Sunday, November 18, 2007

From Sept. 2004. Written on assignment for publication but unpublished. Reworked a bit today. It seemed appropriate.

Dalibor Vesely. Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production
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"Impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness, often thinly disguised by histrionic advocacy of depth."

Timothy Williamson, "Past the Linguistic Turn." In The Future of Philosophy, edited by Brian Leiter. Oxford, 2004.


The modern crisis in communication, between the rhetoric of scientific reason and poetry, is not a new topic. Between our commonsensical appreciation of the clarity of science and the desire of many partly out of jealousy to extend that clarity to their own fields, and the often colorful opposition of those who struggle to defend us and the world from the onslaught of instrumentalism, this argument has been going on for quite a while.

Dalibor Vesely makes the humanist argument against instrumentalism in architecture and in life; but for all his range, and he's widely read in subjects from ancient to modern, he's still a specialist, trapped by the limitations of his field. For all his references to the complex relationships among the various factors -people, ideologies and technologies- involved in the production of the great buildings of the past, for all his discussion of phenomenology and the necessity for us of experiencing and learning the world as a series of sensations in context -including references to NASA studies of human subjects in zero gravity environments and isolation tanks- Vesely is forced by his argument to return to the terminology of depth, and he does so in a way that if he were writing on another subject would offer his opponents a field day. I doubt any of his opponents are architects, but that doesn't really make a difference. In a more general sense his enemies are his most important audience.

Vesely reminds us, referring to Aristotle, that Architecture is a mimetic art. Buildings are where we're born, where we spend much of our lives with much of the rest spent traveling between them, and most often where we die. What architect tries to make buildings without indulging the pleasures of construction? How many buildings are made without considering the landscape that surrounds them, and how many of us would argue they shouldn't be? It is true that there were ideologies in Modernism, and objects and structures made as little more than illustrations. It's also true that the Renaissance and Baroque had access to systems of metaphor that allowed both primary and secondary forms, both structures and details, to carry a literary weight. Buildings told stories in the past in ways they no longer do. But it's also interesting to observe that the communicative space Vesely describes in the Baroque exists now in movies. And what's come down to us as the post WWII ghetto of "design," of the changing fashions of the visual, has never been quite the same problem for literature: faddishness has always existed but rarely dominated. What Vesely does not say outright is that until recently design has never been considered an intellectual act; but now it's the model for all intellectual activity, and faddishness has become the rule. Indeed it's the logical consequence of a forward-looking instrumentalist philosophy.

Vesely asks important questions: What form of knowledge can respond to science and its bastard children? What form of knowledge is held by a violinist or a bricklayer, a knowledge that can be attained only by practice? And how much has the architecture of the present forgotten this? How much of current building is made as a statement, without accommodating the possibility of a rebuttal?

The best argument against instrumentalism, the best argument that Vesely's opponents in economics and philosophy would understand is that if in our scientific age our justice system is based still on a battle of opposed parties, of the opposed instrumentalisms of defender and prosecutor, then argument itself and not science is the intellectual keystone of our society. One way or another we're stuck with the ambiguities of language and conversation. It only makes sense then that buildings should be designed not as simple statements, as one side or another of an argument, but as the place where such arguments are held. At the very least this is practical: if the logic of our government is that we should be divided amongst ourselves then the logic of buildings should reflect this choice. Of course that means that the architects should allow that they are, as human beings, as individuals and as members of society, divided within themselves. Instrumentalism denies this as well it could be said, in opposition to our chosen way of life.

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