Introduction to Jamini: International Arts Quarterly issue on “New Architecture,” 2007.
In the Swiss writer Max Frisch’s novel Homo Faber (1954), the protagonist Walter Faber is a UNESCO engineer, a quintessential modern man, for whom only the “tangible, calculable, verifiable” exists, and who lives for the service of a technological omnipotence. For homo faber, man the maker, the imperative is “life can be mastered by technology.” As an emblematic figure befitting a world body as UNESCO, Faber moves from one location to another, his uprootedness seen as liberative. The architect-turned-novelist Max Frisch, in this existentialist and quasi-ethical work that made a stir when it was published, charts the enigmatic quandary of such a modern nomad. On a cruise liner – the ubiquitous trope of placelessness – Faber meets a young woman and falls in love with her. It’s not certain if they consummate their relationship or not, but in a twist reminiscent of Oedipus and his exile from his place of origin and his devastating forgetfulness (that leads to killing his father and marrying his mother), Faber finds out that the young woman is actually his daughter (the syndrome is more Electra than Oedipus). It’s then the novel takes on the aura of a classic Greek tragedy.
Would it be an exaggeration to say 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 dislocation and forgetfulness?
Modern architecture and its various incarnations are still perceived as bearers of the imaginary that architecture need not be encumbered by territory and geography. This idea was best circulated through such high architectural polemics as Archigram’s 1964 architectural vision of literal world mobility, visualized as tentacled mega-machines poised for traveling the globe. The contemporary phenomenon in which specific places have retreated in the face of an euphoric globalization and planetary transmutation shares with the earlier universalist aspiration of modernity a suspicion of place, or to say in an obverse way an unabashed glorification of “placelessness.” While nomadism is not really placeless but a moving from place to place without fixity, a celebration of that often comes with its quandary, as Walter Faber discovers.
I was in my own quandary when invited to edit an issue of Jamini on architecture, about what to present from the brilliant diversity of architecture today, from new and newer form-generating principles (Shuhei Endo, whose work is discussed here) to highly poetic constructional innovations (Renzo Piano), from models of eco-architecture (Ken Yeang) to radical visions of urban form (Rem Koolhaas). I wanted to return to the stubborn themes of nomadism and rootedness that still constitute the human drama, and wonder how they are played out in architecture and urbanism today. While new dynamics such as transnational, digital, and “free-flow” modalities constitute new calculi and imaginations for architecture, most of the works presented in this issue are also a demonstration that they are always somewhere. And there are many such somewheres.
“where is architecture”
Some years ago, at a seminar on contemporary architecture in Dhaka, I invoked the invisible geniis – the enduring presence of wind, water and clay – in describing the architecture of the Bengal delta even as it positions itself in a transnational niche. A colleague at the seminar interpreted this as my muddy orientation, a rather romantic urge to proceed backwards, when valiant figures in architecture are no longer looking to some crumbling monument or ossified form, but galloping towards a buoyant, flamboyant future. My point was neither about what is old and what is new, nor about the over-indulged opposition between modernity and tradition, but that architecture, if it can be called an art, is a situated art. I wanted to stress that a persistent and obstinate condition in architecture is the geographical-climatical one, which is far more significant than what is authentically historical, what is flashingly modern, or what is cleverly deconstructivist, or some other ideologued postures.
The bottom line is: where do I work as an architect. From where do I get my architectural response, and where do I situate my work. One can design in an autonomous manner anywhere, but one always builds somewhere. One could give a clever argument that somewhere is anywhere, or nowhere for that matter, or in the manner of Gertrude Stein, that there is no there there, and so why linger. The first argument comes from the cartography of “free-flow,” either the electronic mode of digitization or the fluid capital of global economy, and the latter is an indictment of the sociological and cultural void of the modern metropolis (in Stein’s case, Los Angeles). Yet, if one cares to detect, there is a certain wistfulness in Stein’s poignant lines.
“Where is architecture” is not a question, but it could be one, about the position and role of architecture in cultural and economic production today. What I actually propose is to orient focus away from “what is architecture” to “where” and try to unravel what that “where” might mean, whether we have been making inordinate demands on the “what,” and how far the question of “where” remains unexamined. In any case, the question of “what” is intimately tied to the matter of “where”: to architecture and its place in the world, to the making of the flesh of the architectural body. “Where” refers to a zone of inevitability, be it geographical, cultural, temporal, or some combination of it. Yet, 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 the conceptual challenge. If from the bustle of the modern metropolis, in its phantasmagoric setting, these reflections seem dubious, then to what premise can architecture respond to?
The Mother Tongue of Architecture
Rabiul Husain, an architect and poet in Dhaka, posed a query in an essay few years back: “Is there a mother tongue in architecture?” The question triggers a whole set of intriguing and provocative issues around that intimate pair: architecture and culture.
First, what is the relationship of language and architecture when language as a “mother tongue” is often perceived as the original site of naturalness and belonging? What significance does architecture bear when it is also considered as an expressive system, a language? Second (following the previous point), can there be different levels of operation within architecture, from a kind of primordial and originary state, comparable to a mother tongue, to a whole variety of appropriated, imported, modified, and contaminated (and, possibly, more exciting!) mode of expression? And, third, most importantly perhaps, what results from the triadic relationship of (literary) language, architecture, and land? Is there an ontological divide here between language and architecture in the context of geography?
The obsessive notion here is “rootedness,” referring to some original condition of arising and belonging, thus the highly charged maternal metaphor. And it is not without its fiction and prejudice. Mother language receives an extraordinary importance in modern Bengali cultural context because it is equated with, or what is perceived to be, the most authentic and natural state of being that appears to have been with us forever. After all, it is the raison d’etre of the nation-state of Bangladesh. It is for this reason, along with recent historical and political events, language has been the principal medium for articulating the cultural universe in Bangladesh. Everything else seems to follow that unquestionably, including the formation of the idea of nation and identity. Rabiul Husain’s essay, despite the implied provocations, remains within a predictable and particular nationalistic orientation in which language is at the center of cultural discourse.
And, yet, when juxtaposed with architecture and land, language might have a more debatable status when it comes to the question of an original belongingness. It seems the relationship of language with land is quite unstable, and language is a far more portable and malleable material than one would like to wish. In any case, Bengali derives its primary root from an Indo-European language source, whose geographic origin, despite its deep and now quite ancient re-rooting in India, is nomadic. The question of mother tongue must address the complex terrain of political history, race, religion, region, and, most importantly, migration and mutation.
Relatively speaking, architecture has a more basic and enduring relationship with land. Mediating diverse fluctuating contingencies, architecture is not an unchanging phenomenon; however, it is more deeply sited, that is, more intimately and irrevocably tied with the weather and fabric of the land. It is the primal site of human’s existential struggle in a specific locality where the first collective intentionalities are discovered, articulated, expressed, and possibly given name. The dialogue and politics of cultural identity have relegated architecture to a mostly marginalized position, when it is possible that between architecture and language, the former is comparatively more durable and geographically anchored, and relatively a more foundational site of those existential moments.