Delinquent visionaries

Every architectural vision implies a wave of violence, a chain-reaction of obliterations. The potential for delinquency is present in every architect, whether it be Le Corbusier’s planned large-scale destruction in Algiers, which in fact implied genocide, the desire to annihilate an entire culture, or Chareau’s wallowing in the physicality of the built environment.

In studying the materiality of his vision, the architect shows all the rapacity of the colonialist. The comparison with colonialism is no coincidence; it is a feature of architecture that it sets out on a journey into an environment which is unknown and which it regards as primitive, in order to wrest something from it that is not its own, which does not belong to architecture. There are no longer any blank areas on the map of the world; there is no region which is still unexplored and full of promise, mysterious and incomprehensible. It is easier to imagine a sudden extra button on the remote control panel than any enigmatic unknown realm. The undefined barbaric horror in the Heart of Darkness has, a century later, almost disappeared and has made way for an equally horrific, but traceable suffering which infiltrates life in the form of a virus.1) The fascination for and fear of the unknown now have an almost scientific banality. The outlandish, the other, is not brought to us from almost unvisited continents; the colonies of architecture cannot be located geographically.
Architecture’s vision is colonialist in the sense that the hypocrisy of the everyday environment is abandoned for the larger, more compelling, more dangerous field of the imagination which is being ruthlessly plundered. In the colonies you get something for nothing – that is, something is found which represents a value which is not effectively defended in the place itself and which you only pay for much later and in a completely different currency. But, even so, there is always an account to be settled. It is an illusion to think that objet trouvés exist, and the question is why architecture is incapable of abandoning this illusion.
It is worth considering whether architecture could exist without an external vision. Kipnis and Lindner, for example, have argued convincingly that there is no pure reason in architectural thinking.2) Anyone who has ever heard an architect explain his project can confirm this. The pseudo-rationality of the explanation is often laughable; why not indeed take a photo of yourself as the foundation for a new city? That is no less absurd than the application of methods acceptable within architecture such as lines of sight, spatial relations and other unspecified subjective judgments. However, to question every value which is accepted within architecture also means that architecture becomes incapable of communicating any longer. It becomes a closed game. Every project becomes autonomous and hyper-individual.
While this is certainly a tendency that already exists, it is, generally speaking, an undesirable one. Some interaction with the contemporary discourse remains a necessity if architecture is to continue to have any relevance.  Architects like Coop Himmelblau have, if nothing else, exposed with devastating clarity the arbitrariness of the principles underlying the production of architecture. Even if individual projects can be seen as a closed game there is nevertheless the hope that there are some points of contact which offer the possibility of linking up with that discourse or, more precisely, that there will be room for the discourse within the closed game of architecture, that architecture may even have internalized the discourse.
It is ironic that the architect, who so badly wants to be a theoretician and join in the game of fundamental questions, has been dealt too easy a card. While ostensibly joining in, he is really a voiceless player with his uniquely simple discipline. The old philosophical questions – what is language? what is thought? what is the world? – are all difficult to answer. For the architect the opposite is the case: the answer is simple, but it is difficult to formulate the question. Or is there really something which is so little abstruse as what the answer to this question would seem to suggest?
Even architecture is not that simple; if architecture wants once more to develop a theory in this era it will be necessary to formulate and assimilate the question and the critique, in a way in which they can be actually used. There are not many indications that this is happening. At the moment, the individualization of architecture seems to have led to a situation where there are many different ideologies circulating with no real contact between them. It seems as if architects are mainly concerned with protecting and defending their own ideologies. Attending symposia (in person or on paper or even in cyberspace by fax or satellite) has become a dicey business, a question of accumulated communication failures and affronts.
This is a disconcerting experience and it confirms an idea of perspectivism. All architectural debate has now been transformed into something which one can only attempt to describe by visualization. In the mind’s eye there is a robot-steered camera which restlessly zooms from one subject to the other, paying no attention to (indeed having no notion of) any possible common object. Unlike the now nostalgic CIAM discussions which united architects in an attempt to define a shared ambition, the current discourse is only divisive. Erstwhile visionaries have turned their ideas in on themselves; these days the dreams of architecture have become solitary visions. Not only can the increased isolation of the architectural object be seen in the literal, verbal debate, the buildings of recent times also contribute to this. Whereas formerly a building like Utzon’s house on Majorca was an exception, an eccentric highlight which fitted into a certain tradition of `lonely houses’ while deviating totally from the mainstream, now that this separate, evasive, self-contained quality is becoming mainstream.
Is this the reaction of architecture to particular social developments, or to particular developments in architectural theory? How can we explain the direction which architecture itself is taking in terms of the themes that architecture is talking about? Its discourse casts a jealous eye on the fundamental semiotic and philosophical questions. The world is again accelerating bewilderingly, with borders of various kinds appearing as quickly as they disappear. And architecture cannot do anything but assume a cool and distant appearance. Suddenly, architecture itself has nothing more to offer than the subjective, solitary vision.
