"Architecture" is a short article written by French author, editor, and 'dissident surrealist' Georges Bataille (1897-1962) that was first published in the journal Documents in 1929. The article was the first entry in the Dictionnaire Critique (Critical Dictionary), a series of texts providing definitions for a heterogeneous range of words and concepts that were published over the course of Documents' fifteen-issue lifespan.
The article stresses 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 points 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 - extends, 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."
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 in articles that range from Buster Keaton to spittle, factory chimneys to shellfish.
In his Dictionnaire entry on "L'informe" (Formless), Bataille states that "A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks", and this proto-poststructuralist intent for the Critical Dictionary can be seen within the overall editorial context of the Documents journal itself, which set out to act as a "playful museum that simultaneously collects and reclassifies its specimens."
"Architecture" text in full
Architecture is the expression of the very being of a society, just as the human face is the expression of an individual's true being. It is, however, mainly to the visages of official persons (prelates, magistrates, admirals) that this comparison pertains. In truth, only the ideal beings of a society, those who have the authority to order and prohibit, can strictly speaking be expressed in architectural form. And so, the great monuments raise themselves before us like levees, countering all troubling elements with the logic of majesty and authority: it is in the guise of cathedrals and palaces that the Church and State speak to and impose silence upon the masses. It is clear, in fact, that these monuments inspire social compliance and often, real fear. The storming of the Bastille exemplifies this state of affairs: it is difficult to explain the motivation of the crowd other than through the peoples' animosity 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 express a willingness to constrain the spirit toward official ideals. The disappearance of academic construction in painting, on the other hand, leaves the way open for the expression (hence the 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.
So, it is clear that this mathematical decree carved in stone is nothing less than the culmination of the evolution of earthly forms, manifested in the biological order by the passage from simian form to human form, the latter already displaying all the elements of the architectural. Man appears to represent but an intermediate stage in the morphological progression from apes to great edifices. Form has become increasingly fixed, increasingly imposing. And human order increasingly bound to architectural order, which is its ultimate development. So much so that if one attacks architecture, whose monumental productions all across the land are our true masters, gathering servile multitudes in their shadow, inspiring admiration and astonishment, order and constraint, then one is also, somehow, attacking man. A whole sphere of current practice, without doubt some of the most intellectually brilliant, is tending in this direction, challenging the predominant anthropomorphism: so, strange as it may seem when it comes to a creature as elegant as the human being, a path forward has been opened for us - by the painters - toward the bestial and the monstrous; as if this represents our only true chance of escaping the architectural overseer.
Critical recognition of Bataille’s writing generally came belatedly; it was only after his death in 1962 that an emerging generation of poststructuralist writers embraced him as a ‘contemporary’, a postmodernist avant la letter. Richard Wolin has pointed out how this was largely a French intellectual phenomenon until the publication in English of an anthology of Bataille’s essays, Visions of Excess, in 1985. “It would not be much of an exaggeration to claim,” writes Wolin, “that, within a period of ten years, Bataille went from being a virtual unknown in English-speaking countries to one of the most read and cited twentieth-century French authors.”
The influence of the "Architecture" article mirrors this general rediscovery and reassessment of Bataille's writing; the article’s extended critical afterlife largely due to Denis Hollier’s remarkable elaboration of Bataille’s central thesis in his La Prise de la Concorde, 1974, published in English as Against Architecture in 1989.
Hollier builds upon Bataille's article, drawing out its initial premise to explore how architecture and its metaphors reach deeply into the construction of language, underpinning the edifices of philosophy, and narratives of historical progress, theology, and the natural world.
He begins by refining Bataille's inherent distinction between architecture and the utilitarian aspects of construction. For Hollier the architectural becomes a "framework of representation", all that in architecture which allows a true content to reveal itself, whether that be “a religion that it brings alive, a political power that it manifests, an event that it commemorates… Architecture, before any other qualifications, is identical to the space of representation; it always represents something other than itself from the moment it becomes distinguished from mere building.”
