RTPC P.4

61-fin, prev.

-PRACTICE

-At the end of all that then, now that we can say we sort of know what we are talking about, here is my own current definition of architecture, reflecting architecture’s present diffuse state and the particular dilemma of the discipline: Architecture is a visibly willful statement about medium specific order that places us in the world. Notice the lack of any reference to building here. I think most of you will grant me the first part of this. Architecture is visible, whether physical or not, even when just an idea.

-Architecture is willful of course. And of a sort that qualifies as “self-conscious,” which is the customary way to distinguish it from vernacular. Architecture is engaged and produced as architecture. What architects do. What architects do. Architecture is a statement. This is a little more controversial in the age of affect, when signification is not a given. I used to say “embodiment,” but I think that does not really capture the possibility that the instance might actually be against order, like some contemporary work presented as architecture seems to be, so instead I say it is a statement about order.

-Architecture is medium specific. Yes, that medium has historically been building, but lately it has wandered into fashion, computer science, and just about any activity in which order is important. In fact, this diffusion is the big change these days. Despite the fact that tectonics is the only thing architecture owns outright and exclusively, tectonics are an instance of medium specific order, which I feel is deeper than the association with building that tectonics celebrates, and which today’s diffusion demonstrates.

-That brings us then to the beef: What does it mean “to place us in the world?” Does it mean express, reflect, or suggest a relationship? Here is where architecture is finally rooted, the lowest subatomic level of consideration. When we get to this question all the others preceding it fade to less-essential adjectives. The answer—how architecture does this, what it does—is what makes it architecture finally, across all applications, media and platforms. Here is where the essential difference between the architectures that we might catalog through history by their “stylistic” or formal differences is truly found.

-Architecture has indulged all of the modes of “placement” imaginable. In fact, their variation through time indexes the strength of the discipline. In times when the discipline is strong, then expression is robust, and meaningful invention follows, while during times when the discipline is weak, then expression melts into a passive, even helpless, default reflection. Further, the condition of the world picture itself can be correlated to this, in that the clearer the world picture and the more general its subscription, the stronger the discipline and vice versa—the muddier the picture or more fragmented the terms of possibility, the weaker the discipline and the greater the dissipation.

-In all these cases though, whether on purpose or not, Architecture provides a framework for understanding, a reduced or distilled version of the relationship to the world that allows (at least the illusion of) the control of otherwise uncontrollable aspects. Some may recognize this as a game structure. Architecture places us in the world by placing us in this framework, locating us in the game. The framework, in turn, for architecture, is the discipline. Architecture’s relationship to the world, in each possible channel—of expression, reflection/mirroring, constructing—occurs as both a structuring and affective or emotive presence.

-Today the world picture is muddy, in fact, it’s about muddiness. In the movement from modern to post-modern to post-critical we cannot regain earnestness, or conversely, we cannot escape irony. This influences the confidence with which any structuring effort may be engaged, the solidity of any assertion made by its presence, and thus the assurance with which the game may be played.

-Absent any widely shared conviction, we see instead a fragmentation of the field into so many micro-directions. The deeper levels where the discipline generates the kind of meaning that makes architecture useful and important cannot be plumbed when each project is an island unto itself. Since the discipline’s structuring role facilitates comparative judgments, providing the connective tissue or language or common ground, a weak discipline further isolates the individual efforts from each other. This turns architecture into a passive reflection of what is locally possible in the world, rather than a positive expression of what should be universally desired, and undermines whatever constructive [efforts} it attempts.

-Today when this function of placing us in the world that began with the Greek sense of “projection,” can be fulfilled by media other than building, because our presence in the world is no longer “as-sheltered or spatially-circumscribed,” there must be another reason to associate architecture with this role, which it still enjoys. That is to say, we are not “sheltered or circumscribed” in the world, we are free there, and architecture’s role in placing us there must be rethought now with respect to this freedom.

