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Architecture Planning Design

AJ Rosales



“Architecture never derived its force from stability of culture, but rather from the expression of those moments when that sense of stability slipped.” – Mark Wigley

Object-oriented philosophy calls into question an existential problem: a continuing tradition of the “master architect” in an authoritarian role. Indeed, the subset of speculative realism is not necessarily just a philosophy about “objects”. It is a way of seeing the world through a set of lenses that remind one that - beyond what we perceive - there is a world of information and ideas that has yet to be uncovered. These so-called real qualities are, in fact, hidden from our own eyes. If true, the importance of the concept of the all-knowing, perceiving architect-subject is reduced, and a window to the subconscious and the unknowable is opened, revealing to us that we are not fully aware of what we believe we see. This is a challenging concept for architecture, where knowledge is deemed to be power, which eventually translates into control and mastery of design and craft.

One of the most potent aspects of philosophy is its ability to call into question what we believe we know. In Graham Harman’s book The Quadruple Object, many of the examples in the text are statements that he wishes to refute - to show that philosophy and theories are not an ending point for knowledge. He questions other philosopher’s (and even scientific) assertions about definite or mathematical systems of relations, with the belief that our understanding of the world is, in some ways, reduced to a high-level caricature. This calls into question the Wagnerian notion and the Bairdian architectural implications of Gesamtkunstwerk. To Harman, the existence of something is predicated on the fact that neither theory nor praxis can fully describe that something. An example in architectural terms, would be to ask someone to describe Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel. One might receive a response about the curving roof, or the pierced, stained glass windows, or the rounded tower as lovely and memorable attributes. But none of the descriptions would fully describe the personalized effect of walking around or inside of the structure. One could also postulate a theory of how the building was geometrically constructed, for instance, as Douglas Graf showed in his fanciful diagrams in his famous essay Paradigms of Architecture. However, it turns out that these theories, while astute and creative, cannot completely explain every intricacy of a project. Despite theory being a useful tool, it is not an ultimate tool. The use of theory in this way is an example of what Harman has dubbed overmining – the reduction of whole objects to their component elements. There remains a fullness to the actualized result that is indescribable, and unexperienced to the beholder, or the theorist.

There is also the problem of presence, or Dasein. Harman mentions this term to explain Martin Heidegger’s “campaign against presence” in detail in his book. The thought is - we should say that nothing is “present” - since the world is made of “realities withdrawing from conscious access”. In other words, when we explore a built project, our understanding of the project is made up of a series of impressions that are fleeting, and present only for ourselves. These momentary impressions allow us only a partial understanding of what we see. Harman calls these impressions sensual qualities, because it is our human senses that are helping us to understand what we experience. Ironically, presence is counteracted by the concept of so-called real qualities – the multitude of characteristics that each building has that we cannot fully grasp, because we are either not paying attention to them or cannot “sense” them. Indeed, this idea creates an issue for our understanding in every day interactions. Even if architects attempt to fully sense the built environment, this will not mean that we fully comprehend it. If we do not fully comprehend it, then we are not truly understanding it, nor are we in control of it. As architects, we are trained to be detail-oriented, and so, we believe that our perceptive powers are able to easily grasp many complex ideas and physical things. In an object-oriented world, it turns out that the complexity of reality should lead us to reflect on what we believe are our innate skills.

Another challenging aspect to comprehend in Harman’s philosophy is that humans themselves are objects. Additionally, as objects, we become fused with other objects when interacting outside of ourselves. This means that the human-centric world of the subject is called into question, and at first glance, it appears to violate our sense of identity. But this revelation is less of a challenge than an opening of a secret locked door from inside a windowless room. Harman’s exploration is a search for an expansion of consciousness, not a destruction of a value system, nor is it a nulling of reality. It is within this expanding boundary that architecture can find the most fruitful application of Harman’s philosophy. The point is - that architects should not work under the assumption that we can fully command our domain. As exalted intellectuals, we sometimes mistakenly believe that we can intuit every solution, or systematize ideas. In the world of object-oriented philosophy, shadowy ideas and qualities exist everywhere beyond our grasp, and nothing is one-size-fits-all. This potentially opens a world of possibilities to us if we choose to use it as a mind-altering technique. We are presented with a slippage of our own understanding – what we think we know does not equate fully to what is real. If true, the critical implications of this mean that there are still plenty of unexplored and unrealized ideas waiting for us to encounter through experimentation.

Ultimately, if we view, as Harman does, that embracing other positions is reductionist, then we can reconsider the concept of the architect as power figure. For Harman, power is overrated, and ideas trump it, because that is where the true value lies. A paradoxical concept would be the powerful idea, which is not intrinsically power in itself, but a broad and useful manifestation of a great concept. The surety with which architecture presents itself is something that needs to be called into question from time-to-time, and the concepts in object-oriented philosophy certainly disrupt our understanding.

Architects should not disparage over loss of “control” in their environments due to previously mentioned theories– we are not being demoted as a result of these ideas. Craft, thoughtfulness, and skill still count in an object-oriented world, but the role of the concept has more encompassing qualities. Harman makes the claim that Martin Heiddeger radicalized phenomenology from within as a thinker of absence (leading to his insights) - and in a certain regard, Harman radicalizes philosophy from without, showing us the value of a broader, more naïve overview of the world. This ideological sidestep can be useful for architects as we continue our search for meaning, pertinence, and deeper insights within our profession.

- December, 2015

Architect as Object (2015)

SCI-Arc: 3GA Cultural Studies

Instructor: Dora Epstein-Jones / Graham Harman

PROMPT: The philosopher Graham Harman gave a masterclass in Fall of 2015, and our task was to derive an architectural application for the ideas laid out in his book The Quadruple Object, which explained his theory of object oriented ontology. This essay discusses the concept of architects as objects instead of subjects, with the idea that the role of the architect as a master artist could be called into question with Harman’s theory, destabilizing our traditional and professional value system.