here we are.
we are here.
here we are.
we are here.
Mark Wigley in conversation with WC, G and VL. Recorded March 5, 2014
WC: We want to start with the fact that Derrida’s earliest published works are about Husserl, the so-called father of Phenomenology. It is apparent that there is a genealogical link between Phenomenology and post-structuralist theory, currently two rather different discursive threads in architecture.
MW: Well, Derrida’s thinking is never separate from the tradition that it is critiquing. His position is based on a dissection of the way Western philosophy operates. When you hear that dissection it sounds like the whole thing is going to collapse, because you think there has to be a ground on which the thing stands. He does not say, “I show you that there’s no ground so everything falls down.” Instead, he says, “I show you there’s no ground and it is therefore really impressive that it doesn’t fall down.” The absence of ground is where things are actually constructed. They are built out of this enigma and gain their strength from it. Derrida is never outside the thing that he’s undoing, and the undoing is not a collapsing or taking apart, but a form of deep analysis. He can never extract himself, or does not want to extract himself, from Phenomenology. He’s demonstrating that Phenomenology repeats all of the tropes of the tradition of Western philosophy that it wants to undo. He remains, in that sense, a card-carrying phenomenologist, and this becomes very clear when he talks about Heidegger in the most Heideggerian way.
When architects reached out to Phenomenology, they felt like it was healing a wound—that it would provide the missing magic: the essence of architecture. Phenomenology’s foregrounding of experience seemed very close to the idea of the experience of space, of life, and of time. It felt like architecture was being talked about. It was enormously helpful that Heidegger was always using the examples of little huts and bridges and things like that. It seemed like he was the right guy for the job. People in architecture that were reading Heidegger were not really reading him, although some of his texts like “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” were on every architecture school’s reading list around the world.1 You can’t underestimate how widespread this virus was. But the level of understanding of that text was minimal, at best. Why would we ask architects to become philosophers or be able to read philosophy philosophically? Architects read it carnivorously, which was fine. But there were certain people in architecture who believed that they authentically understood the truth of all this stuff. They acted as import agents. There was a guy named Dalibor Vesely, who was just this agent for disseminating a particular reading of Phenomenology. He was associated with Joseph Rykwert and the school in Cambridge, which had many victims over the years. There is a whole chain of students of successive generations through which you can follow this influence. He was sort of a cultish figure in possession of a magical truth.
In the end, this particular way of celebrating Phenomenology was a kind of devotion that took the form of belief veiling doubt in the way that we have discussed—complete with a sort of chanting. Certain architects would feel themselves to be the natural inheritors of that, like Daniel Libeskind and John Hejduk to some extent. The whole school of thought perfected a maneuver from architecture to philosophy and back without any awareness of the violence being done to both fields. Nobody in that group really wanted to know what that philosophy was doing. They didn’t want to go so deep.
So when Derrida arrived, this was bad news for them, because he was going to go very deep and it all became a bit tricky. The so-called post-structuralist thinking in architecture began to undo this uncritical love affair between architecture and Phenomenology. You could say it’s a reversal of the love that Phenomenology had for kind of a cartoon image.
WC: Before we get to the dissemination of this superficial reading of Phenomenology, which becomes embodied in the word experience, these things are, like what you are saying, cartoons taken out of these texts.
MW: Right. To read is always to violate—a faithful reading is violent. It sees in the text what the author didn’t think that they were saying. Phenomenology was in this sense creatively used by architects to legitimize their own practice, giving it a kind of aura.
There was an aura to the human body and its experience of the lived world—as well as a lot of writing about the building and the experience of the body as a kind of magic.
WC: And the word magic itself, before Phenomenology became magical, was way of approaching history and theory, calling into question the strict separation of subject and object, and the nature of subjectivity in relation to history. How do you position yourself with that type of historical approach, that way of constructing history?
MW: At sort of a more abstract level, you can’t make the clear separation between a theorist and a historian, which could be also the difference between a more philosophical and a more historical mode of thinking. There isn’t philosophy without history. Plato devotes himself to the thought of things that go beyond history, the transcendental ideas beyond space and time. In order to construct the idea that there is something beyond history, he tells stories and uses a kind of history. His dialogues are all stories in a sense. But the reverse is also true. There is no history without theory. To tell a story you have to evoke things that are not part of the story—truths that are seen to be unaffected by that story or any particular story.
