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.


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


“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, 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…”

Thoughts on a critique of interdisciplinarity, subjectivity, & creativity

What could one possibly have to say against interdisciplinarity, subjectivity and creativity? Nothing. On their own, there is nothing wrong with words and their meaning. However, in the context of how they are used in practice, sometimes misunderstood, stretched too far or simply abused there is much that can be critiqued. This is, therefore, no an argument against any of these categories – it is a critique – or as the title suggests, notes towards a possible critique. To be clear, a critique is not a stance against something – students often misunderstand what is meant by critique, but we are, I believe, also losing the habit of critique, a culture of questioning, debating, interrogating and probing the origins and structure of ideas, methods and concepts. It is in the absence of this that problems arise with interdisciplinarity, subjectivity and creativity.


I have nothing against the idea of inter- or multi-disciplinary knowledge or practice. I was trained as an architect but also learned to paint and produce digital music among other creative practices. Architecture is not only well suited to interdisciplinary practice it often demands it. But one problem is the limited scope of fields outside of architecture that are actually engaged with. Painting, sculpture, film and philosophy are commonly referenced but typography, economics and politics are rarely consulted. Interdisciplinary exercises are also often carried out without great knowledge or understanding of any of the fields being worked with. It has become all too easy to apply the latest software technologies to an architectural process to generate novel results. Yet the reason, character, and purpose of the results (and necessity for them) remain obscure and unquestioned. For example, the current fad for parametric design processes often takes place in isolation without any reference to the economic, social, environmental or political ramifications of the method and its results. The results are frequently both formal and ahistorical. This points to one of the misuses of interdisciplinary practices – the foregrounding of process over questions of intent, purpose or the absence of clear questions or problems that are being addressed. Projects and research bids alike are often based solely on the premise that such-and-such field has never been combined with such-and-such field. Of course the results of any new collaborative efforts are bound to be novel, but how does what assess their value? Are value, import and effect even categories that interest anyone today?


“The legacy of cultural and architectural relativism over the last three decades has proved devastating. So private are our worlds, critical practice struggles, as it must, to create any shared ground.” Roger Connah

It is easy to dismiss any critique of subjectivity as wanting to emphasis objectivity, but again, the issue is not about subjectivity as a negative category in itself but of its misuse. Postmodernist theories have contributed a valuable and important shift from the objective and progress based modernist practices that preceded it to a greater understanding and emphasis on the role of subjectivity – particularly of how users and consumers contribute to the construction of meaning from things and situations. But this has had the negative effect of allowing designers, makers and producers to relinquish any responsibility for what they construct. One can no longer question processes, methods or results on the basis of an analysis of how it an object was made. To do so would supposedly devalue the role of the consumer in constructing their own meaning while privileging the idea that meanings are produced by the maker or inherent in the object* itself. Yet, what is it that is being interpreted? From what is meaning being made if not the object being consumed? This does not mean that meaning emanates from objects but that they are the basis of interpretations and subjective experiences and that as such they delimit, suggest, frame or steer the possible range of subjective reactions.

In an effort to shift emphasis away from objects the processes of their making has attained greater and greater significance both in educational and practical contexts. We no longer uses design processes to arrive at finite, objective solutions to things but rather use processes to multiply possible and potential meanings. This suggests where the emphasis on interdisciplinary processes may have come from. Process are no longer methods that are meant to arrive at conclusions but acts of constructing which are continued and completed by consumers (e.g. ‘the text is made by the reader’ or ‘the reader completes the process of writing’). It is ironic, however, how a focus on process has turned into an emphasis on the maker and paradoxically relies heavily on the idea of authorship (even if it is no longer a single author producing a coherent and unified product). Consequently, we see a re-emergence of the idea of the ‘aura’ of authorship (re: Walter Benjamin). While such paradoxes and complexities may provide richness to certain art practices, they are anachronistic in architecture. There are few fields more collaborative, less pure from an authorship perspective – yet is there a field of production where the stamp of the designer or author is more privileged? That is, privileged in the sense that the name of the designer on its own ensures certain values, in particular the aura of the singular and individual masterwork? In academic contexts processes focusing on the construction of narratives to inform design concepts often end up being about fully resolved, hermetic or self-contained stories derived from the author’s perspective. So although they may be subjective and interpretative insights into contexts, briefs or histories behind a design project they are also highly individual and authoritative while simultaneously reaffirming the designer’s point of view as having greater importance than any other. In short, it reinforces a hierarchy with the designer’s capabilities and unique (unique in the sense of better not different) insight at the top. Architectural criticism dances around this issue questioning the rise of ‘starchitects’ and iconic architecture, but nowhere does it question or uncover this regressive condition. Architects, it seems, have not accepted the death of the author.


