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The Fate of Contemporary Architecture.

This chapter of The Why Does Art Matter? Series is a follow up to our previous chapter on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s essay The Origin of the Work of Art. You can access this chapter here.

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece

Within his philosophy of art Heidegger suggests that there are potentially infinite worlds; and meaning and place are an expression of a choice to commit to only one potentiality from an infinite number. In the past, excluding all other potentialities in order to secure their own, has proven to bind peoples together in a shared interpretation of Being and a sense of being at ‘home’ in the world. Having this kind of collective project means that individuals are able to live out their everyday lives in accordance with that singular interpretation of reality; and through action in the outside world- direct and create a human environment based on that singular commitment. When people base their lives around a united structure of meaning, this translates into architecturally constructed spaces erected to reflect those structures of meaning back onto them, as physical manifestations of their chosen potential world. A doubly structured human and material environment therefore, can give them shelter from the “abyss”, the “infinite”, or “fragmentation of experience”.

Heidegger’s philosophy appeals to previously undifferentiated experiences of the dynamic of the ancient period, in order to embed those same ideas in an idealistic and conservative philosophy of being in the world, in late modernity. His philosophy is however, quietist, since it refuses to engage with and therefore offer a method to resolve, the inherent conflict that a plurality of interpretations of being wreaks on contemporary society. From the perspective of a pluralist world we now understand that to commit to one conservative reality, is to limit ourselves to only one perspective, just one part of a heterogeneous reality.

Although he does perceive that value is something which is communally given and that having a sense of one’s own purpose is derived from communal relations, Heidegger’s philosophy overlooks the following point: the given ‘shared project’ which had existed previously in ancient Greece in the striving to adhere to an order of things, or in the enlightenment project in modernity as the striving for an ideal of man and ‘complete’ knowledge, is lacking in the experience of the contemporary subject. He refuses to acknowledge the continual necessity for conversation and communication that this lack incites between human beings, in their struggle to interpret and to understand and, more importantly, to navigate the heterogeneous reality of the contemporary world in order to find personal meaning.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt asserts, that the only hope for a contemporary subject to establish a coherent understanding of and navigate oneself within the condition of post-modernity, is to acknowledge its fragmented dynamic and the need for continual communication between and among those fragments. She would argue that Heidegger’s philosophy is escapist and aims to console the reader, by trying to intelligently veil the division and fragmentation of experience which science and technology have created, and instead flee quietly from the consequences this has had for human existence. Also unlike Heidegger, Professor David Harvey wants us to take on and understand the concept of an ‘order’ of being, as subject to the random unfolding of history and tradition; rather than to mythologize or preserve the mystery of the historico-traditional roots inherent in any world view. Having mentioned Heidegger’s ideas on the construction of architectural spaces, we will now explore Harvey’s key thesis on the function of architecture.

In The Condition of Postmodernity Harvey focuses on how abstract ideas of fragmentation in a heterogeneous reality, manifest themselves in the context of city life and architectural practices. He uses shifts in the architectural treatment of space, from modernity to post-modernity, as a springboard to explore how individuals have been trying to cope with finding themselves caught in the conflicts between fragmented interpretations of being, that characterise post-modernity: he documents a significant change in the appreciation of space. Modernist views of space represent it as something to be externally shaped and moulded to fit pre-determined and specific purposes. In contrast, Postmodernist views represent space itself as autonomous of these purposes; space cannot be confined and controlled. Instead, space is an ongoing ‘communication’, a discourse of fragmented ‘messages’ making up the ‘urban fabric’ of post-modern cities.

This post-modern conception of space is born from an acknowledgement that reality is not unique, it is pluralist. This suggests that contemporary design and architecture should be sensitive to the idea that the makeup and face of a city, is only one of many faces. These ‘faces’ are impossible to command or access via a singular system, for like space, the city’s many fragments cannot be mediated according to an external ‘frame’; they can only be accessed through ongoing communication between the ‘bits and pieces’.

