At the beginning of the century architecture is in a powerful yet innocent position. With optimistic naivete, architects advance platforms for industry, health, revolution and social utopia as they combine a discourse of originality, purity and high art within the traditional hegemony of a partriarchical elite. And although industrial imagery fuels a respectful polemic for the worker, its advance is mostly subsidized by high finance. Indutrialization put into place by an economic elite raises the value of the worker and provides them a prominent place in the culture. By insuring their alliance to a system of production and reward, industrialization insures its own survival by perpetual profits. The new architecture adopts the industrial apparel of the times. Aligned with the capitalist industrial economy modernism thrives as it updates a victorian image to a streamlined modernist aesthetic. In embracing the impersonal and international vocabulary of the machine, modernism in a single stroke abolishes historic and ethnic references thus constructing a powerful advertising campaign platform for the new corporate aesthetic and ever expanding of industrial production.
S T Y L E A T T A C K
o r . . .
T H E S E M I O T I C S O F
A N A R C H I T E C T U R E I N T R A N S I T I O N
© 1994 Journal of Architecture #16, University of Tennessee
In an indiscernible campaign to overcome these conditions, they embark on a quest to restore architecture to its favored position of prestige and power. Postmodernism, which operates in a program of charming and persuasive nostalgia, doles out rehabilitative literature in the fashion of the manifesto. Deconstruction, on the other hand, aligned to a self proclaimed intellectually sophisticated, philosophical system of rhetorical disarmament, surreptitiously promotes agendas, survivalist and otherwise, as it performs under a proven secularist advocacy . To analyze buildings as reflectors of an ideology necessitates to a certain extent the promotion of the very conceptual framework one sets out to examine. Therefore, I shall examine each movement's rhetorical stance from a critical perspective as manifested in their complex system of persuasion. A veiled system which often seeks a moral, political and economic resolution. With this critical framework in mind we turn to the first movement.
Postmodernism, evolutionary and imitative, aggressively situates itself between epochs in its thorough documentation of the misgivings and shortcomings of modernism. In this regard, it follows a sociopolitical, spirited prayer for a return to an idealized era of representation and illusion. In its rupture with modernism, it removes barriers to historical references as it makes them relevant to contemporary architectural discourse. It proclaims modernity in its ideal of pure form, machine metaphor, hostility to narrative, formal abstraction and so on, is finished. Its predecessor extinguished, Postmodernism gains formal and stylistic freedom and thus an identity. All of these maneuvers nonetheless attempt a displacement away from the modernist self-referential vocabulary towards a traditional, classical mode of representation and narration, a mode that is heavily subsidised by the old currency of a 'Europeanized' Judeo-Chirstian humanist tradition. Postmodernism is a mix and match grab bag of pseudo historic elements combined with contemporary building technique. It cannot overcome what has been termed 'double coding,' Rationalized by the concept of `double coding' it identifies itself with buildings that freely reference representational historical symbolism and typologies integrated with modern structural and construction-mechanical systems. Under the banner of `contextualism,' it employs such theatrical and literary stratagems as fictional representation, illusion, and irony as it attempts to blend in. This attempt however is a false and dangerous premise, for by valorizing an arbitrary set of circumstances the architect defers the responsibility to apply a rigorous and intelligent effort towards an architecture of presence to some mythical jurisdiction at some future time.
Postmodernism's return to a pre-modernist order is sanctioned by an enduring ideology, an institutional subscription to a self proclaimed aesthetic cultural asuperiority. In its pledge to a humanist tradition it makes no apology for the hegemonic project of Westernization of a global European colonization. As it theologically relegitimises the Judeo-Christian tradition of liberation, transcendence and salvation, it adopts a missionary camouflage in the aesthetization and consumption of the other,' cultures different from our own.` In fact this is nothing more than following the dictates of a classical culture with all its political and conomic structures in place.
And hence for the problematically contemporary city Postmodernism contributes a spirited sociopolitical pitch for `Old World Charm,' a reconstruction with a twist as it invokes Greece through its geometry or Legionary Rome. Human scale and proportion, the lost cultural tradition, a return to the Citta Felice , to all that has been disenfranchised and disavowed by Modernism. Based on historic urban paradigms the Postmodernist romantic endorsement of the European City is deceptive. In proposing high density residential blocks, traditional building types, piazzas, boulevards and so forth it optimistically and seductively advances a vocabulary with serious philosophic implications as well as economic, political and cultural limitations. Through the combination of history, myth, reality and fantasy, it implants an apparently innocent designer agenda that in fact results in the disneyfication of the city. The theme park vocabulary of fake arches and pediments, phony columns, revivalist ornament, fake bearing walls, etc., seductively candy coats the complex form of the city resulting in a place of manufactured and controlled imagination. Postmodernism recommends a place to escape a cruel, ugly and inefficient reality. It offers the best, conveniently combined with modern technology of Puritan-Protestant, Anglo-Saxon disposition. Without violence, ideological clashes or racial tension it fabricates a sanitized historicist mythology of infinite civility.
