Critical Spatial Design,
Architecture, Art & Discourse
“In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it really were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite...”
“The Library of Babel”, Jorge Luis Borges
Archival Praxis is a proposition for a method of praxis in which the archive of architectural information is put to work in a productive manner. By archival information is meant the accumulative thought and production elements (i.e. information) derived through various architectural processes and these being the constituent parts of an applied projective design methodology (i.e. praxis).
An Archival Praxis seeks a way out of the relative stasis latent in architectural thinking and praxis, still suffering from modernist and current neo-modernist inflexible modes of praxis and too flexible frameworks developed during the post-modern era.
The focus in this text is on architectural praxis. It should not be read as a theoretical text with philosophical ambitions. Archival Praxis is not a recipe, according to which fixed ingredients can be mixed in a detached manner in order to achieve a productive design process.
There is no such thing as architectural theory. At most, there is a disparate collection of architectural information. Architectural thinking is temporal, mostly subjective and tends merely to be a vehicle to substantiate personal preferences. Architectural thinking lacks both sustainability and will to establish a serious discursive forum.
The debate between Le Corbusier and Auguste Perret is a symptomatic example of this kind of behaviour. Le Corbusier argued for his fenêtre en longueur, claiming it allowed more sunlight to enter the interior than Perret’s porte-fenêtre. Le Corbusier’s argument was of course entirely unsubstantiated and simply an argument for a different aesthetic framework.
Considering that Perret was Le Corbusier’s mentor, it becomes clear that there also was a will, or drive to simply differentiate oneself from an existing normative framework. The easiest way to set oneself apart from a previous generation is to propagate the opposite of what that generation said. In the end, Le Corbusier simply replaced the vertical with the horizontal, one preference with another.
Given this situation, there is within the realm of architectural thinking no possibility for a unifying theory. Architectural thought can thus be likened to an archipelago of information floating around in a nebulous hazy architectural consciousness, an accumulation of unconnected and nearly autistic thought fragments. Although architecture does lack theory, it nevertheless is full of useful and potentially productive information.
The reason for this, at one level, seemingly dismal situation can be explained by the fact that architecture is not an academic field, but a profession focused on praxis. That is to say, there is a focus on making and that the discursive field tends to be a by-product and/or a rather subjective justification of that making. Architecture also tends to be an incremental praxis, producing one-offs and not so much based on long mass produced series that are developed and improved over time. In other words, each architectural intervention, both in terms of thinking and
praxis, tends to be an isolated nearly autistic event.
The lack of a stringent and more continuous thought process within the field of architecture may be lamented, but the advantage of not having preconceived thoughts is that architectural thinking, as a result, may be quicker, more reflexive and better suited to accumulate various forms of existing information in its development of new knowledge.
Seemingly unknowingly, the figure of Oedipus appears to lurk in the deep consciousness of the architect. A nearly infantile drive seems to be inscribed, or pre-programmed in the genetic build-up of architectural thought. Like Le Corbusier’s rather wilful replacement of Perret’s vertical porte-fenêtre with the horizontal fenêtre en longueur, architectural thinking tends to be a predictable chain of generational reactions and subsequent anti-reactions. It is as if architects continuously have the need to act out their oedipal obsessions by negating existing information accumulated by previous generations. Consequently, as ideas of different eras tend to be wilfully dismissed, or seen in simplistic antagonistic dichotic relations, architecture is never able to develop and amass a more complex and productive base of information.
After the era of modernism, it was the easiest for the post-modernists to rebel and differentiate themselves from the previous generation by asserting that historicism was the new deal. Analogous, at the height of post-modernism it was most natural and shocking for Rem Koolhaas to resort back to modernism. In more recent history it was inevitable that after the formalist excesses came the diametrically opposite: participatory architecture where the formal is reduced to nil. The trouble with this oedipal-like stop-and-go-behaviour is that architectural thought never gains momentum as it, in a historical perspective, will always stumble at the same spot, albeit with variations of thought preferences. It is a deeply unproductive situation in which the profession does not allow for knowledge to accumulate as it unconsciously severs potential connections between various different informational fragments.
The architects’ unfortunate need to continuously re-enact the tragic faith of Oedipus leads to the fact that amassed information become severed from current praxis. The oedipal act is a chain of obliterating reactions and anti-reactions. Thus, architectural thinking is not able to develop a long-term memory. Consequently, there is an almost instrumental self-inflicted amnesia governing architectural thinking.
