Temporary Pavillion | Build is Everything and KSR Architects | London | 2014
In bourgeois societies, we are split between formal-legal equality sustained by the institutions of the democratic state, and class distinctions enforced by the economic system. We live the tension between Politically Correct respect for human rights, etc., and the growing inequalities, gated communities, exclusions, etc. This, however, does not mean that the relationship is simply the one between deceiving appearance and reality: apropos liberal egalitarianism, it is not enough to make the old Marxist point about the gap between the ideological appearance of the universal legal form and the particular interests that effectively sustain it – as is so common amongst politically-correct critics on the Left. The counter-argument that the form is never a “mere” form, but involves a dynamic of its own which leaves traces in the materiality of social life, is fully valid. After all the “formal freedom” of the bourgeois sets in motion the process of altogether “material” political demands and practices, from trade unions to feminism.
And exactly the same goes for architecture: when a building embodies democratic openness, this appearance is never a mere appearance – it has a reality of its own, it structures the way individuals interact in their real lives. […] Here we are not dealing with a longing for real equality, but with the longing for a proper appearance. (Does the same not hold for Niemeyer’s plan of Brasilia, this imaginary dream of the resolution of social antagonisms which supplements not the reality of social antagonisms but the lack of ideologico-egalitarian mechanism which would cover them up with a properly-functioning appearance.)
This is why Jameson1 is fully justified to talk about the “political unconscious”: there is a coded message in an architectural formal play, and the message delivered by a building often functions as the “return of the repressed” of the official ideology. Recall Wittgenstein motto: what we cannot directly talk about, it can be shown by the form of our activity. What the official ideology cannot openly talk about can be shown by the mute signs of a building. The two opposed architectural designs of Casa del Fascio (the local headquarters of the Fascist party), Adolfo Coppede’s neo-Imperial pastiche from 1928 and Giuseppe Teragni’s highly modernist transparent glass-house from 1934-36, do they not, in their simple juxtaposition, reveal the inherent contradiction of the Fascist ideological project which simultaneously advocates a return to pre-modern organicist corporatism and the unheard-of mobilization of all social forces in the service of rapid modernization?
This brings us to an unexpected result: it is not only that the fantasy embodied in the mute language of buildings can articulate the utopia of justice, freedom and equality betrayed by actual social relations; this fantasy can also articulate a LONGING FOR INEQUALITY, for clear hierarchy and class distinctions. Does the Stalinist neo-Gothic architecture not enact the “return of the repressed” of the official egalitarian-emancipatory Socialist ideology, the weird desire for hierarchy and social distinctions? The utopia enacted in architecture can also be a conservative utopia of regained hierarchical order. And does the same not hold for the monumental public buildings from the Roosevelt era, like the central post office in New York? No wonder the NYU central building in downtown Manhattan looks like Lomonosov university in Moscow… […]
And my hypothesis is that big performance-arts complexes, arguably the paragon of today’s architecture, try to impose themselves as a kind of architectural zero-institutions. Their very conflictual meanings (amusement and high art, profane and sacred, exclusive and popular) cancel themselves mutually, so that the outcome is the presence of meaning as such as opposed to non-meaning: their meaning is to have meaning, to be islands of meaning in the flow of our meaningless daily existence. In order to provide a brief insight into the “parallactic” nature of their structure, let me begin with Rem Koolhaas’s Librairie de France, where the expressive correspondence between the inside (the division of a building into rooms and spaces for different activities) and the outside of a building shifts to radical incommensurability: “the functions, the rooms, the interior, the inner spaces, hang within their enormous container like so many floating organs.” These formal shifts in the relation between outside and inside “reincorporate the paradoxes of private property after the end of civil society (in the /Librairie de France in Paris/, by way of the dialectic of the property of information, in the /in Trade Center in Zeebrugge/, by way of the more classic antinomy of a public space that is privately owned.)”
However, one should not misunderstand this emphasis on the incommensurability between outside and inside as a critique (relying on the demand for the continuity between the two). The incommensurability between outside and inside is a transcendental a priori – in our most elementary phenomenological experience, the reality we see through a window is always minimally spectral, not as fully real as the closed space where we are. This is why, when driving a car or looking through a window of a house, one perceives the reality outside in a weirdly de-realized state, as if one is watching a performance on a screen; when one opens the window, the direct impact of the external reality always causes a minimal shock, we are overwhelmed by its proximity. This is also why, when we enter the closed space of a house, we are often surprised: it seems the inside volume is larger than the outside frame, as if the house is larger from the inside than from the outside.
The central semiotic mystery of performance-arts venues is the mystery of this redoubling: why a house within a house, why does a container itself have to be contained? Does not this (sometimes freakish) display of inconsistency and excess not cry out loudly, functioning as a symptom – a message encoded in this mess? What if this redoubling renders the “contradiction” of public space which is privately controlled, of a sacred space of art which should be open to profane amusement? This brings us to the social antagonism these buildings try to resolve. On the one hand, to build a performing-arts venue rates “as a holy grail for architects”: “Unlike the more conventional types of buildings, such as offices, housing and even civic architecture, which have to conform to the streetscape, a performing-arts venue can afford to be bold and unusual, to stand out.” However, this space for creative freedom is counteracted by the demand for the building’s multi-functionality – venue managers cannot “simply rely on performances themselves to provide a sufficient attraction; the building must create an ‘experience’ and a ‘sense of place’ for its increasingly demanding audience. It is with such intangibles that events can really win against home entertainment. Thought must be given to all aspects of a visit, from the foyers and bars to the facilities and ease of access.” This demand, however, is not merely financial but profoundly ideological – it reflects a “cultural tension”:
This constant effort to counteract the threat of “elitism” signals a series of oppositions with which performance-arts buildings deal: public/private, open/restrained, elite/popular… – all variations on the basic motif of class struggle (which, we are told, no longer exists in our societies). The space of these oppositions delineates the problem to which performance-arts buildings are solutions.
So how does the anti-elitist architecture of performance-arts venues fit these coordinates? Its attempt to overcome elitist exclusivity fails, since it reproduces the paradoxes of the upper-class liberal openness – its falsity, the failure to achieve its goal, is the falsity and limitation of our tolerant liberal capitalism. The effective message of the “political unconscious” of these buildings is democratic exclusivity: they create a multi-functional egalitarian open space, but the very access to this space is invisibly filtered and privately controlled. In more political terms, performance-arts venues try to enact civic normality in a state of emergency (exception): they construct an “open” space which is cocooned, protected and filtered.
1 In his old classic The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson proposes a perspicuous ideologico-critical reading of Claude-Levi Strauss’ interpretation of the unique facial decorations of the Caduveo Indians from Brasil: they use “a design which is symmetrical but yet lies across an oblique axis /…/ a complicated situation based upon two contradictory forms of duality, and resulting in a compromise brought about by a secondary opposition between the ideal axis of the object itself /the human face/ and the ideal axis of the figure which it represents.” Jameson’s comment: “Already on the purely formal level, then, this visual text has been grasped as a contradiction by way of the curiously provisional and asymmetrical resolution it proposes for that contradiction.” (Incidentally, does this not sound like a map of Manhattan, where the symmetrical design of streets and avenues is cut across by the oblique axis of Broadway?
From: Slavoj Žižek | Architectural Parallax: On Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle | 2009
Complete lecture: Slavoj Žižek on Architecture and Aesthetics [here]