When Husserl writes Origin of Geometry, the origin meaning the beginning, he tells the history of geometry, that which supposedly goes beyond history.
That is the beauty of Husserl’s argument, to explain how the trans-historical object is produced within history. This is of great relevance to architects since architectural theory in the west begins with the thought that an object produced in a certain place and time resonates with the harmonies of the cosmos that transcend place and time. Husserl goes further to embed the transcendental within the everyday transactions of lived space. There is, as it were, a continual rebirth of truth in the space and time of lived experience.
Derrida’s work begins with a reading of Husserl’s book that shows how it remains within the metaphysical tradition it wants to escape. The arrival of post-structuralist thought in architecture is therefore not by chance a moment when the status of history and theory is kind of blurred. There is a group that would self-identity as theorists, and this was partially true of figures like Eisenman, but much truer of a generation later, my generation, who were known as theorists. What people meant by that was post-structuralist. We were neither more nor less theoretical than anyone else. Theory was going to take over and control architecture, because it was still thought of as a set of rules. The earlier group who wrote in a kind of poetic way was opposed to and by a younger group of analysts whose writing was very technical, very complex. We were denounced for being difficult to read. “It’s such hard work, why does theory have to be so hard?”
To which we would say, “Would you like your doctor to write poetically about the condition of your body or would you like them to use the technical language appropriate to the analysis of your medical condition?” We were of the view that even if what architects were producing was poetry, the analysis of it was not necessarily another form of poetry.
G: This younger generation of analysts accused architectural phenomenologists of mishandling the themes of postmodern theory, such as universal human experience. They also viewed phenomenologists as operating in political bad-faith, in so far as it purported to stand for a place-based architectural practice found in marginal regions in the world. The older generation rebuts that often post-structural theorists were without political commitment, turning the term “pluralism” into a toothless relativity where every idea is given equal value.2
MW: I hesitate in the same way that I hesitated on in your previous question because the word postmodernism was unimportant for this group of theorists I’m talking about.
WC: Because it hadn’t been invented? The word “postmodernism?”
MW: No. It totally existed. It had ruled, but was of no interest to this group at all. Postmodernism existed in a double meaning at that time. It applied to postmodern classicism in architecture, while within the world of critical theory it was used to refer to post-structuralist theory.
Because postmodernism was an aesthetic tendency within architecture, post-structuralist theorists had no use for the word, or any interest in it. If you wanted to trash theory, you would put it into the same box with postmodernism. You’d say this was a symptom of postmodernism. Of course, the theorists were saying it wasn’t a symptom of anything. Jorge Otero-Pailos is different because for him postmodernism itself was the thing he wanted to analyze—particularly its use and abuse of Phenomenology. It’s his subject. But he’s from the next generation: the grandkids, super interesting.
The so-called theorists were sometimes accused of being apolitical. In other words, the technical and complex arguments used by post-structuralists to open architecture up to different understandings were seen as a sort of de-politicization of architecture. To which theorists replied, “oh, contraire!” What post-structuralist theory does is bring all of the forbidden subjects to architectural discourse: race, sex, gender, and post-colonial identity. The general context was a late Marxist despair at the nature of architecture’s relationship to capital. So, you had a group of people who felt that to be serious about politics was to be serious about money—using the economy as the master term—and a new generation for whom the idea of a master term was the political problem.
The concern of the new generation was to avoid a fetishization of capital as the only analytic framework and the concern of the older generation was that a building that questions its own identity might still be deployed as a form of corporate decoration. These were two different ways of understanding architecture’s complicity with systems of authority. The debate should have been more interesting but the younger generation was not very impressed by the older generation that talked about political engagement. They were never seen on the street, or fighting any battle, and were in no way progressive within their own institutions—the language of engagement was used as a cover for inactivity.
