Resisting Transparency


Mark Pimlott



Each subject, in order to exist, has a story of how it has come to be. The story is used to justify its existence and aspects of its study, its theory and its practice. The story often has the quality of myth. It frequently is myth. In myth, context, motivation and doubt play important roles. Strangely, architecture’s story contains neither context, motivation nor doubt. The subject of this paper is architecture’s self-telling.

It is made in reaction to suggestions of the group <Papers on architecture> to speak about subjectivity. I reject the notion of subjectivity as popularly proposed, that is, a special, unique way of looking at the world which is particular to each individual. Each individual is as much others as they are themselves, and that other is something which is constructed within the context of culture, a product of language. I do not deny the existence of humanity before language, but what has concerned me, and is the central aspect of my critique of subjectivity, is the nature of that which exists before speech. It has been suggested by many that what goes before it is common and universal, that it is the same for all humans and the basis of all human existence. ‘What goes before’ is characterised as fundamental, thereby eliminating any aspect of doubt that may come to the individual subject when they are confronted with the possibility of not being able to articulate what they encounter through words, language or other means.

Why should I be preoccupied with this, particularly when I am offered the subject of architecture? In the case of architecture, it has historically explained itself and its position in the world, quite apart from its contingencies as a primal motive, the motive for shelter. This legitimation that is declared by and passed down to architects constitutes a tradition which architects work within in the late twentieth century. It is one that has been with us since the time of the Enlightenment. It is a tradition of Modernity that architects work within.

Architects also work within a tradition of desire to play some sort of useful role, one which is often transformed into obligation. The desire for usefulness has been particularly acute twice before in this century, after each of the World Wars. Such times occasion the possibility of constructing political or ideological Utopias. Architects now perceive that they must fulfil a role in reconstructing society and restructuring meaning which is exhausted, an effect of the interminably protracted ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. With the collapse of socialism, some sort of dialectical counter for capitalism is widely sought. The everyday has been identified by both artists and architects, perhaps mistakenly, as a territory which is seen as comparatively innocent and worthy of analysis and extension. It is also perceived as somehow natural. There is an accompanying tendency to associate this space with the origins of architecture, with traditions, with the vernacular, with typology. No areas, however, including this one, can be seen as innocent, lacking a context or a political location. The ‘everyday’ is a space is as contested as any other.


The model of basic architecture, the basis of architectural type that we know very well in Modernity, is recalled by an illustration that served as the frontispiece for the Abbé Laugier's treatise on architecture and architectural construction. It is an illustration of a ‘primitive’ hut. A putto and a lady in the dress of antiquity point towards a construction which seems to grow from the ground and be of the material of the trees, logs cut to form a kind of Temple. It can be called a Temple, because the image is clearly derivative of a temple. The intention of the illustration is that it serves as a prototype for the Temple, that it proceeds it, and furthermore, that the Temple is a representation of this noble, humble, primary form. However, what is overwhelming about the illustration is that it does not so much picture a prototype, but a worked-back, primitivised version of an architectural original, which the prototype has been designed to conform to. In this scene, architecture pre-exists and is legitimated through this re-telling of itself in its own form.

That may be a simple story, but it seems to me that the explanation of the Greek Temple and the form it has and why it has it and what it does with it, is that its forms–its metopes, its dentils, its entablature, its stuff–is seen as a representation of building. However, the building that is being referred to or represented is one which is already preconditioned, which is itself a representation of this architectural idea. This story of representation is a simple one. In it, architecture is made an image of an architecture which refers to nothing other than its own devices.

This simple story thereby becomes an interesting story, because it conveniently evades the questions about how architecture could have possibly got to the state that it got to in the first place. I presume that Laugier was confounded, like all of his contemporaries were, by the sophistication of the forms of the architecture of Greece that were becoming visible and confronting them at that time. So idealised were these forms, that there must have been some simple explanation for them being in the forms that they were in. How better to explain them than to manufacture a fiction about the origins of architecture in primal building? Laugier constructed a fiction which was congruent with the argument of structural logic that he was advocating. Its context was the rationalisation of mechanical processes, accompanied by the growing urbanisation and secularisation of society. It was an architecture of logic and rationality that was being proposed as legitimate because of its clarity, economy and resemblance to the great architecture of the past. Laugier’s justification was an invention, a fantasy. The fantasy of recovering the origin, of recreating the beginning had a remarkable effect on architects. Laugier’s illustration was a totem for how or what architecture was and how it should be constituted. It and the paper stressed a need for rationality, for directness in structural design, for economy, for an absence of ornament, for a precisely limited zone for representation. The suggestions laid down by Laugier have been models for the procedures of architecture in Modernity, in Modernism.

