MODERN ARCHITECTURE, ABSTRACTION, AND THE POETIC IMAGINATION
From the day when I came
to love the Life,
For a gnostic thinker must be able to forget that the cosmos does not emerge from consciousness, but that man's consciousness emerges from the cosmos. He must, furthermore, be able to invert the relation of the Beginning and the Beyond without becoming aware that he destroys the mystery of reality by his speculative inversion.
E..Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age
1 When we open our eyes every morning to find the world organized in recognizable and relatively predictable patterns of phenomena, we are witness to a mystery that has always baffled artists, scientists and philosophers. Our potential to deal simultaneously with the specific and the mutable on one hand, and the ideal and the universal on the other, has been described by phenomenology as the most significant characteristic of human perception, as the very condition of meaning revealed in the immediacy of the world-as-lived. We do not invent categories and deduce meanings through some kind of a priori, intellectual or associationist operation, although the capacity of the human mind to do so has created much confusion. Primarily we are capable of perceiving the ideal in the specific. It could be said, therefore, that the world is "given" with meaning, and that the meanings discovered in other universes of discourse, i.e. science, art, philosophy, or dreams, must be regarded as rooted in the primary realm of experience, in our irreducible encounter with the real. The world, according to Edmund Husserl, is given to man as a collection of "intentional objects," meaning that these are permanently open to both their individual specificity and their ideal essence. The mutable primary structure given to perception, the realm of ever changing colours, variable dimensions and elastic time, dependent on the weather, the seasons and human desire, carries with it the secondary structure of invariancy and geometrical space and time.
2 The traditional mission of the arts has been to make explicit the ideal and eternal through an interpretation of the given in the specificity of perception, providing humanity with a sense of belonging to a meaningful collective realm, transcending our limitations as finite and corruptible individuals. In this most profound sense, regardless of the secondary functional utility (or uselessness) of artifacts, art has always been a primary form of knowledge. Humans could thus orient themselves in the world and perceive the meaning of existence, otherwise confused in the continuously mutable reality of everyday life. The painter, sculptor, or architect has been concerned with the revelation of the truth of reality, with the stabilization of meaning. The arts are thus, by definition, concerned with essence and in this sense they are also concerned with abstraction. Differences between figurative and non-figurative art are merely a question of degree. Indeed, it could be stated that of all the arts concerned with the visible world, architecture is the abstract one. Painting and sculpture have been traditionally more interested in the specific, while the task of architecture has been to put forward a geometrical order. In all instances, however, traditional art was a mimesis of the primary reality given to perception. Even the most conventional forms of figurative painting were never a mere reproduction of the external world, but the embodiment of an idea, understood not as a Platonic autonomous reality, but in its etymological sense as the "image" of "intentional objects." Reciprocally, the geometry that constituted the essence of architectural "ideas" (plans, elevations, and much later, sections) in traditional pre-nineteenth century architecture, always made reference to the external world, particularly to the order of nature understood as the purposeful design of a Creator. Architecture was the least figurative but the most concrete of the arts, the building of a reality immediately given to perception.
