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POTENTIAL ARCHITECTURE paradox and dreams

AA 3rd Year HTS Nathan Su (AA SSP 2012)


POTENTIAL ARCHITECTURE

HTS Nathan Su

The architectural discourse of the last century has been marked by two interpretations of architecture. The first position claims that architecture exists independently from its context - it is an autonomous pursuit much in the same way as philosophy, where the purpose of architecture is architecture. Architecture therefore is tied to its concept; its endeavour is in abstraction. The second position states that architecture is the act of 'making space distinct' (Tschumi, 1990, p. 13). In other words architecture is tied to the way it is experienced. This essay proposes that these two perspectives - architecture as abstraction and architecture as experience exist in a paradoxical relationship. Furthermore it suggests that the solution to the paradox requires a redefinition of architecture to 'the expression of imagined potentials'. The argument will be made in five sections. The first, 'The Paradox' places the two positions on architecture within a historical context by analysing them through Tschumi's analogies of the Pyramid and the Labyrinth. The second, 'The System' analyses the autonomous argument through the lens of Derrida, describing architecture as a closed system of grammar and syntax and highlighting the problems this perception creates. 'The Dream' introduces Christopher Nolan's 'Inception', proposing that Nolan's exploration of 'dream space' allows for a coherent link to be created between abstraction and experience. The fourth section 'The Potential' argues that using the model of perception constructed in Nolan's dream world allows for a solution to the paradox through redefining architecture as the expression of potentials. The final section 'Analogy' synthesises the work of Derrida, Tschumi and Nolan within this new definition, and offers Nolan's dream city as an alternative analogy for architecture - bridging between the Pyramid and the Labyrinth.

Paradox Since the early twentieth century the central debate of architectural discourse has revolved around the question of whether the essence of architecture exists as a concept - a production of the mind - or as its physical manifestation. In the early twentieth century, Hegel proposed a supplementary theory of architecture, where architecture exists only as the substance in a building that doesn't indicate utility (1928). The logical extension of this argument is that architecture's essence lies either

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in ornament, or in representation, thus making architecture "less a piece of architecture than the representation of something else" (Tschumi, 1990, p. 18). Unsatisfied with a definition of architecture that either denies a justification for existence beyond aesthetic preference, or forces subservience to an ideal (that which is being represented), modern architectural theorists attempted to redefine architecture in more conceptual terms. In his 'Essais sur l'Art', enlightenment architect BoullĂŠe wrote "What is architecture? Will I define it with Vitruvius as the art of building? No. This definition contains a crass error. Vitruvius takes the effect for the cause. One must conceive in order to make. Our forefathers only built their hut after they had conceived its image. This production of the mind, this creation is what constitutes architecture" (1794, p. 83). A similar emphasis on the concept over the realised building could be seen in the work of the Vesnin brothers, whose 'paper architecture' placed importance on design from the philosophical and ideological perspectives rather than functional ones (Beaujour, 1988). This evolution of architecture into a philosophical project rather than a physical one was expressed in the words of Germano Celant: ""if architectural work consists of questioning the nature of architecture, what prevents us from making this questioning a work of architecture in itself?" (1972, p. 320). Such discourse allowed for the ascension of architecture into an autonomous pursuit, not reliant on context. Rather than representing society, history or geography, the dematerialisation of architecture meant that it only represented itself. Tschumi famously described this position as architecture as the Pyramid, where architecture is conceived as a model of reason, and the resulting forms "ensure the domination of the idea over matter" (1990, p. 20). However, simultaneously, an opposing theory of architecture was evolving through the German concept of raumempfindung, or 'felt space'. The opposite to conceptual architecture, sensory architecture also became a prominent theme in architecture of the twentieth and twenty-first century. In this model of architecture, the focus was on creating distinct spaces and moments. From this perspective, Tschumi proposed the Pyramid's antithesis: the Labyrinth. In the Labyrinth, the subject experiences a heightened awareness of feeling and sensation, yet possesses no overarching perspective from

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which he can construct the concept. In contrasting and attempting to reconcile these two views on architecture, Tschumi exposed the paradox of architecture: "Architecture constitutes the abstraction of absolute truth, while this very truth gets in the way of feeling" (1990 p. 27). Such a paradox is disabling for both architectural theory and practise, and Tschumi's proposed solution to the paradox reads as a somewhat unsatisfactory afterthought: "the solution of the paradox is the imaginary blending of the architectural rule and the experience of pleasure" (1990, p. 29).

