uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Indrek Peil. Architecture as a Discipline of Contradictions

During the last ten years there have occurred dramatic changes in Tallinn. Often these are surprising, impressive and irritating at the same time.

I am by no means indifferent about these changes nor about how these are perceived, yet I do not believe in a possibility or necessity of a common platform for all architects. Rather, truth is born over again in the clashes of different views. This does not mean, that everything could be solved simply by reversing the meanings. Finally, it is the material outcome of architectural thought that counts, at least for the architects themselves. There is this “untranslatable” core of architecture that cannot be replaced by other media and practices. The present article only tries to open up a theme for discussion and suggest some ideas how this architectural core works in everyday reality and within architecture itself as a discipline of contradictions.

As a matter of fact, the issue only has to do with Tallinn as far as sometimes, old environment can be better than the new one – with all Lefebvre’s critique concerned. With rare exceptions, in a process of abstraction, the real space loses more often than wins. Yet a possible path towards an architecture of tomorrow can probably be found precisely from these exceptions. And the general tendency “against methodology” expressed in this article stems not from Lefebvre or any other critical theory but from particular experiences of Tallinn. This does not mean we must not apply any method. But, following Paul Feyerabend, I consider the notion of (architectural) practice to be of primary importance. Methods are sometimes offered as truth, forgetting that a method or theory gains meaning only through application in terms of practice. It is practice that links knowledge, obtained by however abstract manipulations, to a human dimension. A datascape or a diagram only obtains some meaning in context of architectural practice of MVRDV, Berkel & Bos, or any other 90s office.

The Dialectics of Analogical and Critical in Urban Space
Part of the urban space is defined by ambitious, sumptuous corporate architecture or unsurprising and polished environment trying to fulfil the expectations of middle-class or tourists. On the other side there are various experimental projects too different to have a common denominator. Yet there exists some kind of relationship between them, a parity or conscious dialectics. In order to distinguish this from simple aesthetics of contrasts, I would like to draw two conditionals for dialectics of urban space: First, location on the edge of at least two epistemes where different preconditions collide;
Second, a broad use of spatial imagination, in practice as well as for theoretical conceptualisation.

It is important to note that there are always more than two opposites and no project belongs to one system only.

It is the correlation of expected and unexpected that makes architecture and urban space interesting. The cultural identity of architecture is constantly established through contradictions. It is only temporarily stable, open and thus unstable (and reactive) whole that manifests itself through particular situations and is never fully grasped as a whole.

My aim is to stress the positive side of globalisation as a platform most effective to start from today. In relation to that, the architectural practice is conceptualised as a specific form of knowledge. It is based on Sarat Maharaj’s ideas about art as a form of knowledge, rethought from an architect’s point of view. I have also used Maharaj’s theories of cultural translation and non-representational thinking.

The initial hypothesis is that in a globalizing world, the dialogical moment between cultures and fields of activity is more and more important. The role of the architect in this world is to improve the possibilities of contact, the ability and speed of mutual learning and to intensify active dialogue. A psychological and social conflict of identities can only occur in case of clash with a non-equal stranger, never from a dialogue. The more translations, the more varied and diverse the cultural identity will become, identity itself being an ever-developing concept. Contemporary identities tend to be “smaller” and more adaptive – instead of big narratives, the everyday practice deals with smaller configurations.

Architecture that historically has conceptualised itself as a unifying discipline of synthetic thinking, now has to decompose more or less willingly into active “free radicals” and competing versions and practices. The majority of this diversity does not fit into existing frameworks. A large part of it will remain marginal without forming a new influential way of practice. And this is precisely the problem. Unlike the rapid changes of city and the world itself there are no revolutions within the architectural discipline. David Vanderburgh, a member of a network of architects’ doctoral projects, claims that as uninspiring as it may seem, at first there has to be something like a normal paradigm in Kuhn’s sense for outstanding persons or teams to radically rejuvenate it. This is what the doctoral projects have lacked lately. Architecture only has to (re?)learn spatial thinking to embrace contradictions and dialogue. We can call it a moment of self-reflection or self-criticism. When confronting contradictions one has to reconsider the initial starting point. Confronting the unexpected in urban space is a possibility to meet another, alternative spatiality. Architecture will always remain a field of synthesis but alternative and contradictory approaches should not be forgotten.