3 The abstract geometrical order that generated the plan, elevation or volumetric reality of architecture always maintained its concrete referential residue until late in the eighteenth century. The circle of Stonehenge was the circle of the heavens, as was the sphere of Boullée's cenotaph to Newton. The circle and the square, the figures circumscribing so many versions of the Vitruvian man, were symbolic of the primary dualities of experience, male and female, the earth and the sky, and the hope of reconciling them always prevailed --as did the expectation of squaring the circle in the work of alchemists and mathematicians until the problem was proven impossible in the nineteenth century. It must be remembered that the geometry of the architect was always dependent on intuition. It was the geometry of the world-as-lived, a discovery of its constant forms given to man in embodied perception. As a result of the transformations evident in the theoretical works of Jacques-Nicolas-Louis Durand which I have examined elsewhere, and after the questioning of the inveterate cosmological picture in the early nineteenth century, several conditions became clear: 1) architecture could not simply perpetuate tradition through its "making"; the classical order and proportions lost their absolute validity; 2) the cosmos that traditional architecture "imitated," to become the ordered place of ritual through the implementation of metaphor, was no longer a cultural reality given to perception; and 3) technology developed as a utopia and became the universal mentality of the modern world, effectively cancelling out the traditional order of nature and drawing its potency and pervasiveness from the human power of abstraction. Without man's capacity to functionalize lived experience, through the power of infinitesimal calculus and non-Euclidean geometries, the technological domination of nature would have been impossible. The new theoretical disciplines no longer needed to be coherent with intuition, as long as they could operate as instruments for the effective domination of nature. The architect discovered his or her power to invent orders, perhaps epitomized by Durand's empty orthogonal grid, or began to see architecture as simply a formal problem, and celebrated the ability to perceive history as a residue of material "styles." The concern of most serious architects was to find the most rational style or combination of styles, to design buildings whose meaning would depend exclusively on the syntax of an architectural formal "language."
4 Charles-Francois Viel, an architect and critic contemporary of Durand, was also concerned with style. Viel, however, postulated a radical criticism of the architecture of Durand's Ecole Polytechnique, subjected as it was to reductionism and technological intentionality. He came to the realization that theory and practice could not be separated. A rational theory, subjected to mathematical logic, would never produce meaningful architecture. A true theory of architecture could not be a set of prescriptions for technological operations; theory could only explain why, but never reduce practice to a methodology. In order to learn his metier, the architect had to make. Traditional apprenticeship could not be substituted by the new mathematized theories. The assumption that a knowledge of these methods of "composition" could allow an inexperienced architect to dictate to masons and other craftsmen how to make a meaningful architecture, was a dangerous fallacy. The architect had to possess innate talent, but in order to become knowledgeable he had to experience the complexity of architecture in the flesh. Viel was bringing to consciousness an attitude that had always underlied the Western architectural tradition but that had become increasingly obscured since the Renaissance, when architecture was "promoted" to the sphere of the liberal arts and endowed with a specific theoretical discourse. This old-standing relationship between theory and practice had become totally missed or falsified in the early nineteenth century.
5 Once perceived in conjunction with his criticism, Viel's concern with style becomes particularly revealing to us. He never understood style as a conceptual or functionalized a priori language. Viel wrote that style must be pure and rigorously observed, consisting in the choice and disposition of the different parts of a building. In light of his emphasis on the architect's role as a traditional builder (as techne-poesis), of his re-evaluation of the profound continuity between theory and practice, and of his observation that style was dependent in part on the "place" where the building was made, Viel's preoccupation with style must be regarded as an early, if partial, articulation of the necessity of order for a new architecture. Style may be "conventional," but it is never arbitrary or a simple question of subjective choice. This order could no longer depend on Vitruvian theory, nor should it be misguided by reductionism or technology if the architect wished to avoid the transformation of building into a meaningless process of assembly of normalized elements.
6 In many ways the dilemma initially confronted by Viel is still with us today. The contemporary architect must attempt to put forward an abstract order that is not yet known, which cannot be drawn from a defunct belief in pre-established harmony, but that nevertheless must be gleaned from perception, and not postulated a priori, as a solipsistic construct. This is indeed the task for the modern architect's personal imagination, one that is fraught with perils. The architect must discover order that transcends historical styles, while recognizing that meaning in architecture can only be grasped (and therefore must necessarily stem from) within our constructed history, the culture which is our true nature. She must search for such an order implementing the power of abstraction which is the gift of post-Euclidean geometries, but without creating an architecture that speaks only about meaningless technological processes; in other words, without losing the world-as-lived as a primary horizon of meaning.