In an essay called “After Criticality - The Passion for Extreme Reality in Recent Architecture ... and Its Limitations” published in the book Organising for Change, the Dutch theorist Roemer van Toorn proposes a new form of practice called “Projective Practice” that stands in opposition to previous modes of architectural praxis in that it negates, or rather trying to undo previous modes of information. van Toorn writes “The criticality of Foucault and others looks backward, is armed with previous theory and defines the Projective Practice as follows: “The very act of doing entails a commitment to the future, more particularly a commitment to appearing in, making a contribution to, or in various ways forming and affecting the future.” van Toorn here displays the, in architectural thinking, so common oedipal obsession of negating previous thought in order to propagate the new and different, a form of simplistic dichotomy in which a multitude of things apparently can not coexist parallel to each other in non-dichotic relations. It is as if a modernist tabula rasa condition consistently is required: all previous thinking and memory (i.e. information) needs to be eradicated or lobotomised in order to move on, leading to the fact that the profession operates under perpetual amnesia and, thus, no operative informational knowledge.
In a positive sense, however, Roemer van Toorn’s idea of a “Projective Practice” represents an optimistic position in that
it aims for a strategically situated position that is operative and thus able to affect the real. An overly ideological position, on the other hand, like that of Manfredo Tafuri (i.e. Marxism) tends to ultimately become stifling and non-projective in that one easily paints oneself in a corner from which there is no way out except negation and inoperative withdrawal. Tafuri writes in his book Architecture and Utopia: “What is of interest here is the precise identification of those tasks which capitalist development has taken away from architecture. That is to say, what it has taken away in general from ideological pre-figuration. With this, one is lead almost automatically to discover of what may well be the ‘drama’ of architecture today: that is, to see architecture obliged to return to pure architecture, to form without utopia; in the best cases, to sublime uselessness.” It is no surprise that in the end Tafuri withdrew from the contemporary (i.e. projective) only to concentrate on the historical. It is as if the sheer weight of the ideological framework resulted in an insurmountable negativism that squeezed out the light-footed life-force; a certain sense of opportunism is required to be projective.
However, if one, like van Toorn suggests, wilfully severs past information from the present, how is it then possible to project? Without any knowledge of existing information, how can one project towards the future when there is nothing to project
from? Being a non-knowing, one runs the obvious risk of becoming Oedipus. Consequently, it is not surprising that architectural praxis is consistently handicapped by the infantile need to consistently reinvent the wheel, to cultivate a completely misguided and unproductive need to be unique and succumbing to a fatal stop-and-go pseudo-evolution of successive reactions and anti-reactions.
To counter the continuous obliteration of amassed architectural information, a consequence of the perpetual architectural oedipal complex and its subsequent symptom to continuously reinventing the wheel, the archive promises a mode of thinking that is more continuous, reflexive and sustainable in that it is better suited to utilise existing information.
Unlike Borges’ infinite and cyclical model, and Guattari and Deleuze’s root and rhizome, architectural information is more like an archipelago of information, an accumulation of scattered islands connected by the fleeting consistency of water. Looking out at the scattered islands the view is vast, but limited; sprawling and not necessarily connected. Within this overwhelming panorama of information, some thoughts are closer to you whereas some appear to be more distant. Some islands form groups and seem to merge, others are
solitary with little connection to their distant neighbours. Within this system, closely adjacent islands have a similar fauna and genetic makeup, whereas the distant differ more radically. Through the connective water all islands are nevertheless reachable. Some, however, require more effort and time to reach, whereas others are instantaneously available. From this perspective one can discern many previous successes, but also past mistakes. One can see what worked, what went wrong and begin to speculate what might be readjusted. With this relative overview, a more relaxed relation to history can be achieved, where the past is neither that which is so precious that it automatically needs to be preserved, or negated because it is deemed irrelevant or passé, but something that is a real productive resource and part of the present.
The entire archipelago is an extensive archive of nearly zero-degree passive information that can be retrieved and made productive. The vast repository of information can be linked up, reformulated and/or superimposed on a current condition. An Archival Praxis is an active projection from past information, a reflexive mode of praxis that looks towards the future without resorting to simplistic and banal rejections of past information. Instead of seeing various architectural thoughts as separate and often times opposing islands, architectural praxis can productively be seen as an archive of information in which
all past information theoretically is available simultaneously. It is important to clarify that the archive is not simply a dusty collection of past and passé information, but as Hal Foster writes in his book Design and Crime an accumulation of information that has the potential to generate a real momentum of production, a resource for projective praxis.
