Tuesday, June 29, 2010

moving targets

While this blog can be seen simply as reblogging, promoting or condoning silently “things we like”, or even worse, as pseudo-academic intellectual posturing, to conceal our own theoretical inadequacies about the subjects raised while lacking the capacity to give meaningful answers, it is hard to refute since we do not present a position on all of the things we post. Conclusions can be made by what is posted versus what is not, whether implicit or intended. In fact, it’s even harder to say this blog productive at all! (Hence the hyperbolic superlative...)

“Architecture is frozen ideology.”
- Slavoj Žižek

One can imagine, as a mental experiment in Bartlebian politics, in where doing nothing, or the lack of action, is the most violent thing to do (Žižek, 214); you can say this is limited to (political) actions, such as silent protests or abstaining to vote, but what is not to say that ignorance or lacking of knowing or saying also carries meaning, and inherently a position. In this sense, everyone has a position, whether they say it or not.

To elaborate, Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious frames aesthetic action as never being without implicit meaning, which can even be contradictory to its explicit meaning (Žižek, Architectural Parallax). The idea that an artist’s aesthetic actions are never merely aesthetic and are guided by an unconscious framework can be recast to not be limited to only artists and artistic actions (or architects and architectural acts): every action is loaded with meaning, implicit or explicit. This is also to say, for something to have meaning, it has to have weight and consequence within a system or framework, and ultimately within an ideology.
Jameson is fully justified to talk about the “political unconscious”: there is a coded message in an architectural formal play, and the message delivered by a building often functions as the “return of the repressed” of the official ideology. Recall Wittgenstein motto: what we cannot directly talk about, it can be shown by the form of our activity. What the official ideology cannot openly talk about can be shown by the mute signs of a building.

overcoming (post-)modernity

It is probably fair to pick on Patrik Schumacher’s The Parametricist Epoch: Let the Style Wars Begin and Parametricism as Style - Parametricist Manifesto, if not for the sole fact that his manifesto reads like a declaration from the Borg. He does further discuss the environment and urbanism elsewhere (Ma Yansong, 202-208), but there is a lot he doesn’t say, and leaves to suggest parametricism can readily assimilate any issue or agenda as a variable.

In a similar tone a hundred years ago, Sant’Elia and Marinetti’s “Futurist Architecture” vehemently attacks the state of architecture at the turn of the century that follows the grand narrative of history, which employs conventional forms and theories in a temporal context that’s far more technologically advanced than the traditional precedents.

You don’t have to go through the last hundred years of architecture manifestos (Ulrich Conrads, ed. Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture) to recognize that not one of them is perfect. This is not to be apologetic or even simplistic about something that is more politically complex and nuanced, or an attack on the style of the “Architectural Digerati”.

It is more about the provocation in his comments: rather than about being (or being afraid of being) modern (or post-modern or contemporary), “Do you have convictions… Are you able and willing to state the principles that underly [sic] your work?”

It is a risk, a compromise to the identity of one’s beliefs, ideas, and/or position, an invitation to criticism and scrutiny. Why (not) join (or hide) in the hegemony, the opinion leaders and architect celebrities?

lines drawn

Not to insinuate that Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead) was right (with her avocation of the enlightened egoist or her slam on the collective conformists), but to not be polemic is a deferral of responsibility for your own beliefs. Pluralism does not cause this: pluralism is the result. In the Architectural Parallax, Žižek portrays what this ideological indifference, “apoliticality” means, with the example of the Muscovite nouveau-riche, living in new-built neo-Stalinist neo-Gothic Baroque postmodern pastiche apartment blocks:
The “spontaneous ideology” of this new bourgeoisie is paradoxically what appears as the opposite of their vulgar “passion of the real” (pleasures, money, power), a (no less vulgar) pan-aestheticism: all ideologies are equal, equally ridiculous, they are useful only to provide the spice of aesthetic excitement, so the more problematic they are, the more excitement they generate. The neo-Stalinist architecture pretends to pretend – it (and its public) think they just play a game, and what they are unaware of is that, independently of their playful attitude, the game has the potential to get serious. Their “playful indifference” conceals the reality of the ruthless exercise of power: what they stage as aesthetic spectacle is reality for the masses of ordinary people. Their indifference towards ideology is the very form of their complicity with the ruling ideology.
Though this may be an absurd logical extreme, this expert poses that more is at stake than style; Schumacher claims as much as well, stating as style is not “merely a matter of appearance”, that “a new style in architecture and design is akin to a new paradigm in science”. If style indeed has such weight, then all edifices have their ideological, political ramifications and social antagonisms (Žižek, Architectural Parallax, again), even if style is repudiated.

