Yehuda Safran and Daniel Sherer in conversation. Moderated by IKL and LV. Recorded October 7th, 2013
IKL: We’re going to pose a provocation and then have you both discuss it.
LV: Let us start with this statement: “there is no architecture without writing.” This statement can be broken down into two parts. First, architecture by itself is unintelligible and therefore requires a supplementary medium through which it can manifest and be understood. Second, it assumes that architecture is a thing to be written— it needs an author.
IKL: We are especially interested in this relationship between theory and practice and between theory and writing; theory as not just something applied to form. Is there theory without writing? And if so, what other forms can it take?
DS: In class today, we talked about the phenomenon of the semiliterate and non-literate architect in the Renaissance, who could however be extremely “literate” and eloquent through a drawing or a model. So you could say that architectural writing or language is in the representational conventions of architecture itself and it doesn’t need a supplement. On the other hand, there are other aspects, which are equally important, such as the Vitruvian idea that there is a theory before practice. However, even Vitruvius was a military engineer who drew on his own empirical background.
So, I prefer to emphasize that practice is in a certain sense prior to theory. After which a dialectic is set up. Therefore writing, drawing and building are all caught up in a complementary cycle. You can enter that cycle at any point. It is true though that over the course of architectural history it would be rare to find as erudite a theorist as Vitruvius, who supposedly was not a very good architect. Alberti, whose architecture is at best experimental and fragmentary, was the most theoretical writer. In the modern period, Mies wrote very little. What he wrote was simply a reflection of his practice. He was very terse. Corbusier was more like Alberti. He’s an extraordinary writer— literary and theoretical. But really, it was his practice which drove him.
LV: So you’re saying Le Corbusier’s theory didn’t drive…
DS: This touches on something Jean-Louis Cohen brings up in the new translation of Vers Une Architecture. He says that Corbusier’s theoretical and written production is more famous than his actual built work. I thought to myself, this is a counterfactual argument. We can’t imagine Le Corbusier just as a theorist. That’s absurd. And do you remember what Leonardo said? He said theory and practice are two legs and they walk together… Yehuda, what do you think?
YS: I think there is a discomfort about the relationship between theory and practice or writing.
It is like physics, which up until the 20th century was known as physics, and then beginning in the 20th century, there was something called…
DS+YS: Theoretical physics.
YS: And very fast, theoretical physics became more important, scientifically speaking. Theoretically, the breakthroughs since Einstein were not made in a laboratory but in your head, in thinking and writing…
DS: So it is more of a conceptual approach…
YS: Einstein was not a great writer, but he wrote. What he wrote made more of an impact then anything else. And in fact, some people didn’t accept that the origin of physics is made in the mind and writing. For example, the slightly older Ernst Mach, rejected the interpretation of the atoms as the real structure of matter in the name of empirical evidence. Unfortunately he died before the empirical evidence came through fifteen years later when Eric Chaisson, the English astronomer, went to small island opposite Brazil and observed deviation of light beams in celestial bodies close enough to the sun to have visible effects.
DS: So you are saying the empirical proof of Einstein’s theories gave it more credence…
YS: For ordinary people…
DS: Yea, but not for Einstein.
YS: He couldn’t care less… Concerning your other question, it has been said that there is nothing more human than language. How could there be something that addresses itself to human issues without language? It’s inconceivable. The role we play in a particular time in a particular world is varied, but you cannot doubt the singular importance of words. As the poet says, it is not enough to do something. You need someone who will put it into words.
YS: Even Adam in the Old Testament is given a task of naming all the animals.
DS: This brings up another important point about language and architecture. This is the origin of crisis, the origin of the hired or operative critic who has to be paid to praise, when in fact the architect could also be a theoretical animal naming himself in a way.
YS: Like Palladio…
DS: Palladio is a good example. Le Corbusier, too, wrote about himself under a pseudonym…
YS: Palladio had done his work before making his criticism.
DS: And then he altered his work to make it look good, "idealizing" it in his treatise.
YS: There was the word “promotion.” You see, it is very complicated because some people didn’t write much, but were surrounded by people who did write and speak… for example Mies van der Rohe.
DS: Great example.
YS: His first client was a philosopher, Alois Riehl, and he was the authority in Berlin on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Mies was invited to supper regularly because, like Riehl, he had no children of his own. At these dinners he met people like Heinrich Wolfflin, and in fact, Wolfflin was engaged to a young woman and Mies stole her from him…
DS: Well, the young lady sounded like she was willing…
YS: Other people like Robert Musil, who was a student of Ernst Mach, came to these dinners. So Mies did not write very much, but he was fully engaged with people of letters.