Creativity is at the centre of cultural production, design and making – it is perhaps for this very reason that it is rarely dissected. My basis for a critique of creativity, like the other areas, is based on misinterpretation and misuse. The problems I see with how creativity is constructed and the meaning that it is given is implicit in the two sections above. Firstly, many mistake novelty for creativity – they see creativity as imagining or making things that are as unlike existing solutions as possible. In addition, many believe (because they a taught) that creativity must be visibly present, we must be able to clearly see radical differences that announce the imagination and creativity of the author. Pursuing this line leads many to abuse interdisciplinary approaches, blurring, combining and overlapping various disciplines for the sake of expressive or visual novelty. Secondly, many see the source of creativity as originating from an expression of subjectivity, that is, creativity becomes synonymous with individualism. The originality or inventiveness of an object is then evaluated with reference to the author rather than against a particular challenge, other approaches or a historical context.

The worst misapprehension and abuse of creativity is perhaps found in the teaching of architecture practiced in many institutions. This consists of removing as many parameters and obstacles as possible and putting the student in the position of having to invent briefs, sites, approaches, methods, technologies and all the rest. Delimiting any of these areas is thought to impinge on the creative potential of the student and of the project. Yet how do you measure invention and creative capacity if you are allowed to make up, change and abandon design parameters at will? The situation has reached the point where the success of a design studio is measured by the extent to which each project is utterly unlike the others. Artificial diversity is generated on the premise of individual expression.

I would argue that parameters are a critical component of creativity. They form the basis on which you can measure your development or compare alternative approaches. Although there are no longer agreed criteria for determining value (function, beauty, unity, etc.) we can still, even in a postmodern mindset, establish evaluative criteria. Here it becomes necessary to make clearer distinction between art practices and design practices. Somewhere along the line design must engage with the solving of a problem, brief or aim. Although I believe that art also thrives when it engages with criteria and parameters I must leave this aside for now.

Two anecdotes:

1. When visiting Walter Gropius’s house in Massachusetts the guide told us about how the chair, a gift from Marcel Breuer, were prototypes he was working on at the time. During the restoration of the house it was decided to have them re-plated. The technician, having taken them apart for the process, couldn’t put them back together – at least initially. He had failed to notice that they were not four identical chairs. Each chair incorporated minor changes, tweaks and alterations. Because the chairs looked fairly similar to each other we can assume that the differences were to do with details or proportions, but most likely with how they were put together – with how they were made and assembled.

2. When Frank Gehry launched his bend plywood chair designs they were met with praise and enthusiasm. The Museum of Modern Art in New York put together a small exhibit on their design. What struck me were the drawings of the chair and the finished details. The chairs evolved through a series of squiggly loose sketches which very much fit the idea of the form. However, peering underneath the chairs to see how the bent plywood loops had been resolved structurally it turned out that they simply ended and were glued to the bottom of the seat.

Brueur vs Gehry

What these two chair designs demonstrated were polar opposites in terms of design process, material investigation, notion of creativity and the role of aesthetics. There is no doubt that Breuer valued the look of his chairs and that they were very much driven by a desired image but this creative desire was rooted in their making. Gehry’s chairs appear to be about material and technology but there is no evidence of engaging with the problem of connection or even of the formal challenge posed by designed with a loop. How do you terminate it? How do you create connections? It is not so much that glue was used but that in this particular case it simply sidestepped problems that were quite integral to the whole idea of the chair. Or were they? It would seem that the idea was simply the image and that how one gets there or how it is made no longer means anything (no longer means anything to the designer but also no longer has cultural meaning).

There is some form of creativity in what Gehry does – I can’t deny that – but it is, for me, a severely impoverished and easy creativity. Breuer’s approach accepted and ultimately resolved the aesthetic, pragmatic and technological issues associated with his chair. We don’t have to like the result, but as a way of understanding creativity as being more than ‘what you feel’ it can’t be faulted.

