November 1992

A Response for Jeff Mongno

What is the medium of architecture? I remember that this question goes way back. I cannot discuss this directly but I think that something can be said indirectly.

"For fifty years...I have been inspired by single preoccupation, imperatively so: to introduce the sense of the sacred into the house; to make the home the temple of the family. From that moment on, everything was altered. A cubic centimeter of dwelling was worth gold, representing possible happiness."
Grandeur is in the Intention, Anthony Eardley, Le Corbusier's Firminy Church. p.8
The quote is Corbusier's.

"Two texts, one by Strzeminski (1931), the other by Kobro (1934) help to define the terms of this debate:
        1. The elements of architecture are:
                a) places where a man stops during any activity;
                b) motion when he passes from one activity to another
        2. The aim of architecture is an organization of the rhythm of consecutive motions and stops, and thereby the forming of the whole of life.
        3. The final goal of architecture is not the building of convenient houses; it is also not the blowing up of abstract sculptures and calling them exhibition pavilions. It's aim is: to be a regulator of the rhythm of social and individual life."
Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation, Painting as Model, Yve-Alain Bois, p.134

"If for a particular purpose, we separate, limit and bring into a human scale a part of the unlimited space, it is (if all goes well) a piece of space brought to life as reality. In this way, a special segment of space has been absorbed into our human system."
Gerrit Rietveld, 1957, from a footnote in the above essay, Yve-Alain Bois, p.299

"Architecture is the expression of the phenomena of gravity. The art of the engineer consists of bringing downward the load, that of the architect is to lift it. The goal of architecture is not the making of shelter, but to move.
The pyramid is the heaviest form.
The Greek temple is the horizontal lifted.
The horizontal lifted does not exist in nature, it is purely human.
The facade of the Greek temple is the pyramid lifted.
The lifted weight is an effort, but not to represent work, but to honor the space below."
Henri Ciriani, Le Fronton est une Pyramide Souleveé, Architecture d'Ajourdhui, Sept 92
These sentiments where also expressed to me during my study with him in Amsterdam.

"...My space is subjected to the quality of exterior space...By settling an opacity we decompose the square in spaces that define themselves with regard to one another and to light...What happens if we don't settle this opacity? We take so much of the exterior that we move out without realizing it. The possibility of living disappears because the intrinsic quality of any built space is to separate itself from the exterior, to know how to close off so as to better open. This calls for just one condition, but it is a fundamental condition: Consciousness of light...Nothing is fixed unless it is fixed by light. My opacity would not have existed in darkness."
"Naming things enables me to know them, and knowing them keeps me from repeating myself.
Premodern architecture...presumes that mobility depends on light. In modern spatiality, the frame is no longer a necessity. The main problem has become the placing of the first opacity. The vital difference of this new condition thus depends on light, whose role it is to fix opacity...Light reveals things; it immobilizes an element, models it and freezes it...Matter takes light differently according to its configuration. Light does not automatically create spatial dynamism. It designates and positions an object without spotlighting it like a flashlight beam, which only works in darkness."

"Pictorial light was born out of the will to build what the artists were painting...What was at stake was to produce what architecture had been trying to attain since the ancient Egyptian times: an open communication between the interior and the exterior. The desire to live outdoors with all the indoor comforts, or to live indoors with all the light comforts of outdoors, is a very old one. You can see it at work in the Greek pronaos, or quite simply in wallpapers that depict landscapes and which have been in use for hundreds of years.
We have to move forward, attain to a new spatiality...Setting free from gravity, setting afloat as if in a sphere.
...It no longer means fixing an object or our concentration, nor does it mean determining a conventional reading of place. Pictorial light attempts to set itself free from the light source, so that space can set itself free from gravity."
Henri Ciriani, Architecture d'Ajourdhui, Avril 91, The Four Lights, and Michael Angelo's Square.

