Alberto Pérez-Gómez

Hermeneutics as Architectural Discourse

1If there is an ahistorical essence of architecture, this cannot be simply deduced from a collection of objectified buildings, theories, or drawings. The reality of architecture is infinitely more complex, both shifting with history and culture, and also remaining the same; analogous to the human condition which always demands that we address the same basic questions to come to terms with mortality and the possibility of transcendence opened up by language, while expecting infinitely diverse answers, appropriate to specific times and places. Architecture possesses its own "universe of discourse" and over the centuries has seemed capable to offer humanity far more than a technical solution to pragmatic necessity. My working premise is that as architecture, architecture communicates the possibility of recognizing ourselves as complete, to dwell poetically on earth and thus be wholly human: the products of architecture have been manifold, ranging from the daidala of classical antiquity to the gnomons, machinae and buildings of Vitruvius, from the gardens and ephemeral architecture of the Baroque period to the built and unbuilt "architecture of resistance" of modernity such as Le Corbusier's La Tourette, Gaudi's Casa Batlo, or Hejduk's "masques." This recognition is not merely linguistic (like a semantic pair where a=b), it occurs in experience and like in a poem, its "meaning" is not separable from the experience of the poem itself; as an "erotic" event it overflows any reductive paraphrasing, overwhelms the spectator-participant, and has the capacity of changing one's life. Therefore, the pervailing and popular contemporary desire to circumscribe the epistemological foundations of our discipline concerns primarily the appropriatness of language to modulate our actions as architects, but can never pretend to "reduce" or "control" its meaning. The issue is to name the kind of discourse that may help us better articulate the place which our design of the built environment may play in the technological society at the end of the millenium.

2Indeed, after two hundred years of struggle testing the possibilities of instrumental discourses in architecture (after the model of Durand), it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that a radical alternative must be contemplated. The perpetuation of a dialectic of styles or fashions is as senseless as the notion that architecture can only provide material comfort and shelter. Furthermore, it is not enough to claim pluralism and diversity as an excuse for fragmented and partial answers. The first responsibility of an architect is to be able to express where he/she stands, here and now, rather than postponing answers under the excuse of either progressive knowledge or deconstructive strategies.

3A first step is to obtain some clarity concerning the role of discourse in understanding a practice that traditionally was acquired through long apprenticeship. The common (false) assumption in our digital age that meaning is simply equivalent to the communication of "information" makes this discussion even more pressing. The realization of a project obviously demands different kinds of specialized knowledge. But is there a way we may conceptualize, what is of the essence in architectural discourse, a mode of speech that might result in a working hierarchy of necessary knowledge in the realization of architectural work?

4Since the beginning of our tradition as reflected in Vitruvius's Ten Books, it became possible to render certain aspects of the knowledge necessary to the architect as techne -a stable discourse, focused on mathemata, that could be transmitted through a "scientific" treatise. Nevertheless, traditional theory always acknowledged that the crucial questions of meaning and appropriateness could not be reduced to the same level of articulation. Appropriateness (decorum) was always understood in relation to "history", to the capacity of the architect to understand the work at hand in relation to precedents articulated through story-telling, in pre-modern times also identified with mythical precedent. And even when it came to the crucial aspect of proportion, the epitome of regularity and a transmissible mathesis that served as an ontological bridge between the works of man and the observable cosmos, the practicing architect always had to "adjust" the dimensions of the work according to the site and purpose of the specific task, in the "thick present" of execution, rather than subject his practice to the dictates of theory.