System In order to propose a solution to the architectural paradox of abstraction vs. experience, a more thorough understanding of the theory of the autonomous model of architecture is required. The autonomous model of architecture regards architecture as text - composed of a grammar and a syntax, that together generate meaning. This linguistic theory of architecture mirrors (and is in part derived from) the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, who in analysing language, famously proposed "there is nothing outside the text" (1967, Of Grammatology, p. 158). This statement is built on Derrida's concept of diffĂŠrance, a play on the French word diffĂŠrer, meaning both 'to differ' and 'to defer'. Summarised, Derrida claimed that language creates a closed system - in which meaning can only be derived from the fact that the components of the same system (e.g. words) differ from each other. Paradoxically, since the system is self-referential (words are given meaning by other words, which are in turn defined by words and so on), meaning is endlessly deferred. In the same way, "the architectural object" is interpreted as "pure language [and the] endless manipulation of the grammar and syntax of the architectural sign" (Tschumi, 1990, p. 18). Such a design philosophy can be observed in the work of Rossi; Tafuri states that Rossi's architecture is "a universe of carefully constructed signs, within which the law of exclusion dominates, and in fact is the controlling expression" (Tafuri, 1974). However, this self-reference inevitably creates problems; namely that as architecture dematerialises, it becomes writing, drawing, information, attitude, gossip, production - there is nothing to distinguish architecture from any other human endeavour.

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Furthermore, with meaning being endlessly deferred, architecture becomes meaningless - in 'Rogues' Derrrida claims that "architecture is not architectonic" (taking architectonics to mean systems of structure that generate meaning) (2003, p. 171). Similarly, Tschumi proposes that "the necessity of architecture is its nonnecessity. It is useless, but radically so", (1990 p. 26) a statement that leaves modern architecture at an impasse. However, a further problem exists with the autonomous model of architecture. Unless architecture is to completely dissolve into the immaterial, there will always exist a context (whether spatial, experiential or ideological). In other words, so long as architecture continues to have a physical manifestation, it will always be experienced and therefore the pure concept will be interrupted by interpretations influenced by factors beyond the 'language' of architecture. For this reason, the paradox between abstraction and experience becomes the central argument - for to confine architecture to pure abstraction would entail either the halt of all realised projects or a disassociation of architecture with the art of building, thus rendering architecture indistinguishable from philosophy. However, if architecture were to be confined to pure experience, it would also cease to be an act of creation. The builder of the labyrinth had to know where to put the walls, and thus an overarching concept must have existed and must necessarily continue to exist so long as the structure remains intact (even if the overarching concept is not known to anybody).

Dream As has been the case throughout history, a solution may be offered from beyond the limits of the discipline - in this case through Christopher Nolan's film 'Inception'. As Panofsky believed, "the unique and specific possibilities of film" (Vidler, 2000 p. 111) offer us different conditions through which to interpret space, time, and therefore architecture. The protagonists of Inception inhabit the 'world of the dream' - offering a unique perspective on experience, made possible through the fictional mechanism of 'dream-sharing'. In the film, Cobb (the protagonist) leads a team, whose job it is to design and create artificial realities within a dream, in order to steal information from (or plant information in) an unsuspecting subject's mind

