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TTCT1  Making Theories

 

The first symposium, Making Theories (2017), held at the Architectural Association in London, looked at different ways of practicing theory in architecture, through its histories (Marco De Michelis) and philosophies (Mark Cousins), as well as in curatorial (Pippo Ciorra) and editorial (Diana Periton) practices.  Issues of interpretation and betrayal in representation and communication emerged, showing the ability of theory to digress and transgress certain bounds of architecture, and to instigate disturbances that may lead to deaths and births of particular forms of practice.

 

Diana Periton related propositions from the This Thing Called Theory conference and subsequent publications to the original aims of the Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA) and its academic journal Architecture and Culture. She questioned the purpose of such publication platform and its undeniable ‘theoretical’ grounds by asking: ‘What do we actually do? And why do we do it? And what is the effect of doing what we do? The effect for what, or on whom? And what can we do? Who is this “we” anyway?’ Theory should not be put forward as an adjunct to critical expression on practice, but something that is itself a practice.

 

Teresa Stoppani considered the way in which theory reflects architecture back onto itself – architectural theory cares about architecture and helps to define it. Architecture theory and architecture do not coincide, but each cannot exist without the other… they co-llaborate, they are at work together. Architecture without theory is not architecture.

 

Marco de Michelis started with Manfredo Tafuri’s 1967 influential book Theories and History of Architecture, to discuss the reasons and the impact of proposing a plurality of theory in relation to the singularity of history. This is pertinent to today’s provocation. Marco recalled how in the late 1960s it became forbidden to use the word “theory” in Venice, and how the history of theories of Italian architecture is a history that avoids the use of it. He asked, ‘Why does architecture need to rely on words? Why does architecture need explanation?’ Architecture, like other ‘artistic practices’, has been obliged to not only repeat/ be similar to nature, but also to capture the essence of nature - but this requires ‘translation’. Theory, Marco argued, played a crucial role not only in enabling such translation, but also to make space for projects to go beyond history, and to instigate processes that go beyond a historical sequence.

 

Mark Cousins, in his defence of Jacques Derrida and of the effect of playing with words through the mechanism of puns, identified a value in reading with passion, but without comprehension. Reading, he argues, has an effect on architecture students that is not quite in the same category with the customary academic understanding. At the level of phrases, Derrida’s style lifts a kind of repression in them, not to reason, not to make arguments, but where text just happens to bring pleasure. The lifting of repression involves a kind of play, and, in some sense, it involves giving. Theory here is beneath the threshold of recognition through consciousness. Derrida gave us theory in reverse to the customary super-ordination that looks down and describes. A good theory is very much like a good interpretation in psychoanalysis. How do you know if an interpretation is true? Sigmund Freud would say that you know it’s true in your body. Truth is not a register, it does not belong to the philosophy of science, it belongs to being able to give an account of what you might called a “truth effect”, which pierces you.

 

Pippo Ciorra discussed the making of theory in the context of the museum and cultural institutions. He described how the word “criticism” was even more prohibited than “theory” in the 1960s and ‘70s in Italy, and how he found himself having to practice “criticism” underground, to let theory and criticism pollute his ways of curation. He observed that architecture is not only made of architecture: architecture is made of buildings, is made of drawings, is made of books, is made of the unbuilt, is made of politics, is made of institutions. And he reminded us of the danger of the shift towards autonomy in the ‘80s, which became ‘kind of mainstream’ and marked the end of the avant-garde of the ‘60s. The same architects that had represented the political avant-garde of the ‘60s were becoming the avant-garde of autonomy, removing themselves from politics, construction, social reality, needs of citizens and society – putting themselves in the self-prison of autonomy.

 

TTCT2  Double Crossing

 

The second symposium, Double Crossing, (2018), held at the Architectural Association in London, further examined the question of fidelity in architectural theory, in particular in its relation with architectural practice. Theory in its most provocative form is not so much a faithful ally of practice, but that which has the ability to both love and betray practice, for Architecture’s sake. Every act of insight, imagination and innovation possible in architecture is a trace of such double-crossing, intentional deceit and treacherous exposure between theory and practice. This is where what is said and not said (Mark Cousins), the visible and the hidden (Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco), the mark and its erasure (Teresa Stoppani), and a rethinking of things (Douglas Spencer) and big data (Sergio Figuereido) constitute the relation of complicity behind movements of conservation and revolution that shaped what we now know as architectural history.

 

Mark Cousins used the example of how Picasso chose to deal with Velazquez, whom he considered as possibly the last of the Old Masters, by making sketches of his masterpiece Las Meninas in a way that seems to be attacking the painting. He made twelve sketches, each of which investigates the spaces in Las Meninas and push it a bit further. No one had doubted the aggression that was involved in Picasso’s work, but this act made Velazquez greater than he had ever been, conferring him a ’trans-historical’ greatness. Deleuze described this as a way to transform a painting through another painting. Indeed, Picasso had betrayed Velazquez, but this is how a space of greatness was created for Velazquez that no art historians was ever able to do. This is how betrayal can be a ‘good’ thing that creates space of trans-historical greatness.