7 The limitations of abstraction as an artistic paradigm are well known. Even though a certain order such as twelve-tone music or a Mondrian painting may be postulated as an abstraction of a shared, historic, lived reality, often its universality is gained at the expense of meaning. In architecture, abstraction was identified by the modern movement with technological intentionality. Only a material "shelter," devoid of ornament, could carry any meaning for a positivistic mentality. The resulting buildings of the international style have been frequently accused of representing simply a technological process (efficiency and economy), with no regard for human values and cultural continuity. Clearly, structures generated by the logic of determinism usually ignored archetypal meanings associated with architectural elements such as entry, wall, window, roof or floor.
8 This criticism is in great measure fair. Cities all over the world continue to loose traditional qualities to become anonymous and inhospitable. It is not difficult to demonstrate that late twentieth century collective pathologies are related to an alienating urban and architectural environment that promotes isolation and that speaks merely of processes or techno-political values. It is also easy to imagine how a world that engenders poetic reverie and invites a meditative living in the "thick present" may be more liberating from our anxieties. In a sense, humanity must dwell poetically (to paraphrase Martin Heidegger) to be truly human (at least in the sense that we now recognize as human), and the poetic order of architecture must be capable of making human purpose evident by reconciling, in a single, incandescent vivid present, the reciprocity of life and death. Human institutions, represented by architecture, must reveal an order that transcends the present and therefore must have roots in the past. But it is now clear that the alternatives proposed by all sorts of "post-modern" formalisms, regardless of their origin in historical styles, fractal geometry or molecular biology, are very shallow. The seeming inability of the architect to create space that gathers the order of the cosmos (as a total picture) and becomes laden with culturally relevant meaning is as much a feature of contemporary culture as a properly architectural or formal problem. Our architecture must be ours, even if this means that our fragmented creations can only suggest the possibility of completion, or reflect merely a sliver of light, rather than the bright, positive luminosity of a scientific or theological certainty. It is fallacious to pretend that the archetypal meaning of entry is recovered by placing a classical pediment over a door. It is irrelevant to add neon or wood ornament to an architecture generated by the parameters of technology. What the best modern architects have managed to accomplish on occasion, as in the case of Le Corbusier's convent of La Tourette, for example, has been to discover a truly original abstract order, still rooted in the continuity of our cultural situations (institutions), and becoming meaningful through its appeal to primordial shared experiences of human beings as embodied, spatially oriented individuals. The surreal accommodations and rejections of ritual, the creation and enhancement of expectations through their displacement and reversal, the presentation of mystery, the enigmatic reconstitution of hierarchical spatial qualities attained through the modulation of light and shadow, etc. all result in the poetic reconciliation of a seemingly self-referential, abstract formal structure with its roots in the continuity of culture.
9 In order to elucidate further both the potential and the dangers of abstraction in architecture today, it is interesting to draw some parallels between these architectural intentions and certain attitudes that Hans Jonas, Elaine Pagels, and Eric Voegelin have described in their respective studies of gnosticism, that "religion" which swept much of the Mediterranean world in the early Christian era. Gnosticism was characterized by a profound suspicion of the most common beliefs about the world at that time, much like the situation in which enlightened contemporary man seems to find himself. Gnosticism represented the first form of an authentic post-modernity, repudiating both the exhausted logos of Greek origin, which after the Sophists' excesses seemed unable to explain any further the crucial problems of the human condition, and the irrational mystery cults (including dogmatic Christianity) which had emerged all over the Ancient world to replace or complement Greek rationality. Gnostic believers claimed that true knowledge could only take the form of personal revelation. Man is actually fooled by the world and dogmatic opinions into believing that God inhabits the visible universe. The earth is not sacred, but rather its opposite. It is merely a dungeon or prison whose marvels detract man from searching for the true God within. Man is in fact removed from God by the architecture of the cosmos.
