A transcript of comments on José Aragüez’s The Building presented at the booklaunch event for this publication at the Architectural Association, London, November 9, 2017. Video available here: http://www.aaschool.ac.uk//VIDEO/lecture.php?ID=3731
In his ‘Introduction: The Building’s Discursive Building’ José Aragüez remarks on the way in which the architectural object came to be displaced by ‘High Theory’:
“The production of knowledge — mainly in the most advanced segment of architecture, but also elsewhere — started to undergo a major transformation in the 1960s…That transformation occured in an opening up to various other systems of thought (such as semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and structuralism) and a consequent rewriting of some of those systems’ key concepts … into architecture’s idiolect.”
This complaint — and it would be difficult to read it as otherwise in the context of this introductory essay, as well as that of the broader project it serves to introduce — recalls similar complaints against ‘theory’ in architecture that have been articulated, in various forms, since the mid-90’s. As I note in The Architecture of Neoliberalism, from the 60s to the mid-90s theory’s presence within architecture is troubling because it posits all manner of unforeseen connections between architecture, on the one hand, and language, the unconscious, capital, class and gender, on the other. Since these latter concerns are to be found inextricably lodged within the discourse and practice of architecture, the discipline is forced to acknowledge the presence of foreign elements – each bearing its own burden of unresolved contradictions – that have been residing, all along, in the very places where it might have thought itself able to locate its autonomy. Rather than enriched by such encounters, architecture, like theory itself, in its relentless work of translation, correlation and displacement, finds its foundations unsettled and, according to some, its mission compromised. Michael Speaks writes that theory first ‘attached’ itself to architecture, and then drove it towards a ‘resolutely negative’ condition. Architecture finds itself, then, not master of its own house. What follows from this discovery, mainly from that ‘most advanced segment’ of architectural discourse and culture to which José refers, are a series of attempts to extricate itself from its apparently inextricable condition of being mediated.
There is the pragmatic turn represented by Michael Speaks — ‘Theory was interesting but now we have work’. There is the post-critical turn associated with Somol and Whiting. There is the turn from the negativities of critical theory to the affirmations of Deleuze and Guattari. The turn from meaning to affect. The turn — most clearly manifest in the trajectory of Patrik Schumacher’s writing — from Marx to managerialism.
What Aragüez appears to want to effect in the project of ‘The Building’ is a kind of reversal of Kant’s Copernican turn, for architecture. The architectural object, displaced from its proper position at the centre of things, suffering at the hands, or minds, of high theory is restored to its rightful position as the locus and source of all ‘architectural thinking’.
I am not entirely unsympathetic to this project, or at least to its motivation. Unlike earlier turns against the possession of architecture by theory, Aragüez’s project is not explicitly against thinking or theory, but rather with how these are conducted, and of the place of the architectural object within them. His complaint against the deployment of theory is that it is, in his words ‘unidirectional’, that it supplies ready made concepts which are then applied to architecture simply to prove the validity of the theory. Architecture, in such practices, serves simply as instrument, an illustration or example, through which theory reasserts what it claims to know already. This is hardly a critical practice of theory, even if it sometimes appears, wrongly, to be a practice of critical theory. The same might be said of the architectural uses of theory — Deconstructivism or Deleuzism — where architecture has been employed as little more than a vehicle through which the architect might illustrate his or her knowledge of and allegiance to said theory.
In the attempt to to effect this anti-Copernican turn for architecture — restoring the architectural object to the centre of architectural thinking — however, one might discern the emergence of a problem of a different sort. In attempting to escape conceptual mediation architecture nevertheless burdens itself with another concept through which it thinks itself, namely that of the metaphysical conception of the architectural object. In seeking to establish that which is ‘irreducibly architectural’, and in the proposition that architecture is best thought of outside of, or at least prior to, any mediating concepts — the political, the economic, the social, the semiotic — the danger is that knowledge and thought are imputed to the architectural object in and of itself; that one starts to talk about the ‘ontological primacy’ of the building, of ‘What buildings know’, and of the building as ‘a form of knowledge in its own right.’ To invoke Marx — one of those conceptual mediators, of course — in trying to make architecture stand on its own two feet one courts the danger of also allowing it to stand on its head, so that its starts to spout ‘grotesque ideas’. Against this personification of the object — the defining mark of the fetish for both Hegel and Marx — critical theory, as practised within the Frankfurt School, endeavoured to show how the object mediates, and is mediated by, the larger totality in which it exists. Mediation, then, need not be unidirectional. It need not take the form of the application of theory to architectural objects. In the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, in fact, the proposition is that mediation goes both ways, that it is a dialectical process. This is, after all, the basis of Adorno’s critique of identity thinking, of his complaint against the way in which the concrete example is subsumed under the ready made concept to which it is made to appear identical. For Adorno, and others thinkers of the Frankfurt School, theory is understood as itself necessarily changed in its encounter with its objects. The ‘labour of the concept’, like all forms of labour, is itself critically reflected upon so as to reveal and reflect upon its workings. As examples of this we could think, most obviously, of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, or perhaps of Adorno’s engagement with Loos and functionalism, or of Kracauer’s essays on hotel lobbies or cinema interiors. These show the possibilities of a thinking of, through and with architecture, of understanding architecture, including the thought of architecture, as mediated by the social, the economic, the cultural. At the same time they show how architecture recursively acts upon critical thought, enabling it to adapt sharpen and refine its capacities.
Rather than seeking to think architecture, somehow, outside of its mediations, these are better acknowledged as inescapable for any thought of architecture.