The silent rustling of Architecture’s demise
by: Lucas Wetzels, first draft, feb/march 2011
Abstract:
Relating the past decades in architecture to the larger context of the reduction of metaphysics, this essay tries
to trace the relation of architecture to society, i.e. the relation of ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’ in architecture within
the horizon of pragmatics that marks contemporary society. Revisiting the two fundamental questions of the
critical period, those of ontology and semiology, the text traces the impossibility of the question concerning
the essence of architecture and a shift in the function of the image occurring in the current iconographic
trend in architecture. It is argued that the impossibility of these formerly fundamental questions follows
from the reduction of both ontology and semiology to the double meaning of ‘performance’ understood as
both ‘efficiency’ and as ‘public display’. Following the pragmatic nature architectural practice, it is finally
argued that the architectural debate should break out of its self-referentialism and rethink its relation to
the context in which it functions.
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The silent rustling of Architecture’s demise
‘How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon?
What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?
Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions?
Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness?’
Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science , section 125
‘ “G.o.d. i.s. d.e.a.d” – we all jotted down in our little notebooks. Yet while his passing has indeed been repeated
and re-spelled countless times, memories keep returning to define our perspective and movements. The dust of
metaphysics’ collapse has not yet settled in and not one architecture has been erected at its ruins. And no single
architecture will be erected on the space that will once have been left empty. We are like children playing in the
debris, using and re-using images and words to fabricate dreams and ideas, tentatively constructing architectures –
while only time can tell which of those will emerge as fertile offspring with branches well into the future. So where
do we stand now in this perpetual movement without direction, in all directions. A vacant question in a hollow,
perhaps. Especially to us, architects, no, artists!, the most sensible of men to direction and movement, to space, to
movement through and of space. So let us now, in a feeble attempt to gain perspective, take a step aside to explore
some different directions, fragments perhaps of movement, to see where we stand now, hop-scotch and stumbling
over sediments of architectures past and current. ‘
This is not an essay about architecture, nor is it about theory. It is an essay concerning ‘Architecture’ -
the idea of what it is we do, and the question of whether discussing this idea is still a valid practice at all.
Let’s say that it is an exploration in several directions in order to probe the context or horizon
within which this ‘architecturing’ takes place. In this exploration, my attention will shift back
and forth between architecture and philosophy, and for this I beg the reader’s patience.
The starting point for this essay is the idea that architecture, at least in Europe, after an age defined by
ideology, is suffering a deep identity crisis caused by the rift between the architect’s education and tradition
based on metaphysics, and the economic and pragmatic reality in which they find themselves – a split within
which architects are still trying to find a autonomous position as artists. We will explore the idea that the two
basic question of architecture, those of semiology (its meaning and representation) and ontology (its limits
and autonomy, what is architecture), have both become ‘performance’, in the double sense of both delivering
results and as the act of production of a public show. In this performance, the changing signification of the
‘image’ will play a central role. We will also see that this claim concerning an architectural crisis, is untenable
and that the architect no longer speaks his own language - he has nothing more to say. This essay, though, is
not a lament nor epitaph for times lost, but the simple re-iteration of the question ‘where do we stand now?’
I – Backwards: Architecture and the Big Reduction
The Twentieth century architecture in a nutshell
Lets first briefly review the past few decades of architecture, drawing for now the crude distinction between
modernism, post-modernism and contemporary architecture. Following Michael Speaks1, these eras can be
characterized by the words ‘ideology’, ‘critique’ and ‘pragmatism’, and for this essay my main interest will be
these architectures’ respective relation to society as a model for the relationship between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’.
1 | Michael Speaks, ‘Ideals, Ideology, Intelligence in China and the West,’ ‘China-West Dialogue’, in: Shidai Jianzhu: Time + Architecture
(Tongji University, Shanghai, September, 2006).
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Firstly, it is clear that modernism was been very much an ideological era, in the sense that behind architecture
the final goal of an ideal society awaited to be realised. This ideal, at its core, is the realisation of the essence
of mankind - the becoming of what man is supposed to be, but is not yet. The ideal is the measure to
which the actual world must be measured and changed accordingly. In ideology, architecture has to do with
achieving ‘adaequatio’ - it (re)presents and projects the image of the ideal and final goal of the history of
mankind. Achitecture is both a representation as well as creation of and towards that ideal. Theory, as such,
did not exist – thinking existed as ideology, something connected to a set of thought larger than the mere
architectural. Ideology guided practice in the straight line towards towards the final goal of achieving the
ideal architecture as the home for ideal man, at one with its human essence and as such constituted the unity,
identity and autonomy of ‘Architecture’.
The period of post-modernism, characterized by a critical attitude towards the globalizing market forces,
sees the birth of ‘theory’ as such. Thinking in architecture is not aimed at guiding practice towards a future
goal, but becomes rather an act of questioning and critiqueing society, the omni-presence of economy, the
mechanisms of capitalism and architecture’s relation to that context, from a neo-marxist framework. In the
absence of ideology to provide it with identity and meaning, theory focusses mainly on the two major topics
of ontology and semiology, i.e. respectively the question of what delimits architecture, what is its autonomy,
and the question how architecture has meaning, how and what are its representational mechanisms.
Importing a selected reading of post-structuralist philosophy, the semiological interest focuses on
the randomness of signs and the absence of the foundational ‘Truth’. It is interested in uncovering
a more ancient core that enlightenment thinking has obscured in its ideology. In absence of a final
knoweable truth to relate to, the representational character of architecture however does remain. Even
if the ‘adequatio’ in architectural language doesn’t involve the mutual alignment of reality to an ideal
whole (unity), but rather to the more repressed ‘truth’ of the fragmentary and complex operational
character of the society system, its model is representational. Architecture does not represent the ideal
society, but is at the same time an image and critique of the actual one.2 This basic structure allows us
to speak of post-modern: modernism reversed, but very much dependent on its value and structure.
The metaphysical here is that the architect, by claiming to be able to critique society and its problems
or shortcomings, pretends to maintain a position outside of that very society – a metaphysical geste par
excellence, the belief in a ’Pure architecture, uncorrupted by capitalism’or ‘an essence before practice’.
In the words of Michael Speaks: “critical, or “dislocative,” architecture, [...] critiques these normative versions of
architectural truth in a seemingly endless search for a real but ultimately unattainable essence of architecture. And
this essence [...] can only be expressed in the abstract perfection of forms shielded from the market-driven demands
of program, use, and commercial viability.”3
The period that followed, and the question will very much be if anything has changed or can change
afterward, is described by Stan Allen as a ‘pragmatism’.4 He accurately observes that the demise of ´theory´
or the critical approach does not mean that there is no more thinking or theory in architecture at all, but
rather that the distinction between theory and practice has imploded. One can merely speak of two different
practices that both are part of architecture. There is no guiding ideal, the design process is rather aimed at
generating information that will help make design decisions. This is what Michael Speaks calls ‘the age of
Intelligence’, concerned not with ‘Big Truth’, but with the production of small truths, or ‘truthiness’, as he
calls it - values that can for the moment function and be accepted as true. Thinking, becomes not the critique
of existing information but the generation of new possibilities, not outside, above or beyond practice but as
part of it.
2 | It holds to the same model of representation, even if this actual one is not ‘an orginal’, but in itself already a construct of references
and images, a well-known theme concisely presented by Jean Boudrillard in the seminal ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ [1981]
3 | Michael Speaks on K. Michael Hays and Peter Eisenman in: Michael Speaks, ‘After Theory’, Architectural Record, June 2005.
4 | Stan Allen, ‘Pragmatism in Practice’ (manuscript from ‘Pragmatist Imagination’ Conference, Museum of Modern Art, New York,
November, 1999).
note
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The Big Reduction
In order to see how this development fits in a larger pattern that is the realm of cultural philosphy, let us take
another step back and introduce the the ´big reduction´5. To understand this process we need to go back
and ask what it is that is being ‘reduced’, and what this ‘reduction’ exactly is. To answer the first question, we
need to go back to the beginning of philosophy as metaphysics.
Metaphysics can be said to be that horizon of significations in which the identity of things, that is ‘what
they are’, in essence, as such appear as uniform, transparent and understandable by clear insight. Answering
to the question of identity in the pluriformity of actual experience (.i.e. the question ‘how can I call things
under the same name?’) it suddenly seen that this unity is beyond the actual things themselves in their being,
What a thing is, its essence, is not itself a ‘thing’ or ‘a being’, but ‘being’. This is the ontological difference.
In the writing of Plato we see the ontological schism open up with the ‘idea’, understood as the ‘sight’
as an answer to the question of identity.6 The choice of words refering to the visual, means that identity
it is already there, one ‘sees’ it as such, identity is to be understood beyond and before actual experience
or thought-processes. The transparent and clearly insightfull and accessible nature of the ‘idea’ has to do
with permanence - the idea that the essence of a thing is unchangeable and eternal. In its commitment to
uncover the unchanging founding concepts of ‘being’ as ‘being’, philosophy tried to construct an immovable
foundation upon which would rest all knowledge in the form of different sciences, treating seperate aspects
of ‘being’: the living (biology), the material (physics) etcetera - the inmoveable ground of knowledge that
aligns thought with physical nature. What changed when philosophy as we now know it started, turning
away and resisting the preceding ‘inherited conglomerate’, is that it started using a certain way of speech that
implies a ‘saying how it is’, ‘telling how things are’ about the world. It places itself on ‘testable’ or empirical
ground, without making clear in which this test would consist, what its empirical proof or disproof would
be, exactly because its foundational statements per definition do no adhere to the physical (and testable)
world they foundate, but to the category of ‘being’ beyond the things themselves, i.e. the metaphysical. It is
the meaning of this tradition that was dedicated to uncovering the unchanging unity and reason by which
the variating reality is how it is, that has slowly become reduced in a process of which the development and
emancipation of science from its philosophical foundation is one part. The process of the ‘big reduction’ can
be said to have taken place in several marked steps.
In the writings of Descartes we see what we call the mechanical reduction. Physical nature starts appearing
as a uniform and mathematical. A mechanical construct without an inner ‘cause’, following uniform laws.
At the same time nature appears as a designed object, a huge harmonious complex mechanism presented as
opposed to the subject that can probe its laws. The functioning of the human body becomes incorporated
in this mechanical reduction, being understood now not as an organism but as a mechanism. But although
the human body might be described in these mechanics, the independance and certainty of knowledge and
human nature (the autonomy of the subject opposed to the object, and thereby all knowledge) is guaranteed
in the independence of thought from this mechanism, which Descarted regarded to be completely outside
of this mechanics, resulting in Descartes’ division of things as belonging to either ‘res extensae’ or to ‘res
cogitans’.
The pragmatic reduction, as seen for example in the writing of Wittgenstein, whitnesses a double shift.
The first shifts concerns the metaphysical character of language as ‘adequatio’; the idea that language
idealy is structured as the things themselves, thus providing a clear-cut division of the world matching
up to and providing access to the world as it is. Wittgenstein sees this structure collapses when it appears
to him language is an instrument of manipulation. It is a ‘knowing how to ...’. Wether the words are
5 | My representation of the ‘big reduction’ is based on the contents of the courses Philosophical Anthropoloy as given by Prof. Th.
C.W. Oudemans at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and which can be found in published form in: Th.C.W. Oudemans, ‘Echte
Filosofie’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam,2007 and Th.C.W. Oudemans, ‘Omerta’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2008, and
various other publications to be found on: http://www.filosofie.info
6 | Even though there may be flaws in the drawing of a triangle, we ‘see’ it is a triangle as an ideal mathematical shape and moreover,
can deduct information from that, which can be used for instance in building and constructing things.
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really ‘about’ something or not is irrelevant if they are used rightly and trigger the right response.
But together with this aspect, there is another more important change. The metaphysical criterium of ‘what
a thing is’, its essence, becomes reduced to the flexibility of praxis: a way of acting based on usefullness.
The criterium one uses to define a thing as such, depends on what is usefull in each situation things are
understood in their functioning. In one case it might be usefull to say two objects are both round while in
another it is usefull to say they are both red.The giving of reasons or foundations simply stops when its no
longer usefull to continue asking. And once what we understand as things, is detached from the metaphysics
of unity, rigidity and unchangeability, but becomes simple practice, the ontological difference implodes,
the whole reality becomes flexible, opening up all directions at once. Pragmatism is all-encompassing in
that both what we know or accept as knowledge, as well as how we know and gather knowledge, up to the
language we use to formulate knowledge, are all forms of praxis open to change depending on usefullness.
Pragmatism exists in overcoming each and every inconsistency it encounters, there is nothing so holy that it
cannot be modified or improved in the face of progression towards a smoother functioning.
The third and major reduction is Darwinism or the replicative reduction of identity. It finally incorporates
humankind and thought into the mechanics of the algorhythm of variation and selection. The top-down
metaphysics of identity or essence as teleological design get displaced by the bottom-up mechanism of
random variation and rational selection. The rationality of this selection is the economy of cost and benefit
in a limited environment. From this rational selection a meaningfull similarity or ‘near-unity’ emerges -
things appear to be made ‘for something’, to do something because they have evolved as being good at
something that was usefull in the context.
The implication and philosophical importance of Darwinism is not as a biological theory, but in that
it completely displaces the metaphysical question of identity. Identity as such is no longer a unity and
unchangeable, what a thing is, is in itself changeable because it exists as replication, as a series. What a thing
is (what I can recognize as the same) is not a-priori, something foundational, but is emergent - resulting
from the temporary ‘taking-together’of a continuously changing and ongoing group of different specimens:
identity is emergent rather than foundational. Things are thus no longer understood as substantiality but as
continuity, as replication. This carries the implication that a thing’s meaning or essence is always yet to come,
completely pre-empting the need or search for unshakeable foundations or reasons, as well as the position
of the ego as the foundation for that design or knowledge. The sought-after alignment of man to nature is
in a sense complete, since both subject and object (of knowledge) are understood as replicative mechanics.
We understand both our knowledge, as well as our metholodogies to acquire knowledge, as well as
every organisation and structuring of means as continous variation and improvement in the face of
competing theories and ideas, in which the best functioning will survice this ‘struggle for existence’.7
We now start to see what this reduction is. Reduction is, firstly, not an abstraction. It is not a movement away
from the concreteness of things into ever higher and more unifying concepts. Reduction does not involve
the qualities of things as such, but the relation between us and things. Reduction is the formalisation into
new terms of understanding the way we relate to our environment. Reduction does not primarily involve
the things or ourselves, but the way the things present themselves to us, our relation to the things, and this
relation this ‘sight’ we are presented with which is neither an invention of of ours, nor is it ‘of the things’,
but it is a movement bigger than us, in which we are partaking. This is what is called the horizon-character. 8
7 | Such replicative stance on science can be found for example in the writings of Kuhn, Popper, and more clearly in Derrida.
