“Concrete structures with walls designed to be rendered white make bad ruins…”
Architectural Review, 1959
“It was the first post-humanist Biennale,” said Aaron Betsky, curator of the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, and went on: “If you follow the definition of modernism it is the production of completely rationalised states. Rem shows the elevator, the staircases, everything that moves you around. It creates completely reproducible and optimised space that is the same all over the world. What are eliminated, as Rem said, are not only the architects but also people. If that is where we are, and if that is what we have to build on, it is for me rather frightening but also revealing. How do we build then? And how do we go from there?” “The first thing to think about for the future is to kill the baby boomers. It is to kill David Lynch and his generation of permanent plagiarism to produce their own shamanism value. We just have to stop. Baby Boomers, it‘s time for you to die. You are useless now”, suggested François Roche.”
“The terror of the ‘evil eye’ is present in all societies in which a propensity for collective violence continues to ferment, and is manifest as an apparently rational fear of the indiscreet observer, of the prying or penetrating gaze…”
Mark Wigley has written very cogently about role of ‘white’ in 20th century fashion and architecture. He makes the point that white is always a layer. What this suggests is that the presentation of revealing is not really revealing anything more than a different layer. But it is ‘read’ as naked, unclothed. I’d suggest this is consistent with how a lot of manufactured narrative and corporate cultural product present themselves. The kitsch model for *depth* is usually imagined as undressing, down to your undergarments, and finally, the core naked body. The core body is synonymous with truth, and more, with fact. One reading of 20th century architecture sees the idea of transparency as the driving motif, and clearly transparency has become a metaphor for political honesty over the last forty years. Again, however, the problem is twofold. One, nothing is ever completely transparent, and two, transparency as a spatial model for reading truth and fact, is highly problematic. This excavation idea, an architectural dig, to *unearth* the long forgotten or hidden wisdom brings with it several unfortunate colonial associations. But more than that, such images and metaphors raise questions about how to define the secondary terms involved.
If one thinks of painting, and notions of depth, the spatial model is diluted some. Depth becomes shorthand for complexity, or even for technique. But, its still there. The idea of unlocking something hidden, or captured. Again, there are curious and slightly disturbing echoes at work. In theatre, say, a narrative may have complexity, in theme, in form, and in a sense the idea of depth is mediated further. In film, depth has increasingly, I think, been attributed to work that is manifestly shallow. Or focused on surface gloss. The recent Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer director) is a film that wants to be read as having depth. It parades an entire shopping list of pseudo arty ‘affects’. Pure black cyclorama, pure white cyclorama, and an odd computer noise soundtrack. ‘Verite’ elements, and the frisson of shooting in working class Glasgow. I only mention this film (Armond White has effectively described it already (here: http://www.out.com/entertainment/armond-white/2014/04/17/scarlett-johansson-exterminating-alien-glazer-under-skin-promotes-sexphobia ) because it serves as a model for the artist’s shallow interpretation of the idea of ‘depth’, so to speak. The shallow deep. Now this is a film with an 86% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What does that say?
Now, the shedding of clothes, in an effort to get deeper, and closer to the truth, also suggests hygiene. The naked body is de facto a clean body. One might ask why? Well, in one way, the naked, the unhidden, the unclothed, is somehow stripped of representation. But there are several contradictory readings here. Whitewashing something suggests obscuring the truth, suggests cleansing the bad deeds of someone or something. It tacitly implies the putting on of a layer. Mark Wigley points out here that the history of clothing contained paradoxical readings of “white”. He wrote; “The linen garments that were once hidden beneath layers of clothing slowly came to the surface to represent the condition of the body that they no longer even touch.”
It would be interesting to examine the history of bathing, in relation to images of cleanliness. Wigley quotes Georges Vigarello, who says the history of cleanliness “consists in the last analysis, of one dominant theme: the establishment in western society, of a self sufficient physical sphere, its enlargement, and the reinforcement of its frontiers, to the point of excluding the gaze of others.”
