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The Limits and Contradictions of Theory

Boris Podrecca Architekten

The Limits and Contradictions of Theory
By Boris Podrecca -

Assessing the currency enjoyed by a given theoretical position requires an understanding of the contingent setting or condition in which it is posited. Architecture has increasingly become a topic for disquisition. Pressurised by globalisation, the media and consumerism, today’s films, television, advertising, events, design, brands and politics all join the fray in a compelling confrontation.
The conventional concept of architecture as the ancient classical art of building is only intermittently put forward, always for short periods and never correctly. In contrast, the pressures mentioned above have led to “archi-culture” becoming a mass phenomena topic, with the result that architecture is no longer able to act independently. Its Silentium must be given a voice. Consequently architecture is no longer able to adopt a critical position.
The digital era has caused a paradigm shift between representation and the object. The practice of architecture has been deprived of its social responsibility. As a result, its very cultural mission has been cast into question. Yet building and architecture as an ethical activity, and by that same token the theory of knowledge, society and politics have been the concern of philosophers from Aristotle and Kant to Kierkegaard and Adorno. Today, the question of the condition and independence of art and architecture, its truthfulness and especially its social role are still posed. And still today the paradigms for interpreting and assessing lie in the built object; in other words, the best interpretation comes from the architecture itself.
As a reference system, theory proceeds by imitation or orientation. It is a re-production or re-presentation, a re-thinking drastically estranged from the actual object, as any critical appraisal will show. The critic, thinker, analyst or image-maker all take their own (disparate) liberties with the work, reacting only to the object as observed. The resultant text is a mere transcription, like Freud’s transcriptions of traces of the unconscious or his example of the physicist in his cloud chamber. For the narrator is at the same time reader of his own text, viewing it with pitiless severity, examining his own intuitions and need to rewrite the rules. Another feature of our dominant pluralist culture is that any personal encounter with architecture, art, literature and music remains largely unexpressed. Current critical theory offers practically no room for any personal experience with the object. Do the text, the construction and our own existence meet at any time? Even the reception theory and its different levels of appreciating aesthetic interpretation remains for the most part a formal exercise. The impassioned, eloquent analysis of the modern movement by Gideon, Pevsner and Banham are - at least to my mind - somewhat dubious. Attempts to express personal feelings run the risk of appearing confused if not indeed embarrassing.
Today’s more muted theoretical stance would still do well to seek inner clarity and a broader perspective. But structural semiotics and deconstruction are expressions of a culture and society whose concern is to appear “cool” and where discussion remains aseptic.