8| For that reason, and this is something very elementary in understanding philosophical writing and reading, we cannot say that it is
not Descartes or Galilei discovering a new or original truth that had always been there , but their picking up of a changing wind - the
listening and translating of something that was arriving and which allowed them to see it, and translating into words an already changing
signification. The most important philosophical texts are on the verge of these changes and show the confusion and impossibility
of use of existing words and concepts for that which is arriving, but not yet clear. Plato, for example, did not invent metaphysical
thinking or the ontological difference when he wrote about the ‘ideai’, but it was because things started appearing that way, that he
wrote his texts, taking words at hand and changing their use into something that still defines us now. The word ‘ratio’ has slowly
changed from referring to an autonomous thinking to a mere countable proportion. The text of Kant’s critique is drenched in words
Van veranderende is! of van waarbinnen kunnen en kunnen Reductie primair
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This is why one cannot simply say that reduction is a matter of changing world-views, choosing a
‘Weltanschauung’. One does not choose to be either metaphysical or not, like a school of thought one can
adhere to or not. The big reduction does not involve a deliberate thought-process or one way of thinking
preferred over another. It concerns the significations within which we can think about things in the first
place, how reality appears to us. These significations are handed down to us from a horizon that slowly moves
and shifts without us being in full control, and philosophy is about the words that mark the changes in
that horizon. The importance of a philosophical thext generally lies not in its content - virtually all classical
philosophical texts are either disproved or just plain irrelevant to current practice - but in the way they use
words. What makes them valuable is that in the new words and conceptions they tried to convey we see a
shift in meanings of words, impulsed the confusion of a schism between a new understanding and the old
signification of words, that still have their influence on how we use our words today. Pivotal words that say
something about the way things present themselves. It involves a turning around or stepping aside from the
things we talk about to an attention to the words and horizon within which these things appear as such.9
And paying attention to such significations, what the reduction shows is a constant and ongoing disappearance
of all major distinctions and words that have marked eras. The power of words is taken up in the mobilisation
that is total indifference to all categorical distinctions. There is a direction in this movement of indifference.
What is at stake in the reduction of metaphysics is the ongoing and progressive movement towards the
unification and controlability, the describability within mechanics, of how things appear to us. That is,
both man and nature appear as uniform and as resources to be used wisely (i.e. efficiently, rationally).
Such charactisitcs that can not yet be described in models or mechanics are laid aside for later reference. In
this process, we can see what Jünger described as a total mobilisation: the impossibility to see anything as
independent, isolated, but always as part of a functioning, of a larger context. Reality as such appears to us
as functionality. Man as belonging to the category of an independent being is taken up in the functioning
of the mobile machine that also incorporates the things as well. Uniform calculation and evaluation apply
whether it is the efficiency of a machine producing goods or the value of a person as prime capital for
a company or the number of students or publication a university profesor. The becoming technology of
society is exactly the movement towards the unification and homogenization of man and nature, thus
dissolving the distinction between theory and practice. The difference between man and thing is indifferent
in the instrumentality of progressive control. This smooth patency between thought and nature means that
everything becomes ‘Arbeit’, translated as employment, or rather deployment: investment in the face of a
continuous evaluation of calculation of costs and benefits. Everything becomes economy, in the broad sense
of the calculating and the controlling. Pan-economia is the omnipresence of the rationality of evaluation
of utility, making for the impossibility of ascribing pragmatism a lack or impurity - such an evaluation calls
for improvement - pragmatism exists in solving such obstructions. Pan-pragmatism (or pan-economy) then
is not the fact that we think about practical things or about money, but that the whole of our reality as
well as our thinking about that reality, appear within a horizon of significations, of words, that are marked
by praxis, use, function, categoric countability, taking into account, accounting for, reckoning with, the
rationality of investment of resources in the light of possible outcomes. Every movement in every direction is
marked by this horizon. The countermovement of cultural criticism and every anti-capitalist, anti-liberalist,
anti-anything, is marked by the same instrumental thinking that is based on the improving and guiding the
practice of reality by means of another controlled and deliberate practice: every countermovement is already
marked by the same method of manageability and domination that defines what it reacts against10.
relating to production and work that mark an active attitude towards understanding nature and reality. The works of Marx and Hegel,
or even the universal declaration of the rights of man, couldnt have been written if not already the idea of property and man as an
autonomous owner of his body had appeared from out of a feudal organisation.
9 | One might compare here to the way Plato writes. He never utters statements, but who never stops in turning his conversationpartners
around from the words they use, to the apory and confusion concerning that which one already assumes and takes for granted
when using these words, namely that one has already seen the things as such, identified by the words.
10 | A. Heumakers, Th. C. W. Oudemans, ‘De horizon van Buitenveldert. Gesprekken over cultuur en techniek’., Uitgeverij Boom,
Amsterdam, 1997.
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II – Downwards: Architecture as pragmatism
So let us now return with a bit more detail to the question of where we stand now, especially concerning this
thing called pragmatism, for to answer the question properly it is not nearly enough just to conclude that we are
‘pragmatic’ . What is the meaning of pragmatism in architecture?
To summarize, we have seen that pragmatism is basically the total mobilization and constant re-evualuation of
every (formerly fixed and metaphyisical) value, measure or criterium - the instrumentalisation of everything
at hand in the face of a continuous and progressive mutual alignment of thought and matter ( i.e. mankind
and nature) by means of ever increasing control with the rationality of calculation and uniformity.
The meaning of pragmatism for architecture is two-fold: both its functioning within society as well as its
means of generation are both marked by this instrumentality.
The pragmatic of architecture
We saw that in the reduction it has become increasingly impossible to understand things as substantiality.
Nothing is independent, but rather as part of a larger functionality. Functionality displaces materiality. The
pragmatic aspect of architecture in itself lies then in its operational power - it is instrumental in solving
a problem, the building itself being a means to the clients’ diverse ends. As Guy Horton writes in ‘The
Indicator’, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture: ‘(...) What I
do want, however, is someone who can advance and compellingly communicate their thinking to define and solve
problems, who can strategize different approaches to my business in terms of material, spatial, and human flows.
This kind of strategizing can ultimately increase my capital flow. I don’t just want an expensive building. What I
really want is a powerful spatial system that transforms and improves my business. Like it or not, the building is
the superficial element, the vessel. The vessel is a vital part of the overall system but it is not the final product. It
is merely the beginning. Clients want performance on all levels. The building is the facilitator.’”11 The architect
is a political player in a complex field that demands his expertise to navigate spatial, material, human and
financial flows in order to realise his clients wishes. That doesn’t mean that architecture is not still very much
a visionary profession, only that these visions do not concern the larger scale of socio-political matters or
ideologies but embody particular perspectives on specific problems and how to offer their clients solutions
to their problems. This is to say, the architectural field itself functions in a context from which it derives at
least partly its nature and meaning.
The pragmatic in architecture:
If the pragmatic entails the employment of performative flexible criteria that are continuously evaluated
according to their results and can be changed whenever they fall short, then we have seen the same shift in
the design process itself. Instead of being guided by a larger idea about ‘Architecture’ in the form of theory,
every possible idea and concept is used as means to generate a design, laying aside when necessary every
preconception about the nature, organisation or structure of the architectural discipline. The question of
‘Meaning’ is no longer guiding nor to be dictated in the design process, but emphemeral, emergent in
eventual functioning of the practical reality.
We have seen in the design process a strong shift from goal- or product oriented (i.e. teleological/
metaphysical) to process-oriented structures and methodologies. BIM-models, parametric design,
rapid prototyping and scenario development are just a few tools in controlling the designs’ viability and
safeguarding the performative potential in answering to its increasingly dynamic conditions. The rationality
of the design is already predetermined and marked by the context in which it is generated - few designs
survive to completion without such rationality. The design process, as process design, is understood in
terms of generating information that will in turn become the measure, the criterium of decisions.
The increasing ease of generating both digital as well as physical prototypes and variations that were
11 | Guy Horton, ‘The indicator’, March 10th, 2011. http://www.archdaily.com/119008/the-indicator-the-next-architecture-part-2/
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previously extremely labour-intensive, allows for the rapid exploration and redefinition of the design problem
from different perspectives and alternatives that, without such a fast production, would have necessarily
be considered improbable solutions. A design progresses by generating alternative solutions and reframing
the question through the generation of knowledge. The absence of a coherent goal or definition of the
architectural field opens the road to faster innovation and research.
The pragmatic in all this is that every part of the design process is a means to control and guard the investment
and minimize risks in the constant struggle for survival of the design in a complex, limited and sometimes
even threatening environment. The criterium of what is considered architecture, is no longer a single truth
or ideology, but the simple struggle for survival of both projects as well as architectural firms.
We have whitnessed not the decay of theory, but rather the implosion of the dialectics of theory versus
practice. One cannot even speak of post-theory - there is rather a complete indifference towards theory as
something distinct from practice. Theory doesn’t exist outside of practice, but the pragmatic mobilisation
means that thinking, theorizing, critique and correction are all instruments of the control and feedback
system that ensures architectures functioning and progression by anticipating, overcoming, improving or
solving every possible problem or discrepancy.
III - Backwards once again - ‘What is Architecture?’
We shall now turn our attention to the first fundamental question that has governed architecture. The question of
ontology, or ‘what is architecture’, what delimits architecture, what is its specificity, or what is architecture in its
essence? This question is fundamentally the philosophical question of identity. So, what is Architecture!? Or more
importantly, surrounding this issue, the impossibility of this question! Can we still speak of ‘Architecture’ ? Of an
architecture?
The most apparent response is that this impossibility lies in the simple pragmatic sense that a question
of such universality is not generally considered to be one of very much use anymore, owing to the
understanding that ‘what architecture is’, is simply what is accepted at the moment as architecture,
according to varying criteria and according to the situation. There is absolutely no need to construct a
theoretical foundation under an already existing architectural practice, endowing it with some kind of
essence. We see this in the contours of the current architectural debate, which shows a complete indifference
to this question focussing on discussing the more practical matters of a smaller-scale: concrete projects,
and how they came about, in what design context and with which models of process organisation.
In a pragmatic environment in which nothing appears as autonomous substantiality, the field of architecture,
too can only be considered as functioning within a context, be it the market, capitalism, management.
Its essence pragmatically liquified - functionality has displaced the ontological question of the essence of
architecture.
But in the light of the replicative reduction, there is another side to the same issue. The metaphysics of a final
goal no longer provides identity to architecture. Such foundational and guiding principles no longer exist,
since in the total mobilization all grounds are flexible according to performance. As we saw in the chapter
about the reduction, what has happened is that our conception of what things are has become incorpated
in the understanding in which things no longer appear as unity but as a series of instantiations. In this
light, what architecture is, is an open-ended, temporary and random collection of a ongoing and changing
instances in a series, the bottom-up or emergent ‘unity’ of that which is now practiced, the constant diverging
and generation of varying options of which we have yet to see which are to survive for a longer time and
are used to build upon in the future. That is why, ad fundum, one cannot speak of ‘A Post-Metaphysical
Architecture’- there is not one! There are infinitely many! 12
12 | One can draw a parallel here with Fukuyama’s argument of the ‘end of history’. Fukuyama’s comment about liberalism is in fact
one about pragmatism: liberalism is the instrument of pragmatism, without fixed ideas or ideology, the system becomes mobile and its
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The replicative stance that molds our understanding now, doesn’t allow for naivity of the direct generation
and control of meaning in a building. There is general awareness or acceptance that meaning is something
that will have to appear and prove itself in the future, that it is something we cannot say anything about with
certainty now, that it is not simply something we, as architects, put into our building. The final meaning is
always to come, unfinished, making that the question of semiotics, too, has been displaced by the divided
unity that is replication.
Conscious of it or not, we do have a natural understanding of the impossibility of the universal polemic.
The soft force of replicative thinking has already changing what architecture to us is about. The care for the
unity of the whole is something we instinctively cannot take seriously anymore. As an architect, it doesn’t
make sense anymore to speak about ‘Architecture’ as a whole, that is a meaningless grandure of debatable
status because it is no longer the whole of architecture or society that concerns the architect. An architect
with a vision on the ‘ideal of architecture’ and its future is instantly met with scepticism because we can
feel somehow that that just is not relevant anymore, that such language is strangely detached from the
practical reality and from the position of the architect. We know that if there is any commitment to society
or its problems, it would have to be found in the concrete practice of a project in solving real problems by
addressing necessarily local situations. It is impossible, or rather useless, to talk about the relation between
‘architecture’ and ‘society’ in general.
IV - Upwards: The New Mythology
Now that there is no longer any finality, the ideal or utopian architecture, to guide our practice, how do we
produce? In absence of a unifying principle, something above and beyond to guide us and to work towards, should
one not expect an extreme freedom, a movement in all directions and a diversity of mindblowing proportions? One
should expect so, yet for all apparent diversity, perhaps there is unity, perhaps there is no one thing in common that
defines this architecturing, this architectural production that takes place....
The architectural image as performance, or the production of the image.
The current vanguard of international architecture is largely of an iconographic nature, by which, in a very
limited description, we refer to a recurring aesthetics which involves a certain simplicity and continuity
of form in the service of a recognizability and consumability of the building as a product. In the rush of a
global market and advertisements opening up entirely new fields of consumption every day, a building needs
to function as a product instantly, it needs to be understood and consumed instantly without requiring
excessive interpretation or interaction.
Let us dwell a bit on theis ‘iconographic’ and the role of the image. The icon, from the greek ‘eikon’
meaning ‘likeness’, ‘portrait’ or ‘image’, according to the verb for ‘to be like’ ‘to look like’or ‘resemble’,
conveys the classical linguistic structure of representation: the sign as pointing to an original source. As Jean
Boudrillard indicated, coining the term ‘simulacrum’, this this mechanism of representation has been largely
displaced. In the architectural context, the building, as icon, though does not refer to something outside
of it, but rather to itself, as an instance of that contemporary architecture, producing the image of itself as
architecture. It points to its own act of the creation of identity, of an image in the widest sense of the word.
