I prefer not to
Architecture – the yes profession par excellence – can deeply and critically learn from the culture of no. What if the architect would systematically cultivate the uncomfortable yet urgent art of saying no? How many architects really acknowledge that declaring no to irrelevant briefs or other impertinent opportunities is a fundamental social responsibility of the profession? And can this ethical no be considered productive for the public good? The self-evident though elusive answer is: yes, of course. This small-scale series offers an inclusive stage for architects, artists and designers who have claimed no at a crucial point in their professional career. It witches to put to the fore the rewarding but scarce praxis of critical abstinence. The quote 'I prefer not to' originates from Herman Melville's short story 'Bartleby, the scrivener: A story of Wall Street' (1853).
Studio Peter Swinnen, D Arch/ETH Zurich (2017).
Electronic Letters on Bartleby
Your idea about preparing our talk by email helps me to overcome my initial “no” to participating in Peter’s lecture series. Indeed, while thinking on how to engage with the topic, there seemed to me to be only two options: a personal account about one’s work or about situations where one failed or succeeded to say “no”, or a theoretical account about refusal – denial as a key issue in human relations. In both situations, the possibility of failure seemed very high to me: hence, my doubts about engaging with Peter’s question.
Of course, in the first case, one could have tried to tell entertaining stories – and are we not becoming entertainers more and more, as nobody has time and leisure to engage seriously with architecture and, even more, with architectural history? – and to make the public laugh in recalling situations about failures and successes in saying “no”. It is always entertaining to hear about the failures of teachers. We know it all too well from our school years. But what would we really learn from that? – certainly, nothing about saying “no”. And above all, speaking about myself seems to me inappropriate. I am not here to make an autobiography.
In the second case, probably, it was the sheer difficulty of the task which embarrassed me. Of course, one could just take an intelligent analysis of “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and make a resume. But if you have the ambition to write your own story, it takes quite a while. You have to find the right literature, you have to clarify your position, and you have to write an ambitious text. In the end, nobody understands you because your text is too elaborated.
That said, how shall we proceed? As I discover while writing, already in this short account, there are plenty of “noes”. “No”, as a verbal expression; “no” in response to the immensity of a topic; a “no” which hides the fear of failure; and a “no” which deals with doubt in avoiding engagement.
Your proposal to switch the topic slightly from “no” to “doubt” is one of those shifts for which you are a champion, and I think to illustrate it with Caravaggio’s Incredulity of St Thomas would have been a perfect way to illustrate “doubt”. We could have done a close analysis, as you suggested, about the gaze of Thomas or about the light, the movement of the bodies, etc. But Peter refused. He is better than we are at saying “no”.
As I am writing this, I also begin to doubt your proposal. As always, the shifts you suggest open up the situation, stimulate. But is “doubt” not something other than a “refusal”, than saying “no”?
I do not know yet if this journey will lead somewhere.
Looking forwards to hearing from you,
Let me in the first place thank you for your initial message which unveils a slightly erratic stance towards the suggested issue; and ironically enough, you seem to literally embody the locution “I’d prefer not to”. As a first statement, whether conscious or unconscious, I find that quite joyful; we could stop right where your mail comes to an end...
I share your protestant point of view regarding the opportunity to speak about oneself... after all, the reasons for refusal are often too intimate to be shared, and it could be a deleterious – but very contemporary – shift towards self -exhibition: let’s not speak about us... although as you said, we’d probably face a very complacent public on the matter, and vanity would most certainly become the marker of our singularities. Not very promising.
Hence my proposal, as you rightly grasped, to opportunistically deflect an all-too-assertive reading of Bartleby’s leitmotiv and to question the nature of doubt, once said that the cultivation of it is, I believe, central to any innovative thinking. But of course, I understand your reaction towards my proposal to debate about The Incredulity of St Thomas, and you are definitely right when you distinguish doubt and refusal... but wouldn’t you agree that doubt is often the reason for legitimate refusal? In other words, isn’t doubt one of the secret agents of defiance?
