Culture as Continous Problem

/Student/: That is quite a house…I understand what middle voice can look like, now.
I don’t think I’ll fully understand how this links to Colomina and Woolf, unless middle voice can also be used to destroy the opposition between inner and outer limits of a house or “container,” and Virginia Woolf calls into question these “culturally ‘naturalized’” axioms, using, through her novels, architecture to challenge them. Or, perhaps, using this “born again” architecture to reflect a character.


/Teacher/: Here, maybe think of “middle voice” (el coche se vende) as a way of getting beyond Aristotle’s first and final causes, as well as Descartes’ notion of rational engineering. This is a house which was not designed by an architect for a client (in linguistic terms, not a purposeful message travelling between a “sender” and a “receiver”), but rather a structure, an utterance, which emerges gratuitously on its own, and develops in its own terms. No prior expectations about form, function or finish are in place, and so the house is free to develop interminably, as it will. That’s exactly what most confused me about Gehry’s corrugated-aluminum and chain-link buildings when i first saw them. Walking by the construction site, I couldn’t imagine why it took the builders so damn long to complete a simple structure, until an architect friend of mine pointed out that the building was “done”. What I took to be scaffolding, barriers and a foreman’s mobile office was in fact the “finished” building. To have renovated this construction would have been no different from building it in the first place. The initial building was already an alteration. This is a very different way of viewing “living space”: no longer as simply neutral Cartesian isometric space which you simply live it, space now is itself dynamic, alive.

Something I wrote to one of your peers:

I like very much your idea of comparing the clearly outmoded Architecture and Planning building here at the U to those of other programs on campus. I was a bit surprised you wouldn’t have mentioned the Marriott dance building, because that is such a wonderful example of a building designed for a specific purpose, and which has aged wonderfully well. Also, I’m a bit concerned about your idealization of classic style, which reads a bit too much like von Humboldt.

Rather than returning to romantic notions about the perfection of Greco-Roman culture, you might (as a truly ‘catholic’ planner) want to turn your attention to the medieval notion of design, building and use. If you consider the great cathedrals of Europe, you’ll notice that these are structures which, for all that hey are unmistakably grand building projects, nevertheless everywhere violate classical notions of finish. They were built over large stretches of time, and used by the public all the while they were under construction. And quite evidently their plans were revised over the course of their construction. Many began as fortress-like Romanesque buildings (quite like the A+P building at present) but over time became increasingly ornate, glassy and Gothic.

If you were to adopt this post-modern view of things, you would be able to suggest that our our Architecture and Planning Building at the U, horribly outdated, not be completely overhauled, but rather put into a state of permanent revision, as Robert Morris suggests in his (which I’ve borrowed for the name of one of my class livejournals) suggests: Continuous Project Altered Daily. This is a concept you could address in terms of Aristotle’s distinctions between contraries and contradictions: Some would assert that an architectural structure is either complete or incomplete, but rather than thinking in terms of such contraries, I would suggest that the same problem can be understood in terms of a contradiction. A building, then, might be considered as neither constructed or under construction but rather in a permanent phase of de-construction, or perpetually “under revision”. Suddenly, cranes and scaffolding are no longer mere ugly nuisances, but rather occasions for us to perceive alternative forms of beauty and functionality, and to re-think building in terms of time, in addition to eternity.


It strikes me that the A+P building might be the best place to educate the entire campus community with regard to the anti-modernist idea that finish is not the norm but rather the occasional exception, and that perpetual construction and demolition is in fact a more honest assessment of how cultures and their architecture actually live.


But to return to your own remarks, I think what you’re saying about the impossibility of distinguishing between inside and outside in the Gehry house is entirely correct. This is a house while is all surface, but without any real inside or outside. This mode of construction is certainly what you see in the earlier Gehry works. By constrast, what you see in the later ones, those which made Gehry an architectural rockstar, is a different sort of confusion, or inversion: the reversal of background and foreground. Whereas /architecture/, or /space/, in the perspectival tradition, had been understood an established rational form outside of which loomed its irrational other, /cloud/; now, in Gehry’s more recent works, /cloud/ is brought to the fore, while /architecture/ and /space/ are made radically to retreat and function merely as a ground against, or within, which /cloud/ can suddenly appear and hover. And, if you think about it, if not neo-mannerism, quite possibly such as reversal could be understood as a kind of neo-baroque “theatricality” (think Fried), the kind of thing you might associate with Racine. We’ll talk about this more when we get to Diderot’s “Rameau’s Nephew”.

Finally, some images to prompt reflection:

Giacomo Torelli, with some help from me.

Fontebasso, Francesco (Venice, Italy, 1707–1769)
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, c. 1749
Oil on canvas, 46 x 59 cm

Fontebasso, Francesco
(Venice, Italy, 1707–1769)
Abraham and the Three Angels, c. 1750
Pen and brown ink over black chalk, red wash heightened with white

Lucilla Catania
“Ganci, Virgole e Doppie Punte,” 1996
Galleria ARTRA, Milano, Italy

Finally, have a look at these outrageous designs by Giuseppi Bibiena, in which /space/ and /cloud/ seem to merge together into one.

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