Furthermore, Hollier argues, the “irreducibly metaphorical” terminology of architecture, with its structures, pillars, keystones and foundations, guarantees it’s pervasiveness in any organizational system, be that scientific, religious, or linguistic. “When structure defines the general form of legibility, nothing becomes legible unless it is submitted to the architectural grid. Architecture under these conditions is the archistructure, the system of systems. The keystone of systematicity in general…”
Citing Hegel’s positioning of architecture, in his Aesthetics, as ‘first of the arts’, Hollier underlines the etymology of the term as ‘chief builder’, where the ‘chief’ is related in turn to the word arche, or source, from which everything else flows. Architecture finds its foundational cosmology in the story of Noah’s Ark, where God, the "sovereign architect of the Universe" teaches Noah how to build the ark and instructs him to admit only creatures that are 'named'. Henceforth, theology, architecture, language, and the natural world become bound up together and we have a vision of architecture as 'divine imperative', as world-creating.
In the thirteenth century Gothic cathedrals, Hollier sees the ur-example of this system of architectural world-creation. Citing Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, he points out the comparisons between the scholastic philosophical Summae texts, (including Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, written 1265–1274), and the design of cathedrals. In their relationships of parts to the whole, in their synthetic intent of drawing together of all human knowledge, and in their organization of that knowledge hierarchically, the cathedrals and the philosophic Summae are homologous. The portal or facade of a gothic cathedral, for example, "offers itself as a sort of plan (or cross section) of the totality of the edifice that is intended to manifest, or externalize; just as, at the beginning of a book, there is a table of contents or a 'summary'..." Though we might take this for granted now, Panofosky notes, "...this type of systematic articulation was absolutely unknown before scholasticism."
Hollier adds: "God's temple, God's book, the book of the world: the book and architecture are mutually supportive and foster such a monologic systematicity that, at one glance, it should be able to be grasped as a whole, concentrated entirely in the simultaneity of a facade or in a table of contents demonstrating the unity of its plan..."
Bataille and the plan
Hollier also credits St. Thomas with defining the distinction, in creation, between the plan and its realization. "He is said to be wise in any order who considers the highest cause in that order. Thus in the order of building he who plans the form of the house is called wise and architect, in relation to the inferior laborers who trim the wood and make ready the stone..." Strictly speaking, it is the plan that is architecture: as soon as it is built, it becomes impure, subject to time and to entropy, just as God's creation became imperfect when it was left to man.
For Hollier, it is architecture's plan, its plan for us, that Bataille seeks to highlight and disrupt.
Whereas the Vitruvian ideal had buildings mirroring the beauty and symmetry of the human face, Bataille sees that the equation has become reversed and that architecture has become the petrification of the organic. If we are but an intermediate stage between apes and great edifices, progress itself has become grotesque and resulted only in immobility and "the repression of anything resembling play, exteriority, or alterity." Architecture becomes a tomb whose purpose it is to eliminate otherness, to hide death and to make of the future nothing other than the projection of ‘the plan’.
"History is lived when one does not know how it will come out. Reducing the future to no more than the reproduction of the present, constructing the future the way the architect oversees a project, is to put the formal “mathematical overcoat” on it that stops time. The revolutionary movement liberates the future from the prisons of science. It faces it head on in its heterogeneity, as something unknown."
For Bataille, that revolutionary moment was being enacted in the work of the radical painters working in Paris in the 1920s. Their work confronts the ‘architectural skeleton’ (where the skeleton is the clean form of death after putrefaction and decomposition have done their work) with the anguish of death and decomposition. The 'barbarism' of their work represents that which cannot be assimilated or subjugated to a plan, and their violent distortions of human physiognomy hold up a mirror to man in which we can no longer see ourselves reflected: the future as disarticulated.
Additional critical perspectives
Architecture and the Formless
Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, in Formless: A User's Guide have read the "Architecture" article in the context of Bataille's Critical Dictionary entry on "L'Informe" (Formless), which had appeared in issue 7 of Documents in 1929:
"A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit."
