Architecture & Cultural Studies

Image courtesy of Worradmu

Aside from the appropriation of critical regionalism, what else might cultural studies take from architecture? Kenneth Frampton’s work provides a useful starting point for a re-invigorated approach to culture and an accompanying analysis of its manifestations, but how else can recourse to architecture itself, in both its physical and theoretical forms, assist in an analysis which has notions of negotiation and fluidity at its core? We are faced once more with a paradox. To appreciate architecture in terms of its technical aspect requires an understanding of architectonics: the system pertaining to a hierarchical science of architecture and which results in a form which “is the art of the solid, uncompromising, conclusive, material world” (Shepheard, 1997:viii). How can such a field which represents order, structure and totality, compliment an approach to the culture which takes place in the spaces it creates; which is built upon antonymic notions of disorder, disfigurement and multiplicity? This paradox echoes that raised by Ricoeur and addressed by Frampton, and presents an opportunity to further explore the validity of architectural theory when brought to bear in cultural studies. Furthermore, in the ‘alogical’ connections it seeks and draws attention to, it epitomises the rhizomatic approach to the overall methodology.

Just as the rhizome provides a guiding principle for my own research – “agglomerating very diverse acts” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988:7) – it also provides a conceptual tool which further facilitates this recourse to different milieu: the ‘line of flight’. According to the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, “There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome. These lines always tie back to one another” (ibid:9). Here I want to explore one such line, into architecture and its relationship with the concrete, to more closely examine whether it too can be ‘tied back’ into a method, in a critical regionalism removed from its architectural context, and which highlights – indeed, relies upon – the abstract.

As Fleming (2002) notes, the line of flight is “a metaphor for everyday resistance” (201). This ‘resistance’ provides another, related line which I follow from Frampton and into this piece. But, what is most significant for my aim in Fleming’s suggestion here, is the idea of the metaphorical. Drawing on an observation from Jacques Derrida about grounding the metaphors of architecture in thinking, this related aim can be further elaborated: to consider how the lexicon of architecture – with all of its allusions to fixity and stasis – can be re-articulated to represent the fluid, mediatory, abstract resistance Frampton envisages in critical regionalism; how this vocabulary can be appropriated as metaphor – or how architectural realities can become critical metaphors in cultural studies. This line of flight has been effective in reverse – from philosophy and into architecture – for example, as Harris (2005) notes, “Deleuze’s diffuse philosophy of space has been most incisively clarified … [by] architects … turn[ing] to Deleuze’s philosophy as a means to rethink the conceptual grounds of their field” (36). In essence, what is sought here is a similar ‘rethinking’ of the conceptual grounds of the field of architecture as it feeds into my research via critical regionalism. In architectural terms, “a different geometry of cultural studies” (O’Sullivan, 2002:81) (emphasis in original) is sought, one opposed to the hierarchy of regionalism and its realisation in, amongst other concepts, the grid.

Jacques Derrida (1997a)– a philosopher as important to architecture as he is to cultural studies – in an interview entitled ‘Architecture: Where the Desire May Live’, offers insights in response to the question, “If one is going to envisage architecture as a metaphor and thereby constantly point to the necessity of the embodiment of thinking, how can it be reintroduced into thinking in a non-metaphorical way?” (319). Herein, Derrida draws links between philosophical thinking and the architectural model: “thinking which in itself cannot be architectural” (ibid). Can the project of critical regionalism walk this bridge and make its thinking architectural beyond its (loosely-termed) ‘origins’ residing in architectural thought?

Schwarzer, in his book Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media (2004), suggests that even our thinking about architecture itself can no longer be conceived of in architectural or architectonic terms. Our experience of architecture, of built-forms situated in specific spaces, he argues, has become “dissociated from the unified field of geometric perspective” (16). This perspective, with its allusions to notions of a gridded, striated, ordered space, “implie[s] a homogeneous and potentially metric space” (Crary, 1990, in Schwarzer:16). However, with the advent of a globalised culture which transgresses boundaries and borders – providing the processes and products which critical regionalism engages with – and has the ability to remove the experience of architecture from its geographical ground, “a fundamentally disunified and aggregate field of disjunct elements” (ibid) is revealed.