5Today we understand better that instrumentality and prescription are only partial aspects of architectural discourse which cannot account for the potential meaningfulness of the operation they address or help to realize. We can recognize that the word, through its original capacity for story-telling, articulates the possibility of meaning, it names an intention in view of a "space of experience" (a cosmic or historical world, whichever may be the cultural inheritance of the architect) and a "horizon of expectations" (a pro-ject that is construed by means of the architect's imagination as a better future for the common good). Despite the uncertainties that accompany the work of architecture as it is cast into the world and comes to occupy a place in the public realm (we can never truly and accurately predict a building's social meaning(s) and perceived value(s), regardless of our intentions), the word must serve us to articulate our intention of meaning. Indeed, despite the unavoidable opacity concerning the relationship between non-instrumental language and making, the phenomenological wager is that the continuity between a thinking self and the architect's acts and deeds (the processes and products that issue from human action) may be grasped and cultivated. In order to act properly we must learn to speak properly, an obvious requirement to teach and practice architecture. The fragmentation and instrumentality that we simply take for granted in the discipline must be subjected to critical scrutiny.

6The issue for architecture is not merely "aesthetic" or "technological" (which would become exclusive, autonomous values only since the Enlightenment), it is primarily ethical. Architectural practice must be guided by a notion of the common good as it preserves a dimension of politics in the human search for stability and self-understanding. Instrumentalized theories, regardless of whether they are driven by technological, political or formalistic imperatives, or by a desire to emulate models from the sciences, are always unable to account for this dimension. What kind of speech can therefore be postulated as a primary meta-discourse? I will suggest that a solution might be found in recent hermeneutic ontology, particularly in works of philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur and Gianni Vattimo. I propose architectural theory as hermeneutics, understood as the projection into language of the crucial ontological insights, present in the late philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.


7In order to grasp how it is possible to arrive at this conclusion, it is important to recall some aspects of the relationship between architecture and science. Rather than assuming that science and architecture have only become linked as a result of recent "revolutions," such as the end of metaphysics, logocentricity, classical authorship or whatever, it is important to understand that architecture and science were linked at the very inception of our Western tradition. Their aims always ran in parallel. Philosophy and science, the crowning jewels of the bios theoreticos, aimed at revealing truth; a truth understood since Plato's Timaeus as a mathematical correspondence. Plato's Timaeus became not only the model for science until its culmination in Newtonian physics, but also the model for architectural theory. The demiurg as an architect, creating the world out of geometry from the primordial gap/primordial matter, chasho/chaos/chora, was a common place in classical theory. He is never a creator ex nihilo, what is revealed is always in a profound sense, already there. The architect's cosmos is Plato's cosmos, and the philosopher's "cosmobiology" underlines all "revelations" of architectural meaning in traditional architectural writing. Architecture disclosed truth by revealing the order of the cosmos in the sublunar world. It was a form of precise knowledge implemented by (a predominantly masculine) humanity to frame the (inveterate feminine) rhythms of human action, of political and religious rituals, guaranteeing the efficacy and reality of the human experience. The metaphors for architecture were, obviously, that which architecture was not, but that it revealed by analogy, the created orders of the cosmos, of Nature, and the human, live body. One could argue that architectural theory, therefore, was science, it had the same status as scientia, while being in a non-instrumental relationship with practice. Scientia named that which should be contemplated, the proportional order that architecture embodied, not only as a building, but as a human situation, in the space-time of experience. Not surprisingly, Plato's Socrates evoked Dedalus in his Euthypro (II c-e) as his most important ancestor.

8As I have tried to show in other writings, this status quo starts to change during the seventeenth century, although the transformations sometimes evident in theoretical treatises don't affect architectural practice until the nineteenth century. In the mid-1600's Girard Desargues developed an instrumental theory of perspective and stone-cutting that was never accepted by practitioners, and towards the end of the same century, Claude Perrault extrapolated his understanding of biology and physics into a controversial architectural theory. In his Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns, Perrault questioned the traditional role of proportions to guarantee the relationship between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, and the importance of optical corrections that had been always regarded as the reason for any observed discrepancies between the proportional prescriptions in theoretical treatises and building practice. These two notions had invariably been present in the theoretical literature on architecture from Alberti (in the fifteenth century) to the late seventeenth century. Perrault couldn't understand the traditional priority of practice and the power of architecture to demonstrate perfect measurement for embodied, synesthetic experience; he couldn't believe that the architect's task hinged on his ability to adjust such proportions according to the site and the "program" at hand. For Perrault, the status of theory was no longer that of absolute (mythical or religious) truth but rather, like in inductive physical systems, the "most probable" and mathematically precise. Its purpose was merely to be as easily "applicable" as possible, a set of recipes to control an architectural practice which in his view was always prone to error and subject to the clumsiness of craftsmanship. Architecture and its applied theory were conceived by Perrault as a discipline participating in a progressive history, in all likelihood bound to be perfected in the future.

