Jean Baudrillard: We can't begin with nothing because, logically, nothingness is the culmination of something. When I think of radicality, I think of it more in terms of writing and theory than of architecture. I am more interested in the radicality of space But it's possible that true radicality is the radicality of nothingness. Is there a radical space that is also a void? The question interests me because now, at last, I have an opportunity to gain insight into how we can fill a space, how we can organize it by focusing on something other than its radical extension—vertically or horizontally, that is—within a dimension where anything is possible. Yet we still need to produce something real The question I want to ask Jean Nouvel, since we have to start somewhere, is very simple: "Is there such a thing as architectural truth?"
Jean Nouvel: What do you mean by "truth"?
J.B. Architectural truth isn't a truth or a reality in the sense that architecture might exhaust itself in its references, its finalities, its destination, its modes, its procedures. Doesn't architecture transcend all of that, effectively exhausting itself in something else, its true finality, or something that would enable it to go beyond its true finality.... Does architecture exist beyond this limit of the real?
J.B. I've never been interested in architecture. I have no specific feelings about it one way or the other. I'm interested in space, yes, and in anything in so-called "constructed" objects that enables me to experience the instability of space. I'm most interested in buildings like Beaubourg, the World Trade Center, Biosphere 2—singular objects, but objects that aren't exactly architectural wonders as far as I'm concerned. It's not the architectural sense of these buildings that captivates me but the world they translate. If I examine the truth of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, for example, I see that, in that location, architecture expresses, signifies, translates a kind of full, constructed form, the context of a society already experiencing hyperrealism. Those two towers resemble two perforated bands. Today we'd probably say they're clones of each other, that they've already been cloned. Did they anticipate our present? Does that mean that architecture is not part of reality but part of the fiction of a society, an anticipatory illusion? Or does architecture simply translate what is already there? That's why I asked, "Is there such a thing as architectural truth?" in the sense that there would be a suprasensible destination for architecture and for space.
J.N. Before answering your question, I would just like to comment that this dialogue provides a unique opportunity to discuss architecture in other than the customary terms. You know that I consider you to be the one intellectual who is actually doing his job. You respond to the many disturbing questions, the real questions, with questions and answers that no one wants to hear. I don't know if I'll be able to provoke any responses in a field that you claim to be unfamiliar with, that doesn't really interest you, but this evening I'm going to try. Recently I had a look at some of your books, and I was pleased to find that you never speak about architecture except in an interview that took place twelve years ago between us. It's in that interview that I discovered a number of your ideas about architecture, aside from your writing on New York or Beaubourg. I took notes on some of your thoughts about our architectural monstrosities and some of your more radical points of view, which could supply us with a number of questions.
If we attempt to talk about architecture as a limit—and that's what really interests me—we do so by always positioning ourselves on the fringe of knowledge and ignorance. That's the true adventure of architecture. And that adventure is situated in a real world, a world that implies a consensus. You said, somewhere, that a consensus must exist in order for seduction to occur. Now, the field of architecture is a field that, by the very nature of things, revolves around a world of seduction. The architect is in a unique situation. He's not an artist in the traditional sense. He's not someone who meditates in front of a blank page. He doesn't work on a canvas. I often compare the architect to the film director, because we have roughly the same limitations. We're in a situation where we have to produce an object within a given period of time, with a given budget, for a specific group of individuals. And we work as a team. We're in a situation where we can be censored, directly or indirectly, for reasons of safety or money, or even because of deliberate censorship. It's a field where there are professional censors. We could even call an architect who designs buildings in Prance a "French building censor." It's exactly the same thing. We are situated in an environment that is bound, limited. Within that environment, where can we find an unrestricted space and the means to overcome those limitations?
In my case, I've looked for it in the articulation of various things, especially the formulation of a certain way of thinking. So should I use the word "concept" or not? I used it very early on, realizing that the word is philosophically appropriate. Then we may want to introduce the terms "percept" and "affect," in reference to Deleuze, but that's not the real problem. The problem lies in our ability to articulate a project around a preliminary concept or idea, using a very specific strategy that can synergize—or sometimes even juxtapose—perceptions that will interact with one another and define a place we are unfamiliar with. We are still dealing with invention, the unknown, risk. This unfamiliar place, if we succeed in figuring out what's going on, could be the locus of a secret. And it might, assuming that's the case, then convey certain things, things we cannot control, things that are fatal, voluntarily uncontrolled. We need to find a compromise between what we control and what we provoke. All the buildings I've tried to build until now are based on the articulation of these three things. They also refer to a concept that I know interests you, the concept of illusion.
J.N. I'm no magician, but I try to create a space that isn't legible, a space that works as the mental extension of sight. This seductive space, this virtual space of illusion, is based on very precise strategies, strategies that are often diversionary. I frequently use what I find around me, including your own work and that of a few others. I also make use of cinema. So when I say that I play with depth of field, it's because I'm trying to foreground a series of filters that could lead anywhere—a kind of metanarrative— but from that point on, the intellect goes into action. This is not entirely my invention. Look at the Japanese garden. There is always a vanishing point, the point at which we don't know whether the garden stops or continues. I'm trying to provoke that sort of response.
If we look at the phenomenon of perspective—I'm thinking of the project for superimposing a grid on the horizon, which I had prepared for La Tкte Dйfense—I was attempting to step outside Alberti's logic. In other words, I was trying to organize all the elements in such a way that they could be read in series and, if need be, to play with scale using the series' rhythm, so the viewer would become conscious of the space. What happens if I escape those limits? What if I say that the building isn't between the horizon and the observer but is part of that horizon? Assuming this, what happens if it loses its materiality?