 

Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco started with the manifestation of a kind of betrayal through the claims of ‘death of theory’ or ‘end of theory’. This is a sign of frustration of the efficacy of intellectual work. She asked: Can theory die? Is theory a body, a solid and enclosed corpus? If it can live and die, can it possibly be resurrected? Ivonne questioned the conventional coupling of history and theory of architecture, arguing that the relevance of the present is crucial. The practice of theory is that which situates and gives relevance to the practice of history for the present, in a process of becoming. Rather than it being a thing, theoretical enquiry can be described as being “liquid”. It can be contained, but it can also disperse, it can solidify or melt, and it can evaporate. It also has a force, as it flows to occupy different containers. It can stabilise and shape, but it can also destroy.

 

In Douglas Spencer's proposition titled ‘Withdrawn’, he discussed what is theory in the process of double crossing and disclosure – what is theory before relation and after correlation. Is there an inside or outside to theory that is pre-critical or post-projective? Are theories objects for subjects and subjects for objects? Douglas debated the relation between architecture and the environment that stands for every existing relational context, i.e., culture can be a kind of environment according to the proposition of ‘to have a relationship with the outside’. Since architecture is not everything, and not everything is architecture, can architecture mediate the environment? Or is architecture mediated by the environment? Is the author/architect at the centre of this relation with the environment/outside?

 

Sergio Figuereido problematised the concept of “smartness”, a word that has been thrown around to pretty much justify anything and everything, charged with the promise of a safer and more convenient form of living. It is the next big thing. But is it the next big thing? It has become the term qualifying a kind of techno-optimism, but all boils down to a kind of generic image with nothing specific, yet there seems to be a belief that it is shaping the space of the future. Sergio observed that the construction of most— if not all — theories finds its basis on observations of practice, to generate insights and underlying ideas. But what if our observations have been – even if unwittingly – obscured, distorted, or simply biased? Architectural theory must transgress and go beyond its confines to find inspiration in other fields in order to (re)claim any sort of faithfulness in its task of making sense of design practice.

 

Teresa Stoppani brought forth the notion of ‘erasure’ to interrogate what happens when architecture is critical of itself and of its criticism, and appropriates its coded representations to undo itself and to ‘speak’ about architecture. Erasure is not only an act of removal. In fact, erasure often practises obliteration by adding and effacing – literally changing connotations, or a ‘face’. It is itself a project, and as such never separable from a determination, a decision, and interruption. As such, it refers back to its object, or the absence of it, or to the deliberate removal of it. By tracing Lieven De Boeck’s erasure of entries of ‘Museums’ in the Neufert manual to expose its function as a container, Quatremère de Quincy’s removal of denomination on the issue of Type to offer productive ‘vagueness’, and Aldo Rossi’s deliberate mode of reduction and abstraction to construct relations of analogy between architectural language and the reality of the city, Teresa offered the possibility of a kind of theory in architecture or, better, a theory from architecture, rather than of architecture.

TTCT3  Theory and Histories

 

For some time, many scholars in naming their projects on history – articles and books, lectures and course syllabuses – feel the necessity to use the plural ‘histories’. Or, more ostentatiously, they would employ terms relating to archaeology, subjectivity, posterity, synchronicity, anachronicity, prophecy, contextuality, contingency and multiplicity, … in conjunction with their projects on history.

 

Playing on the title of Manfredo Tafuri’s book Theories and History of Architecture, which over fifty years ago set the grounds for the making of a new historical “project” in architecture, the 2019 This Thing Called Theory seminar at the Architectural Association acknowledges that what is at play today is a proliferation of architectural history narratives, and of different ways of constructing, curating and communicating them.

 

This seems to be the year of the return of history in architecture. After modernism’s instrumental rejection of history, postmodernism's playful and hollow appropriation of history, and the proclamation of its death by coding and parametricism, architectural history is returning to attention.

 

By looking at and working with history from an ambiguous “outside”, This Thing Called Theory stakes the claim for theory to perform the critical (destructive) role of questioning and challenging today’s many ‘new canonical’ histories. As they fill the past, again and anew, with the ‘the presence of the now’ (Walter Benjamin’s “Jetztzeit”), new histories are already affecting and performing new projects of architecture.

 

TTCT invited educators, architects, theorists, design and media scholars to offer their alternative perspectives on new ‘histories’ of architecture in the making, and on the critical role that ‘theory’ would play in hinging the relevancy of history to architectural practice.

 

Mark Cousins (AA), Architectural Categories and Architectural Periods

In the history of art, Burckhardt’s schema assumes that there are a period and a place in which particular architects are named as being instances of famous elements of that period Architecture is at that level of architectural histories super-canonical. Few buildings and all very famous are presented, not the epoch in general, the context, and more details. In the monograph, Michelangelo is isolated, rather than considered a sign of the renaissance. This breaks down the period into smaller periods.  Other books go under the category of architectural discourse undertake the history of theory, a discourse that relies on a series of slights of hand to buttress the Burckhardtian idea. One of the most important ways this is done is through the concept of influence.  Another way excavates such influence and puts it in relation (an example of this is the work of Mario Carpo). This produces unsatisfactory results and end up with sometimes anachronistic results (an example of this is Alan Colquhoun’s history, told through six famous people who get one chapter each).