In the post-war era information systems replace mechanized production as the relevant currency of post-industrial society. Architecture, once able to iconify the most exalted and powerful aspects of the culture, is obscured, pushed to the sidelines due to its intrinsic inability to express and compete in the information age; the television and computer are vastly more effective medium for expressing the messages of the powerful. It is in this seemingly innocent stylistic location, in reality a politically and economically charged context, that we see the various and diverse gyrations of two opposing camps, postmodernism and deconstruction, as they attempt to resurrect the discipline from its ignominious death by inundation at the hands of electronic media.
Postmodernism, in the seemingly innocent appropriation of fragments of once real or imagined culturally significant architectural systems, advances a sepulchral consumption of fabricated meaning. Scavenging the past for once successful solutions to the myriad problems of the current society, is unacceptable across many fronts. As Postmodern architecture submissively reflects the various economic, political and artistic predispositions, it promotes buildings as abstract objects that are marginally related to a primarily modernist equipontential space. In this respect architecture does not have and can not have any meaningful solutions, particularly of liberation and salvation, beyond topical cosmetic cultivation. For any number of reasons systems of transportation, regional infrastructures and networks of communications are as incongruous today as they were unknown at the time of the Industrial Revolution. A large part of the population continues to commute long distances to work thus making local, regional and national transportation networks, as well as the ubiquitous parking lot, a vital component of the urban infrastructure. A large part of the city is still devoted to industrial production and a bigger part still to office accommodation. And politics and economics will forever be a far more subtle and complex influence on the deep structure of a free society than Postmodernism is willing to understand.
Postmodernist doctrine suggests that people fit their lives into a design that admits little freedom of individual expression. And against elegant polemics, a contemporary reality does not produce " a complex and contradictory architecture based on the richness and ambiguity of modern experience..." but rather an obliterated, chaotic, fragmented and monotonous coast to coast landscape of meaningless non-descriptive building. As such the recommendations of some contemporary theorists in dealing with the present urban conditions are not only simplistic but approach the realm of the fictional. Only a homogeneous society in a state of balance and with minimal threats to its structure of authority - ideally an authoritarian and totalitarian regime not unlike Disneyland - will foster the type of urban environment endorsed by a postmodernist ideology. In a large metropolis where economic, political, cultural and racial issues are complex and often contradictory, the simple one note return theory will not work. A return is impossible. With this context in mind we now turn to deconstruction.
"Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: 'here are our monsters', without immediately turning the monsters into pets." Jacques Derrida, "Some Statements, etc.",
The States of Theory, editor. David Carroll, Stanford 1990, p. 80
With forerunners such as Levi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure and Martin Heidegger, deconstruction in the past twenty years has become a major influence in literary and theoretical criticism. Informed by conceptual systems including psychoanalysis, marxism and structuralism, deconstruction is an overtly complicated philosophy persuasively advanced by Jacques Derrida. Deconstruction is characterized by two attendant strategies. The first strategy, designated by deconstructionists as the `play of signs,' originated with the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce over a century ago. Peirce advanced the epistemological position that knowledge is not a static body of absolute truths, but is instead a `development of our inborn animal instincts' in a continual stage of mutation. All knowledge, attributed to the endless signification of meaning, is subject to future development and modification9 In deconstruction, this idea of knowledge in a dynamic state of forever becoming, spawns a complex and cultivated technique of philosophical cloak and dagger with signs playing infinitely and uncontrollably against each other.10 An eternal semiotic promiscuity with subversive and moral, if albeit subtle, overtones.