Dematerialization is something that would interest you; the "endless skyscraper" is one example. [NouveFs project for a Tour sans fin, or "endless skyscraper," was designed for La Dйfense, just outside central Paris. Although his design won an international competition, the building was never constructed.] Again, this isn't something I invented. I think Deleuze, in Proust and Signs, spoke about it from a different point of view. This diversion, which reroutes our perception of phenomena from the material to the immaterial, is a concept that architecture should appropriate for itself. Using these kinds of concepts, we can create more than what we see. And this "more than what we see" is manifest in and through physical context. With respect to what architecture has borrowed from cinema, the concept of sequence is very important, as Paul Virilio reminds us. In other words, concepts such as displacement, speed, memory seen in terms of an imposed trajectory, or a known trajectory, enable us to compose an architectural space based not only on what we see but on what we have memorized as a succession of sequences that are perceived to follow one another. From this point on, there are contrasts between what is created and what was originally present in our perception of space.
In the Versailles Theater, you enter through a stone corridor, which is absolutely neutral, plain, devoid of decoration, and which opens suddenly into something absolutely stunning in terms of its decoration, its preciosity. The period in which this theater was designed, imagined, realized provides us with a key to the phenomenon I have been describing. We're no longer in the same place today, however. We need to put those ideas aside and make use of others—ideas like contrast, chaining, and extension—to serve as fundamental concepts of the architectural project. At the same time, when I play with the concept of a virtual space, in the magician's sense, it's because space and architecture are things we become conscious of through our eyes. So we can play with anything the eye can integrate through sight, and we can fool the eye. Classical culture has often made use of this kind of sleight of hand. In a building like the Cartier Foundation, where I intentionally blend the real image and the virtual image, it signifies that within a given plane, I no longer know if I'm looking at the virtual image or the real image. 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 the sky through the
glass_ If I look at a tree through the three glass planes, 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. These are gimmicks, things we can put into our bag of tricks, our architectural bag of tricks, and which we're never supposed to talk about, but which, from time to time, must be talked about. These are the means by which architecture creates a virtual space or a mental space; it's a way of tricking the senses. But it's primarily a way of preserving a destabilized area.
J.N. When you talk to a developer, the way a director talks to a producer, he asks a ton of questions about the price per square meter, the lot, can it be built on, will it shock the local bourgeoisie, a whole series of questions of this type. And then there are those things that remain unsaid. There is always something unsaid; that's part of the game. And what remains unsaid is, ethically, something additional, something that doesn't run counter to what is being sold or exchanged, doesn't interfere with our notions of economics, but signifies something vital. That's where the game is played. Because if an architectural object is only the translation of some functionality, if it's only the result of an economic situation, it can't have meaning. What's more, there's a passage in one of your texts on New York that I like very much, where you say that the city embodies a form of architecture that is violent, brutal, immediate, which is the true form of architecture, that you have no need for eco-architecture or genteel architecture because that would impede life's energy. What I'm saying doesn't necessarily contradict that. But since we're not always in New York, we need to set aside places, areas that can be destabilized.
J.B. I agree, except perhaps about terms like "consensus." ... When you say that seduction is consensual, I'm skeptical.
J.N. You mean only with reference to architecture?
J.B. Precisely. It's a way of confronting it through the visible and the Invisible. I don't talk much about architecture, but in all my books, the question lies just beneath the surface. I fully agree with this idea of invisibility. What I like very much in your work is that we don't see it, things remain invisible, they know how to 1 make themselves invisible. When you stand in front of the buildings, you see them, but they're invisible to the extent that they effectively counteract that hegemonic visibility, the visibility that dominates us, the visibility of the system, where everything must be immediately visible and immediately interpretable. You conceive space in such a way that architecture simultaneously creates both place and nonplace, is also a nonplace in this sense, and thus creates a kind of apparition. And it's a seductive space. So I take back what I said earlier: Seduction isn't consensual. It's dual. It must confront an object with the order of the real, the visible order that surrounds it. If this duality doesn't exist—if there's no interactivity, no context—seduction doesn't take place. j~A successful object, in the sense that it exists outside its own reality, is an object that creates a dualistic relation, a relation that can emerge through diversion, contradiction, destabilization, but which effectively brings the so-called reality of a world and its radical illusion face-to-face.
J.B. Lets talk about radicality. Let's talk about the kind of radical exoticism of things that Segalen discusses, the estrangement from a sense of identity that results in the creation of a form of vertigo through which all sorts of things can occur: affects, concepts, prospects, whatever, but always something insoluble, something unresolved. In this sense, yes, architectural objects, or at least yours or others that are even more undomesticated, are part of an architecture without a referent. This reflects their quality of being "unidentified," and ultimately unidentifiable, objects. This is one area where we can combine—and not merely by deliberate analogy—writing, fiction, architecture, and a number of other things as well, obviously, whether this involves the analysis of a society, an event, or an urban context. I agree that we can't choose the event, we can only choose the concept, but we retain the right to make this choice. The choice of a concept is something that should conflict with the context, with all the significations (positive, functional, etc.) a building can assume, or a theory, or anything else.
Deleuze defined the concept as something antagonistic. However, with respect to the event, as it is given, as it is seen, as it is deciphered, overdetermined by the media or other voices, by information, the concept is that which creates the nonevent. It creates an event to the extent that it juxtaposes the so-called "real" event with a theoretical or fictional nonevent of some sort. I can see how this can happen with writing, but I have a much harder time with architecture. In your work, I feel it in the effect produced by this illusion you spoke of earlier; not in the sense of an illusion or a trompe Poeil—well, ultimately, yes, of course, but not an illusion in the sense of a simulation—of something that takes place beyond the reflection of things or beyond the screen. Today we are surrounded by screens. In fact, it's rare to succeed in creating a surface or place that doesn't serve as a screen and can exert all the prestige of transparency without the dictatorship.
I'd like to make a distinction here regarding our terminology. Illusion is not the same as the virtual, which, in my opinion, is complicit with hyperreality, that is, the visibility of an imposed transparency, the space of the screen, mental space, and so on. Illusion serves as a sign for anything else. It seems to me that everything you do, and do well, is another architecture
seen through a screen. Precisely because to create something like an inverse universe, you must completely destroy that sense of/ fullness, that sense of ripe visibility, that oversignification we impose on things.