Architecture as a discipline of contradictions
The greater the degree of openness, the more contradictory the task of the architect may seem. I would like to propose a more “stereophonic” concept for thinking about cultural identity in architecture. I define stereophonic identity crudely as spatial identity (not as the “feeling of attachment to territory” but more as a spatial understanding of the concept) in polyrhytmic and rapidly changing environments. Can we perceive spatial identity in a stereophonic way? This way of thinking might thus be called stereo-thinking. It does not coincide with dialectics – as dialectical models deal mainly with big antagonisms following each other in time course then the stereo model is not historically dimensioned and is rather suitable for spatial conceptualisation of temporary and minor situations.

Marcel Duchamp had a somewhat similar weird concept about visual translation:
“Duchamp talks of “juxtalinear” translation in a rather mysterious little jotting. He speaks of a kind of writing in which the looking produces the meaning, a writing that cannot be decoded alphabetically or phonetically, something that can only be “read” visually. It’s quite enigmatic and at apparent odds with his de-retinalizing stance. But one can find speculations of this kind in diverse traditions.”[1]

The stereophonic identity refers to:

  1. something that deals with the space and its heterogeneity; spatial identity;
  2. multidimensionality that occurs due to the fact that we have two eyes/ ears/ hands/ hemispheres etc. or parallel perception producing stereoscopic etc. illusions;
  3. the deep and specific relationship between the perception of space and the cognition; philosophically calling in question the problem of “to be identical”, Adorno’s negative dialectics.

In a metaphorical way this could be compared to a home stereo system, achievable to all and used by all – it is a kind of primary spatial intelligence. For a space to mean something personal to someone, it is not enough for an architect to twist, divide or manipulate it by any technical means. It requires hacking it, feeling rage and love towards it.

The spatial identity of architecture cannot be modelled symbolically in any way (including detournement). It is rather created in parallel spatial and cognitive perception. According to this “double production”, outer (or symbolic) entities cannot be applied on space. Producing architectural space is proto-semantic, proto-social etc. It produces primary versions with different potential instead of readymade identities or social meanings. The main thing that counts is the architect’s ability to create new connections and a variegated and bodyresponsive relationship between human being and spatial situation. The “social” in architecture does not mean eager identification with some kind of radical theory or idea but a social sensibility that also means putting an end to ignorance towards everything outside the preconceived model.

One could argue that as all cultural (but also social and psychological) identities are subject to competing selection, any architectural intervention will only produce mere variety, resulting from the mechanisms of blind choice. How can an architect affect the development of cultural identities when these are practically unable for anyone to predetermine? The aim should be a stereophonic approach to ever-changing urban space – instead of viewing it as a space of capital flows, the urban space should be imagined through emotional aspects and polyrhytmic mutual relations between abstract “control machines” and alternative architectural practices, emphasizing different contradictory spaces and identities. Coping with the problem of the contradictory presupposes an ability to tolerate permanent ambivalences of several incongruent subjects.

From Clashing Identities Towards Urban Tolerance
The task of the architect is to study in close look different competitive, vague or speeded up identities in the urban space and to make them coexist. It is a special perspective different from that of the cultural theorist, geographer or sociologist. It is a much more-sided task and the resulting space reflects the architect’s empathy and ambitions as well as his/her ignorance.

Identity Inc.
Due to the low population density in Estonia, the local spatial identity has traditionally been largely based on perception of nature. This phenomenon also has a positive side to it. In Estonia, it does not make sense to define natural and artificial as clear opposites. It is much more rewarding and more convincing to start from typically semi-natural environments from cultivated landscapes through other hybrid associations to small towns. In several projects we have marked the potential qualities of such semi-urbanized environments and tried to relocate/recreate these qualities in contemporary urban situation. A question has always risen, why don’t these two sides combine organically any more? New modes of “translation” are needed. The ecological innovation is not a question of technical matter but rather means attempts to redefine the relationship between human activity and the Earth. The solution cannot be a generalization of any kind – it is always situation-specific.