What I want to focus on is this limited zone for representation, and the problem posed by representation in this, architecture’s contemporary origin myth. In contrast with the myth contrived by Laugier is the origin myth for art. The story of art and its origin myth differs significantly from that of architecture as it conceives of itself our time of Modernity. The origin myths of art rarely refer to art in itself like those of architecture do, directly collapsing into a telling of the medium of architecture. But the motive for art is what intrigues me, just as the motive for architecture intrigues me. I do not detect the motive for architecture being told in those origin myths which say it originates out of some primitive construction which architecture is bound to ennoble.

I would like to look into the origin myth of art, and show how different it is. I think telling it will open up some the problems which I see existing for architecture which are absolutely necessary to address, because within them is territory for a critique of architecture and a possibility for reflexivity in its practice. The origin myth of art that I will refer to is that of Narcissus, who, walking along one day, happens upon a pool of water, and catches sight of what he does not realise is his own reflection. He sees this image of an other which he does not know is himself. He is completely captivated by the reflection. He falls in love with the image of this other and swoons in its company. In trying to bridge the gap between himself and this perceived other, he tries to approach, embrace it. To do so he has to bring his face close to the surface of the pool which separates him from it. Of course, as he breeches that surface, the image is shattered by his touch. It disappears, traumatising him. But as the surface stills, the image reappears, and the scene is reenacted, repeatedly, convulsively. Narcissus' impulse is to break through that surface of representation to fulfil his desire.

Now of course what we see are a great complex of things. Beyond that storys cautioning of vanity, perhaps it is a cautionary tale for the existence of art itself. For we might see this reflected image as an idealised picture; an idealised portrait, certainly, whose substance is so close to that of the world we move around in, that it causes us in that world great pain. First, because it draws ourselves out of ourselves (assuming the self is a coherent whole) it compromises the self, and makes it want to meet an other. In this case, the terrifying thing is that that other is completely imagined, completely fictional. The representation which is the reflection in the pool is something very close to an original which is always assumed coherent, whole and in control of its relationship with the world. The image of the representation frustrates and pulls that coherence apart. The machinery of desire that operates on the self and the imagined other, which is coincident with that self–a kind of self-consciousness–is very traumatic, and undermines the wholeness of the self. This as a beginning for explaining the image and the things that are supposed to happen to the viewer in confrontation with the image is a much more difficult and problematic origin myth than that which exists for architecture. Architecture reassures itself that it is alright, and has always referred to itself and its own culture. Art, painting, with the mirror or pool as a paradigm for the painted image in representation (and I am speaking of art which deals with representation rather than non-representational art) is problematic. It is the relation between the image and the self that makes art problematic. In architecture, the self is not involved, representation is not problematic, merely considered a matter of translation from one form to another, which is seen as transparent. We see translation as identified in the myth of Narcissus as something which is very traumatic and dangerous, bound to fail, doubt-ridden, anxiety-filled.

Why I have used the origin myth as a device here is to render it emblematic for a habit in architectural thinking, which beyond material makes architecture a matter of fundamentals. This says that once the problem of material, context and contingency is handled, then it is through mainly functional or rational means that the fundamental stuff of making the primal, primary, universal work is attained. With the activity of architecture guaranteed by its self-perception as an ennobled form of some sort of primary act, getting on with its practice becomes a matter of fulfilling activities or requirements which are legitimated by their origins in the fundamental.

The stories of both art and architecture are contained within the history of Western Classical representation. Although architects or critics may wish to eschew this model in favour of non-classical format because of its avoidance of the political shortcomings of Enlightenment thought, the Classical as a context which surrounds us and sets the terms of practice seems unavoidable. The everyday is enacted under its shadows. Even objectivity is part of the schema of Enlightenment thought.

Laugier’s paradigm has an aspect of the scientific to it, in that there is posed a rational and transparent relation between an original model and its idealised form (architecture). Origins, it should be said, are primary acts of man's acceptance of responsibility which distance him from his Gods. In the case of Classicism, the Gods are still in proximity to Man, protecting and legitimating his projects, securing legitimation for Man in the face of his Fall. Hence, morality is a subtext of Classicism. The notion that goodness is immanent in construction and in attention to construction originates in Laugier’s contemporary origin myth. Its sincerity eliminates its failure (the failure of representation) and its substance as representation is rendered transparent. Through its self-legitimation and the compelling directives for architecture or building procedure which follow, the foundations of the transparency of ‘honest’ construction and Functionalism are laid. Reactionary critics claim, of course, that Functionalism of the Modernist variety is inhuman or explicitly Godless. But Functionalism is part of the project of Classicism. It is simply the character of its redemptive Utopia that differs.