This leads to the second strategy which in large measure provides most of the stylistic ammunition : deconstruction's fetishistic obsession to dissent. The radical and provocative penchant to question, undermine and contradict tradition and authority is a parasitic program. Deconstruction does not depart from the traditional view but incorporates it in the next generation of ideas. It maintains the traditional view alive in order to degrade it. John Ellis offers an insightful observation into the psychology of the movement: "Here, then, is the origin of deconstruction's other strange feature - the obsession with denigrating the traditional reading for its own sake and the need to keep it alive in order to mock it and run dazzling intellectual rings around it. . . The ultimate source of this logically odd feature is surely the traditional predilection of French intellectualism for exposing and ridiculing the naivete of that unsophisticated fellow, the bourgeois. Intellectual contempt for a stationary target of simplemindedness is the very essence of deconstructive method; but here Derrida only absorbs and continues a traditional style and is neither a leader nor an innovator." Deconstruction, by unmasking its subservient position, liberates the repressed and the marginalized meaning. Its operations are dependent on an authoritative, traditional and privileged meaning - if one actually exists - as sanctioned by tradition. It is in this respect that deconstruction questions anything and everything: values, subject, method(s) for analysis, narrative, grammatical structure, ethos and so on. It is ironic, however, that in undermining the privileged view deconstruction guarantees its continuation (bad publicity, is publicity none the less) as a duality is not only stratigically desired but necessary.
Deconstruction then works on the historically anchored text. It acquiesces a direct interpretation as its aim is to destabilize messages to the end that established codes are diffused and no longer govern. In an act of critical resistance deconstruction suggests occupation and subversion of the center, the traditional location of power. It dislocates that which it locates and reads encoded margins for clues to covert meanings that may govern and reside outside of the center.
Essentially the first move is devaluation then a desired meaning is provided. In literary criticism, philosophy, feminist theory, etc., an object-text is required before operations are enacted. In architecture deconstruction fundamentally differs from literary disciplines in that it acts, instead of on existing work, on new buildings. Gordon Matta Clark, in this respect, by employing existing structures for his investigations is an architect closest to the deconstructivist title. In the literary genre deconstruction primarily acts within the structure of the discipline to undermine and refute thesis operative in a work or tradition. Deconstruction in architecture, although claiming a similar purpose, becomes more than instrument of analysis as it proceeds under a veiled aesthetic platform. It is this platform, by establishing a commercial currency, that externally empowers the movement while internally undermines it by accentuating and revealing the presently shallow artistic posture and tenuous commercial condition of architecture.
Architecture's position as an integral aesthetic entity and, as any work of architecture in the Western tradition, as object of exchange value is unequivocaly established. It is this position that permits it to partake of all of the physical and metaphysical components of an architecture possessed of artistic and commercial value in the tradition. It thus makes a surreptitious claim to the avant-garde that is acceptable only on grounds of commercial buoyancy. It is this status of the work that lacks the necessary depth, ambiguity and rigor to question its own position. The work pretends to question its status and traditional framework while it rallies for a fashionable revolutionary platform. A gesture made manifest by the rebelliously contrived rock and roll band. While the postmodernists seek a psychologically curious, involutionary journey to their childhood, the deconstructionist maneuver into an artificially defiant, angst-ridden adolescence.
Architecture destabilizes its own condition. As it self-consciously works on new construction, it pretends to undermine traditional structural and representational methods, only to poignantly uncover a spiritually bankrupt architecture. At a time when the very ideas of liberation and salvation are in question, it presents itself as another artistic refinement in a long line of artistic refinements. It is liberator in a line of liberators that unfolds back to the beginning of the culture. Deconstruction is one more self proclaimed `new and improved' enhancement pretending rigorous intellectual profundity as it gasps for commercial subsistence. In its stylistic and iconoclastic exterminations, in its antipathies of ornament and decoration and in its vocabulary of smooth machined surfaces and heroic gravity defying structures, it is politically, ethically and esthetically in greater alignment with the sensibilities of a modernist orthodoxy than it may be willing to admit. Its discourse in exhibiting a concern with originality, formal abstraction, suspension of tradition, continuous space and single meaning metaphor only reinforces modernist stylistic affirmations. Ironically in architecture "deconstruction" is connected to the disruption, the taking apart of construction, to demolition. Deconstruction through its strategies of fragmentation, disruption, explosion, dislocation, shifts, erasure and disintegration incidentally - and perhaps conveniently - produces a simulation of subversion of the first order. A feigned psychological imbalance, a Freudian contamination, that pretends to violate the formal and structural stability of geometry and building by degrading the object to a fashionable and trendy nihilism. It fictitiously intimidates that property of architecture that it least can afford to threaten, the very property of architecture as commodity. Subversion in architecture is always a socially sanctioned event.