What is crucial here is that for Le Corbusier, and other architects of the early 20th century, the building was tacitly equated with a body. The body of the building. This is partly Wigley’s point, that this new white surface liberates the eye. It also creates a new sense of space. It is interesting to follow the use of whitewash from earliest times and its disappearance following industrialization. For Corbusier, there was a primal truth in the crushed stones, diluted with water, and made into lime wash. It was a sign of something civilizing. But I want to go back at this point to the idea of depth, again. For even here, with the use of white, there is nothing neutral or passive. White cleans, purifies, or stamps with moral rightness. The body is now being eliminated in post modern architecture. Patrick Schumacher (director of Hadid’s firm) said architecture is now a form of communication. This is a mystification of what building is, for it hyposthesizes a world of immaterial absoluteness, in which everyone thinks they are outside, looking in, when in fact the opposite is true. Francois Roche suggested an image of goldfish staring out of their glass bowl.
Le Corbusier saw his new architecture as the emergence of the essential. That the discarding of decoration ends with the purity of the outline and proportion of the structure (i.e. the truth). Now Le Corbusier also used a telling example, the ballerina in a white dress, which he associates with the sleek white lines of an ocean liner. Here we have theatrical space coming to the fore. Ocean liner as symbolic theatre stage. Now Adorno suggested the question of depth was related to essence and appearance. For Adorno, only the positivists rejected this question. Psychoanalysis has as its default setting, a distinction between essence and appearance. We dont know why we do what we do, often, but the material historical world has shaped much of this, and in a sense then, what we do is the appearance of those shaping forces. Forces that can be looked at as essences. This is just the form of thought that philosophy has followed. Hegel used the term “empty depth”. And I think in a sense, this is the state of much post modern thinking. For there is a positivist inclination in certain strands of post modernism (especially in the visual arts). There is also the other variety of corrupted depth (the anti anti-imperialists for example) that invariably results in various kinds of tautology.
But back to the idea of white and Le Corbusier’s assault on the idea of decoration and ornament. One point worth looking at here is that Le Corbusier (as Wigley points out) saw his polemical theories as a corrective against fashion (in women’s clothes). And this was typified by Art Nouveau. I suspect it was a reaction to a certain fad of Art Nouveau which had engendered a lot of amateur decorators. And there was a certain suffocating quality to the worst of that movement. So there is a certain male ethos in play with the white cleansing. How far to take this observation, I’m not sure. But it is worth seeing one stage beyond (deeper) past architectural design as that of engineering, and that was experienced as exclusively male. Now fashion is also, clearly, a mediating force for thought, and expression. It is anxiety producing. Wigley points out that fashion has come to penetrate all aspects of architectural practice; from “…architects appearing in advertisements for clothing designers and stores, the featuring of architects and buildings in fashion magazines, fashion supplements in architectural magazines, …the role of architecture in fashion shows, the actual *look* of the architects…the ongoing transformation of the language of architects and critics,…”. Now, Wigley adds (he wrote this in 1995) that the conservatism of the discipline is its complicity with the economic model in play, as is fashion, especially as expressed in haute couture, and the elite ownership class that participates in any mobilizing of activity. I suspect that since 95, the role of Hollywood has actually increased, and the power of agents and PR firms to embed celebrities from all fields (sports, films, politics etc) into fashion/architecture has increased threefold. Wigley correctly argues that the entire idea of postmodernity is based on “interior values displaced onto seemingly ephemeral exterior surfaces.” And “the fetishistic obsession with surface at the expense of (what was once understood as) a concern for material and economic structure.”
I remember when video artists started working with installations in galleries. And it seemed curious to me at the time, since I was working in theatre, that this affect-less blank presentation of self was de rigueur. If *modern* theatre started back with Von Kleist, to Buchner, to Beckett, there was always running throughout an incorporation of music hall comedia, marionette theatre, and clown shows. And of vaudeville. The gallery installations eschewed this history, the better to distance themselves from ‘performance’ per se, but also from the idea of a theatrical artifice at all. There was a sort of weird sexual and emotional cleansing going on. Now, there was also a sharing of something worth examining in both the video and installation artists that came up in the 80s, with those architects who came to prominence in the 80s as post modernists, and to clock the influence of the culture industry and fashion in all this, and then to compare and contrast with the thread of modern theatre, say, from Beckett and Genet to Pinter and Grotowski and Peter Brook. That lineage in theatre has suffered a slow down since the early 70s I think. So, who has come later…the answer would be the rise of Robert Wilson, and performance art, monologue-ists, and the late work of playwrights who started in the mid 70s. Wilson is to theatre what Tschumi and Koolhaas are to architecture. The removal of the human.
