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                            ARCHITECTURE AS FRAGMENTATION

                                            Architecture, Involution and Schizophrenia

 

 by Alex Brown

 

1.0     The Problems of Communication 

 

Involution is the equivalent of positive feedback in architecture. The natural tendency of the system to produce stylistic uniformity is massively reinforced by the presence of a highly-integrated and seemingly 'immortal' socio-economic environment. Closed to the possibility of new or different environmental conditions, architectural activity simply turns to the stereotyping of existing forms.  Finally unable to represent the natural diversity of things with the inert set of forms at its disposal, architecture is forced to use the secondary mechanism of decoration in order to represent the complexity of experience.

 

The tendency to split form-making activity into primary and secondary mechanisms during periods of Involution conforms to a remarkable degree with similar processes which take place in schizophrenic communication.

 

Any comparison between the behaviour of a schizophrenic individual and that of a collection of individuals (architects) lies in the following assumptions:

 

a)  That they are both communicational systems.

 

b) That they are sometimes subject to paradoxes or irreconcilable demands by an environment from which they cannot escape.

 

c) That the result of this is the production of similar forms of behaviour.

 

In both cases the pathological symptoms which are displayed do not result from the ADDITION of some new factor to the 'normal' mode of communication.  Both patterns of behaviour can be understood to be perfectly rational attempts to transcend some inescapable paradox which the systems face in their respective environments.  Both the individual and an architecture (the collective activity of many architects acting as a single system) are required to behave authentically or spontaneously in an environment which expressly forbids such behaviour.:

 

i.        For an individual that world is centred around a set of personal or family relationships which pathologically demands and yet forbids spontaneous expressions of behaviour (eg. shows of affection).

 

ii.        For architecture, the world is centred around a demand to accurately represent experience in built form but in this case with a set of stereotyped forms which prevent the architect from ever accurately doing so. Each of these systems, whether the Self of the individual or the collective activity of architects is required to act in terms of an already established and strict set of relations which it cannot change. It is when a set of circumstances imposes impossibly restrictive rules of combination on the behaviour of a system - facing it with mutually exclusive choices - that counter-productive behaviour results. For the schizophrenic individual and for architecture during the Involutionary period, the splitting of experience into primary and secondary mechanisms is not a matter of choice but is the way the system has LEARNED to be in the world.

 

2.0     Schizophrenic Symptoms

 

The relationship between the primary and secondary mechanisms of communication and their joint function in the of the world of experience is well expressed in the following passage from R.D. Laing where he says:

 

"The self can be real only in relation to real people and things.  But it fears that it will be engulfed, swallowed up in any relationship.  If the 'I' only comes into play vis-a-vis objects of phantasy, while a false self manages dealings with the world, various profound phenomenological changes occur in all elements of experience. Thus, the point we have already got to is that the self, being transcendent, empty, omnipotent, free in its own way, comes to be anybody in phantasy, and nobody in reality."

 

And in another passage he states:

 

"When experience of the outer world is filtered to the inner self, this self can no longer either experience or give expression to its own desires in a way that is socially acceptable. Social acceptability has become a technique, a trick.  His own view of things, the meaning they have for him, his feelings, his expressions, are now likely to be at least odd and eccentric, if not bizarre and crazy.  The self remains encapsulated within its own system, while adaptation and adjustment to changing experiences have to be conducted by the false self."  The false self system is apparently plastic:  it operates with new people and adapts to changing surroundings.  But the self does not keep up with the changes in the real world.  The objects of its phantasy relationships remain the same basic figures although they undergo modification, for instance, in the direction of idealization, or they become more persecutory.  There is no thought of checking, testing these phantom figures (imagos) in terms of reality.  There is no occasion to do so.  The individual' self by now is not making any effort to act upon reality, to effect real changes in it." (pages 142, 143).