The opportunity for a simple syncretic approach is hereby doubly disrupted. Not only do the rhizomatic and critically regionalist approaches this work follows dictate that it cannot make knowledge arboreal, rooted, tree-like, but architecture itself has begun to lose its own rootedness. Those terms which architecture and the broader culture of which it is part have always had in common – foundations, base, construction, structure – all those suggestions of immutable hierarchies, have begun to collapse as culture is freed from its arbitrary boundaries. Our mediated experience of architecture through a globalised media is but one ramification of this collapse. How then to proceed? Can architectural realities of this nature still become critical metaphors – conceptual tools which epitomise and allow for an analysis of the ‘real and imagined’ nature of region – in a critical regionalist analysis of culture?

Following this line of flight thus far has simply raised questions. To attempt to answer them – to ground them – could disrupt the aim of this work; neither critical regionalism nor rhizomatic thinking seeks to fix an understanding. However, demonstrating the way in which the line of flight followed here can be seen to ‘tie back’ to its originating point, allows for an opening up of the issue at stake here: to examine the effectiveness of a deterritorialisation of the terminology of architectural realities into the field of critical metaphors. Let us consider this line of flight in reverse – from metaphor into architecture. Rem Koolhaas, architect and head of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), closes his architectural manifesto for Manhattan, Delirious New York (1992), with a series of short stories – narratives – those cultural phenomena which attempt to elucidate an understanding of the world. One of these – ‘The Story of the Pool’ – imagines a Soviet-designed floating swimming pool, crossing the Atlantic to America via the locomotion generated by those swimming within it: “discover[ing] that if they swam in unison – in regular synchronized laps from one end of the pool to the other – the pool would begin to move slowly in the opposite direction” (307). In this outwardly whimsical two-page tale, Koolhaas presents a metaphorical version of his radical, retroactive architectural vision for New York: “they have to swim toward what they want to get away from and away from where they want to go” (308). Aside from the fact that this closing sentiment seems to epitomise critical regionalism’s mediation between past and present, it also demonstrates how the technical aspects of language from other cultural formations can compliment and advance the goals of architectural projects.

Following this, Derrida (1997a) argues that language – and therefore, culture – “proposes a spatialisation, an arrangement in space … located on a path, at a crossroads at which arrival and departure are both possible” (319) (emphasis added). Here, we can begin to see how critical regionalism can be interpreted as ‘axonometric’ – defined by Derrida as “the reading of a building which doesn’t presuppose its habitability” (ibid:321) – and from here, begin to see how architectural thinking, in its terminology, can be realigned with, and incorporated into, the goals of the methodology. We engage with the assumptions and ‘presuppositions’ which regionalism presents us with through culture but interrogate the region they nominally inhabit, an analysis which considers where this representation has ‘arrived’ from and where it ‘departs’ to. Entering into dialogue with both positions, mediating between them, the concrete of regionalism can be made abstract – its fixity disrupted by fluidity; in this sense critical regionalism is fundamentally axonometric. This is but one term we might appropriate from architecture and re-think or re-articulate in critical regionalism.

Critical regionalism herein becomes a space in which both the architectural reality and the critical metaphor can operate: the regions and regionalism which the framework of critical regionalism engages with, are similarly ‘real and imagined’. Taking this idea further, much can be gained from the insights of Bernard Tschumi – an architect as noteworthy for his architectural products as he is for his thought on the philosophical processes behind them – in pursuing and justifying the implementation of an architectural vocabulary in a critical regionalism of cultural studies. For example, he suggests that “[t]here is no cause-and-effect relationship between an architectural sign and its possible interpretations” (2001:221). If, as is suggested here, architectural signs are themselves axonometric and have no presupposed function, then by inserting architectural signifiers – doors, windows, joints, thresholds – into cultural studies as critical metaphors, we need not be bound by their original interpretation or incarnation, enabling us “to create the world differently” (O’Sullivan, 2002:84). As such, an interpretation or analysis of culture within a critical regionalist framework and which utilises terminology in common with architecture, might operate either, as does Derridean ‘deconstructive’ architecture, via “a logic of conflict and contradiction” (Lynn, 2004, in Harris, 2005:37), or, as in Deleuzian ‘folding’ architecture, by “foreground[ing] a more fluid logic of connectivity” (ibid). Both approaches mirror the mediation and ‘synthetic contradiction’ of Frampton’s critical regionalism and the ways in which we might implement them in cultural studies. Architecture has made these abstract forms physical (if not entirely concrete) by deterritorialising them.

