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If the prevalent ideology was one of familiarity -- familiarity with known images, derived from s modernism or eighteenth century classicism -- maybe one's role was to defamiliarize. If the new, mediated world echoed and reinforced our dismantled reality, maybe, just maybe, one should take advantage of such dismantling, celebrate fragmentation by celebrating the culture of differences, by accelerating and intensifying the loss of certainty, of center, of history.
If the design of windows only reflects the superficiality of the skin's decoration, we might very well start to look for a way to do without windows. If the design of pillars reflects the conventionality of a supporting frame, maybe we might get rid of pillars altogether. Although the architects concerned might not profess an inclination towards the exploration of new technologies, such work usually took advantage of contemporary technological developments.
Interestingly, the specific technologies -- air-conditioning or the construction of lightweight structures or computer modes of calculation -- have yet to be theorized in architectural culture.
I stress this because other technological advances, such as the invention of the elevator or the nineteenth century development of steel construction, have been the subject of countless studies by historians, but very little such work exists in terms of contemporary technologies because these technologies do not necessarily produce historical forms.
This shock factor was what allowed an image to stand out: moreover, it was also characteristic of our contemporary condition, and of the dangers of life in the modern metropolis. The experience of such anxiety was an experience of defamiliarization, of un-zu-hause-sein, of unheimlichkeit, of the uncanny.
In many ways, the esthetic experience, according to Benjamin, consisted of keeping defamiliarization alive, as contrasted to its opposite -- familiarization, security, geborgenheit. I would like to point out that Benjamin's analysis corresponds exactly to the historical and philosophical dilemma of architecture. The general public will almost always stand behind the traditionalists. In the public eye, architecture is about comfort, about shelter, about bricks and mortar.
However, for those for whom architecture in not necessarily about comfort and geborgenheit , but is also about advancing society and its development, the device of shock may be an indispensable tool. Cities like New York, despite -- or maybe because of -- its homeless and two thousand murders a year become the post-industrial equivalent of Georg Simmel's preindustrial grosstadt that so fascinated and horrified Benjamin.
Architecture in the megalopolis may be more about finding unfamiliar solutions to problems than about the quieting, comforting solutions of the establishment community.
Recently, we have seen important new research on cities in which the fragmentation and dislocation produced by the scaleless juxtaposition of highways, shopping centers, high-rise buildings, and small houses is seen as a positive sign of the vitality of urban culture. As opposed to nostalgic attempts to restore an impossible continuity of streets and plazas, this research implies making an event out of urban shock, intensifying and accelerating urban experience through clash and disjunction.
Let us return to the media. In our era of reproduction, we have seen how the conventional construction techniques of frame and skin corresponded to the superficiality and precariousness of media culture, and how a constant expansion of change was necessary to satisfy the often banal needs of the media.
We have also seen that to endorse this logic means that any work is interchangeable with any other, just as we accelerate the shedding of the skin of a dormitory and replace it with another. We have also seen that the shock goes against the nostalgia of permanence or authority, whether it is in culture in general or architecture in particular. Over fifty years after the publication of Benjamin's text, we may have to say that shock is still all we have left to communicate in a time of generalized information.
In a mediatized world, this relentless need for change is not necessarily to be understood as negative. The increase in change and superficiality also means a weakening of architecture as a form of domination, power, and authority, as it historically has been in the last six thousand years. Since the Renaissance, architectural theory has always distinguished between structure and ornament, and has set forth the hierarchy between them.
But what does this hierarchy mean today, when the structure often remains the same -- an endlessly repetitive and neutralized grid? In the majority of construction in this country today, structural practice is rigorously similar in concept: a basic frame of wood, steel, or concrete. As noted earlier, the decision whether to construct the frame from any of these materials is often left to the engineers and economists rather than to the architect.
The architect is not meant to question structure. The structure must stand firm. After all, what would happen to insurance premiums and to reputations if the building collapsed? The result is too often a refusal to question structure. The structure must be stable, otherwise the edifice collapses -- the edifice, that is, both the building and the entire edifice of thought.
For in comparison to science or philosophy, architecture rarely questions its foundations. Social critics regularly question the image, yet rarely question the apparatus, the frame. Still, for over a century, and especially in the past twenty years, we have seen the beginning of such questioning.
Contemporary philosophy has touched upon this relationship between frame and image -- here the frame is seen as the structure, the armature, and the image as the ornament. Jacques Derrida's Parergon turns such questioning between frame and image into a theme.
From the beginning, the polemics of deconstruction, together with much of post-structuralist thought, interested a small number of architects because it seemed to question the very principles of geborgenheit that the postmodernist mainstream was trying to promote. After all, deconstruction is anti-form, anti-hierarchy, anti-structure, the opposite of all that architecture stands for.
As years went by, the multiple interpretations that multiple architects gave to deconstruction became more multiple than deconstruction's theory of multiple readings could ever have hoped.
For one architect it had to do with dissimulation, for another, with fragmentation; for yet another, with displacement. Any interest in post-structuralist thought and deconstruction stemmed from the fact that they challenged the idea of a single unified set of images, the idea of certainty, and of course, the idea of an identifiable language. Theoretical architects -- as they were called -- wanted to confront the binary oppostions of traditional architecture: namely form versus function, or abstraction versus figuration.
Superimposition became a key device. This can be seen in my own work. In The Manhattan Transcripts or The Screenplays , the devices used in the first episodes were borrowed from film theory and the nouveau roman.
