Introduction to Locations: Anthology of Architecture and Urbanism, Volume 1, 2016
One always arrives at a building, and that perhaps already makes the building an other. We are more or less on a slippery slope in our understanding.
Describing a building is a bigger challenge than interpreting one. It’s a passage to a deception in which we all participate unwittingly. The process almost always begins outside of that building; it accepts a separation in which a deeply intertwined condition is formatted into conceptual islands. Consciousness and intellect begin when bodies and things are already differentiated and over there. Understanding and description simply follow from a splintered world.
Visually legible and easily available objects present themselves as dominant in such a normative reality. And among those things that recede from the horizon of understanding —an irony there —are topography and terrain. That perhaps is the source of architecture’s primary anxiety: an uncertain and queasy relationship with location. Architectural thoughts and descriptions need to rescript this topographical counter-predication, and regain the primitive contact with the here.
Usually registered as a disjunction, anxieties can be projective and productive in architecture. Rafael Moneo, in his commentary on the work of eight Euro-American architects in Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies (2004), considers theoretical anxiety a kind of “caustic reflection” and critical discourse, and ultimately generative of design strategies. That the productive capacity of architecture is hinged to wider social disturbances describes the nature of modern architecture. The disquiet over the nineteenth century city, its incapacity to deal with the emerging age led some architects to organize new methods for addressing housing, city frame and social conditions in totally new ways that came to be known as “modern.”
In a psychosomatic sense, anxiety is being modern, a condition that for W. H. Auden (1948) describes a whole age. Does the “age of anxiety” continue now as an inheritance of the original modernist agitation, or is it more a consequence of a neoliberal world-order, what the sociologist Ulrich Beck describes as a “second modernity”? Is the latter, a “geo-liberated economy,” an inherent aspect of nouveau middle-class aspirations spurring stresses and strains borne out of unfulfilled desires that lead to more desires and anxieties? In the rumble-tumble of economic globalization to which all have succumbed, from nation-states to corporations and agencies, and to the individual psyche, and in the furious proliferation of buildings and cities, a single thought haunts us: “What makes for significant architecture?”
There are compelling reasons why we should talk about spatial anxieties while addressing architectural significance. In the Portuguese writer José Saramago’s novel The Stone Raft (1986), the Iberian Peninsula dislodges itself from the European continent and begins drifting away in the Atlantic Ocean. Disturbances ensue when parameters —coordinates, orientation, position and bearing —that direct our corporeal operations in the lived-world alter. When George Clooney’s character Bingham, in the film Up in the Air, is asked by a flight attendant on an airborne airplane where he is from, he replies, “Here.” Location has a greater human hue; it is more than a simple geographic coordinate.
The Swiss writer Max Frisch, in his novel Homo Faber (1954), presents the protagonist Walter Faber as a UNESCO engineer, a quintessential modern man who lives for the service of a purely technological realm, and for whom only the “tangible, calculable, verifiable” exists. As an emblematic figure befitting such a world body as UNESCO, Faber moves from one location to another allowing himself to be uprooted in a liberative way. Frisch, in this existentialist and quasi-ethical novel, charts the enigmatic quandary of such a modern nomad. On a cruise liner —travel being the ubiquitous trope of place-liberation—Faber meets a young woman and falls in love with her consummating the relationship. In a twist reminiscent of Oedipus and his exile from his place of origin and his devastating forgetfulness, Faber finds out that the young woman is actually his daughter. The novel then proceeds towards a tragic Greek destiny.
Sometimes, place remains as it is, but the terms of location changes. In “The Other Side of Silence” (2007), writing about the Indian subcontinent’s partition in 1947, Urvashi Butalia recounts her trip from Delhi to Lahore (in Pakistan) to locate an uncle who did not migrate to India with his other Hindu family members following the violence and dislocations of partition. The uncle, Ranamama, opts to stay back in Lahore with his aging mother with the purpose of retaining their ancestral home until the trouble died down. Ranamama promised that he would join the relocated family later but after about 30 years he is still in Lahore, while the other family members live in Delhi. Butalia locates him in the same city that belonged to them for generations, and to which they belonged. Ranamama is in the same house, has converted to Islam, married, raised daughters, and buried his old mother per Muslim customs. Although the uncle has remained in the same spatial coordinates, he himself has become the other.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s real story positions airport spaces as the most vivid site of modern dislocations. Nasseri, fleeing Iran in 1988 was “stranded” at Charles de Gaulle Airport for more than eleven years while trying to enter France unsuccessfully. While waiting at the airport, he made the terminal his home. Newspapers describe him in the terminal “siting at a table, perhaps smoking a pipe, taking a stroll, stopping to pick up his mail at the post office or lunch at the McDonalds’s… he will be looking very much at home.”
