University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis - London

Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel

translated by Robert Bononno foreword by K. Michael Hays

Originally published in French as Les objets singutiers: Architecture et philosophic, by Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel. Copyright 2000 by Editions Calmann-LЈvy.

English translation copyright 2002 by Robert Bononno

 

The singular objects of architecture / Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel; translated by Robert Bononno. p. cm. ISBN 0-8166-3912-4 (alk. paper) 1. Architecture—Philosophy. 2. Aesthetics. I. Nouvel, Jean, 1945- n. Title. NA2500.B3413 2002 720'. 1—dc21

 

Contents

Foreword K. Michael Hays Acknowledgments

First Interview

Radicality-Singular Objects in Architecture-Illusion, Virtually, Reality-A Destabilized Area?-Concept, Irresolution, Vertigo-Creation and Forgetfulness-Values of Functionalism-New York or Utopia-Architecture: Between Nostalgia and Anticipation—(Always) Seduction, Provocation, Secrets—The Metamorphosis of Architecture— The Aesthetics of Modernity—Culture—A Heroic Architectural Act?—Art, Architecture, and Postmodernity—Visual Disappointment, Intellectual Disappointment-The Aesthetics of Disappearance-Images of Modernity-The Biology of the Visible—A New Hedonism?

Second Interview

Truth in Architecture—Another Tower for Beaubourg-A Shelter for Culture?—On Modification: Mutation or Rehabilitation-Architectural Reason-The City of Tomorrow-Virtual Architecture, Real Architecture- Computer Modeling and Architecture-Lightness and Heaviness-What

Utopia?—Architecture as the Desire for Omnipotence-Berlin and Europe-Architecture as the Art of Constraint-Transparency-Light as Matter-Disappearance-What Does Architecture Bear Witness To?— Singularity-Neutrality, Universality, and Globalization-Destiny and Becoming-The Idea of Architecture and History-Another Kind of Wisdom-The Question of Style-Inadmissible Complicity- Freedom as Self-Realization

 

Foreword

K. Michael Hays

The Singular Objects of Architecture should not create the expec­tation that either architecture or philosophy will be treated in this dialogue in anything like a traditional way (which, were it the case, would seem not so much old-fashioned as reactionary, coming from two of the few cultural figures practicing today that we could still dare to call progressive). Indeed, it is better to state the reverse: what first strikes one as extraordinary about this conversation is that architecture and philosophy are treated with any distinction at all by progressive thinkers in our present era. In our own time, the de-differentiation of disciplines and the tendentious erasure of boundaries between specific cultural materials and practices promise to homogenize all distinction, difference, and otherness into a globalized, neutralized same­ness. Much of what claims to be progressive thought is happy to aestheticize this situation, to accelerate its effects, and to trade in any remaining individuality or singularity of thought for a randomized, spread-out delirium. The flattening seems to have been chosen. Besides, any disciplinary autonomy or ex­pertise that might counter this leveling tendency is destined to be crushed anyway under the massive movement of the world system itself, to be emulsified along with everything else into so many cultural and economic fluids. What is extraordinary about this conversation, then, is its declaration, against all that, to search for singular objects (rather than globalized fluids) as might be found in architecture and philosophy.

"We're not heading for disaster, we're already in the midst of total disaster," Nouvel declares at one point. Yet neither he nor Baudrillard ever laments the loss of a real or idealized past, nor do they accept, not even for a moment, the cynically complacent preemption of the future. The second surprise of The Singular Objects of Architecture is that what is offered, both as program and as practice exemplified in this particular dialogue, is a re­newal of Utopian thought, a revived attempt at envisioning a possible future out of our disastrous present, a way of think­ing that has been under ban now for more than two decades. Against the hegemony of the antiutopian, real-time thinking of our contemporary technocratic positivism and experiential nominalism ("What's mine is mine, and you can't feel it"), the singular object must be anticipatory, inexhaustible, and shared; it must destroy culture (or what has become of it) and redis­tribute the leftovers. And so, while architecture and philosophy are treated together as parts of a period problem—as disciplines and practices with specific histories, transitions, and transfor­mations, subjected to the desultory effects of history now, in our own period—they will not remain unchallenged or unchanged in this dialogue. If the singular object is to be both Utopian and destructive, future directed and exquisitely representative of the present, it will be a peculiar object indeed. Its model will be nei­ther architecture nor philosophy freestanding, as traditionally practiced, but a productive enfolding of one into the other—an event more than an object, a constructional operation in which each discourse interprets the other but nevertheless produces a new, irreducible, singular thing: that peculiar thing we call theory. "I feel that thought, theory, is inexchangeable," says Baudrillard. "It can't be exchanged for truth or for reality. Exchange is im­possible. It's because of this that theory even exists." Theory is the diagram of the singular object of architecture. This, at least, should come as no surprise, for work of such large ambition as is evidenced here is to be found today almost nowhere other than theory.