The 'Architecture' and 'Formless' definitions can be seen to be coming at the same argument from opposite directions. Like Hollier, Bois and Krauss view architecture as a "privileged metaphor of metaphysics" and "another name for system itself, for the regulation of the plan." They separate, however, the engagement with architecture and painting in the “Architecture” article, and claim that Bataille does not develop the premise of the article's first paragraph, instead shifting the piece onto "the rather traditional line on anatomical deformation in painting."
Bois and Krauss do highlight Bataille's return to a counter-architectural theme in two images printed in later issues of Documents, again under the Critical Dictionary umbrella, and both "attesting to the vulnerability of architecture": "Factory Chimney" (Documents no. 6, 1929) reproduces an image of a factory chimney in process of demolition, and the entry on "Space" (Documents 1, 1930), an image of the collapse of a prison in Columbus, Ohio. And Bataille further explores the theme of "architecture as the metaphor not of the human figure but of the idealism of man's project..." in L'Experience Interieure (1943):
"Harmony, like the project, throws time into the outside: its principle is the repetition through which 'all that is possible' is made eternal. The ideal of architecture, or sculpture, immobilizing harmony, guaranteeing the duration of motifs whose essence is the annulment of time."
This dream of architecture to escape entropy links back to Hollier, and Bois and Krauss go on to discuss Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque as an example of a work that seeks to highlight architectural entropy, an artwork that seeks to "exit the domain of the project by means of a project."
Architecture and Vertigo
Christopher Green, in Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo (2005), argues against reading Bataille's article in relation to the unformed, and reemphasizes the article's focus on painting, using the specific example of Picasso's 1928 Painter and Model, which had been featured in detail in Documents 1, 1929.
Against the architectural in painting, Green posits Bataille's later conception of vertigo, as elaborated in L' Érotisme (1957), to refer to the fusion of interior and exterior during coitus, the release from the reality of our separateness as human individuals.
"One of the words Bataille reserved for that moment of ecstatic loss of self ... was 'vertigo'. At that moment, for Bataille, love and death almost touch: the possibility of fusion with another and the abyss of final separation. We experience a kind of 'vertiginous death'".
Green contends that Picasso's work plays out a confrontation between the architectural and the vertiginous, between the compositional skeletons of his works, and a desire that animates but always threatens to demolish them.
Green links this understanding of the vertiginous to Freud's 'oceanic feeling', as outlined in Civilization And Its Discontents (1930), where a lost sense of continuity with the world around us prompts a destructive 'death drive' against the social and cultural prohibitions which civilization erects against the individual. Freud's definition of civilization can be seen as analogous to Bataille's concept of architecture as, "...the monumental institutional and behavioral structure with which societies confront the compulsion to transgress."
Whereas Freud had seen art's role as an element of civilization, as little more than a kind of wish-fulfillment, Green contrasts this with Bataille's position, which sees in art the possibility to 'strike blows' against civilization, "against architecture ... in the hugely expanded sense that Bataille gave it."
Citing Bataille's understanding of transgression in L' Érotisme, however, Green argues for the necessity of limits, of prohibitions, in order for transgression to have any kind of meaning. Within eroticism, transgression and prohibition co-exist, one cannot function without the other. And likewise, the transgression represented by Picasso's work is predicated on setting the vertiginous in play with the architectural: they must co-exist in a non-dialectical relationship, where each are equally affirmative:
"Architecture (the rule, classical order) necessitates vertigo (the transgression of the rule, disorder). To achieve an ideal control over the world (a classicism) was, for Bataille, to set in train a return to the turbulence of the uncontrollable."
Toward A Minor Architecture
More recently, architect and writer Jill Stoner, in Toward A Minor Architecture (2012), has argued for the continued relevance of Bataille's text to the contemporary 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 corporate facades of the neoliberal economy that we can see the blank face of today's financial and political elites. Their 'architecture' resides both at the level of discourse - the attendant ideologies threaded through these structures - and the built forms themselves.
“Along the road to any airport in almost any city in the world, the buildings that crowd our view represent the certainty of a global majority language: the language of profit. Most we deem ugly, they provoke the disdain even of many within the profession that produced them, and that continues to do so. Vacancies are currently high; yet these buildings repel our desire, so we avert our gaze. Yet 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 doorstep.”
