Mark Wigley in conversation with IKL and W. Recorded March 3, 2014.
IKL: In “Towards Turbulence,” you wrote: “to agitate is to shake, but nothing seems to be shaking in our field, there are no quakes or shocks, or even mild tremors. Despite all the talk of New World Orders, new technologies, new crises of energy and morality, our architecture seems resolutely static. The main effect of all of this discourse about the new is just to confirm that architecture is, in fact, old.” 1 We would like to start with this idea of turmoil, or lack thereof in this case. Are beliefs rooted in turbulence? Do we form them in moments of crisis or in moments of stagnation? And in what ways are they produced by doubt?
MW: If you really know something to be true, that is different from believing it to be true, right? So even the word “belief” has doubt built into it. “I believe in it” means “I live it,” “I act as if it is true but at some level acknowledge that it is a belief, a state of mind.” So in belief, doubt is being suppressed, being pushed aside. It requires a certain gesture of commitment, which is not the same as knowing that thing or being one with that thing. So belief is an action in relationship to doubt. It’s the putting aside of doubt. Not removing it, it’s lurking around, organizing things. This is particularly clear in religion. All religions deal with doubt because their currency is belief. The environment of gestures of belief and actions of belief, believers and actions of believers, is doubt.
We could go one step further and say that to believe in something is always more interesting than to know something to be true, for this very reason. It is an action in relation to something and the desire to share this action. To say, “I really believe in architecture, I think it’s just great,” is to say, “I want you to know.” It is almost an invitation to join.
IKL: So embedded in belief is this desire to convert.
MW: Yes. Belief is social, or is the very aspiration to the social. It’s possible that social life requires shared beliefs or is at least a conversation about possible shared beliefs. When you look at belief in relationship to architecture, it becomes very interesting. Architecture has had this social function of acting as a kind of reassurance in the face of doubt. It almost acts as an image of self-evident truth or self-confidence, right? But the architectural object is first built in the environment of doubt or turmoil that you talked about. It’s almost constructed there. Maybe it is constructed at the very epicenter of doubt. Architecture would then be that thing that I place right where my doubt is highest.
The tombstone is the most emblematic example of this. No one understands death, particularly the death of a loved one. Maybe one can only feel the depth of one’s love for someone in the inability to accept their absence. So a solid object is placed right there, where you don’t know. I inscribe a name on a piece of stone in many religions, but not all, and I place it right where I am most traumatized as a site I can revisit to re-engage with the doubt. I quite literally build a tombstone on doubt. Now if you generalize that thought, architecture is a statement of confidence built where we are not certain. Architects are called in to act when and where people are unsure.
IKL: Can you expand more on the relationship between knowledge and belief? Belief has a murky relationship with knowledge. It’s an expression of doubt but also operates more like “received” knowledge, in the sense that you simply give in, buy into and accept it. Whereas ideology is predicated more on a logic or system of understanding.
MW: Belief comes before or after knowledge. If I knew, I wouldn’t say “I believe.” Belief is a statement of confidence in the absence of evidence for that confidence. It is only ever a statement that is something shared. It is the statement itself and the statement floats without evidence to pin it down. Making the statement allows it to be pinned to other statements and the solidity of the links between statements, the synchronization of statements of belief, replaces the solidity of a relationship to evidence. Belief is of course central in religion precisely because that which is believed in doesn’t make itself evident. Ideology attempts to go beyond belief. It is, as it were, scientific, a formulation that can have different forms. It can be a theoretical infrastructure or be embedded in a series of rituals, behaviors, and so on. The ideological apparatus, as it used to be called, goes beyond somebody saying “A plus B equals C.” It is an organizational system. Schools of architecture, for example, have an ideology embedded into them and reproduced by them, in what the teachers say, in the syllabus, in the structuring of morning versus afternoon classes, in the kinds of words that become positive or negative, and so on. When you put all these things together, you get an ideological system, a fully formed system of knowledge. Schools are pretty efficient at protecting and communicating that knowledge. There are some schools that work with belief as their currency, I suppose. But they’re often referred to as monasteries.