And here I'd like to know, as part of this question of context, what happens to social and political data, to everything that can constrain things, when architecture is tempted to become the expression, or even the sociological or political transformer, of a social reality, which is an illusion—in the negative sense of the term. In one sense, even if architecture wants to respond to a political program or fulfill social needs, it will never succeed because it is confronted, fortunately, by something that is also a black hole. And this black hole simply means that the "masses" are still there and they are not at all recipients, or conscious, or reflected, or anything; it's an extremely perverse operator with respect to everything that is constructed. So even if architecture wants what it wants and tries to signify what it wants to express, it will be deflected. You, however, strive for this deflection and destabilization, and you're right. And as we discussed, it's going to happen anyway. This is true of politics; it's true of other categories as well. Something is present, but that something is nothing; there's nothing on the other side. Because where we see plenitude, masses, populations, statistics, and so on, there's always deflection. It's this deflection of the operator, for example, that in a work of architecture or art transforms the way we use it, but also, ultimately, transforms the meaning that was originally given to the work. And whether this resides in the work of art or in something else, at any given moment the singular object is rendered enigmatic, unintelligible even to the one who created it, which obsesses and delights us.
Fortunately, this is also the reason why we can continue to live in a universe that is as full, as determined, as functional as this. Our world would be unlivable without this power of innate deflection, and this has nothing to do with sociology. On the contrary, sociology records and tallies up official behaviors before it transforms them into statistics. I'm relativizing the architectural object somewhat, even though I'm fully aware that when we create something, we have to want it in some sense by saying to ourselves that even if there is no reality principle or truth principle for those for whom the object is intended, there will be a fatal deflection, there will be seduction. And we have to make sure that the things that assume they are identical to themselves or people who think they are identifying with their own character, their own genius, will be deflected, destabilized, seduced. In my opinion, seduction always talces place in this sense, in its most general form. However, I'm not sure that in the virtualized world of new technologies, information, and the media, this dualistic, indecipherable relationship of seduction will take place as it did before. It's possible that the secret you spoke about would be completely annihilated by another type of universe. It's also possible that in this universe of the virtual, which we talk about today, architecture wouldn't exist at all, that this symbolic form, which plays with weight, the gravity of things and their absence, their total transparence, would be abolished. No, I'm no longer sure this could occur in the virtual universe. We are completely screened in; the problem of architecture is expressed differently. So maybe there's a kind of completely superficial architecture that is confused with this universe. This would be an architecture of banality, of virtuality. It can be original as well, but it wouldn't be part of the same concept.
J.N. One of the big problems with architecture is that it must both exist and be quickly forgotten; that is, lived spaces are not designed to be experienced continuously. The architect's problem is that he is always in the process of analyzing the places he discovers, observing them, which isn't a normal position. What I personally like about American cities—even if I wouldn't cite them as models—is that you can go through them without thinking about the architecture. You don't think about the aesthetic side, with its history, and so on. You can move within them as if you were in a desert, as if you were in a bunch of other things, without thinking about this whole business of art, aesthetics, the history of art, the history of architecture. American cities enable us to return to a kind of primal scene of space. Naturally, in spite of everything, this architecture is also structured by various realities, but in terms of their actual presence, those cities, as pure event, pure object, avoid the pretense of self- conscious architecture.
J.B. The same is true in art, in painting. In art the strongest works are those that abandon this whole business of art and art history and aesthetics. In writing, it's the same thing. Within that overaestheticized dimension, with its pretense of meaning, reality, truth, I like it most when it is most invisible. I think that good architecture can do this as well; it's not so much a grieving process as a process of disappearance, of controlling disappearance as much as appearance.
J.N. We need to recognize that we're surrounded by a great deal of accidental architecture. And an entire series of modern, or modernist, attitudes—in the historical sense—have been founded on this particular reality. There are countless numbers of sites whose aesthetic lacks any sense of intention. We find this same phenomenon outside of architecture; it's a value of functionalism. Today, when we look at a race car, we don't primarily think about its beauty. Nineteenth-century architecture is what it is, and three-quarters of the time it's not marked by any kind of aesthetic intentionality. The same applies to industrial zones at the end of the twentieth century, which are, for all intents and purposes, radical architectural forms, without concessions, abrupt, in which we can definitely locate a certain charm.
But I want to get back to your ideas about architecture, since you've definitely expressed an opinion about it. For example, you write that "in architecture the situation must be looked at backwards, we need to identify a rule." You also wrote, "In architecture the accompanying idea is a strategic minimum." And "New York is the epicenter of the end of the world. As intellectuals we must work to save that end-of-the-world Utopia." In any case, you're part of that effort.
J.B. When I refer to New York as the epicenter of the end of the world, I'm referring to an apocalypse. At the same time, it's a way of looking at it as a realized Utopia. This is the paradox of reality. We can dream about apocalypse, but it's a perspective, something unrealizable, whose power lies in the fact that it isn't realized. New York provides the kind of stupefaction characterized by a world that is already accomplished, an absolutely apocalyptic world, but one that is replete in its verticality—and in this sense, ultimately, it engenders a form of deception because it is embodied, because it's already there, and we can no longer destroy it. It's indestructible. The form is played out, it's outlived its own usefulness, it's been realized even beyond its own limits. There's even a kind of liberation, a destructuring of space that no longer serves as a limit to verticality or, as in other places, horizontality. But does architecture still exist when space has become infinitely indeterminate in every dimension?
Here, in France, we've got something different. We have a monstrous object, something insuperable, something we are unable to repeat: Beaubourg. There's nothing better than New York. Other things will happen, and we'll make the transition to a different universe, one that's much more virtual; but within its order, we'll never do better than that city, that architecture, which is, at the same time, apocalyptic. Personally, I like this completely ambiguous figure of the city, which is simultaneously catastrophic and sublime, because it has assumed an almost hieratic force.
J.N. And when you write, "As intellectuals we must work to save that end-of-the-world Utopia"?
J.B. Do we really need to save ideas? At least we should save the possibility of a form. Of the idea as form. It's true that when faced with something that's overrealized, a terminus, we're reduced to ecstasy and pure contemplation. It's important that we rediscover the concept in the idea, in the mental space of the idea. We've got to get back mside- dr go around, to the other side. Once again, perfection serves as a screen, a different type of screen. Genius would consist in destabilizing this too-perfect image.