It is on our understanding of the ‘image’ that I want to elaborate, and I will venture that what architecture
is, what unites its modes of production is its ‘image-character’, that is, the image understood as performance.
overcoming of obstacles and its improvement is what makes it panpresent and what raises the question that there can be no after. Liberalism,
as pragmatism, presents the end of history as the continuous narrative towards a final end. The grand narrative of modernism has
ceased, there is no longer 1 architecture as the end of history. Architecture beyond the end of ‘history’, lacks future and lacks past, no
longer part of history, no goals, future is not something to be created or aimed at, but a reality to come, endless potential. So, detached
from time, contemporary architecture seems bound to the present, yet in its detachedness from the present reality in favour of a global
production of the image, it has become strangely timeless.
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The term ‘performance’ can be understood in the double sense of the Dutch words ‘prestatie’ and ‘presentatie’,
that is, both ‘the efficiency with which something reacts or fulfills its intended purpose’ as well as the
‘the execution of a work presented (i.e. made present) before an audience’. Architecture is a performative practice
in both these two senses of the word, being at the same time both performance as complying to the highest
standards in answering to the client’s problem, but at the same time seen as the public display or show, the act
of (re)creating an image. It performs for international digital audience and media the image of contemporary
architecture in which public participation (e.g. the flows of audience showing and being the buildings
performance), becoming part of the presented image, like the audience participation completing the performance
of a staged theatre. From mere users, the public becomes part of the production of the architectural image.
The second meaning of performance as ‘show’ also relates to the shifting relation between image and content.
A show, theatrical or musical, points to an absent original, creating or making present its absent original in
the re-enactment. Several things now concern the new understanding of the image.
Firstly, the role of the image as representation shifts. There is image, but no longer understood as opposite
to content or original. As in the theatrical performance, the architectural image is not representation
of something absent, but is a performance as presentation, as in presenting, making present. The whole
dialectic opposition of image to content implodes when in the increasing mediatisation the image becomes
the product: the client buys not the building the image represents, but the image of the building itself.
The image is its identity, the image, as reference to the status of contemporary architecture, is the product.
There is no adequatio of the image as a representation of the building that itself is the embodyment of an
ideal reality - both the image as well the building equally are production and product at the same time.
In a reversal of traditional representation, what counts in iconographic design is that the building be an
approximation of the image sold.
At the same time one cannot but notice that it is in fact virtually impossible for the image to be a representation
in the traditional sense. The change in digital media from simple black and white reproductions to full colour
photorealism and increasing visual possibilities, combined with the sheer multitude of different media and
their publication speed has had considerable influence on the relation between the image and the viewer.
In an environment bombarded with vast quantities of increasingly ‘realistic’ images, the attention-span of
reading the image has shortened considerably, making the reading of an image less the interpretation or
mental reconstruction of the project and more the direct consumption of the image as such. The image
needs to communicate instantly without need to go beyond the image towards what is projected. This
consumability also means that the visual precedes the invisible, i.e. architecture is not instantly judged on its
relation to its context, how it functions, or what it can mean for its environment.
Secondly, we can see that architecture is more image-based in the sense that the actual product is less
something material but becomes rather the identity it embodies - architecture as ‘branding’, the icon points
to the very same experience it generates and sells. Similar to major companies in the eighties, a shift has taken
place from producing a physical product to commercializing a product, i.e. the dematerialization of the
product into a value: an image, a life-style, for which the physical product sold is a mere means. Architecture
does not need to be material – it promotes the production of a moment, an experience, in which the material
building, the actual place, is instrumental.
We can now start to see how the double interest of the critical period, the ontological question of what
architecture is, and the semiotic question of how it represents or produces meaning, have both collapsed in
the double sense of the performance. What architecture is, is offering a service at the highest level of quality.
Its meaning is caught in the self-referencing of the iconographic as act of the public performance - the
creation of the image as product. What ‘architecture’ is, then, is offering the client the best possible solution
and increase his status/capital flow by offering him participation in the newest contemporary architecture
- going along in the production of the global imagery, the tredmill of unifying extremities, balancing the
need for constant restimulation of the senses by ever stronger and attractive image-statements in order to
maintain competitive position with the equally present need to stay within the recognizible formula that
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is accepted ‘as architecture’ - unlimited variations within limits. What architecture is, is not the realisation
of one architecture, but the production of infinite infinitesimally different architectures, each their own
competition within the global identity that increases its chances of survival.
The production of a new ‘idea’
The key thing to understand is that architecture exists as the production of the image in the broadest sense
of the word. This constantly repeated reproduction or stamping of minimal variation within a recognizible
margin, in the quest for ever more daunting and captivating iconic mages, hides the haunting uniformity
of production. There is a numbing uniformity in the attempt to provide extra-ordinary new images. So, as
ideology before provided a unity and goal above the daily practice, a value to adhere to, it is now the image
as a self-referential performance, taking up that role. By extension, it is indeed true that the new gods of
this mythology, the ‘starchitects’ are those who are best in not only generating these images, but also in
understanding the functioning of an architect in the market, and having performed the best in branding,
i.e. instrumentalising, their personality as the foundational value that marks and guarantees a certain quality
or style. Yet while doing so, it is strangely enough exactly these ‘heroes’ that come out on top in the
architectural battlefield, who thus maintain the idea of the architect as the autonomous, culturally regarded,
artist genius projecting his vision.
So, is the production of this image then to be considered the last remnant of the conception of the architect
as a creating artist? Is this creative production of visions and new images where he finds his autonomy, his
identity as architect? A vestige of metaphysics in order to position himself and find identity within the
pragmatic chaos that surrounds him? I would say yes, but I want to venture another thought.
This specific brand of image that we see emerging as the global unifying factor in architecture, is in fact
the new architectural ‘idea’ - the platonic ‘idea’ as ‘sight’, that by which we immediately see and recognize
something as what it is, that by which it appears as such. There is a certain universal quality in the production
of these images, that unifies them all as that by which we recognize a proposal as participating in the
global architectural field. The production of this certain ‘quality’ is the core-business of architecture, i.e. the
production of its own type. In the seemingly post-metaphysical architectural field far from ideology and
final goals, dedicating itself to generating continuously new extremeties of difference, we see the emergence
of a uniformity in/as the production of the ‘iconographic image’. We see with the emergence of a species of
arcitecture united by similar characteristics that answer to the context in which it operates, the return of the
the platonic ‘idea’, now no longer given from a source, but produced!
V - Sideways – Iconography is not Design & The Double Escape
As a little provocation I will now shortly diverge and present two lines of thought concerning on the one hand
the question ‘what ‘is design‘, and on the other hand a tentative statement about the specific position of Dutch
architecture in the developments we have just described.
Iconography is not design
What is design? In the most broad sense, owing to an understanding of replicatitive identity, one might
say that design is ‘every difference that makes a difference in relation to a limited context’. This is to say, in
design one can read ‘information’ about a specific way ‘to deal with the environment’. 13 A more technical
description would be that design is the specific and rational organisation of limited resources answering to
13 | To elaborate the darwinist parallel, this is why, for example, though the idea ‘to fly’was never the teleological goal of the evolution
of the wing, the rationality of the invested energy that resulted in the eventual organisation of matter that is the design of the wing,
dictates that we cannot understand it but as a means ‘to fly’, that is what it serves for. Given the context of limited resources and competing
predators to escape from, the design of the wing must be understood as the means ‘to fly’.
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a problem posed by an equally limited context, in which rationality must be understood in the economic
sense of the cost-benefit analysis that aims to lower (energy, money, material) investment and maximize
profit-output.14
The question of the relation of iconographic design to its surroundings is double. Though we can dismiss
the whole issue by saying that iconographic design answers to the context of capitalism and its inherent
consumerism by being instantly understood as a product, the question would rise wether this basis is enough
to survive in the long haul.
What about, on a lesser scale, the concrete local surroundings, or social issues that architecture might adress?
It has indeed been a increasing critique that iconographic architecture is generic and contextless and even
necessarily so, from the perspective of product design and consumberability. Take any random image from
a architects-blog, and there’s a good chance the building wouldn’t look odd in any other location. They are
geared towards the reference of the global architectural image of ‘the architectural’, but more often than not,
not engaging in local issues, indifferent to context, staying outside of social-economic or otherwise critical
interaction with its environment.
Which is not to say that they do not perform, because solving the clients problem by means of organising
the material and financial flow that is a building, is the case. More than ever, architects build for clients, not
for some debatable ‘whole’ that is society, and more often than not these clients are developers with less than
altruistic social interests. Given the long processes in architecture and the rapid changeability of the design
context, the contemporary architect seems to have chosen not to bother about social relevance and current
issues in favour of a detachedness of current time. The most contemporary thing to do, then, strangely, is to
forget the present and be timeless. In the introduction we mentioned the relationship between architecture
and society as paramount. While constructing an ideal society in modernism, and critiqueing society’s
mechanisms in postmodernism, is there not now an indifference towards the relation between architecture
and society? Should we not perhaps rethink how our activities relate to its surroundings?
From the viewpoint that iconographic projects fail to engage in local conditions and its concrete environment,
it would then follow that such buildings are not ‘design’ in a full sense. Though they are adapted to the global
marketing environment, which certainly is an advantage, albeit one that will perhaps be displaced in the
need for projects that provide more concrete and intense local relevance - a design that answers both local
environment and engages in making a difference to its direct context, as well as the abstract or global marketforces
in which it must be conceived and realised, would perhaps have more viability on a long term.
The double escape
In the particular case of the Netherlands, we can see a tradition over the last decades that shows two
distinct approaches to architecture. One the one hand, Dutch architects are famous for their no-nonsense
pragmatism, in the sense of dealing expertly with the demands and assignment, while on the other hand there
is a brand of conceptualism that focuses more on creating innovative and artistic proposals. Both form two
distinct ways out of the question where the architect stands after metaphysics. In the pragmatic approach the
architect shifts towards the practical end and the role of the developer, the contractor. In the other extreme,
conceptualism, we see a shift towards the other side where the artist affirms and consolidates his position
as an artist aside from such practical matters and including the increasing distance to constructors and
developers. Both going with the reality and realising practical buildings as well as findings one’s position as
the provider of a more abstract product, are two ways of dealing with the changes in the architectural practice
in a pragmatic way. Both are different strategies in conquering a position, in the struggle for the continuity
or proliferation of the office.
Current education seems to enhance and maintain the practice of the second category. Education at Delft
University of Technology and the various Academies of Architecture, is very conceptual. It grows and nurses
the idea of the architect as an artist, the ideal of the singular genius, the creator of ideas and visions that give
14 | In a replicative perspective, the uniformity of replicants we have just talked about is key to guaranteeing the highest chance of
survival. Going with the masses, following the international vanguard is, simply put, a safe bet.
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unity and meaning to architecture. In a practice of global marketing and media, enough attention is paid to
media and means of digital production, but the intellectual baggage to prepare or think the functioning of
architect in practice is absent or out of date. From the first year on, architectural education nurses a culture
that is based on sacrifice (as in long hours and minimal pay) for the completion of that holy goal of a building
or the idea that architecture is a socially valuable thing or even an art. At the same time, reality doesn’t work
that way. It doesn’t value this supposed ‘higher value’ of architecture, but takes into account only its material
side. The Dutch regulations for architectural fees for example are very much based on the material work, and
not the services provided in order to make that physical construction possible. To quote Guy Horton: ‘the
broader economic environment does not quiet know how to position architecture’s conceptual and systems thinking
talents and make them marketable. The market understands how to value a building. Architects often don’t know
how to identify these talents and communicate them in marketable terms. Lawyers figured this out a long time ago.
So did people in the business world. It’s time to start learning more from these sectors.’ 15
In that sense, Michael Speaks’ old plea for a new intellectual framework in educational institutions16 is,
at least in the Netherlands, still a very relevant issue, and I would love to see an active school of though
rethinking the framework within which we educate future architects.
VI - Dead Center: the Toneless Rustling of Architecture’s Demise
That the reduction has taken place, and is still taking place, does not mean that our world is not still very much,
and will continue to be, seen in the light of metaphysical residues - the light of past suns, as Nietzsche so tellingly
described. In fact it is because our language, the whole of our society from the arrengement of chairs and tables in
a meeting room to the hierarchy in street profiles as solidified language and meaning, carries with it such history of
meanings that we constantly stand poised over an abyss between the tradition we drag along behind us in words we
use, and the way the nowaday world practically works. Do we not all know and realise that a company is an ecnomic
entity, yet feel ourselves mistreated as humans when we are fired in the light of overcapacity or investement-profit
analyses - is it not hard fully accepting personally the nature of human beings as a companies major capital, even
while intellectually agreeing and knowing that Kant’s distinction between man as a goal in himself, and a means
to an end, has imploded in the total mobilization of ‘Arbeit’, and especially in the light of the replicative reduction.
How far do you go in accepting the calculating nature of all your decisions, from the little organised escapes from
working life into the culture- and entertainment industry only to improve general productivity and happiness,
down to the fundamentally rational cost-benefit analysis in the interactions of friendships and relationships that
we continue to label with the words loyalty, love and sacrifice. What works for you? How empirical does one allow
oneself to get, in the face of that which surrounds and defines us?
Philosophy after method
If we understand philosophy as the concern for the unobstructed mutual alignment of thought and matter (the
mankind to nature), we see that philosophy has become entirely superfluous since pragmatism as technology
and science has already guaranteed this connection in the universal uniformity of both subject and object
of thought. Both our ways of knowing, our knowledge itself as well as the object of knowing, i.e. nature,
are subject to the same continuous development and struggle for existence in the face of rivaling proposals
and hypotheses that marks the objects of our knowledge, the things themselves. The giving of grounds and
the ultimate unity of things and their names, has dissolved in the pragmatic and instrumental use of words
and grounds in competing and testable theories. All truly philosophical problems are gone. Not because
they have been answered (solved) but because they have simply fallen away, lost their meaning (dissolved).
The methodical science that philosophical insight gave rise to has made philosophy superfluous, leaving the
near childless mother hopelessly running behind its offspring hoping for some alms in the form of subsidy.
15 | Guy Horton, ‘The indicator’, March 10th, 2011. http://www.archdaily.com/119008/the-indicator-the-next-architecture-part-2/
16 | Michael Speaks, ‘After Theory’, Architectural Record, June 2005.
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Any philosophy that sticks to the method, must accept and forget the fact that in doing so it has
necessarily become science. In order to maintain a methodological relation to its object, it must forget
the whole in which it takes place (because one cannot make that whole the object), and thus the prime
concern of philosophy. An instrumental philosophy that helps in furthering the uniformity and unity
of mind and matter, or solve company issues by offering an rethinking of its values, must accept that
it is pragmatic in nature, and thus cannot speak about that same pragmatism as a cultural horizon.