Archival information is purely accumulative. It certainly does not form an evolution as that would imply that current information is inherently better than previous. Information is simply a tool with no inherent meaning. The performative quality of information is established as part of praxis in relation to the specific task it is intended to address. What is more, information is not evolutionary as it does not necessarily develop in a linear fashion. Praxis is at times a linear transformation, sometimes in stasis, bifurcating, looping, parallel and sometimes forms of information is forgotten in the process.
As information has no inherent meaning it is also not automatically relational. From a historical and cultural perspective there are of course connections between various forms of information. From the perspective of praxis, however, there are no inherent predetermined relations between different information. Within the framework of an Archival Praxis, these connections must be made, remade and sometimes undone. The relational aspect is a complex design issue
that continuously need to be carefully tuned throughout a design process. The various relations between information are never easy or simplistic, but always complex and multifaceted. This is precisely why any Tabula Rasa mode of praxis fails in that it ultimately becomes one-dimensional and flat, like music that only is able to play one single note.
Within Archival Praxis, the archive is not an end in itself, nor does the amassed information possess any inherent meaning, and nor are there any predetermined relations between information. The information in the archive is simply a given. The act of researching is the act of retrieving and digging for existing information, beginning to understand the productive potential of the various relations and enabling for the found information to be put to work as part of praxis.
The presence of the archive is both an invitation and imperative to integrate various modes of research as part of praxis. Research, within the realm of Archival Praxis does not necessarily mean deep academic historical research, but is more like going to a record store and the excitement of searching for records you did not know existed; to dig and unearth new links in a yet unmade discography. The act of researching is not a passive act of
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collecting, but a search, an act of mining, for usable raw material, snippets that can be sampled, modified and assembled in new ways.
Research is not concerned with history per se, but the act of researching the archive inevitably puts current modes of praxis in relation with those of the past. Archival information forms a very tangible historical continuum, a positive break away from the constant need for reinventing the wheel. The very act of researching the archive produces a more relaxed relation between past and present in that these two poles are of the same continuum.
In his second novel Der Hausierer, the Austrian author Peter Handke uses the format of an already existing genre, the detective story, with its own inherent logic and limitations. The first paragraph in the book reads like a programmatic statement: “The detective story begins like all stories as a continuation from another story. The people and the things that are described are already known from other stories that are not yet written, but silently pre-existing. Like all stories it follows that also the detective story is a continuation of a non-existing story.” Untranslatable in this text is the double-meaning that Handke consciously utilises: the German noun Geschichte translates in English to both story and history. Handke’s novel is an innovation within an existing framework, innovation that does not
necessarily need to stand in opposition to existing information.
It is a form of praxis in which innovation (i.e. the formation of information and knowledge) is generated from existing information, resulting in a relative continuity between new and existing information.
Within the field of architecture, Robert Venturi’s book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture is yet another example of a potential mode for non-dichotic praxis. Within the realm of architectural thinking, this book is, however, possibly one of the most misunderstood, even by Venturi himself. Often dismissed as a vulgar post-modern formalist argument, embracing random whim devoid of any content beyond pointless historicist form, the book is actually arguing for exactly the opposite: namely design praxis generated through the research of a specific informational setting. He writes: “I prefer ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or’, black and white, and sometimes grey, to black or white. A valid architecture evokes many levels of meaning and combinations of focus: its space and its elements become readable and workable in several ways at once.” Even Venturi did not understand the full potential of his own book. Seemingly unknowing, Venturi’s argument does not only apply to spatial and formal issues, but more importantly how the physical output is conceived, how design is generated as a projective open non-dichotic praxis in which existing information is put
to work in a contemporary condition. It is as if the author stood too close, lacking a detached view, to see the full potential of his own argument.
A renewed interest in research and the potential for recycling existing information should not be mistaken for a return to post-modern modes of praxis where, for example, in the 80s pseudo-historical motifs were indifferently plastered on structures they had nothing to do with; nor is it akin to deconstructivist concerns of the late 80s and early to mid 90s of unearthing supposedly found historical layers and then displaying them in sharp disjunctive juxtapositions. These methodologies tend to, although claiming to be critical, treat past information in a relatively uncritical and solidified manner in that past information was left in a pseudo-autonomous state where the only dialogue between various forms of information was achieved merely by adjacency. In these methods one has the feeling that past information is put on pedestal, being elevated to a museological state whereas contemporary information by default somehow is deemed unworthy and inferior.