Yet our host Peter feels otherwise, and as I respect any critical mind, let us try to at least outline a series of positions, based on subjective readings of Melville’s short story. And for once, we are not asked to talk about what one has done – which implicitly suggests a justification process – but about what one has refused to do, to say or to advise. The question literally seems to be about NO-THING, but how does one speak about nothingness? Wouldn’t a physicist be more appropriate? I mention the physicist not to evade our responsibility but because I don’t think that the scientist is really interested in nothingness, but rather in the consequences of such a conceptual intendment... so my question is: should we discourse about refusals or about the consequences of defiance? It isn’t obvious to me, yet.
P.S. before we engage in a kind of uncertain – but promising – dialogue, I would like to share with you this brief essay by Gilles Deleuze; as often with him, “Bartleby; or, the Formula” is a luminous speculation that travels at great speed and surely will enlighten the object of our correspondence.
To be continued.
My warmest thoughts to the whole family.
I have just read Melville’s story... and was quite shaken by it! Shall we start debating? ... Comments on “Bartleby” often qualify its main character as an epitome of resistance, but I personally have a slight problem with such a reading: isn’t resistance always active or re-active? I of course know that common language accepts the idea of a passive resistance, but a will is always what allows it to be triggered... and to me Bartleby seems to be candidly devoid of any will; even his leitmotiv-formula isn’t really a NO, but a softened version of it: that can’t just be politeness! It is the attribute of a personality without any asperity, which therefore doesn’t cast any shadow as a hint of his flesh.
Bartleby indeed writes and works and up to a certain extent also performs the task he’s been hired for; but the temperature of his resolution constantly drops, reaching what thermodynamics would call absolute zero: the temperature at which nothing, not even the smallest particle, remains in motion: -273.15°C... Bartleby must be one of the coldest and most absolute voids literature has ever produced; and in order to make that most obvious, Melville loads the story with sharply characterised electrons, whose agitation and madness increase in inverse proportion to the condition of Bartleby’s will. The contrast is stunning!
But you most certainly know that absolute zero is actually a projection! It can in fact never be reached... The projection – or prophecy – can therefore never be fully accomplished, which echoes a certain idea of the architectural project and its corollary attributes, namely:
- A1. An impulse (where kinetic energy is at its highest: the earliest stage of the project...- ile!)
- A2. In the course of development, this kinetic energy is transformed into a potential energy
- A3. A speed, as a function of time (m/s)
- B. A trajectory which would come from the stand taken in a given problematic
- C. A moving target
- D. Deflective actions to adjust with the constantly evolving position of the target
Considered in such a prospect, a project can hardly be stifled by a definitive state: it is in essence dynamic. And Bartleby becomes the fixed axis around which the fleeting and futile trajectories of capitalistic lives revolve.
I personally see no equivalent to Bartleby... certainly not in the field of architecture. Deleuze, in his essay, qualifies him as the ultimate Original; but is he an origin or an end? And what is an origin? Isn’t the concept of origin a modern one?
Thank you for your projectile-reading of “Bartleby”, which is indeed a very convincing one; it also leads to death, therefore to an end and might therefore be understood as a failed project.
But maybe there is another dimension, a less architectural one, less embedded in an isolated reading of the projectile/Bartleby. This reading might have less to do with one subject, but between different ones or between a subject and his milieu. Bartleby does not act but stays in place, is erratic and contaminates his surroundings. By being erratic in a moving world, with different modes, he claims his subjectivity, while the others, considered at first glance more individual, become more and more passive.
This is a short note while waiting for the plane, where this static-dynamic relation is at its highest.
All my best,
I very much agree with your statement and alternative reading; and I believe that the phenomenon you describe can be applied to any meaningful outlandishness – to use Melville’s formula – in other words, peculiar behaviour or idiosyncrasies.
And I would even be tempted to propose a scientific flipside analogy: couldn’t Bartleby’s behaviour be that of a black hole, a supreme attraction force that swallows its surroundings and precipitates behavioural disruptions on the part of the other characters? The only course of action left to the human satellites revolving around him would therefore be a constrained estrangement... Bartleby’s essence is viral and the effect of his behaviour can only lead to the most improbable astonishment; it is literally un-believable, that is it exceeds all comprehensive dimensions and triggers as a result a vortex of erratic conducts.