VL: So, moving back into Phenomenology, Heidegger, in relation to the pre-Socratics, was concerned with finding the original element from which all things are made…
MW: The philosophical question has always been how do to get something out of nothing. It is a question that resonates with architects who are asked to make something, and not just anything, but a thing that talks about its own thingness. This is crude way to say it, but the architect is asked to make an object that foregrounds its own objecthood. It actually says to you, “I’m an object, think about that.” Getting back to the pre-Socratics, the question was, “Out of the original chaos, the nothing, how is there now something?” This, by the way, is the question that Husserl echoed when he asked, “How do you produce the timeless in time?”
At some level, the mission of the philosopher and the mission of the architect are inseparable. To do the work of philosophy, you’re going to invent the figure of the architect. In the case of the pre-Socratics, they invent the demiurge, the figure of the creator. Before the idea of god is the idea of the demiurge, the maker. The philosophical quest to understand being, the existence of something out of nothing, to produce a distinction, to draw a line, is very close to the figure of the architect—as the person who draws the line and makes the distinctions. You can think of the architect as a kind of accessory to philosophy, an example of the example that serves to explain or legitimize all the other examples. Architecture serves as the example of the way objects or situations can exemplify a principle. When Plato wants to explain what the other-worldly world of ideas beyond space and time is he says, “Think of the builder. First he has the idea, and then he builds it.” He invokes the figure who translates immaterial ideas into the material world. This figure, arkitekton, later the “architect” is a requirement of philosophy. Knowing this we architects say back to the philosophers, “We’re not just any old discipline; we are your evidence.” Philosophers know this too, and find themselves writing about architecture all the time, not always so well, or hardly ever well. When the architect meets the philosopher, it’s like the slightly awkward meeting with a long-lost cousin and we think we might get something back from the deal. If philosophy needs architecture to think of itself, perhaps architecture could get more respect, in the university for example.
When Phenomenology came around, it looked like a direct path to renewing the pact between the language of philosophy and the language of architectural production and reflection.
But of course, every architect and every student in this school has to produce something out of nothing. There is this magic—what other word would apply? Because as long as it is nothing in the beginning and something in the end, then it is magic by definition—you can’t negotiate a path between something and nothing, it’s a leap. In Heidegger’s thinking, it is all about that leap. It is what Heidegger calls the thrown-ness of the world. As you know, a lot of Derrida’s writing is about this. We are thrown into being, projected into being. The very word “project” at the heart of architectural discourse means to throw. Architecture is all about throwing. And throwing is not to fling something from A to B. To be thrown is to suddenly arrive somewhere as something sometime without knowing what came before. The sense to be is to have been thrown. Like a baby must feel when they are born—there are definitely some kids who want to go back in. [laughs] Maybe all kids want to go back in, but “in” becomes the breast. The sense of where you have been thrown from is retroactively constructed from where you find yourself.
In the famous essay, “The Conflict of the Faculties,” Immanuel Kant tries to show how all the foundations of all schools are the same in the end—that knowledge is built up as one.3 What Heidegger does is to show that every discipline is thrown. Architecture doesn’t sit on anything, it is thrown. Here we are.
We are here. So actually, the university rests on doubt. Because there is doubt, you engage with this thing, with this doubt, which is where you have come from. That is magic. The world of the university is the world of explanation. It will explain everything to you. But what the university cannot explain is itself, because it too was thrown into being. If you are in my camp, you say it is amazing to think of architecture this way. Architects are not the curators of solidity, of stability as the manifest mission, but are actually responsible for covering up the thrown-ness of things, the lack of security, stability and so on. We are experts in covering the weirdness. The gesture of the architect is profoundly philosophical in a double sense. When I make an architectural object, an object that speaks about itself, I demonstrate the ability to have an object, and to have something out of nothing. It is also fundamentally a theoretical act, even a philosophical act. I actually don’t need to have an object. I just need to have a discourse about that object. Architectural schools incubate the discourse in which a certain type of object may or may not appear. The people who believe in Phenomenology couldn’t be more conservative from this perspective. This is just the worst of religion, it is unambiguously religion.
WC: We discussed an additive to modernity as an easy way to deal with the lack of truth.