Being “at home” in this improbable space can now be experienced by those who cannot even imagine such a space. Following Frederick Jameson, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), we can say that this extruded or cleaved open space —Jameson’s “hyperspace”—can now be experienced, and therefore needs to be taken seriously. Many of us will be struggling to look very much at home in this warped world. Jameson thinks that we have not yet developed the “perceptual equipment” to face this spatial convolution, this new hyperspace; in fact, the new conditions require that we “grow new organs to expand our sensoria and our bodies to some new, as yet unimaginable perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions.”
Would it be a hyperbole to declare that being modern is to be bequeathed with that exhilarating and burdensome nomadism, the promise to transcend the terror of territory but face the terrifying consequence of the Oedipal flight?
The anxiety that we developed with place and location is now thrust on buildings. Modern architecture and its incarnations are bearers of a world-view that architecture need not be encumbered by territory and geography. This was perhaps presented provocatively in Archigram’s 1964 architectural vision of literal world mobility, with tentacled mega-machines poised for globe-trotting. Specific places—call them what you may, nation, locality, or region—have taken a bit of a beating to the euphoria offered by new globalization, economization, and more lately, digitization. And what that shares with the old universalist aspiration of modernity is a suspicion of place, or to say it in an obverse way, an unabashed glorification of “placelessness.” However, that celebration does not come without its attendant quandary, as the stories of Walter Faber or Nasseri demonstrate.
A basic locational question in architecture begins with: Where do I work as an architect? From where do I get my architectural responses, and where do I situate my work. One can design in a situationally independent manner anywhere, but one always builds somewhere. A clever argument could be made that somewhere is anywhere, or nowhere for that matter, or in the voice of Gertrude Stein, that “there is no there there,” and so why linger. The first point comes out from the cartography of “free-flow,” either the electronic mode of digitization or the fluid capital of globalization, and the latter as an indictment of the sociological and cultural void of the modern city (in Stein’s case, Oakland in California). Yet, if one cares to detect, there is a certain wistfulness in Stein’s captivating lines. “Where is architecture” is not a question, but it could trigger reflections about the role of architecture in cultural and economic production, and about its situation in the world. In orienting focus away from “what is architecture” to “where,” we need to accept that we have been making inordinate demands on the “what,” and have left the question of “where” largely unexamined.
Yet, the question of “what” is intimately tied to the matter of “where”—to architecture and its place in the world. “Where” refers to a zone of inevitability, be it geographical or cultural, or some combination of it. Zones and boundaries are never fixed things; their fluidity makes it difficult to maintain a precise overlap of the political, cultural, and geographical, and that is both a charm and challenge. If flux is now the reality, then to what boundedness can architecture respond to?
A reflection on “where is architecture” is either subsumed or found unimportant in the glamorous and spectacular pursuit of the “what.” With “where is architecture,” the debate may deflect from form to situation, from ideation to sensation, and from the asymptotic present to a phenomenal presence.
“The architect’s task is more than the manipulation of materials and the molding of space, it is the definition and possession of place,” the American architect Charles Moore said more than fifty years ago, and it continues to matter for architectural operations today. While beginning his work at Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s biggest predicament concerned place and territory, on how to begin on that site, and how to relate to the geographic surrounds. Louis Kahn’s first meditation on beginning in Dhaka was not quite directed towards cultural associations, but rather toward how the buildings are to take their place there. It is in this taking place that a work of architecture, from Corbusier’s Ronchamp to Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, to speak of grand gestures, or even an anonymous building in Honolulu, literally finds substantiality and significance. Humans are geographic beings; the possessing of place is a basic existential impetus, and has not become passé in the onslaught of new epistemologies and technologies.
Invoking the notion of “place” in the 21st century often has a retrogressive implication, especially with the intonation of romanticism about landscape, of a chauvinism around regional or territorial affiliation, or of something just stable and perennial in the (post)modern world of perpetual flux and denuded fixities. At the same time, the obverse of place —“placelessness”—is increasingly apotheosized as another kind of existent space.
Although place, culture, region, and nation are often used interchangeably, they are distinct concepts; place does not immediately promote a nationalistic or identity-laden rhetoric, or a cultural foundation. Place and culture, once homological, soon became alter egos, and are now currently at such tangents that we can now pose the phrase: “place versus culture.”
With culture becoming portable, malleable, and commodifiable, and the geographic rootedness of culture and community increasingly becoming tenuous, it is possible to question it as a reliable premise for architecture. On the other hand, it is possible that the situatedness of architecture involves comparatively more enduring conditions, or “realities.” These “earth-realities”—primarily of a meteorological and terrestrial nature—constitute a place-situation that tacitly and inevitably affects the life and form of architecture there.