But I don’t think that Bartleby stands alone in this state; one has to recall Hector Berlioz’s reaction to his first hearing of Beethoven's fifth symphony, leaving the concert hall in a state of frenzy and hysteria: the work had reached beyond what one could decently apprehend, ultimately setting a fixed and irreducible moment in the history of music: to give birth to such singularity is threatening! – as the revolutionary French composer suggested. And cultural history is full of such moments leading to most sinister or most glorious consequences (from Galileo to Stravinsky and his Rite of Spring, through Beethoven and Kafka): the sudden eruption of the unknown and therefore of the inconceivable.
In a word, “preposterous” stands for that which radically inflects one’s way of capturing reality!
I have been thinking on how to read your email. It seems contradictory in its formulation. On the one side, echoing Deleuze’s idea of projectile (is it from Le Pli. Leibniz et le Baroque?), it proposes a positive reading of the “I would prefer not to”, a radical trajectory towards a goal that can never be reached, which, on the other side, seems completely at odds with Bartleby’s fate, as his refusal brings him to his own end.
While I was searching for an issue out of this contradictory situation, I found this video of Giacometti from 1962, which could help us take a step further, as Giacometti proposes a reading of his work as a permanent refusal of the convention of artistic or more general visual practice, of secured meaning, but at the same time as the pursuit of a goal, to better understand what he sees. Could this be a trajectory out of the desperation of Bartleby?
All my best,
My digression or deflection of Bartleby’s behaviour is contradictory only for the reason, I believe, that Bartleby is a literary character and that his trajectory can only tip either on one side – life – or on the other – death: but this either/or dichotomy only applies to a living subject; what of an inert object or of an idea, as in the case of architecture? None of them have to choose – and in fact they can’t! – but they can latently remain an ever-lasting potential with indefinite borders... which takes us to Giacometti’s statements, as he sees his work as a constantly evolving and never accomplished one; it is embedded in a perpetual movement of approach without being able – or even wishing – to reach its final state. It is as if Giacometti had raised the status of the repentir – which shows the essential uncertainty of overlaid preliminary drafts – to the final level of representation, refusing to give its work a categorical outline: the doubt not expressed as a state of mind, but as a state of the art! It is an Auseinandersetzung with time, and a wide part of Giacometti’s corpus oscillates between static and dynamic figures, each one acquiring characteristics of the other: a vibrating head or a stifled walking silhouette: contradictions in terms!
I personally see the architectural project in a similar way: it has to be kept on the move of a fleeting trajectory, and as such, time becomes of course one of its most influential parameters.
You see, I think one should deny the death of Bartleby – the character – the right to bring the velocity of an idea to an end: I simply think that death is in this case a literary feature, and had the story for any reason gone on, the revolving characters around him might well have used all their respective energies to a final state of nothingness, used and abused by the forces of friction that Bartleby’s vortex created around them. To be continued.
This short note is to thank you, much too late, for your Deleuzian text.
It seems that here again our two approaches to problems show up in all their clarity: on the one side your systematic way of analysing a problem in framing its general issues and on the other my empirical one by collecting examples.
Here some other “noes”: the Nein-Sager: a conservative person who does not want to change the existing world as it is considered perfect, the Nein-Sager of Berthold Brecht. The story is of a boy who is not ready to sacrifice himself for his community; the “no” of the “terrible twos”, the age in which children begin to make their own choices by opposing every possible thing/remark/decision with a “no”. This “no” seems to relate to the construction of one’s own identity. There would be plenty of other examples: the German substantive – no- go, an Anglicism from the noun “no-go”. It means an interdiction or a taboo. Further: “non- stop”, “no way”.
There are many different ways of saying “no”. As soon as I have read “Bartleby”, I will get back to you.
All my best,
I just finished “Bartleby”, the book Peter gave us as a reference for his “no-lectures”. Before engaging with the book and the famous formula, “I would prefer not to”, let us look at other possibilities to say “no”: The Oxford English Dictionary indicates in its blog, where it collects all the historical occurrences of the term, no less than 29 different manners.
