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Architecture is, termites are



The problem with many definitions is that they try to distinguish what is different, thereby ignoring what is similar. Let’s not use the word architecture in any narrow sense: pretty buildings, utterances of power and domination in stone, buildings as the focus of property, a lordship of the eye. Architecture is the lava in Pompeii which moulded something that is no longer there, or was only hoped for. Architecture is an idea; a building is a substance, a tangible thing. A piece of architecture is a tangible substance corresponding to the idea. Architecture is our background. A landscape becomes architectural when we derive a sense of place from it, by distinguishing, naming and recognising features from the stories we tell, allowing the landscape to become familiar and homely. That word says enough. Architecture is the shell of society, it channels our activities and moulds our habits to particular places. The physical structuring of our daily life is architectural. Architecture is fundamentally an art. Art is a technology of existence: Techné. A filling out of our desire to do, with all the suspicions and beliefs about our existence to serve that doing. Use is the promise of doing and varies from the spiritual to the mechanical. Architecture suffers from our drive to subject everything to order and measurement and our failure to imagine that a distinction is not a separation.

Architecture has suffered from this ambivalence because it is so useful on so many levels. In the justification of formal decision, decisions to do with form, it has looked away from the arbitrary. It has been ashamed of the mind. It has tried to deny its core values, values that are immeasurable and incommensurate with empirical science: How do you measure homeliness? It even allied itself to the scientific, which it thought to be a genuine category of metaphysics. Thank God we have gone beyond that. Without disrespect to science, the scientific, like the artistic, is a false category merely concerned with labelling surface behaviour of men in white coats. Science is an art. It does not describe a pure category of action, or thought, or understanding, it is an amalgam a protocol for testing ideas about the world. To set art up against science is to set the apple-tree against the apple. Where science tries to understand it is simply philosophical, where it tries to apply that understanding it is an art. And yet in no discipline has this metaphysical anomaly been more bloodily fought over. Architecture in the twentieth century has seen itself as a Siamese twin with all the mutual inconvenience that such a fusing entails. It has always thought that art was an opposite of science and so it fought against its other self. A great battle of chimaeras fought over the promise of real difference, where there was none, encouraged by Nietzsche’s scaly dragon of value.

The contempt of art, the harsh, evil and necessary contempt with which art treats society while it is society’s imperative and the shock of society which sees itself in a mirror it does not understand, finds so horrible that it prefers to impose a difference and blame its mirror image for the evil it perpetrates itself. We are not used to seeing society as a collective, an organism, a self. We stop at nations and canot realise that we are all of one.
The attempt to undo architecture of art and to make it scientific was itself a deeply artistic gesture deeply contemptuous, an artistic experiment, brutal, harsh contemptuous of everything alive and it has done us so much good!

Art pursues doubt, disappointment and contempt. “Scientific” doubt is the only philosophical control against the arbitrary.

The twentieth century was a century when inartistic architecture flourished as the most moving art, where its brutality killed in the accommodation of an imagined difference, an imagined ability to separate function from… from what? And there lies its potential for catharsis. We are saved by imposing difference, by demanding uniformity scaled and measured from the boundary of that difference. This redemptive act has given the rebellious, the violent the opportunity to find a finer scale for progress for appropriation. In a blunt assumption of difference we have been allowed doubt to take the next step, to refine our world using finer techniques of differentiation, observation, imposing ever finer distinctions on the generic. And so we are on the verge of a city without clear landmarks, a city in which everything looks the same but only from the old walls of perception. Some of us have magnified the scale of our observation, increased our sensitivity to the small. The small has become monstrous. And so we live in a strange world with other people, who look with different eyes.
In the termite hill lies true freedom from individuality, expressed, apparently, without thought. So we think. Thought is an act of individuality. Thought is freedom. Thoughtlessness is collectivity in its purest form. And yet the termite hill is a sophisticated building, fully climatically conditioned. The closest one can arrive at architectural necessity. Perhaps the termite’s individuality is fine-tuned, released from the shackles of overt manifestation and fashion and exists within itself, itself being the world. The termite is content to show itself in glimpses. It gathers itself from the world it is a part of. In this way thought becomes collective, thought is genetic memory.

So what is art and how should architecture be artistic? Art is the process whereby the world unfolds in our understanding of it, through acts which test that understanding and thereby expands it, forcing us to alter the scale at which we perceive difference. Art is extremely violent. It is evil in its capacity to doubt everything, to make everything subject to condition and so to alter our world. Good architecture is violent in its determination to expand the world, to make man generous in his acceptance of himself as a part of the world.



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