Six themes for the next millenium.
Why is it that architecture seems to turn away from social reality and become self-referential and self-motivated? Why are narcissism and self-indulgence replacing empathy and social conscience?
The idea of totality which is central for the thinking of modernity, and the accompanying notions of an era and of progress have lost their validity; it is no longer possible to understand reality through a single conceptual construction or representation. Towards the end of our millennium, universal history has become impossible as history has disintegrated into a multitude of alternative heterogeneous histories, and simultaneously the perspective of redemption has vanished. The great prospect of redemption brought about by Modern architecture, as narrated by Siegfried Giedion and others, has also lost its credibility and, as a consequence, a 'multitude of suppressed alternative histories are being unveiled from the shadow of the pathetic story of the emancipation of architecture'.
'For some time now there has been an extraordinary receptiveness to theory, more especially to philosophy, in the architectural community,' writes Karsten Harries.(2) 'That fact invites thoughtful consideration ... One thing the widespread interest in philosophy that has become so much part of the post-modern architectural scheme suggests is that architecture has become uncertain of its way.'
The bewildering interest in theorising and verbal explanation of architectural meanings and intentions today reveals an uncertainty of the role and essence of architecture. Architecture is nervously seeking its self-definition and autonomy in the embrace of the culture of consumption, which tends to turn it into a commodity and entertainment.
Truly disturbing buildings today, that barely hide their attachment to nihilism and mental violence, are viewed and accepted as manifestations of a new aesthetic sensibility. The all-approving ideology of consumption accepts and exploits any aesthetic or moral diversion, before it can create a sufficient critical distance to function as an authentic opposition. The post-historical condition has annihilated the possibility of a true avant garde.
A growing entangling of the arts and their philosophical foundations has been apparent since the 1960s and this development is also reflected in the current tendency of architecture to become increasingly identified with its own theory and rationalisation. Art has turned away from the task of representing reality to survey the problem of representation itself, and to the essence of its particular medium. The disappearance of stable ground has forced art at large into critical negativity, an attempt to define its territory through negation and denial. The logocentrism of today's architecture also reflects a loss of innocence; the tacit practice of architecture within the continuum of architectural culture has turned into a conscious intellectual fabrication. And the obsession for originality has eliminated the possibility of cumulative knowledge.
I believe that we can understand the current uncertainties of architecture more clearly if we are able to see the cultural condition that we live in at the end of our millennium. This could enable us to grasp why 'the horoscope of architecture' does not look good, as Alvar Aalto prophesied as early as 1958.
The central theme in the Modernist architectural theory was the representation of the space-time continuum. Architecture was seen as a representation of the world view and an expression of the space-time structure of the physical and experiential reality. The space-time dimension is, of course, central in all ideas and activities of the humankind from the hidden geometries of language to forms of production and politics. An analysis of the post-historical time-space experience brings us to the core of current frustrations in architectural representation.
David Harvey uses the notion 'time-space compression' in his book The Condition of Postmodernity in reference to the fundamental changes in the qualities of space and time, and he argues that we are forced to alter in quite radical ways our representation of the world.(3) In Harvey's view 'the experience of time-space compression is challenging, exciting, stressful, and sometimes deeply troubling, capable of sparking, therefore, a diversity of social, cultural, and political responses. We have been experiencing, these last two decades, an intense phase of time-space compression that has had a disorienting and disruptive impact upon political-economic practices, the balance of class power, as well as upon cultural and social life.'
Man used to seek eternal life through overcoming limitations of time, whereas today we seek salvation through overcoming limitations of space. The compression of time-space and the consequent flatness of experience has caused a curious fusion of these two dimensions; the spatialisation of time and the temporalisation of space. Instantaneity and the collapse of time horizons have reduced our experience to a series of unrelated presents. Also the production of commodities has placed emphases on instantaneity and disposability, novelty and fashion, and this development has expanded to the realm of values, life-styles, cultural products and architecture.
The reversion to images of a lost past in architecture is grounded in the very strategy of capitalist economy; the whole of history becomes a market place; local and ethnic traditions and historical settings are fabricated under the disguise of a search for roots. Thematisation is the newest strategy of persuasion, of directing and controlling emotional response, by detaching imagery from its spontaneous autonomy; the image is not allowed to arise from within but it is forced into a preconceived interpretation.
'Everything tends to flatten out at the level of contemporaneity and simultaneity, thus producing a dehistorisation of experience,' writes Fredric Jameson.(4) The loss of temporality is accompanied by loss of depth. Jameson has emphasised the 'depthlessness' of contemporary cultural production and its fixation with appearances, surfaces, and instant impacts. He describes post-modern architecture by the notion of 'contrived depthlessness'.
