Heimito von Doderer once said that it is so difficult, if not impossible, to write about writing because the medium of the subject and reflection on it is the same, because writing about the written does not have the option of leaving its own system. In this sense, writing about another medium, for example architecture, would a priori have a better chance of being close to reality and therefore could really mediate this reality. Nevertheless, it seems that the actual case is exactly the opposite. I will not engage now in Wittgenstein’s picture theory; however, let us remind ourselves of section 610 of his Philosophical Investigations:
‘Describe the aroma of coffee. – Why can’t it be done? Do we lack the words? And why are the words lacking? – But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?’
However, the hopelessness of such an enterprise is opposed to the fact that people write about architecture all the time. It happens in spite of the awareness that a text can never do justice to the subject of its interest. Yes, an experienced writer even experiences the unpleasant revelation that the more extensive the language processing gets, the more independent the text becomes and it possesses more of its own dynamics, so that the subject becomes more and more distant from the description and thus, even for the recipient, more and more unfathomable.
So, architecture is one thing, and writing about it quite another. What can be interesting is only the degree, the intensity of the possibility for one medium to create a relationship with another, the extent to which it manages to achieve an understandable utterance. And finally, there is the question of what kind of utterance is possible after all.
There is a statement by Adolf Loos that architecture is perfect only if it is possible to describe a building on the telephone (in other words, without drawing). This would mean that the problem is not just bringing language closer to architecture, but also bringing architecture closer to language. Perfection here has the meaning of translatability or, better put, communicating in another medium.
This demand also contains a desire that a statement should have an obligatory character, that the relationship between form and meaning is stable in order to make possible communication by other means, in other words, language. The fact, that in architecture today, less than ever before, such a situation has been achieved, determines the real subject matter of the question posed. Nevertheless, I would immediately add, I prefer this dilemma of ours to social relations which enable or extort such a language consensus.
(More than 25 years have passed since I made the above statements, and I have had to write about architecture until the present time with these presentiments.)
Numerous questions are hidden in this introduction which I have never posed and which I probably could not answer. First, I will try to set out one, probably very old, claim – a perfect object is an undescribed object. Each description takes something away from its object, in other words, it reaches it merely as a fragment. And paradoxically, vice versa: description covers an object partly or, finally, even entirely. Total description (if it exists at all) causes the disappearance of its object. Consequently, description does not only take something away from the object, but also adds something to it. Perception and the process of description create a new object, namely, a described object in which the initial, real object hides or is dissolved.
Description is not the real function of language. Languages develop in communication with so-called reality. Names for things were necessary to make it possible to talk about them. The preconditions of each and every communication were knowing the same things, as well as having the same experiences of them, and an equal level of competence. It was not necessary to describe elementary sensory experiences, like light and darkness, warmth and coldness, moisture and dryness, hunger and thirst or colours. Talking about these was established only at another level: in differentiation as a consequence of comparison, deviation, etc. ‘Describe the aroma of coffee.’ – This demand perhaps presents a trap. Anybody who has drunk coffee knows its aroma. Talking about it occurs only among coffee experts, among tradesmen and specialists for roasting coffee. Language is activated only when differentiating, when establishing differences, quality, prices; or when different forms of processing and preparation are concerned. Coffee culture develops its own language which does not require describing the aroma as such.
Otto Antonia Graf categorized me as one of the Viennese ‘diapositivists’. I assume that photography says more about itself than about the represented object. Nevertheless, it manages in a matter of a second to communicate far more and differently than is possible by means of language. Language is a slow medium and very time consuming. A particular quality of communicating occurs when a person who talks about some object (or building) additionally uses photographs he or she took, photographed with an already defined intention. A ‘diapositivist’ produces an already focused, prepared reality, or even better, a selective perception of reality which he complements with a comment in the medium of language. We could also talk of special information, or communicational strategy; according to Wittgenstein, this would be a combination of showing and talking, visual reality and comment.
