Concerning the Specificity of an Architectural Event
Natural disasters, sporting matches, political rallies, and fairs are often given credence as architectural events when in truth they are no more ‘events’ than they are ‘architectural’. An event occurs in the instant; it is usually over before we have realized it. Architecture is our built environment as we perceive it; it consists of the objects around us, which make up the places we live in. To be considered architectural, an event must change, affect, or, at the very least, relate to our relationship with our built environment. This is very personal.
True, there are all kinds of organized ‘events’ always taking place, but the term only loosely applies to these. It is meant to lend them an air of exclusivity, brand them as one-offs. Generally, they are not relevant to a discourse on architecture.
Fragments of architecture (bits of walls, of rooms, of streets, of ideas) are all one actually sees. These fragments are like beginnings without ends. There is always a split between fragments that are real and fragments that are virtual, between memory and fantasy. These splits have no existence other than being the passage from one fragment to another. They are relays rather than signs. They are traces. They are in-between.
It is not the clash between these contradictory fragments that counts but the movement between them…
… They may be excerpts from different discourses, but this only demonstrates that an architectural project is precisely where differences find an overall expression.
An old film of the 1950s had a name for this movement between fragments. It was called desire. Yes, A Streetcar Named Desire perfectly simulated the movement toward something constantly missing, toward absence. Each setting, each fragment, was aimed at seduction but always dissolved the moment it was approached. And then each time it would be substituted by another fragment. Desire was never seen. Yet it remained constant. The same goes for architecture.
In other words, architecture is not of interest because of its fragments and what they represent or do not represent. … Rather it can only act as a recipient in which your desires, my desires, can be reflected. Thus a piece of architecture is not architectural because it seduces, or because if fulfills some utilitarian function, but because it sets in motion the operations of seduction and the unconscious.
This one section from Tschumi’s Architecture and Disjunction (95-96) is more valuable than the whole rest of the collection because it touches on the vital element that distinguishes ‘architecture’ from all other building: specificity. Architecture is about fragments – fragments of the physical world around us as well as fragments of our memories that mix together and constitute our universe. As we are each individuals with unique experiences and memories that define our realities and shape our perception of future events, so we must respond severally to the happenings around us each in our own distinct way. Each time we react to an element that we encounter, and that reaction shapes the way we interpret things to come in the future, the moment of reaction can be said to be an event. When the resultant shift in perspective affects our relationship with the objects and places around us, then the event can be called architectural.
A basic error in Tschumi’s reasoning is that he neglects the individuality of architecture. If the whole world is but a collection of fragments, then surely we ourselves must be fragments as well – fragments of a larger society. Likewise, if a building needs to be considered as such, then we also need to be treated as separate individuals. There is no collective consciousness that a piece of architecture can appeal to, no mass preconception that can be utilized and shaped through cross-programming – it simply does not exist.
Each of us has his or her own set of memories, which are the results of past events we have experienced, and because it is these memories that we draw on as reference in order to perceive and register any event before us, then naturally our resultant experiences will differ. Similarly, what we will respond to in any situation will vary for each of us depending on what fragment of the situation resonates with us most deeply. Usually this resonance will come not from the obvious scene at hand, but from some small scent or texture that is reminiscent to that which was once dear to us.
Concerning this, Tschumi is right to some degree – if we create a situation that conflicts with the intended use of a space, then all those who are aware of the ‘event’ might leave with a different idea of what the space means or what the space represents, especially on an intellectual level. There is a problem with this reasoning, however, and it is threefold. First, our intellect actually controls very little of how we operate on a fundamental level in relation to our environment. How we act and behave and respond emotionally to the places we inhabit is a result of the previously discussed memories and subconscious habits that we have formed throughout our lives and is not based on some conscious thought that might be put into our heads by an architectural gimmick, be it material or immaterial. Second, despite current fashion in architectural discourse, architecture does not consist of spaces, but rather of objects. A space can be big or small, high, long, wide, open, tight, stuffy, etc. but it can never contain the subtlety of references that an object contains. What effect space can have on us is of even less significance because of the limited and indirect control we have over it as architects; that ‘something’ in the air that makes us feel at home (or uneasy or excited or …) comes from the alignment of the many objects that make up the place, and not from some particular essence of the negative space where they are not. Third, whatever situation it is that has been created through any sort of cross- or dis- or counter-programming probably consists of a multitude of instances which have affected those involved, most so insignificant that they should not even be classified as events. Of those events within the situation that do have some lasting subconscious effect on those people involved, many may not even be linked to the place where it happened and so should not be considered architectural at all.
For example, Valencia, Spain, is a city that was built by the Romans along the River Turia just inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the city’s history, the river has been its center and its focal point. In 1957, the river flooded and buried the entire city under water. As a result of this betrayal, the river was moved outside the city and its bed was filled with a dry and carefully landscaped garden that was sure not to commit the same indiscretion.
I will take the liberty here to suggest that this is a classic example of what Tschumi might call an architectural event. It has all the necessary elements. The flood was sudden, resulting from only a couple of days’ massive rainfall. It came from within the architectural (in this case urban) parameters of the scene, being only an exaggeration of the city’s central element. It went against any plans (programming) that could have been made for the space, putting a dry city under meters of water. The Valencia Flood of ’57 is certainly a historical event, pivotal to all those who record the sequence of happenings that makes Valencia, culturally, the place it is today. But history is very different from architecture. Architecture is personal.
For me, reading about the flood fifty years after it happened was not an event, nor could the flood itself be an event for me because I wasn’t present at its occurrence. True, to hear of it brought to mind all sorts of associations that would be useful to a study of Valencia, but all of them were intellectual and related to my thoughts about the city; they did not affect my memory of it. Later, when I visited Valenca, as I sat in the old dry river beneath a 13th Century stone bridge and processed these thoughts, I began to feel a kind of companionship. This for me was an architectural event. I developed a connection to the bridge through my time spent under it that altered permanently the way I would understand that bridge and, through it, Valencia. I could not interpret here precisely what it was that clicked when I was there any more than I could interpret any piece of art or building to extract its content from its form. What is clear, though, it that without realizing it at that moment, a series of instants passed which somehow constituted an architectural event. Not only was I transformed as a result of my time spent there but the bridge itself had also changed, because the essence of the bridge is no more than an amalgamation of our many perceptions of it.
Of course, if my moment beneath an old bridge was an event then surely there must have been thousands of events, and of much stronger impact, between the people of Valencia and their city in 1957, each of them very specific and personal, and probably all of them defying interpretation. It would be a mistake, though, to call the flood itself an event.