In a recent conference in Berlin[2], Liane Lefaivre, a former defender of critical regionalism, repeatedly emphasized that speaking about ethnic qualities in architecture is definitely timed out and the local character of architecture only depends upon climate and geographical peculiarities of the region. A representative of India, a region with great density and ethnic diversity argued the opposite, and most of the discussants had nothing to do but agree. Dealing with architecture without the human agency prove futile. A cultural meaning of an architectural project is only revealed when it takes into account all groups of people directly or indirectly involved. Peter Herrle, professor at the Technical University of Berlin and initiator of the conference, also stated that the Berlin TV tower is an important symbol for both former Eastern and Western Berliners but signifies totally different things for them. Although the situation in Estonia comes more and more closer to that of Western Europe where different so-called smaller identities are more decisive that the big narrative, it does not mean that the architects should give up trying to create something that touched everybody involved, including all minorities. This could be the case for analysing several failed attempts to establish a monument for freedom as well as the results of a recent competition for a new Russian Orthodox church to Lasnamäe. The juxtaposition and relating of objects with radically different content and background in the urban space seems to be the key. Branding is not a solution, neither is “virtual architecture” – both deal not with creating material objects themselves but with producing prefabricated imaginary images.

Splitting up Hybrids
Instead of simplistically calling most “rounded-off” commercial mega-buildings hybrids, architects should rethink the concept of hybrid in a more creative way, as a constant state of productive transformation.

The third platform of Documenta 11, Créolité and Creolization states that “increased and accelerated processes of cultural syncretism have produced new configurations of identity for which theories of hybridity, métissage, and cosmopolitanism have been deployed and reworked in order to capture the polycentric and polysemic aspects of a new political philosophy of the Other. Under pressure from localized resistances, these terms no longer provide adequate frameworks for articulating the critical issues of difference and the asymmetry of evolving contemporary cultures.”[3] Documenta proposed Creole (originally a Caribbean literary movement) as a hypothesis of cultural production that reaches far beyond its homeland “towards a conceptualization of a non-totalitarian consciousness of preserved diversity that has its contested terrain within language, identity, politics, religion, and culture. Transcending still entrenched postcolonial and imperialist narratives of domination and resistance, centre and periphery, creolization as a theory of creative disorder analyses active urban contest and contact zones in flux.”[4] One speaker Gerardo Mosquera emphasised that apart from the wide range of the synthesis there remains the core that never resolves. There is an obscure cultural creation that is not necessarily the fruit of the blend but rather an invention or the specific use of the foreign element. He insisted that this is precisely the fertile aspect of creolization: not only intermingling, but construction through separation – through splitting from the original and placing it into new context.[5]

This brings us back to the mega-buildings. Is contemporary architecture inevitably bound to ceaseless synthesizing as a kind of unifying Cartesian grid – an abstract machine “rounding-off” the different?[6] Architecture with stereophonic identity may be seen as somewhat creolised: it would function as solid enough not to dissolve in spatial flows of capital but at the same time has spatial configuration loaded with strong polar voltage. That demands a more precise and distinctive relationship outlined between the subject and the Other and their mutual double-production.

The Unpredictable: the Dialectics Between the Fault and the System
It is always useful to ask why a certain plan failed. But a creative mistake or mishap brings to mind a different question: what did we do? It is extremely important to answer to that question. Science methodologists have emphasized the importance to concentrate on an accidental interesting find. Creative minds are in active search for an accidental discovery.

Creating new space it is most intriguing to make architecture work as a means of urban communication instead of producing entropy or planning urban space piece by piece in a nihilistic way. The precondition for a social dialogue is, among other things, leaving open possibilities for an unpredictable spatial behaviour.

Any organized space is controlled in some way or another and meant to have a certain effect. The more creative the attitude towards architecture as a machine for controlling space, the smaller the danger that the result will be mere inert and beautified spatial order erasing every trace of earlier inhabitation and use. The stereo model calls for staking to side effects and creating an active relationship to space anew time and again.

If according to Maharaj, the challenge of a modern notion of culture and ethics, of tolerance, is how to live with heterogeneity and plurality, then the challenge for a contemporary urban architecture is how to deal with these spatial connections, splittings, forced interactions and abstract speculations in a most productive way translating them into new polyrhytmic and embodied locations. More precisely, these various ways how to connect, split, relate to, juxtapose etc. are the decisive field for a refreshed spatial identity. If so, a distinction between different ways of co-ordination emerges: a unifying/normative approach and a more anarchist one where the general approach is derived from particular cases. Even the most unifying way of thinking clashes with manifestations of reality that do not fit into a preconceived framework. By adjusting itself just a bit, it swallows up the difference and maybe even turns it into something marketable. The anarchic approach starts from the other end. The power and resultativity of contemporary architecture depends on appropriate proprtioning of anarchic freedom and unifying discipline in the limits of a particular project.