Stoner calls for a 'minor architecture' that might intervene in this landscape of a 'global majority language': invoking Deleuze and Guattari's concept of a minor literature, one that inhabits a major language in ways that work to undermine or undo it from within. These minor architectures, can be built structures, temporary events, artworks, or even literary paradigms: "... opportunistic events in response to latent but powerful desires to undo structures of power."
"The clearing away of material and the activity of making room are both experiments with space and experiences of space. Minor architectures are acts of clearing. Each act yields an emergent, revolutionary space, even as that space begins to close in behind. It is space displaced, a deterritorialization. It challenges authority and its management of time; it is political."
- Dawn Ades and Fiona Bradley, among others, have used the term to describe Bataille and the group assembled around Documents, in light of their ongoing feud with André Breton, see: Dawn Ades and Fiona Bradley, Undercover Surrealism : Georges Bataille and Documents, eds. Dawn Ades and Simon Baker (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 11.
- Specific painters are not named in the article, however, both Masson and Picasso are extensively featured in early issues of Documents, including works from the latter's 'surrealist' period that began in the latter half of 1920's and would feature increasingly violent degrees of biomorphic distortion. Christopher Green, in Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo (Yale University Press, 2005, pg.20) also notes the close friendship between Bataille and Masson, and the fact that Bataille and Picasso were also closely linked through their shared friendship with Michel Leiris.
- Georges Bataille, “Architecture”, in Documents, issue no. 2, May 1929, 117. PDF scans of Documents are available to view and download at the website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
- Georges Bataille, “Formless”, in Visions of Excess, Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl, trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt, and Donald M. Leslie Jr., (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 31
- Ades and Bradley note how "Documents ... did more in its pages than chart the interesting discoveries and materials, modern and ancient, western and non-western, considered relevant to contemporary society. It constructed - or deconstructed - them, and worked them into a series of challenges to those disciplines..." Undercover Surrealism, 13-14
- J. Clifford, "On Ethnographic Surrealism", in The Predicament of Culture, 1988, p. 132, quoted in Ades and Bradley, Undercover Surrealism, 15
- Bataille, “Architecture”, translated from the French by ThisTenement, 2016
- Neal Leach, ed., Rethinking Architecture (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 4
- Richard Wolin, "The Story of I: Unearthing Georges Bataille", review of Georges Bataille: An Intellectual Biography, by Michel Surya and Georges Bataille And The Mysticism Of Sin, by Peter Tracy Connor, Bookforum, Spring 2004.
- Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. Betsy Wing, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992)
- Ibid., 31
- Ibid., 33
- Ibid., 34
- Ibid., 42
- Panofsky, quoted in Hollier, ibid.
- Hollier, Against Architecture, 42
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, quoted in Hollier, ibid., 43
- Hollier, Against Architecture, 33
- Ibid., 55
- Ibid., 50
- Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, Formless: A User's Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997)
- Bataille, "Formless", in Visions of Excess, 31
- Bois and Krauss, Formless: A User's Guide, 17
- Ibid., 185
- Ibid., 186. Bois and Krauss relate this failure to an aesthetic limitation of the whole Documents group, being "burdened by a figurative conception of art..." The claim can perhaps be put into context by considering that Formless: A User's Guide was initially published to accompany the authors’ exhibition of the same name at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, an ambitious attempt to re-envisage twentieth century art in the light of formless (and therefore, largely, non-figurative) work by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Lucio Fontana, Cindy Sherman, Claes Oldenburg, Jean Dubuffet and others.
- Ibid., 186-87
- Ibid., 187
- Christopher Green, Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005)
- Ibid., 23
- Ibid., 25
- Ibid., 234
- Ibid., 234-235
- Jill Stoner, Toward A Minor Architecture (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012)
- Ibid., 17-18
- Deleuze and Guattari's focus is Franz Kafka, who, as a Jewish writer living in Prague and writing in German, inhabited language in 'incorrect' ways that served to displace and politicize, revealing language's implication in systems of power and exclusion. See: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1986)
- Stoner, Toward A Minor Architecture, 7
- Ibid., 14