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(Inception, 2010). It is in the mechanics of the dream reality that a bridge between abstraction and experience exists, therefore providing an opportunity to rethink the paradox of the Pyramid and the Labyrinth. One of the scenes in 'Inception' shows Cobb introducing Ariadne (a promising young architect) to the idea of 'dream sharing' in order to teach her to design dream space. In explaining the state of mind one enters when dreaming, Cobb states "When we dream, we create and perceive our world simultaneously, and we do this so well our mind doesn't even know it's happening" (Inception, 2010). This concept of simultaneous perception and conception provides a link with the architectural paradox and is also a theme in Derrida's writing. Derrida writes of the experience of auto-affection, a process through which the mind is split into two components - one which creates and the other which observes; he calls this internal distance espacement. This condition is best observed under two conditions. In the first, an individual tells themselves something, thus simultaneously being the origin and the recipient of the thought. In this way, the individual creates 'space' within themselves, allowing them to compose and hear the thought as separate entities within the same identity. In the second condition, an individual observes themselves in the mirror. As with the first case, they are both the person seeing, and the person being seen. This internal difference that allows for self-reflection within a person (or a system e.g. language) is the essence of Derrida's theory of deconstruction (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2006). In fact, this concept goes back to Aristotle, whose concept of God was "thought thinking itself" (De Konick, 1994, p. 471). In any of these examples of concurrent conception and perception, the question can be posed as to whether the two truly happen simultaneously, or whether one occurs before the other. Intuitively, it would seem that the idea or thought must first be conceived in order to be 'real' enough to be perceived. It would seem that in 'Inception' the dreamers inhabit the space that they are creating just before they experience it. However, in all these cases the experience is being created subconsciously - and is thus not analogous with the process of design. Instead, what occurs in the moment after Ariadne realises she is dreaming bears more resemblance. As Cobb explains to Ariadne that the reality she is experiencing is a

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dream, the world around her begins to lose integrity and the environments explodes into a state of zero-gravity. Her perceptual change allows for a new range of possibilities, re-writing the rules of the world she inhabits. It is only once she is aware of the fact that she is dreaming, that she is then able to manipulate her environment in ways previously impossible; space literally folds as she flips the streets of Paris over on themselves. In this case the realm of perception is widened by a questioning of her habitual perceptual framework, which allows for her to conceive of new realities. The analogy then for the architectural paradox is this: the potential realities that can be perceived form the fertile ground on which architectural ideas can be conceived, thus creating a relationship between experience and abstraction, albeit one that seems inverse; potential experience allows for abstraction and architecture occurs as the bridge between the two.

Potential The concept of the Pyramid and the Labyrinth also exists in the settings for 'Inception'. Three main cityscapes are used as backdrops for the film - Paris, Mombasa, and a fictional city of the subconscious: a seemingly endless array of skyscrapers. In Paris the city of the masterplan, the concept of the dream is revealed and the environment is perceived from an omnipotent point of view. Ariadne, the architect, has unlimited control over her creation and it behaves as an autonomous construction - the inverted streets of Paris are understood only through the lens of a person aware that they are dreaming. In contrast, Mombasa is depicted as a labyrinth. The choice of the name 'Ariadne' (who led Theseus through the labyrinth in ancient Greek mythology) is no coincidence. In an interview, Nolan claimed "I wanted to have that (the name Ariadne) to help explain the importance of the Labyrinth to the audience" (Nolan, 2010). In the scene in Mombasa, Cobb is chased through a streetscape that appears to close in on him as he struggles to escape un-named pursuers. Nolan explained "The idea of showing Mombasa as mazelike was, for me, a very specific narrative point in the film. When Cobb finally confronts Mal at the end and she brings up the idea that Cobb no longer believes in one reality, you need to have shown the audience the potential for the real world to have the same rule set as the dreams" (Nolan, 2010). Nolan's labyrinth relies on the same principles as Tschumi's.

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POTENTIAL ARCHITECTURE

HTS Nathan Su

In Mombasa, the camera shots are restricted to depicting small moments at the human scale, and the emphasis is on a visceral experience - for both Cobb and the audience. In the laybrinth, one is blind to the concept - we are unsure as to whether Cobb is dreaming. The paradox of the pyramid and the labyrinth then is visually expressed through Nolan's motif of the Penrose steps - a physically impossible never ending staircase. With this structure, at the level of experience, it is not possible to experience the staircase as anything but a staircase. However, for those aware of the paradox and therefore the abstraction or concept of the stairs - the structure becomes a tool for deception. Herein lies the role of the architect in the paradox between abstraction and experience. The architect designs potentials in the world of the physical experience through an understanding of the entire concept in the world of abstraction, just as Cobb and his team influence reality through manipulation of dream events. Architecture then, can be defined as form expressing potential, with form derived from an abstract concept and potential existing as the list of possible experiences the form allows.