J.N. You also said something rather astonishing about architecture: "Architecture is a mixture of nostalgia and extreme anticipation." Do you recall? Those ideas are still vital for me, but it's been fifteen years. Are they still vital for you?
J.B. We're looking for the lost object, whether we're referring to meaning or language. We use language, but it's always, at the same time, a form of nostalgia, a lost object. Language in use is basically a form of anticipation, since we're already in something else. We have to be in these two orders of reality: we have to confront what we've lost and anticipate what's ahead of us; that's our brand of fatality. In this sense we can never clarify things, we can never say, "OK, that's behind us" or "OK, that's ahead of us." But it's hard to understand because the idea of modernity is for all that the idea of a continuous dimension, where it's clear thatjthe^past and the future coexist We ourselves may no longer be in thafworld=-—if we ever were!—for it may be no more than a kind of apparition. This seems to be true for any kind of form. Form is always already lost, then always already seen as something beyond itself. It's the essence of radicality.... It involves being radical in loss, and radical in anticipation—any object can be grasped in this way. My comments need to be contrasted with the idea that something could be "real" and that we could consider it as having a meaning, a context, a subject, an object. We know that things are no longer like that, and even the things we take to be the simplest always have an enigmatic side, which is what makes them radical.
J.N. I don't want to torture you any longer, but I'd like to read three other quotes: "Architecture consists in working against a background of spatial deconstruction." And "All things are curves." That's a very important sentence for me. And finally "Provocation would be much too serious a form of seduction." You said that in reference to architecture, by the way.
l.B. Fortunately I haven't reread all those books. "All things are curves." That's the easiest to start with because there are no end points or the end points connect in a curved mirror. All things, in this sense, fulfill their own cycle.
Provocation, seduction ... Programmed seduction doesn't exist, so it doesn't mean much. Seduction should, nevertheless, contain some sense of that antagonism, that countercurrent; it should both have the sense and implement it. Here too any concerted effort at implementation is obviously contradictory. Seduction can't be programmed, and disappearance, whether of constructed things or generalized ambivalence, can't be officialized. It has to remain secret. The order of secrecy, which is the order of seduction, obviously exists only through provocation; it's almost exactly the opposite. Provocation is an attempt to make something visible through contradiction, through scandal, defiance; to make something visible that should perhaps guard its secret. The problem is to achieve this law or this rule. The rule is really the secret, and the secret obviously becomes increasingly difficult in a world like our own, where everything is given to us totally promiscuously, so that there are no gaps, no voids, no nothingness; nothingness no longer exists, and nothingness is where secrecy happens, the place where things lose their meaning, their identity—not only would they assume all possible meanings here, but they would remain truly unintelligible in some sense.
I think that in every building, every street, there is something that creates an event, and whatever creates an event is unintelligible. This can also occur in situations or in individual behavior; it's something you don't realize, something you can't program. You have more experience than I do with urban projects, which arrange spatial freedom, the space of freedom; all those programs are obviously absolutely contradictory. So, at bottom, the secret exists wherever people hide it. It's also possible in dualistic, ambivalent relations, for at that moment something becomes unintelligible once again, like some precious material.
J.N. We can continue by talking about the aesthetics of disappearance. I'd like to quote you once again, but this time not with respect to architecture, and I want to provoke you a little as well. You write, "If being a nihilist is being obsessed by the mode of disappearance rather than the mode of production, then I'm a nihilist." You also write, "I am for everything that is opposed to culture." This brings us back in a way to certain contemporary issues. I can say the same thing about architecture: I'm for everything that is opposed to architecture. Twenty years ago I began a book that way: "The future of architecture is not architectural." The key is to agree on what architecture is ... and where it's going. The key is to agree on what culture is and where it's going.
J.N. Architecture is pretty easy. Let me explain. One of the things I consider essential is the idea that there has been a complete change in architecture during this century, in the sense that architecture had as its initial goal the construction of the artificial world in which we live. This happened rather simply—there was an independent body of knowledge, something clear, there were recipes. Vitruvius produced a book of recipes; he tells you exactly how to construct a building, the number of columns, the proportions, and so on. Academicism consisted in improving the use of these ingredients slightly. There were instructions for building cities as well; architects made use of different typologies, different recipes for urban art, et cetera. Then, suddenly, there was a shift in the demographics. You're quite familiar with this. Everyone moved to the cities, the cities exploded, we tried to maintain a certain number of rules, which were generally based on planning. These too exploded one after the other. We have experienced a kind of urban big bang and find that we are unable to use the existing recipes. Everything associated with those existing recipes, in other words, architecture with a capital "A," has become absolutely ridiculous. As soon as you integrate a structural model into this system, it becomes absurd.
So in this sense, I'm against everything that is part of the same order as Architecture. This means that from this point on, we must make use of another strategy, where we're required to be slightly more intelligent—to the extent that we can be—required to constantly diagnose the situation, required to face the fact that architecture is no longer the invention of a world but that it exists simply with respect to a geological layer applied to all the cities throughout the planet Architecture can no longer have as its goal the transformation, the modification, of this accumulated material. For some, it's intolerable; they feel like they've been fired. From the moment we initiate this discourse, however, it's as if we were against a form of ancestral culture; we throw out the baby with the bathwater. You can't generate any positive effect within this framework. Some go even further. We're faced with the generic city; that's the way it is, and there's nothing to be done about it.
I suspect that you're pretty much in agreement with this type of approach, which, by the way, I happen to understand. Yet I've still maintained a certain residue of optimism. I think that through small movements we can achieve an ethics whereby the situation becomes slightly more positive every time we intervene. We can try to locate a kind of enjoyment of place by including things that weren't considered previously, which are frequently accidental, and inventing strategies of improvement, the poetics of situations; we can evaluate completely random elements and declare that we're dealing with a geography: "It's beautiful. I'm going to reveal it to you...." This is an aesthetics of revelation, a way of taking a piece of the world and saying, "I'm appropriating this, and I'm giving it back to you for your appreciation in a different way." In this century, architecture finds itself faced with incommensurable, metaphysical dimensions. A priori it can't do anything about that. It's in the same situation as philosophy or science: it's now an adult. We need to develop other strategies.