I must admit some hesitation in advocating the importance of (what have become overused categories of) "light" and "space," but I must also qualify this so that it does not sound like another tired modernist defense. In and of themselves light and space are not the end all of architecture, and this is where I part company with our teachers. Mondrian is significant here. His dilemma was in trying to resolve a locally derived problem (that of the corners) by utilizing the structure of the whole. His realization was that it had to be addressed independently but in relation to the whole. The problem with citing any one or two criteria is that it pretends that these concerns are the most important if not absolute. It is not any criteria which is important but rather the relationships or the structure of relationships that are important. (Yes, I know that in itself is a criteria, sort of.)
I found the first quote interesting because it points to a concern of Le Corbusier's which is behind his formal expertise. As such it points to the relationship of form to something (meaning?). Aesthetic modernists never concede this. In my opinion Strzeminski and Kobro's comments are brilliant because their definition relies on what happens (activity) as a tool of definition. Rietveld relates space to the human system. This from one of the most misunderstood modernists. (Ever wonder why you never see any of his other work?-he was productive into the 1960's.) Each of these are excellent formalists but what is key is that there was something behind it which gave it meaning. Why then do we have an entire generation of "modernists" who utilize an aesthetic as if it were empty of reference to anything else, even history? Somehow space and light have become categories which can exist in isolation and whose end is itself. (There are many arguments for and against the autonomy of form and I will avoid going into these. I think you are probably familiar with some of them.)

Ciriani is a bit more complex and not so easy for me to comment on. I think familiarity breeds understanding in this case. Let me just say that he is the most intelligent architect working in this genre. He is probably the only true modernist among those using the aesthetic of the right angle. He is absolutely concerned with Kobro's comments and is familiar with her work. I don't expect Meier, Eisenman or Graves to have ever heard the name. His choice of the aesthetic is not by default nor accident, it is by virtue of understanding. His commentaries on the history of form I find profound. He has been the only one who has justified the free plan, abstraction, modernity, the right angle, etc. with a "why." Our teachers never have. (One can at least disagree but still respect the other's positions, and it seems that there is a certain respect owed to the student to explain why something is important rather than just rely on authority.)

I must also add more fuel to the argument against reductivist aesthetic modern architects. The understanding of light and gravity as constants rather that absolutes sets Ciriani apart and makes all the difference. Furthermore, light and space are in themselves banal if they are not used to elaborate difference. The idea of difference is what makes a single line on a piece of paper meaningful.
A horizontal line across a piece of blank paper renders the top of the page different from the bottom. If you turn the page upside down the bottom becomes top, and the top becomes bottom, but they remain different. Simultaneity can never exist once the line has been drawn. (In this sense the drawing of the line brings time into being.) The line elaborates difference and must acknowledge difference as part of its characteristic and as part of the nature of its substance. When the line is seen to make a space different from the opposite side of itself the line can be seen as two lines. When the line becomes two it can then be seen to contain an interior (this is Ciriani's).
Well enough of this, although it is a lot of fun. I hope that somehow I have managed to bring some clarity to the idea of difference. (I have spent maybe too much time attacking another position rather than discussing what the medium of architecture is but that is because I think that light, space and gravity are necessary, but not sufficient to the discussion.)
So what is the medium of architecture? The sum of all its parts divided by the number of its parts, of course.

Just kidding. The best definition of something is to say what it is not. Reinhardt said that the only statements you can make are negative statements. So I can say it is not brick, mortar, walls, opacity, space, light, movement, program, utility, etc. Not any of these singly, anyhow. I would say that it has to do with structure* however. Is it structure itself, I don't know. Maybe it's even more abstract than that, maybe it's thought.

*I need to make sure that there is no confusion between structure (steel columns) and structure (a kind of order). I mean the latter.

P.S. I hope that I have opened up some avenues of exploration that you may not have considered or previously had access to. I recognize my heavy use of Ciriani but that is because he is a preoccupation of mine at the moment. I have recently rediscovered his ideas in print - ideas that I first heard at the Berlage - and to which I now have some distance. Anyway, I believe the best information to be found on any topic will come from obscure sources (discarded, and supposedly obsolete) and in the minds of obscure thinkers. That is, Ciriani, Rietveld, Kobro, Dudok, Bois, Habermas instead of Eisenman, Corbusier, Tschumi, Derrida, Virilio, Gropius. No disrespect meant to the latter group.