So, there is a question here, and it has to do with control, and with authority. And both have to do with sexuality. The attacks on fashion, from Loos to Le Corbusier, and certainly to Sigfried Giedion, were partly driven by an insecurity about the encroachment of the feminine. Fashion, and more, decoration, was ‘feminine’. And the white walls that cleansed the eye, also restored masculine order. In fashion itself there was a fear of fecundity and the disorder of sexuality and reproduction. In one sense, the art of many installation and concept artists shifted toward fashion, to elitism, while another branch turned political and propagandistic, and throughout all of this was a new economic interaction with culture. Now there was also, in the best of video installations a necessary purification of “entertainment” and kitsch in mainstream theatre. And throughout art criticism came a deepening fear of this question of ‘essence and appearance’. Julian Stallanbras, as an example, erstwhile leftist art critic, can write of “Freudian and Lacanian models, widely discredited in other fields”. What might that mean? I mean seriously, to be able to write that sentence suggests the performance of one’s own analysis in public. But the point is, there is both a gendered and a sexual set of readings in play. And the flight from Freud dovetailed with the fear of the messy and anarchic sexuality of the music hall, and proletarian folk art forms. There was always a certain narrative investigation of scatology and sexuality, from Rabelais to Pasolini to Genet, that was ‘not’ about purification. It was am embrace of an earthy sensuality. The flip side ran away from the social in the interests of meditative reflection, and satori of some variety. But what happened, within more mainstream currents of artistic expression, during the 1980s, and onward through today, was the inscribing of the fashion industry on the selling of and branding of culture. As Hollywood sunk further down into a Pentagon funded orgy of violence, the flip side of the same coin was the funding of fashion’s style codes and presentation by the same people, really, who make money from Pentagon generated conflicts. Fashion week, and Vogue and the globalized industry of clothing (mostly) women, can be seen to suggest suspended adolescence, and an emaciated child or toy on which one hangs garments. The spectacle of Fashion Week, whether Milan or New York or Paris, is half parody of a slave market, and half coronation pageant. It is the re-enacting of class subjugations and class hierarchies.
The appearance of clothing, as haute couture, is really the unconscious rejection of fertility and Dionysian mysteries. The architectural unconscious, has to have something to reveal, even if only nothing– or emptiness. Meaning, there has to be a mystery within or off stage, or out of frame. I think there is a kind of conflating of principles at work in how a lot of Le Corbusier, and even Gropius’ architecture is read. There are perspectives in which the eye is led around corners, things wrap instead of stopping. The white wall in Le Corbusier is (to quote Wigley again) a moral code, not a fashion statement. Gropius too, had Uptopian dreams. The shift that took place in sensibility from around 1980, was an adjustment to the status quo, to power and hegemony. There was none of the Utopian thinking of Gropius or Loos, or Le Corbusier.
This entire discussion of white in architecture, however, speaks to the emphasis on the optical. And perhaps this takes us back to essence and appearance again, and the discussion of depth. The digging, the excavating, to unearth the treasure. The treasure map has retained amazing durability as a trope in narrative, and for obvious reasons. Depth implies a center, or a bottom. But depth before all else suggests a history. The constant *present* of today’s architectural white is the result of white wall as exterminator; the destroyer of history (as a threat) and the reflective gloss that will tend to reflect back the star architects brand. Depth also implies dreams. But there has been a sort of secondary war on the oneric in art. Dreams need colonizing and occupation. They need to be disciplined. It is interesting to note Walter Benjamin’s distrust of Le Corbusier’s notions of transparency. Also as Bataille wrote: “The storytellers have not imagined Sleeping Beauty would be awakened covered by a thick layer of dust…”. The denial of depth is, finally, a refusal to see the logic of domination at work. The migration of attention to the surface of things serves to help people turn away from the infiltration of their daily lives by surveillance, data gathering, and CCTV. You cannot dream properly under surveillance. This was the paranoia of writers like Philip K.Dick, and it echoes the Hindu myths of ‘the dream dreaming us’. Depth is always linked with mimesis. If artworks, including in a specialized sense architecture, oscillate between reification and reconciliation, and buildings are (per Adorno) crystallizations of history, this is then modified in the post modern period. For the post modern is always mimicking the totalitarian strategies of supervision and containment. The stopping of mimesis. It is Post Modern architecture (and most of what is called post modern art of any kind) that has incorporated the commodity form, and commodity material in a new way, in the acceptance of and fascination with kitsch, and through this an expression of space, imagined, or at least marketed, as global.