10 Operating within this gnostic world-view, art and architecture as mimesis in the traditional, classical sense would also be a deception. This nihilistic, acosmic world-view opens us to two options: either an ascetic denial of the very possibility of architecture as a cosmic place, or the personalization of values leading to "anything goes," as long as it is generated by a genuine discovery of order as a form of self-knowledge. These must be recognized as the two primary options which seem to be open to modern artists and architects alike.
11 The first option should be acknowledged as a possibility for modern art, although perhaps it has already been explored to its limit by Marcel Duchamp. This option might be the most appropriate answer to recent European phenomenological criticism.A critique of the irreconcilable difference between traditional art as a revelation of the truth of reality preserved in symbolic representation, and the fallacies of formalism, aestheticism and self-referentiality in modern art, should probably accept the impossibility of an architecture of cultural continuity, if this is understood as the conventional building of public institutions in the present contemporary city.
12 From my optimistic outlook, it is the second option, the discovery of order as a form of self-knowledge, that interests me more. Having to think and write in the paradoxical void, full of anguish and hope, which is North America today, I am inclined to believe that the culture of modernity is perhaps yet to be built. This assertion must necessarily be qualified. Our relationship to history must be radically different from that which became the norm during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as a result of the technological obsession with the future and a progressive outlook. Nevertheless, we still must act in an epoch of incomplete nihilism, and we need our stories (retrieved from our tradition) in order to imagine and project better alternatives for human dwelling. History may have ended, but historicity (narrative) is unavoidable to articulate appropriate human action. In this context, the personal search for architectural order that the construction of a modern culture demands necessarily threads dangerous waters: for the genuine architect the line between sense and non-sense is thin.
13 The dimension of this line is analogous to the distance between structural linguistics and the understanding of language through hermeneutics espoused by Paul Ricoeur. Ricoeur points out that "there is no symbolism before man speaks, even if the power of symbol is grounded much deeper." But language itself, "as a signifying milieu," must always be referred back to existence. Guided by hermeneutics, architecture cannot claim to be a positive science and is unable to avoid the "risk" of interpretation, the circle in which human knowledge is caught. This circle is formed by the conjunction of the work of interpretation and the interpreted being. Hermeneutics, however, will refer architectural order back to an existential function. For a linguistic philosophy, like early Wittgenstein's for example, all interpretations are equally valid within the limits of the theory which formulates given rules of reading. In architecture, personal discoveries of order may also seem to be equally valid, but these will remain mere syntactic (language) games until they are shown to be grounded in a particular existential function.
14 In view of this necessary qualification of personal discoveries of order, the "gnosticism" that might lead to a meaningful modern architecture must be elucidated further. In his major study on order and history, Eric Voegelin takes an extreme view and sees gnosticism in the Ecumenic Age (the time which roughly extends from the rise of the Persian to the fall of the Roman empires) as a thoroughly negative, self-referential, intellectual dead end. Whether assuming the forms of libertarianism or asceticism as it did in Antiquity, or the "modern forms of constructing systems which are believed to contain the ultimate truth and must be imposed on recalcitrant reality by means of violence (such as a marxist or progressive reading of history)," gnosticism, according to Voegelin, assumes that the devotee is dispensed of the responsibilities of existence in the cosmos. In this light, gnosticism would be a failure and a trap. Man's existence is, necessarily, participation in reality. It imposes the duty of exploring the intelligible structure of reality and of spiritually coping with "the insight into its movement from the divine Beginning to the divine Beyond."
15 It is indisputable that the question of grounding that may allow the inhabitant effective participation in the work (rather than mere aesthetic contemplation or delight as it has been speculated since the eighteenth century) is the critical issue in modern architecture. Classical architecture followed from Philo of Alexandria's cultural reconciliation of Judaism and Platonism that amounted to a rationalization of the symbols of "divinity as experienced" by pre-classical and non-Western cultures. Philo's work profoundly influenced Western cultural developments: classical architecture always assumed that there was an order to imitate, and that the order could be revealed rationally in the geometry of the architectural idea. Non-classical architecture, as the possible architecture of gnosticism and, in this sense, the architecture of modernity, must assume that the world is chaos, understood not as the opposite of order, but using the word in its more precise etymological sense, a gap between two significant moments of human history. This would open up architecture to the possibility of cultural recovery, entailing a re-orientation that would stem from addressing the events of Being directly, avoiding the mediation of classical rationalism.
