Architecture has generated an awful lot of talk about its own most basic assumptions. Yet all this discourse is as much evidence of the fact that architecture slips the hold of all definitions that try to capture it, as it is evidence of any need to pin it down.
The reason for this is that those definitions and movements are couched in superlatives and transcendence—architecture is claimed to be more than building, more than art, more stable than this or more relevant than that, prior to everything but more cutting-edge and up-to-the-minute-new than the alternative. For this reason the discourse misses the sense of the question of architecture’s true identity. Architecture’s real secret, the central mystery that always eludes the questioner when he thinks about its identity positively in this way is that in fact it is less than—less than building (because it is that in a particular way), less than art (because that particular way is dependently anterior to the relationship to building). Stability is less than freedom, relevance is less than enduring, and priority is less than continuity. Architecture is less, finally and most radically, than possibility.
Architecture’s secret is that it is limited. And the secret of these limits, which keeps all this from being simply reductive, is that the ones that really matter are chosen, not imposed. What the profession has come to consider “architecture” is simply the continuing ratification of those choices.
It is through a repressed appreciation of the necessity of the limit that architecture generates its value as architecture. The technology that architecture specifically transcends to be understood as architecture will eventually reveal that connection (and the mechanisms of value production) as it removes the seeming necessity that formerly masked it and protected it. The reason to point this out is to assert architecture’s inherent interest and stake in the conscious espousal of what must appear, now, as non-cutting-edge possibility, as restraint, but which must soon enough become the general condition for the operation of value in an edgeless, limitless universe.
Soon enough it will be clear that any form can be invented and realized, any program fulfilled. Yet with this possibility a hesitation is felt, an unvocalized “but...”—a mapping of which would describe the real limits of the discipline. Even now the gap between desire and possibility has been significantly narrowed; just about anything can be done—but isn’t. Not because it cannot, though it may continue to be explained this way (when the restraint is even noticed). No, it is because the ultimate satisfaction of such desire is not itself desired. And this is not a thing to be ashamed of, though this culture seems to value innovation above all other things. Rather, this choice can be seen as a positive statement of the culture’s (subconscious) values and result of its care.
Ultimately present technological trends must culminate in a situation where building itself becomes optional: a real-time interactive virtual reality experience of a high enough resolution and bandwidth to include all the senses—basically the scenario of the movie The Matrix—indistinguishable from reality. Here finally a plateau may be reached, because of the limitations of human perception. But it won’t stop even there; the simulation will give way, as simulation, to more compelling styles of experience that might come to thought of as a deeper reality. virtual reality will become extended reality, as additional dimensions of information are added like layers of pixel depth, and simultaneity becomes the norm. In this virtual world anything imaginable is possible—as well as everything that is not. And while this is science fiction, and economics will always see that it doesn’t happen everywhere, within the world architecture has traditionally inhabited it is inevitable. Yet even in the solipsistic Matrix scenario, it is possible to imagine there is still a difference that only meat may experience and to understand that this difference may yet be reserved for architecture.
Nanotechnology will remove the last constraints, and the limitless design freedoms of cyberspace will be available to meat experience. When designs are being determined and implemented at the molecular level, and eventually the atomic, even the old standby of gravity is likely to be trivialized. Twenty years of cyberpunk literature have made the marvels of virtual reality commonplace, but the even stranger world that nano promises is not yet so familiar. While meat may prevent the physical equivalent of simultaneity, it will not prevent architecture from the sort of continuous change that will as effectively test the relation between space and time. If furniture is a problem for the blob now, for example, it won’t be when a seat or table can be summoned at will from any adjacent surface and then melt away when no longer required.
This technology will not just be available to architects, of course. When the technical divide—the limit of expertise—that separates the architect and the layperson is eliminated, the architect may find herself out of work. On the other hand, the removal of a legislative distinction between the professional and layperson may serve to highlight the difference in design ability. Opening the field to a general authorship is not likely to result in an increase of good design; more likely the opposite, so the effect might be that actual good design is more obviously highlighted in contrast. Certainly it can be imagined that, freed of technical constraint, the architect can hone pure design skills and operate almost as an artist.