'It is hardly surprising that the artist's relation to history ... has shifted, writes David Harvey, 'that in the era of mass television there has emerged an attachment to surfaces rather than roots, to collage rather than in-depth work, to superimposed quoted images rather than worked surfaces, to a collapsed sense of time and space rather than solidly achieved cultural artefact.'
In the post-historical experience, truth becomes replaced by the aesthetic and rhetoric experience. As the ground of truth is lost, aesthetics takes over, and everything turns into pure aesthetics; technology, economics, politics as well as war.
The surprising success of high-tech architecture in our eclectic and revisionist age can be understood through its capacity to determine its own criteria of quality and goals within its self-defined realm through replacing the issues of representation by the inner logic of technological rationality.
The criteria of performance that high-tech architecture promotes appears to have objective ground; metaphysical questions have turned into the logic of technology. In Heidegger's view: 'twentieth-century technology is historically the most advanced form of Western metaphysics' as a result of the fact that technology has brought objectivisation of thought to its historical extreme.
DEFENCE OF LITERARY QUALITY
'In his literary testament entitled Six Memos for the Next Millennium Italo Calvino, the writer of The Invisible Cities acknowledges the confusion and shallowness of our time.(5) But he expresses an emphatic confidence in literature. 'My confidence in the future of literature consists in the knowledge that there are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it,' he writes.
Calvino gave the six manuscripts for his lectures at Harvard University (the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) which were never delivered because of his sudden death, the following six titles: 1. Lightness, 2. Quickness, 3. Exactitude, 4. Visibility, 5. Multiplicity, 6. Consistency.
No manuscript for the sixth lecture has been found, so Calvino left five poetic and wise essays on the feasibility of literary art in the post-modern condition. The essays present essential criteria for literary quality, which can strengthen the self-defence of literature against the shallowing impacts of post-historical culture. 'In each of my lectures I have set myself the task of recommending to the next millennium a particular value close to my heart, the value I want to recommend today is precisely this: In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication on to a single, homogenous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening differences between them, following the true bent of written language.
'Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function,' he states. 'The grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various 'codes' into a manyfold and multifaceted vision of the world.'
Confidence in the future of architecture can, in my view, be based on the very same knowledge; existential meanings of inhabiting space can be wrought by the art of architecture alone. Architecture continues to have a great human task in mediating between the world and ourselves and in providing a horizon of understanding our existential condition.
DEFENCE OF ARCHITECTURAL QUALITY
It is evident that the current cultural condition renders the emergence of profound architecture as difficult as of profound literature. The post-historical condition tends to erase the very foundations of architectural manifestation by uprooting ideas and experiments before they have had time to take root in societal soil. It turns them into instantaneous commodities in the market of images, into a harmless entertainment devoid of existential sincerity.
Some of the essential questions of the architectural profession today are: can architecture define a credible social and cultural goal for itself; can architecture be rooted in culture in order to create an experience of locality, place and identity; can architecture re-create a tradition, a shared ground which provides a basis for the criteria of authenticity and quality?
Following Calvino's scheme, I wish to suggest six themes for the re-enchantment of architecture at the turn of the millennium. I firmly believe in the continued human mission of architecture and its possibility of grounding us in the continuum of time and in the specificity of place. The six themes that I regard essential for the strengthening of architecture's position in the post-historical reality are: 1. Slowness, 2. Plasticity, 3. Sensuousness, 4. Authenticity, 5. Idealisation, 6. Silence.
I do not have the opportunity here of developing these themes to the extent of separate lectures, but I shall sketch short notes on each theme.
'Architecture is not only about domesticating space,' writes Karsten Harries, 'it is also a deep defence against the terror of time. The language of beauty is essentially the language of timeless reality.'
Italo Calvino describes our incapability to grasp the dimension of time: 'Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot live or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.'
Indeed, today we experience the slow, healing progression of time in the great nineteenth-century Russian, German and French novels with the same pleasurable nostalgia and fascination that we look at the architectural remains of glorious civilisations of the past. But also architectural works are museums of time and they also have the capacity of suspending time. Great architecture petrifies time; even today we can experience the slow time of the Middle Ages in the voids of the great cathedrals.
There is a tacit wisdom of architecture that has accumulated in history and tradition. This is a wisdom that luminously reveals the mental esence of the art of architecture. But architecture needs slowness to re-connect itself with this source of silent knowledge. Architecture requires slowness in order to develop again a cumulative knowledge, to accumulate a sense of continuity and to become enrooted in culture.
We need an architecture that rejects momentariness, speed and fashion; instead of accelerating change and a sense of uncertainty architecture must slow down our experience of reality in order to create an experiential background for grasping and understanding change. Instead of current obsession with novelty, architecture must acknowledge and respond to the bio-cultural and archaic dimensions of the human psyche.