As a rule, theory broadens the experiential processes of the recipient to whom it is addressed. It could also be said that the theorising philosopher, as the author of a narrative he himself is not part of, becomes also a recipient of his own narration.
The narrator - in our case the theoretician - employs a meta-language, i.e. one language to talk of another language. This is what Plato and Aristotle describe as mimetic, demonstrative and elusive language, or the transcription of a practice. More especially, meta-language both consolidates and at the same time eliminates, or purifies itself of the prejudices of its time. If, as in this case, theory is seen as mimesis, it follows that theory itself is to a certain extent also illusion.
The question here is that the narrative is something external to the narrator, who nonetheless plays an active role in its telling. The theoretician deals with questions that neither the narrator nor the recipient has knowledge of. Hence the likelihood of misunderstandings and confusion if meta-language does not set itself limits. Lyotard is sceptical of meta-narratives, considering them outside and not part of the narrative, labelling them mere discourse about discourse. As George Steiner recalls, we live in an era in which comment is more important than the object analysed.
Aware of this mania for interpretation, Josef Ple?nik, an architect with a well-developed anxiety streak, forbade Dvo?ák’s pupil France Stelé, who followed and revered Ple?nik throughout his life, from ever attempting to interpret his work. In fact, Stelé’s biographies never mention them directly. He deals with subjects from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas that serve as “spacer elements” between Ple?nik’s works and the reader, which is what the architect wanted. Similarly for Freud, there is an unbridgeable divide between interpretation and production, i.e. the body of his work. His analytical theory is constantly concerned with eliminating linear interpretation and uncoupling it from the object of reference.
Regardless whether the theoretician’s hypothesis is borne out by reality or not, its very exposition provides a stimulus for the imagination and a guide for the reader or recipient.
This swing between hypothesis and reality is a recurrent and compelling dilemma not only for the architect but also for the describer and theoretician having to do with defining and determining facts and alleged circumstances. It is nonetheless true though that the architect needs no “lofty” theories in order to do his work, even if he might often be loath to forego the kudos derived from a description of his achievement.
As Hans Belting points out, the architect is not amused when the describer indulges too overtly in self-referential prose, revealing all too obviously where he is coming from, or when the description smacks of the theoretician’s hypertrophied self-referentiality. Often the forced equivalence between name and object, to use Wittgenstein’s expression, is irritating in the extreme for it represents just one instance and reveals the “storyteller” behind the narrative. Equally, when blatantly obvious, easily readable ingredients are used that can be linked to a brand.
The Zeitgeist of the moment repeatedly references Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid. Practically never is there any real discussion on, for example, the profound penetrating poetic of a Jørn Utzon, the last real classic Modernist, an architect possessing full command of space, light, shadow, structure, texture, epic and lyrical form, symbol and a sense of social responsibility. Indeed there are many other towering figures who eschewed the fashion of their times and refused to fall into the trap of exaggerated linguistic and iconographic expression. In these cases, the description of the “theory maker” falls short, unable to understand the deep difference between a basic mindset and the yardsticks of judgement à la mode.
The “theory maker” would do well to ask himself whether theory is not just imitation, in the full sense given to it by Aristotle for whom theory was the representation-imitation of an action and a pre-eminent feature of his poetic.
Indeed Aristotle justified man’s tendency to imitate, seeing it as a real human necessity. This view was contested by the last true pragmatics, starting with the philosophers reared under Positivism up to Berthold Brecht. In their view, a work was a thing unto itself and needed no paradigmatic echoes.
In any event, as Auerbach points out in his essay on Western realism, the theoretician considers representation as a paraphrase and not as a primary action. This concept governs our liquid society today both in our need to be outrageous and in the playful use of Form.
So does it make any sense in this era of virtual reality and digital stimulation to call for greater courage to redefine theory more precisely, and greater audacity in opposing post-modern self-representation and the aesthetic of consumerism? If there is a case to be made, it would be to set down a series of accepted guidelines rooted in reality that would provide a sort of lifeline in the manner of the guidelines devised by Dvo?ák in his seminal “Conservation Catechism”. But wouldn’t this lead to an outdated encyclopaedic universalism, a model that would prove too labile for the polyphonic nervous system of our times? Never before have consonance and dissidence in their most disparate forms been so close yet at the same time so independent. The city has become a conglomerate of linguistic exercises. Its icons are combinable like the instruments in a jam session where the musicians, without a score or conductor, improvise collectively or individually - a complex harmony that gives no room for conflict between individual freedom and collective interest. Yet it is only when playing together chorally that they achieve substance, value. Both in this instance and in architecture, aesthetic research is grounded in transgression and differentiation.
Such a multi-faceted scene would therefore cast into question the effectiveness of any survival strategy for an institutional theory aiming at universality since it would simply end up being a mere description of differences or a dissertation on positions proceeding in parallel within a new pluralist stylistic framework.
Today more than ever, the theoretician must operate within the framework of a dichotomic procedure. On the one hand, he must free theory from dogmas and instability calling attention to the rational aspect and social responsibility of architecture. On the other, he must penetrate between the pores and folds of interpretation, recognise and save the invisible, the unusual and what is removed from reality. The theoretical system of communication cannot occupy itself just with that which is Good but must also consider ambiguity as a category demanding a value.
More especially, the theory of architecture should not take itself too seriously, especially to the point of becoming a science unto itself. An example of this is the havoc wreaked by Manfredo Tafuri and his disciples in Venice with the “excommunication” of the architect as someone plying a craft. This para-philosophical network, imbued with neo-Marxist inspired euphoria, born of a misunderstood Red Vienna through to a paraphrased version of Nietzsche’s negative thought, so heightened the contempt for the maker of architecture that poor Carlo Scarpa’s university career was reduced to that of simple drawing professor.
An intelligent theory of the discontinuity of the times must be aware of its own limits and thereby limit its own self-referentiality. Good architecture it is always immune to manifestoes, even if good architecture does have need of a theory.
In summary, architecture and theory react to the message of the work as if connected in a fluctuating sine curve, going up and down in synchrony with the kaleidoscope of the times and the interpretative assumptions in either offensive and defensive mode. As, however, the architect is condemned to build, he might be at least partly contaminated by theory. So he cannot offload responsibility claiming the constraints of an alleged theory and point the finger at the blameless describer. The architect’s action must proceed alongside theory, not losing sight of it. It is rather like the relationship with a maîtresse: a relationship kept alive by only intermittent encounters; otherwise it would become too assiduous and lose its charm.