At this point, we need to take into account the fatal dimensions of place, the deflection of what we're about to do, evaluate a number of possibles in terms of scenarios, and tell ourselves that what we're about to do is going to be part of a becoming that is hidden to us. This is the opposite of the architecture that's still being taught in nine out of ten schools. It may look like an attitude against architecture, but that's not the case ... just as when you wrote, rather unconditionally, "I'm for everything that is opposed to culture."
J.B. I was referring to culture in the sense of aestheticization, and I am opposed to such aestheticization because it inevitably involves a loss: the loss of the object, of this secret that works of art and creative effort might reveal and which is something more than aesthetics. The secret can't be aesthetically unveiled. It's the kind of "punctum" Barthes spoke of in reference to photography—its secret, something inexplicable and nontransmissible, something that is in no way interactive. It's something that's there and not there at the same time. Within culture this thing is completely dissipated, volatilized. Culture involves the total legibility of everything in it, and what's more, it comes into being at the very moment Duchamp transposed a very simple object, the urinal, into an art object. He transposed its banality to create an event within the aesthetic universe and deaestheticize it. He forced banality upon it—he broke into the home of aesthetics—and stopped it cold. Paradoxically he made possible the generalized aestheticization that typifies the modern era. And I wonder whether this form of acting out on Duchamp's part, in the field of painting, which wasn't a revolution but an implosion, had an equivalent in the architectural universe. Is there a kind of before and after among forms? Here too, it's still the end of a kind of modernity, which began at the moment everything that was considered energy, or the forces of modernity—whether these involved society, social wealth, industry—was oriented by the idea of progress. The idea of art history in some form, of the progress of art, hung on in art.
With abstraction we had the impression that a liberation had taken place, an orgy of modernity. That all broke apart in a kind of sudden implosion, a leveling of the aesthetic's sense of the sublime. And in the end, when this aesthetic of the secret disappeared, we had culture.
J.B. Culture is everywhere. In any case, at this point in time, it's a homologue of industry and technology. It's a mental technique, a mental technology that was embellished through architectural services, museums, et cetera. In the case of photography, I was interested in this history at one point When Barthes spoke about photography, he brought up the question of the "punc-turn." Through this punctum, the photograph becomes an event in our head, in our mental life, where it is something different, a singular relation, an absolute singularity. This punctum, which, according to Barthes, is a nonplace, nothing, the nothingness at the heart of the photograph, disappeared, and in its place we constructed a museum of photography. This death, which Barthes said was the heart of the photograph, the photograph itself, the symbolic power of the photograph, disappeared, it assumed the shape of a monument or a museum, and this time a concrete death materialized. This was a cultural operation, and that operation, yes, I am against it, emphatically, with no concessions, without compromise.
We are stuck in an unlimited, metastatic development of culture, which has heavily invested in architecture. But to what extent can we judge it? Today it's very difficult to identify, in a given building, what belongs to this secret, this singularity that hasn't really disappeared. I think that as a form it is indestructible but is increasingly consumed by culture. Is any voluntary, conscious resistance possible? Yes. I think that each of us can resist. But it would be difficult for such resistance to become political. I don't get the impression there could be any organized political resistance as such. It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be "exceptional" in that sense.
A work of art is a singularity, and all these singularities can create holes, interstices, voids, et cetera, in the metastatic fullness of culture. But I don't see them coalescing, combining into a kind of antipower that could invest the other. No. We are definitively immersed in the order of culture, that is, until the apocalypse arrives. We can, I think, combine all this within the same concept. I think that even political economy in the form it has assumed, which is also completely skewed, and which is not at all a principle of economic reality but one of pure speculation, a political economy that culminates in a speculative void, is an aesthetic. Now, Walter Benjamin already analyzed this in the field of politics. In that sense, we are witnessing an aestheticization of behavior and structure. But aestheticization is not part of the real; on the contrary, it signifies that things are becoming values, assume value. We can no longer compare an interplay of forms. It's unintelligible and can't be assigned any ultimate meaning, because it's a game, a rule, something different. With generalized aestheticization, forms are exhausted and become value. But value, aesthetics, culture, et cetera, are infinitely negotiable, and everyone can benefit, although here we are within the domain of order and equivalence, the complete leveling of all singularity. I believe we are part of that order, from which nothing can escape. But I also still feel that singularities as such can function even though they assume what are frequently monstrous forms—for example, those "monsters" you spoke about. What interests me is architecture as monster, those objects that have been catapulted into the city, from someplace else. In a way I appreciate this monstrous character. The first was Beaubourg. We could provide a cultural description of Beaubourg, consider Beaubourg as the synthesis of this total "culturization," and, in this case, be completely opposed to it. Nonetheless the Beaubourg object is a singular event in our history, a monster. And it is a monster because it demonstrates nothing, it's a monster, and in that sense a kind of singularity.
It's obvious that such objects, whether architectural or not, escape their programmed existence, the future you have given them.... This metamorphosis can become a singular personal intuition or the result of an overall effect that no one intended.
Still, the object (architectural or not) in question will produce a gaping hole in this culturality.
J.N. We might ask ourselves why there is no equivalent to Du- champ in the world of architecture. There is no equivalent because there is no auto-architecture. There is no architect who could make an immediate, scandalous gesture that was accepted. Architects have tried to confront these limits—that was the starting point of postmodernity. We could say that in his own way, Venturi tried to do it. He took the simplest building that existed, a basic building from the suburbs of Philadelphia—even the location wasn't important, it was the least significant location possible—made of brick, with standard windows, and so on, and he said: "This is the architecture we must make today." And his gesture implied an entire theory, a theory that was opposed to the heroic architectural act, although in terms of derision it was a "weak" application of the dadaist revolution (on the Rich ter scale, it was one or two; Duchamp is seven). But all these attempts culminated in notable failures, since we as architects are unable to attain the same distance from the object. I have no idea what would enable us to identify Duchamp's fountain if it weren't in a musйographie space. It demands certain reading conditions and a certain distance, which don't exist for architecture. At most we could say that this act of complete vulgarization might occur in spite of the client's intentions. The only problem is that if you do that and you repeat it, it becomes insignificant. No further reality, no further reading of the act is possible; you've become part of the total disappearance of the architectural act.