Perhaps the only other possibility of philosophy, understood in this concern for the whole that surrounds us,
can be found in philosophical anthropology, and is to become empirical17. This means retreating from the
academic method, into the more personal path of fully allowing to experience to what extent the horizon
that surrounds us marks and defines us, constantly removing every illusion that one has fabricated in order to
create one’s independance. It means as well a totally different way of writing, one that tries to pay attention to
its being marked by a horizon, driven by a soft force that guides our words and the way we understand things.
Trying to let one’s writing be guided and marked by the horizon that already defines it before the words are
yours to use, such that horizon might at some moment and just a little, come in to view, in the stepping aside,
a sidewards gaze without it becoming an object to grasp. If philosophy is about turning around towards that
which we already take for granted with those words, this other way of writing is not to be judged as adequatio or
verisimilitude. That is the problem of the scientific method. The testability, the empirics, lies in something else.
It lies in the being attuned to what one is trying to approach, the showing of this horizon that speaks through
you, the letting go of the control with which you maintains your relationshop and distance to that which
concerns you. 18 The final test is simply if the words one use and distinctions you make last or not, whether they
fall away in indifference or not. Is your language extensive enough to be driven by what precedes you and to let
something shine through of that which talks through our language?
Toneless
Returning to architrecture and our initial statement about the identitycrisis following metaphysics, it should by
now be perfectly clear that iconography or conceptualism as the refuge or last vestige of artistic autonomy will
simply not work.It is already ‘as’ production of the image that architecture is marked by pragmatic uniformity
- the uniformity of the constant search for ever more excentric variations of the same image as the attempt to
maintain a competitive position or maintain a nichemarket in a field defined by too few projects, low budgets
and the increasing power of developers. Artistic autonomy pragmatically reduced without that ever being a
problem, because we just do what we can to survive and improve our positions.
The identitycrisis that I pretended to talk about is then not the disappearance of the metaphysical or the
ideological beyond architecture, but the toneless silence that hovers around the already being marked en directed
by the horizon of pragmatism without this ever being able to come up in its entirety as the subject of thought.
It is not the falling away of the distinction of ideology or theory and practice, but the total indifference
concerning this implosion - the impossibility of the question of what architecture is, what or how it creates,
what is its current or future meaning, ever coming up. The claim that started this essay, that architecture is still
trying to deal with the demise of metaphysics, that is, the demise of ‘Architecture’, is utterly false. Not in the
sense of being not true, but being beside the issue, a discordant voice in a silent hollow. Not the hollow as the
place left empty by ideology or modernism, but the hollow of the implosion of all the distinctions of ideologypragmatism,
theory-practice, architecture-society . There simply is no space left in which this distinction can
ever become object of or subject to debate.
17 | Again, in this account I am indebted to the writings and lectures of Th.C.W. Oudemans, and the publications: Th.C.W. Oudemans,
‘Echte Filosofie’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam,2007 and Th.C.W. Oudemans, ‘Omerta’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2008,
and various other publications to be found on: http://www.filosofie.info
18 | This means too letting go of the complacence with which the reading of philosophy or cultural critique easily becomes anaesthetic
self-medication by soothing oneself with the idea the knowing or understanding more about one’s environment gives some personal value
while it is in fact ofthe same instrumental nature as keeping up one’s spirits as a day in the park or the well-planned participation in the
entertainment-, or art industry. It is marked by the same consumption it generally critiques.
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The tonelessness of architecture, its fundamental non-excentricity, lies in the fact that the rationality of control
directs it in both movement and countermovement: even, or maybe especially, when it tries to be as nonpragmatic
or critical as possible we can recognize the prevalence of the same instrumental thinking it reacts
against. We are scratching the limits and running around in circles. In every single direction it goes we can see
it is already contained within a horizon of manufacturability, of production as ongoing improvement, without
this horizon itself ever having to come into consideration.
If philosophy is, then, about the words that indicate and relate to how reality presents itself to us, if it is about
paying attention to the words and distinctions that previously were pivotal in understanding an age but have
fallen away in the indifference of the reduction, the question would be: what are the words and language that
mark architure or the architectural debate now? How can we tune our ears and catch an echoe of this silent
rustling. Through which words might this silence speak to us? Perhaps we can listen a bit closer to the very text
at hand. Maybe then, after circling so long around the issue, we can finally draw closer to this silent rustling of
architect’s past, this tonelessness that can sometimes, in a quiet moment, be heard inbetween the grinding gears
of the architectural machine.
A first clue is to be found in the quotation of Nietzsche that preceded this text. Though its content might still be
very much relevant to the issue at hand, it must have been instantly clear to the reader that its tone and excessive
sentiment of dramatism and values lost doesn’t befit an architecturally oriented text. ‘God is dead, so what?!’ The
problem simply doesn’t matter, one cannot be concerned about it. Such a voice is no longer at place, in harmony
or in tune, with current writing, especially not writing about architecture.
But more importantly, a clue towards the aforementioned indifference can be found in the whole of this article.
More than the contect of this text, it is the tone that will strike the reader as overly polemic, dramatic and with
a false concern about architecture as a whole or a lament for ideology and theory lost. The tone doesn’t befit the
reality of architectural writing and is out of tune with current practice. Exactly this being out of place might
point towards the indifference concerning the horizon of pragmatism coming into view, and the indifference
towards the oppositions and distinctions with which we described architecture, words which have by now
retreated from the public debate. If the ‘big reduction’ is about the falling away, the dissolution of distinctions
and oppositions, and philosophy is about tracing the changing meanings of those words that give bearing to
epochs, perhaps there are certain words that we might pay some attention to. Or more exactly, it is rather the
retreat of certain words that we might pay attention to, for it is exactly the becoming powerless of words that
characterizes the gentle force of pragmatism19.
A first pivotal point is the dissolution of the power of the word ‘art’, understood as creation. This ‘architecturing’,
this thing we do and its output, are understood as production not as creation. We are not in the business of
creating a new or better world or humanity, but of changing and improving the current world, little by little,
by means of solving in the best possible way the clients problem in that face of the contextural limitations of
different nature. We do not create from nothing into the final and finished product of a building, but rather
accept that the design process fits in a larger scheme of material, economical and infrastructural flows that for
the little part of our design process manage and influence. The design process is incorporated into the cultural
and financial mechanism. It is an input-output mechanism, an amusing black box which converts conditions
into proposals. The meaning of the word creativity is no longer the power to create (as its own source, from
nothing) but the well-developed skill in dealing with often changing contexts, demands and preconditions and
finding viable solutions to complex problems. Architecture is not art, driven by a talent bestowed upon the
lucky few, but a skill one can aquire and develop.20
19 | A. Heumakers, Th. C. W. Oudemans, ‘De horizon van Buitenveldert. Gesprekken over cultuur en techniek’., Uitgeverij Boom, Amsterdam,
1997.
20 | As a note aside, it is a telling sign that in the 2010 plans of the Dutch government for massive cuts on subsidies and increased taxes for
the art sector, the Dutch architectural community, including the national associations, kept a frightful silence showing how little they felt
related to (the cause of ) the art sector. Or perhaps simply because the tax system is already set up such as to distinguish art from architecture
and the latter was not affected by the proposal.
16
A quick look at virtually every architect’s website points us in the same direction. Every architect and company
proclaims a ‘vision’, now understood as a perspective on the professional environment, an instrument of
management. You don’t want to read what kind of utopia or world-view they sport, but rather how they
run their business. You want to know they have an idea about how to efficiently deliver results. An architect
with a real ‘vision’, is a loose wheel, a megalomaniac, out of place - we sense instantly that such a thing is
no longer possible. The etymology of the ‘vision’ as a mystical revelation of a truth given by a higher source,
has given way to the signification of the the image consciously projected by the architect. From a ‘given’ to
a ‘production’, mysticism to marketing, an instruction to a receiver, with the difference that that the one
having the vision is now not the receiver of the instruction but the sender.
The same holds true for the ‘philosophy’ ubiquitously propounded by every architect. Again, we expect
to read here in what sense he distinguishes himself from the competition in the values he adheres to, and
not that he spends his clients time and money with a pathetic concern for the future of architecture or
contemplating the whole of society beyond the added value that such thinking might have in providing a
solution. The function of this ‘philosophy’, and as such the reason for using this word, is the same though:
to provide fundamental values that underpin the companies’ operating and functioning.
While all the words we can use to describe current practice are marked by production, consumption, control,
rationality, management and other expressions that indicate getting a grasp on the process, at the same time
words in the vicinity of ‘ideas’, ‘ideals’, ‘concepts’, ‘artistic’, ‘creativity’, ‘originality’ and ‘inspiration’ still
exist yet strangely distance themselves from where we stand. We use the two words ‘theorizing’ and ‘design’
to designate the one thing we do is in fact both: that research is a form of design, and design is a form of
research. The idea(l) of the singular projection of a vision, as expounded by (st)architects, still exist, yet
when one speaks this language of totality, it feels strangely detached, megalomaniac and hollow. This hollow
shows exactly the discrepancy between the architectural tradition and its intellectual heritage, and the daily
practice. The impossibility to describe architecture with the old words and distinctions betrays the architect
rom their pragmatic seats, that it is no longer their own language they speak - It is exactly architecture’s being
part of a functioning system, that prevents architecture from having a language of its own. Just as well as
the architect doesn’t have autonomous control over the product as a creator, the architectural field doesn’t
control its words or language that has always been handed down to him from the horizon from which it can
no longer claim itself to be seperate.21 The hidden force that pushes the whole speaks through architecture,
as it does through every endeavour that maintains our society. The architecture desperately seeks to maintain
a position manipulating and producing images in a field of global instrumentality and uniformity that is
neither invented nor projected by a single person or avant-garde, but emerges as the ongoing series of that
which we call now, tentatively ‘architecture’. Without words to speak of that which we do, waiting in the
hollow of this silent rustling while new architectural languages are yet to develop, where do we stand? How
is one to speak in such a case?
VII - Forwards: Breaking the silence
One might here very well ask, if one cannot speak anymore of an identity-crisis, how I can speak of this impossibility
without pretending to position myself outside of the socio-architectural field with this impossibility as my object.
A metaphysical position outside and above the practice in which I take part, with a view of the horizon? Or, in a
narrower circle, where do I position myself - how does this paper contribute to architectural practice or discourse if
there still is such a thing after my just having identified its pragmatic nature. Let me, as postscript in closing this
essay, try to formulate a tentative response to this more than justified question.
21 | In fact, the horizon character of that which surrounds us, would already dictate that in no single case our language is ours but is
always already handed down to us and marked by that unguided movement of something bigger than us. By cultural changes that are
neither invented nor instigated by single persons, but are translated and made visible by some.
17
I would first have to profess that my interest and position in this context is not and could not be purely
philosophical, but stems rather from an interest in the middle-ground between the architectural practice in
which I participate professionally and the cultural context which surrounds both architecture as well as me
personally. My interest and concern in understanding current architectural developments in their cultural
context can only be understood in the pragmatic sense of wanting to improve what I think might be lacking
in architectural practice. Perhaps an understanding of where we stand now will give us insight in how and
where to look for different directions to explore.
The pragmatic and replicative understanding of architecture point towards a double isolation of our practice:
a self-referentialism that isolates current practice from the context in which it functions, as well as an isolation
from the temporal aspect of architecture owing to a lack of debate about how to deal in current practice with
the flexibility and unpredictability of the future. Let there be no mistake, pragmatism in this sense is here
to stay, and we will have to deal with it. That doesn’t mean, quite to the contrary, that we should not invent
new paths and roads towards new architectures and new ways of engaging in architecturing. Concerning the
main focus of this essay, architecture’s relation to its cultural context’, its exterior, I would arrgue that we do
need to refamiliarize ourselves with a critical approach and a concern about the relation between the practice
of architecture and the society in which it functions, and the future significance of current projects.
The real significance of replicative thinking as we have discussed it, should force us to re-adress the question
how to ‘do’ architecture without knowing where it is going or where the society in functions in is going
- which direction to go when at once there can be no one future, nothing to work towards. How should
one build for a future who’s meaning is not yet formed, while every positive contribution to architecture
necessarily fixes meaning. The very nature of a building as a during materiality is at odds with the flexibility
and changeability with which we confront ‘the future’. Can, or should, we engage in more socio-cultural
relations while knowing that ultimately the buildings’ context changes? Can one still generate contemporary
design spaces, knowing that the reality will be both different and indifferent? Would an investment in
greater diversity enhance future usefullness or the continued emergence of meaningfull and relevant uses?
More than ever, this awareness means that architecture hovers over a schism between the need to relate to
society now and function within its restraints yet keep open the futures.
This uncertainty should however not hold back but rather stimulate debate. Perhaps there is something
to be said for the tone of lament that echoed through this article, a concern for the loss of architecture’s
relation to ‘something bigger’. The absence of an ideological concern about society should not dictate that
the architectural debate be limited to its own self-referential audience, and completely forget about society. 22
It should rather include knowledge and discussion from different fields of expertise that form its context.
Perhaps an inclusion within the practice of architectural debate and theorizing of the various issues and topics
that surround architecture and interact with it, will not only refertilize the architectural soil on which to build,
but should also enhance the performance of architecture in its context. If, as we stated in ‘the pragmatics
of architecture’, the whole field of architecture cannot be seen as isolated but rather as functioning within a
larger whole, is it at the very least strange that its current debate is so solipsistic. For if theory and debate is
to contemplate the normative field within which to judge architecture, should these performative norms not
at least have practical relevance and firm relation to the context in which architecture is to function?
A shift from the building oriented business models to focussing on the problem-solving and thinkingservice
that is architecture’s main business, might even help in getting the architect out of the slums of
business and claim its real value. Perhaps shifting the margins in several directions might even allow for
some space for more creative solutions to emerge and result in larger diversity, which, with an eye on the
uncertainty of the future meaning of today’s practice, can surely only be a good thing. It is up to architects
to find, constantly in fact, new verbal and formal languages with which to speak not just about architectural
projects, but also about the performance, the potential, the environment, the relevance, and the position of
this ‘architecturing’ that takes place.
