Current Break: Speed and Architecture


Initially, I had a very naïve and negative reaction to Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political.  I wrote in my notes:

Schmitt seems to believe that the state, in order to function at all, must be constant, above manipulation by any current trends, and so remaining powerful despite the people.  I assume that this is thought to be for the good of the people.  I wonder, though, if this is not extremely shortsighted.  Is not the good of the people to be held above the state?  Surely not all matters should be political?  I would argue that the people’s interest lies in the ideal that some issues must remain individual (plural?) and so separate from the state.  As society changes, it needs the power to change that state accordingly so that it can serve the people best.  The state’s strength lies not in its constancy but rather in its adaptability.  (Maybe this is why communism and fascism are so difficult to execute successfully.)

After re-reading, however, I realize that Schmitt’s analysis does not imply that the purpose of politics is for ‘the good of the people’ or even for the good of the state; rather, it just is, without positive or negative value.  The state is a necessary entity that appears whenever people with a common unifying interest come into contact with another group of people who have an opposing interest.  Clearly, not all matters are political, but all have potential to fall within the political realm.  The political state is not to serve anything but itself, to remain viable as a political entity.  Therefore, its strength is in its aloofness to smaller concerns or interests, whether they come from within or without.

This view is somewhat fatalistic.  If the state must necessarily exist and must necessarily have the power to draw sacrificial blood, then are we all doomed to a future of perpetual war?  I think Schmitt would say yes, we are.  But I am interested in the alternative.  Schmitt argues in the later part of the book that the alternative to politics is liberalism, which is at odds with politics and leads to anarchy as its inevitable conclusion.  These two incompatible systems are rooted fundamentally in opposing views of man as being essentially good or evil.  Here I am faced with a personal dilemma because while I hope for the possibility of a successful anarchy (similar to that described by Herbert Read in Anarchy & Order), I can’t help noticing the viral tendencies of the human species, which without policing may well lead to our demise, as well as the planet’s.

With these considerations in mind, the concept of autonomy is placed in an awkward position.  It occupies a strange middle ground between two incompatible systems of social organization.  In an anarchic society, the term autonomy would have little meaning, but in a political one, it would seem incongruous.  Seemingly, for a group to be autonomous, they would be placed outside the political system in one of two conditions.  First, they might be a separate political entity, and thereby not really autonomous at all, but merely falling under different authority.  Second, they might be driven by a larger issue that is in fact the political issue, in which case the political system under which they are autonomous lacks the authority necessary for it to really be considered politically dominant at all.  Given these two possibilities, it appears that the term autonomy is merely a trick, a ‘political’ designation intended to imply that although the autonomous group is itself the dominant group, it should still be considered to fall within the larger political system.  The hope is that the stronger, autonomous group will voluntarily accept the label ‘autonomous’ rather than come into direct opposition to the group in power.

If, then, autonomy is meaningless under a system of universal anarchy and little more than an empty phrase under a political system, where might it still be relevant?  One suggestion comes in response to Paul Virilio’s Speed & Politics.  Perhaps becoming autonomous is a group’s move toward greater speed; autonomy means greater mobility and ease of extension.  By throwing off the weight of a heavier government, the autonomous group is able to move ever more quickly into the future.  Of course, separate also means more powerful.  To stand above or apart from the rest places one at an advantage to maneuver, and lends him perspective, foresight, and most importantly quickness (speed).  Virilio notes in The Aesthetics of Disappearance that ‘Any man that seeks power tends to isolate himself from the dimensions of the others.’

Still, where does architecture fall in the midst of this dilemma and where does this leave my current investigation, Current Break?  There should first be an explanation.  Current Break is a study of the way speed affects place, and the way place affects speed.  The project takes the form of a video whose subject is a tourist visiting Valencia.  In 1957, the River Turia flooded its banks after four days of massive rainfall and all of Valencia was under water.  This was the river on which the city was founded by Roman soldiers and which Valencians have loved and respected for centuries.  Feeling betrayed by the indiscretion they received in return for their devotion, they banished the river, rerouting its path beyond the city limits so as never again to suffer the same humility.  In its place, a garden was made.  This new ‘Garden Turia’ is a heavily landscaped linear park that Valencians use for jogging, cycling, commuting, etc.  The American tourist seen in Current Break finds the city a bit predictable and generally city-like, so he heads off upstream to find where the new dry river splits from the old, a place where the present and future are separated from the past.  He rents a bicycle and begins pedaling up the old empty riverbed but it becomes more and more difficult to follow as it dissolves into irrigation ditches that eventually fade to nothing, and which are impossible to follow to their source.  Chasing one of these empty channels, the traveler is stopped by Spanish police, who eventually communicate to him that this is a place of danger and drugs and that he is best advised to turn around and head back downstream toward the sea.  Discouraged and exhausted by the ordeal, the tourist retreats and as he does so he is chased by stray dogs.  He pedals faster.  As he races down the riverbed, his surroundings become a blur and he is increasingly less aware even of the sounds around him.  Matter dematerializes and he is alone, bodiless, with only his thoughts.

