the ornate function, or poetic purpose
The symposium Against the Grain, organized by Bureau Europa in collaboration with the faculty of architecture at the RWTH Aachen, opened a space for the reassessment of a crucial question: “Is narrative architecture still relevant to the current condition?”
A broad repertoire of narrative approaches to the built environment - ranging from counter-functional projects to open theories, and from utopian interventions to poetic readings – met this and other equally pressing matters, in the face of architectural discourse.
Rather than providing easy answers or narrowing subjects, the full event blurred category distinctions by blending performance, space, and the material support for both space and performance. Among the many items touched upon by the participants, though, another question seems to offer clues, as to the relevance of narrative in the contemporary practice of the built environment.
The curators of the event appear to identify this item, when they ask: “Has the bourgeois media culture and commercial interest de-emphasized the coding of the narrative into a naturalized ongoing story, artfully presenting architecture as the product of natural circumstances, thereby divesting it of its decorum?”
I will try to assess both the question of relevance and the issue of decorum, by proposing a working hypothesis, and then developing that hypothesis in three steps.
The hypothesis is simple and straightforward: Narrative remains a valuable field of exploration for contemporary architecture, as it preserves architecture’s ability to perform within the poetic realm of discourse.
Among the many interpretations of the poetic, I support my claim on George Kubler’s elemental observation:
“Although a common gradient connects use and beauty, the two are irreducibly different: no tool can be fully explained as a work of art, nor vice versa. A tool is always intrinsically simple, however elaborate its mechanisms may be, but a work of art, which is a complex of many stages and levels of crisscrossed intentions, is always intrinsically complicated, however simple its effects may seem.”
Architectural operations that transcend the built environment’s tool-ness, can only be assessed and described appealing to methods that supersede technical description or conceptual representation. Among the elements of complexity and the intentions that criss-cross within the city and its building blocks I would like to focus on three figures that constitute cardinal motivations of architectural experimentation.
I will call the first one of these motivations laughter, based on Henri Bergson’s well known treatise on the comic.
Bergson defines a series of conditions for laughter, which can effortlessly be acknowledged as conditions for architecture too. Among these conditions are a strict limitation to that which is human, a break with any rational assessment of our emotions and a necessary social background that supports the act itself.
An eminently cultural realm that is the conflation of reason and subjectivity, and which is meant to be shared by families, communities or societies; is thus supported by the same framework that fosters laughter; but it also shares laughter’s causality. Bergson describes the act of laughing as a reaction to an exception faced with stiffness, or the inability to accommodate.
The broken mental pattern that is produced by a pedestrian who slips and falls, contradicting the logical scheme that can be assumed from his trajectory and speed; shares a series of relevant points with architectures that challenge and sometimes subvert the rigidity of pre-established formal or functional templates.
A renovated appreciation of informality reveals that the comic remains conspicuously unexplored in conventional theories of architecture, and yet appears to recur in explorations that deal with narration as a source of knowledge.
The second motivation I bring from Aldous Huxley’s lecture “Knowledge and Understanding,” given in 1955 at the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and published in several compilations of Huxley’s essays, ever since.
A distinction between two realms of human activity, in the broadest terms, offers valuables clues in relation to those realms of architectural activity that are assessed by different communicative methods and techniques. Huxley says: “ Knowledge is acquired when we succeed in fitting a new experience into the system of concepts based upon our old experiences. Understanding comes when we liberate ourselves from the old and so make possible a direct, unmediated contact with the new, the mystery, moment by moment of our existence.”
While knowledge is transmissible in rational terms, understanding occurs at a level that is not shareable. “Knowledge is always in terms of concepts and can be passed on by means of words and other symbols. Understanding is not conceptual and therefore cannot be passed on. It is an immediate experience, and immediate experience can only be talked about (very inadequately), never shared. Nobody can actually feel another’s pain or grief, another’s love or joy or hunger. And similarly, nobody can experience another’s understanding of a given event or situation. There can, of course, be knowledge of such an understanding, and this knowledge may be passed on in speech or writing, or by means of other symbols. Such communicable knowledge is useful as a reminder that there have been specific understandings, in the past, and that understanding is at all times possible.”
Poetic structures appear to operate in a realm that does not expect to communicate ideas in terms of knowledge, or at least not entirely. In fact, the dislocation of conventional communicative structures that aim towards precision and conceptual clarity, is a habitual resource of poetry, which – paraphrasing Huxley – is usually fuelled by pain and grief, or love joy or hunger. Since these items resonate with the direct experience of the built environment, in terms (awe or surprise or homeliness come to mind) that certainly transcend descriptions meant to operate at a conceptual level, it can be assumed that certain poetic structures can also provide a sense of understanding of architecture.
Finally, and inextricably tied to the steps I have taken so far in this necessarily brief reflection, is the acknowledgment of a function for architecture that transcends the purely objective, or the constructively precise, or even the symbolic.
After travelling through Mexico and Central America in 1949, the Danish architect Jørn Utzon comments: “Yucatan is a flat lowland covered with an inaccessible jungle, which grows to a certain uniform defined height. In this jungle the Mayans lived in their villages with small pieces of land cleared for cultivation, and their surrounding, background as well as roof, was the hot, damp, green jungle. No large views, no up and down movements. By introducing the platform with its level at the same height as the jungle top, these people had suddenly obtained a new dimension of life, worthy of their devotion to their Gods. On these high platforms -many of them as long as 100 metres-, they built their temples. They had from here the sky, the clouds and the breeze, and suddenly the jungle roof had been converted into a great open plain. By this architectural trick they had completely changed the landscape and supplied their visual life with a greatness corresponding to the greatness of their Gods.”
An architectural operation that is tangible, replicable even, offers human beings “a new dimension of life,” revealing unexplored, or unnoticed aspects of the world we live in.
Together, I believe these three motivations – the comic, the experiential and the revelatory – are parts of an architectural model that aims for a sense of completeness, because it also acknowledges that sense of completeness in human existence.
The methods by which some lofty architectural models explore different possible avenues of inquiry, and the way in which they formulate the hypotheses with which they intend to confront reality, constantly rely on comic and on poetic structures as means to short-circuit conventional rationality, and allow direct experience to occur. A fuller experience, is their purpose.
Assumed within these tenets, that which remains laughable, or unclear (or superfluous, or indeterminate), bears a high degree of functionality in the heftiest architectural propositions. A disciplinary research program fed by these motivations certainly admits further exploration, as a means to reconsider architecture and its role within contemporary culture.
Maastricht, 16 and 17 January, 2015
Information taken from the official event brochure, prepared by the organizing committee.
George Kubler: The Shape of Time, Remarks on the History of Things. New Haven and London: Yale, 1970 (1962) pg. 11
Henri Bergson. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: Mac Millan, 1914 (1900)
Aldous Huxley. “Knowledge and Understanding”, in https://danassays.wordpress.com/collected-essays-by-aldous-huxley/aldous-huxley-essays-knowledge-and-understanding/, retrieved on 23/02/2015
Jørn Utzon. “Platforms and Plateaus”, in Zodiac 10, 1962
Jorge Mejia Hernandeze