Sunday, November 18, 2007

Saving the last rewrite to my files, I'd forgotten that the original had been rewritten once before, when the editor before rejecting it for any other reason -it was written for an architectural journal- simply said it was too long.
First version, unchanged:

The modern crisis in communication, the struggle between the rhetorics of scientific reason and of poetry, is not a new topic at this point; science has solved problems and answered questions that we were never able to answer by sense alone. We no longer trust our perceptions to carry meanings about the world but only about ourselves and our internal lives. It’s enough for many to say that the pleasures of perception are little more than minor habits, indulgences to be categorized by style or taste.

Dalibor Vesely makes the humanist’s argument against the dominance of instrumental reason -the logic of means and ends- in architecture and by extension in anything. He argues that we do not live or learn by impartial reason but through experience, that we rely on perception, and that our sensory awareness of objects and movement binds us to one another and grounds us in the world in ways we lose when we think only in terms of numbers, mechanism, and individual consciousness.

With the argument itself as introduction, Vesely moves on to a discussion of the Renaissance, describing how the technical advances of the quattrocento, the various techniques of perspective that stand as markers of the beginning of the Modern era, were created not as illustrations of scientific principles, and not in isolation from the surrounding culture, but as extensions of the metaphorical and allegorical logic of medieval optics. This moment he describes as the beginning of our divided representation, of the struggle between the worlds of sense and science, first seen in the desire both to describe new things in old language, and to do so in ways appropriate to the new world they make manifest.

The Baroque era in the arts, unlike the sciences, is not so much one of discovery but mastery, where the skills of the Renaissance became commonplace and scientific processes were in full conflict with past descriptions of the world. The result is a poetry not of things but of ideas about them, and Vesely analyzes the sense of space in Baroque architecture, describing the differing notions of infinity in mathematics and in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud (Sacra Sindone) of Guarino Guarini.

From here the author continues to the age of reason and of industry, the 18th and 19th centuries, and then to modernism itself, where science became the arbiter of truth and ideology it’s political equivalent, with the only alternative to either being little more than a good sense of taste and a better one for self-preservation. The book ends with a plea for an art and architecture of open-ended experience: of communication, neither programmatic nor expressive and eccentric, and not grand but of a human scale.

The book makes a lovely argument, but there are problems in the way the author lays it out. To say that science was once inseparable from art is not a defense of art. That may sound good to the converted, but to skeptics more interested in logic than poetry it means little.

"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, ed. Brian Leiter (Oxford, 2004).

As this quote illustrates, those who do not take the arts seriously, who see them as little more than entertainment, will be dismissive of attempts to justify their efficacy as a counterforce to science and the logic of technics. For all his knowledge of history, and his references to phenomenology and scientific studies of perception- of the disorienting effects of zero gravity environments and isolation tanks, of the ways in which sense defines intellect, the author returns always in his argument to the terminology of depth, of innate value, that Williamson among many others mocks so offhandedly.

There are other problems as well. Few people in the arts would not envy the ability of architects and artists in the past to create works where ornament and detail were more than the signposts of luxury, where objects acted as metaphors in the context of a narrative that an audience would immediately understand. There’s an advantage to being an artist in the employ of a universal church. It’s not only that science bled meaning from the world, it’s that the tools of communication changed. The end of the period of great buildings coincided with the era of great literature, and perhaps theater and novels are the cathedrals of democracy. Vesely also leads us through a wonderful discussion of the social and communicative space of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. But doesn’t the cinema at it’s best provide for us a similar experience? The objects and spaces in film and photography are imbued with the same meanings and metaphors once available to architects. Perhaps architecture requires too much stability to play that major a role in such an unstable world?

These criticisms are not minor, but they are not made in opposition to the arguments described above. Vesely reminds us that architecture is a mimetic art. Buildings are the places where we’re born, and are where we spend almost all our lives. They are as much our environment as any landscape. With this in mind, Vesely asks important questions: What form of knowledge can respond to science and its bastard children? What form of awareness does a bricklayer have, or a violinist, a knowledge that can be attained only by practice? And what does it mean that the product of this knowledge can be seen not as illustrative of but a manifestation of an idea? And how much of current building is made as a statement of ideology or opinion, as proposition, without accommodating within itself the possibility of a response?

If architecture is a stage on which many people move and act, why should it be thought of or designed to represent the ideas of an individual alone? Vesely’s defense of a sympathetic intelligence may seem quaint, or he may fall back on a language that is easy to criticize, but to ignore his argument is to accept the possibility of a courthouse designed for the prosecution or the defense and not the administration of justice, or a theater designed for the character of Hamlet and not the play. Vesely is not a poststructuralist arguing against the science of medicine, he’s arguing against the absurdity of the false science of architecture.

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