Analogy With this definition of architecture, a solution to the paradox is offered. If architecture exists as the expression of potentials, it is not limited to representation since it expresses a near limitless set of realities that have not yet come to be. However, it is also not self-referential (and therefore meaningless), since potential remains tied to the physical conditions and rules that govern the universe. Both Derrida and Tschumi touch on this idea in their projects of deconstruction. Both attempt to disassemble the semantics of writing or architecture respectively, thereby liberating the disciplines from perceptual restraints caused by their perceived semiotics. In 'Point de Folie: maintenant l'architecture' Derrida proposes that Tschumi's folies enact a "general dislocation, [deconstructing] the semantics of architecture" (1986, p. 5). He also claims that "Imagination is the freedom that reveals itself only in its works. These works do not exist within nature, but neither do they inhabit a world other than ours" (1967, Writing and Difference, p. 6). The

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works of imagination are those that express potentials; they allow for a bridge between the conceptual and the physical world, yet are not confined to either. The role and identity of the architect is now clear. The architect is to envisage potential realities - potential in that they have not yet occurred but conceivably (and perceivably) could - and give them expression through space that is able to be experienced. The analogy for architecture then becomes neither the Pyramid nor the Labyrinth, but instead Nolan's City of the Subconscious: an endless array of buildings, expressing potential through the twin facts that the structures recede to toward an infinitely distant horizon, and that no two buildings are the same. The paradoxical relationship between abstracted thought and experience is not constrained to the discipline of architecture. As Derrida demonstrates, it is evident also in writing, self-reflection and indeed any system constructed of grammar and syntax. However, abstraction and experience are also linked through imagination. It is this ability to perceive possible while not-yet-materialised futures that distinguishes the human mind, and it is this process that connects the concept with physical matter. The proposal of this essay is this: architecture is an endeavour of the imagination, and in being so it is both intensely abstract, and intensely experiential. Architecture is the expression of imagined potentials.

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References Beaujour, E K 1988, 'Zamiatin's We and Modernist Architecture', The Russian Review [e-journal], Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 49 - 60, available through JSTOR, viewed 16 March 2012 Boullée, E L 1794, Architecture, Essay on Art, translated by S Vallée, Bibliothèque National, Paris, available through designspeculum.com from <http://designspeculum.com/Historyweb/boulleetreatise.pdf>, viewed 6 March 2012 Celant, G 1972, 'Architettura Radicale', In The New Italian Landscape, Museum of Modern Art, New York De Konick, T 1994, 'Aristotle on God as Thought Thinking Itself', The Review of Metaphysics [e-journal], Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 417 - 515), available through JSTOR, viewed 16 March 2012 Derrida, J 1967, Of Grammatology, Les Editions de Minuit, France, available through Google Books, viewed 10 February 2012 Derrida, J 1967, Writing and Difference, Editions de Seuil, France, available through Google Books, viewed 10 February 2012 Derrida, J 1986, 'Point de folie', In La Case Vide, Bernard Tschumi (ed.), Architectural Association Publications, London Derrida, J 2003, Rogues: two essays on reason, Editions Galilée, France, available through Google Books, viewed 10 February 2012 Inception 2010, [Film] Directed by Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros. Pictures, US Hegel, G W F 1928, The Philosophy of Fine Art, Vol. 1, G. Bell and Sons ltd, London Nolan, C 2010, Q&A: Christopher Nolan on Dreams, Architecture and Ambiguity, Interviewed by Robert Capps [magazine], Wired Magazine, available through <http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/11/pl_inception_nolan/all/1 Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy 2006, Jacques Derrida [online], available through <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/derrida>, viewed 5 February 2012 Tafuri, M 1974, 'L'Architecture dans le Boudoir: The Language of Criticism and the Criticism of Language', Oppositions 3 Tschumi, B 1990, Questions of Space, Architectural Association Publications, London Vidler, A 2000, 'Metropolitan Montage: the city as film in Kracauer, Benjamin, and Eisentein', Warped Space, MIT Press, Cambridge

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Profile for Nathan Su

Potential Architecture: Paradox and Dreams  

The architectural discourse of the last century has been marked by two interpretations of architecture. The first position claims that archi...

Potential Architecture: Paradox and Dreams  

The architectural discourse of the last century has been marked by two interpretations of architecture. The first position claims that archi...

Profile for nathanssu