 

With few adjustments one could transpose this description of schizophrenia into an analysis of the state of post-classical architecture.  For instance:

 

a) When Laing points to the ‘omnipotence’ and yet ‘emptiness’ of the Self in this situation one is immediately reminded of the state of the typical set after a long period of stereotyping.  It too has become free 'in its own way' for it is no longer based on the exigencies of experience but has become locked into idealizing the few elements and routines which define its character. 

 

b) It is in this sense that one can understand Laing's use of the term 'phantasy' for it denotes the detachment of these elements from the empirical world; they have become so abstract and so general in their relationship to experience that they no longer represent anything

- they are 'nobody in reality'.

 

c) In order to ‘perform’ the Self projects a secondary system of behaviour: the ‘False Self’,  which superficially can deal with the changing demands of its environment. For architecture this is the decorative function which is 'plastic' and apparently responsive to different contexts: it provides a distinct face for every place unlike the rigid primary forms.

 

d) The bizarre  or inappropriate behaviour of the schizophrenic provokes a stream of criticism which leads to renewed and equally futile attempts by the Self to correct its behaviour by assuming ever more ‘precise’ and thus ever more inappropriate responses to the complexities of its social environment. Post-classical architecture faces the same problem for it too is incapable of direct expression of the meaning of any particular context and is, therefore, forced to displace this role into inconsequential features of buildings.  As the typical set becomes progressively more stereotyped and inarticulate these devices are used to disguise the fundamental arbitrariness of the prevailing Type of architecture.  They make it APPEAR to be responsive to its environment; but it is, indeed a 'trick'.  As Involution continues, the forms of displacement or decoration (improvisation) must become more exaggerated and even grotesque as the typical set becomes less capable of expressing the meaning and the complexity of contexts through a manipulation of its few elements. The task of  representation is finally passed over to the forms of displacement which, over time become more articulated, enlarged, out of scale, emphatic and, eventually, 'bizarre and crazy'.

 

3.0 Direct Comparisons between Involutionary Architecture and Schizophrenia

 

The analogy between these two systems of communication centres on the symmetry between their respective sets of relations. One can also note Laing's more detailed description of the False Self system.  He summarizes its development as follows:

 

i.   The false-self system (decoration) becomes more and more expensive.

 

ii.   It becomes more autonomous.

 

iii   It becomes 'harassed' by compulsive and behaviour  fragments.

 

iv  All that belongs to it becomes more and more dead,  unreal, false and mechanical." 

 

Point i: This conforms to certain points made earlier about the increasing dependence of architecture on the mechanism of displacement or decoration. Architecture is forced to transfer more of its representational functions over to this secondary mechanism which does indeed become more extensive, not only in terms of its physical presence in works of architecture (as decoration or articulation) but also in terms of the semantic function it is required to carry out in architecture. This 'fictitious architecture' must eventually overwhelm and blur the canonical forms of the Type and become its corporeal presence. As it becomes more sophisticated and systematic in its forms, displacement which originated as a form of IMPROVISATION, takes over the architectural functions of the Type. It emerges from being, perhaps, a simple inscription on the primary forms of a classical architecture to being the not- quite-integrated fragments of whole separate architectures. By this parthenogenic process architecture extrudes from itself a group of multivalent images each of which seems to refer to a very particular context. Thus the characteristic forms of the group of Postmodern styles such as Historicism, Eclecticism, Hi-Tech, Populism, Regionalism and Deconstructivism each define a very particular approach to the expression of social institutions in built form. Their forms are so specific and emphatic that they each appear to be designed for a group of very special circumstances. In fact they are simply fragments of behaviour - sub-routines - which refer to the kinds of context that the Type was on its own unable to represent. That is why their forms appear to be specially-engineered and emphatic. Each of these Postmodern styles is, on its own a customised repertoire for a certain kind of context. They are, in that sense simply expressions of pure context - frozen improvisations split off from the petrified core of the Type.