9In a certain sense, Perrault was merely continuing the tradition of architecture as science. Yet, he radically transformed the nature of architectural theory and practice. This heralds the "beginning of the end" of traditional architecture, to paraphrase Peter Eisenman, the end of the "classical" way of conceiving and making buildings, related to a cosmological "picture" that served as an ultimate, intersubjective framework for meaningful human action. The beginning of our architectural crisis does not date back a few years to "the end of the avant-garde," or even to the inception of panopticism and the Industrial Revolution, or to the demise of the Beaux-Arts in the early twentieth century. Rather, it must be seen in parallel with the beginning of modern science itself and its impact upon architectural discourse. After Perrault, but particularly after Jacques-Nicolas-Louis Durand, the popular teacher of architecture whose early nineteenth-century work contains in nuce all the theoretical presuppositions and stylistic debates that still plague us, the legitimacy of architectural theory and practice, predicated on its "scientificity," was reduced to pure instrumentality. The value of architectural theories was henceforth made dependent on their applicability. Other well known forms of deterministic theory followed suit, from Eugène-Emannuel Viollet-le-Duc's structural paradigms, to Buckminster Fuller's technological dreams, and more recent behavioral and sociological models. Even today, after Jean-François Lyotard's well-publicized critique of the Grand Narratives of science, architects and theorists still tend to view this issue quite uncritically.

10These misunderstandings are compounded by a disregard for the history of architecture as a complex, multifaceted cultural order with epistemological connections, and embodied in a diversity of artifacts, impossible to reduce to a typology or sociology of buildings, to a single, progressive and continuous line, or to discontinuous, hermetic moments. History need not be a burden for practice. In his seminal essay On the Uses and the Disadvantages of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche articulated both the dangers and the possibilities opened up by history for a new man, particularly for the creative and responsible individual in the postcosmological era. There are, of course, useless and problematic forms of history, particularly pseudo-objective progressive narratives, but this should not result in an unwillingness to pay attention to what we are which is, indeed, what we have been. As I will elaborate later, there is a particular way to understand and "use" history as a framework for ethical creation. Lacking a living tradition for architectural practice since the nineteenth century, we are in fact called to re-construct it, visiting and interpreting the traces and documents of our past, invariably with fresh eyes, to discover hitherto hidden potentialities for the future, like one recovers coral from the bottom of the ocean, or extracts pearls out of ordinary looking mollusks.

11Much recent writing on architecture of diverse ideological filiation, ranging from scientistic and methodological approaches to more carefully considered attempts to continue the project of critical rationality from the Enlightenment, often reiterates the view of history as merely an accumulation of uninteresting shells, quite dead and unyielding. This common disregard for history, easily embraced because it coincides with popular assumptions about linear temporality, progress, and the past as an alien, closed book, goes hand in hand with the embracing of "alternative" scientific or ideological models. Chaos and catastrophe theory, for example, often irresponsibly extrapolated into architectural theory, are made to suggest formal strategies for architecture, metaphorical connections that are in themselves merely a mannerism of modernity. Identifying truth with science and science with applied science, i.e., the theory of technology, the result is an incapacity to consider truly radical alternative modes of thinking architectural theory. Witness the irrelevant results of the recent interest in chaos and catastrophe theory in architecture schools, and of the return of semiotics in theoretical discussions in Europe and North America. Indeed, these strategies seem to offer no new possibilities beyond the relationship between theory as applied science and practice as technology inaugurated by Durand almost two centuries ago.