16 In gnostic religions, the apparent order of the world was regarded as evil; it was in fact the opposite of the divine. This is very different indeed from the common perception of contemporary society that regards the world merely as a neutral, material reality to be exploited by technological processes. In spite of the dangers of gnosticism expressed by Voegelin, our experience of reality as given in our life, i.e. personal existence, is godless, in tension with the order of history. Human existence, the "in-between" consciousness and the cosmos, is perceived in accordance with Heidegger's celebrated formula: we are too late for the gods and too early for Being. This experience commands the artist to undertake the risks of gnosticism as he squarely faces historical reality in his search for Being. Drawing from a gnostic insight, the contemporary architect can take his concern with abstraction far beyond the reductionism of technology, which it superficially resembles. The external reality of man is not neutral for gnosticism; it is rather the negative of the sacred, but pregnant with value. This dualistic mood creates in the artist and the architect a consciousness of man's capacity to transcend the dis-order or gap of contemporary technological culture. The suspicion of the primacy of perception in the constitution of meaning that originally motivated technological reductionism and scientism can now be taken one step further to become a suspicion of the given technological reality. As Gianni Vattimo has pointed out, technology itself is "weak" and the paradigmatic function of art is precisely to show this weakness --not to posit a "new myth," but rather to demythify technological rationalism construed as absolute truth and purpose of human civilization. This amounts to dealing with the distortions and risks of gnosticism by subverting our cultural dysfunctions from within our historical present, and not by fantasizing an escapist vantage point that would make it possible for us to act outside of our time and place, regardless of whether this may be the "reactionary" classicism of the Prince of Wales, or the "progressive" cosmological assumptions of recent scientific extrapolations in architecture. The eighteenth century could still at least argue the possibility of divine intervention in a world plagued by famine and disease, but the argument can hardly be entertained in the twentieth century where reality has become efficient mass homicide, potential universal suicide and, at best, genetic engineering.
17 Overcoming cosmic determinism could mean that the artist invents self-referential systems of signs; that these signs don't belong to the world anymore, and that they do not signify anything but what they are: lines or sounds. This is obviously a risk, represented in the failure of "formalist" architecture. The "gnostic" architect might be led to espouse the intention of self-referentiality, as absurd in scientific disciplines as it is in art. A truly self-referential order, if it were possible, would simply be outside of the realm of meaning; as an intention, it falls into an epistemological trap. We should not forget that the ground of all meaning is in perception, and that meaning is always given as a pair. Intentional objects, the authentic phenomena of our experience, are never "simply what they are." The objective world doesn't exist. This is, in fact, the illusion.
18 In spite of the relative risk of non-sense, the "gnostic" architect, operating from his radical solitude, will be in a better position to reveal true hope, and to suggest the possibility of genuine transcendence as an invisible "signified" behind the realm of the visible order of signs. Personal knowledge is raised into an ontological position, as it was, for example, in Valentinian gnosticism. This knowledge is not secure but it is a necessary alternative to non-existing rituals (the invisible dimension that allowed traditional architecture to become a cosmic place) as a vehicle to keep alive our hope for salvation. As a form of genuine interpretation rather than arbitrary invention, the authentic symbols of a true architectural order can show that "archaeology, teleology and eschatology," the different modalities of existence as identified by Ricoeur, dealing with the past, the future, and the beyond, point to a single ontology. Through the richest symbols the unity is assured, leading the way toward the emergence of new meanings (the future) and the resurgence of archaic fantasies (the past), revealing the eschatological dilemma (death) in all its brutal absurdity.
