Room To Misread


Reading the Room

Volume 7, Issue 07
April 7, 2022

    Person A: I want to eat my ice cream OR I want to take a selfie with the Vessel.
    Person B: I want to throw mine away OR I want to walk all the stairs to the top.

    Person A: I respect your desire.
    Person B: I respect your desire.

    End of conversation.1

While flavored frozen milk on a cone might affect one individually, the Vessel occupies a large, privatized plaza that affects the city and the public. There cannot be an argument over whether each person misuses the ice cream or not: the main purpose of ice cream (or any commodity)—the reason that it’s created in the first place—is to be sold. 2 After purchase, what one does with one’s ice cream is completely up to one’s personal and private opinion and taste. This means that from an objective point of view outside of personal subjectivities, there are no criteria that can determine the correctness or validity of any particular way of dealing with one’s ice cream. Similarly, the “openness to interpretation and use” 3 of the Vessel ought to defer its meaning (purpose, or use) to the visitor’s taste and opinions. There are no valid or invalid readings of the work because it doesn’t express or embody any criteria. It is an individual’s “own business” 4 to define this neoliberal emblem. But do we want architecture, with its public status, to perform in this way? The Vessel establishes a model for the city; it reduces its public to the aggregation of individuals’ personal tastes.5

But “[…] the public good is never your own business.” 6 By being devoid of any internal claim (or meaning), the Vessel performs similarly to a commodity—it can mean whatever a visitor wants. It is subsumed under and establishes the totalizing socio-political ideology in which it resides: capitalism. Introducing the potential of having an invalid reading, of having room to misread, opens up the possibility of reading in a valid manner. It means being able to argue for or against something as a public. Kate Wagner thinks the Vessel looks like a shawarma;7 ] I think it resembles an orgy of scorpions. There’s nothing in the work by which either of us can argue for or against our individual readings. The Vessel, like other works of architecture that promote an unconstrained openness of interpretation (being empty of any claim), does not allow for collective conversation and, therefore, in its essence, negates the very idea of a public. 8

Being able to have a valid reading requires a work to manifest criteria independent of its readers’ subjectivities. The attempt to recognize valid readings of a work by addressing the internal criteria that the work presents can be called theory.9 In this sense, theory does not mean universally determining practice based on academic and institutional ideals. But rather, it calls for having an objective and common way of communicating that suspends private subjectivities to make room for collective conversations. It calls for architectural works that define their public as something more than undefined masses of personal tastes.

Saying yes to “should theory exist?” also means saying yes to the question “can a work of architecture make an internal claim?” Without theory, there would not be any claim, and without any claim, there would not be any theory; theory is not independent from practice. To be something more than a service to the people who paid for it, a work of architecture should have a meaning: a “self-legislating”10 presence or “an internal criterion by which it can be judged.” 11 Works like the Vessel—which defer their meaning to individuals’ opinions—deny architecture’s capacity to convey meaning. They are the very schema of negating both theory and the possibility of having an argument through the medium of architecture. As Nicholas Brown rightly claims: “The power of an argument is of an entirely different order from the power of a union. But you can’t have a union without an argument.” 12 That is, if we cannot have an argument about it, does a work of architecture even say anything?

Pouya Khadem is a Master of Architecture candidate at Rice University.

  1. Inspired by the example provided by Stanley Cavell in: Stanley Cavell, “Aesthetic Problems of Modern Philosophy,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 91. ↩︎
  2. One might argue that a particular craftsperson could genuinely hope that someone finds enjoyment when they make something, and that the resulting profit is only a byproduct. While this is true, when making something becomes a business and the product doesn’t sell, regardless of the joy it might bring, the business fails. In this context, since the craft is turned into a commodity, its main purpose is to be sold. ↩︎
  3. [According to Stuart Wood from Heatherwick Studio. Scott Indrisek, “Is There a Point to the Vessel If You’re Not There for the Selfie?,” Observer, March 20, 2019. ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. This paragraph borrows from Walter Benn Michaels’s criticism of the Vessel in: Walter Benn Michaels and Sebastián López Cardozo, “Uninterested/Unequal/Understood: Architecture’s Class Aesthetic, Walter Benn Michaels in Conversation with Sebastián López Cardozo,” in PLAT 9.0: Commit, eds. Sebastián López Cardozo and Lauren Phillips (Fall 2020): 12. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Kate Wagner, “Fuck The Vessel,” The Baffler, March 21, 2019. ↩︎
  8. This paragraph is influenced by Nicholas Brown’s arguments about the commodity status of art in: Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 1–39, 178–182. ↩︎
  9. This definition of theory is derived from this definition made by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels in Against Theory: “By ‘theory’ we mean a special project in literary criticism: the attempt to govern the interpretations of particular texts by appealing to an account of interpretation in general.” Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, “Against Theory,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 723–742, repr. in W. J. T. Mitchell, ed. Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1985), 11–30, esp. 11. ↩︎
  10. Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 182. ↩︎
  11. Nicholas Brown, Jimmy Bullis, and Pouya Khadem, “Why Can’t Everywhere Be Like This? A Conversation with Nicholas Brown,” in PLAT 10: Behold, eds. Jimmy Bullis and Pouya Khadem (Fall 2021): 14. ↩︎
  12. Nicholas Brown, Autonomy: The Social Ontology of Art Under Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 182. ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 07
April 7, 2022