Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Placing Architecture, Presencing Architecture

December, 2001

Published in the proceedings of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Annual Meeting, Baltimore, USA, 2001.


“A weather-exposed skeleton
haunts my mind:
   how the wind penetrates my body.”
- Matsuo Basho


Drawing the Wind

Kinya Maruyama, a visiting Japanese architect at the University of Pennsylvania, once sent out his students with their sketchbooks to “draw the wind,” an exercise that elicited much skepticism and frustration. The event represents to me two symptoms about current architecture culture:  (1) the limits of the representational project, and (2) a consideration for returning “to the things themselves.”


Architecture is more than a discipline; it is above all, a “lived-experience.” If architecture is an art, it is an existential art, perhaps best approximated by an Indian term for architecture, vastushilpa. I translate vastushilpa as the art of existence, the word root vas belonging to a family of Indo-European terms having to do with existence or presence in some form or other, such as the German wesen, the English was.  Architecture and existence are inextricably intertwined, and if any criterion of thinking best addresses this condition, it is the “anthropological” approach.


The discipline of architecture has undergone a major transformation in the last few decades, both in the nature of its production, and in the way it thinks about itself.  One aspect of that is a deeper realignment of architecture and architectural theory with other disciplines. This is a new nexus, in which the discourse has proceeded beyond the well-known triad of the aesthetical/visual, social/political, and technological/functional. The anthropological dimension is a major part of the new nexus.


I am describing the approach as an anthropological one for lack of a better terminology. It refers to a diverse body of thinking – hermeneutical, existential, and phenomenological. It would be presumptuous to claim a human dimension for architecture all over again, and yet the new anthropological project renews or deepens the question of the human situation via architecture. The approach is existential in the sense that it re-addresses architecture as the elemental and foundational way of being. It is phenomenological in the way it re-views architecture as opening up the receptivity “to the full ontological potential of human experience.” What is involved here is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as experienced free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions, in a heightened reception of all the senses. Mistrusted faculties – sensorial, kinesthetic, haptic, oneiric – are no longer considered merely irrational, but authentic data for the investigation of the human experience.


The anthropological approach exposes a possible disjunction between architectural practices that rely on a retinal primacy (as the terms image, drawing, analytique, desk crit, etc., convey in academic conversation), and the concrete “lived-experience” of architecture. This divergence is exposed in two major ways:  (1) “placing architecture,” in the fissure that lies between the ideology of architectonic autonomy and the inevitability of situatedness, and (2) “presencing architecture,” in the distance that has emerged between the presence and re-presentation of architecture.


It is the situatedness of architecture – the business of placing architecture – that I wish to ponder on a bit inordinately. The question that arises is basic but critical: What does it mean for architecture to be situated? Is not architecture by its very nature situated? What more can we mean by being situated? What I am trying to argue here is that the inevitable situatedness of architecture involves a phenomenological understanding of place and placing, and the relationship between body and the environment.


The anthropological project becomes significant here for a renewed understanding of situatedness as it presents new thoughts on corporeal “actuality.” In the euphoric age of disembodied (virtual) realities and mediated connectivities, the approach returns to and amplifies the fundamental intimacy of the body to architectural conditions, and vice versa. What the enigmatic exercise of Maruyama provokes is the necessity of architectural thinking to confront the primal and the phenomenal (Husserl’s “back to the things”), and to reconsider the architectural presence prior to and beyond the representational strata, no matter how compulsive and persuasive the latter may be.


What Is This Thing Called “Place”?

A “place” is something durable and yet flimsy. As Aldo Rossi once remarked that as you approach place, it recedes. Much earlier, Plato noted in his distinction of topos and chora that the latter, what may be translated as “place,” is hard to grasp, approachable only by what he called “bastard reasoning.”


“Place” is flimsy because it is hard to take its measure. A region can be measured by a cadastral survey, demographic data, or taxation statistics. A nation can be enumerated by all sorts of literature and narratives, both serious and spurious. But “place” is not just a region, and not a nation either. Place, region, and nation are not necessarily commensurable terms. Provisionally, let me say that place is both a given and a construct.