J.B. Duchamp's act also becomes insignificant, wants to be insignificant, wants insignificance, and becomes insignificant in spite of itself through repetition, as well as through all of Duchamp's by-products. The event itself is unique, singular, and that's the end of it. It's ephemeral. Afterward there's a whole string of them, in art as well, since from that moment on, the path was cleared for the resurgence of earlier forms; postmodernism, if you like. The moment simply existed.
J.N. So can this debate about contemporary art—"it's junk, worthless"—be applied to architecture? Can it be extrapolated?
J.B. I'd like to ask you the same thing.
J.N. I'd say that the search for limits and the pleasure of destruction are part of both art and architecture. You were talking about the idea of destruction as something that can be positive. This search for a limit, this search for nothingness, almost nothingness, takes place within the search for something positive; that is, we're looking for the essence of something. This search for an essence reaches limits that are near the limits of perception and the evacuation of the visible. We no longer experience pleasure through the eye but through the mind. A white square on a white background is a type of limit. James Turrel is a type of limit. Does that mean it's worthless? In the case of James Turrel, you enter a space, and it's monochromatic. Is it one step further than Klein? Is that why you're fascinated? You know there's nothing there, you feel there's nothing there, you can even pass your hand through it, and you're fascinated by the object in a way because it's the essence of something. Once he's given us the keys to his game, he does the same thing with a square of blue sky. He's currently working on the crater of a volcano, where, when you he down at the bottom of the crater, you can see the perfect circle of the cosmos. All of these ideas are based on a certain search for the limit of nothingness. So when you leave the Venice Biennale, realizing that this search for nothingness has ended in worthlessness, that's a critical judgment I can share in 80 percent of the cases. However, the history of art has always consisted of a majority of minor works.
J.B. This search for nothingness is, on the contrary, the aestheti- cized fact of wanting this nothingness to have an existence, a value, and even, at some point, a surplus value, without considering the market, which soon takes control of it. It's the opposite in one sense.... Duchamp's gesture was to reduce things to insignificance. In a way, he's not responsible for what happened afterward. So when other artists take possession of this "nothingness" or, through this nothingness, take possession of banality, waste, the world, the real world, and they transfigure the banal reality of the world into an aesthetic object, it's their choice, and it's worthless in that sense, but it's also annoying, because I would rather associate an aura with worthlessness, with "nothingness." This nothingness is in fact something. It's what hasn't been aestheticized. It's what, one way or another, can't be reduced to any form of aestheticization. Rather, it's this highly focused strategy of nothingness and worthlessness that I am opposed to. The difference between Warhol and the others, who did the same thing—although it isn't the same thing—is based on the fact that he takes an image and reduces it to nothing. He uses the technical medium to reveal the insignificance, the lack of objectivity, the illusion of the image itself. And then other artists make use of the technique to re-create an aesthetic in other technological media, through science itself, through scientific images. They reproduce the aesthetic. They do exactly the opposite of what Warhol was able to do, they reaestheticize the technique, while Warhol, through technique, revealed technique itself as a radical illusion.
Here the term "worthlessness" is ambivalent, ambiguous. It can refer to the best or the worst. Personally, I assign great importance to worthlessness in the sense of nothingness, in the sense that, if we achieve this art of disappearance, we've achieved art, whereas all the strategy used to manage most of the stuff we're shown—where there's usually nothing to see in any event—serves precisely to convert that worthlessness into spectacle, into aesthetic, into market value, into a form of complete unconsciousness, the collective syndrome of aestheticization known as culture. We can't say it's all the same, but the exceptions can only be moments. For me, Duchamp is one of them; Warhol is another. But there are other singularities, FrancisBacon, perhaps, maybe others. But it's not a question of names of artists It can never be anything but a onetime event that affects us in this world saturated with values and aesthetics. From that moment on, there is no more history of art. We see that art—and this is one aspect of its worthlessness—with its retrograde history, exhausts itself in its own history trying to resuscitate all those forms, the way politics does in other areas. It's a form of regression, an interminable phase of repetition during which we can always bring back any older work of art, or style, or technique as a fashion or aesthetic—a process of endless recycling.
J.N. Couldn't we say that the twentieth century has seen a surfeit of art? Because during the century, any artist who managed to define a formal field has become a great artist? All it takes is a bit of ash on a leaf. All it takes is the ability to experience something with respect to the ash, to contextualize it, distance it, and the concept appears. The artist who has succeeded in finding his field has become identifiable, gets noticed, has a market value, et cetera. This has been a century of gigantic exploration: exploration of the real, exploration of sensations, of everything around us, a search for sensation. Some succeeded; others didn't. All of this was then mixed up with meaning and with conceptual art. When Laurence Wiener hangs a sentence in space without touching it, whatever happens, happens as part of the relation between the sentence and the space. It's not a big deal, but it's a field in and of itself. We've lived through this gigantic exploration. Everyone can find their value system, has experienced events, facts, modes, and interactions that sometimes resulted in arte povera, or pop art, or conceptual art, et cetera. But all that exploration kept getting extended further, and everyone is looking for whatever they can grab. Does this mean that all this exploration is part of that "worthlessness"?
J.B. Well, there may be a history of art that's not progressive but which deepens the analytic side of art, and all abstraction is still a reduction of the visible world, of the object, into its microelements. It's a way of returning to a primal geometry. It's exactly the same thing as the search for analytic truth in the social sciences. It's the same kind of process. We've gone from the evidence of appearances to the fundamental fractal nature of things. This is the history of abstraction, and this search leads directly into another dimension, which is no longer that of appearance or a strategy of appearances, but of a need centered on in-depth analytic knowledge of the object and the world, which, in a sense, puts an end to sense relations. It's the extermination of the sensible, but it still constitutes a search, I agree.