Theory is ready to travel. Although at its best, theory will stay close to the historicity of its material, mediating between specific cultural practices and specific historical contexts, theoretical con­structions also possess an uncanny capacity to cross over, drift, and expand across disciplines, however much authors, institu­tions, and orthodoxies try to confine them. Theory is autono­mous ('Unexchangeable"), but it is nourished by circulation—by borrowing and trading, by unconscious influence or wholesale appropriation. Through the accidents of discourse, a body of theory can also be dislodged and pressed into the service of a quite different one, reinvested with unpredicted content, and refunctioned for unexpected vocations.

Not least among such transactions is that between architec­ture and philosophy, provided we understand that coupling in an expanded sense to include urbanism, semiology, Ideologiekritik, and certain strains of poststructuralist thought; for it is that fu­sion (what we now call, simply, architecture theory) that, since the mid-1960s, has so energized architectural discourse in aca­demic and professional circles, turning us away from an earlier functionalist, empiricist, foundationalist way of thinking and toward new registers of signification. By the 1980s, architecture theory had discovered affinities with other branches of theory and developed concerns with textual strategies, constructions of subjectivity and gender, power and property, geopolitics, and other themes that were already part of the general poststruc­turalist repertoire but whose spatial dimension was now fore­grounded. This entailed that the emphasis on the production of architectural objects (which aimed to prescribe normative standards for design and layout methods and motives for imple­mentation) should give way to an emphasis on the production of architecture as a subject of knowledge. Theory took on the task of revealing the unintended ideological presumptions that architectural procedures and techniques alternately enabled or tried to remove from the possibility of thinking, which is to say that theory understood architecture as one of culture s primary representational systems.

The concern with the specific internal workings of archi­tecture—which tend to be mainly synchronic, synthetic, and projective—was not abandoned so much as folded into various discourses of context and exteriority, recalibrated according to what was sayable or thinkable in the idiolects of Marxism, de- construction, psychoanalysis, and other imported systems. But these systems were not merely yoked together with architecture. Rather, something of a shift of level, as much as perspective, took place, in which architecture's specific forms, operations, and practices could now more clearly be seen as producing concepts whose ultimate horizon of effect lay outside architec­ture "proper," in a more general sociocultural field. This new activity of theory demanded not new ideas for buildings but the invention of altogether new techniques for rethinking issues of representation, foundation, subjectivity, structure and orna­ment, materiality, media, and more. What used to be called phi­losophy, then, began to think its problems through architecture rather than the other way around. And this inevitably attracted some of the most important thinkers of our time (including Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Fredric Jameson) to ponder architectural problems.

There has rarely been a sustained conversation between a philosopher and an architect of the scope and focus that we have here. Then again, a certain horizontality of thought, along with the desire to interpret the totality, seems demanded by our current situation. For all the apparently wild multiplicity of our present system of objects, there is also the constant magnetic pull of the single global market and a corporate-controlled re- totalization of all the dispersed vocations and functions of social life into a single space-time of consumption and communica­tion. Our different day-to-day activities are no longer tied to determinate needs or to specific exchanges between people and objects, but rather to a total universe of signs and simulacra floating in economic and cultural-informational fluids. Even the conscious ideologies of rebellion and negative critique seem to be not so much co-opted by the system as a strategic part of the system's internal workings. At certain moments, in certain sin­gular objects, architecture itself produces the perception of this conflictedly overdetermined situation; architecture becomes a kind of precipitate of the vapor that we used to call the social. The twinness of the World Trade Center, for example—a build­ing that was a replica of itself—was already, in the 1960s when the towers were built, an anticipatory sign of the computer­ized, genetically networked, cloning society that was emerg­ing. In the next decade, the Centre Pompidou, even more deeply conflicted, signals the catastrophic finishing off of mass culture by the masses themselves: a new breed of cultural consumer who is also, along with the paintings and the cash, both the raw material and the product of the new museum. And then the architecture of our own time (the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, perhaps, one of infinite possible clones or chimeras spun out of a software package) seems to become altogether virtual, for an audience that is everyone and everywhere—not so much an architectural readymade (in the sense of Duchamp) as an ar­chitecture already made, a transparent cutout that is its own template.