‘Since the metropolis is impossible to command except in bits and pieces, urban design simply aims to be sensitive to traditions...local histories, particular wants, needs, and fancies, thus generating specialised, even highly customized architectural forms that may range from intimate, personalized spaces, through traditional monumentality, to the gaiety of spectacle.’ (1)

This attention to heterogeneity ‘...takes architecture away from the ideal of some unified meta-language and breaks it down into highly differentiated discourses. ’(2) The organization of space in a city is the material base from which thoughts about social practices, and active social relations can occur; ‘spatially fixed forms’ frame social life, and are continually altered to reflect changes in public consciousness. In this way, the building of significant structures is representative of the drive/the will of human beings to express an ever adapting ‘collective memory’; making restructuring and reordering of the city, endless.

What exactly is it about such architectural monuments to human existence that make up, preserve and reflect our collective memory back upon us? Surely, collective memory is something mysterious, it is not merely about design, material and form, or even mere physical appearance and beauty; it is more akin to the Heideggerian notion of ‘materiality’. We need to return to Heidegger’s thought to understand that the walls can be ‘alive’ with an ever shape-shifting discourse of human social expression on the material world. In some way this demonstrates why architecture has been called upon by human beings dwelling (3) in communities, to hold together their sense of carving out their locality in the world.

Taking the city as an example of this collective memory, like any material object the city in its physical form can also be abandoned. But the occurrences within its walls, and the imprints left in the minds of those dwelling, or even merely passing through, are what bestows the city with the power to house the collective consciousness or ‘spirituality’ of individuals. This is ‘city’ understood as communication, or as Barthes says, ‘the city is a discourse…’(4) Because of everyday tasks, getting from A to B as quickly as possible and filling our heads with distractions, we must make a conscious effort and pay close attention to the messages we can also receive about ourselves and our fellow dwellers from the city. The language of a city, says Harvey, is heterogeneous and taking any fragment of it will reflect the fragmentation of the whole; one cannot limit oneself to one fragment, for it contains within its network, influences of the rest. Architecture is ‘radically schizophrenic by necessity’ he says, in order that it be able to embody both the traditions and heritage from popular cultures, and simultaneously evolve and react to ‘technological pressures’.

In this way it could be argued that architecture is dealing with the crisis of the contemporary subject who both desires to preserve her past and be coherent about her heritage, but also must be able to adapt to the racing ahead of technological advance, in a way that does not eclipse that coherency. Hewison comments:

‘The impulse to preserve the past is part of the impulse to preserve the self. Without knowing where we have been, it is difficult to know where we are going. The past is the foundation of individual and collective identity...continuity between past and present creates a sense of sequence out of aleatory chaos and, since change is inevitable, a stable system of ordered meaning, enables us to cope with both innovation and decay.’ (5)

The ‘order of meaning’ remains a key theme here, though Hewison’s conception of a ‘system’ or ‘order’ is crucially, not ‘fixed and unchanging’; we must instead accept that the endless changes that occur in social consciousness, collective identity and the human environment, for they cannot be moulded or pre-determined. We must make an effort to experience a sense of coherence or sequence from within these changes, and being ‘architecturally’ sensitive to them as they occur. This shift in attitude demands that architects pay more attention to individual and collective identity, and marks a renewed effort to rescue these human concerns from their estrangement and their being silenced by the privileged ideal of scientific and technological progress. It involves re-evaluating structures that overlook the social element and the part that space and more significantly place, play in the life story of the individual and what place means for the relations between individuals in space and time.

Many are already working hard to revive these themes of social and collective identity in their work and are even pushing for a sensitive adaptation of exisiting ‘people-insensitive’ architecture and city space that can deliver vast swathes of cities back into the hands of their inhabitants: Gehl Architects of Copenhagen, New York and San Francisco and their philosophy ‘Making Cities for People’ has already changed the face of many cities and inspired a global revolution. And international organisations like City Space Architecture are standing up for public space in a passionate mission to drive and make public space culture accessible to all, championing an interdisciplinary approach to art and architecture that ensures that the people come first.

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(1) David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990), 66.

(2) David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990), 82.

(3) A Heideggerian term: signifying one’s sense of being coherent within a community, and ‘at home’.

(4) Barthes cited by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990), 67.

(5) Hewison cited by David Harvey in The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1990), 86.

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