W: You have previously discussed the totalizing nature of some theories…
IKL: ‘The world is this way.’
W: And the word “is.” It’s the statement of certainty embedded into a theoretical position. I wonder if we could talk about that, because it seems that many beliefs tend to be totalizing theories.
MW: Right. “Is” is a very powerful word because it invokes “Being.” Something that “is” supposedly exists independently of any statements about it. Statements of belief using “is” try to short-circuit doubt. Architects get looped into this because they produce objects that talk about the status of objects or at least are asked to do so. Architecture is both a practical craft addressing specific issues and a form of reflection on being, on what is, or could be. Architecture is not just an engagement with shelter and program but much more a reflection on what an object is, and what an object could be. One can try to wrap the whole thing up in a sort of super-theory that renders the architectural object an example of a much bigger phenomenon or you can say “I don’t really know about the world, but I know about this one object.” These two directions are always present in architectural discourse and they keep turning into each other and away from each other in a continuous rhythm because there is always a tension between theory and example.
There is no theory without examples yet every example also resists some aspect of the general theory. Theory is a form of dance, being challenged by the very examples that supposedly prop it up. It is a kind of vibration. When Manfredo Tafuri was calling for a new kind of history, he was exactly arguing for a form of writing that would undermine its own foundation, offering a kind of hypothesis that tears the previous hypothesis apart, because any temporary position could quite easily become permanent. The moment it becomes permanent it becomes ideology—it becomes a prison. The question is how to launch a kind of destabilizing theory that resists the temptation to turn itself into a monument. Tafuri was very sensitive to the fact that all avant-garde acts get swallowed up by the system. It’s destiny.
IKL: At that point they become neutralized.
MW: You have to kind of fight a continuous battle without the thought that you are going to win. We don’t get so many of these disruptive theories in architecture today, maybe because of a demand for the total explanation. If what we’ve been saying so far is true, architecture could never be fully explained because it is constructed in the site of doubt.
The more we talk about it, the more we understand the extent to which we don’t understand objects, and therefore objects don’t, as it were, push doubt to one side as they were asked to do. In a certain way, they are made of doubt. Far from the architectural object standing in front of us as a self-evident object, it acts much more as a screen, or a mask, one that we wear together in order to act like we know where are and what we’re doing. Conversation too is premised on the desire to figure out what’s going on, but not necessarily wanting to know the answer. It seems to me that this kind of conversation is possible and desirable in architectural theory. It’s kind of touchy—I was going to say touchy-feely, but that’s not exactly right. It’s a theory that is crafted and suspended in a series of questions rather than the type of theory that says, “I’ve got it all figured out.” Now, by definition, a theory that says, “I’ve got it all figured out” has not got it all figured out. Too much apparent confidence is the classic symptom to doubt. And that’s a dominant mode in our field. It’s very interesting to me that as a species, we haven’t been very successful in crafting something a little bit more tentative, in the way that most artists, and writers understand it. There is too much insistence on the idea that architects know what they are doing.
The rest of us are sprayed around in the middle, somewhere between. And yet the currency is love in all of this. This might be the third thing: if there’s knowledge and belief, then love might be deeper down that tree. Anyway, back to your questions.
W: Currently architects aren’t regarded for producing objects of doubt. Do the architect and artist deal with belief differently?
MW: A more or less traditional understanding of the figure of the artist, which I subscribe to, is that the artist helps us to see our world by producing counter-environments, what Marshall McLuhan would call an “anti-environment.” You provide an anti-environment to expose the environment that you’re in. But if it hangs around too long, the anti-environment becomes the environment. If you look at the architects whose work we really admire, their great gift was holding a kind of mirror up to the situation, not echoing the situation but interrupting it in a way that made it visible. Certainly you have a lot of architects who are inspired by art and think of themselves as artists in this way, but the architect has adopted a stealthier position: “You asked me for a house and I will give it to you. But, more than that, I will give you a new sense of self-awareness in the universe. My object is a little more expensive than a typical object, but, boy, it means everything will change.”