Here they are:
4.nixie / nixy / nixey
8. no way
9. no way, José
12. out of the question
13. no siree
14. for foul, nor fair
15. not on your life
16. not on your Nelly
17. not on your tintype
18. not for all the tea in China
19. not in a million years
20. under no circumstances
21. not likely
22. not for Joe
23. thumbs down
24. pigs might fly
25. not a cat (in hell)'s chance
26. fat chance
27. catch me!
28. no fear
29. go fish
But what is striking with Bartleby is that he uses only one specific ways to say it: “I would prefer not to”, which seemingly engages only him but, as the story shows, entails his whole environment.
What could that mean for architecture? Are we ready to take this step? Or are things to be clarified?
I do not know whether this helps to clarify our topic, our approach, our hypothesis, but as we are still searching, I would like to propose another perspective on Melville’s book, which I found in a text by literary scholar Leo Marx, author of a wonderful book, The Machine in the Garden, which you might know. The book was very useful for several researches we did, as Marx, more than others, is able to relate literature to cultural history. This is what he does also in his essay on Bartleby called “Melville’s Parable of the Walls”.
Marx does two things: first, he relates the topic to Melville’s biography, pointing out that the author was, while writing “Bartleby”, in a pivotal moment in his life – a moment where his writings would shift from his very popular books to his intellectually more demanding prose, letting him fall into a crisis and obliging him to reassess his position towards himself and society.
Second, and this is perhaps more relevant for architects, he points, as the title of his essay says – why did we not see this earlier? – to the importance of walls in Melville’s text. First of course, the setting in Manhattan, Wall Street, the place of the lawyer’s office, where Bartleby works; but it is also a walled street, with walled rooms. Bartleby works in a room with three windows looking on three different walls: one black, one white and one without colour. This last window had previously a view. It is in front of this wall that Bartleby would stand and stare. This wall, which blocks a former “view”, separates Bartleby from society, from the Wall Street Society. It is this wall which Bartleby will look at when stopping the writing job he was assigned to do. It is again in front of a wall that Bartleby will die in prison, still staring, as he dies with open eyes.
Marx gives the following explanation for the importance of the wall as a parable in the book:
"Then why has Bartleby allowed the wall to paralyse him? The others in the office are not disturbed by the walls; in spite of the poor light they are able to do their work. Is it possible that Bartleby's suffering is, to some event, self-inflicted? that it is symptomatic of the perhaps morbid fear of annihilation manifested in his preoccupation with the dead-wall? Melville gives us reason to suspect as much [...]."
And Marx ends his essay with a comparison between the author, Melville, and Bartleby, which shows, once again, this slight difference between what you called “projectile” and its radical, but also deadly, interpretation by Bartleby:
"Among the countless imaginative statements of the artist's problems in modern literature, 'Bartleby' is exceptional in its sympathy and hope for the average man, and in the severity of its treatment of the artist. This is particularly remarkable when we consider the seriousness of the rebuffs Melville had so recently been given by his contemporaries. But nothing, he is saying, may be allowed to relieve the writer of his obligations to mankind. If he forgets humanity, as Bartleby did, his art will die, and so will he. The lawyer, realising this, at the last moment couples Bartleby's name with that of humanity itself. The fate of the artist is inseparable from that of all men. The eerie story of Bartleby is a compassionate rebuke to the self-absorption of the artist, and so a plea that he devote himself to keeping strong his bonds with the rest of mankind. Today, exactly a century after it was written, 'Bartleby, the Scrivener' is a counter-statement to the large and ever growing canon of 'ordealist' interpretations of the situation of the modern writer."
I hope this helps us take a step farther.
All my best,
This is just a short notice.
I discovered this week three more different aspects of “no”. It seems that our investigation will cause us some problems, as the more we think about it, the more the field opens up. But this is the general condition of every research work.
Here, very briefly, are the three aspects:
The first concerns a balance of interests, between work and family. So it is about a choice. One has to refuse one thing to be able to do another.