Architecture has become an art of the printed image fixed by the hurried eye of the camera. As buildings loose their plasticity and their connection with the language of the body, they become isolated in the distant and cool realm of vision. The dominant role of the photographed image in today's architectural culture as well as new graphic means of generating architectural images have contributed to the flatness and retinality of architecture. With the loss of tactility and the measures and details crafted for the human body and hand, architecture becomes repulsively flat, sharp-edged, immaterial and unreal.
Flatness, the lack of three-dimensionality, is partly also due to the techno-economic recquirement for thinness, lightness and temporality; buildings are constructed merely as visual images, and their surfaces become ever thinner and more weightless. But a sense of flatness also results from the fact that our capacity for plastic imagination is weakening; buildings tend to be a combination of the two-dimensional projections of plan and section, instead of a real sensory spatial imagination. The architectural profession at large has turned into a paper profession that thinks and communicates through lines on paper rather than through a bodily and physical participation. The sense of flatness is reinforced by the diminishing role of craft in construction, by non-tectonic construction, and extensive use of synthetic materials which do not allow the gaze to penetrate their surfaces of technical perfection.
Architecture must again learn to speak of materiality, gravity and the tectonic logic of its own making. Architecture has to become a plastic art again and to engage our full bodily participation.
Architecture is inherently an artform of the body and of all the senses. But the instantaneity of the 'rainfall of images', as Calvino calls it, has detached architecture from other sensory realms and turned it solely into an art of the eye. But even vision implies an unconscious ingredient of touch; we stroke the edges, surfaces and details of buildings with out eyes.
We live in an era with a frustrating discrepancy and distance between the sensory experience of the world and the consciousness created by it, on one hand, and the biocultural responses accumulated in our unconscious reactions through millennia, on the other. Our relation to physical reality keeps weakening and we live increasingly in a world of dreams, in a stream of unrelated sensory impressions.
It is the task of architecture to mediate between outer and inner realities that otherwise tend to depart from each other. It is the task of architecture to provide stable and reliable ground for the perdception of the world, to provide the ground for a homecoming. And a homecoming cannot be grounded in a sentimental return to the past; it has to be created through a profound understanding of the phenomenological essence of the art of architecture and of the current human condition, and through means that are radical enough to resist the mental forces of conditioned desire.
Rainer Maria Rilke's description of the traces of lives lived in a 'demolished house, left on the wall of the adjacent building in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is an astonishing document of a poet's empathetic capacity and the epic resonance of his work: 'But the walls themselves were the most unforgettable. The stubborn life of these rooms had not allowed itself to be trampled out. It was still there; it clung to the nails that had been left in the walls; it found a resting-place on the remaining handbreadth of flooring; it squatted beneath the corner beams where a little bit of space remained. There were the midday meals and the sicknesses and the exhalations and the smoke of years, and the stale breath of mouths, and the oily odour of perspiring feet. There were the pungent tang of urine and the stench of burning soot and the grey reek of potatoes, and the heavy, sickly fumes of rancid grease. The sweetish, lingering smell of neglected infants was there, and the smell of frightened children who go to school, and the stuffiness of the beds of nubile youths.'(6)
The architecture of us architects is certainly sterile and schematic in comparison to the poet's sensibility. The spectrum of emotions conveyed by today's architecture is confined to the narrow range of the visual aesthetic experience, and it lacks melancholic and tragic as well as ecstatic polarities. But great architecture is not about aesthetic style, but about embodied images of authentic life, with all its contradictions and irreconcilabilities. And authentic architecture communicates its existential significance through our entire bodily and mental constitution. Architecture provides the ground for perceiving and understanding the world as a continuum of time and culture.
I am aware of the philosophical difficulties of distinguishing between essence and appearance, and the consequent ambiguity of the notion of authenticity. Regardless of that, and the somewhat fasionable tone of the term itself, I want to argue for the possibility and significance of authenticity in architecture. Authenticity is frequently identified with the ideas of artistic autonomy and originality. But I understand authenticity more as the quality of deep rootedness in the stratifications of culture.
Emotions and reactions in the consumerist world are increasingly conditioned. We need works of art and architecture to defend the autonomy of emotional response. In the world of inauthenticity and simulation we need islands of authenticity that let our reactions grow autonomously and allow us to identify with our own emotions.
As our existential experience looses its coherence through the mosaic of placeless and timeless information, we become detached from traditional sources of identity. It is the task of architecture to provide a horizon of understanding our being in the world and, finally, of ourselves. Authenticity of architectual works supports a confidence in time and human nature; it provides the ground for individual identity.