In their conversation, Baudrillard and Nouvel turn over and over again possible ways of understanding this situation and its agents, mapping it through the languages of architec­ture, philosophy, and both together (and it is fascinating to register the slippages of perspective between the architect and the philosopher, to compare how the mind feels performing work on the problem one way and then the other, but also to become aware of the preference that both have for a descrip­tion of the totality over the separate, abstract parts). But the provocations, responses, and probes are not meant to prйciser the ways in which architecture simply replicates the base-and- superstructure apparatus of which it is a primary organ (the code words for such ideological reproduction include "screen architecture" and "clone architecture," but also the neutral and the global). Baudrillard and Nouvel search also for some autono­mous force or effect produced by the object not in culture but alongside it, in the penumbra of culture, a force that thickens the situation, obscures the scene, and gums up the hegemonic workings of visibility and transparency. This attribute of the ob­ject is alternately called its "secret," its "radicality," its "literality," or indeed its singularity. But clearly this is an apprehension of the singular object quite the reverse of any that would fixate on aesthetic properties to the exclusion of larger, "extrinsic" factors. Rather, the singular object is the way of access, through the coils of contradiction, to be sure, but nevertheless opening onto the determining conditions of its own cultural surround.

Take Nouvel's own work, which has famously found its iden­tity in a logic of the surface. On the one hand, from the earli­est stone facades to the steel and glass curtain wall, architecture has always played a game of contradiction with mass and gravi­ty and their dematerialization into surface. On the other hand, from our present perspective, the logic of the surface is a per­ceptual logic we must now understand as having been given to us by consumer-communication culture and its slick advertis­ing two-dimensionality. "Screen architecture"? "Clone archi­tecture"? Or singular object. It is the particular handling of the surface that must make a difference. As Nouvel has comment­ed on his Cartier Foundation: "If I look at the facade, since it's bigger than the building, I can't tell if I'm looking at the reflec­tion of the sky or at the sky through the glass     

If I look at a tree through the three glass panes, I can never determine if I'm looking at the tree through the glass, in front of it, behind it, or the reflection of the tree. And when I plant two trees in parallel, even accidentally, to the glass plane, I can't tell if there's a second tree or if it's a real tree."

For Baudrillard, this form of illusion is not gratuitous; in his essay "Truth or Radicality in Architecture," he referred to it as a "dramaturgy of illusion and seduction." Such destabiliza- tions of perception thwart the dictatorship of the smoothly visible and install an alternative perception, a "secret image," an almost bodily recalcitrance (Barthes's punctum is mentioned as a model), which will make itself felt as a kind of resistance, lag, or refraction beneath the transparency. An object both of a culture and the culture's biggest threat, then: pained by the loss, anticipating the gain, a representation of the moment and a momentary refusal.

The singular object is deeply conflicted, and the conversa­tion here takes on its subject's form. We can't go on; we must go on. The architect stretching to imagine what it would take to actually make a singular object, the philosopher insisting that no intention, no amount of individual effort, can guarantee singularity's arrival ("let's not think too much"). Both against premature clarification: I know it's here, but I can't see it; "the important thing is to have looked." Rarely can so many con­flicting things be said about a singular subject. Rarely has such conflict been so productive.

 

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the Maison des Йcrivains and the University of Paris VI-La Villette School of Architecture for taking the initiative to sponsor a conference between architects and philosophers. The project, titled Urban Passages, involved a series of six encounters between writers and architects in 1997 and 1998, which made headlines both inside and outside the school. The extended dialogue between Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel forms the basis of the present text. The five other pairs of par­ticipants were Paul Chemetov and Didier Daeninckx, Henri Gaudin and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Philippe Sollers and Christian de Portzamparc, Antoine Grumbach and Antoine Bailly, and Henri Ciriani and Olivier Rolin. Hйlиne Bleskine developed the idea for Urban Passages and organized the dialogues. We are grateful for the opportunity to hold discussions of such quality, since it is through speech that we communicate to others the singularity of an encounter.

When it came time to publish the book, the authors reworked their dialogue, focusing on a recurrent theme of the discussions: singularity. This theme helped drive the discussions toward their resolution or, we should say, toward their radical and nec­essary incompletion.

 

*****

The philosopher and writer Jean Baudrillard has taught at sev­eral universities around the world. He is the author of numer­ous books and essays. In English his most notable works are Simulacra and Simulation, America, The Vital Illusion, Symbolic Exchange and Death, and Consumer Society.

Jean Nouvel, an architect of international renown, has designed LTnstitut du Monde Arabe and the Cartier Foundation in Paris. With Paul Jodard, he is author of International Design Yearbook (1995) and Present and Futures: Architecture in Cities. He also worked with Conway Lloyd Morgan on Jean Nouvel: The Ele­ments of Architecture.

Robert Bononno is a recent recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award for the translation of Isabelle Eberhardt, Seven Years in the Life of a Woman: Letters and Journals. His many trans­lations include Cyberculture (Minnesota, 2001), Kubrick: The De­finitive Edition, French New Wave, and Ghost Image.

K. Michael Hays is Eliot Noyes Professor of Architecture Theory at Harvard University and adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His publications include Architectural Theory since 1968.

 

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