The second interpretation was proposed by Sarah Oppenheimer, the American artist who instantly responded to my question – how should I interpret “no”? – that for her, “no” meant “slowness”: the possibility to advance a work, an idea, a proposal independently from exterior pressure conditions; independently also from the modern logic of time, performance, calculable result.
The third interpretation popped up while I was preparing a lecture about the “accident” in architecture. In this lecture, I tried to understand why the internationally acclaimed architecture of post-war Britain failed in almost every case to respond to the exigencies that were put in it: why the well-tempered space of the history faculty building in Cambridge, designed by Stirling with a heating and ventilation engineer, failed; why almost all acclaimed housing projects in Britain became at one time or another a slum. These failures may be brought back to the failure of the modern production logic. The buildings were not able to answer the calculable rationality of post-war planning. They didn’t respond to the performances assigned to them. Strangely, the refusal in this case does not come from a person but from a thing. Is that possible?
Looking forwards to your thoughts on this.
All my best,
I have the feeling – not the conviction – that failure, as you describe it, slightly pulls us out of our range of analysis; after all, no one really works at failing, and an object, a design or even an intention always turns out to be a failure only if time and exterior perception qualify it as such; this externality seems to me contradictory with the state of mind of Bartleby. And yet, your statement could also be right if one ought to consider that characters and their selective perceptions apply a judgement on Bartleby, and their afflictions towards him most definitely evolve with the timeframe of the story...
But who are we to say that Bartleby’s stand point is a failure? It can only be one if we consider the productive canons of our time as the only way to live, with its summoned realisation of the self as the only acceptable trajectory... not that I wished to become a Bartleby, but I can only admire his marmoreal and indisputable stance: Bartleby seems to escape judgement and is hors du droit et du devoir: he simply IS... and Melville doesn’t justify the crashing orbit of his main character and therefore isn’t judgemental of the behaviour of the strange man.
This takes me to the other two convincing points you make, namely the notion of choice and the struggle for time, both of which are central not only to the development of architecture but also to the way we lead our respective lives.
The act of choosing always presupposes a corollary, that of a renouncement; in other words, choice is always the relic of defiance, and the variables are always at least two... even when the second term is nothingness. And when we speak about a choice, the discourse necessarily triggers the awareness of its declined pendant: and here comes the famous anterior conditional that we all have experienced in our lives: shouldas, couldas and so on.
But no such thing in “Bartleby”, right? No regrets, no anterior conditional, just nothingness: admirable of bravery and of independence of mind, don’t you think? No one, nor anything, will deflect him from his line of conduct, although everyone in the story tries; but it would be an all too ‘cosmic’ ambition – and frankly an unreasonable one – to develop a decent outline of the question of choice: too vast a topic, too personal, too.
So is the question of time, but allow me to try to delineate issues at stake when engaging in such a consideration. I propose that we leave aside the imprint of time onto architecture itself – which is indeed a fascinating topic but most likely well addressed in scientific literature – and very briefly focus on the embryonic phases of the architectural project, where time, or rather our relation to time, isn’t a passive and expectative one but defines the terms of the equation of what is yet to come.
As opposed to the couple time-product, in which hardly any interdependent dynamics take place, time and process are on the other hand, and as we all know, resolutely entangled, the one defining to a great extent the attributes of the other. And in an era where the sole horizon seems to be short-term profit – no matter what is at stake, transgenerational or not – it becomes sadly obvious that time has turned into a great luxury, not in the sense of an expandable parameter, but really as an extremely rare commodity.
I have the greatest respect for those who have the strength to dictate their rhythm, and Gilles Deleuze – again – expresses it in his ABCédaire: on ne bouscule pas un artiste!... I don’t consider architects to be artists, but issues are nevertheless similar; and I would add: on ne bouscule pas une idée!
Yes, as Sarah Oppenheimer suggests, the struggle for time is undoubtedly a core issue of projecting... Did you know that the SIA 102 foresees what is labelled as recherche de parti as the first step in the development of a project and grants it... 3% of the overall procedure! And if one considers the following phase – that of the schematic design – the percentage raises to a ridiculously modest 9%! It is like asking Tiger Wood to drive with a putting wedge!