Tschumi also notes that “[a]ny theoretical work, when “displaced” [deterritorialised] into the built realm, still retains its role within a general system or open system of thought” (2001:209). This can be seen in the earlier example of Koolhaas’ (1994) employment of metaphor and narrative in his analysis of the architecture of New York: the story still functions – ‘still retains its role’, culturally and linguistically speaking – as well as complimenting the aims of his manifesto. This could be seen to problematise the project here: of reversing this process – of deterritorialising systems of ‘the built realm’ into the realm of the theoretical: re-articulating and re-thinking architectural terms as critical metaphors and moving them beyond their intended or inscribed uses. However, it is afforded support by the architectural writings of Derrida (1997b) once more, who suggests that in attempting “to locate the architectural work in another place where, at least in its principle, its essential impetus … [it] will no longer obey these external imperatives” (329). This suggestion finds its epitome in Deleuze and Guattari’s widespread work on minor literatures: “a form of cultural production from within a dominant culture” (O’Sullivan, 2005:1). This is suggestive of critical regionalism – as ‘cultural production from within’– as it interacts with regionalism – ‘a dominant culture’. What is more useful here, however, is the way in which a minor literature does not ‘obey external imperatives’, “entailing a kind of stammering and stuttering of language” (ibid). This is how we might envisage the implementation of an architectural lexicon in the goals of critical regionalism: making terms ‘stutter’ or ‘stammer’ between their ‘real and imagined’ forms.

Image courtesy of Michal Morcal

We can draw a link here with Charles Menefee’s (2003) observations on the function of joints in architecture: “A joint calls for an action appropriate to the articulation of a specific circumstance: contrast, connect, differentiate, separate, open, close, seal, bridge, and so on” (60). A critically regionalist cultural studies seeks just such actions but in the abstract realm of culture. As such, we can move them beyond their concrete manifestation in the hierarchy of structural form and again make their meaning stutter or stammer. Herein they move away from the architectonic hierarchy, away from their basis in physical structures, and into an abstract heterarchy: “a continually shifting and self-transforming field, within which the constituent parts retain a certain autonomy, freedom of expansion … and are not subjected to totalising systems of any kind” (Woods, 1992:46).

This idea of the heterarchy is taken from the work of architect Lebbeus Woods (1992) – demonstrating again how critical regionalism can delve into the field of architectural theory for insights, conceptual tools and the critical metaphors which are argued for in this essay. Woods’ conception of the heterarchical city represents the spontaneity and autonomy critical regionalism seeks to identify and, in its “fully realised but deeply indeterminate” (10) space, this “refuge of gypsies” (14) it is a deeply rhizomatic space in its own right.

This rhizomatic and architectural space is of great significance to Deleuze and Guattari’s (1986) study of Kafka’s construction of an alternative narrative from within a dominant narrative. In this study they demonstrate that Kafka’s literature becomes a metaphor for an autonomy of the individual, the approach they take to it makes use of metaphors of construction drawn from architectural signs, thereby making their meaning autonomous and heterarchical. Kafka’s literature is characterised as having “multiple entrances whose rules of usage and whose location aren’t well known … innumerable main doors and side entrances … entrances and exits without doors” (3). This principle – that a reading of Kafka is entirely dependent upon which way we choose to enter his literary and metaphorical constructions – illustrates both the re-articulation of the vocabulary of architecture and the wider concerns of critical regionalism; mediating meaning and working within existing structures to create new understandings of those constructions of culture which are subject to a dominant and homogenising hierarchy – re-inscribing the concrete as abstract.

To ‘tie back’ this rhizomatic line of flight, we can once again invoke the work of Kenneth Frampton (1983) and his outlining of the key facets of critical regionalism. He subtitles this essay and its proposed project as ‘an architecture of resistance’. This suggestion of a resistant structure – in its concrete, rooted and built sense – is made abstract through its employment as a metaphor with multiple articulations in its approach to culture. Does this resistant structure fight against the spread of a global culture as a resistance group might? Does it merely stand its ground against universalisation as some archaeological edifice or artifact preserved for posterity? Is it resistant only briefly, a makeshift dam or breakwater and will be ultimately be breached by a rising tide of standardisation? Can we conceive of it in a technological sense, in which a current is opposed but transformed into another form of energy? To deterritorialise knowledge from architecture and its accompanying theoretical work, and reterritorialise it elsewhere – the critical metaphor as it is theorised in this example – opens it up to a re-articulation in critical regionalism which can compliment the framework with its meditative, dialogical stance. In this way, the process of critical regionalism can produce work which in itself can be described as critically regionalist: disrupting, interjecting, stuttering and stammering the languages of regionalism and the concrete – opening up new entrances, crossing new thresholds, viewing joints as articulate rather buttressed, and yielding new geometries which demonstrate patterns of inconsistency.

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