When it comes to pure design skills it becomes apparent how much they depend on the same lack of purity for their effect in the world, for their bite—in short, for their value. When anything can be done, how is it decided what to do? When the customary physical limits are removed, only willfulness will remain, and it is not as clear anyone will know what to do with that.
If the reader were asked to imagine what she might design if she could realize anything, and were then asked to say why, the answer would likely involve some reference to the exceptional nature of the proposal and its newly granted transcendence of apparent possibility. But if the value of that transcendence were removed—because it was easy to do what had been imagined, because real possibility actually exceeded imagination—then the reader would be less stoked about the idea. She could not explain it without invoking on some basis the limits those standards embody, and she would have to admit their importance to her sense of value—and the architectural sense within which that value operates. Other than the customary considerations of its definitive instrumental nature (its relation to building)—and specifically unlike art—architecture has no inherent value to guide production. Architecture is less than.
The intellectual paradigm following on—but claiming leadership of—these advances in electronic technology celebrates the technology’s effectiveness in enabling a vast proliferation of choice. The common feeling is that this technology will be liberating (if it is not enslaving). But the theorizing behind this, and the implied politics, remains stuck in the present paradigm’s more restricted sense of possibility, and can imagine only a freedom from present constraints—rather than the more radical and frightening release from all constraint.
Limits are no stranger to architecture. Those that record the technical constraints architecture has had to admit through history are very familiar. When decisions or judgments are made in terms of function or program or performance or structural capability, limits are involved. The value that they have supported prescriptively and proscriptively is well understood. The argument against decoration, for example, is made by covert reference to the limits relating to efficiency, to support overt statements about value and ethics.
A better example may be the formal measure of goodness by reference to proportion. A concern for proportions has a long history within architecture, limiting the range of size and shape in a design in the interest of assuring visually pleasing combinations and relationships. But there is more than that: rooted in “appropriateness” and “propriety,” the phrase “a sense of proportion” carries a strong value judgment supporting a program of judiciousness and restraint that is not simply formal. The “correctness” implied in these terms recognizes that statements of aesthetic preference or judgments of apparently objective goodness in architecture will include such extra baggage. Though it is probably the oldest trick in architecture’s bag, issues of proportion in design are a consideration even in the most current blob or diagram worlds; in fact, bad proportions—which even in these worlds can be recognized—have served to signal critical intentions, preventing ease or comfort, or asserting strangeness. There have been various explanations for this effectiveness, and codifications of systems for achieving the desired effects throughout history, from the Greeks to Corbu. But what is of interest here is simply the feeling of satisfaction experienced in the face of good proportions, and the more restricted universe of form a respect for good proportions creates. In fact, not just satisfaction but outright preference. And to anticipate, it is interesting to note that even the most radical avant-gardist is not threatened by the discussion of proportion; despite its overtones of “correctness” and a history of prescriptive systemizing.
Maybe it is because such system-building efforts are recognized as tools rather than programs. The relationship of an architect to his tools is complex; at times they have seemed quite empowering, at others limiting. Today the architect feels he is in better shape than ever, blessed with tools that seem to be far more transparent to desire. In fact, the remarkable transparency of these tools is best explained by assuming it is they that create the desire, rather than the other way around. It is interesting to realize that the most influential figures in certain architectural circles today, and thus perhaps eventually in the profession itself, are the people making the tools: a few software designers in Silicon Valley who have no idea that architecture even exists (judging by the buildings they themselves work in).
Architecture—and to a lesser extent the architectural imagination—has always been bound to what could be drawn and modeled, and it is no different today. The t-square and triangle promoted a different world than Maya, but the autoblob button and parametric magic are as restricted in their own way as the circle template or 30/60 triangle
Tools designed to overcome one such limit only serve to identify the next. In any age, these kinds of limits become evident through the efforts expended in overcoming them, and the results that serve to identify the really difficult stuff. Thus the flying buttress highlighted gravity and a structural repertoire limited primarily to compression force solutions, and showed how the really hard thing back then was to get an impressive span. Today’s tools are unconcerned with such primitive issues as gravity, but the increasingly elaborate or “heavy” models that test the limits of processing capacity have led to effects as noticeable to the discerning eyes as the buttress: either a reverse reification process that replaces actual/digital objects with libraries of symbols and placeholders, or the creation of designs that forgo entirely the hard stuff relating to human occupation, like interiors or minor details like doors or windows.