Personal Reflections
I discovered Herbert Silberer by chance in “Écrits” by Lacan. This young journalist and sports enthusiast who lived in Vienna at the turn-of-the-century was in fact partly responsible, in my view, for the various phases of my professional maturity. Silberer, who later became a psychoanalyst, developed his own theory of how to approach architecture in his essay “Über die Symbolbildung” (we should not forget the book by Josef Frank entitled “Architecture as Symbol”).
Silberer was not concerned with the phenomenon of the states of awareness whereby thought becomes a symbol. It was not imagination that should be of concern, but rather the process of becoming aware of what was happening around one. It sidesteps the Freudian obsession with symbol and so directs attention to the essence of that which is symbolised. Silberer’s stratification of material, functional and somatic phenomena was taken up by Lacan, who made it the core of his own doctrine founded on the structure of language and the unconscious. It was these structures that one after the other, like stones, bricks or other tangibles that generated - both in the Vienna Circle and their concern for unconscious thought, and in German metaphysics - a method of verification based on the merely demonstrable.
This “purification” did not go as far as Wittgenstein had posited in his “Tractatus”, whereby all philosophical assertions are in fact insignificant, and at best only philosophising has any sense. Indeed Wittgenstein was of the opinion that everything had a scientific explanation. For a small group of emerging architects this led to strict scientific research being extended also to the theoretical approach to architecture.
I, who came from another world, viewed this purification as much too radical since it would have led to all Renaissance and Baroque architecture - the extravagant fruit of papal-Catholic flights of fancy - being completely swept away.
Yet it was not the dandy Wittgenstein to appear on the scene but Rudof Carnap, who defended philosophy as a science, since philosophy alone had any existential right of citizenship. Carnap defined all metaphysical positions as “conceptual poetry”. His principal of tolerance was based on the fact that a void could be occupied by the individual, provided the underlying thought was determined by syntactic definitions and not by abstract considerations.
As a whole, the Vienna Circle Manifesto with Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap and Ernst Mach was a free movement, an academic and university grouping. The logical empiricism underpinning its conception of the scientific world aimed to radically transform society, an all-important concept for us at the time. As Carnap put it, for an architect this was tantamount to eliminating the “illusory problems” of cognition theory; it was a concrete approach very close to our own practice, a way of going about things that encouraged structured action based on awareness and independent of any concern for a philosophical stance.
Thanks to the impetus given by this sort of practical aesthetic we discovered a parallelism (regardless of whether this could be demonstrated scientifically or not) with the rational, positive process of Adolf Loss and his “Raumplan” aimed at the careful hierarchical stratification of spatial nuclei, which in turn led to a keen sensitivity for quality-of-life and the material means of achieving it. Since we had been trained in architecture by internationalist teachers without any cultural imprinting, Loss proved to be a useful instrument. The subsequent contaminating of Modernism’s white surfaces with Semper and his “polychrome mosaics” could be seen as the follow-on to this story. Despite their rigorous applied methodology, these precursors were unable to either fix the position or the paradigmatic oscillation of their theory. They nonetheless have proved a useful means of withstanding the onslaught of the theatrical, hermetic and computerized scenarios and their ineffable turbo-capitalistic brands.

Boris Podrecca



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