Once we've arrived at this point, however, it's over.... We have an artificial reconstruction of evidence, of perception, but the crucial act, the determining factor, is abstraction. Afterward we're no longer really in a world of forms; we're in a micro- world. Art even anticipated scientific discovery; it went deeper and deeper into the fractal world, into geometry. I don't mean that all sensibility, all perception, disappeared. It's always possible for anyone, any object, to have a singular relation but not an aesthetic one, to have a primitive relation, something to do with this punctum, anyone can experience that. So-called aesthetic mediation is over with. The artist is someone who exploits the domain of singularity so that he can appropriate it and use it interactively both through the market structure and through a number of other things as well. But the dualistic relation of any individual with any object, even the most worthless, is singular, it retains its power, and it can be rediscovered. I don't feel that this has been lost; that's not the problem with the sensible, the fatal. By this I mean that the fatal relation with things, with appearances, can be rediscovered, but if it is, today that discovery will be in conflict with aesthetics, with art. In the same sense, you can rediscover a dualistic relation in society, in other domains, in alterity. But this doesn't take place through politics, or economics; those things are behind us, they have their history, and we are in another world where those mediating structures have either monopolized the entire market, and at that point should be destroyed, or have already destroyed themselves. By the way, that's what I meant when I said that "art is worthless."
J.N. Aren't you as disappointed visually as you are intellectually? In your writing, you tell your readers that you would prefer to be deaf than blind, and just how important sight is for you. But paradoxically one has the impression that a certain amount of vacuity or disappearance might interest you. Isn't it with respect to the voyeur, or observer, in you that you believe the art object is vacuous? Doesn't [Robert] Ryman, doesn't [Ad] Reinhardt, disappoint your senses before disappointing you intellectually?
J.B. I agree with you completely. Seen from another viewpoint, it's true that I don't believe there is any relation whatsoever between an image and a text, between writing and the visual. If there is an affinity, it would occur through a more secretive network than anything we perceive, by fortuitous correspondences, as has always been the case. Image and text are two singular registers; we need to maintain their singularity. The same thing can be represented in either way; the interplay of forms can be represented in either of them, but they can't ever be correlated. For me, something of the fantastic remains in the image. Any image retains something of the savage and fantastic. What I would like is that it retain that character. But today images have been aes- theticized, they have become increasingly virtualized, they are no longer images. Television is the opposite of the image: there are no images on television. Yes, I'm visually disappointed, and painting has exactly the same effect on me. To me they're digitally synthesized images, technically and mentally, but they're no longer images. Once again the possibility exists to re-create the primal scene, the original savagery of the image, but starting from nothing, any intuition, in the literal sense of the term, can re-create the image. For example, this punctum, this secret associated with the image, I sometimes find it in photography. So we're not desperate. But the disappointment in the contextual universe that surrounds us, with images bombarding us from every side, yes, I resent that.
J.N. I have the impression that the sense of something's being "worthless, worthless, worthless" in architecture also exists! It is just as overwhelming but, paradoxically, perhaps for the opposite reason. That is to say, what characterizes this worthless architecture today, three-quarters of the time, is the "picturesque." Or it's the extension of a private model of meaning and sensibility. One of the current dramas in architecture is modeling, cloning. Often we don't know what to do; the context is hopeless. Not only the geographic, urban context, but the human context as well, the context of the commission, the financial context, everything is hopeless. And trained architects are forced to confront that reality. That reminds me of something Judd was saying, "I looked in the El Paso phone book. There are twenty-five hundred architects, and I've never seen any architecture in El Paso!" A great number of architects borrow a model that comes from a magazine, or a contractor or client. And at that moment, we have to identify a number of existing parameters that are reassuring, because if we do architecture, we want it to be seen, and at the same time we don't want to make waves. However, the majority of architectures produced today aren't based on those simple, clean, savage, radical rules that you talk about in your book on New York. Most of the time, they're a collage of objects, the one that presents the fewest problems either for the one who's designing it, or for the one who's receiving it, or for the builder. And for those three reasons, it's worthless, worthless, worthless. We're looking for something else.
Maybe we're looking for that aesthetic of disappearance that Paul Virilio discusses. But not necessarily in the sense Virilio intends, in that virtual, informatic space where information circulates rather than humans, not in a virtual space because those objects are completely lacking in meaning. That's the primary characteristic of everything being built today, and the paradox is that the most poetic things are, on the social level, the most dramatic. That is, the most authentic things, the truest, will be found in the cities of the South, where they are made out of necessity, but also in connection with a culture that's very much alive. These aren't objects that are parachuted in, inauthentic objects that correspond to some architectural convention. The problem of the worthlessness of architecture presents itself with at least the same acuity as in the field of art, but certainly not on the same basis.
I.B. Obviously we need to be clear about what we mean by the aesthetics of disappearance. It's true that there are a thousand ways to disappear, but we can at least compare the kind of disappearance that results in extermination—which is one of the ideas underlying Paul Virilio's work—and the way things disappear in a "network," which affects all of us and could be considered a kind of sublimation. The disappearance I'm talking about, which results in the concept of worthlessness or nothingness I mentioned earlier, means that one form disappears into another. It's a kind of metamorphosis: appearance- disappearance. The mechanism is completely different. It's not the same as disappearing within a network, where everyone becomes the clone or metastasis of something else; it's a chain of interlinked forms, into which we disappear, where everything implies its own disappearance. It's all about the art of disappearance. Unfortunately there's only one word to describe it, and the same is true for the term "worthlessness." We can use it in different senses, just as we can the term "nothingness," but no matter what happens, we enter a field of discourse that can no longer be fully explained, we've got to play the game, we're forced to.
l.N. Do you still have a positive outlook on modernity?
J.B. Did I ever?