19 The discovery of meaningful architectural order should occur in the realm of perception, through the operations of making, of "concrete poetry" or poesis, derived from the challenge of materials and techniques. Such a discovery can be associated at different levels with the notion of architectural interpretation of historical documents such as drawings, models or buildings. This association, of course, should not be literal. The understanding of our making, here and now, as a historical phenomenon is our only possibility for a genuine symbolic intentionality, leading in fact to the rejection of historicism and nostalgic revivals as false forms of cultural continuity. The operation just sketched is qualitatively different from the invention of any a priori conceptual orders by a mind engaged in a purely intellectual operation analogous to mathematical logic or planning. Embodied making, involving a mind in a body, its flesh, pleasure and pain, searching for an order rooted in history, perception and materiality, is the opposite of the construction of an object or building through the implementation of conceptual, methodological tools, and formalist or technological processes. The product might represent a technique in the first instance, but the personal techniques endowed with a theoretical and historical content, and implemented in the project as deliberate acts of discovery, will become pregnant with meaning.
20 Following this process, the discovery of original architectural orders may come about as a seemingly self-referential exploration, as a syntactic analysis of an architectural order of the past that answers a meaningful question from the present. This should be accomplished with full acknowledgement of architectural intentions in history, not so much what meaning a historical architect intended, but rather how the essence of the work embodies its cultural horizon, how a world that answers to our questions may be shared as it appears "in front" of the work." History, in this (hermeneutic) sense, is the legitimate theory of architecture, providing fundamental orientation, constituting the intellectual framework for an embodied mind to address the fullness of reality through the work. That which is permanent and eternal in a work of architecture transcends the particular meanings addressed by the architect to his contemporaries. The products of the poetic imagination of the great architects in history now constitute our "tradition." We should emphasize that the most fundamental mystery of architecture as a symbolic ordering of man's world is indeed this ambiguous dimension that makes an architecture foreign in place and time not only accessible but meaningful to us.
21 The danger of these explorations in search of order, particularly when they are not motivated in the first instance by an external architectural program (entailing necessarily a "re-design" of human situations or institutions) or a real place (a specific site), is obviously the loss of context or cultural continuity. Witness the problem of meaninglessness in modern "painting" and "sculpture." While the abstraction of Euclidean geometry never "lost" the world, the abstraction of abstractions, i.e. projective and non-Euclidean geometries, certainly lose sight of the world and must live (or perhaps die) with the crisis of intuition. In the same way, the newly discovered architectural orders, although rooted in the perception of architectural ideas embodied in pre-existing artifacts, are also the result of an abstraction of abstractions and can often become estranged from the continuum of culture. The very genuine possibility of questioning the survival of culture in its traditional form justifies this "violence" exerted upon the generation of architectural form. Nevertheless, as I have already suggested, the danger of non-sense is omnipresent; architecture cannot be self-referential. While the manner of making buildings, the ornamental vocabulary, and the like were always learned by the architect through his apprenticeship and rooted in tradition, the symbolic intention that guided his decisions depended on his perception of a meaningful place (site) within a hierarchical cosmos and of a meaningful institution (situation). This led the architect to a representation of the institution's intersubjective or public qualities in a building appropriate to the site within a historic culture.
22 It must be emphasized, however, that today the external conditions which made this traditional architecture possible are generally lacking. Society denies the very necessity of symbolic ordering as a source of coherence and ultimate transcendence. The public place for ritual, where the truth of reality was gathered, cannot simply be "designated" in the contemporary city. Only the fragmented shadows of traditional rituals remain. For example, the archetypal meanings associated with "communion," as a sharing of nourishment and life among peers, might be perceived as underlying a modern banquet, but sharing the bread hardly contributes to modern man's understanding of the human condition or elucidates his relationship as an individual to a totality, as it did in the prytaneum of the Greek polis. Although one can and must acknowledge the rampant irrationality of modern man, it would be practically impossible to describe an authentic modern culture as a framework of traditional institutions, as a public realm allowing for the transcendence of human mortality through the individual's participation in ritual. One can also doubt whether the u-topic space of modernity leaves room for qualitative "place" in the traditional sense. "Contextualism" in design has therefore a very limited scope. The reality is that the space of New York is not all that different from the space of Tokyo, half a world apart. This is particularly striking when one compares any two modern cities with two traditional cities such as, for example, Florence and Siena during the fifteenth century, separated by a mere sixty kilometers and belonging to the same cultural tradition.
