Architecture

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'Architecture' is a short article by French surrealist writer Georges Bataille that was first published in the journal Documents in 1929 as part of series of texts forming a conjectural 'Dictionnaire Critique' (Critical Dictionary).

The article stressed the capacity of architecture to exert both literal and metaphorical power; writing primarily of the monumental public buildings of the French church and state, Bataille pointed out how architectural form itself can act as proxy for these institutions in ordering and prohibiting behavior. Architecture has the ability to manifest social hierarchy and political power, but can also affect and convey that power to those who walk in its shadow.

This definition of the architectural - as that which is ordered or ordering - extended, for Bataille, to any system, from the social to the psychological. In painting, it is evinced as classical composition and, in the most advanced painters working in the Paris of his day, Bataille saw a route out of the architectural injunction: by escaping form itself. With their radical distortions of human physiognomy, artists such as Picasso and Masson led the way in breaking down "architectural composition" and giving free rein to "psychological processes most incompatible with social stability".


The Text

Architecture is the expression of the very being of a society, just as the face is the expression of an individual's true being. However, it is mainly to the visages of official persons (prelates, magistrates, admirals) that this resemblance applies. In truth, only the ideal beings of a society, those who order and prohibit with authority, can properly be said to be expressed in architectural form. And so, the great monuments raise themselves before us like levees, countering all troubling elements with the majesty of reason and authority: it's in the guise of cathedrals and palaces that the Church and State impose silence upon the masses. It is clear, in fact, that these monuments inspire social compliance and also, often, real fear. The Storming of the Bastille typifies this state of affairs: it is difficult to explain the motivation of the crowd, other than through the animosity of the people toward the monuments that are their true masters.

Moreover, anywhere architectural composition manifests itself other than in monuments, whether in physiognomy, clothing, music or painting, one can infer a predominant taste for authority, human or divine. The grand compositions of certain painters show a willingness to limit their spirit to the expression of official ideals. The disappearance of academic construction in painting, on the other hand, leaves the way open for expression (a kind of exaltation) of psychological processes deeply incompatible with social stability. This explains in large part the wild reactions provoked for over half a century by the progressive transformations of painting, which, up until then, had been constructed upon a kind of hidden architectural skeleton.

It is clear, anyway,...


Influence

The influence of the 'Architecture' article on architects and theoreticians following the general rediscovery and reassessment of Bataille's writing by the post-structuralists in the 1960s has been far-reaching. Most notably Denis Hollier's elaboration of Bataille's central thesis, in La Prise de la Concorde (1974; published in English as Against Architecture in 1989), has insured an extended afterlife for the text. Hollier develops Bataille's premise by demonstrating the degree to which architectural terminology and its metaphors reach deeply into the construction of language itself, underpinning narratives of historical progress and much of the edifice of rational philosophy.

More recently, architect and writer Jill Stoner, in Toward A Minor Architecture (MIT Press, 2012) argues for the continued relevance of Bataille's text to the architectural and urban environment. Where, for Bataille (writing in Paris in the 1920's), the source of architectural authority was the church, the military and the judiciary, for Stoner, it is in the speculative redevelopment of our cities, and the corporate facades of the neo-liberal economy that we can see the blank face of today's financial and political elites: "... here in full force (though in radically different form) are the architectures of power that Bataille so precisely described seventy years ago. They place the argument for alternate and subversive spatial strategies squarely at our door step".


The Critical Dictionary

Bataille's article first appeared as part of the 'Critical Dictionary' in Documents, a series of articles written by Bataille, Michel Leiris, Carl Einstein and others that set out to flout the ideals of comprehensiveness and scholarly objectivity associated with a dictionary, cutting across conventional hierarchies and categories with a fragmentary choice of articles, ranging from Buster Keaton to spittle, factory chimneys to shellfish. Bataille stated that the intention of the Dictionairre was to explore the uses of words, rather than their meanings, anticipating post-structuralism by over thirty years; however, this aim can be seen within the overall editorial context of the Documents journal itself, which set out to be a "playful museum that simultaneously collects and reclassifies its specimens".