 

Point ii: The 'autonomy' of which Laing speaks can be understood in two senses. In the first it would refer to the systematization of the forms of displacement - their alteration from fluidity to a digital clarity.  The extent of the forms of displacement and the degree of autonomy achieved in an architecture is a matter of time and technology. With Modern Architecture, the function of displacement has reached the point where it substitutes for all authentic re-combination of the typical set.  This is an architecture which no longer defines its forms by their USE (in the broadest sense), but by the rationality of their making. In this way displacement now dictates the form of buildings and thus becomes an autonomous function. In a second and related sense it refers to the final splitting of the Type into a group of semi-autonomous styles such as the Postmodern condition discussed above. 

 

Point iii: in Laing's list ('compulsive behaviour fragments'), can be translated into the ritualistic and compulsive articulation of buildings.  It results in the disarticulation of the form of buildings and the creation of spurious differences and distinctions.  In fact, one need not take the actual relations which exist in the institution into account at all; its actual differences merely serve as a justification for an arbitrary fragmentation of architectural form. In terms of the logic of the process, these are actual differences digitized into imaginary oppositions. There are more differences in this functionalism than there are in the world at large; there are more 'identities' than there are phenomena to be identified.

 

Point iv: If every aspect of the forms of displacement becomes 'dead, unreal, false and mechanical' as against its original fluidity, this is only to be expected given that all material is subject to the reductive action of the typological process.  This, of course, is part of the process of systematization mentioned in point two above. As it becomes more autonomous and systematic, inevitably it will begin to appear predictable and mechanical. This 'dryness', this tendency toward abstraction, is the fate that awaits all architectures at the later stages of their history. 

         

The complexity of the relationship between decoration and architecture and, by analogy, between Self and False-Self make it difficult to decipher the true state of things and the nature of the referent experience. It becomes impossible to tell in the midst of so much fabrication, decoation and  improvisation. An extended period of Involution generates an extreme degree of superficial complexity over the austere and restricted elements of the typical set.  Some ideas of this can be sensed from the following passage from Laing:

 

"One of the greatest barriers against getting to know a schizophrenic is his sheer incomprehensibility:  the oddity, bizarreness, obscurity in all that we can perceive of him.  There are many reasons why this is so. Even when the patient is striving to tell us, in as clear and straight-forward a way as he knows how, the nature of his anxieties and his experiences, structured as they are in a radically different way from ours, the speech content is necessarily difficult to follow.  Moreover, the formal elements of speech are in themselves ordered in unusual ways, and these formal peculiarities seem, at least to some extent, to be the reflection in language of the alternative ordering of his experience, with splits in it where we take coherence for granted, and the running together  (confusion) of elements that we keep apart."

 

4.0        Masks and More Mask

 

These fragments of behaviour whether psychological or architectural are catalogued in terms of their success as masks and in terms of their 'social acceptability'.

 

Carefully catalogued, labelled and therefore reified into ‘things’, they are made available for ‘re-assembly’ on other occasions.  This learned inability to behave pragmatically when necessary by modulating and adjusting one's behaviour, necessitates the construction of a catalogue of isolated pieces of behaviour which must grow in number to meet the multitude of different situations that arise in the course of a life-time. But, as predetermined acts they are quite rigid. They prevent an individual from recognizing the differences between apparently similar events. This lack of subtlety of perception leads to the 'either-or', 'yes-no' forms of digital analysis which must inevitably collide with the continuous gradations which make up the real state of lived experience.

 

This architecture and the multiple characteristics by which it sought to disguise its rigidity now reach a final stage of autonomy.  They take on a life of their own.  The symptoms of this decline are mistaken for organic attributes of the architecture; the disintegration is applauded as a healthy sign of the increasing 'creativity' of architects and the growth of 'individualism' and ‘plurality’ against the tyranny of former times. Fictive (and fictitious) architectural elements and combinations are inflated into parallel architectures. They are assumed to be real, to be identities and independent repertoires which reflect the ‘plurality’ and ‘democratic’ credentials of the time.