Then, the traveler comes to an old 13th Century stone bridge with a quaint artificial circular pond beneath it.  The path here curves narrowly around a pediment and his speed is broken.  As he cycles around the bridge, at a steady pace, time seems to freeze and his duration here gives the illusion that the passenger is in fact still but it is the bridge that turns.  Somehow his speed has set him apart from reality.  Somehow, the traveler has commanded a personal measure of space and time.  If speed can dematerialize matter, as Virilio concludes in The Aesthetics of Disappearance, then duration can recreate it.  If the passenger can travel fast enough, then he is underwater in the great flood one moment and the next is spinning around a bridge in a dry riverbed and the next … well, who knows.

Our life in memory is not continuous; it is a series of events spaced by gaps.  The spacing of these events, adjusted by our speed, allows the impossible.  By exiting an event, we can freeze it; when we return, its variations become more apparent.  Rilke says that what happens is so far ahead of what we imagine that we never catch up with it and never really know its true appearance.  Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, we can not be in a place and know it as well.  Our duration thinks; speed is ‘the idea before the idea’ (Virilio).  Gaston Rageot says that ‘the need for peregrination has led to the establishment in displacement of the very fixity of life.’  So the tourist becomes speed and therefore alive, more powerful.  He acquires an awareness of the fragmentary nature of the world’s details.  A stall causes anxiety and so he goes ever-faster (on a fixed gear bicycle with no brakes), becoming increasingly aware of his fragmented separation from the world.

Despite current fashion, architecture is not primarily concerned with space.  Architecture is about materials, details.  As these details dissolve, so does the potential for architecture.  Speed destroys architecture, which is reliant on the materiality of solid details, the remnants of the events that occur in a place.  Events can not occur without duration.  Speed takes this away.  But still the cyclist races on.  Wilhelm Reich exclaims, ‘You don’t have bodies, you are bodies!’  To this, power and its techniques now respond: ‘You have no speed, you are speed!’ (Virilio).  I would add, the traveler has no autonomy, he is autonomous!  It ceases to matter what his separation divides him from, for it is the whole world.  The traveler is merely an autonomous entity, existing on his own terms through his speed.  It is only when he stops that he comes back to earth and can be measured in relation to earth’s systems.

It is still essential, though, that this happens.  Agnes Verda implies that luminosity is a type of happiness.  Is then duration also then a kind of happiness, or at the very least contentment?  I think it is.  Contentment is to be without worry, to have no fear of tomorrow, of dusk.  Contentment is the eternal day, it is the duration of the hour in which we find security and can be at ease, free to feel happy.  This is essential if we are to live.  And it is essential for architecture to provide us with this space, this duration.  As we sojourn in a place, we cause events to happen there that change the meaning of the place for us and for others.  When we speed off from it, the place is frozen for us as an image that contains that remembered moment.  When we return, there are discrepancies between the image we hold and the new reality with which we are presented; the variations become glaringly apparent and shatter the image we held.  The more powerful the image (the more familiar the place) and the greater the distance from which we return (the faster we have been in absence) the more absolute this fragmentation.  However, as we pause and let the accumulated energy of our travels seep out into the place, we add to the embedded duration of the place, which is itself a kind of energy.  This duration, which can be measured in intensity, seduces us back again to repeat the cycle.

Seduction is speed.  Seduction is a glance; it is light; it is the drawing of attention ahead of where we are.  Seduction speeds us to a new place which disappoints us the moment we arrive, the moment the object-image we hold of it is met with the reality of the place itself, breaking our speed.

Architectural events (which require duration) create memories, create architecture.  The sequence of events is our only indicator of time.  Speed destroys sequence.  Speed destroys architecture.  But still, architecture uses speed, relies on it.  Architecture must seduce (speed) in order to create duration (light) to allow the occurrence of events; therefore, architectural events can not happen without speed.  Architecture becomes obsolete once seduction proves its existence, but it is reinvented through the event.  The event can then live on as memory, even with speed, but only as memory; the matter itself is reborn.