If that prototypical architecture pictured in Laugier’s frontispiece illustration can be read as a human construction as close as possible to an ideal, then perhaps this construction is a prototype devised for Utopia.

The character of Laugier’s treatise and the print which serves as its frontispiece–which is the image of Laugier’s paper–suggest that the primary act of building is very close to Nature. Remember that this structure almost grows out of the ground. Nature is also of Creation and of God(s). So the legitimacy of this activity has as its background an aspect of faith, even religious faith: if not openly religious, a faith in an ideal, primary Subject either human or super-human, which has gone through all the actions which form the prototypes for human existence in the present time. This is an analogy to that which Greek myth was performing in relation to ancient Greek society. The Gods were acting in a prototypical way and carrying the burden of anxiety and doubt for the whole of that society. With that as a background, human life can go on in the belief that its difficult aspects are explained or mapped out by the behaviour of these ideal Subjects. In this case these subjects are responsible for Representation. That which is rendered through their agency is primary form. I would like here to ally this with the idea of functionalism and the notion of transparency.

First of all, the notion of function which comes directly from Laugier's paper is that all elements of building are legitimate in their existence, all have a role to play, all are directed towards the coherent workings of the whole, such that no single element of the whole should be excessive, that it must have a role, and that the removal of a single element would effect the breakdown of the whole structure. Its coherence would be damaged and it would not be able to survive. Anything deemed excessive is outside the whole. The difficult aspect of architecture, its decorative qualities, its openly representational character as indicated by the classical orders derived from antiquity, is explained by the fact that these orders, despite being representations, are strictly regulated, and are forms of interpretation of an original which inflect its meanings in the public world. The orders are differentiated so they can speak of different things. As we all know, this is a matter of proportion and refinement and picturing.

With representation in architecture explained by a matter of regulation, there is very little allowance for the problematic or that which does not conform to regulation. According to Laugier, there is a need for buildings to accommodate what they have to accommodate, and they should do so in a straightforward way, one which is coincident with the needs of the building programme; and as far as structure is concerned, it should ideally be worked in sympathy with the performance of the materials and the technological means available. The inheritance of the paper is Functionalism, where everything has a purpose and serves this purpose, and anything that is excessive to this purpose is redundant, compromising the coherence of the whole. Its removal would not compromise coherence, but its presence does. It is interesting at this point that art is often referred to as an excess. Architecture thereby banishes the notion of excess from itself and denies the problematic character of representation that exists within it. Architectural production thus can be self-legitimating, rendering all of architecture’s actions absolutely logical and consequent, leading to a condition of transparency. Transparency suggests a condition where a medium exists, such as glass, between one thing and another, but, because of the nature of that medium, no barrier is apparent between this and that, and the relationship between this and that via a transparent medium is equivalent to this and that being directly in contact with each other. We know all too well through the rhetoric of Modernist architecture or Rightist political policy, that transparency is more often that not taken as equivalence between one thing and another; that an optical relationship through a transparent medium is taken as if a direct relationship.

Transparency implies a medium, one which devises an equivalence or clear communication, a faultless translation between this and that. The medium which is transparent, which tries to bridge a space between one thing and another, is close to the model of the surface of water in Narcissus' story. In that story, the medium is the thing which becomes present every time this and that try to meet each other. In architectural discourse that medium is frequently dismissed as being non-existent or just a simple vehicle for the communication between one thing and another; its difficult content and its inadequacy as a medium is never brought to light.

Function is proposed as transparent. In Functionalism as forged in Laugier's treatise, the object designed for its purpose does what it is supposed to do. It does not do other things that it is not supposed to do. It is supposed to fulfil its function, and by doing so it is a direct extension of a user’s desire to achieve a certain thing. It is a medium for that achievement and because it does so without reference to things outside its task, it could be described as a medium which tries to effect a kind of transparency. It tries to connect this and that without calling attention to itself. It tries not to obstruct in any way the relationship between this and that. Of course, it has to declare itself a medium, as a vehicle, to act as an agent for an operation to take place. It does so without drawing attention to the construction of the medium, which is why it can be suggested to act transparently.