Unlike Handke’s praxis of a projective transformation of the existing typology (i.e. the detective novel) and transforming it into something new, the modes of praxis in the 80s and 90s tended to be non-transformative, non-projective and establish closed dichotic systems between
information of different eras. The research into the archive is the exact opposite in that historical information is reformulated and put to work in a real relational manner, a continuous intertwined dialogue between various information. Unlike Aldo Rossi’s notion of typology outlined in his book The Architecture of the City, it is not an eternal concept embodying symbolic meaning, but a useful given that can be bent, reformulated and reformulated depending on circumstance. The strategies of the 80s and 90s tended to be more symbolic and pictorial rather than operational in their handling of existing information. These previous modes of praxis are generally more collage-based whereas Archival Praxis is sample-based.
It is very easy to get lost in the archive. The amount of available information is overwhelmingly oppressive and the sheer weight is suffocating. Without a subjective fascination or obsession there is neither a way in, nor a way out. Paradoxically, a mode of praxis that aims for a more objective operative framework simultaneously requires an increasing subjective input. In an essay called Towards a Canadian Architecture Adam Caruso writes: “The advantage and challenge of practicing in post-modern times is that we cannot rely on any Hegelian idea of zeitgeist to shape our work and instead are forced to choose appropriate forms and strategies for each situation, for ourselves.”
In an era where nearly anything goes and nearly everything is available more or less instantly it becomes important to impose constraints. Otherwise an overwhelming load of information threatens to stall the thought and design process. When the entire architectural archive is available, it is imperative to begin to define and superimpose limits in order to limit and direct the scope of research and subsequent modes of praxis.
In some, mainly post-modern discourse, limits, constraints and hierarchies are treated with much suspicion and tend to be dismissed as non-inclusive, colonial and generally conservative. To a certain extent this suspicion has its reason as a critique of the absolute and exclusive systems that tended to be propagated during the modernist era. In various modes of subsequent discourses, the supposedly open frameworks paradoxically tended to be equally one-sided in their belief in an absolute relativism. Is a relative system really relative when it only accepts the relative, when the absolute is absolutely excluded? This typical post-modern situation can be likened to a self-imposed Babel-like condition in which dialogue has been atomised into a veritable cacophony of different voices; and where, consequently, dialogue is threatened to be rendered futile and mute as no one no longer speak the same language. Without limits there is
no understanding and also no productive friction.
Consequently, it is imperative to begin to set limits, establish hierarchies and define the various thought elements as part of praxis in order to be able to activate and to retrieve useful information from the archive. Thus, Michel Foucault writes in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge “The problem now is to constitute series: to define the elements proper to each series, to fix its boundaries, to reveal its own specific type of relations, to formulate its laws, and, beyond this, to describe the relations between different series, thus constituting series in series, or ‘tables’: hence the ever-increasing number of strata, and the need to distinguish them, the specificity of their time and chronologies…”. As Foucault writes, limits take on a positive aspect as the very limitations make the various forms of information able to communicate with each other. Unlike the post-modern condition of relativism and the modernist absolute, Archival Praxis is a system of temporally fixed limits. In other words, limits are not eternal, but can be adjusted continuously depending on circumstance. These temporally fixed systems can be likened to tentative assemblages which merge the relational with the absolute.
In a more inclusive and open discursive condition, where limits begin to define tentative assemblages, between which there is productive friction, it becomes
important to begin to develop a personal attitude or belief-system towards the presence of the existing information in the archive. Paradoxically, in an era of instant access and availability, the figure of Benjamin’s magician makes its return.
“The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs. In sort, in contrast to the magician – who is still hidden in the medical practitioner – the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather, it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.”
“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin
Benjamin’s dialectic pair of the surgeon and magician is illustrative in the terms of describing two diametrically opposed modes of architectural praxis. The surgeon represents a mode of praxis that coldly and
somewhat detachedly looks at external data, aiming to make an objective and logical design decision. The magician on the other hand works intuitively using internal subjective experience and obsessions. The surgeon works from without whereas the magician works from within the individual’s own preferences and limitations.
The information of the archive is pure information. There are no degrees of value in that some information inherently is more valuable than others. Information possesses no inherent meaning; it is mute. Knowledge, on the other hand, speaks. Knowledge is active and internalised information. It is through praxis that passive information is transformed to active knowledge.