In the Transcripts the distinction between structure or frame , form or space , event or function , body or movement , and fiction or narrative was systematically blurred through superimposition, collision, distortion, fragmentation, and so forth. We find superimposition used quite remarkably in Peter Eisenman's work, where the overlays for his Romeo and Juliet project pushed literary and philosophical parallels to extremes.
Much of this work benefited from the environment of the universities and the art scene -- its galleries and publications -- where the crossover among different fields allowed architects to blur the distinctions between genres, constantly questioning the discipline of architecture and its hierarchies of form.
Yet if I was to examine both my own work of this time and that of my colleagues, I would say that both grew out of a critique of architecture, of the nature of architecture. It dismantled concepts and became a remarkable conceptual tool, but it could not address the one thing that makes the work of architects ultimately different from the work of philosophers: materiality.
Just as there is a logic of words or of drawings, there is a logic of materials, and they are not the same. And however much they are subverted, something ultimately resists. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. A word is not a concrete block. The concept of dog does not bark. Sheetrock columns that do not touch the ground are not structural, they are ornament. Yes, fiction and narrative fascinated many architects, perhaps because, our enemies might say, we knew more about books than about buildings.
Although both stemmed from early interests in linguistics and semiology, the first group saw fiction and narrative as part of the realm of metaphors, of a new architecture parlante, of form, while the second group saw fiction and scenarios as analogues for programs and function.
I would like to concentrate on that second view. Rather than manipulating the formal properties of architecture, we might look into what really happens inside buildings and cities: the function, the program, the properly historical dimension of architecture. Roland Barthes' Structural Analysis of Narratives was fascinating in this respect, for it could be directly transposed both in spatial and programmatic sequence.
The same could be said of much of Sergei Eisenstein's theory of film montage. The Columbia University Rotunda has been a library, it has been used as a banquet hall, it is often the site of university lectures; someday it could fulfill the needs for an athletic facility at the University.
What a wonderful swimming pool the Rotunda would be! You may think I'm being facetious, but in today's world where railway stations become museums and churches become nightclubs, a point is being made: the complete interchangeability of form and function, the loss of traditional, canonic cause-and-effect relationships as sanctified by modernism. Function does not follow form, form does not follow function -- or fiction for that matter -- however, they certainly interact.
Diving into this great blue Rotonda pool -- a part of the shock. If shock can no longer be produced by the succession and juxtaposition of facades and lobbies, maybe it can be produced by the juxtaposition of events that take place behind these facades in these spaces.
If architecture is both concept and experience, space and use, structure and superficial image -- non-hierarchically -- then architecture should cease to separate these categories and instead merge them into unprecedented combinations of programs and spaces. Architecture was seen as the combination of spaces, events, and movements without any hierarchy or precedence among these concepts.
Hence, in works like The Manhattan Transcripts, the definition of architecture could not be form or walls, but had to be the combination of heterogeneous and incompatible terms. Erecting a barricade function in a Paris street form is not quite equivalent to being a flaneur function in that same street form. Dining function in the Rotunda form is not quite equivalent to reading or swimming in it.
Here all hierarchical relationships between form and function cease to exist. This unlikely combination of events and spaces was charged with subversive capabilities, for it challenged both the function and the space. Regardless of whether they are the result of chance combinations, or are due to the pressure of ever-rising land prices, such non-causal relationships between form and function, or space and action go beyond poetic confrontations of unlikely bedfellows.
Just as important is the spatialization that goes with the event. Such a concept is quite different from the project of the modern movement, which sought the affirmation of certainties in a unified utopia as opposed to our current questioning of multiple, fragmented, dislocated terrains. I would like to associate it with the notion of shock, a shock that in order to be effective in our mediated culture, in our culture of images, must go beyond Walter Benjamin's definition and combine the idea of function or action with that of image.
Indeed, architecture finds itself in a unique situation: it is the only discipline that by definition combines concept and experience, image and use, image and structure. Philosophers can write, mathematicians can develop virtual spaces, but architects are the only ones who are the prisoners of that hybrid art, where the image hardly ever exists without a combined activity.
It is my contention that far from being a field suffering from the incapability of questioning its structures and foundations, it is the field where the greatest discoveries will take place in the next century. The very heterogeneity of the definition of architecture -- space, action, and movement -- makes it into that event, that place of shock, or that place of the invention of ourselves.
The event is the place where the rethinking and reformulation of the different elements of architecture, many of which have resulted in or added to contemporary social inequities, may lead to their solution. By definition, it is the place of the combination of differences. This will not happen by imitating the past and eighteenth century ornaments. It also will not happen by simply commenting, through design, on the various dislocations and uncertainties of our contemporary condition.
I do not believe it is possible, nor does it make sense, to design buildings that formally attempt to blur traditional structures, that is, that display forms that lie somewhere between abstraction and figuration, or between structure and ornament, or that are cut-up and dislocated for esthetic reasons. Architecture is not an illustrative art; it does not illustrate theories.
ISBN 13: 9780262700603
Architecture and Disjunction
Avant-garde theorist and architect Bernard Tschumi is equally well known for his writing and his practice. The essays develop different themes in contemporary theory as they relate to the actual making of architecture, attempting to realign the discipline with a new world culture characterized by both discontinuity and heterogeneity. Included are a number of seminal essays that incited broad attention when they first appeared in magazines and journals, as well as more recent and topical texts. Tschumi's discourse has always been considered radical and disturbing. He opposes modernist ideology and postmodern nostalgia since both impose restrictive criteria on what may be deemed "legitimate" cultural conditions.