Thomas Bernhard, and I reluctantly quote him, once stated that everything we see does not need to be described. This sounds plausible, but still represents a misconception. Namely, we do not see everything that is visible. Description can serve as an instrument to make something visible, so to say a means of forcing one to observe precisely. I think that Goethe once said: ‘We see only what we know.’ This is acceptable.
What does it mean to describe in the first place? What is it possible to describe? Is not describing overestimated? I somehow think: is not a good description possible without description? Since I am not a philosopher, I do not have to answer that. However, I will allow myself a little grumble. Is it not true that it is exactly impossible to describe the preconditions of describing, so to say, the basics? Elementary sensory perceptions, like smell, temperature, light, colour, moisture, physical state, etc. The essence of the problem was expressed by Karl Valentin with the three words ‘thirty centimetres yellow’.
An attempt to save the honour of describing
Concerning building and architecture, there is one form of writing that sets out a certain right to a close relation with reality – this is the bill of quantities. In other words, the description of all activities referring to the execution of a building and which eventually serves as the basis of calculation, in other words of realization costs. However, exactly this, almost perfect form of description has the least in common with architecture, with the cultural or artistic significance of a building. And, it has nothing in common whatsoever with aesthetic effect, atmosphere, aura, or cultural positioning. This kind of technical perfection excludes all other features. This is the moment when description disavows itself. Here it is subject to one unambiguous interest, one purpose (to use a word that is still readily used in relation to this).
You already see – the notion of description starts to melt away. With architectural issues, what is possible to see has to be made visible. This is never possible by merely describing (no matter how correct the description is). To make the confusion even more complete, here are several random statements, guesses without real order:
Every description is a creative act, probably questionable, full of mistakes, incomplete, perhaps deceitful, but it is a creative act. An object comes into being all over again only in description. Self-confident creators (primarily artists) see in this fatal word (at least since the time of Romanticism) some kind of participation in the creation of the world, a closeness to God, whereas for critics the Pope will suffice. ¶ Descriptions are therefore individual achievements. They are based on focused interest, on a so-called selective perception; there is simply a difference in who assesses a forest, whether this is a peasant, hunter, poacher, wood merchant, violin constructor, or romantic painter. Each of them sees something different.
If my memory serves me, Kevin Lynch conducted experiments related to the architectural perception of a city in 1960. Probably, the subjects of the experiment were students of architecture, certainly persons focused on images, signs, aesthetic observations. However, it would be interesting to have the homeless, policemen, burglars, tourists, chimney sweeps, gourmands, street sweepers, etc. From this, we could probably also conclude that where description is concerned, we can only rely on the specific, but not on the general. This means that each individual description necessarily comes into conflict with other interests. In other words – every description always achieves only quite a small segment of noticeable reality, and it therefore needs empathy and tolerance.
I have to admit that I got somewhat entangled with these numberless possibilities of describing. Namely, the title of the lecture is ‘On the Impossibility of Writing about Architecture?’ One ‘what else’ statement in the form of a question – anyone can write about architecture, but...?
Moreover, a lifetime dealing with objects blew up in my face. Architecture, and this is also a widespread truth, does not consist only of objects. In a certain time, people talked solely about sociological questions, urban complexes, structures, typologies and signs. These are important broadenings of the field of observation. We can agree that the best (in fact, the only) perception of architecture is possible by direct observation. This observation, in other words experiencing with all senses, has nevertheless to be fed and supported by information. Therefore, to the largest extent, frivolous, boring and unsatisfying texts on architecture are those that are pure descriptions.
Paul Watzlawick points out to Bertrand Russell, who reminds that the one mistake of science lies in the following problem:
‘when two languages are mixed, which should be strictly separated one from the other. Namely, the language that refers to objects and the one that refers to relations.’
However, where architecture is concerned, probably these two languages cannot be separated at all. So, the trouble is created in the mixture.