-Previously, AS a matter of “shelter or spatial circumscription,” architecture’s activity of placement was protective, comforting, assuring us of an identifiable “place” in an otherwise hostile or indifferent environment. This was important in a period when the idea of shelter as necessary for survival still resonated, and when location mattered to identity.

-Today those memories are gone and, with the notable exception of the homeless, the idea of shelter is more abstract and post-geographic identity is the norm. Today, again with some exceptions, like global warming, we face a world that is less physically threatening, and the world’s indifference is less depressing because it does not represent the loss of a god. Instead we are, for better or worse, “liberated” to possibilities and are urged everywhere to take advantage.

-In school at least, we cannot simply abide. In this world, architecture’s value as a medium of placement derives from a statement of rightness or order that is not referential but intrinsic.
Work—building or other—rediscovers its progressive/superlative state in architecture in such a world only as an example of a most visible physical embodiment of the possibility of advantage taken, of possibilities realized, as evident in the rightness or order achieved thereof. No longer exclusive to building, though, this visible expression of achievement and order we call architecture may itself find an outlet in other media. So, it is possible to respond to Hugo that while “this will kill that,” there is now architecture in both this AND that, and what has been killed is simply the body or form or medium, rather than the spirit or soul.
But there is a rightness or order that runs through all these media, that makes them amenable to “the architectural,” the discipline. This is not the tectonic, though, despite the fact that tectonics is the only thing that architecture owns outright, that it doesn’t share with art or engineering. It is instead the more basic mechanical. The mechanical best captures the way we relate to the world as meat objects, governed by physics—and thus describes that spirit common to media that is engaging, in the way that we associate with the architectural.

-For two million years, we evolved in such an environment, as an object among objects, and this has formed our bodies, AND our minds, our common sense, our intuitions and instincts. For this reason, the mechanical sense is universally legible and empathetic. You will guess by now that this conversation is a game about what is deepest, most essential, in this definitively inessential—elective—phenomenon we call architecture. Well, here it is, the real bottom. This time I really mean it. This is before oviparity—before chickens or eggs—what makes chickens and eggs identifiable as such, as separate things between which a question about priority even makes sense.

-So, all thinking about the idea of architecture, involving magic, order, progress, or anything else, starts with an assumption of objects and relatability. We are objects, which architecture places in a world of objects. And their placement, whether by expression, reflection or suggestion, cannot be understood except by reference that depends on mechanical understanding, aware or not.

-Objects and their relatability—as the play of masses in light, willful statements about medium specificity, placement of things in the world, buildings plus value, building plus signs of building—as architecture, in other words, are always singled out as different from something else, and that play occurs across this difference. This difference is what makes it visible, its visibility is what makes it different. What makes it special, what shows its value.

-Different always, but not other: projection ties it to us, while the comparative impulse always connects it to the thing compared, establishing the relationship as points along a graduated line, a gauge. If it is architecture, it is judged so: as more, as better, a superlative of building, a significant building, a visible engagement of medium (an engagement that makes the medium itself visible). Comparison of examples of architecture is (part of) the constitutive activity of the architectural experience; architecture is always being judged. As I’ve said, architecture is itself judgment embodied.

-So, I’d like to end this conversation by thinking about how a present interest in diversity might relate to architecture? Is it merely a contemporary cultural interest, impacting architecture from outside, like the professional and vocational concerns of licensure and insurance-driven code requirements, or the technical borrowings from the cinema special effects industry? Or, can an interest in diversity be found at a disciplinary level? Is it implied, entailed or otherwise engaged by a definition of architecture? In other words, is it in architecture’s DNA? Is it a necessary effect of the ultimate fact that architecture, like everything not quantifiable, is community property and thus subject to such necessarily political negotiation? Certainly, this issue is part of our world, and if architecture is supposed to place us there then diversity is necessarily engaged. But the question is whether this idea is part of the continuing thread of the discipline, transcending any particular period’s interests, part of the genetic code of architecture, something that has been there all along. The answer is simple: if architecture has comparison in its DNA then it also has an appreciation of the difference that may be compared, and the necessity of that difference to its own existence.