The Poetics of a Wall Projection
Depending on one’s perspective, this is either a long detour with too few words or a short detour with too many; one wants to know either more or less about this career. The note certainly tells us nothing of Turnovský’s age (born 1941) or training (graduated from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts). It omits his academic work in Vienna (under the auspices of the renowned architect and pedagogue Ernst Plischke), his subsequent postgraduate work at the Architectural Association in London (under the tutelage of Hans Harms and Roy Landau), the doctoral studies at the Technical University in Vienna that would become his principal published work (Die Poetik eines Mauervorsprungs, 1985, of which this book is the translation) and his two volumes of poetry (kleinmut: leichte gedichte and Referentielle Poesie). Naturally the detour, or shortcut, is intentional, and revealing despite the lacunae. It discloses a love for compact work, a drive to achieve maximal density in a very limited space, and an inability to resist testing his sharp wit on ordinary matters. It gently mocks the notion of a teleological logic to life-lines and also pokes fun at the modernist trait of determined silence with regard to the idiosyncratic. It succinctly situates a moment in Central European history where intellectuals oscillated between the most varied of occupations and fears – and, for those who knew him well, it explains his passion for a particular saxophone track that he played rather obsessively at the Technical University, where he taught until his untimely death in 1995. There is more. The little pseudo-vitae is a demonstration of one of the central topics discussed in this book, namely the conditions under which signs become liberated from the singularity of their referential duties and become a spur to poetic contemplation. As Turnovský notes, the precondition of the poetic is a degree of indeterminacy, and for something to be perceived as indeterminate it must offer the root option of also being perceived as not indeterminate. ‘True poetics is always both poetic and non-poetic, i.e., practical, at the same time.’2 Good
architecture is always also practical; this is why it is so well suited to poetic statements. The possibility of perceiving a door handle as nothing other than a handle for a door is the basis of architecture’s poetic potential. Conversely, of course, any architecture mired in excessive rhetoric is unlikely ever to rise to the level of poetry. Any text, crafted with sufficient care, can achieve a ‘double coding’ which dislodges a message from its functional or denotative position. Such a text ‘forces me to ask what it might mean [and] attracts my attention to discern how it is constructed’, writes Umberto Eco.3 Turnovský’s little vitae/prose poem is certainly carefully constructed. Each line in the German original has exactly 72 characters. There are no hyphenated words. It was composed on a manual typewriter so that the character spacing has the industrial rigour of an inflexible unit module. The single-line spacing establishes an identical modular dimension in both the vertical and the horizontal directions. And finally, the text was trimmed out at the top and bottom with 72 singlespaced ‘x’s, densifying the field of letters with their variously configured voids. The work is perfectly rigorous (and easily tested as such) and also perfectly arbitrary, as if to enact the eighteenth-century poet Novalis’s claim that ‘the alphabet was, without exception, the greatest work of poetry’.4 Turnovský was neither the first to treat poetry in spatial terms nor the first to treat space in poetic terms (Apollinaire and Bachelard preceded him), but his knowledge of both the structure of language and the semantics of construction was unique and shaped his design work and his critical writings. And undoubtedly these twinned interests were key to the discovery he made in the villa designed by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Turnovský found architecture’s elemental poetic unit, the Mauervorsprung
These 72 characters would be a perfectly fitting addition to his biography.
Published on May 18, 2011
Published on May 18, 2011
Originally published in German in 1985 as Die Poetik eines Mauervorsprung, Jan Turnovsky's The Poetics of a Wall Projection is ostensibly a...