In other words, today’s consideration for one of the most crucial and perilous times in the development of an architectural project has shrunk it to hardly anything more than a glimpse of intuition opportunistically petrified in a categorical product. Some call it pragmatism – or worse, realism – when it really is opportunism with a short view; doubt as the necessary accessory of imagination has been brutally ruled out!
We are left with the hard edges of technocratic frameworks and today’s fetishism for consumption: any nuanced resolution mobilising collective memory and criticality hardly stands any chance any more: compressed time and short-term profit have turned the project into an authoritative and unequivocal procedure.
Thank you very much for your clarifications.
Yesterday, another attack happened here in Paris. An outlaw driven by a destructive ideology attacked a representative of the state, of the conventional, policed order.
This makes your first statement about the choice even clearer. Indeed, Bartleby is not ideological; he is not driven by others, he is not even an outlaw. He is just himself. As you say, he has no anterior condition. If he is radical, it is not in the sense that he pursues the roots, the radix of this or that, but only insofar as he goes back to the roots of the human condition. As Deleuze says in the text you recommended to me, “Bartleby; or, the Formula”, the expression “I would prefer not to” are not so much an indication of “things and actions”, but are “acts”, “speech-acts” in themselves. Speech-acts, as Deleuze says, are “self- referential”. Therefore, we have also the difficulty to transpose “I prefer not to” to architecture, literature, etc., as first and foremost, “I prefer not to” is linked – and here again I agree with you – with a person and not a work. Deleuze again says that “it makes Bartleby a pure outsider (“exclu”) to whom no social position can be attributed”. Bartleby, through his speech- act, becomes a man “without references”.
This quest reminded me of a difficult contradiction I wanted to resolve while writing on Valerio Olgiati’s “iconographical autobiography”. There he positions himself in relation to two pictures: Robert Ryman’s white-striped Untitled (1965) and Helmut Federle’s gold Monochrom Untitled (1990). Olgiati writes about the first: “it represents nothing”; and about the second: “it represents everything”. Obviously, one could exchange the captions, as the images are – through their radical interrogation of the state of painting (the “it represents nothing”) – a contribution to the state of painting itself (the “it represents everything”).
By this, another time dimension comes into play: not only the time of creation, the on ne bouscule pas les artistes. One should indeed add to this sentence: On ne bouscule pas les oeuvres d’art. As with “Bartleby”, every artwork tends to the infinite, which we could call the classical. Time makes this judgement: indeed, the new can become old, or it can become classical.
So much for today.
All my best,
I know this might seem a step backward, but if I may, I would like to share with you the passages of Deleuze’s essay which interest me the most, as they are closely linked to the way we would like to think of the architectural project at Made in.
The Confidence-Man (much as one says the Medicine-Man) is sprinkled with Melville’s reflections on the novel. The first of these reflections consists in claiming the rights of a superior irrationalism. Why should the novelist believe he is obligated to explain the behaviour of his characters, and to supply them with reasons, whereas life for its part never explains anything and leaves in its creatures so many indeterminate, obscure, indiscernible zones that defy any attempt at clarification? It is life that justifies; it has no need of being justified. The English novel, and even more so the French novel, feels the need to rationalise, even if only in the final pages, and psychology is no doubt the last form of rationalism: the Western reader awaits the final word. In this regard, psychoanalysis has revived the claims of reason.
(...) The founding act of the American novel, like that of the Russian novel, was to take the novel far from the order of reasons, and to give birth to characters who exist in nothingness, survive only in the void, defy logic and psychology and keep their mystery until the end. (...) What counts for a great novelist – Melville, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Musil – in that things remain enigmatic yet nonarbitrary: in short a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depth of life and death without leading us back to reason. The novelist has the eye of a prophet, not the gaze of a psychologist.