There is a sadness in this realization which no architect could be oblivious to; if architecture has lost its object, and all that remains are countless subjects, the only way forward is increasing trivialisation. The only escape from this seems to be offered by the colonialist vision, by drinking from other people’s wells. Then suddenly a common language is being spoken again, architecture again seems to have more significance. But the ultimate victim of this vision is naturally architecture itself. For here we have a very special form of colonialism; a sort of exploitation which ultimately turns against its own body, like someone who steals a plant not knowing that it is poisonous. Take, for example, the architecture which derives concepts and ideas from other disciplines, semiotics for example, and returns in triumph with a valuable victory, which turns out to have the effect of a self-detonating device. Exploded from within by a massive bomb, the vision of this architecture can no longer project itself on architecture itself.
About the visions of the architects who have concerned themselves with these practices it is only possible to speculate; their longing for a tabula rasa was even more radical than urban demolition in the style of Le Corbusier has been. What they wanted was finally to be able to begin all over again; no cultural object seems to be granted a longer life than architecture, or follows us as long. The denial of architecture seemed the only possible liberation. The hero of these architectural nihilists was Daedalus, the first architect, who was ultimately only able to escape from his terrible labyrinth by using wings. Daedalus and the maze have been the icons of the architectural avant-garde for the past fifteen years. But the egotistic longing for a new beginning was not accompanied by a detailed architectural image. The vision went no further than destruction.
Has there ever been a vision of architecture which was not by definition also destructive? The most significant myth or parable concerning this duality of the human fate involved architecture. In the story of the Tower of Babel man is revealed by his greatest aspiration, architecture as being thoroughly bathetic. The tower is more than `the figure of philosophy, because the dream of philosophy is that of translatability’, more than `the figure of deconstruction’.3) Man, divided, longing for escape from the world which is all he has, tries literally to build his way out of his situation. Architecture is the most powerful deed that a man can imagine. He cannot visualise anything bigger. That explains both the veneration for the architect and the continuing significance of the Tower of Babel for present-day architects like Koolhaas (Zeebrugge Terminal, 1988) and Libeskind (Potsdamer Platz, 1991). But in a certain sense the story of the Tower has become a story which only architects latch onto, because architecture has long since ceased to be the only possibility of escaping from the earth, illusory though the notion may have been, and has been overtaken by other disciplines. In this respect the instruments of astronomy, space travel, even the natural sciences have become more powerful than architecture. For architects, the story of the Tower of Babel, an artless, archaic parable in the eyes of non-architects, is a vital indication of the power of architecture. Furthermore, they twist the story in such a way as to make it topical; the divided masses swarming out of the hopeless project are suddenly transformed into elements of the multicultural reality of the end of the twentieth century which are coming together at certain crucial places. This is an absurd manipulation; the cause and effect of this tragic isolation are simply and meaninglessly reversed.
That is something which always occurs during the architectural appropriation of a vision. The same thing is happening with the current discourse on the contemporary city and the dissolution of place, the loss of what is specific to a site. The absence and the dematerialization of the things that used to be known about the city have become architectural themes. But there is an ambiguity about these ideas; the thematics of dematerialization and dissipation have become a little too available, a bit too convenient for architecture. As a result they lose their definition; by incorporating these phenomena as concepts into his familiar strategies, the architect makes them into something familiar too. Turning it into architecture is really a denial of the thing that it might have been that would have differentiated it from architecture.
The mindless colonialism of the architectural vision is objectionable on all fronts. And there is something else; it is often said, and in fact quite correctly, that architecture is the art of slowness. While everything changes, and quickly too, architecture stumbles behind. Sometimes the architect gets the feeling that he once knew Alberti. It is as if he still remembers how London looked before St.Paul’s or the Capitoline Hill before Michelangelo. It is all still so fresh, so new, after four hundred years. The reverse is also true: what has been completed eighteen months ago is not all that different; it also belongs to the infinitely slow, heavy, inert world of architecture. The entire materialization of the built environment has a delaying effect. It cannot easily absorb the changes in the world. It remains an arduous, extremely labour-intensive mixture of stone, concrete, wood, cement, steel, glass; above all, it is heavy.
Architecture does not fit well into the light world of today, where, as William Blake wrote – although he could not have foreseen what strange controls now encircle the earth so powerfully – other forces beside the wind, move `silently, invisibly’. But neither does the architecture which you do not see coming, which suddenly looms up like a screen in an undefined environment, a perfect replica of the concept of the architect, achieved so to speak by means of holographic projection. What Thomas Mann called the `melancholy, materialistic, naturalistic science of the nineteenth century’4) still dominates architecture. For this reason perhaps, the architecture with the most poignancy is the architecture which recognises this fact and confronts it blatantly; the way in which in Utzon’s Majorcan house the simple glass plates of the windows are juxtaposed to the soft stone, how the small rooms which look out in solitude over the sea (a power so much more permanent and yet more mobile) are separated from each other – the image of a painful materialism can be seen here.
But the vision of architecture does not end here. In that sense this argument cannot be brought to any conclusion. Architecture is somewhet like Rorty’s interpretation of Proust; it is a conquest of authority, a portrait of time.6) As time unfolds, new figures and new themes come to the fore. There is no absolute truth to be revealed; the change in perspective is ultimately all there is. This implies the prioritisation of a physical reality which is subject to constant change, over the illusionary absolutism of abstract ideas. Accepting this means accepting the end of architectural theory as we know it, the end of its colonizing visions.

Uitdrukking van energie en kracht: De industriefoto’s van Albert Renger-Patzsch / Expression of energy and force: Albert Renger-Patzsch’s industrial p