23 While it is true that man expelled God from science and philosophy in the early nineteenth century, it is also possible to say that God has abandoned man, leaving only His trace in the order of history. Building itself is synonymous in our world with technological process, not with the poetic making of Creation. The builders of our inhuman cities are not architects, nor engineers for that matter, but disembodied logical minds that respond only to statistics manipulated by political or economic forces, and will perhaps soon be substituted by their epitome, the computer. Conversely, "professional" architects are rarely ever builders in the real sense. When not involved in business or project management, what they usually produce are "re-presentations" of "real buildings," images that are either delusions or platitudes, and which we all have already seen because they are the result of planning and thus, by definition, preconceived. It is in this sense that conventional representation, assuming the neutrality of projections and media vis-a-vis the represented building, leads by necessity to an inauthentic "architecture" predicated on reductionism. This is true regardless of whether the project happens to be presented in carefully rendered form or through detailed working drawings.
24 We could conclude, then, that "embodied making" can occur more readily at the level of drawing or model, under the immediate control of the architect. Projects intended as explorations into the possibility of an architectural order grounded in techne-poesis, in human action itself, even run the risk of avoiding an allusion to "building" altogether, in the conventional sense, as something external to the project. The use of imaginative projections, ambiguities of scale, and modes of perception would obviously impede a conventional reading of plans, sections, elevations, and models as objects, in terms of a projection of our body-image in a Cartesian space. This constitutes in itself a critical dimension, since such "clear reading" has become during the last two centuries the first expectation of architects and laymen alike, in their search for perfectly intelligible and predictable planning. Treading upon this ambiguity and its "common sense" rejection, the modern architect must attempt to discover and re-establish the ground of meaning.
25 The risks to falsify architectural meaning must be acknowledged and never simply ignored. Only in this way will preconceptions be banished. It is abundantly clear that even if the architect perceived the meaning of a certain urban site, that is, the qualitative specificity of place, and believed in the potential and appropriateness of his programmed institution in the continuum of culture, the metaphor that summarized the relationship of his project with the world, i.e. reality as a whole, would not be capable of generating the architectural form itself. Architecture is obviously not only a formal problem, but the formal problem remains even if the articulation of a symbolic intention in the world were to suggest a possible course of action. The abyss between the order perceived by man and the disorder of the world is perhaps an insurmountable cultural obstacle. When architecture is understood as the making of a building in the world, the necessity of grounding in a "figural" horizon is unquestionable. This demands a design of possible rituals and institutions that refer critically to the given structures of our present day culture and articulate human action poetically. But the architect must avoid at all costs repeating cliche's and making an "architecture" that is simply redundant or alien to our time and place; he must avoid "real possibilities" when they are certainly untruth, and should concentrate on "possible realities" even if they are only uncertain truths. From this perspective, and reminding ourselves that architecture has never been, nor should it be, all building, but only the symbolic, intersubjective order that allows for the perpetuation of culture, it appears that it is the question itself that should be reformulated. The issue is perhaps no longer to design a building on a site; John Hejduk has told us, after producing a marvelous project, that the site where the torture chambers of the Gestapo once existed should remain vacant, occupied only by a sign that names it. The issue is rather to reveal the ground for a potential architectural order.