In a theatrically self induced mutilation it produces a decoration of aftermath, an aesthetic of destruction. A haute couture of the wrecking ball. It is in this ostentatious representation of shock that its power lies. As member of the Western tradition's perception of art as the effort of individual genius, the work is regarded as unique. Deconstructionist architecture's underlying incentive, as in every historical period, is economic power by way of aesthetic endurance. The accomplished deconstructionist thrust unmasks gaps and contradictions within the architectural language, not so much as a decentering, but as an aesthetic enticement. Deconstructionist designs are characteristically dominated by such mechanical-objective terms as superimposition, permutation, reversal, text, code, immanence, trace, signifier-signified, antinomy, fragment, dislocation, disjunction, rupture, notation, presence, etc. As such qualitatively descriptive terms rarely enter the debate. In this respect it associates technique with value while confusing formal language with significance. In its varied manifestations it surreptitiously campaigns for the decoration of normal existence while slithering into a station of economic power.
Architects for the most part believe in the dream of architecture. With architecture, as a theological appliance of space, they turn the common into the divine. With the gradual globalization, residual notions of mysticism ( paradise, salvation, etc.) have been supplanted with a secularist mythology of transcendent consumerism . In its an updated attendant faith in progress where salvation is re-inscribed in a syntax of the never ending cycle of the new and improved (Vattimo) Architecture's once privileged cultural position, as part of that silenced mythology, has been seriously diminished. And as part of a consummerist Utopia, where every idea, object and image is commodified, architecture's role is converted from a sacramental instrument of transcendance into a tool for the merchandising of space. Architecture once the controller of images is now an image controlled.
The themes that now influence humanity have moved beyond architecture. With the demise of the Grand Tradition of Architecture architects desperately maintain a self inflicted fiction of self importance. They maintain illusions of extinguished values and dreams and turn architecture into a style war. In this respect architectural theory hides the marginalization of architecture and thus becomes a defense that screens (from the public and from architects) the fact that architecture is simply not as important to society as it once was. And not unlike Sisyphus, architects continuously maintain an absurdity into a passion of what they want to see. With Postmoderninsm they scout the history bin and related disciplines for the light of salvation. Yet, sequestering the forms of the past is not only an admission of inadequacy but a lack of imagination. In the aftermath of a failed religion one more ready made appears in the form of a borrowed theory. Architects are the advertising puppets for various fashion movements whose various claims of innovation, originality, radicalism, etc. do not withstand close inspection. And yet architects, trained in a safe and idological infancy of the academy, continue to carry the cross, believing that architecture can solve problems that is inherently unsuited to solve. In pledging allegiance to a style movement, achitects continue to follow. They follow editors of design publications, who in turn follow the theories of the media darlings who, in order to maintain their privileged --and for the most part unquestioned position--, propose the styles that follow the maxim of the new and improved. In this respect, architecture is, however, it is somewhere else, in some past or future, in some other discipline and in the perpetual and seductive potentiality of ever becoming.
As a result the profession's inability to maintain cultural relevance, the process of design has increased significantly. Architecture is maneuvered as always by the political and economic contingencies, bureaucratic and otherwise, concerned with the regulation and enforcement of construction. It is the influence of the design review boards and tenant association groups, the consumer groups, the interior designers and space planners, the sundry construction administrators and managers, the developers and the speculators that sponsor architecture's infrequent revelations beyond the mundane. The ethical thrust of the tyranny of the concerned mandates that the common prevail, that no one be mad but no one be happy. As such the architect's role is redefined from visionary to a political mediator of an arbitrary mediocrity; the builder of the lowest commmon denominator. To regain the relevance of architecture and prevent its marginalization, architectural concerns might be formulated and directed from within the discipline. The analysis and discussion of issues that are intrinsic to architecture, i.e. formal, political, technological, structural, etc., should be formulated and remain within its boundaries and not be jealously appropriated from extrinsic disciplines. And since a return to a time when architecture was in the privileged position to communicate without vying with a mass media for control of the power stucture is improbable, architecture, if it is to transcend its present predicament, must overcome its comfortable yet nostalgic position and engage in an internal, alternate discourse. A dangerous discourse that addresses the forces and conditions that have toppled architecture. As such it can no longer afford to communicate with a traditional (Pomo) architectural vocabulary but must address modes of comunication that are appropriate for the times. In the final analysis architecture is, and probably will always be, a blend of intuition and logic aimed at the edification of society. A mixture of aesthetics (passion) and precision (rational control) dedicated to what Gideon has called "a way of life valid for our period." And as prepackaged theories are no substitute for a critical framework, styles can never be a fundamental source of architectural quality. Architecture, if it is to regain authenticity and presence, must move beyond the codified manipulation of a priori motifs (ten step systems to salvation) and into the realm of critical thought and invention.