But the architect’s tools have not only been technological. Designers today have at their disposal an array of theoretical postures that may be taken to guide or explain work. Like drawing tools, the more congenial theorizing today is intimately involved with the structure of the limit. Ironically, today’s most popular flying buttress, Gilles Deleuze, claims that such tools are useless for the really important stuff anyway, saying that what is usually called creation is in fact far more mundane. As a statement of a choice made among pre-existing alternatives, the realization of the possible, as he puts it, is a ratification of the limits of creativity. Like all good problem statements, though, Deleuze’s includes its own solution. The diagram delivers a complexity that ensures the choice of possibility is at least inexplicable, taking the designer—who is really just hanging on for dear life—to a place beyond or other than could have been foreseen consciously. The results are often as compelling as they are unexpected, and certainly, based on the evidence of student architectural reviews, they are inexplicable; the downside is that the result is not strictly architectural until it is recognized as such—through the force of limitation—and consequently no longer strictly creative in the way it set out to be.
The “actualization of the virtual,” which the diagram stalks, but which can really only ever be an unsought goal, might be thought of as a way of getting around this. More accurately, though, it should be thought of as an introduction to it: a phenomenon rather than a way or method. Since the virtual can only appear as an unforeseen event, there really can be no strategy here. The virtual thus has the effect of finding limits, not transcending them, by rendering the heretofore-unsuspected limit visible, as a limit, once it stumbles over it. In fact, limits are what give the virtual its value in “escaping” them, as it is they that are discovered in the virtual. And the virtual’s scarcity is as direct a statement of the power and prevalence of limit as there can be.
Where does this power come from, and what is its relationship to architecture? “Limit” is the middle term in the syllogism connecting architecture to life. Whether architecture is understood to be about giving worthy expression to essential truths about a culture’s place in the order of things or simply about the environmental affect serving political space, the idea of limit is there to ground the difference.
Since life is lived along the edge between itself and mortality, itself and the future—and the past—it is intimately, definitively, associated with this idea of limit. It could even be said that this was the greatest truth about life, maybe the only one that can really be counted on. Ultimately it is the order of things. Architecture is just there to put it in writing, so to speak.
As with this writing, and by virtue of its human provenance, there is an intentionality about architecture and its relation to limits. Architecture never simply is. Consciously or not it goes beyond the simple statement that establishes presence and consequent finitude to something that amounts to the expression of that statement. And by that expression is maintained a difference-from-the-facts, a dancing-about-the-limit, which confers choice and harbors a world of value.
The concept of value is itself the residue of the brutal logic of choice, built up through a history under the rule of such limits, a history of strife and want and pushing back against the current. It could be said that humanity has evolved, biologically and socially, through the choices made in the face of limits, in spite of limits, into the very teeth of limits. And this has deeply colored if not determined outright the human approach to the world, as humans would understand and have it. How they push back gives style and taste, why they push gives value and ethics, what and where they push gives programs. Most superlatives name an extraordinary condition without limits where one can stand upright without leaning into the current—visions of the afterlife, notions of goodness, truth, beauty, etc.—are all predicated on a concept of absolutes, which by definition are special because they have got beyond the necessity to push against something.
It is possible that this sense of limit is hardwired, in the same way as Kant describes the apprehension of space and time, which are of course the first “things” pushed against. In fact, maybe some prior logic of limit is what turns a more general, or generally inconceivable, state into the “reality” known as space and time. In either case humans are, in all the most profound ways, limited, finite creatures. For the most part this finitude is seen as negatively definitive. The human sees himself cut off from continuity, unjustly imprisoned within the limits of space and, more hurtfully, time... But there is another side to this: the human not only pushes against limits, they draw him to them. As he leans into the current for balance the human is leaning toward it. The choices exercised in the face of these limits—not only the choice to face them and keep pushing, but the choice to remain blind to that fact—are as much a part of humanity in the positive sense, as finitude itself in the negative.