MW: I have an almost physical revulsion against this kind of acquiescence to the ideology of solidity, the “truth” of lived experience.
From the perspective of the pseudo-phenomenologists in architecture, where the truth lies in lived experience, how could any single experience or architectural project be valued over another? The paradox is that these people are very much interested in judging, so of course they secretly invoke criteria from outside lived-experience to endorse certain objects over others. So it’s all fake in the end.
WC: Hilariously enough, at the beginning of your class, you said, “You don’t need to read all of these books.” The point being that a lot of the ideas within them are disseminated to such a degree that you don’t even need to read it. The ideas are already in the vocabulary and language we are using. In what ways do you think Phenomenology itself has performed like this? How does it live now outside of the book?
MW: Phenomenology had a big influence in the previous decades, and it didn’t quite go away. It is still hanging around and returns in the language of juries, for example. You could tape record a jury and identify at which point the members of the jury were invoking a phenomenological account. Because what we have done so far is deal with it as though it were a sports match, like the great Monty Python sketches of philosophers running around on the soccer field. We have treated the phenomenologists as a team on one side and the theory generation of the 80’s as an opposing team. One team likes to act as marketing agents for architects, explaining why a building is so magical.
The other team wants to talk about what it means to explain, what a building is and what magic is. But these are cartoon images. It’s not so much that there are these two positions; most people are operating between these positions or mixing them. There is so much talk about the end of theory—as if there is no longer even a match.
WC: We’ve heard that here, in lectures too.
MW: Right. It’s untrue of course. In reality what happened is that theory got institutionalized in so many different ways. The most obvious form of that is to have a dean of an architectural school that is a theorist—not just this school, almost every school. In some senses, post-structuralist analysis became an integral part of the discourse. For a couple of years a new group of theorists promoted themselves by speaking about a post-theory moment. These were very confused people. They all had one thing in common: for whatever reason, they were not able to write academic books, and displaced this into a generalized disdain for theory. This is a sad or cruel fact. So they said, “What if the real responsibility of theory was to write articles about practicing architects? What if that was our real destiny in life?” And this group also needed to deal with the problem that their parents seemed to be having a good time, so as card-carrying adolescents, they had to rebel. The strongest form of rebellion was to say that theory doesn’t work, which is a problem because they were all theorists.
They wrote hilariously hypocritical theoretical texts saying one shouldn’t do theory. My reaction was always like, “Hey! You are probably right, not everybody should do theory. If you want to write about famous architects, write away. But you don’t need to tell us that you are doing it. You certainly don’t have to theorize why you are doing it since theory is what you want to leave behind. Just do it.” They all run schools now so they have discretely withdrawn their argument and now theorize education, which is great. But the main point is that the landscape of architectural theory is finally organized by many debates of which the Phenomenology/post-structuralist debate is only one. There was a battle, which was won by a pathetically small number of theorists, whose students then rebelled by calling for an end to theory in favor of advertising work for practitioners. Now we have yet another generation of scholars. In all of this, nothing ever fully leaves the stage. This creates the possibility for the return of Phenomenology.
WC: The vacancy.
MW: Last question?
WC: There is confusion about Phenomenology for a few different reasons. The meaning of the word has changed over time. It has been appropriated by different people in both theory and practice. The way it is appropriated is different. The word has this subtle negative connotation.
It is important for us in this issue to bring up the word because of its negative connotation, to ask why. What do you think the role of Phenomenology is in the school now, as a belief? Has the word changed in its present use?
MW: At any moment, there is the sense that certain qualities of architectural experiences need to become central to the life of the school. Could there be such a thing as a school of architecture in which a sort of primal experience of the object and of one’s own experience is never invoked? Is it technically possible? Of course, my answer would be it is impossible. None of us can escape the lure of the object, nor want to. But this doesn’t require us to subscribe to a philosophical framework seen to come from a “higher” discipline. A school needs to devote itself to the thought that architecture itself is the meta-discipline.
1 Heidegger, Martin. “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper & Row, 1971 .
2 See Introduction to Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern. Jorge Oteros-Pailos, xiv
3 Kant, Immanuel. The Conflict of the Faculties. New York, New York: Abaris Books, 1979