22 | Stefan Koller at the section Philosophy of the Faculty Technology, Policy and Management at Delft University of Technology, the
Netherlands, seems to present a similar argument in the article: ‘Architects on Value: Reducing Ethics to Aesthetics?’.The silent rustling of Architecture’s demise
by: Lucas Wetzels, first draft, feb/march 2011
Abstract:
Relating the past decades in architecture to the larger context of the reduction of metaphysics, this essay tries
to trace the relation of architecture to society, i.e. the relation of ‘thinking’ to ‘doing’ in architecture within
the horizon of pragmatics that marks contemporary society. Revisiting the two fundamental questions of the
critical period, those of ontology and semiology, the text traces the impossibility of the question concerning
the essence of architecture and a shift in the function of the image occurring in the current iconographic
trend in architecture. It is argued that the impossibility of these formerly fundamental questions follows
from the reduction of both ontology and semiology to the double meaning of ‘performance’ understood as
both ‘efficiency’ and as ‘public display’. Following the pragmatic nature architectural practice, it is finally
argued that the architectural debate should break out of its self-referentialism and rethink its relation to
the context in which it functions.
2
The silent rustling of Architecture’s demise
‘How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon?
What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move?
Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions?
Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness?’
Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science , section 125
‘ “G.o.d. i.s. d.e.a.d” – we all jotted down in our little notebooks. Yet while his passing has indeed been repeated
and re-spelled countless times, memories keep returning to define our perspective and movements. The dust of
metaphysics’ collapse has not yet settled in and not one architecture has been erected at its ruins. And no single
architecture will be erected on the space that will once have been left empty. We are like children playing in the
debris, using and re-using images and words to fabricate dreams and ideas, tentatively constructing architectures –
while only time can tell which of those will emerge as fertile offspring with branches well into the future. So where
do we stand now in this perpetual movement without direction, in all directions. A vacant question in a hollow,
perhaps. Especially to us, architects, no, artists!, the most sensible of men to direction and movement, to space, to
movement through and of space. So let us now, in a feeble attempt to gain perspective, take a step aside to explore
some different directions, fragments perhaps of movement, to see where we stand now, hop-scotch and stumbling
over sediments of architectures past and current. ‘
This is not an essay about architecture, nor is it about theory. It is an essay concerning ‘Architecture’ -
the idea of what it is we do, and the question of whether discussing this idea is still a valid practice at all.
Let’s say that it is an exploration in several directions in order to probe the context or horizon
within which this ‘architecturing’ takes place. In this exploration, my attention will shift back
and forth between architecture and philosophy, and for this I beg the reader’s patience.
The starting point for this essay is the idea that architecture, at least in Europe, after an age defined by
ideology, is suffering a deep identity crisis caused by the rift between the architect’s education and tradition
based on metaphysics, and the economic and pragmatic reality in which they find themselves – a split within
which architects are still trying to find a autonomous position as artists. We will explore the idea that the two
basic question of architecture, those of semiology (its meaning and representation) and ontology (its limits
and autonomy, what is architecture), have both become ‘performance’, in the double sense of both delivering
results and as the act of production of a public show. In this performance, the changing signification of the
‘image’ will play a central role. We will also see that this claim concerning an architectural crisis, is untenable
and that the architect no longer speaks his own language - he has nothing more to say. This essay, though, is
not a lament nor epitaph for times lost, but the simple re-iteration of the question ‘where do we stand now?’
I – Backwards: Architecture and the Big Reduction
The Twentieth century architecture in a nutshell
Lets first briefly review the past few decades of architecture, drawing for now the crude distinction between
modernism, post-modernism and contemporary architecture. Following Michael Speaks1, these eras can be
characterized by the words ‘ideology’, ‘critique’ and ‘pragmatism’, and for this essay my main interest will be
these architectures’ respective relation to society as a model for the relationship between ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’.
1 | Michael Speaks, ‘Ideals, Ideology, Intelligence in China and the West,’ ‘China-West Dialogue’, in: Shidai Jianzhu: Time + Architecture
(Tongji University, Shanghai, September, 2006).
3
Firstly, it is clear that modernism was been very much an ideological era, in the sense that behind architecture
the final goal of an ideal society awaited to be realised. This ideal, at its core, is the realisation of the essence
of mankind - the becoming of what man is supposed to be, but is not yet. The ideal is the measure to
which the actual world must be measured and changed accordingly. In ideology, architecture has to do with
achieving ‘adaequatio’ - it (re)presents and projects the image of the ideal and final goal of the history of
mankind. Achitecture is both a representation as well as creation of and towards that ideal. Theory, as such,
did not exist – thinking existed as ideology, something connected to a set of thought larger than the mere
architectural. Ideology guided practice in the straight line towards towards the final goal of achieving the
ideal architecture as the home for ideal man, at one with its human essence and as such constituted the unity,
identity and autonomy of ‘Architecture’.
The period of post-modernism, characterized by a critical attitude towards the globalizing market forces,
sees the birth of ‘theory’ as such. Thinking in architecture is not aimed at guiding practice towards a future
goal, but becomes rather an act of questioning and critiqueing society, the omni-presence of economy, the
mechanisms of capitalism and architecture’s relation to that context, from a neo-marxist framework. In the
absence of ideology to provide it with identity and meaning, theory focusses mainly on the two major topics
of ontology and semiology, i.e. respectively the question of what delimits architecture, what is its autonomy,
and the question how architecture has meaning, how and what are its representational mechanisms.
Importing a selected reading of post-structuralist philosophy, the semiological interest focuses on
the randomness of signs and the absence of the foundational ‘Truth’. It is interested in uncovering
a more ancient core that enlightenment thinking has obscured in its ideology. In absence of a final
knoweable truth to relate to, the representational character of architecture however does remain. Even
if the ‘adequatio’ in architectural language doesn’t involve the mutual alignment of reality to an ideal
whole (unity), but rather to the more repressed ‘truth’ of the fragmentary and complex operational
character of the society system, its model is representational. Architecture does not represent the ideal
society, but is at the same time an image and critique of the actual one.2 This basic structure allows us
to speak of post-modern: modernism reversed, but very much dependent on its value and structure.
The metaphysical here is that the architect, by claiming to be able to critique society and its problems
or shortcomings, pretends to maintain a position outside of that very society – a metaphysical geste par
excellence, the belief in a ’Pure architecture, uncorrupted by capitalism’or ‘an essence before practice’.
In the words of Michael Speaks: “critical, or “dislocative,” architecture, [...] critiques these normative versions of
architectural truth in a seemingly endless search for a real but ultimately unattainable essence of architecture. And
this essence [...] can only be expressed in the abstract perfection of forms shielded from the market-driven demands
of program, use, and commercial viability.”3
The period that followed, and the question will very much be if anything has changed or can change
afterward, is described by Stan Allen as a ‘pragmatism’.4 He accurately observes that the demise of ´theory´
or the critical approach does not mean that there is no more thinking or theory in architecture at all, but
rather that the distinction between theory and practice has imploded. One can merely speak of two different
practices that both are part of architecture. There is no guiding ideal, the design process is rather aimed at
generating information that will help make design decisions. This is what Michael Speaks calls ‘the age of
Intelligence’, concerned not with ‘Big Truth’, but with the production of small truths, or ‘truthiness’, as he
calls it - values that can for the moment function and be accepted as true. Thinking, becomes not the critique
of existing information but the generation of new possibilities, not outside, above or beyond practice but as
part of it.
2 | It holds to the same model of representation, even if this actual one is not ‘an orginal’, but in itself already a construct of references
and images, a well-known theme concisely presented by Jean Boudrillard in the seminal ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ [1981]
3 | Michael Speaks on K. Michael Hays and Peter Eisenman in: Michael Speaks, ‘After Theory’, Architectural Record, June 2005.
4 | Stan Allen, ‘Pragmatism in Practice’ (manuscript from ‘Pragmatist Imagination’ Conference, Museum of Modern Art, New York,
November, 1999).
note
4
The Big Reduction
In order to see how this development fits in a larger pattern that is the realm of cultural philosphy, let us take
another step back and introduce the the ´big reduction´5. To understand this process we need to go back
and ask what it is that is being ‘reduced’, and what this ‘reduction’ exactly is. To answer the first question, we
need to go back to the beginning of philosophy as metaphysics.
Metaphysics can be said to be that horizon of significations in which the identity of things, that is ‘what
they are’, in essence, as such appear as uniform, transparent and understandable by clear insight. Answering
to the question of identity in the pluriformity of actual experience (.i.e. the question ‘how can I call things
under the same name?’) it suddenly seen that this unity is beyond the actual things themselves in their being,
What a thing is, its essence, is not itself a ‘thing’ or ‘a being’, but ‘being’. This is the ontological difference.
In the writing of Plato we see the ontological schism open up with the ‘idea’, understood as the ‘sight’
as an answer to the question of identity.6 The choice of words refering to the visual, means that identity
it is already there, one ‘sees’ it as such, identity is to be understood beyond and before actual experience
or thought-processes. The transparent and clearly insightfull and accessible nature of the ‘idea’ has to do
with permanence - the idea that the essence of a thing is unchangeable and eternal. In its commitment to
uncover the unchanging founding concepts of ‘being’ as ‘being’, philosophy tried to construct an immovable
foundation upon which would rest all knowledge in the form of different sciences, treating seperate aspects
of ‘being’: the living (biology), the material (physics) etcetera - the inmoveable ground of knowledge that
aligns thought with physical nature. What changed when philosophy as we now know it started, turning
away and resisting the preceding ‘inherited conglomerate’, is that it started using a certain way of speech that
implies a ‘saying how it is’, ‘telling how things are’ about the world. It places itself on ‘testable’ or empirical
ground, without making clear in which this test would consist, what its empirical proof or disproof would
be, exactly because its foundational statements per definition do no adhere to the physical (and testable)
world they foundate, but to the category of ‘being’ beyond the things themselves, i.e. the metaphysical. It is
the meaning of this tradition that was dedicated to uncovering the unchanging unity and reason by which
the variating reality is how it is, that has slowly become reduced in a process of which the development and
emancipation of science from its philosophical foundation is one part. The process of the ‘big reduction’ can
be said to have taken place in several marked steps.
In the writings of Descartes we see what we call the mechanical reduction. Physical nature starts appearing
as a uniform and mathematical. A mechanical construct without an inner ‘cause’, following uniform laws.
At the same time nature appears as a designed object, a huge harmonious complex mechanism presented as
opposed to the subject that can probe its laws. The functioning of the human body becomes incorporated
in this mechanical reduction, being understood now not as an organism but as a mechanism. But although
the human body might be described in these mechanics, the independance and certainty of knowledge and
human nature (the autonomy of the subject opposed to the object, and thereby all knowledge) is guaranteed
in the independence of thought from this mechanism, which Descarted regarded to be completely outside
of this mechanics, resulting in Descartes’ division of things as belonging to either ‘res extensae’ or to ‘res
cogitans’.
The pragmatic reduction, as seen for example in the writing of Wittgenstein, whitnesses a double shift.
The first shifts concerns the metaphysical character of language as ‘adequatio’; the idea that language
idealy is structured as the things themselves, thus providing a clear-cut division of the world matching
up to and providing access to the world as it is. Wittgenstein sees this structure collapses when it appears
to him language is an instrument of manipulation. It is a ‘knowing how to ...’. Wether the words are
5 | My representation of the ‘big reduction’ is based on the contents of the courses Philosophical Anthropoloy as given by Prof. Th.
C.W. Oudemans at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and which can be found in published form in: Th.C.W. Oudemans, ‘Echte
Filosofie’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam,2007 and Th.C.W. Oudemans, ‘Omerta’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2008, and
various other publications to be found on: http://www.filosofie.info
6 | Even though there may be flaws in the drawing of a triangle, we ‘see’ it is a triangle as an ideal mathematical shape and moreover,
can deduct information from that, which can be used for instance in building and constructing things.
5
really ‘about’ something or not is irrelevant if they are used rightly and trigger the right response.
But together with this aspect, there is another more important change. The metaphysical criterium of ‘what
a thing is’, its essence, becomes reduced to the flexibility of praxis: a way of acting based on usefullness.
The criterium one uses to define a thing as such, depends on what is usefull in each situation things are
understood in their functioning. In one case it might be usefull to say two objects are both round while in
another it is usefull to say they are both red.The giving of reasons or foundations simply stops when its no
longer usefull to continue asking. And once what we understand as things, is detached from the metaphysics
of unity, rigidity and unchangeability, but becomes simple practice, the ontological difference implodes,
the whole reality becomes flexible, opening up all directions at once. Pragmatism is all-encompassing in
that both what we know or accept as knowledge, as well as how we know and gather knowledge, up to the
language we use to formulate knowledge, are all forms of praxis open to change depending on usefullness.
Pragmatism exists in overcoming each and every inconsistency it encounters, there is nothing so holy that it
cannot be modified or improved in the face of progression towards a smoother functioning.
The third and major reduction is Darwinism or the replicative reduction of identity. It finally incorporates
humankind and thought into the mechanics of the algorhythm of variation and selection. The top-down
metaphysics of identity or essence as teleological design get displaced by the bottom-up mechanism of
random variation and rational selection. The rationality of this selection is the economy of cost and benefit
in a limited environment. From this rational selection a meaningfull similarity or ‘near-unity’ emerges -
things appear to be made ‘for something’, to do something because they have evolved as being good at
something that was usefull in the context.
The implication and philosophical importance of Darwinism is not as a biological theory, but in that
it completely displaces the metaphysical question of identity. Identity as such is no longer a unity and
unchangeable, what a thing is, is in itself changeable because it exists as replication, as a series. What a thing
is (what I can recognize as the same) is not a-priori, something foundational, but is emergent - resulting
from the temporary ‘taking-together’of a continuously changing and ongoing group of different specimens:
identity is emergent rather than foundational. Things are thus no longer understood as substantiality but as
continuity, as replication. This carries the implication that a thing’s meaning or essence is always yet to come,
completely pre-empting the need or search for unshakeable foundations or reasons, as well as the position
of the ego as the foundation for that design or knowledge. The sought-after alignment of man to nature is
in a sense complete, since both subject and object (of knowledge) are understood as replicative mechanics.
We understand both our knowledge, as well as our metholodogies to acquire knowledge, as well as
every organisation and structuring of means as continous variation and improvement in the face of
competing theories and ideas, in which the best functioning will survice this ‘struggle for existence’.7
We now start to see what this reduction is. Reduction is, firstly, not an abstraction. It is not a movement away
from the concreteness of things into ever higher and more unifying concepts. Reduction does not involve
the qualities of things as such, but the relation between us and things. Reduction is the formalisation into
new terms of understanding the way we relate to our environment. Reduction does not primarily involve
the things or ourselves, but the way the things present themselves to us, our relation to the things, and this
relation this ‘sight’ we are presented with which is neither an invention of of ours, nor is it ‘of the things’,
but it is a movement bigger than us, in which we are partaking. This is what is called the horizon-character. 8
7 | Such replicative stance on science can be found for example in the writings of Kuhn, Popper, and more clearly in Derrida.