 

Yet this is a false dawn. No socioeconomic or institutional changes have been needed to produce this final state of fragmentation which is purely internally generated within architecture. The eternal constraints on architecture have remained as they were. The final catastrophe of complete dissolution of the Type will come about with the eventual advent (at whatever time) of Plural socioeconomic conditions. Even then, there will be no discontinuity in architectural history, but simply a very rapid acceleration of the process of disintegration to a point where the tenuous linkages between the different variations are finally broken forever.

 

5.0     A Necessary Chaos

 

Although it is not the result of a choice on the part of anyone, the disintegration of an architecture destroys any possibility of a coherent urban environment.  In the City - that 'laboratory of the senses - the effects of the collapse of a unified architectural order reveal themselves in the violent juxtaposition of different styles and different answers to the same questions.  This disorder is just as apparent at the level of the City's organization as it is in the profusion of styles which inform its buildings.  There is no continuity between the scale, function or planning of different areas of the City, which have become independent entities each with its own unique character. The City becomes a collection of set-pieces colliding within a geographical area.  Walking through such a city, there is no way one could predict the character of one of its neighbourhoods from an inspection of an adjacent area; everything is unpredictable.  The most powerful image of such a city can be found in the works of Piranesi, especially in his imaginative illustrations of the Campo Marzio produced in 1761-2. A product of another involutionary period: the Baroque. In relating this urban image to the collapse of the Classical-Baroque ideal in architecture, Manfredo Tafuri writes:

 

“Formal invention seems to declare its own primacy, but the obsessive reiteration of the inventions reduces the whole organism to a sort of gigantic 'useless machine'." (Tafuri,Architecture and Utopia, page 15).

         

Tafuri later calls this disaggregated urban form, 'This colossal piece of bricolage': a state of things which can, even amongst the immense fertility of its architectural forms, pervade the City with an unavoidable sense of ANONYMITY and LOSS. In this profusion of architectural events and the spurious creativity which arises both in the Evolutionary and Involutionary periods there are more solutions than there are problems; there are more machines than there are purposes for them to serve.

 

If it is possible to provide several equally valid versions of the truth about a particular experience, then this 'freedom', this individuality of expression disguises or ignores a whole dimension of reality; it cannot speak of the many connections between things. It is unable to recognize the similarities which exist between different contexts. In this state, architecture cannot indicate the similarities AND the differences between one context and another.  Evolutionary conditions, as stated earlier, pose equally severe problems of authenticity to those of the late Involutionary period.  In both cases there is MORE formal diversity than there is actual diversity of contexts. In this situation, one cannot predict whether the visible difference between two buildings represents an actual difference in their content or purpose or the institution represented. It may be that two buildings, radically different in form, could represent fundamentally similar contexts. There would be no way of recognizing such a similarity from an investigation of their forms.  If everything is different in form, then one cannot tell what, if anything, is the same.  There is no frame within which these differences could derive some meaning or against which they could be understood.

The formal chaos which ensues with the loss of a unique and well-defined identity for architecture plunges it into an era of endless experiment from which it cannot extricate itself.  There is no way of avoiding this hiatus in the history of architecture as a whole.  It is the gap which appears between two distinct architectural Types and is a return to trial-and-error methods of combining form in order to find a simple reliable routine. The duration of this period of experiment cannot be forecast, but only lived through. History or change in the form of another period of socioeconomic integration will, sooner or later call a halt to the multiplication of different architectural solutions to the same problems. Gregory Bateson remarks, with reference to the clinical history of the schizophrenic: 

 

          "It would appear that once precipitated into psychosis, the patient has a course to run.  He is, as it were, embarked on a voyage of discovery, which is only completed by his return to the normal world, to which he comes back with such insights different from those of the inhabitants who never embarked on such a voyage.  Once begun, a schizophrenic episode would appear to have as definite a course as an initiation ceremony, a death and rebirth".

 

END

 

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