Saturday, April 6, 2013

5.1. Jonathan Hill - The Role of the User

The Role of the User is one half of the book Actions of Architecture written by Jonathan Hill and published in 2003. Even though a great deal of the reflections raised in this post may be directly responded to in the second half of the book, Montage After Shock, which will be the subject of the following post, each essay is explicitly meant to be readable and conclusive in-and-of-itself, and therefore will be treated as so in this post. Even though the book is only made of two sections, the form of the book in this sense is a demonstration of a concept of the book (much akin to A Thousand Plateaus).

The essay is about the often under-appreciated and neglected relation between the architect and the user as reified by the functionalist paradigm. Hill bases his discourse on the fact that, usually, the user of architecture is almost never in direct contact with the architect; its relation is always mediated through the client and the building. His starting point is to define three user-types: passive, reactive, and creative. The passive user is the subject of functionalist spatial dogma, but it is arguable (as I, as well as many of Hill's references have previously) that a functionalist subjectivity is impossible, as the correlation between signifier and signified, form and program, cause and effect, cannot be guaranteed. Therefore beyond the moral critique of functionalism, it is perhaps more pertinent to search for other modalities of use for contingent yet real reasons - in order to establish an immanent historical temporality. But Hill in no way suggests that functionalist passivity does not exist anymore - he is careful to identify its sources in the prototype, perspective, and the disjunction between the architect and user itself. Instead he locates the focus of his critique on the fact that its ideology is reified within the capitalist logic of space.

From the impossibility of functionalist passivity, Hill traces a historical evolution of architecture that posits a different subject, either reactive or creative. "The reactive user modifies the physical characteristics of a space as needs change but must select from a narrow and predictable range of configuration largely defined by the architect. The creative user either creates a new space or gives an existing one new meanings and uses" (p27). He neatly outlines architectural 'operations' that embody this new subjectivity, starting by architectural tactics for a reactive subject under the umbrella term of flexibility: technical flexibility, as exemplified by Cedric Price's Inter-Action Center, Archigram, Cedric Price, Constant, among others, implies the ability to physically reconfigure the architectural space according to its superstructural design; spatially redundant flexibility, exemplified by Koolhaas' proposal for the renovation of the Arnhem Koepel Prison, and the subsequent concepts and consequences of the vertical schism & bigness; open plan flexibility, as exemplified by traditional Japanese partitioning, is similar to spatial redundancy, as it requires a great deal of repetitive space, but differs in its constitution on local contextuality and the contingent inter-relationality of spaces, as opposed to a heterotopic interiority of spatial redundancy.

In order to distinguish and argue positively for the creative user as opposed to the reactive user, Hill establishes a typological framework for creativity through a structuralist analysis of flexibility, locating mental, bodily, and physical creativity to be embodied by spatially redundant & open plan flexibility, and constructional and conceptual creativity to be embodied by technical flexibility . He describes these modalities as follows:

"mental, a change in understanding, such as renaming a space or associating it with a particular memory; bodily, a movement or series of movements independent of, or in juxtaposition to, a space, such as a picnic in a bathroom; physical, a rearrangement of a space or the objects within it, such as placing a chair on a table ... constructional, a fabrication of a new space or a physical modification of an existing form, space or object, such as removing the lock from a door; conceptual, a use, form, space or object intended to be constructed, such as a door" (p41). 

Hill identifies Herman Hertzberger in his use of polyvalency and incompletion as operations that are in critical of the traces of functionalism within flexibility. Citing the arbitrary obstruction of archetypical forms in Hertzberger's Montessori School, and the intentional unfinished state of his Diagoon Dwellings. Considering these tactics insufficient, due to their patronizing and excessive dependency on the participation of its users, Hill locates three further operations that embody the theory of jouissancehedonistic modernism, as the explicit excess of events, as in Koolhaas' Downtown Athletic Club, or programmatic determinism, as in OMA's Kunsthal; narrative, as in Tschumi's experimental translation of literary texts into architecture at the AA and the emphasis of poetic meaning over specific function; form against function, as in Peter Eisenman's House VI and the explicit resistance to function in the column over the dining table and the window slit separating the master bed; do it yourself, as in Lucien Kroll's co-operative architectural practice, seeking an ultimate correlation between user and its architecture; ad-hoc, as in Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and Jeremy Till's usage of discarded material for detailing elements in their 9-10 Stock Orchard Street house.

Unsatisfied by the still-managerial position of the architect in relation to the users of space, Hill takes reference from situationism, but doubting its architectural translatability for its complete rejection of form, Hill locates his ultimate concept of the creative user in the semiotic theory of Roland Barthes and his concept developed in The Pleasure of the Text and locates its architectural exemplar in Bernard Tschumi's theory of disjunctive jouissance. The argument is, to crudely paraphrase, is a compromise: that even though the social position of the author/architect - reader/user is highly laden with mediated constraints, there is an autonomy to the form itself that in the act of reading/using opens a creative space. Even though Hill states that Tschumi's discourse of uselessness and disjunction most clearly generates creative use, "Tschumi's statement ... suggests the passive user" (p84).

The conclusion to this text is, well, rather inconclusive and post-critical, evidenced by the theoretical framework that allows for the mutual exaltation of Constant, Lucian Kroll, and Rem Koolhaas. While a more formative conclusion may be put forth in the following section, a few reflections can be made at this time. It is clear that this analysis is ultimately precipitated by the apparent waning value of the architect and is an act of motivational defense for the architectural discipline. Hill makes this intention clear in the final sentence of his conclusion, where he states "[c]ontrary to expectations, recognizing the user as creative may augment, not diminish, the status and value of architects' skills" (p87).

This discomforting paradox is overtly evident in his analysis of Bernard Tschumi (as well as in Tschumi's work itself). The potential of Tschumi's architectural theory is based on jouissance as a political operation, one that aims for "resistance to the market" (p75), and to "produce a delight that cannot be sold or bought, that has no exchange value and cannot be integrated in the production cycle" (p76). As has been recently evidenced (1), political resistance is a passive. Furthermore, is jouissance really what we want? Levi Bryant, author of the Laval Subjects blog, says no (2), to which I have to agree with and will hopefully be able to discuss in less psychoanalytic jargon, at least to make it more directly operative.

Barthes defines the difference between pleasure and jouissance (bliss), in relation to the text, as follows:

"Text of pleasure: that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading.
Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, his tastes values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language." (Barthes, as quoted by Hill, p74)

While Hill is clear to state that architecture is not, and cannot be directly analogous to, text, it is clear in this quote how the effects of both are potentially similar. Does disjunction not concede the fact that something was once joined? Is it not in this sense doomed to resistance, and as such is single handedly dependent on the structures which whisper faint reminders of that mythically unified past? Much like Keynesian economics, I am not trying to say that disjunction or jouissance is fundamentally bad, but I question whether they are right for the issues we face today. Is it perhaps possible that we disjoined all things that once were joined? If so, what does contemporary disjunction separate? It would be nice to think that unity and fragmentation work as a dialectical circle, that if you were to go deep enough in one you would end up in the other, but, I do not believe that to be the case. If we use disjunction on already disjunctive elements, it just further disjoins them, not magically unifying them.

To conclude, I will give no conclusion! Merely that I hope to find a way out of this dialectical paradox of disjunction in Hill's second section of the book. If not, it is our task to find it.

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