This perfect performance has been one that has been legitimated on the basis of a moral structure, one which says that the absence of excess is good, avoiding the folly of imagination or misinterpretation that humans are prone to. This moral dimension is something we carry with us now. There is a desire for the elimination of devices that interfere with the direct connection between ourselves and our idea of ourselves, or between a thing and how it performs. In Functionalism a thing or agent is supposed to declare its purpose, its position in the world, simultaneously presenting and representing itself. The Modernist notion of Functionalism is close to Classicism, where the Orders and their disposition or deployment are almost seen as a matter of etiquette, through which they become ideal vehicles for meaning; vehicles which are necessary and carry an agreement of universal understanding.

What is common to Functionalism and Classicism is the assertion that there is a perfect vehicle, a perfect way of effecting a result, a perfect transparent medium.

I am very interested in the motivation for that medium, and at the least an acknowledgment that the formation of that medium which declares itself to be transparent is one which is particular to each culture, despite the things that are shared across cultures.

Language is a very useful model to introduce at this point. Language is the first thing that we use to describe the world that we live in back to ourselves. It is used in the act of naming things, and then in trying to forge communication between ourselves and others. In naming one has to remove a thing from the world as understood before language, and make it a thing which exists outside of the world as well as in it. It exists in language as a named thing. The thing with a name can exist without the thing existing. Naming distances that thing from the world. In the formation of language there is a distancing of the pre-language self from the world. Language is what characterises us as human. We use it to communicate with each other and to form our relationships with each other, over and above the instinct or the genetic code we have for extending ourselves. If language distinguishes us as human, and what also makes us human is our distance from the world, then what is missing between language and the world is also part of being human.

Languages are different, and each language has different ideas, different means of expression, different ways of describing the world, different ideas and conceptions and inventions of the world which are held in its forms. Language is an invention, and as much as it tries to hold onto the world through its invention, it cannot directly transcribe it. All interpretations fall short of fulfilling their relation to the world. The interpretation, beyond its achievement, indicates the space between word and the world.

In Functionalism this space is not acknowledged. Within the functional is the idea that action is able to transcend this problem of interpretation, which is an extraordinary claim. In Modernity, Functionalism is linked to the expression of an idealised, fundamentally democratic social order, to notions of Truth. Here, truth is held to be a universal basis of agreement that is greater than Justice or Law. What could be more incontrovertible than that which acts as a perfect agent between one thing and another, which performs truthfully? The relationship between Function and Truth is important, because it generates a self-legitimating system. At the root of Functionalism is the idea of Truth, and Functionalism's truth is what might be called the human condition, which, romanticised, will not be questioned because the human condition is simplistically portrayed as true.

If Functionalism, which claims transparency for its agency, is recognised as an invention, as language is, then this is analogous to recognising the presence of the surface of Narcissus' reflecting pool. Our confrontation with this surface may destroy the sense of coherence of ourselves and our relationship with the world. Perhaps that imminent destruction is what has disturbed architects and has prevented them from acknowledging the fictional nature of what they do. It seems important that at this time, when terms such as democracy and transparency have been so thoroughly manipulated, that their difficulty and tenuousness is recognised and necessarily renegotiated. By accepting the failure of that which resides deep in the notions of function or representation, the safety that exists in the belief of the legitimacy of transparency of function of language of articulating the world is stripped away.

With the acceptance of the inadequacy of representation comes the onset of Doubt: about how we relate to the world, about the coherence or universality of the self. If it is not possible to be certain about how we tell the world to ourselves, about how we construct the representational surfaces that we use to negotiate the world, to relate between ourselves and the other, then it is difficult to articulate ourselves precisely. This must be recognised. If Narcissus had recognised the image in the pool not as an other, but merely as a reflection of himself, there would be no problem. However, he did not at first acknowledge the substance of that surface of representation. Recognising that it was there only occurred when he collided with it, when it became present to him, when its presence undermined him and caused his reflected self-image and his coherence as self to shatter.

We are operating in a time when we are unaware of the world as an infinitely-faceted surface of representation. We, like Narcissus, find ourselves alone in the face of the world. Narcissus was a God, and had no one to explain his plight to him; the people of ancient Greece relied on the story of Narcissus to help them with this problem of representation, vanity, the self and love. Recognising that representation is present forces us into a position of aloneness. This aloneness is either consoled by the notion of an ideal Subject which is bearing the responsibility for that solitude, or, in the case that is most disturbing but necessary, the subject in solitude is left responsible for himself, his relation to the world and his articulation of it. That is a much more difficult notion of subjectivity, one which does not have the support of a foundation, a universal, an ideal, a God, a Subject.



With thanks to Mark Pimlott.




LOFT by Mark Pimlott