“Simplicity of form is not necessarily simplicity of experience”[7]
What kind of model would be the best to clarify the connection between the external (material) and the conceptual worlds? In cognitive anthropology, there is a concept of “schema” to describe the perception processes and ways of organizing information. Mental schemes are abstract representations of environmental regularities. Schemas are also mechanisms of (mental) processing. Most of their inner activation processes occur automatically and without the awareness on the part of the perceiver or the comprehender. Mental schemas are functioning as parallel processors (or “a parallel distributed processing network”, “a connectionist network”, “a neural net”). As opposing to a serial symbolic processing model, the connectionist models respond to stimuli differently, in a very “human” fashion. Unlike a serial model, connectionist networks are sensitive to context, can be trained to learn very abstract and subtle characteristics of stimuli or great variety of pattern recognition tasks.[8]

Schemas are flexible configurations, mirroring the regularities of experience, providing automatic completion of missing components, automatically generalizing from the past, but also continually in modification, continually adapting to reflect the current state of affairs. Schemas are not fixed, immutable data structures. Schemas are flexible interpretive states that reflect the mixture of past experience and present circumstances. Thus, the system behaves as if there were prototypical schemas (as if there were “rules”, but there are not), but where the prototype is constructed anew for each occasion by combining past experiences with biases and activation levels resulting from the current experience and the context in which it occurs.[9]

The spatial identity is not restricted to qualities characterized as symbolic. Adaptability and flexibility of mental schemas is somewhat comparable to spatial aspects of identity. This enables architecture to be more than just conceptual.

Conclusions and Openings
I would like to end my article by citing Sarat Maharaj again: “Today, we’d want to ask whether we can presuppose that cultural differences add up to anything like a pre-scripted “multicultural whole”. /—/ It also means we venture beyond our “specialist ground” – at any rate, a liquidity, an uneven de-territorializing has brought to the fore the question: how to engage with works deemed somehow to be “different”, “diasporic” or “transitive” without reducing such practices to an ethnographic epistemic – to the notion that they “belong” to some pre-given cultural essence rather than to dislocative translations in the present?”[10]

As Sarat Maharaj pointed out when he described the international space as the “scene of translations” – as the meeting ground for a multiplicity of tongues, visual grammars and styles – these do not so much translate into one another as translate to produce difference. “The fact that the local is constantly produced – that it is not ready-made and primordial – has to be taken on board. In discussions of globalization, the local is often treated as intrinsically good, the global as bad. But the local can also be quite negative, imprisoning, oppressive. The microdynamics of this relationship shows that things are much more crosshatched, mixed.”[11]

Thus, the most productive starting point may be found exactly in these points of crisis where epistemic structures/systems clash. On these grounds we can redefine architecture as a discipline of contradictions. The stereophonic model using parallel, dialectical and translatory modes of thinking tries to resolve identity conflicts by spatial means. Possible meanings are a by-product of architectural process and every meaning can be an outcome of its initial opposite.

* The article is based on a paper presented at the conference “Architecture and Identity” in Berlin in December 2004.

   (↵ returns to text)

  1. Daniel Birnbaum & Sarat Maharaj, In Other’s Words.(Interview with Sarat Maharaj) – Artforum International, February 2002, p 109.
  2. Conference “Architecture and Identity”, Berlin, December 6th – 8th, 2004.
  3. Documenta 11 _Platform3: Créolité and Creolization. Ed Okwui Enwezor et al. Kassel: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2004.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Sarat Maharaj, Xeno- Epistemics: makeshift kit for sounding visual art as knowledge production and the retinal regimes. – Documenta 11_Platform5, Exhibitions Catalogue. Ed Okwui Enwezor et al. Kassel: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2002.
  7. Robert Morris, cited by Daniel Marzona, Minimal Art. Köln: Taschen, 2004.
  8. Roy D’Andrade, Development of Cognitive Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp 136 – 141.
  9. Ibid., p 142.
  10. Sarat Maharaj in conversation with Annie Fletcher: Dislocations: On Cultural Translation. – Circa 91/2000. www.recirca.com/backissues/c91/fletcher.shtml (accessed Nov 22nd, 2004).
  11. Birnbaum, op.cit., p 110.