12I may be reminded that the disjunction of form and content in aesthetics is itself a historical event that took place during the seventeenth-century, particularly since the decline of Baroque architecture. Indeed, elsewhere I have myself described anamorphosis in these terms, demonstrating this initial disjunction of presence and representation. But the splitting of art into form and content is also the result of our civilization being "thrown" into history. As long as we, as a civilization, may not be completely beyond historicity, we have to be careful with our assumptions. In other words, however I may share a dislike of this problematic split as expressed by postmodern critics and poststructuralist philosophers, to pretend it doesn't exist today in our cultural context is a dangerous delusion. Leibniz could start from the mathematical and operate on his clavis universalis because of his theological a priori. God had ordered the world and because of His perfection, the present was always deemed potentially perfect and therefore the best possible. God was at the end (and the Beginning) of it all. Leibniz imagined our free will as a ferry boat in a river; we all, individual monads "without windows," go our own chosen ways, while we are still loosely guided by Divine Providence. This sort of human action, however mathematically guided, operated in a traditional world. Only the eighteenth-century saw the beginning of history, in the sense which is familiar to us when we hear in the news that a political figure, signing a peace agreement, just "made history." History as human generated change is not "natural," it is part of the modern Western consciousness, with its obsession for scientific progress and material improvement. It could be argued that before the Enlightenment, particularly before the works of Vico and Rousseau, human actions were more or less irrelevant vis-a-vis the explicit order of creation. Renaissance architecture, for example, turned its eyes towards the past but only to confirm its actions of reconciliation with a cosmological order that was perceived as absolutely transhistorical, just as History was unquestionably the sacred narrative of the church - with salvation, and therefore apocalypse, just around the corner. Modern history, on the other hand, starts from the assumption that human actions truly matter, that they can effectively change things, like the French Revolution, that there is both the potential for progress - obvious in modern science and technology - and for self-inflicted extinction, that the present is therefore qualitatively different from the past. This "vector" has indeed characterized modernity, its absolute hegemony having been questioned for the first time by Nietzsche, and most recently by postmodern cultural critics.

13I share Gianni Vattimo's perception that while History as the Grand Narrative of progress and the avant-garde may have ended, we must yet accept our historicity. We can never simply overcome modernity and leave it behind: rather we can convalesce, heal ourselves of resentment, and reconcile our present with our past. In other words, it is time to embrace, rather than try to resolve, the aporias associated with our human condition since the nineteenth-century. We cannot act as if we lived in a cosmological epoch, in a perpetual present, where there would indeed be no distinction between architectural form and content leading us to abdicate responsibility for our actions, nor can we merely pretend to continue the project of modernity with its future orientation, its faith in planning and social engineering, its absurd disjunctions of form and content, and its deferral of responsibility. All we can do is modify the terms of our relationship to historicity, accepting the multiplicity of discourses and traditions, while assuming through the imagination, the true "window" of our monadic selfhood, our personal responsibility for projecting a better future. This is what a hermeneutic discourse aims to accomplish. Clearly today, in a world of complex technological systems, we control, individually, very little; yet our actions, even a decision to recycle paper, have a phenomenal importance. This absurd situation is itself a consequence of our technological reality, our wholly constructed world. This is why, I would argue, formalistic strategies in architecture, regardless of their legitimizing frame of reference (in Marxist theory, linguistics, physics, or evolutionary biology) may be dangerously irresponsible.

14The alternative, lacking as we do a theological a priori, is to start from our experience and its historical roots to construct a normative theory. As Vico has pointed out, such a normative discourse cannot be considered legitimate unless it recognizes mythopoetic speech (with its imaginative universals) as the primary human means to address the questions that were born with humanity and are crucial to ground our mortal existence. We must engage a perceptual faith aiming to discover the exceptional coincidences we call order, to discover, through our making, that connections do exist, and that their significance may be shared with other human beings: In the case of architecture, with the occupants and participants of projects and buildings. The world of our experience includes the artifacts that make up our artistic tradition, the revelatory moments we call architecture, moments of recognition in spatio-temporal forms that are completely new, yet strangely familiar when finally articulated in language. Understanding these forms of specific embodiment and articulating their lessons in view of our own tasks, we will have a greater chance to construe an appropriate architecture, an intersubjective reality that might fulfill its social and political task as an affirmation of culture. The issue for architecture is the disclosure of a social and political order from the chaosmos of experience, starting from the perceptions of meaning that our culture has shared, embodied in historical traces, while projecting imaginative alternatives going beyond stifling and repressive inherited institutions.

