“We live in a non-referential world” declares the first sentence of the introduction of a thin book bound in cloth the color of ice. Titled Non-Referential Architecture, it was ideated by Valerio Olgiati, renowned Swiss architect, and written by Markus Breitschmid, a Swiss architect who teaches at Virginia Tech (O+B, in this text). Within its 125 pages of clear and direct prose, it lays out a method for making non-referential architecture—architecture that does not refer to elements outside itself for meaning—in a distinctly non-oozy manner.
In a series of introductory chapters, O+B outline their position as it relates to the history of architecture; they introduce seven principles of non-referential architecture: Experience of Space, Oneness, Newness, Construction, Contradiction, Order, and Sensemaking; and they close with a final chapter about authorship, in which they make a case for the necessity of single “author-architects” who conceive and make buildings.
The central argument of the book is that contemporary buildings should generate their meaning without the use of extra-architectural devices such as historical or social signifiers, and that they do this through having an idea that is “form-generative” and “sense-making,” in their words. O+B articulate this claim cogently; if anyone is curious about the means through which Olgiati creates architecture, this book is a useful primer.
While O+B’s philosophy of “sense-making” does make sense, it arrives with a number of deeply problematic caveats. Some of these are embedded in the principles themselves that are revealed to be a conservative understanding of what a building could be and how to make one. For example, they proclaim that buildings should be “conceptually” made out of one material—a requirement that is increasingly difficult in today’s constructive assemblies and energetic requirements. O+B advocate that a building must strive for oneness, a quality that comes from beginning with a conceptual whole, rather than a preceding nothingness to which various parts are added. In many corners of their book they support their argument by stating that because we live in a “fully polyvalent and non-referential world,” buildings must do X or be Y. And, given our concern in this publication with the contemporary ooziness of consciousness, it is this claim—that we live in a non-referential world—that deserves the most scrutiny.
O+B situate their work on non-referential architecture as the latest in a series of architectural ideas, snapping a chalk line from Eisenman and Tschumi to Herzog & de Meuron and Zumthor and then to Koolhaas. We have, they argue, left behind both the modern and postmodern project, and now exist in a world where “people want to confront the complexities of life in a non-ideological way that does not embrace significance referentially” 1 . Because larger systems of ideology and consensus have been dismantled, and because ours is a “world without fixed values and rules” 2 , it is incumbent upon a building to make meaning according to its own generative and consistent internal principles, rather than relying on the unstable, flickering values of contemporary society.
But do we live in a non-referential world? Surely political and religious solidarity have disintegrated, leaving many of us apolitical and atheistic, but that’s nothing new. Taking a wide, panning look across the cultural landscape, it seems that our world is not a lamentable vacuum of shared reference but, instead, a churning world of links, influences, confluences, overlaps, confusions, and imitations—it pulses more wildly than ever before. It’s not that there is no fixity of meaning, but instead that meaning is all around us, swirling in its conversions between understandings; everyone must sort through it individually. Actually, we live in a hyper-referential world, and this too contributes to its non-ideological feeling. No longer yoked together by past dogmas, we are able to exist as individuals who assemble personal understandings of the world, as motley as they might be, and make the linkages that we deem requisite for our own ends. In such a world, the idea that buildings require their own meaning still holds, as the task of signification is still an important one, but it can be reached using the opposite worldview.
O+B seem to profoundly misread contemporary culture; our current state is not about the failures of resistive islands but instead potential of the rising sea. We exist within the paradigm of neoliberal individualism, but we have the potential to be more connected and united than we ever have been. In not acknowledging the ooze of living today, their founding arguments grow stale; they age quickly and poorly. This, of course, doesn’t even begin to account for the effects of media and economy that tie us more closely together. Consider that somewhere our online activity and purchases are linked together in some secret algorithm of advertising and credit scores; this is surely a type of referentiality that plagues contemporary living. Plus, if Olgiati truly believed in non-referentiality, would he use hashtags on Instagram to promote his work?
Throughout, the argument is made with a rigorous discipline that verges on meanness. It is clear that O+B are interested in describing a practice that works at the highest levels of creativity and exclusivity: “A result of the postmodern ethical compass is to make believe that a group of mediocre people can become good if they work as a team” 3 . Additionally, O+B focus on the experience of space as a universal quality for non-referential architecture, but they overlook the actuality that experience itself is embodied and therefore subject to the specificities of fleshy consciousness. Space, arguably, is perceived differently in a female body than in a male body, a tall body instead of a short body, a black body instead of a white body, an old brain instead of a young brain. This is not to support determinism in spatial experience based on identity, but to simply point out that experiences of space are embodied and are therefore subject to the conditions of the perceiver.
Non-referential architecture is a project of autonomy that seeks to further enshrine the architect with certain totalizing responsibilities, rather than acknowledging the vast energetic flows into and out of the discipline. The philosophy is elegantly ignorant on the variety of issues at work in the discipline that seek to make it more equitable and sustainable, saturating the tome with an air of privilege, as if written at sunset after a couple bottles of fine Alentejo wine in the courtyard of Olgiati’s Villa Além. An architect who would opt to jettison these important conversations in the name of further entrenching the discipline’s historic and enduring expertise seems like someone who might be insecure about the discipline’s future oozy existence.
Architecture is unavoidably embedded within society and derives some portion of its meaning from this condition. Thankfully, there seems to be enough meaning to go around for both this and the non-ideological arguments of O+B to be worth-while. The discipline’s enmeshed condition is a strength, not a weakness, a feature, not a bug of architecture’s operating system. If architecture is a spark delivered unto the wooden sticks of construction, then the act’s societal context is its hearth. If constructed well, it will pull and the resulting fire will last the night. If not, then its pretentious smoke will fill the room, despite one’s best efforts. In all of their muscular declarations, O+B seem to forget that life itself is a particularly oozy affair, and that its oscillations over time change what space means and how we, at first as individuals and then collectively, construct its meaning. The maddening frustration of our current predicament is that there is so much of that frustration, that you can slice it up to serve nearly every viewpoint. Simultaneously the world is worse than it’s ever been (in terms of wealth inequality or carbon emissions) and better than ever (in terms of life expectancy or individual freedom). Life is “bad but better,” always.
O+B make strong claims about how to make architecture, but they land without joy. In making architecture, surely not “anything goes,” but a more tolerable position about how architecture holds meaning for each of us carries with it the possibility of a diversity of ways in which space is significant and excellence can be achieved. In the fluxing flow of our oozy predicament, this basic declaration of expert plurality, of a cornucopia of potential meaning, seems an important one to stand by. Without it, the rest is slime.