Reality – several interruptions
I tend to appreciate reality as real, independent of our subjective perceptions (which are in fact the most interesting ones). If a philosopher crashes his car into a tree, it is probably not possible to discuss reality with him anymore. Negating the existence of the tree may be an academic delight, but also a lethal mistake. Perhaps the term reality should be used solely in the plural.
When I read, in the excellent biography by Rüdiger Safranski, that pigs were still running around the streets of Weimar in Schiller’s time, then it is not only information, to tell the truth inconspicuous and yet impressive (and we will probably remember it), but I can draw from it the conclusion that the streets were not yet paved, there was no sewage system, there were still stables in the houses and citizens were still partly engaged in agriculture, and that the Olympus of the German classic produced quite a stench. This impressive image is not caused by description, but by one simple note.
The example of unscrupulous ambivalence in architecture is related, for instance, to the role of the classical order columns which were used in different situations (relations) or misused as symbols of culture or power, for the purpose of imperial luxury or for reminding people of the sources of democracy, as signs of revolution, as a substitute for the pathetic quality of Fascist or Stalinist symbols, or simply for the purpose of presenting the skill of the art of workmanship. Their omnipresence should probably be also explained by the fact that the column represents a constructional element which, it is impossible to deny, has remained bearable only due to the changeability of its form and meaning. The column has always been suitable. Hans Hollein impressively demonstrated this state of affairs with Strada Novissima at the Biennale in Venice (1980).
In this context, it is also necessary to indicate time as a factor. Modernism started (if we do not take into consideration the discovery and presentation of the perspective of space in the Renaissance) as late as with Historicism; with industrialization, with the organization of time in the working process. A linear notion of time emerged (I presume) at least in a practical sense. Research in the field of art and architecture systematized history as a linear sequence of styles, while their description, cataloguing, factual terminology and differentiation are fixed in the chronology of history.
The idea on the part of representatives of Historicism that with the choice of style one can also reconstruct or preserve history must have been a creative misconception. In fact, in each and every work of high quality, the distance towards history is clearly presented and documented. In this way, the field of apparent imitating has become the field of excellent spatial and formal innovations if we think of, for example, Theophil Hansen and the central axis of Vienna’s Parliament that at the same time separates and connects the two ‘houses’ (the Lower House and Upper House). Hansen did not use the classical ‘Greek Style’ only to indicate the ‘cradle of democracy’, but also because he thought that no other style was able to present order and freedom in one so clearly.
Since during his reconstruction practice in Athens he acquired specific competences related to Antiquity, he was able to fantasize or extemporize rather freely with this vocabulary, almost in a musical sense, which again presented the basis for innovations. I believe that the richness of the architectural findings of Historicism has not been truly discovered as yet.
The basis or challenge for innovations related to past styles was also presented by the emergence of new building tasks, spatial concepts which indicated the future, new building typologies like museums, parliaments, railway stations, spas, hotels, schools, traffic, or production facilities. Often, a freely conceived Historicist building cloak closely related to significant structural achievements made this distance to history, or progress, particularly visible.
Yet another theme which can make the writer sweat quite a bit
Each and every architectural object moves in its existence in two speeds – the slow one is that of its material nature, physical, and chemical. Nature again takes back human creations: very slowly, dilapidation is dependent on materials, climatic conditions, use. New construction is in any case a foreign body – a dazzling wooden barn can be quite inappropriate in a landscape. Patina, visible aging represents protection at first, suggests durability and moreover, aesthetic resistance, while slow decay and disintegration represent the natural process.
The second speed of change is born from human perception. I would like to recall the general curve of evaluation. At first, refusal. The new is always perceived as an existential threat. A conflict of generations, ‘patricide’, ignorance (thirty- to fifty-year-old buildings are most vulnerable to this danger). Rediscovery of the generation of our grandfathers, documentation of their works, description, systematization, naming (style), and finally glorifying or even sanctification. My generation experienced these metamorphoses of Historicism and Jugendstil, Modernism between the two wars, all the way to the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s (including Fascism and Stalinism). In this context, texts dedicated to architecture are part of this process, and they often have the role of accelerator as well.