Patrik Schumacher's polemic inadvertently suggests a different mantra than parametricism: make your own personal (architectural) version of E.M. Forester’s “What I Believe”, have convictions, even if they change over time. Go ahead: take a position, you polemicist!

Patrik Schumacher - Patrik Schumacher on parametricism - 'Let the style wars begin', The Architect’s Journal
Slavoj Žižek - Architectural Parallax: Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle
Slavoj Žižek – Violence (New York: Picador, 2008)
Robin Pogrebin - I’m the Designer. My Client’s the Autocrat, NYTimes
F.T. Marinetti - The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism
Javier Arbona - Pa(rame)trik Schumacher Responds, archinect
Ian Martin - It’s time for architects to roll up their sleeves, and their trouser legs, The Architect’s Journal
Régine Debatty - Book Review: Digital Architecture - Passages Through Hinterlands, we make money not art
Ma Yansong - Mad Dinner: A Monograph on the Beijing-Based MAD Office (New York: Actar, 2007)


  1. GKS: I would like to read into your statement, "everyone has a position, whether they say it or not." That seems only partially true. What of the notion that the position is only there if someone else is there to make it? In other words, whether our actions are conscious or subconscious, the position is there because it is created by the observer. While I agree with you, (in)action implies position, albeit by the observer, I wonder what it means that (in)action does not necessarily reflect truth. Once again, let me try to restate the idea for further clarity and thought.
    Specific to architecture, students are drawn through the mechanism of "process" to develop a specific outcome - all with vain hopes that they will be self-aware enough to infuse themselves into the academic conveyor belt. More often than not the outcome is just an action, simply a completed process without self-awareness indicating no honest position. Once again, the observer (teacher or critic) provides the student with meaning. They can go home tonite and relax, they were informed about their actions.
    Ultimately, where am I going with this "Post a comment"? It seems easy to speak about the fact that (in)action has meaning. What does it mean when the agent is (un)aware, (dis)honest, or (dis)content with their position? Do we are fall into two categories, enlightened egoist and collective conformists? Is it egotistical to be self-aware? What are the implications to architecture in that students are taught to "process" oriented - or should I say non-critical reproductions?

  2. Anon: You bring up possibilities of “positions without bodies”. Or “future positions waiting to be made”. But the opposite occurs instead in architecture school as you state (I cannot claim though that this is universal). Architecture students are colonized/disposed to prepackaged positions. Especially in the name of “process”.

    But responsibility and agency always ends with the agent, or the student in this case. It’s going to be up to them to filter, parse, accept or reject that what comes along in their education. I would stake to say to be self-aware is to be human (cogito ergo sum), and to drive that out of the architecture student, to expunge ego is as irresponsible as to inflate it. It’s too bad that those that question process (especially, the process of a studio) seem to suffer the most for it.

    The Randian false dichotomy of egoists versus collectivists isn’t really productive, especially when someone in the collectivists tends to lead the trend/pack. Otherwise, you then have design-by-committee, and in that, there will be nothing greater than mediocrity. And mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself.

    The implications for the discipline are obvious and tired. We have a sea of the criminally vulgar and uninspired, with islands of narcissism and conceit. In both camps, we have our pretenders, ignoramuses, and fakers. Unable and unwilling to take a stake on a relentlessly shifting ground, the elusive noncommittal approach seems to be is the only reasonable response. Fake your way through! To be an impostor is to be the new authority.