DS: I also wanted to address another aspect of your question. You talk about the authorial identity, however identity is not a good word — I would rather say the status of the author. The architect as an author. I would say you can be an author without having written in two dimensions. Yehuda used to study under a professor of architectural history and theory named Joseph Rykwert. He wrote two texts in the 70’s that were very intriguing. One is called “On Adam’s House in Paradise,” which is about the obsession with origins, primitivism, etc. The other is called “The Idea of a Town,” which is a very important book. He also wrote a small essay in the 80s called, “On the Oral Transmission of Architectural Theory.” The essay discusses how architectural theory could be transmitted orally in the medieval, classical and even the Renaissance period without any writing. In a way, you could be the author of a discourse without writing.
YS: You could say that any tradition on any subject is both written and oral.
LV: I would say that when the spoken word is the dominant mode of transmitting an idea, the single author becomes obsolete.
DS: No, I disagree. Vico pointed out, in the New Science of 1744, that the fact that Homer sang doesn’t mean he is not an author. It is a collective authorship. It’s strengthened and unified, not dispersed.
The Greek imagination is transmitted orally and then it is written down in a later period. But the fact that it is written down is almost a contingency. Now if you want to go into a Derridian argument, which is based upon the opposition between phonocentrism versus logocentrism, then that’s a different story. But I am more of a Viconian. I dare say you are too. You are more interested in Vico, Yehuda, or am I overstating the case?
YS: Derrida is not to be compared with Vico.
DS: No, I am talking about the oral versus the written.
YS: That Derrida objected to the oral and insisted that there is only the written is an exaggeration.
DS: Total exaggeration. He would say, of course, that we are exaggerating the Viconian side.
YS: He probably arrived at this point in despair. The despair was to make a place for himself.
DS: There is the idea in the era of the structuralism and post-structuralism— even though I don’t like the term post-structuralism because it’s too general and lumps everyone together— the death of the author doesn’t mean that the author dies as such. You have a discourse that lives.
YS: It’s more complicated because the big turning point is the status of rational thinking— the demise of structuralism as a framework.
DS: As a paradigm.
YS: Rationality has a very complicated trajectory. You can imagine that in the early 20th century, it became even more complicated and doubtful. One of the most important books, Adorno and Horkeimer’s…
DS: Dialektik der Aufklärung.
YS: The Dialectic of Enlightenment precisely brings out the dark side of this problem. People who did the most terrible things were not people who dislike reason, nor did they like the possibility of losing instrumental knowledge. When knowledge becomes so instrumentaI, the crisis ensues. I mean, think of the reaction, for example, of the German scientist who did not produce the atomic bomb while they could have. When they were rounded up at the end of the war in a farmhouse in northern England, north of Cambridge, they heard of the bomb on the radio and they were in tears on the floor. They said to each other, “ how is it possible that our good friends in America made it when we didn’t?” Very few physicists, like Wolfgang Pauli for example, called the physicists who participated in the Manhattan project “the gangsters.”
Why am I saying this? It is because instrumental knowledge was in terrible crisis in the 20th century. Not just conceptual, but a human, and hence also an existential crisis.
YS: Yes, an ethical crisis. It’s profound, and that is why the question of authority comes up and why the question of hermeneutics as a system of interpretation comes up for questioning. As Hans Georg Gadamer famously asked, “was ist Hermeneutik?” What is the theory of interpretation? Hans Robert Jauss answered this question by stating “hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation in the absence of authority.”
DS: Even though he became a Nazi.
YS: That’s what he did as a young man. But my point is that in the foreground of your question is also the question of authority.
DS: And the crisis of rationality.
YS: The use of language to establish authority is very common I would say.
DS: That makes perfect sense. I agree with that. On the other hand, when you use the term “demise of reason,” I wouldn’t say reason has undergone demise, I would say it has undergone a crisis.
The Adorno-Horkeimer argument would say that reason is not over with. It is not dead. It has just gone under a terrible eclipse.
YS: No, reason cannot die. Just as human beings are capable of language they are capable of reason.
DS: But as to your reading of the degradation of reason through its reduction to instrumental rationality as opposed to the relation to ethical rationality— I totally agree with that.
YS: I think that what we have is a kind of rational insight. I think that every human being is born with a rational insight.
DS: A potential for it.
[Enters Kenneth Frampton]
KF: I like that!
D: Oh Ken! Come sit down and have a talk with us.
KF: I’m late! I’m late!
YS: It is like Alice in Wonderland, “I am late.”
[Exits Kenneth Frampton]
DS: He is totally the march hare! That means I must be Alice and you must be the Red Queen. Off with his head! Isn’t it true that Martin Luther said that reason is a whore, she would give herself to any argument.
YS: Martin Luther understood early on that the reason is whore. Well, also in Alice in Wonderland, who tells Alice that if you pay a word extra…? And many architects tried to engage other people, such as writers and patrons, to make their argument for them. And some were doing it outright explicitly and some were doing it more discreetly. Everyone is engaged in this kind of war of attrition. Every architect wants his position, or lack of it, to be pronounced by people who count. And everyone knows, for example, that Louis Kahn would never have had the position at Yale without…
DS: Without Vincent Scully.