The sum of the combination of the last two categories has resulted in a curious paradox. Having been freed from the objectifying shackles of modernism, the more open and interpretative approach of postmodernism is resulting in ahistorical, formal and hermetic proposals. More and more projects become signature designs, referring more to the author as interpreter and subjective maker than to context. References to context (historical, cultural, or of place) are riddled through projects but only as validated (or cleansed) by the singular and individual creator. Two models emerge from this – I say two, but in reality they are the same, differing only in external appearance. One is the signature style we see coming from Foster, Rogers, Libeskind, Hadid, Calatrava and so on. The other is the chameleon exemplified by OMA, Neutelings and Riedijk, Herzog and de Meuron, Tschumi and Nouvel. It’s a big net to cast of these many diverse practices but the work begs the question of what we have gained by the loss of a collective base or ground for shared discourse for the sake of unleashing a proliferation of individual statements into something as socially constructed as architecture.

*I use object in the widest sense of cultural production so that it refers to things, events and experiences.

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.

Roger Connah: on cultural and architectural relativism

“The legacy of cultural and architectural relativism over the last three decades has proved devastating. So private are our worlds, critical practice struggles, as it must, to create any shared ground. Suffering, criticism then begins to carnivalize itself, repeating and replicating tired schemata. And when such free-for-all occurs, criticism so often seeks more than mere support from other disciplines.”

Roger Connah – How Architecture Got Its Hump

A recent reading group discussion focused on Reyner Banham’s classic essay on brutalism. After a lively debate I noted that such an essay would probably be impossible today. Impossible because there are no collective movements or shared beliefs against which one could propose an alternative view. The Smithson’s brutalism, whatever one may think of the movement and its legacy, had the benefit of making us see what was wrong with the status-quo. In a sense, it didn’t matter which side of the debate you stood on, at least you could identify the traits of the adversary and they could identify yours. Such engagements, which happened throughout the history of modern art and architecture (purism versus cubism, colour-field painting versus abstract expressionism, futurism versus dada versus surrealism, CIAM versus Team X, the Whites versus the Greys, etc.) enabled one to hone one’s position. When you go public with a critique of a large group you need to have done your homework. A reply from the opposing side often meant you had to refine your critique, respond to weaknesses, or clarify your intentions. This was good for both sides. It kept everyone sharp.

This kind of discourse seems absent today despite the fact that there are some rather contradictory practices out there. Even traditionalists escape criticism from those that are resolutely contemporary in the name of let’s-all-get-along pluralism. It’s a nice ideal but it makes you lazy and complacent. But the biggest problem is that of the ‘private worlds’ and private languages which serves to alienate more and more of the general public. The absence of shared languages means an absence of shared discourse. No discussion, no debate, no public.

If this self-imposed moratorium on critical discourse has a birth date, in the spirit of Charles Jencks (who dated the death of modern architecture), I suggest 15 November 1987. This is the date the Chicago Tapes was published (Rizzoli, ed. Stanley Tigerman). This book was a follow up to the Charlottesville Tapes, both of which consisted of a transcription of a super-crit among the leading architects of the time. The first event burned a number of well-known architects – in the introduction to the second volume Stanley Tigerman refers to participants being ‘bloodied’ in Chicago. Tigerman then describes the ‘carefully cordial’ behaviour and laments the absence of the ‘behavioural outbursts’ of the Chicago event suggesting that a kind of tacit truce had been established. Since then open debate and conflict has all but disappeared (rare exceptions exist like the Michigan Debates on Urbanism).

The latter part of the quote is a reference to inter- and multi-disciplinarity – the suggestion is that the absence of shared discourses has led criticism to seek support elsewhere. But in the rest of Connah’s book we see that this engagement with non-architectural fields has not always been (or mostly been) productive. The relationship between relativism and inter/multi-disciplinarity is an interesting one – one that is not often noted and one that I hadn’t quite picked up on. It’s encouraging that someone of the stature of Connah can say out loud that something has gone wrong in the last thirty years. Still, it’s a drop in the ocean; the quote is 12 years old now and not much has changed.

Rules and Restraints: Valle & Allen

“Simply put, within literature, constraints are no more than a voluntary instrument in a process of moving from the structure language to the expression of writing…our acceptance of rules and constraints – traditionally viewed as limited devices – could be the unlikely passage to liberating our work.”  Giancarlo Valle, Luis M. Mansilla + Emilio Tunon, From Rules to Constraints, ed. Giancarlo Valle