The vastness of archival information can be oppressive and stifling. Limits need to be set in order to keep the Archive operable and productive. It is precisely at this junction or rift between access and inaccessibility, openness and closure, that Walter Benjamin’s dialogical pair enters the stage and is put to work. Without the discerning cool logic of the Surgeon and the subjective fascination of the magician, the archive becomes inaccessible with no door leading in or out. Akin to Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of the Radicant, who radically moves across heterogeneous contexts, Benjamin’s dialogical pair collects and transmutes information as they traverse the immense archipelago of information. Bourriaud writes in his book The Radicant, “Thus, today’s artists do not
so much express the tradition from which they come as the path they take between that tradition and the various contexts they traverse, and they do this by performing acts of translation. Where modernism proceeded by subtraction in an effort to unearth the root, or principle, contemporary artists proceeds by selection, additions, and then acts of multiplication.” Archival Praxis does not merge the surgeon and magician, but accepts their differences and limits. Archival Praxis gathers the inherent dichotomy of Walter Benjamin’s surgeon and magician duality in a productive assemblage in which the two poles frictionally rubs against and with each other: the surgeon forms tentative assemblages of information whereas the magician, through praxis, turns these to production and knowledge.
Tentative assemblages are not eternal, but are instable and precarious as these changes depending on external circumstances and desired effect. They are temporal, yet at a specific site and instance, eternal. Praxis can thus be described as forming tentative assemblages in which relations between past and previous information is mapped, stretched and realigned. These connections can be likened to temporal maps in which cities are located on a map, not in their correct geographical position, but how long it takes to travel between these cities. Unlike a geographical map, a temporal map is not static, but can change as a result of external circumstances, which is not to say that when it is drawn,
it is incorrect. Knowledge and information are never static, but continuously reformulated and renegotiated as part of praxis. Cedric Price was entirely correct when give the ideas in his book RE: CP a best-before-date.
As much as Archival Praxis is engaged with the mining of existing information found in the archive, it also produces feedback loops to the archive; knowledge is fed back, becoming new archival information. The productive encounter with the archive occurs both at retrieval and feedback. Archival Praxis is a double-reflexive mode of praxis that learns from past information whilst simultaneously actively critically engaging with current content. It is a projection towards the future from existing information as well as a projection from the projection to the past.
There is no more or less favourable position from which to view the information in the archive. Each era has the same limited outlook of this archipelago, albeit with a slightly different view. There is no way to escape the archive. Each era remains locked inside. Archival Praxis does not assume the existence of a historically privileged position, but a different nearness, immediacy and intimacy with the archival information. It does not, and can not, provide for an autonomous position outside the archive, but for a relative and somewhat more clear-sighted position within. Giorgio Agamben writes in an essay called What Is the Contemporary?
“Contemporariness is, then, a singular relationship with one’s own time, which adheres to it and, at the same time, keeps a distance to it. More precisely, it is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disjunction and an anachronism. Those who coincide too well with the epoch, those who are perfectly tied to it in every respect, are not contemporaries, precisely because they do not manage to see it; they are not able to firmly hold their gaze on it.” The archive is simultaneously a potential for opening up, a clearance, but it is also a form of closure, a limitation that constantly needs to be renegotiated. The archive is not cyclical, but the act of praxis certainly is.
Agamben, Giorgio, What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009
Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations, Schocken Books Inc., New York, 1968
Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1964
Bourriaud, Nicholas, The Radicant, Lukas & Sternberg, New York, 2009
Caruso, Adam, The Feeling of Things, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 2008
Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996
Foster, Hal, Design and Crime (and Other Diatribes), Verso, London, 2002
Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Routledge, Abingdon, 2005
Handke, Peter, Der Hausierer, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1973 (translation from the German by the author)
Price, Cedric, RE: CP, Birkhäuser, Basel, 2003
Rossi, Aldo, The Architecture of the City, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991
Shamiyeh, Michael (Ed.), Organising for Change, Birkhäuser, Basel, 2007
Tafuri, Manfredo, Architecture and Utopia, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996
Venturi, Robert, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977
Standing in front of the immense archipelago, the act of praxis draws temporal lines between the scattered islands of information. By pulling select islands nearer, deliberately omitting others, assemblages or hubs of intensity are generated. Liberated from the need to
invent new geological formations, praxis is concentrated on assembling a web of formations. Like the fauna of now neighbouring islands will begin to cross-bread, leading to new unheard species, so will various archival information multiply and refract. This is an eternal process, yet time and situation is limited. Inevitably, assemblages will be undone. The archipelago will reform and new assemblages will be made. Whilst mapping the temporal, the resulting map is geographically incorrect, but it does not entirely negate geography. An elastic map is drawn.