An artist on the other hand might say, “I'm going to make you see your own environment critically.” I think there's something about the architect, which is quite unique relative to all other professional species. I believe that more than any other field, to be a really successful architect, you have to love your projects as much as you ever love anything in your life. The idea, by the way, of the project as a child and as a baby is as old as architectural theory. It's conceived, develops, and is born. Equally, the architect, more than any other species I know, has to routinely watch this child being killed in front of them. So there are these two demands. You have to love a project, which means loving something before it has even come into being. Maybe architecture can only become something when you love it so much. Is this belief? Maybe. But then it gets shot down, because you don’t win the competition, and you have to fall in love again the next day with a different project. To win you have to be so emotionally committed to the project that it seems already realized, but the odds are that it will be killed and you will be wounded as if losing a child or a lover. But the architect, the following day, has to do it all again—like a soldier that can only survive by bonding deeply with other soldiers but can only keep surviving by immediately getting over the loss of comrade.
The architect has this capacity for serial emotional commitment in the face of horror. According to this logic, you could say the only explanation is that architects are sociopaths. And maybe there is something sociopathic about this figure, certainly when you look at the leading architects in the world, they are great examples of people who can simulate emotion but be unmoved by the death. We may be discussing a field that you need to be a masochist to join and a sociopath to rule. The rest of us are sprayed around in the middle, somewhere between these pathologies. Yet the basic currency in all of this is love. This might be the third thing to talk about: if there's knowledge and belief, then love might be deeper down that path. Anyway, back to your questions.
IKL:No, no, I think the idea of assigning a certain lifespan to a project or rather, the metaphor of a project as child, is a good way to start thinking about history and time, especially in relation to belief. Are these assigned to specific historical moments? At what point do beliefs become a way to read history? I am thinking about the way that schools of thought form around certain beliefs. The moment that enough people begin to believe in the “project”…
MW:At any one time there is a set of beliefs that organize collective thinking in a field, beliefs that operate beyond the apparent ideological framework, and at some point, might turn out to be unfounded. But the fact that the belief is unfounded doesn't interfere with its strength. Quite the opposite, that is its power.
IKL:Maybe there's a moment when beliefs get collected in a sort of mass that they begin to float. This seems like a good way to start thinking about Phenomenology and Parametricism in these issues of :. The way that certain terms, or beliefs as we are talking about them, have become so detached or distant from the moment in history that they were conceived. That at a certain point these things begin to circulate on misconception or misbelief…
MW:Right. As we have been saying, architecture is constructed within an atmosphere, environment, or ecology of doubt. I would go one step further: architecture is actually built out of that doubt. Doubt is part of the building material. Architects are asked to provide reference points in a space of doubt. But what about the question of the reference point?
Who or what is providing a reference point for the architect? An architect who is very hooked into “Parametricism” or “Phenomenology” or any of the other recipes is looking for a kind of stability and security. It gets complicated when those things that the architect is using to reinforce his or her own position or to give it some kind of meaning, are at the same time reaching out to architecture for their own stability. Philosophy is famously the search for the grounds of things, that which allows something to be. So it looks for that which is behind Being or underneath Being. It uses this metaphor of the ground, which is understood as an architectural metaphor. Buildings are seen to stand on the ground, so the search for truth is seen as the search for the ground of everything. When architects reach out to philosophy we reach out to something that's already reaching back to us. That's also what it means to be with someone else. You look to them to help you understand where you are in the universe.
But in a strong relationship they are also looking to you for the same thing. It's like two blind people giving each other sight. And that, of course, is the beautiful thing about a relationship: the sense that you each provide something for each other. There's fragility on both sides, fragility as the very source of a new kind of strength. For philosophy to think that architecture simply stands and for architecture to think that philosophy simply knows impoverishes both. Rather than simply invoke an established philosophical position or an acclaimed work of architecture, we have to ask again and again how were these statements made and look for the clues within them of alternative thoughts, look for the doubt which has been veiled and try to understand the structural role of that veiling—to treasure fragility.
1 Wigley, Mark. “Towards Turbulence” in Volume: Agitation. 2006