What is important is that affiliation, that little dance of death in design—something other than the unthinking connotation of the limit as repressive, which misses the value in the possibility of choice here. Once it is understood that it can be chosen, it can be seen that it must be chosen—without that necessity itself eliminating the fact of choice and the value it harbors. It is through the operation of choice, in expression or avoidance, however mysterious or unconscious, that the difference gets into the equation that allows for the variety that is actually experienced.
This difference also opens the titillating gaps through which the limit shines and draws the viewer forward into the place where otherness lurks. In characterizing architecture as a mask for otherness, the sense of quality of the architecture will be related to the quality of the mask—how complete it is, how much of the otherness leaks through. The implication is that the mask should not be absolutely perfect, because then the architecture would be flat and unengaging. It is the hint of otherness, demanding the mask in the first place, and imperfectly screened by it, which gives the architectural object its vibrancy, plasticity, engageability, and grandeur. The perfect mask is no mask at all.
Architecture’s relationship with otherness is one of codependency in the same way as humanity’s with limits. Architecture is drawn to otherness in the same way as humans are drawn to the limits they push against. In fact, this is where the two ideas meet, and where architecture’s real relationship to limit lies: that is, architecture is limited to masking otherness, and will be found only where there is profound otherness to mask.
By this reasoning, not everything that architecture is called to confront is “other.” At a certain level, of course, everything is in fact literally “other.” But by “other” what is really meant is that which highlights most poignantly humanity’s own limited nature. And in this sense, otherness will not necessarily be that common, or will be only as common as architecture, which is not that common. It, like architecture, will be found in those areas that speak of space and endurance most forcefully. An other otherness suggests both a range that could explain the familiar variety of architectural affect, and the surprising limitation of that range. And this is where design comes in, and where the choice that has been discussed is rooted as well. In characterizing architecture as an experience earlier, allusion was made to a sort of engagement that describes this expanded—or is it limited?—sense of otherness. To continue now, the experience of architecture is the experience of something like a world that is more complex than its boundaries in the work itself—like the paste-inside command in a graphics program suggests a world beyond the well-defined boundaries of the paste box. The better the work, the more extensive that world pasted inside, only visible inside that border and thus incomplete (strictly) at any one time. But it is incomplete in a way that suggests inexhaustibility. This is the sort of otherness from which one recoils, this is therefore the good stuff that entails the mask of architecture, because this uncanny extensiveness goes right to the longing sense of humanity’s own rightful inexhaustibility and thus stands most forcefully as evidence of that delusion.
If this is the source of the power ascribed to architecture, then it must also be that which is challenged—no, threatened—by the coming technology. When the customary constraints that hide the possibility of choice that confers value in the face of otherness are eliminated, as has been shown they will be, and (maybe suddenly) making anything possible, then of course that possibility will be sampled. The importance of the limit will become more and more obvious with each next-big-thing, as either the sampling continues to be less broad than expected (certainly it will be less than the real possibilities), or when the results of the expected broader sampling prove disappointing. The subject of this discussion has been the reasons for this; the former would result from a recognition of architecture’s codependency with otherness, and humanity’s codependency with limits, while the latter is the likely result of increasingly elaborate proposals driven by a bulimic craving for novelty, which either perfect the mask, flattening the affect, or remove it entirely, substituting an increasingly hysterical but ultimately futile alienness for otherness.