Architecture is a conservative art. It is conservative in the sense that it materialises and preserves the history of culture. Buildings and cities trace the continuum of culture in which we place ourselves and by which we can recognize our identities. The way I see the essence of architecture's conservatism does not exclude radicality; on the contrary, architecture must reinforce our existential experience in a radical manner against the forces of alienation and detachment. Architecture, as all art, makes us experience our own being with extraordinary weight and intensity. It enables us to dwell with dignity.
I do not believe that we can expect to build an Arcadia through architecture in our troubled time. But we can create works of architectural art that confirm human value, reveal the poetic dimensions of everyday life and, consequently, serve as cores of hope in a world that seems to loose its coherence and meaning. As the continuity of architectural culture is lost, the world of architecture becomes fragmented into detached and isolated works, an archipelago of architecture. But the patron saint of the archipelago of architecture is hope.
My acknowledgement of a conflict between architecture and the current cultural condition could, perhaps, be interpreted as a support to the view that the architect should faithfully fulfil the explicit desires of the client. I want to say firmly that I do not believe in such a populist view. Uncritical acceptance of vox populi or the client's brief only leads to sentimental kitsch; the architect's responsibility is to penetrate the surface of commercially, socially and momentarily conditioned desire.
The authentic artist and architect must engage in an ideal world; architecture makes concrete an ideal view of life. And architecture is lost at the point that this vision and aspiration for an ideal is abandoned.
In my view, only the architect, who projects his ideal client and ideal society as he designs, can create buildings that give mankind hope and direction. Without the masterpieces of modernity, our understanding of contemporary life, and of ourselves, would be decisively weaker than now: these works materialise possibilities of human thought and existence.
Architecture can either tolerate and encourage individualisation or stifle and reject it. We can make a distinction between an architecture of accommodation and an architecture of rejection. The first one facilitates reconciliation, the second attempts to impose through its arrogant forms and gestures. The first is based on images that are rooted in our common memory, that is, in the phenomenologically authentic ground of architecture. The second manipulates images, striking and fashionable, perhaps, but which do not incorporate our identities, memories and dreams. It is likely that this approach creates more imposing buildings to be published on the glossy pages of magazines dedicated for architectural fashion, but the first attitude provides the condition of homecoming.
Today we need an architecture which does not seek fawning or bombast, effect or adoration. We need an architecture of empathy and humility.
Following Calvino's scheme, I could leave my sixth theme as a mere title, particularly since I have earlier written extensively about an architecture of silence, but I shall, however, add a few concluding notes on my last theme.(7)
'Nothing has changed man's nature so much as the loss of silence,' writes the Swiss philosopher Max Picard.(8) 'Poetry grows out of silence and thrusts for silence.' Picard concludes his thought-provoking book The World of Silence with Kierkegaard's instruction: 'Create silence'.
All great art is engaged in silence. The silence of art is not mere absence of sound, but an independent sensory and mental state, an observing, listening and knowing silence. It is a silence that evokes a sense of melancholy and a yearning for the absent ideal. Also great architecture evokes silence. Experiencing a building is not only a matter of looking at its space, forms and surfaces -- it is also a matter of listening to its characteristic silence. And every great architectural work has its unique silence.
A powerful architectural experience eliminates noise and turns my consciousness to myself; I only hear my own heartbeat. The innate silence of an experience of architecture results, it seems, from the fact that it turns our attention to our own existence -- I find myself listening to my own being.
The task of architecture is to create, maintain and protect silence. Great architecture is silence turned into matter, it is petrified silence. As the thunder and clatter of construction has faded, as the shouting of workers has ceased, the building turns into a timeless monument of silence. And what a faithfulness and patience can be felt in the great works of architecture!
In architecture today we yearn for an expression that aims at the spontaneity and authenticity of the individual experience. We yearn for an architecture that rejects noise, efficiency and fashion, an architecture that does not aspire after the dramatic, but rather aims at lyricising the real things of everyday life. We yearn for radical ordinariness, a natural architecture, of the kind that fills our mind with good feeling when we enter a peasant cottage. We need an ascetic, concentrative and contemplative architecture, an architecture of silence.
(1)Vattimo, Gianni The End of Modernity. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991.
(2)Karsten Harries, Philosophy and Architectural Education in Arkkitehtuurin tutkijakoulutus ja tutkimus (Research Education in Architecture), Helsinki University of Technology, Publications of the Faculty of Architecture 1994/6, pp. 13-40.
(3)Harvey, David The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1990.
(4)Jameson, Fredric Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
(5)Calvino, Italo Six Memos for the Next Millennium. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
(6)Rilke, Rainer Maria The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.
(7)Pallasmaa, Juhani The Limits of Architecture -- Towards an Architecture of Silence, Helsinki: Arkkitehti, 1990.
(8)Picard, Max The World of Silence. Washington: Gateway Editions, 1988.
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|Title Annotation:||architecture for improving humanity|
|Publication:||The Architectural Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1994|
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