There is one issue we tried to escape till now. We haven’t addressed history, although we have argued through our exchange with historical examples. “Bartleby” is indeed a fiction that is placed in history. Leo Marx situates the work in Melville’s life, stressing the economic context of the work published in 1853. In the text you quoted in the previous email, Deleuze also historicises the personage, even if indirectly, in comparing him to other modern figures: Modern Ulysses as he calls them, “without a name, regicide, and parricide”. He refers the enigmatic dimension of the essay to Kafka, to Musil, to Dostoievsky.
But what would it mean to conceive of a contemporary Bartleby, and what would the “I would prefer not to” be today? Of course, the context has changed. Probably, the resistance would be against the logics of rationalism, liberalism and administration. But how would that work? And can we still believe is the fiction of the “work of art” and the “artist” we have discovered throughout our exchange?
Somehow, till now, we have only been asking, “What is ‘I would prefer not to’”, but shouldn’t we also ask, “Which ‘I would prefer not to’ is appropriate”? Or could it even be that the question is not a question anymore?
Here are a few possible ways to find an issue:
- A fiction, even a historical one, is always a tale about life. Therefore, Bartleby is contemporary.
- Bartleby’s context is clearly regulated. Not by chance, the wall has a central role in Melville’s story. Obviously today, we have other limits, less visible ones. In Melville, one can be outside or inside. There is no in-between. How could one deal with this threshold situation? Could the contemporary Bartleby be the flaneur, the drifter, or is it the dropout or even the hacker?
- Finally, where should one situate the work of art? Can it still be so monumental, isolated, or is it not rather an action, an intervention, that transforms its environment?
All my best,
Quite a few questions you raise in your last message... but let us try to address some of the issues you mention; regarding the contextual framework, otherwise named History with a capital H, I personally believe that History is not simply a sententious succession of events,
either condemned to obsolescence or considered with a moaning and blind allegiance (the it was better before syndrome); an inflexion point in history can most definitely – if not in whole at least partially – remain one after it has taken place: so, one way to embrace it would be to consider it as dynamic and therefore still potentially active or if not uplifting, then at least informative...
Specifically in the field of architecture, where the notion of progress really is devoid of any meaningful substance for the very reason that humanity’s most basic and central needs have hardly evolved over time: who would seriously dare to say that, between the domus in Pompeii and the Villa Stein in Garches, a progress has taken place on an architectural level; if any at all, then on a technological level, but even that is, I think, questionable?
I sometimes have a scenery in mind when addressing issues in architecture: I move forwards looking backwards – in other words: J’avance à reculons! One would today rather hear: don’t look backwards, you’re not going that way! But I’d really prefer: look backwards, you’re not going that way! Which literally makes no sense but embraces a contradictory dynamic, yet contradictory only in the terms. Ossip Mandelstam in Le Bruit du Temps has an extraordinary way to express a similar ambivalence:
My memory is not of love but of hostility and does not strive at reproducing the past but at keeping it at a distance.
And to do so, one needs a lot of memory, not a nostalgic one but a proactive and critical one; in that respect, factual knowledge is only useful insofar as it can be vectorised by an always renewed intention: in other words, knowledge is not an end but a beginning, and it should be everything but archiving!
You now see very clearly that to me the contextualisation of a given problem is indeed a relevant aspect of the understanding, but hardly ever turns into a scorched statement, which would conclusively narrow the range of its significance in the present. In other words, a given problem can potentially enter in resonance with another one, no matter how far apart these are or might well have been. Such a consideration allows me to say that a hypothetical Bartleby set in today’s context would be even more extreme a posture and that his vortex- environment would be even more acutely experienced.
In Les Feuillets d’Hypnos (1946), René Char suggests that our heritage is devoid of any preconceived will – Notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament. The past therefore does not leave any syntactic or grammatical reading of events... So, the real question would be: how do we proceed with it?
In the second part of your email, you dare to bring our conversation back to where Peter probably would have expected us to begin with, namely how to resist or under which circumstances does one resist?
Well, I don’t think I can answer such a question, for the reasons for such behaviour are too radically specific and therefore bypass any systematic approach. I could well mention resisting moments or necessities, but it would become impoverishingly anecdotal.