“[T]he hardest thing to communicate to students is the confidence that you will discover things through the process of working itself. You don’t have to figure it out beforehand…students have this idea that if they think hard enough, work the idea out in advance, somehow the pieces will magically fall together. I have two issues with this way of working. First, it’s a completely false way of thinking about ideas, as if they were abstract entities floating out there in a void; ideas are always the product of something concrete – an object or a text, something in the world – and second, the implied linearity of this process seems to me false: the idea that you could ever go in a straight line from idea to project. There is always a detour, and it’s precisely in the course of the detour that you discover things. Ironically, setting more rules actually makes the process more open. When you give the students total freedom to explore, they tend to retreat, but when you add more definition there is more opportunity for exploration.”  Stan Allen, Luis M. Mansilla + Emilio Tunon, From Rules to Constraints, ed. Giancarlo Valle

Contemporary architecture and its education too often misconstrues what creativity means. Whatever architecture is, it is for certain a design discipline, yet a mythical and fictional notion of artistic creativity predominates – that is, the idea that artistic creativity is something that must be free of bounds, constraints, limits or rules. Yet, most artists would tell you this is a ridiculous notion. Under the premise that the practice of architecture has radically changed in recent years (for example, clients require substantial help understanding the potential of sites, briefs may be vague or unknown) and that therefore architects must be vastly more flexible and imaginative students are given few constraints in their design projects. They are regularly asked to find their own sites, develop a brief, imagine or invent a client, and sometimes even invent cultural and societal scenarios* within which they set their project. This approach ends up becoming a kind of educational gesamptkunstwerk** (total work of art) that curiously smuggles back in the idea of unity that postmodern thought had apparently dispensed with. That is, students are encouraged to create air-tight narratives that seamlessly move from conceptualisation to program to resolution. Conflicts, paradoxes, contradictions and difficulties are airbrushed out of the design process. The more airtight, the better the project. Yet the constraints that face architects – economic, regulatory, environmental, social and cultural, to name a few – are not in any way unified or seamless. If anything, they are often contradictory and difficult to manage without compromises and – here it comes – creativity. That is, the kind of creativity, exploration and invention suggested by Valle and Allen.

*This particular approach is odd in that it often relies on a version of social engineering – a concept that is normally used to discredit ideas such as ‘progress’, ‘improvement’ or ‘making better’.

**Gesamkunstwerk is a design philosophy that encourages the design of all aspects of an environment in order to ensure the unity of the environment. One exponent, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the architecture, the furniture, tableware and in a few instances the clothing for clients.

Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is another essay that I’ve been regularly re-reading for a couple of decades. Its importance to me comes down to a specific and limited quote which I’ll come to at the end. The essay’s main point concerning the effect of reproducibility on the status of works is straightforward. It’s easy enough to see how this essay may have inspired Roland Barthes, Guy Debord’s idea of the spectacle, later notions about the simulacrum and so on. However, it’s in the detail of the argument that Benjamin demonstrates his depth of perception. One of its central ideas is the loss of ‘aura’ that accompanies reproducible artworks. Benjamin links this aura to the idea of what he calls ‘cultic’ value. Cultic value is present when the existence or presence of something is more important than its actual display – as in religious artefacts. This is the first of a pair of oppositions that Benjamin articulates – cultic value versus display value. Benjamin makes a clear case for how photography upsets the notion of the original and the aura of art. But his best insights are reserved for his analysis of film. In particular, one of his most beautiful metaphors – and another oppositional structure – is in the way the magician versus the surgeon parallels the relationship between a painting and film. This is worth quoting in detail:

“The surgeon constitutes one pole of an arrangement in which the other is occupied by the magician. The stance of the magician healing an invalid by laying-on of hands differs from that of the surgeon performing an operation on that invalid. The magician maintains the natural distance between himself and the patient…the surgeon does the opposite: he reduces the distance to the patent a great deal (by actually going inside him)…Magician and surgeon behave like painter and cameraman. The painter, while working, observes a natural distance from the subject; the cameraman, on the other hand, penetrates deep into the subject’s tissue.”

What Benjamin is describing is how film is surgical in that it is a series of chopped up fragments – camera edits, changes in zoom, differing levels of detail, etc. all the while remaining invisible. It moves in and out, can alter the duration of time, and alter space and points of view. The painter’s painting is by contrast synthetic and always about that particular view held by the painter regardless of whether it is a landscape or abstract work of art.

The camera is such a potent force that the aura of the actor has no chance of surviving, the way it still does on a theatre stage. Hence, “[f]ilm’s response to the shrivelling of aura is an artificial inflation of ‘personality’ outside the studio.” This is Benjamin in 1936 describing the cult of celebrity we now accept as natural.

