moved from linguistics to anthropology to architecture. My interest and use of structuralism can be seen in my appreciation for Bois (see this) – for example, when he asks what it is that cubism does that no other previous art practice did before or when he does the same for de Stijl. This exemplifies both the relational approach and interest in specificity that I found valuable and illuminating. My understanding of structuralism also underlies my unease with the way subjectivity and unhinged notions of creativity are privileged today (see this) and are linked to my critical attitude towards interdisciplinarity (and this). It’s not a recipe and I don’t use it as a formula – Bois reflecting on Barthes death wrote: “I am indebted to him for what painters call ‘studio techniques.’ No, not a method, but a thousand practical formulations, which may eventually become ideas, but are general enough to address all contexts…”