An example of this canonical history is the real unresolved conclusion about the issue of the classical. Is its use in Beaux Arts architecture a form of classical architecture, or does it show it as declining into being simply a historical period? John Soane’s lectures on the classical are placed in-between these two views, of the classical as a period of architecture or as being still a force in architecture. We have here two different histories that use different categories, and they are so apart that they are irreconcilable.

Today we are not in a society where there are general ways, so how does one write about pluralism when it is just a question of point of view? As architectural historians, we do not have the resources, so we operate by case studies - and the history of ideas does no better, it just substitutes ideas for other ideas.

 

Joel McKim (Birkbeck), A Near History of Digital Architecture: Responses at Ground Zero

We have only just reached the point of being able to historicize and contextualize the emergence of digital design within architecture.  Design technologies often explicitly framed as future-oriented now have a three-decade history of development. Digital methods and computational aesthetics once seen to be innovative have now become commonplace or even dated within architectural practice.  Through the writing and exhibitions of architectural historians (Mario Carpo’s The Digital Turn in Architecture 1992-2012 and Antoine Picon’s Digital Culture in Architecture, for example) and architects themselves (such as Greg Lynn’s “Archaeology of the Digital” Initiative at the CCA), the historical specificity and implications of the “digital turn” in architecture is beginning to be established.

This talk will consider this recent history of digital architecture from the vantage point of one key moment in its emergence – the process of rebuilding at Ground Zero in post-9/11 New York. Despite being arguably the largest memory project in architectural history, the need for innovative responses to the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan also gave experimental digital design practice a global showcase. Through official and unofficial post-9/11 design competitions, architects and studios developing digital approaches throughout the 1990s – Lynn, Reiser + Umemoto, Foreign Office Architects, Winka Dubbeldam, NOX – entered the public imagination, often the first time. The common theoretical touchstone for these designers was undoubtedly the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, so much so that the “digital turn” in architecture was virtually synonymous with the “Deleuzian turn.” Through this specific moment in design history, the talk will consider how the interpretation of Deleuze’s philosophy came to rationalize both a post-memory and post-theory movement with architecture. But the talk will also question this interpretation of Deleuze, reading within his work a concept of “creative recall,” that is neither post-historical nor anti-theoretical. The talk will conclude by looking at the current computational practices engaged at Ground Zero, such as the museum design work of Local Projects. It will consider whether or not it is in these algorithmically-driven practices that we ultimately find the forms of politically and historically engaged “creative memory” advocated by Deleuze.

 

Lorens Holm (Dundee), We Are All Statesmen – We All Love the Smell of Napalm in the Morning

We are all statesmen, men and women of the state, and we all love the smell of napalm in the morning. I am working on a couple of related papers that sketch out an ethical/moral position for architecture with respect to the damage we are doing to the environment. It distinguishes ethical duty and practical duty. They are both necessary but – paradoxically – they work against each other. And the fact that, as the developer’s weapon, architecture is the chief agent of that damage, only complicates things. I am not a historian, but I am sure that the measure of my argument – whether it has any traction, any ballast, any credibility – has to do with whether it survives a dialogue with other key thinkers.

Accordingly, I begin by reading Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics and Vitruvius’ Ten Books, to trace a line of thinking on space, politics, and the togetherness of people. I argue that the damage we are doing to the environment is 1) a category of the Lacanian Real; 2) a form of self-harm on an epidemiological scale; and 3) that the project for architecture is to create the space to collectively rein in our individual lifestyles, what we might call an ethics of togetherness and a morality of renunciation. To my mind, environmental damage is far and away the single most critical issue facing us today, an existential issue.

My research is concerned with reconciling thought on the self, primarily psychoanalytic thought, with contemporary architectural practice. My research takes as given that architectural space – the space that is the product of human work and labour and that is the chief constituent of our artificial world – is in a dialectical relation with our experience and with how we think about ourselves as subjects of experience. The aim of my work is to elaborate that relation, and to produce an understanding the human world through the critical reading of its artefacts. I give form to things, through words.

 

Mark Morris (AA), What’s So Funny About Architectural History

This talk looks at architectural history through various cartoon representations drawn for newspapers and periodicals. Five architectural cartoonists will feature: Winsor McCay (c1866-1934), creator of Little Nemo in Slumberland; Alan Dunn (1900-1974) who worked for The New Yorker and Architectural Record; Sir Osbert Lancaster (1908-1986), the architectural satirist of The Architectural Review and The Daily Express; Louis Hellman (1936-) of the Architects' Journal and no stranger to the AA; and, likewise, Sir Peter Cook. Permutations of parody will be explored alongside caricatures of architects and buildings. We conclude by looking at the role of cartoons in architectural education with the 1948 Italian Journal cartoons of AA student Oliver Cox.

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