15This is what Ricoeur in his late formulation of hermeneutics in Time and Narrative describes as our negotiation between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation. The architect must be able to forget and remember at the same time. Here Ricoeur is drawing from Nietzsche's description of how history must be placed in the service of life and creation rather than becoming a discipline for the accumulation of deadening information. The architect's narratives and programs must begin by accounting for experiences of value, thus articulating an ethical practice. Historical narratives will constantly open up our space of experience, while fictional narratives allow the imagination to engage the horizon of expectation. It is not necessary to choose between an eternal present (a cosmic presence without past and future) and a historical absent present (in which only past and future truly exist), between linear time and cyclical time. While we must accept our destiny as responsible historical beings, our personal self is not a Cartesian ego deluded by games of power, originality or domination. Beyond the dichotomy of cyclical and linear time which mythically corresponds to feminine and masculine epochs, the future awaits us under the sign of androgyny, invoking a responsible self that does not disappear in a poststructuralist exercise of dissemination, but rather exercizes the personal imagination towards ethical action.

16The issue is to ground architecture and its meanings through its relationship to language, to understand history (stories) as the true normative discipline of humanity and therefore, as the appropriate discourse of architectural theory. In polemical opposition to deconstruction, hermeneutics demands closure, i.e., a pre-judice, an ethical position, a responsible self that questions and acts. It privileges rhetoric over writing. In opposition as well to the arguments of early Foucault, often exacerbated by his disciples in art history, hermeneutics allows for both the discontinuity implicit in our historicity (the fact that cultures and times are truly different), and the necessity of constructing plots. We are our story, and our autobiography is always different and the same. Allowing for the reconciliation of discontinuity and continuity, stories thus become an architectural theory, a meta-discourse for architecture.

17Through a dynamic of distanciation and appropriation, hermeneutics leads to self-understanding. The issue in the process of acquiring understanding is that it is precisely due to our distance from the subject of study, i.e., the texts and artifacts of our architectural tradition, that we can find possibilities for the present. While it is true that our re-construction of the "world of the work" is never endowed with absolute certainty, that we cannot avoid being late 20th century men and women; the wager is that this effort, coupled with a self-consciousness about our own prejudices, will amount to a fusion of horizons. We cannot simply read "ratio" in Vitruvius as meaning late 20th century reason. This is the limitation of both deconstructive "close readings" and more traditional analytical attitudes in architectural theory. Our effort of interpretation is meaningful, this capacity to interpret is in fact our endowment, a gift that comes to us from having fallen into history, a truly modern/postmodern faculty. The self-awareness of our questions, the world "in front" of the work, mandates that we construct a plot and bring our insight to bear on present actions, to bear on the future. As Hanna Arendt has pointed out, we must recognize history as a vast treasure, barely touched, to construct a future in the absence of living traditions. In hermeneutics truth is interpretation, always a revealing-concealing, never posited absolutely and objectively. On the other hand, hermeneutics accounts for change, growth, and perhaps even evolution. There is "something" we share with our Paleolithic ancestors, even if it is "only" the capacity for sexual love, language, and our awareness of mortality. Changing answers to the self-same questions reveal a progressive differentiation that we may call, with Eric Vöglin, the order in history, one that is never fully and finally clarified and must always be re-articulated in the language of myth and art (and in our own times demands a demystification of the scientistic "answers" supposedly provided by sociology, anthropology, biology, etc.). Hermeneutics thus denies a nihilism of despair (or a cynical, amoral attitude) that might emerge as a result of the homogenization of our cultural inheritance, allowing for the possibility of an ethical practice while fully acknowledging the "dangers" of late-industrial consummer society.


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