YS: And some people did both, like Philip Johnson.
DS: Tafuri comes into this discussion in many ways. Tafuri said you could have an architectural discourse that is neither mere apologetics nor militancy nor operative criticism, you could have one that engages a dialectic between critical participation and historical detachment.
So, as a historian you could have some sort of detachment from the work, without ever achieving complete objectivity, and as a critic you could be closer to fighting for the work. You could be both operative in one sense and scholarly in another. And this is what is so often forgotten nowadays; that you could only be like Luther’s whore of reason in the service of an instrumentality or there’s nothing else. But actually Tafuri thought there were different levels.
YS: Pierre Hadot said that thinking is never without motivation. The quality of a man’s thought is determined by his motivation, not by the technicalities of his abilities. There are many people who do not really think or their thinking is a disaster, like the young Norberg-Schulz. Also the people who became Nazis or Fascists— some of them were perfectly capable of thinking.
DS: Heidegger is a good example.
YS: Except that Heidegger restricted his thought to his own inner dialogue. He thought that everything was given to him directly by the god. Being itself spoke to him.
DS: A good Catholic.
YS: No surprise that sometimes he reached a completely false conclusion. But my point is that it is very important to appreciate that thinking, like architecture, is not just a technicality; it is not just that you can think, that you can design…
DS: It’s your motivations.
YS: Right. What drives you sometimes determines the quality more than the ability to execute this or that.
DS: Architecture is certainly a form of thought. But it is a different form of thought than literature, a different form of thought than music. For instance, for Beethoven, you don’t read his letters or theoretical writings because there are no theoretical writings, you listen to Beethoven. Or play it. His thought is in his music. A work of art is its own justification.
DS: Right. I think what you said about motivation is profoundly correct and convincing. Look at Foucault, all of his work, all that multifarious critical and theoretical and historical work, but for what? For political purpose. It was always militantly political at some level to expose the capillary workings of power at every level. And it is not engagement in the existentialist sense, he was certainly not complicit with that tendency in any way. In fact, he was opposed to Sartre. It was critical resistance through the mobilization of subjugated forms of knowledge. By the way, LEFT architects see themselves as partly coming out of the Foucauldian motivation. They use architecture in an ironic way, sometimes a serious way, to expose relations of power. In some sense they are a left version of Rem Koolhaas.
Rem himself, by the way, was interested in Foucault and Tafuri and turned their theories into apologetics for the existing world, neutralizing them. He actually met Foucault at Cornell in the 1970s.
YS: Took drugs with him.
DS: And look at the result! This idea is very clear, while you need an intention, you can’t reduce architecture or any art form or any discourse to intention, but it’s there. We need intention and motivation, we need to know the direction that you’re going, even if it is unconscious that comes to light in the process of making a project. Don’t you think?
YS: Yea, though I think there are cases where it is important not to. Someone like Luis Barragan in Mexico City. It was politically, humanly…
DS: A horror…
YS: It must have been, I never met him…
YS: But I knew from people who did, he was a reactionary…
YS: Terrible man but he made wonderful beautiful architecture.
DS: There are a lot of people who could be seen as terrible human beings but make marvelous architecture. I am not saying Frank Lloyd Wright was a terrible human being, but he was a complex human being. He ran off with a client’s wife, causing a lot of troubles. I don’t advise you as an architect to do that.
YS: But, listen, the point isn’t about…
YS: The point is that, in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, he was very much affected by certain writings…
DS: John Ruskin?
YS: Ruskin early on, but through one of his wives Wright became interested in feminism and German Romanticism. Yes, Frank Lloyd Wright probably got it from her! So the benefit from writing was multiple. And the next one, Olga, was a follower of the mystic Gurdjief. So, again you have language. Your subject is actually…
YS: Very large.
DS: Also I think Frank Lloyd Wright may have had contact with the ideas of Gottfried Semper through the office of…
YS: Dankmar Adler. Semper is very good example of what we’re discussing because his architecture is really unfortunate: the Dresden Oper, ETH’s Hauptgebäude in Zurich. He was very much a historicist…
DS: A neo-historicist.
YS: But as a theoretician…
DS: Surely pivotal.
YS: He was absolutely amazing.
DS: One of the most important ever! He had a huge impact indirectly on Frank Lloyd Wright.
YS: So you could say those with the most developed theoretical insight in architecture were not the best architects.
DS: Those who built nothing have a huge impact on architecture. Like Piranesi, who built one renovation, Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill in Rome, has a huge impact, albeit delayed, on the French, and then on the Russians avant-gardists in the 20th century.
YS: Even Eisenstein’s technique of the montage is from Piranesi.
DS: He was trained as an architect, his father was an architect.
YS: And then you have the enormous topic of architecture and cinema.
DS: But that is another story, to be dealt with on another occasion.
YS: The effect of cinema on architecture is vast, and I would say it’s another form of writing if you like.