Having said that, there is at least one point of which I am convinced: the most radical resistance for an architect lies in the project itself, not outside of it but literally within it; no matter how pressured or biased a decision might be, one is still free, that is one has the inalienable right to resolutely propose alternative thinking by means of projective measures. It is to me the only limit or open boundary the architect ought to accept: that of his own horizon.
And though it seems to be rather a presumptuous way to engage in a service feature – which is what architecture ultimately and indisputably is – yet there is nothing cavalier about it. The seminal stage of projection is an excess and a profusion and should never be negatively defined and constrained:
(...) a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depth of life and death without leading us back to reason.
But, of course, I realise that in today’s opportunistic context, such a statement can only be perceived as suicidal or worse, ideological: yet, I personally think that it is on the contrary the most dignified way to express criticality...
We had, I think, both thought that your previous email would have been the last one on our “I prefer not to” exchange. But it raised so many questions, and disclosed so many possible misunderstandings, that I feel the need for a few remarks. I hope you will forgive me.
I guess we agree on many points: about the openness of historical knowledge, the potential of history, its informative dimension and even sometimes its authoritative character. We also agree, I think, on the notion of progress, which we might link, as you say, to technology, but surely not to architecture. And finally, we agree, as I understood, on the fact that past facts and events have per se no particular value, beside the one we are able to give them. This does not mean, of course, that history is arbitrary. It has to rely on facts, and the arguments have to be traceable. But history is not definitive. There are not only “matters of fact”, as Bruno Latour rightly stated, but also “matters of concern”.
Therefore, a particular attention must be given to the way we look at history. In this short message, I just want to stress two ways:
- The first is what you seem to follow when you state that there are no differences between the villa at Garches and a house in Pompeii. Implicitly, this presupposes the possibility of architectural or even anthropological constants: we live, we work, we die, we have tools, we have shelters, etc., from the beginning.
- The second stresses not the constants of architecture, of human kind, of life, etc. – the “what” – but the different ways of dealing with them, the “how”. It accepts chronology, but not understood as a succession of events or even a way of progress or an evolution. Rather, it is concerned with different regimes, and their way of answering the essential questions you put forwards. The remarks that concluded my last contribution to our exchange were directed at this issue:
1. Melville gives a very particular setting to his story: different milieux, divided, separated, distinguished by different walls. In this context, trespassing one of these walls – for instance, that given by the professional milieu of the office space – is viewed as a violation.
2. Melville proposes a very particular figure: an individual without identity in the anonymity of the metropolis.
It seems to me that the architectural setting, the figure and its way of resisting – maybe even the whole cultural context in which the tale enfolds – are very much characterised by the regime of modernity: the separation between private and public, individual and society, law and outlaw, etc.
But what would it mean today? You very honestly stated that you could only answer through your individual work. This might be perfectly right for an individual confronted with an individual task to resolve. But to be free is also to understand the conditions in which one works. It seems to me, therefore, that the question should be brought to another level. What does this individual work stand for? What does it represent, or even what is represented by it? This would be the “how”.
This is all for now; see you tomorrow.
Edited by Cameron Macdonell, Zurich (2017).
Laurent Stalder (b. 1970, Lausanne) studied architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, qualifying in 1996. From 1996 to 1997 he undertook a scholarship with the Swiss Institute for Archaeology and Architectural Research in Cairo, and from 1997 to 2001 served as an assistant at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) of the Department of Architecture of the ETH, where he obtained his doctorate in 2002. In the same year he became an assistant professor for architectural history at the History Department of the Université Laval in Québec / Canada. In 2006 he took up a post as assistant professor for architectural theory at the gta Institute, where he has served as an associate professor since 2011. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
François Charbonnet is co-founder along with Patrick Heiz of the architecture studio Made in, based in Geneva, Switzerland. After graduating from the ETH Zurich with a thesis supervised by Prof. Hans Kollhoff, he collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron and OMA, Rem Koolhaas before setting up his own office in 2003. In addition to his work in practise, he is frequent lecturer and has been a visiting professor at the EPF Lausanne (2010-2011), the ETH Zurich (2011-2013), the Accademia di Archittetura, Mendrisio (2014-2015) and the Kyoto Design Lab (2017).