Transformation

5-19

A Dash of ______

April 23, 2020

“A doctor received a visit from one of his friends. ‘How is your illness, my friend,’ was his first question. ‘How should it be? I am dying of improvement, pure and simple!”

—Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of Faculties

Beyond materializing and formalizing for a time, architecture has always framed a subject of its Zeitgeist to inhabit its forms. Modern humanist subjectivity, largely grounded in individuation and national identities, was constructed as one of stability and which, through its cognitive capacities, would struggle to control the world of its being. A will to power over a world that seemed utterly colonizable by a homogenizing grid of production and consumption, reproduced at an unprecedented scale under the egis of betterment through the reforms of architecture. Now that we are dying of improvement, it is time to find out what we choose to incrementally build on and what we choose to not reproduce. It becomes essential for a subjectivity of architecture to dissolve the binaries that formed the blank canvas on which modernity was drawn.

A subject can be defined and redefined by its negative. It cannot rely on the stasis of being, but rather a continuous process of transformation, which is a fundamental character of the condition of predicament we live in.1 The necessity of defining a subject for architecture with its necessary complexities was clear before and becomes even more urgent after the trauma of the worldwide pandemic we are immersed in, which, despite its universality, impacts the world in unequal ways. The subject of architecture can be framed by new forms of universality in order to resist a principle of individuation, which figurally objectifies and separates. And despite the formation of a whole, it can be assembled and transformed, “rejecting a rearrangement of elements in hierarchical order”.2 A careful investigation of its subject is a missing necessity part with which architecture can become whole and overcome the dialectics of modern thought.

Architects rarely think about the possibility of failure of the grid that structures its subject under conditions of perceived normality. When the grid is stressed and lockdown imposes itself as a radical universal condition, architecture becomes a broken hammer, throwing light on shouting disparities and growing polarizing inequities. In this condition, architects will have to face the urging disparities. Architecture has the potential to “play a modest but useful part in facilitating a tolerable future for humanity as a whole and for all its different parts(…) inasmuch as a clear and vivid sense of the whole human past can help to soften future conflicts by making clear what we all share.”3

The impacts of lockdown in everyday life are powerful. Streets
become desert, labor camps, schools and prisons are emptied, luxury hotels become centers of treatment and the metropolis, the center of consumption and accumulation suddenly becomes strangely void. Lockdown exposes an incapacity to recognize the effects of its architecture as a totality. Still, the condition of anomaly has the power to revert systems of hierarchy with enormous speed and the effects of radical crisis can become a vehicle for change and a time to rethink the subject of architecture. The other,
a non-human agent, can spark a 
rebirth as it did in other periods of human history. “Where it was, the Ich—the subject (…) must come into existence”4 through the means and conditions of possibility formed by architecture.

In times of crisis, the necessity of a deep transformation of the subject we are becomes clear, in order for architecture to support better ways of living together. Architecture can be a potent critical vehicle for a shift from a subject grounded in the care of the self toward one framed by a logic of the care of the other as an animator of collective assemblages. In this process of transformation, it is a common task to reframe the architectural subject and redefine what we are capable of becoming. We can start by asking ourselves what we want to leave behind.

 

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Anthropocene Time,” History and Theory, vol. 57, no.1 (March 2018), pp. 29
[2] Massimo Cacciari, Architecture and Nihilism, p. 47
[3] William H. McNeill, “The Changing Shape of World History,” in World History: Ideologies, Structures, and Identities, ed. Philip Pomper, Richard A. Elphick, and Richard T. Vann (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 39–40.
[4] Jacques Lacan, “On the Network of Signifiers,” in The Four
Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
, transl. Alan Sheridan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller [1973] (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977),
pp. 45.