“Of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship. It will therefore not be surprising to find the extraordinary flowering of the new postmodern architecture grounded in the patronage of multinational business, whose expansion and development is strictly contemporaneous with it. Later I will suggest that these two new phenomena have an even deeper dialectical interrelationship than the simple one-to-one financing of this or that individual project. Yet this is the point at which I must remind the reader of the obvious; namely, that this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.”
“Panopticity is an impossibility, and pyrrhic attempts to attain it inevitably inflict disappearances and injustice…the messiness of the everyday disorders, both theoretically and experientially…and when the order in question is a would-be panoptic one, imposed from on high for the purpose of instrumental control and even gross exploitation, is… disordering a bad thing?”
The neo liberal globalization agenda flourishes in what Foucault called ‘impossible space’. The Euro centric tendency toward a Panoptic point of view, from on high, is pronounced in all discourse, and it is embedded in how we interact with space. How we articulate and describe it, and how we experience it. I am often engaged about my tangents, and I think its important to make clear that my tagents, my digressions, are both intentional, and accidental, in a sense. Intentional because one of the coercive tendencies of instrumental thinking is the policing of and enforcing of a narrowness of topic. To keep topics and disciplines from mixing, much like cities keep classes from mixing.
All this brings me back to a kind of lost sense of space. In Hesiod, the implication is that creation takes place in a yawning gulf, where ‘nothing’ is…yet. Modification is about to take place. Chaos is not disorder, but emerging order (as Edward Casey put it). By Genesis, the emphasis is on separation. Earth from sky, or sea from sky. Followed by Night from Day. So, these early creation stories; Hindu, or Jain, or Zoroastrian, or Navajo, all express something of a tension, that between Night Sky, and Earth. The primordial space is always a precondition for genesis. Mirroring and rivalry. The point is, for the purposes of this posting, that a narrative for creation myths finds that narrative taking place in space. In the Mayan Popol Vuh, there is a description of calm water, alone, and “nothing existed”. Except clearly something did, but that doesn’t matter, for *nothing* has to be there, and such acceptance of contradiction seems worth contemplating. The theatre, the stage, is always an echo of these primordial spaces of genesis. The narrative modification, like the spatial modification, implies people. Or a person, anyway. Enter stage left.
This is an important aesthetic consideration. For today, culture is mediated by a globalized Capital and proprietor class whose goal is the disciplining of the masses, the domination of resources and the maximizing of profit for corporations and international financial institutions. And memory of space, those archaic trace elements (Emory School of Medicine, in Atlanta, has done research on rat DNA and the inheriting of phobias…but I digress) that I suspect are part of all creative expression, are a de-facto target of a system devoted to profit. The divisions in society, caused by this desire for accumulation and control by the investor class, is now the essential material used in how society reproduces itself. So, the ways in which one ‘sees’ (or doesn’t) the world one moves through is crucial as a precondition for changing it. And the way we are encouraged to ‘see’ it is as a display case, or a prison yard, or through bureaucratic yellow lines on the floors of our imagination.
