“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.