8| For that reason, and this is something very elementary in understanding philosophical writing and reading, we cannot say that it is
not Descartes or Galilei discovering a new or original truth that had always been there , but their picking up of a changing wind - the
listening and translating of something that was arriving and which allowed them to see it, and translating into words an already changing
signification. The most important philosophical texts are on the verge of these changes and show the confusion and impossibility
of use of existing words and concepts for that which is arriving, but not yet clear. Plato, for example, did not invent metaphysical
thinking or the ontological difference when he wrote about the ‘ideai’, but it was because things started appearing that way, that he
wrote his texts, taking words at hand and changing their use into something that still defines us now. The word ‘ratio’ has slowly
changed from referring to an autonomous thinking to a mere countable proportion. The text of Kant’s critique is drenched in words
Van veranderende is! of van waarbinnen kunnen en kunnen Reductie primair
6
This is why one cannot simply say that reduction is a matter of changing world-views, choosing a
‘Weltanschauung’. One does not choose to be either metaphysical or not, like a school of thought one can
adhere to or not. The big reduction does not involve a deliberate thought-process or one way of thinking
preferred over another. It concerns the significations within which we can think about things in the first
place, how reality appears to us. These significations are handed down to us from a horizon that slowly moves
and shifts without us being in full control, and philosophy is about the words that mark the changes in
that horizon. The importance of a philosophical thext generally lies not in its content - virtually all classical
philosophical texts are either disproved or just plain irrelevant to current practice - but in the way they use
words. What makes them valuable is that in the new words and conceptions they tried to convey we see a
shift in meanings of words, impulsed the confusion of a schism between a new understanding and the old
signification of words, that still have their influence on how we use our words today. Pivotal words that say
something about the way things present themselves. It involves a turning around or stepping aside from the
things we talk about to an attention to the words and horizon within which these things appear as such.9
And paying attention to such significations, what the reduction shows is a constant and ongoing disappearance
of all major distinctions and words that have marked eras. The power of words is taken up in the mobilisation
that is total indifference to all categorical distinctions. There is a direction in this movement of indifference.
What is at stake in the reduction of metaphysics is the ongoing and progressive movement towards the
unification and controlability, the describability within mechanics, of how things appear to us. That is,
both man and nature appear as uniform and as resources to be used wisely (i.e. efficiently, rationally).
Such charactisitcs that can not yet be described in models or mechanics are laid aside for later reference. In
this process, we can see what Jünger described as a total mobilisation: the impossibility to see anything as
independent, isolated, but always as part of a functioning, of a larger context. Reality as such appears to us
as functionality. Man as belonging to the category of an independent being is taken up in the functioning
of the mobile machine that also incorporates the things as well. Uniform calculation and evaluation apply
whether it is the efficiency of a machine producing goods or the value of a person as prime capital for
a company or the number of students or publication a university profesor. The becoming technology of
society is exactly the movement towards the unification and homogenization of man and nature, thus
dissolving the distinction between theory and practice. The difference between man and thing is indifferent
in the instrumentality of progressive control. This smooth patency between thought and nature means that
everything becomes ‘Arbeit’, translated as employment, or rather deployment: investment in the face of a
continuous evaluation of calculation of costs and benefits. Everything becomes economy, in the broad sense
of the calculating and the controlling. Pan-economia is the omnipresence of the rationality of evaluation
of utility, making for the impossibility of ascribing pragmatism a lack or impurity - such an evaluation calls
for improvement - pragmatism exists in solving such obstructions. Pan-pragmatism (or pan-economy) then
is not the fact that we think about practical things or about money, but that the whole of our reality as
well as our thinking about that reality, appear within a horizon of significations, of words, that are marked
by praxis, use, function, categoric countability, taking into account, accounting for, reckoning with, the
rationality of investment of resources in the light of possible outcomes. Every movement in every direction is
marked by this horizon. The countermovement of cultural criticism and every anti-capitalist, anti-liberalist,
anti-anything, is marked by the same instrumental thinking that is based on the improving and guiding the
practice of reality by means of another controlled and deliberate practice: every countermovement is already
marked by the same method of manageability and domination that defines what it reacts against10.
relating to production and work that mark an active attitude towards understanding nature and reality. The works of Marx and Hegel,
or even the universal declaration of the rights of man, couldnt have been written if not already the idea of property and man as an
autonomous owner of his body had appeared from out of a feudal organisation.
9 | One might compare here to the way Plato writes. He never utters statements, but who never stops in turning his conversationpartners
around from the words they use, to the apory and confusion concerning that which one already assumes and takes for granted
when using these words, namely that one has already seen the things as such, identified by the words.
10 | A. Heumakers, Th. C. W. Oudemans, ‘De horizon van Buitenveldert. Gesprekken over cultuur en techniek’., Uitgeverij Boom,
Amsterdam, 1997.
7
II – Downwards: Architecture as pragmatism
So let us now return with a bit more detail to the question of where we stand now, especially concerning this
thing called pragmatism, for to answer the question properly it is not nearly enough just to conclude that we are
‘pragmatic’ . What is the meaning of pragmatism in architecture?
To summarize, we have seen that pragmatism is basically the total mobilization and constant re-evualuation of
every (formerly fixed and metaphyisical) value, measure or criterium - the instrumentalisation of everything
at hand in the face of a continuous and progressive mutual alignment of thought and matter ( i.e. mankind
and nature) by means of ever increasing control with the rationality of calculation and uniformity.
The meaning of pragmatism for architecture is two-fold: both its functioning within society as well as its
means of generation are both marked by this instrumentality.
The pragmatic of architecture
We saw that in the reduction it has become increasingly impossible to understand things as substantiality.
Nothing is independent, but rather as part of a larger functionality. Functionality displaces materiality. The
pragmatic aspect of architecture in itself lies then in its operational power - it is instrumental in solving
a problem, the building itself being a means to the clients’ diverse ends. As Guy Horton writes in ‘The
Indicator’, a weekly column focusing on the culture, business and economics of architecture: ‘(...) What I
do want, however, is someone who can advance and compellingly communicate their thinking to define and solve
problems, who can strategize different approaches to my business in terms of material, spatial, and human flows.
This kind of strategizing can ultimately increase my capital flow. I don’t just want an expensive building. What I
really want is a powerful spatial system that transforms and improves my business. Like it or not, the building is
the superficial element, the vessel. The vessel is a vital part of the overall system but it is not the final product. It
is merely the beginning. Clients want performance on all levels. The building is the facilitator.’”11 The architect
is a political player in a complex field that demands his expertise to navigate spatial, material, human and
financial flows in order to realise his clients wishes. That doesn’t mean that architecture is not still very much
a visionary profession, only that these visions do not concern the larger scale of socio-political matters or
ideologies but embody particular perspectives on specific problems and how to offer their clients solutions
to their problems. This is to say, the architectural field itself functions in a context from which it derives at
least partly its nature and meaning.
The pragmatic in architecture:
If the pragmatic entails the employment of performative flexible criteria that are continuously evaluated
according to their results and can be changed whenever they fall short, then we have seen the same shift in
the design process itself. Instead of being guided by a larger idea about ‘Architecture’ in the form of theory,
every possible idea and concept is used as means to generate a design, laying aside when necessary every
preconception about the nature, organisation or structure of the architectural discipline. The question of
‘Meaning’ is no longer guiding nor to be dictated in the design process, but emphemeral, emergent in
eventual functioning of the practical reality.
We have seen in the design process a strong shift from goal- or product oriented (i.e. teleological/
metaphysical) to process-oriented structures and methodologies. BIM-models, parametric design,
rapid prototyping and scenario development are just a few tools in controlling the designs’ viability and
safeguarding the performative potential in answering to its increasingly dynamic conditions. The rationality
of the design is already predetermined and marked by the context in which it is generated - few designs
survive to completion without such rationality. The design process, as process design, is understood in
terms of generating information that will in turn become the measure, the criterium of decisions.
The increasing ease of generating both digital as well as physical prototypes and variations that were
11 | Guy Horton, ‘The indicator’, March 10th, 2011. http://www.archdaily.com/119008/the-indicator-the-next-architecture-part-2/
8
previously extremely labour-intensive, allows for the rapid exploration and redefinition of the design problem
from different perspectives and alternatives that, without such a fast production, would have necessarily
be considered improbable solutions. A design progresses by generating alternative solutions and reframing
the question through the generation of knowledge. The absence of a coherent goal or definition of the
architectural field opens the road to faster innovation and research.
The pragmatic in all this is that every part of the design process is a means to control and guard the investment
and minimize risks in the constant struggle for survival of the design in a complex, limited and sometimes
even threatening environment. The criterium of what is considered architecture, is no longer a single truth
or ideology, but the simple struggle for survival of both projects as well as architectural firms.
We have whitnessed not the decay of theory, but rather the implosion of the dialectics of theory versus
practice. One cannot even speak of post-theory - there is rather a complete indifference towards theory as
something distinct from practice. Theory doesn’t exist outside of practice, but the pragmatic mobilisation
means that thinking, theorizing, critique and correction are all instruments of the control and feedback
system that ensures architectures functioning and progression by anticipating, overcoming, improving or
solving every possible problem or discrepancy.
III - Backwards once again - ‘What is Architecture?’
We shall now turn our attention to the first fundamental question that has governed architecture. The question of
ontology, or ‘what is architecture’, what delimits architecture, what is its specificity, or what is architecture in its
essence? This question is fundamentally the philosophical question of identity. So, what is Architecture!? Or more
importantly, surrounding this issue, the impossibility of this question! Can we still speak of ‘Architecture’ ? Of an
architecture?
The most apparent response is that this impossibility lies in the simple pragmatic sense that a question
of such universality is not generally considered to be one of very much use anymore, owing to the
understanding that ‘what architecture is’, is simply what is accepted at the moment as architecture,
according to varying criteria and according to the situation. There is absolutely no need to construct a
theoretical foundation under an already existing architectural practice, endowing it with some kind of
essence. We see this in the contours of the current architectural debate, which shows a complete indifference
to this question focussing on discussing the more practical matters of a smaller-scale: concrete projects,
and how they came about, in what design context and with which models of process organisation.
In a pragmatic environment in which nothing appears as autonomous substantiality, the field of architecture,
too can only be considered as functioning within a context, be it the market, capitalism, management.
Its essence pragmatically liquified - functionality has displaced the ontological question of the essence of
architecture.
But in the light of the replicative reduction, there is another side to the same issue. The metaphysics of a final
goal no longer provides identity to architecture. Such foundational and guiding principles no longer exist,
since in the total mobilization all grounds are flexible according to performance. As we saw in the chapter
about the reduction, what has happened is that our conception of what things are has become incorpated
in the understanding in which things no longer appear as unity but as a series of instantiations. In this
light, what architecture is, is an open-ended, temporary and random collection of a ongoing and changing
instances in a series, the bottom-up or emergent ‘unity’ of that which is now practiced, the constant diverging
and generation of varying options of which we have yet to see which are to survive for a longer time and
are used to build upon in the future. That is why, ad fundum, one cannot speak of ‘A Post-Metaphysical
Architecture’- there is not one! There are infinitely many! 12
12 | One can draw a parallel here with Fukuyama’s argument of the ‘end of history’. Fukuyama’s comment about liberalism is in fact
one about pragmatism: liberalism is the instrument of pragmatism, without fixed ideas or ideology, the system becomes mobile and its
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The replicative stance that molds our understanding now, doesn’t allow for naivity of the direct generation
and control of meaning in a building. There is general awareness or acceptance that meaning is something
that will have to appear and prove itself in the future, that it is something we cannot say anything about with
certainty now, that it is not simply something we, as architects, put into our building. The final meaning is
always to come, unfinished, making that the question of semiotics, too, has been displaced by the divided
unity that is replication.
Conscious of it or not, we do have a natural understanding of the impossibility of the universal polemic.
The soft force of replicative thinking has already changing what architecture to us is about. The care for the
unity of the whole is something we instinctively cannot take seriously anymore. As an architect, it doesn’t
make sense anymore to speak about ‘Architecture’ as a whole, that is a meaningless grandure of debatable
status because it is no longer the whole of architecture or society that concerns the architect. An architect
with a vision on the ‘ideal of architecture’ and its future is instantly met with scepticism because we can
feel somehow that that just is not relevant anymore, that such language is strangely detached from the
practical reality and from the position of the architect. We know that if there is any commitment to society
or its problems, it would have to be found in the concrete practice of a project in solving real problems by
addressing necessarily local situations. It is impossible, or rather useless, to talk about the relation between
‘architecture’ and ‘society’ in general.
IV - Upwards: The New Mythology
Now that there is no longer any finality, the ideal or utopian architecture, to guide our practice, how do we
produce? In absence of a unifying principle, something above and beyond to guide us and to work towards, should
one not expect an extreme freedom, a movement in all directions and a diversity of mindblowing proportions? One
should expect so, yet for all apparent diversity, perhaps there is unity, perhaps there is no one thing in common that
defines this architecturing, this architectural production that takes place....
The architectural image as performance, or the production of the image.
The current vanguard of international architecture is largely of an iconographic nature, by which, in a very
limited description, we refer to a recurring aesthetics which involves a certain simplicity and continuity
of form in the service of a recognizability and consumability of the building as a product. In the rush of a
global market and advertisements opening up entirely new fields of consumption every day, a building needs
to function as a product instantly, it needs to be understood and consumed instantly without requiring
excessive interpretation or interaction.
Let us dwell a bit on theis ‘iconographic’ and the role of the image. The icon, from the greek ‘eikon’
meaning ‘likeness’, ‘portrait’ or ‘image’, according to the verb for ‘to be like’ ‘to look like’or ‘resemble’,
conveys the classical linguistic structure of representation: the sign as pointing to an original source. As Jean
Boudrillard indicated, coining the term ‘simulacrum’, this this mechanism of representation has been largely
displaced. In the architectural context, the building, as icon, though does not refer to something outside
of it, but rather to itself, as an instance of that contemporary architecture, producing the image of itself as
architecture. It points to its own act of the creation of identity, of an image in the widest sense of the word.
