Saturday, March 30, 2013

4. Bernard Tschumi - Architecture and Disjunction

In re-reading Architecture and Disjunction, a collection of essays by Bernard Tschumi written between 1975-1991, published in 1996, and inaugurated as seminal text for architecture students around who-knows-when, what initially struck me was its vey explicitness of the political motivation behind Tschumi's writing and investigation. Coming out of France '68, Tschumi opens his discourse by trying to locate the political operativity of architecture, characteristic of the late avant-garde that he acts as one of the closing figures to. His thought starts by rejecting the neoliberal notion that architecture is merely a representative instrument, and from this point seeks to find the tools with which architecture can subvert this ideology and act as a "catalyst for change." His goal in this is to find a way that architecture can be used for the creation of society itself, as opposed to represent transcendental hegemonic ideals of it. He locates this agency starting from a conclusion that "architectural space per se (space before its use) [is] politically neutral" and thenceforth outlines two primary strategies: The first he calles "exemplary actions" and uses "guerrilla building" as an example: architecture that rejects the value of form in order to signify the significance of use in a "rhetorical act"that "reveals that the capitalist organization of space destroys all collective space" and acts "not merely [as] the realization of an object built for itself, but also the revelation through building of realities and contradictions of society" (p11). He curiously calls this strategy "not specifically architectural but rely[ing] heavily on an understanding of urban structures. It also suggested the polarization of conflicts so as to destroy the most reactionary norms and values of our society" (p10). A contemporary example of this would clearly be the encampments of the 201X revolutions. The second strategy, which he calls "counterdesign" is "more architectural insofar as it used the architect's means of expression (plans, perspectives, collages, etc.) in order to denounce the evil effects of planning practices imposed by conservative city boards and governments." Employing Critchley's figure of the architect as an aesthetic sublimator, the architect would use the architectural mediums to voice a pure critique and emphasize the impossibility of understanding space in its experience. Examples of this range from Archizoom's No-Stop City to Tschumi's own graphic narratives in the Manhattan Transcripts, as well as many of the winners to the most recent iteration of the Think-Space programme (1, 2, 3). Tschumi immediately follows the explanation of counterdesign with a critique of its potential for "recuperation", or cooptation by the capitalist hegemony it is trying to combat. I would like to disagree with the sufficiency of this critique, claiming that the problem is not that the hegemony can coopt the activity, but the activity doesn't ever take place: by "leading to [the] active rejection of such planning processes" (p11) it is deferred. Rejected by who? How? Where? When?

The book is a tour-de-force that can act as a meditation on the contemporary state of architectural discourse, despite being written a generation or two ago. What makes this book so essential for this process is its very lucidity in explaining the position from which Tschumi is speaking from, that of, what I would like to call for the sake of this writeup, a postmodernist. Now, postmodernism has many definitions; it could be argued that the plurality of definitions is in fact its definition. But in order to give this critique a degree of operativity, I would like to historically situate it. Modernism was the movement that first announced a full acceptance of abstraction, the modern condition par excellence. Abstraction is, what Tschumi quite clearly describes in a multitude of ways, disjunction. It is the process which "splits the subject", which severs the link between signifier and signified. What I will henceforth define as the postmodern position is who takes this split to be final and totalizing; to think that the modern orthodoxy of abstraction can bring about a transcendence of space and time. "[O]ne can think of that shedding skin as a symptom of our contemporary condition" (p233) through which Tschumi concludes "one should take advantage of such dismantling, celebrate fragmentation by celebrating the culture of differences, by accelerating and intensifying the loss of certainty, of center, of history" (p237) - "There are no more rules and regulations" (p224). The postmodern approach is to assume the dialectic form itself as truth, and Tschumi's architecture is one of play and synthesis between these binaries, whatever they may be, be it concept & experience, program & form, etc. (disjunction is a form of synthesis by the fact that the disjunction takes place in a frame). Taking heavily from structural linguistics and psychoanalytic philosophy, "there is no cause-and-effect relationship between signifier and signified, between world and intended concept" (p221). My critique of this is, quite simply, this is not totally the case. While it is in no way guaranteed, there is a cause-and-effect relationship, there is a relationship between signifier and signified; an effect is caused, and a sign is signified. The lack of rules and regulations is itself a form of rule and regulation. Non-meaning is a meaning.

Tschumi, as the great theorist he undoubtably is, unfolds his body of work as an experiment, which is so beautifully developed in the essays of this book. Essentially, he takes these truths to be true, and tests them out. But his starting point is one of the most clear and concise developments of the complex significance of the Faustian bargain. The book starts out by rudimentarily developing a theory for two forms of ethico-political architecture, as detailled above, but to which he goes on to conclude that that isn't architecture. Tschumi predicates his entire theory on the postmodern interiorization of the architecture discipline and discourse, claiming not to work in space, but "within the discipline of architecture" (p210). Tschumi writes: "the search for autonomy inevitably turned back toward architecture itself, as no other context would readily provide for it" (p35-36). But seriously, how can architecture not have a context other than itself? Tschumi, although originally raising qualms with it, smoothly accepts the infamous definition of Architecture given by Hegel as the "supplement" - everything that is "not necessary". Tschumi courageously confronts the radical contingency and nihilism inherent to architecture itself, but refuses to extend that fundamental defining characteristic to anything outside of architecture. He accepts as fact the full contingency of architecture's heteronomic conditions while employing the contingency of architecture to found his praxis.

In conclusion, as this text is worthy of a much deeper discussion that can take place here at this point in time, I would merely like to propose an experiment. What if, instead of assuming the Faustian bargain of abstraction, we seek to question its necessity, its truth? What if we rescind our belief that things are not related, and instead of giving up on the complexity of the situation, look deeper into it to reveal and comprehend the highly contingent yet real relations that do exist. Arguably, it is only with and in response to these realities can we effect any ethico-political action, not to mention architecture. How can we fight the unfaithful representation of reality by approaching reality in the exact same way? What if we were to wield architecture as that which unites cause and effect? Are there really not specific things we want to effect? What if we gave architecture back its representative function, but were more conscious and careful about for who and what it represents?

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