26 Theoretical projects, from Piranesi's Carceri to the present, employ man's modern power of abstraction to produce a criticism of conventional architectural ideas (figurative forms of representation) beyond the potential reductionism of descriptive geometry. Once the traditional symbolic geometry was functionalized, the essential, "abstract" language of architecture had to be implemented in forms controllable by the architect's embodied presence, transcending the limitations implied by a prescriptive "theory" (methodology) that was finally imposed upon architecture through the nineteenth century processes of production and is still today often taken for granted. This quest for "abstraction" in architecture is therefore not a reduction in the scientific sense, but an attempt to deal with essential meanings that would be lost or compromised by the disorder of the world.
27 In its most authentic forms, modern art since the early nineteenth century has abandoned the Renaissance paradigm which assumed that the representation of visible appearance had ontological value. Modern art has had to choose between the specific and the universal to concern itself with meaning. In a broad historical perspective this dialectic is artificial and should be transcended, but during the last two hundred years it has been a cultural condition of the crisis. Just as surrealism is limited by the world itself, and by a precarious faith in the existence of meaning in the world (God's creation), abstractionism is limited by the possibility of losing the world, and by the equally precarious "gnostic" faith in the existence of meaning in the ideas of man (God's creator). It is important to point out that a motion towards one pole of the dialectic seems to immediately demand the other. Furthermore, a reconciliation is more likely to succeed in construction, i.e. authentic architecture, than in the other arts (painting and sculpture as defined in the Renaissance). The devaluation of external reality as represented visible appearance, brought about by its "objectification" in the modern world, is irreversible. The ontological value of figuration could not be taken for granted since the early eighteenth century. This places architecture in a privileged position of authenticity among the arts, when facing squarely the problem of meaning vis-a-vis the general displacement of the "poetic" to a falsely inconsequential position in our modern technological mentality.
29 An objectified abstract architectural order discovered through drawing or model demands "de-objectification," engaging the spectator through the projection of his body image into qualitative spaces of inhabitation. Conversely, an exploration into the qualities of space, light, shadow and texture that respond to a particular situation in a figurative universe demands an objectification through an historically appropriate architectural order. Sometimes a reconciliation seems successful (let me cite Le Corbusier's La Tourette again), but this is not the rule. The architecture we make should appear as an order of the "in-between." It cannot be simply an object among other objects in the continuum of geometric space. Aestheticism or formalism is obviously not the answer. But conversely, architecture cannot deny or elude objectification, becoming a vague exploration of spatial qualities, or rest on assumed archetypal meanings. It must be both, acknowledging man's creative power but also addressing the primary realm of meaning in existence. It must indeed occur in the coalescence of creation and interpretation.
30 The generation of architectural order cannot simply be mimesis of a cosmos. Such cosmos, the "great chain of being," is gone forever; we are condemned to live in the absence of gods. The "composition" of architectural elements or fragments with assumed absolute semantic contents is therefore a fallacious form of representation. An architecture to transcend our cultural crisis must still be primarily embodied in projects that question implicitly the very possibility of their transformation into "real buildings" by being true constructions. In order to attain the inveterate symbolic status of architecture, these projects must furthermore be revealed as a mimesis of history; a history whose function is precisely to open up possibilities for the future. Meaningful contemporary architecture must refer back not to the order of "nature" which will ultimately remain alien to man, but to the order in history, the order unquestionably evident in that which humanity has already made, that which man can truly know. This architecture is mimesis understood as an interpretation of human order embodied in art, in its artifacts and dramatic situations; mimesis as the rhythmic gestures and motions of a dancer describing the order of the city as a labyrinth, as the expression and intonation of the actor reciting a tragedy. Like the ancient daidala or art objects of the Iliad, this mimetic operation, resulting from the demiurgic actions of a technician-magician, will produce a mysterious emanation of Being, the concrete poetry of reason, illusory perhaps, open to good and evil, but absolutely crucial for the survival of humanity.