It is on our understanding of the ‘image’ that I want to elaborate, and I will venture that what architecture
is, what unites its modes of production is its ‘image-character’, that is, the image understood as performance.
overcoming of obstacles and its improvement is what makes it panpresent and what raises the question that there can be no after. Liberalism,
as pragmatism, presents the end of history as the continuous narrative towards a final end. The grand narrative of modernism has
ceased, there is no longer 1 architecture as the end of history. Architecture beyond the end of ‘history’, lacks future and lacks past, no
longer part of history, no goals, future is not something to be created or aimed at, but a reality to come, endless potential. So, detached
from time, contemporary architecture seems bound to the present, yet in its detachedness from the present reality in favour of a global
production of the image, it has become strangely timeless.
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The term ‘performance’ can be understood in the double sense of the Dutch words ‘prestatie’ and ‘presentatie’,
that is, both ‘the efficiency with which something reacts or fulfills its intended purpose’ as well as the
‘the execution of a work presented (i.e. made present) before an audience’. Architecture is a performative practice
in both these two senses of the word, being at the same time both performance as complying to the highest
standards in answering to the client’s problem, but at the same time seen as the public display or show, the act
of (re)creating an image. It performs for international digital audience and media the image of contemporary
architecture in which public participation (e.g. the flows of audience showing and being the buildings
performance), becoming part of the presented image, like the audience participation completing the performance
of a staged theatre. From mere users, the public becomes part of the production of the architectural image.
The second meaning of performance as ‘show’ also relates to the shifting relation between image and content.
A show, theatrical or musical, points to an absent original, creating or making present its absent original in
the re-enactment. Several things now concern the new understanding of the image.
Firstly, the role of the image as representation shifts. There is image, but no longer understood as opposite
to content or original. As in the theatrical performance, the architectural image is not representation
of something absent, but is a performance as presentation, as in presenting, making present. The whole
dialectic opposition of image to content implodes when in the increasing mediatisation the image becomes
the product: the client buys not the building the image represents, but the image of the building itself.
The image is its identity, the image, as reference to the status of contemporary architecture, is the product.
There is no adequatio of the image as a representation of the building that itself is the embodyment of an
ideal reality - both the image as well the building equally are production and product at the same time.
In a reversal of traditional representation, what counts in iconographic design is that the building be an
approximation of the image sold.
At the same time one cannot but notice that it is in fact virtually impossible for the image to be a representation
in the traditional sense. The change in digital media from simple black and white reproductions to full colour
photorealism and increasing visual possibilities, combined with the sheer multitude of different media and
their publication speed has had considerable influence on the relation between the image and the viewer.
In an environment bombarded with vast quantities of increasingly ‘realistic’ images, the attention-span of
reading the image has shortened considerably, making the reading of an image less the interpretation or
mental reconstruction of the project and more the direct consumption of the image as such. The image
needs to communicate instantly without need to go beyond the image towards what is projected. This
consumability also means that the visual precedes the invisible, i.e. architecture is not instantly judged on its
relation to its context, how it functions, or what it can mean for its environment.
Secondly, we can see that architecture is more image-based in the sense that the actual product is less
something material but becomes rather the identity it embodies - architecture as ‘branding’, the icon points
to the very same experience it generates and sells. Similar to major companies in the eighties, a shift has taken
place from producing a physical product to commercializing a product, i.e. the dematerialization of the
product into a value: an image, a life-style, for which the physical product sold is a mere means. Architecture
does not need to be material – it promotes the production of a moment, an experience, in which the material
building, the actual place, is instrumental.
We can now start to see how the double interest of the critical period, the ontological question of what
architecture is, and the semiotic question of how it represents or produces meaning, have both collapsed in
the double sense of the performance. What architecture is, is offering a service at the highest level of quality.
Its meaning is caught in the self-referencing of the iconographic as act of the public performance - the
creation of the image as product. What ‘architecture’ is, then, is offering the client the best possible solution
and increase his status/capital flow by offering him participation in the newest contemporary architecture
- going along in the production of the global imagery, the tredmill of unifying extremities, balancing the
need for constant restimulation of the senses by ever stronger and attractive image-statements in order to
maintain competitive position with the equally present need to stay within the recognizible formula that
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is accepted ‘as architecture’ - unlimited variations within limits. What architecture is, is not the realisation
of one architecture, but the production of infinite infinitesimally different architectures, each their own
competition within the global identity that increases its chances of survival.
The production of a new ‘idea’
The key thing to understand is that architecture exists as the production of the image in the broadest sense
of the word. This constantly repeated reproduction or stamping of minimal variation within a recognizible
margin, in the quest for ever more daunting and captivating iconic mages, hides the haunting uniformity
of production. There is a numbing uniformity in the attempt to provide extra-ordinary new images. So, as
ideology before provided a unity and goal above the daily practice, a value to adhere to, it is now the image
as a self-referential performance, taking up that role. By extension, it is indeed true that the new gods of
this mythology, the ‘starchitects’ are those who are best in not only generating these images, but also in
understanding the functioning of an architect in the market, and having performed the best in branding,
i.e. instrumentalising, their personality as the foundational value that marks and guarantees a certain quality
or style. Yet while doing so, it is strangely enough exactly these ‘heroes’ that come out on top in the
architectural battlefield, who thus maintain the idea of the architect as the autonomous, culturally regarded,
artist genius projecting his vision.
So, is the production of this image then to be considered the last remnant of the conception of the architect
as a creating artist? Is this creative production of visions and new images where he finds his autonomy, his
identity as architect? A vestige of metaphysics in order to position himself and find identity within the
pragmatic chaos that surrounds him? I would say yes, but I want to venture another thought.
This specific brand of image that we see emerging as the global unifying factor in architecture, is in fact
the new architectural ‘idea’ - the platonic ‘idea’ as ‘sight’, that by which we immediately see and recognize
something as what it is, that by which it appears as such. There is a certain universal quality in the production
of these images, that unifies them all as that by which we recognize a proposal as participating in the
global architectural field. The production of this certain ‘quality’ is the core-business of architecture, i.e. the
production of its own type. In the seemingly post-metaphysical architectural field far from ideology and
final goals, dedicating itself to generating continuously new extremeties of difference, we see the emergence
of a uniformity in/as the production of the ‘iconographic image’. We see with the emergence of a species of
arcitecture united by similar characteristics that answer to the context in which it operates, the return of the
the platonic ‘idea’, now no longer given from a source, but produced!
V - Sideways – Iconography is not Design & The Double Escape
As a little provocation I will now shortly diverge and present two lines of thought concerning on the one hand
the question ‘what ‘is design‘, and on the other hand a tentative statement about the specific position of Dutch
architecture in the developments we have just described.
Iconography is not design
What is design? In the most broad sense, owing to an understanding of replicatitive identity, one might
say that design is ‘every difference that makes a difference in relation to a limited context’. This is to say, in
design one can read ‘information’ about a specific way ‘to deal with the environment’. 13 A more technical
description would be that design is the specific and rational organisation of limited resources answering to
13 | To elaborate the darwinist parallel, this is why, for example, though the idea ‘to fly’was never the teleological goal of the evolution
of the wing, the rationality of the invested energy that resulted in the eventual organisation of matter that is the design of the wing,
dictates that we cannot understand it but as a means ‘to fly’, that is what it serves for. Given the context of limited resources and competing
predators to escape from, the design of the wing must be understood as the means ‘to fly’.
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a problem posed by an equally limited context, in which rationality must be understood in the economic
sense of the cost-benefit analysis that aims to lower (energy, money, material) investment and maximize
profit-output.14
The question of the relation of iconographic design to its surroundings is double. Though we can dismiss
the whole issue by saying that iconographic design answers to the context of capitalism and its inherent
consumerism by being instantly understood as a product, the question would rise wether this basis is enough
to survive in the long haul.
What about, on a lesser scale, the concrete local surroundings, or social issues that architecture might adress?
It has indeed been a increasing critique that iconographic architecture is generic and contextless and even
necessarily so, from the perspective of product design and consumberability. Take any random image from
a architects-blog, and there’s a good chance the building wouldn’t look odd in any other location. They are
geared towards the reference of the global architectural image of ‘the architectural’, but more often than not,
not engaging in local issues, indifferent to context, staying outside of social-economic or otherwise critical
interaction with its environment.
Which is not to say that they do not perform, because solving the clients problem by means of organising
the material and financial flow that is a building, is the case. More than ever, architects build for clients, not
for some debatable ‘whole’ that is society, and more often than not these clients are developers with less than
altruistic social interests. Given the long processes in architecture and the rapid changeability of the design
context, the contemporary architect seems to have chosen not to bother about social relevance and current
issues in favour of a detachedness of current time. The most contemporary thing to do, then, strangely, is to
forget the present and be timeless. In the introduction we mentioned the relationship between architecture
and society as paramount. While constructing an ideal society in modernism, and critiqueing society’s
mechanisms in postmodernism, is there not now an indifference towards the relation between architecture
and society? Should we not perhaps rethink how our activities relate to its surroundings?
From the viewpoint that iconographic projects fail to engage in local conditions and its concrete environment,
it would then follow that such buildings are not ‘design’ in a full sense. Though they are adapted to the global
marketing environment, which certainly is an advantage, albeit one that will perhaps be displaced in the
need for projects that provide more concrete and intense local relevance - a design that answers both local
environment and engages in making a difference to its direct context, as well as the abstract or global marketforces
in which it must be conceived and realised, would perhaps have more viability on a long term.
The double escape
In the particular case of the Netherlands, we can see a tradition over the last decades that shows two
distinct approaches to architecture. One the one hand, Dutch architects are famous for their no-nonsense
pragmatism, in the sense of dealing expertly with the demands and assignment, while on the other hand there
is a brand of conceptualism that focuses more on creating innovative and artistic proposals. Both form two
distinct ways out of the question where the architect stands after metaphysics. In the pragmatic approach the
architect shifts towards the practical end and the role of the developer, the contractor. In the other extreme,
conceptualism, we see a shift towards the other side where the artist affirms and consolidates his position
as an artist aside from such practical matters and including the increasing distance to constructors and
developers. Both going with the reality and realising practical buildings as well as findings one’s position as
the provider of a more abstract product, are two ways of dealing with the changes in the architectural practice
in a pragmatic way. Both are different strategies in conquering a position, in the struggle for the continuity
or proliferation of the office.
Current education seems to enhance and maintain the practice of the second category. Education at Delft
University of Technology and the various Academies of Architecture, is very conceptual. It grows and nurses
the idea of the architect as an artist, the ideal of the singular genius, the creator of ideas and visions that give
14 | In a replicative perspective, the uniformity of replicants we have just talked about is key to guaranteeing the highest chance of
survival. Going with the masses, following the international vanguard is, simply put, a safe bet.
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unity and meaning to architecture. In a practice of global marketing and media, enough attention is paid to
media and means of digital production, but the intellectual baggage to prepare or think the functioning of
architect in practice is absent or out of date. From the first year on, architectural education nurses a culture
that is based on sacrifice (as in long hours and minimal pay) for the completion of that holy goal of a building
or the idea that architecture is a socially valuable thing or even an art. At the same time, reality doesn’t work
that way. It doesn’t value this supposed ‘higher value’ of architecture, but takes into account only its material
side. The Dutch regulations for architectural fees for example are very much based on the material work, and
not the services provided in order to make that physical construction possible. To quote Guy Horton: ‘the
broader economic environment does not quiet know how to position architecture’s conceptual and systems thinking
talents and make them marketable. The market understands how to value a building. Architects often don’t know
how to identify these talents and communicate them in marketable terms. Lawyers figured this out a long time ago.
So did people in the business world. It’s time to start learning more from these sectors.’ 15
In that sense, Michael Speaks’ old plea for a new intellectual framework in educational institutions16 is,
at least in the Netherlands, still a very relevant issue, and I would love to see an active school of though
rethinking the framework within which we educate future architects.
VI - Dead Center: the Toneless Rustling of Architecture’s Demise
That the reduction has taken place, and is still taking place, does not mean that our world is not still very much,
and will continue to be, seen in the light of metaphysical residues - the light of past suns, as Nietzsche so tellingly
described. In fact it is because our language, the whole of our society from the arrengement of chairs and tables in
a meeting room to the hierarchy in street profiles as solidified language and meaning, carries with it such history of
meanings that we constantly stand poised over an abyss between the tradition we drag along behind us in words we
use, and the way the nowaday world practically works. Do we not all know and realise that a company is an ecnomic
entity, yet feel ourselves mistreated as humans when we are fired in the light of overcapacity or investement-profit
analyses - is it not hard fully accepting personally the nature of human beings as a companies major capital, even
while intellectually agreeing and knowing that Kant’s distinction between man as a goal in himself, and a means
to an end, has imploded in the total mobilization of ‘Arbeit’, and especially in the light of the replicative reduction.
How far do you go in accepting the calculating nature of all your decisions, from the little organised escapes from
working life into the culture- and entertainment industry only to improve general productivity and happiness,
down to the fundamentally rational cost-benefit analysis in the interactions of friendships and relationships that
we continue to label with the words loyalty, love and sacrifice. What works for you? How empirical does one allow
oneself to get, in the face of that which surrounds and defines us?
Philosophy after method
If we understand philosophy as the concern for the unobstructed mutual alignment of thought and matter (the
mankind to nature), we see that philosophy has become entirely superfluous since pragmatism as technology
and science has already guaranteed this connection in the universal uniformity of both subject and object
of thought. Both our ways of knowing, our knowledge itself as well as the object of knowing, i.e. nature,
are subject to the same continuous development and struggle for existence in the face of rivaling proposals
and hypotheses that marks the objects of our knowledge, the things themselves. The giving of grounds and
the ultimate unity of things and their names, has dissolved in the pragmatic and instrumental use of words
and grounds in competing and testable theories. All truly philosophical problems are gone. Not because
they have been answered (solved) but because they have simply fallen away, lost their meaning (dissolved).
The methodical science that philosophical insight gave rise to has made philosophy superfluous, leaving the
near childless mother hopelessly running behind its offspring hoping for some alms in the form of subsidy.
15 | Guy Horton, ‘The indicator’, March 10th, 2011. http://www.archdaily.com/119008/the-indicator-the-next-architecture-part-2/
16 | Michael Speaks, ‘After Theory’, Architectural Record, June 2005.
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Any philosophy that sticks to the method, must accept and forget the fact that in doing so it has
necessarily become science. In order to maintain a methodological relation to its object, it must forget
the whole in which it takes place (because one cannot make that whole the object), and thus the prime
concern of philosophy. An instrumental philosophy that helps in furthering the uniformity and unity
of mind and matter, or solve company issues by offering an rethinking of its values, must accept that
it is pragmatic in nature, and thus cannot speak about that same pragmatism as a cultural horizon.