Here, we can talk about two aesthetics: about conceptional aesthetics and perceptional aesthetics. Conceptional aesthetics is inseparably connected to one historical moment. It reflects the culture of acting, finding, artistic discourse, and the spirit of a certain unique social situation. Nevertheless, this ‘moment’ is not frozen, it is being pushed by ‘the stream of time’, and is exposed to all the arriving comprehensions and will eventually become an element of the aesthetics of perception and reception. These aesthetics are subjective from the very beginning; they relate to persons, they are elements of multiplicity, movement, change, incompleteness, and permanent openness. One could say – truth on the journey.
Conceptional aesthetics aspires to permanence, eternal values; it behaves as if it is absolutely sure, it is intolerant and exclusive. Judgements on the part of artists about their contemporaries are frequently almost absurd. I think that this exclusiveness in the so-called process of concept and production is necessary. An artist who tolerates everything will barely survive. The so-called aesthetics of reception would then represent an aesthetics of evaluation, systematization; it comes into being in long-term procedures of processing and is therefore in a certain manner changeable. I am probably indulging in idle speech here as well, but those who are writers will have irritating experiences with these uncomfortable regularities.
Out of practice: Why and for whom people write?
To the question why, it is difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to provide an answer. There is maybe some truth in the statement that unsuccessful artists, college dropouts and so on, become critics, and the same thing happens in other professions as well. When art historians stray to the profession of architecture, this could come from the advantage of observing architecture because they frequently broaden the field of observation with the assumption that they will learn to read plans and that they trust their eyes more than the texts to which they refer. Unfortunately, one should take notice that so-called ‘intertextuality’ takes root more and more with the appropriate expert jargon; concretely, the guild is more and more dedicated to texts instead of the works of art or buildings. Yes, they write about buildings that they have never seen more and more frequently. Allegedly, it has also been happening that they quote texts they have never read.
Yes, for whom are we actually writing? I would say, certainly not for architects. Among architects, I know few who are real readers, and those who nevertheless are, are then mostly those who build little or do not build at all. It should be admitted that designing and building are professions of self-exploitation, there is little or no free space. An architect lives in a reality that destroys substance. To her (him), no scribbler should explain the situation of building reality.
Why should then an architect read at all? He or she acquires their experience in the constructed or published constructed. Magazines are graveyards of articles which barely anyone reads. Their interest is present either for information about something new or for the fact whether someone has been personally mentioned, how long the texts are and how large the photographs. This is reality. Of course, perceived.
Three media of presenting architecture
I would like to say something more about the relation between the three media of presenting architecture, or perhaps even better, about the forms of their appearance: about drawing (including draft, concept, plan, model and visual presentation), about building as such (which can deviate a lot from the ideal form), and finally about comment (all the forms of verbal phenomena of the cultural presence of architecture). None of these media is capable of presenting architecture in its entirety, and thereby make it safe.
For sure, it will cause wonder that I have included building as such, ‘true’ architecture, in its forms of appearance. In terms of survival a building is the most sensitive and in terms of transitoriness the most exposed element of this trinity – presentation, language, and material realization.
Visual presentation (in any of its forms) most frequently documents the ideal form which a building very rarely or never reaches. Building as such can deviate from its ideal form a lot, never to achieve it, entering the process of dilapidation in its material existence (as the consequence of usage, aging, changes, etc.). Comment can participate in preserving the initial perfection by assistance of historical positioning, description, aesthetic positioning, and in this way could preserve the artefact. Architecture can survive merely in the conjunction of all three components. In other words, architecture is not only that what is built and it lasts least of all in its physical existence, but also in a quick change of perceptions.