This question of depth is significant, for the mediation of daily life goes on unnoticed. Fifty years ago Adorno wrote about leisure time, and the selling of pseudo activities, hobbies, DIY projects, etc. That they mimicked industrial production and how recreational sports activities prepared the participant for the physical abuses of his or her job. Today much of this has transferred to the psychological realm, but still, there is something disturbing about the bourgeois health club, climbing walls, treadmills and the always attendant merchandising of these activities. The false mountain wall. Disneyland. Now, work outs have doubled aspects because, obviously, exercise is important and even perhaps profoundly crucial, but the narrowing of the experience to a Disneyworld environment complete with authoritarian personal trainers, suggests a co-opting is taking place. The personal trainer is like the chef in high end restaurants, watching the halibut en croute get just the right shade of brown. But again, space is being mediated. As society witholds more of actual nature from people, corporations build faux nature for people to purchase.
The limitlessness of open nature is a primordial desire. The security and warmth of certain interiors, in buildings or even nature, are also primordial desires. Today both are mediated. It was Derrida, actually, whose critique of institutional space was suggestive of philosophical categories; spaces of telos and origin. Of course, Derrida’s compromised project with Tschumi and Eisenman probably was to be anticipated. And then the unintended reactionary idea of architecture as an *event*. The deconstructivists were continuing the project of social ordering under guise of new imaginary person doing imaginary things. To quote Tschumi: “a new urban type results, based not on the static composition of building mass and urban axes but on the condition of the momentary and the constantly moving”. When Tschumi won the Parc de la Villete competition in 1983, the brief was to transform the former slaughterhouse and meat packing area, a hundred and thirty some acres, into a public park (for the 21st century, it was to be modern, progressive, and attractive to tourists…this was Mitterand’s Paris). The result is strangely disquieting and vaguely hostile. What Tschumi claimed, a park defined by people, open to interpretation, was in fact a reiteration of social oppression and the anxieties of urban life. Leave the city, come to the park, and experience the city again. Promise freedom but deliver the opposite. This is work (like Hadid and Koolhaas, and more than few others) that renounces human scale. The human is removed from the *event*. When Bachelard once analyed houses and interior space from a perspective of reassurance and the desires of a return to the womb, has under post modern architects become an annihilating dissociative antagonist. The unspoken (or rarely spoken) subtext here is business friendly. *Event* means shopping and business; arcades and places to eat, and t shirt stalls or cineplexes. It means property; buisness, is the center of the architecture, and the human has no ‘place’, and is passing through, stopping only to shop. The treasure map now leads to GAP.
The above link is an article on Terunobu Fujimori, an ecclectic sort of outsider architect. Its a useful talking point because Fujimori is asking an entirely different set of questions, and employing a different visual grammar. Lacaton and Vassal’s social housing project in Mulhouse France is another kind of grammar, pragmatic, economical, and human scale. There are dozens of others that counter the grotesque mega-commissions that Norman Foster has inflicted on London, or OMA, or James Stirling or Michael Graves et al.
I started this with some thoughts on the evolution of architectural ideas following on Le Corbusier. And on space, and haute couture. There are parallels in visual arts, which I wanted to just add to. If we live in a landscape of *events*, of kinetic shopping grids, then it makes sense some of the best visual artists today are recuperating the sense of place, and demanding the optical be de-programmed. Artist as anti-Scientology deprogrammer. The cult of starchitect has fallen in line perfectly with economic demands of globalization. I remember being in south India, and wandering into a temple in Mahabalipuram. Its a large temple, and was cool inside and in the courtyard. I stayed in Mahabalipuram for a couple of weeks and probably went to the temple every day, bought incense and chatted with people. There were never not dozens, several dozens of people in there at any given time but it never felt crowded. India, in the big cities always feels crowded. But this is a market town, about fifteen thousand people (this was 1992). I mention this because the spaces were human, there was a refreshing darkness inside, and one understood something of that for which temple life was intended. ‘Sadhus’ sat against walls, old and crippled beggars were there, and people fed them. There are the famous rock cave temples in that town, too, and today I’m told a Radisson resort has been built just outside the town, sadly. These ancient buildings invited, and situated one, allowed one to turn inward, and there were no perspectives in which one looked down.
I posted two photos of Trine Sondegaard’s series “Dying Birds”. They are photos of birds being hunted, most at the moment of being shot. None of them are close up. All we have are imprecise blurred black specks against a white sky or light grey sky. They are a haunting photographic essay that perhaps says as much about a culture inured to killing as any example of which I can think.