Perhaps the only other possibility of philosophy, understood in this concern for the whole that surrounds us,
can be found in philosophical anthropology, and is to become empirical17. This means retreating from the
academic method, into the more personal path of fully allowing to experience to what extent the horizon
that surrounds us marks and defines us, constantly removing every illusion that one has fabricated in order to
create one’s independance. It means as well a totally different way of writing, one that tries to pay attention to
its being marked by a horizon, driven by a soft force that guides our words and the way we understand things.
Trying to let one’s writing be guided and marked by the horizon that already defines it before the words are
yours to use, such that horizon might at some moment and just a little, come in to view, in the stepping aside,
a sidewards gaze without it becoming an object to grasp. If philosophy is about turning around towards that
which we already take for granted with those words, this other way of writing is not to be judged as adequatio or
verisimilitude. That is the problem of the scientific method. The testability, the empirics, lies in something else.
It lies in the being attuned to what one is trying to approach, the showing of this horizon that speaks through
you, the letting go of the control with which you maintains your relationshop and distance to that which
concerns you. 18 The final test is simply if the words one use and distinctions you make last or not, whether they
fall away in indifference or not. Is your language extensive enough to be driven by what precedes you and to let
something shine through of that which talks through our language?
Toneless
Returning to architrecture and our initial statement about the identitycrisis following metaphysics, it should by
now be perfectly clear that iconography or conceptualism as the refuge or last vestige of artistic autonomy will
simply not work.It is already ‘as’ production of the image that architecture is marked by pragmatic uniformity
- the uniformity of the constant search for ever more excentric variations of the same image as the attempt to
maintain a competitive position or maintain a nichemarket in a field defined by too few projects, low budgets
and the increasing power of developers. Artistic autonomy pragmatically reduced without that ever being a
problem, because we just do what we can to survive and improve our positions.
The identitycrisis that I pretended to talk about is then not the disappearance of the metaphysical or the
ideological beyond architecture, but the toneless silence that hovers around the already being marked en directed
by the horizon of pragmatism without this ever being able to come up in its entirety as the subject of thought.
It is not the falling away of the distinction of ideology or theory and practice, but the total indifference
concerning this implosion - the impossibility of the question of what architecture is, what or how it creates,
what is its current or future meaning, ever coming up. The claim that started this essay, that architecture is still
trying to deal with the demise of metaphysics, that is, the demise of ‘Architecture’, is utterly false. Not in the
sense of being not true, but being beside the issue, a discordant voice in a silent hollow. Not the hollow as the
place left empty by ideology or modernism, but the hollow of the implosion of all the distinctions of ideologypragmatism,
theory-practice, architecture-society . There simply is no space left in which this distinction can
ever become object of or subject to debate.
17 | Again, in this account I am indebted to the writings and lectures of Th.C.W. Oudemans, and the publications: Th.C.W. Oudemans,
‘Echte Filosofie’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam,2007 and Th.C.W. Oudemans, ‘Omerta’, Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, Amsterdam, 2008,
and various other publications to be found on: http://www.filosofie.info
18 | This means too letting go of the complacence with which the reading of philosophy or cultural critique easily becomes anaesthetic
self-medication by soothing oneself with the idea the knowing or understanding more about one’s environment gives some personal value
while it is in fact ofthe same instrumental nature as keeping up one’s spirits as a day in the park or the well-planned participation in the
entertainment-, or art industry. It is marked by the same consumption it generally critiques.
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The tonelessness of architecture, its fundamental non-excentricity, lies in the fact that the rationality of control
directs it in both movement and countermovement: even, or maybe especially, when it tries to be as nonpragmatic
or critical as possible we can recognize the prevalence of the same instrumental thinking it reacts
against. We are scratching the limits and running around in circles. In every single direction it goes we can see
it is already contained within a horizon of manufacturability, of production as ongoing improvement, without
this horizon itself ever having to come into consideration.
If philosophy is, then, about the words that indicate and relate to how reality presents itself to us, if it is about
paying attention to the words and distinctions that previously were pivotal in understanding an age but have
fallen away in the indifference of the reduction, the question would be: what are the words and language that
mark architure or the architectural debate now? How can we tune our ears and catch an echoe of this silent
rustling. Through which words might this silence speak to us? Perhaps we can listen a bit closer to the very text
at hand. Maybe then, after circling so long around the issue, we can finally draw closer to this silent rustling of
architect’s past, this tonelessness that can sometimes, in a quiet moment, be heard inbetween the grinding gears
of the architectural machine.
A first clue is to be found in the quotation of Nietzsche that preceded this text. Though its content might still be
very much relevant to the issue at hand, it must have been instantly clear to the reader that its tone and excessive
sentiment of dramatism and values lost doesn’t befit an architecturally oriented text. ‘God is dead, so what?!’ The
problem simply doesn’t matter, one cannot be concerned about it. Such a voice is no longer at place, in harmony
or in tune, with current writing, especially not writing about architecture.
But more importantly, a clue towards the aforementioned indifference can be found in the whole of this article.
More than the contect of this text, it is the tone that will strike the reader as overly polemic, dramatic and with
a false concern about architecture as a whole or a lament for ideology and theory lost. The tone doesn’t befit the
reality of architectural writing and is out of tune with current practice. Exactly this being out of place might
point towards the indifference concerning the horizon of pragmatism coming into view, and the indifference
towards the oppositions and distinctions with which we described architecture, words which have by now
retreated from the public debate. If the ‘big reduction’ is about the falling away, the dissolution of distinctions
and oppositions, and philosophy is about tracing the changing meanings of those words that give bearing to
epochs, perhaps there are certain words that we might pay some attention to. Or more exactly, it is rather the
retreat of certain words that we might pay attention to, for it is exactly the becoming powerless of words that
characterizes the gentle force of pragmatism19.
A first pivotal point is the dissolution of the power of the word ‘art’, understood as creation. This ‘architecturing’,
this thing we do and its output, are understood as production not as creation. We are not in the business of
creating a new or better world or humanity, but of changing and improving the current world, little by little,
by means of solving in the best possible way the clients problem in that face of the contextural limitations of
different nature. We do not create from nothing into the final and finished product of a building, but rather
accept that the design process fits in a larger scheme of material, economical and infrastructural flows that for
the little part of our design process manage and influence. The design process is incorporated into the cultural
and financial mechanism. It is an input-output mechanism, an amusing black box which converts conditions
into proposals. The meaning of the word creativity is no longer the power to create (as its own source, from
nothing) but the well-developed skill in dealing with often changing contexts, demands and preconditions and
finding viable solutions to complex problems. Architecture is not art, driven by a talent bestowed upon the
lucky few, but a skill one can aquire and develop.20
19 | A. Heumakers, Th. C. W. Oudemans, ‘De horizon van Buitenveldert. Gesprekken over cultuur en techniek’., Uitgeverij Boom, Amsterdam,
1997.
20 | As a note aside, it is a telling sign that in the 2010 plans of the Dutch government for massive cuts on subsidies and increased taxes for
the art sector, the Dutch architectural community, including the national associations, kept a frightful silence showing how little they felt
related to (the cause of ) the art sector. Or perhaps simply because the tax system is already set up such as to distinguish art from architecture
and the latter was not affected by the proposal.
16
A quick look at virtually every architect’s website points us in the same direction. Every architect and company
proclaims a ‘vision’, now understood as a perspective on the professional environment, an instrument of
management. You don’t want to read what kind of utopia or world-view they sport, but rather how they
run their business. You want to know they have an idea about how to efficiently deliver results. An architect
with a real ‘vision’, is a loose wheel, a megalomaniac, out of place - we sense instantly that such a thing is
no longer possible. The etymology of the ‘vision’ as a mystical revelation of a truth given by a higher source,
has given way to the signification of the the image consciously projected by the architect. From a ‘given’ to
a ‘production’, mysticism to marketing, an instruction to a receiver, with the difference that that the one
having the vision is now not the receiver of the instruction but the sender.
The same holds true for the ‘philosophy’ ubiquitously propounded by every architect. Again, we expect
to read here in what sense he distinguishes himself from the competition in the values he adheres to, and
not that he spends his clients time and money with a pathetic concern for the future of architecture or
contemplating the whole of society beyond the added value that such thinking might have in providing a
solution. The function of this ‘philosophy’, and as such the reason for using this word, is the same though:
to provide fundamental values that underpin the companies’ operating and functioning.
While all the words we can use to describe current practice are marked by production, consumption, control,
rationality, management and other expressions that indicate getting a grasp on the process, at the same time
words in the vicinity of ‘ideas’, ‘ideals’, ‘concepts’, ‘artistic’, ‘creativity’, ‘originality’ and ‘inspiration’ still
exist yet strangely distance themselves from where we stand. We use the two words ‘theorizing’ and ‘design’
to designate the one thing we do is in fact both: that research is a form of design, and design is a form of
research. The idea(l) of the singular projection of a vision, as expounded by (st)architects, still exist, yet
when one speaks this language of totality, it feels strangely detached, megalomaniac and hollow. This hollow
shows exactly the discrepancy between the architectural tradition and its intellectual heritage, and the daily
practice. The impossibility to describe architecture with the old words and distinctions betrays the architect
rom their pragmatic seats, that it is no longer their own language they speak - It is exactly architecture’s being
part of a functioning system, that prevents architecture from having a language of its own. Just as well as
the architect doesn’t have autonomous control over the product as a creator, the architectural field doesn’t
control its words or language that has always been handed down to him from the horizon from which it can
no longer claim itself to be seperate.21 The hidden force that pushes the whole speaks through architecture,
as it does through every endeavour that maintains our society. The architecture desperately seeks to maintain
a position manipulating and producing images in a field of global instrumentality and uniformity that is
neither invented nor projected by a single person or avant-garde, but emerges as the ongoing series of that
which we call now, tentatively ‘architecture’. Without words to speak of that which we do, waiting in the
hollow of this silent rustling while new architectural languages are yet to develop, where do we stand? How
is one to speak in such a case?
VII - Forwards: Breaking the silence
One might here very well ask, if one cannot speak anymore of an identity-crisis, how I can speak of this impossibility
without pretending to position myself outside of the socio-architectural field with this impossibility as my object.
A metaphysical position outside and above the practice in which I take part, with a view of the horizon? Or, in a
narrower circle, where do I position myself - how does this paper contribute to architectural practice or discourse if
there still is such a thing after my just having identified its pragmatic nature. Let me, as postscript in closing this
essay, try to formulate a tentative response to this more than justified question.
21 | In fact, the horizon character of that which surrounds us, would already dictate that in no single case our language is ours but is
always already handed down to us and marked by that unguided movement of something bigger than us. By cultural changes that are
neither invented nor instigated by single persons, but are translated and made visible by some.
17
I would first have to profess that my interest and position in this context is not and could not be purely
philosophical, but stems rather from an interest in the middle-ground between the architectural practice in
which I participate professionally and the cultural context which surrounds both architecture as well as me
personally. My interest and concern in understanding current architectural developments in their cultural
context can only be understood in the pragmatic sense of wanting to improve what I think might be lacking
in architectural practice. Perhaps an understanding of where we stand now will give us insight in how and
where to look for different directions to explore.
The pragmatic and replicative understanding of architecture point towards a double isolation of our practice:
a self-referentialism that isolates current practice from the context in which it functions, as well as an isolation
from the temporal aspect of architecture owing to a lack of debate about how to deal in current practice with
the flexibility and unpredictability of the future. Let there be no mistake, pragmatism in this sense is here
to stay, and we will have to deal with it. That doesn’t mean, quite to the contrary, that we should not invent
new paths and roads towards new architectures and new ways of engaging in architecturing. Concerning the
main focus of this essay, architecture’s relation to its cultural context’, its exterior, I would arrgue that we do
need to refamiliarize ourselves with a critical approach and a concern about the relation between the practice
of architecture and the society in which it functions, and the future significance of current projects.
The real significance of replicative thinking as we have discussed it, should force us to re-adress the question
how to ‘do’ architecture without knowing where it is going or where the society in functions in is going
- which direction to go when at once there can be no one future, nothing to work towards. How should
one build for a future who’s meaning is not yet formed, while every positive contribution to architecture
necessarily fixes meaning. The very nature of a building as a during materiality is at odds with the flexibility
and changeability with which we confront ‘the future’. Can, or should, we engage in more socio-cultural
relations while knowing that ultimately the buildings’ context changes? Can one still generate contemporary
design spaces, knowing that the reality will be both different and indifferent? Would an investment in
greater diversity enhance future usefullness or the continued emergence of meaningfull and relevant uses?
More than ever, this awareness means that architecture hovers over a schism between the need to relate to
society now and function within its restraints yet keep open the futures.
This uncertainty should however not hold back but rather stimulate debate. Perhaps there is something
to be said for the tone of lament that echoed through this article, a concern for the loss of architecture’s
relation to ‘something bigger’. The absence of an ideological concern about society should not dictate that
the architectural debate be limited to its own self-referential audience, and completely forget about society. 22
It should rather include knowledge and discussion from different fields of expertise that form its context.
Perhaps an inclusion within the practice of architectural debate and theorizing of the various issues and topics
that surround architecture and interact with it, will not only refertilize the architectural soil on which to build,
but should also enhance the performance of architecture in its context. If, as we stated in ‘the pragmatics
of architecture’, the whole field of architecture cannot be seen as isolated but rather as functioning within a
larger whole, is it at the very least strange that its current debate is so solipsistic. For if theory and debate is
to contemplate the normative field within which to judge architecture, should these performative norms not
at least have practical relevance and firm relation to the context in which architecture is to function?
A shift from the building oriented business models to focussing on the problem-solving and thinkingservice
that is architecture’s main business, might even help in getting the architect out of the slums of
business and claim its real value. Perhaps shifting the margins in several directions might even allow for
some space for more creative solutions to emerge and result in larger diversity, which, with an eye on the
uncertainty of the future meaning of today’s practice, can surely only be a good thing. It is up to architects
to find, constantly in fact, new verbal and formal languages with which to speak not just about architectural
projects, but also about the performance, the potential, the environment, the relevance, and the position of
this ‘architecturing’ that takes place.
22 | Stefan Koller at the section Philosophy of the Faculty Technology, Policy and Management at Delft University of Technology, the
Netherlands, seems to present a similar argument in the article: ‘Architects on Value: Reducing Ethics to Aesthetics?’.