 There are also interesting hints about the way film creates the possibility behind Warhol’s famous statement about everyone getting their ’15 minutes of fame’, that is, about the logic behind the appetite for reality TV shows (the lack of any shortage of people aspiring to claim their quarter-hour). There is also an interesting analysis of how film provides us with the idea that we are all experts of some sort when it comes to appraising what we’ve seen; the opposite of what most people feel in front of art, which is generally a sense of inadequacy.

My interest in this essay is in one of the oppositions that he sets up in order to demonstrate the conceptual differences between things normally seen as fairly similar. Without further ado:

“Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

This has, for me, settled the debate as to whether architecture is art. The difference isn’t utility, as is often suggested. Art has its use as well although we know that there is a big difference in what use and function mean in architecture as opposed to art. Benjamin’s focus on the mode of reception – what our frame of being is when we experience something – allows us to invoke use, but not make it central. That is, the state of distraction that is present when we experience architecture is caused by use. The way we are aware of the architecture of a kitchen is mediated by the fact that we are making toast and thinking about catching the bus so as not to be late for work. When in front of a work of art, we generally choose to concentrate on it, to examine it, thereby giving it its space and our attention fully. You might, however, cease to concentrate on your original Matisse hanging in your living room after several weeks or months. And you choose to stand before a building and consider it as art in a fully attentive and concentrated manner. However, these latter two examples are not how they are primarily meant to be apprehended. So while architecture may be taken in as art that is not its essential mode of reception. Now think back to Duschamp’s urinal installation and you’ll understand why it is a work of art and the one in your neighbourhood pub isn’t.

 This is a very simple observation and way of delineating a difference between two types of production (and consumption) – yet without saying one is better than the other. They are simply different. Nevertheless, breath and ink are still wasted over debating whether architecture is art or a fine art practice. We can accept, however, that not everybody on the street would have read Benjamin. What is bothersome is the extent to which architectural criticism and journalism continues to treat architecture from a purely concentrated state never considering its quality by the masses who use it in distraction every day. Segue my piece on the everyday (forthcoming).

Edit 4 Sept 2012

I’ve realised that I didn’t make any negative remarks about practice or education! How negligent of me. There are serious implications in the confusion or deliberate blurring of the distinctions between art and architecture. An obvious one is the design of buildings with an emphasis on ‘art’. To some extent, if a client wants to go down this route there is nothing terribly wrong with that. However, when it involves public buildings or buildings that impact on the urban landscape it becomes potentiall problemmatic. But, for me, the biggest concern is the treatment of architecture-as-art in education. The critique and assessment of work is generally based on evaluating the work from a ‘concentrated’ point of view. That is, it is reviewed and interrogated as something to be focused on and in terms of a resolution which is clear, communicable, blatant and self-consciously evident. That is, students are trained to make their ideas so legible that they tend towards wearing their concepts on their sleeves – emphatic if not aesthetic. If we follow Benjamin’s distinction, some evaluation should be made on the basis of more subtle effects. How, for example, might the design be taken in while distracted, or how would the meaning of the project build up for inhabitants as they repeatedly used and experienced the project, or what kinds of meanings, communications, and experiences are deliberately meant to be revealed slowly and almost imperceptibly? But the worst offence occurs in the area of design and presentation drawings. These have become so self-consciously artistic that they almost become incommunicable to clients (and in fact, many of the drawing methods favoured in academia are rarely seen in practice). And again, the evaluation is based not on how they carry ideas or how a non-architect could glean the design ideas or benefit of the project, but rather by how they challenge the architects’ own expectations for drawings. We have come to draw in order to intrigue our own curiosity. Through this the drawing has become more and more something to be ‘concentrated’ on, something that requires skill in reading, something that critiques established values and so on, in short, an artwork. You should, on your own, be able to see the parallels in model-making and the design process in general and hopefully with respect to the final design itself.

This is not to say that concentrated reflection has no place in architecture. Theoretical projects do exactly this and this is what makes them valuable. There is also nothing wrong with deciding to take the most pragmatic drawing or building and performing a ‘concentrated’ analysis. This is what critique is. What is problematic is a reversal of the horse and cart of Benjamin’s formulation – making every aspect of architecture under a concentrated mode and for concentrated consumption.

Notes: Benjamin’s essay changes dramatically depending on which translation you read. Given that it is not terribly long, it’s worth trying out a few different translations. I recently bought the Penguin Great Ideas version, which is a new translation, and was disappointed. It may be that it is closer to the original, but some of the passages I am familiar with come across awkwardly, specifically the one on distraction and concentration. The translation I used above is from