J.N. You did, and you're going to jump when I tell you because it's something you wrote, and it's not nihilist at all. In fact, it's rather optimistic, since you talk about modernity as the "activism of well-being."
J.B. I get the impression you're still talking about a prior life. That's pretty good!... Well-being, it was an old concept even then; now I think we're beyond happiness. The problem is no longer the identification of coherence among needs, objects, all those things ... upon which a certain conception of architecture also depended, by the way. That's been "nullified," but in the sense of having disappeared inside a network. We no longer ask if we're happy or not. Within a network, you're simply part of the chain, and you move from one terminal to another; you're "transported," in a way, but you're not necessarily happy.
The question of happiness, like that of freedom or responsibility, and a host of other questions about modernity, the ideals of modernity—these are no longer really relevant, at least in terms of expecting a response. In that sense, I'm no longer modern. If modernity is conceived in this way, which was to subjectively ensure—whether it was the subjectivity of the individual or the group—a maximum of accumulation, a maximal number of things, then modernity has overshot the goal it set for itself. Maybe it didn't fail at all, maybe it succeeded all too well, it propelled us well beyond our goal... and now all the questions are about lost objects.
J.N. Concepts of modernity in architecture are very ambiguous because they are tied to historical concepts, whereas modernity by its very nature is something vital, although today I think it is primarily concerned with the aesthetic forms of disappearance. I read "Every real thing is prepared to disappear, that's all it asks for." I feel that in the field of architecture, and, more than architecture, design in the broadest sense, we are experiencing an aesthetic of "sacrifice." I would say, the sacrifice of the visual. I don't know where it's leading, but part of it is reflected in miniaturization, our increasing domination of matter, with matter itself being increasingly reduced to its simplest expression. It's quite obvious that for objects like the computer, which has been miniaturized to an astounding degree, compared to the cathode-ray screen, the television, it's eventually going to end up as thin as a piece of rolling paper. We can't see these things as they happen; we can only see the result. That's all we have. When we're successful, all we have is action, the means to achieve it are obliterated, they cease to be interesting. This century once looked into the mirror of a mechanistic modernity and grew excited at looking inside things—motors, gears, cutaway drawings—now that's over with, it no longer interests us, all we want is the result. That's a disturbing kind of miracle.
J.B. You're forgetting that we're still looking inside the genetic code, trying to decode genes, et cetera. We want to make those kinds of things visible, but there's no mechanism. Whether the research takes place in the field of biology or genetics, the fantasy is the same I don't know if it's the culmination of modernity or an excrescence. Maybe this effort to get at the analytic heart of things, this desire to reveal the interior of matter itself, until we reach those particles that, at times, are completely invisible, will eventually lead us to immateriality or, in any case, to something that can no longer be represented: particles, molecules, et cetera. Practically speaking, in biology, for us, it's pretty much the same thing, except that we've transposed to the human all our efforts at microanalysis, fractalization, et cetera. In a way, it's modernity that has reduced itself to its most basic elements, ultimately culminating in an algebra of the invisible.
J.N.... whose complexity is one of the essential paradigms.
J.B. These are elements that are "elsewhere" in the sense that they are no longer perceptible, no longer part of perception or representation. But they are not "elsewhere" in the sense that they come from another place, in the sense that they might really represent another form, which we would have to deal with in dualistic terms. If beings from another place were to appear, there would be a renewed possibility of interaction, but even here, no interaction is possible on the level of the code, of genetics, basic elements, et cetera. There is no more interaction. True, there is infinite combination, and we'll go as far as we can in that direction—not despairingly, of course. No, quite the contrary. There's even a kind of collective fascination with the image that this reality offers us in return. But we can no longer claim that some notion of happiness or freedom will ultimately be involved, because they've disappeared, they've volatilized into that analytic research we've been talking about. So is that the end of modernity?
J.N. We can have a more optimistic vision of things ... especially once we manage to dominate matter in such a way that it enables us to resolve practical problems, problems tied to certain kinds of pleasure, even if the initial pleasure is perverted by excess.... The wireless telephone is a good example. You can call anywhere in the world from any other point in the world, just as it's possible today to press on a piece of glass and make it transparent or opaque and feel your hand warm up on contact. Everything takes place over a surface of a few millimeters. Such technological innovations are heading in the direction of new sensations and added comfort, in the direction of new forms of pleasure. So maybe the situation isn't as desperate as all that!
J.B. I wasn't talking about despair. I simply find that there is a strange attraction, a fascination with such things. Is fascination a form of happiness? For me it is, but it's not the happiness associated with seduction; it's something else. The vertigo that pushes us to go further and further in that direction exists, clearly, and we all share in it collectively, but we have to make sure that when we reach the boundaries of our explorations, we don't trigger processes that are completely obliterating. When we reach the micro-micro, even in biology, we end up triggering viruses. They may have been there all along, but we've managed to reactivate them, we've brought them back to life. We discovered them, but they discovered us as well, and there are all sorts of ways things can backfire, including those that lead to what may be a kind of fatal reversibility. We are no longer the masters. I don't like to play prophet, but we shouldn't believe that all these analytic advances will lead to greater control of the world, or to increased happiness. On the contrary, even science recognizes that it has less and less control over the real, the object ceases to exist—at some point it simply disappears. So where do we look? OK, so it's a bit like that ideal object discussed during the Enlightenment: progress, the rights of man, and all the rest. So there we have our object. That doesn't mean it's been lost. It's still a nostalgic vision, it's just that it's come apart, it's been dispersed, when what we wanted was to force it into its ultimate reality. And in that sense it has disappeared, it's gone, although it may come back under a different form, a fatal form, in the worst sense of the word—we just don't know.... What's going to happen with all the negative exponential processes that have been triggered and which we know are moving much more quickly than the positive processes? In any case, the outlook, if there is one, is one of complete ambiguity. That's truly the end of modernity. As long as modernity was able to believe that there was still a positive direction and the negative would be buried deeper and deeper in positivity, we were still very much in line with modernity. But once everything we're searching for becomes ambiguous, ambivalent, reversible, random, then modernity is over— and it's just as true for politics.