The distinction between otherness and alienness breaks along the line of familiarity: for there to be any affect there needs to be some recognition. As might be guessed, there is paradox here: “why do we invent so narrowly from the infinitude of form?” Maybe because “otherness” requires the mask to be other than simply alien, since the alien is simply meaningless, pre-actualized virtuality, unrecognizable on any terms, and so need not be masked. But since the mask exists—which seemingly would have no reason to exist since there is no mechanism for turning the alien into the other, short of such actualization—it can be asked if the mask is not somehow prior and then realized that maybe this is one of those issues about which questions of priority make no sense. What can be said is that the mask invokes some familiarity, an “idea” of the thing being masked—this is the difference between a mask and a disguise. Architecture is engageable, and such ideas as the Greek notion of projection can be understood, because architecture is not a disguise. Needless to say, the more or less infinite possibility with which the coming technology will bless humanity will risk upsetting the balance toward the simply alien. Without understanding the dynamics of this relationship on some basis, architects may just run around like idiots within a spreading desert of raw affectless variety. The choice will then not be between the good and the interesting as Mies so famously put it, but between alternatives that may not have a chance of being either.
If architecture is limited to masking otherness, but these limits are functionally present as an injunction against various practices within the field, how are they determined, after all? Where do they come from? How can it be determined whether they are real or valid in any case? If this otherness itself is, practically speaking, inaccessible, despite its uncanny familiarity, then these limits serve as symptoms which must stand in for that otherness in thinking about how to address such questions. In fact, this otherness may itself be unimportant, may remain a sort of supposition, lurking on the other side of the uncertainty principle where it is proofed against accurate measurement. Yet it is still valuable as a heuristic for coping with the symptoms on this side of the divide, for understanding the affective power of architecture beyond what those symptoms might be able to explain.
For most of history these limits/injunctions have been largely understood as given, and have been gratefully received. Typically they have been seen as stylistic, outlined in the prescriptions of some particular formal system, like the orders or the five points. But there are even more basic examples than this, such as the aforementioned sensitivity to proportions or the readiness to make judgments about correctness related to topological wholeness. Since these sorts of examples are not specifically prescribed by any particular formal system, their persistence highlights the consensual nature of the understanding they deploy. The adherence to such limits is a matter of choice, as is, more actively, their construction: they may be given, but they need not be accepted. They are part of the chain of conviction handed down from project to project that creates conventions and builds up the sense of architecture that makes rebellion and acceptance even meaningful and allows the works themselves to be judged. If architecture can be seen as some sort of ur-concept related to an idea of structuring or organization, for example, as mentioned in the beginning, it is because of the sedimentation of countless such decisions to accept the given, tweak it perhaps, and pass it on again, and with it the expectation for meaning and sense this activity implies.
If architecture is to survive in this brave new world in any way recognizable to the present, it will not be able to take this production of value for granted. That brave new world will be precisely defined by the lack of support it offers architecture in this regard. When limits are not given, when they are removed, architecture will be unveiled, finally, as simply but profoundly the embodiment of their choice. And when it is so revealed the last choice will be whether or not to continue, since to do so will require a resistance to the anyness of possibility and heedless quest for novelty.
But no one knows that, yet. This is still a world where the positive side of that restraint, its choice, is masked by an oceanic necessity that seems instead imposed on the work. And all positive effort seems focused on removing or pushing back that necessity, that constraint. The future will come to change all this, and humanity will joyously carouse and stumble about in new freedom. Some outrageous stuff will be made. Next-big-things will collect, new forms may be discovered... Ultimately, though, the creative mind will pull up short, dissatisfied. The fun will have gone out of it. And then the value of limits will come to be appreciated in the way proposed here—appreciate them even more because the chaos-that-is-not-filling has been experienced. All this will happen, despite anything anyone would care to do about it now. The point, then, is simply to call attention to this dimension of the architectural puzzle in the interest of harboring a strand of excellence in what promises to be a possibly terminal onslaught of mediocrity and embarrassment for architecture.
Mies was probably the guy most explicitly interested in excellence as it is described here. Those who cite the Mies quote about goodness for laughs, or who see only positive freedom in the capabilities being unleashed by contemporary technology, are demonstrating simply that they remain blinkered by a traditional conception of possibility. They remain faithfully, blissfully, unwittingly within a world that is made comfortable by its limits, and it is precisely this comfort that allows the traditional call for a step beyond to be made. Boy are they in for a surprise.