The notion “place,” in its English usage, remains particularly suspect, despite or perhaps because of the extensive literature on it. There is the possibility that the notion survives or thrives beyond the English usage, or for that matter, beyond linguistic usage. Yet, how to write place, literally, as “place,” Place, Place? The symbol “place” invites thoughts; the notation [“] is a zone of interweaving not unlike the Greek sense of the word zone, a liminal condition between two kinds of spaces. There is both distinction and continuity. Place, with the capital P, implies a reified object, as something conceptual and abstracted, and Place has the implication of being too disjunctive and aberrant.


It should be admitted that re-writing “place” in the twenty-first century often has a retrogressive intonation, especially with the implication of an ultra-green ideology, landscape romanticism, regional chauvinism, or as something stable and perennial. It is also particularly challenging when the opposite of “place”– placelessness – begins to be apotheosized. Many critics think that much of what we understand by place is now outmoded, and one has to recognize placelessness as a new space that is slowly proliferating before us. It is not the kind of placelessness often glorified by modernism, the one that was a sort of a utopian, prescriptive space. One now confronts placelessness as another kind of existent space, perhaps as a heterotopia, the paradigms for which are hotels and airports.


In the The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, Fredric Jameson presents and discusses the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as the epitome of this new space – what he calls a hyperspace – a space that we can now enter and experience. A similar characterization may be made about the unfolding nature of airport spaces. Studs Terkel, the celebrated radio personality, gives a humorous account of it: While trying to get to Cleveland from Detroit, Terkel rushed to the counter to board his plane only to receive the answer: “But, sir, you are in Cleveland!” I had a similar “border” experience. Once (among a number of times), while riding a terminal bus at Dubai Airport to catch a connecting flight, for a fleeting but intensely disorienting second, I wasn’t sure whether I was traveling to Philadelphia or Dhaka. The feeling was slightly unnerving.


A more poignant case is that of Mehran Nasseri Kasini, an Iranian “stranded” at Charles de Gaulle airport for more than eleven years while trying to enter France unsuccessfully after fleeing Iran. The newspapers described him being seen inside the terminal “sitting at a table, perhaps smoking a pipe, taking stroll, stopping to pick up his mail at the post office or lunch at the in-house McDonald’s... he will be looking very much at home.” Kasini is ironically caught between the juridical notion of two countries. Following Jameson, one can say that this between space (hyperspace) can now be fully experienced, and therefore needs to be taken seriously. Jameson thinks that we still do not possess the “perceptual equipment” to face this new hyperspace; in fact, this 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.”


While new kinds of spatiality are emerging around us, challenging our “perceptual equipment,” one is not convinced that a more elemental understanding of “place” has been exhausted despite the profusion of literature on it. Such an understanding, I would like to argue and emphasize, is still a foundational condition for architecture, but something that has not been sufficiently addressed from within the standpoint of the discipline itself.


I would like to suggest that “place,” culture and nation are distinct concepts, even when they seem interchangeable. The most obvious distinction is that “place” is the one that is least portable. On the other hand, culture (and perhaps, nation) is now perfectly transportable and immensely commodifiable. It can be mailed, shipped, faxed, beamed, and very soon will have nothing to do with any originary location. With MTV, diasporic movements, e-commerce and electronic transfer of capital, the geographic rootedness of culture and community is increasingly becoming irrelevant.


“Place,” on the other hand, is formed primarily by a locational underpinning – this place. “Place” is now poised against culture, so that one can pose the phrase: “place versus culture.” But what kind of place am I talking about? I am aware that an examination of placement requires a position on place that I will withhold for the time being. More than inquiring directly what is place, I am interested in expanding the internment of the body in space/place, and the primacy of embodiment and placement. Going back to the airport paradigm, I reflect on the phenomenon of air travel as it underscores the primacy of placement experienced in the form of jet-lag – the nagging revelation of a dis-placement, how place-specific biological and diurnal rhythms are incarnated in us, and before adjustments to a new place can be made remain as aberrant traces in the physiological system.


In summation (as a kind of presumption), I would like to say that the human, first and foremost, is a place-conscious being, even if it happens unselfconsciously, and that despite the evangelical persuasion of “global span” (Saskia Sassen), the often chimerical nature of “there” (Gertrude Stein), and the existential anguish of being thrust into this world without a clue of how we may dwell here (Jean-Paul Sartre). In short, the human is inherently an emplaced being.


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