Thursday, March 21, 2013

2. Jeremy Till - Architecture Depends

In an attempt to maintain the initial spirit I had intended for this blog, I will try to conduct the following in a rather impersonal, 'objective' manner. To preface this, it would be unfair to myself to not state that this book touched me very deeply, expressing what I have struggled to write for so long in such eloquence and lucidity. As a result of this 'conflict of interest', the quality of the 'review' and precision of the arguments may decrease significantly.

Written in 2009, Architecture Depends sets out to formulate a contemporary ethics for architecture grounded on the fundamental understanding and acceptance of contingency as both a basic fact of life and architecture itself. Stringing together the philosophies of Lefevbre, Bauman, and Latour, among others, Till situates his argument within the discourse of Modernity and the way "architecture" has shaped itself according to its ideologies. He is very precise when speaking of "architecture", from its practice, its profession, its practicioners and its objects, in order to elucidate a metaphysical narrative of a networked history that results in a framework for interpreting what architecture is (and can be, and debatably should be) today. His project is to not necessarily reintroduce politics to architecture, but reveal that it had never disappeared, just merely sublimated and ignored.

Till starts his argument by investigating the myth of autonomy central to the discipline of architecture, not only in the fact of, but the reasons why. Instead of a continually doomed process of resistance, Till advocates a realist position that, despite its short discussion, builds on the foundation of Donna Haraway's theory of Situated Knowledge. He goes on to develop the Modernist cooptation of architectural agency using the concept of time as opposed to space, though ultimately reintroducing one to the other in the end. He locates the Modern ethical problem of architecture in the (refused) perception and fear of time, and as such, contingency. Till argues that it is only once we fully accept the inherent contingency of time (and subsequently, space), can an ethical architectural praxis emerge. As I personally say, it is only by passing through nihilism can we arrive at a true optimism.

The book is interspersed with personal anecdotes that not only add to the enjoyability of reading the book but actually communicate the type of ethical position Till is advocating. Ethics, to Till, is quite simple, and is to a degree echoed in the post-WWII era building in Britain as recently longed for by OMA's installation in the 2012 Venice Bienalle. He posits ethics as something that is essentially interpersonal, and is swift to stifle Modernist moral and ethical arguments to be located in either tectonics or aesthetics. He references Levinas in that ethics is "being-for the other". Simple at first glance, Till begins to formulate (though does not, cannot, and does not want to finish) what this means for architecture as a practice in contemporary times. How is it possible to be ethical when our legislative bodies orient our ethical activity towards the client and fellow architects, when it is ultimately the users of the buildings that architecture is actually in relation with?

This book stands tall against the general discourse that I surveyed in my last post about Simone Brott's Architecture for a Free Subjectivity, and largely, even though not speaking of it directly, what Leopold Lambert calls the 'Deleuzeanism' of our era (although which may be more of an Aristotelianism/Materialism more than anything). While both vie for a refoundation of ethics in architecture, the two arguments are radically opposed, with their difference landing squarely on the Faustian bargain; Brott implies a very elementary assumption of the inherent abstraction of architecture both as a profession and an object, whereas Till to argue that this notion of architecture as an abstract social project is in fact the result of a highly reified ideological process that is Modernism and as such is not only contingent and unethical, but in fact impeding architecture and society's potential.

The two both start from basic presuppositions: Brott, Modernity; Till, Contingency. Brott takes the Deleuzo-Guattarian theory of affect (which she develops into 'effect-images') to postulate a sort of essential architectural subject. There are a surplus of problems with this (even if you integrate the local specificity of phenomology), but it perhaps starts from the confusion in reading her theoretical discourse that it is not always easy to tell if what she means by "architectural subject" is the 'subject (user) of architecture' or 'architecture as subject'. What follows from this is narrowly different from the pure affect of surface intensities, though meant in cinematic time as opposed to photographic time (where maybe the fact that we need to think of time through a representation medium is the larger problem). This stance 'assumes' the inherent Modernity of architecture itself by its detachedness from the world around it, and through that detachedness, provides the potential conditions for the emergence of a "free subjectivity". But as I have noted in my last post, the heterotopic condition of architecture (limited strictly as an object) is incapable of implementing sustainable change, let alone any sort of revolution.

Till ends his book with formulating the conception of the architect, channeling David Harvey, as an "agent of hope": one who resists the temptation of utopia and instead plays the role of an "imaginative interpreter", locating the hermeneutic act of interpretation itself as the locus of realism; as a facilitator, an enabler. A synthesizer of inherently disparity. I will conclude with the same quote Till does, as Roberto Mangabeira Unger ... says it far better than I ever could:

'the architect at his best must make forms enabling people as individuals and as groups to express themselves by changing their situations. In this manner he becomes like the lover for whom the fulfillment of the beloved’s life plan is part of his own life project. He lives out his transformative vocation by assisting someone else’s. Then, we can forgive him his signature on his buildings. We can forgive him because he makes pieces of stone serve hearts of flesh.'
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, as cited by Till, p187

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