Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I write...therefore I am

Words, words, words. Sometimes, it seems that Architecture is more about words than anything else. I sit in lectures where professors discuss semiotics, phenomenology, surrealism, structuralism, situationalist thought and Marxist theory. They drop the names of Heidegger, Baudrillard, Habermas and Kant with a casual nonchalance, implying an expected familiarity with their theoretical positions that I have yet to fully grasp. It is a world of narratives, of metaphorical relationships, of ideas seeking architectural expression. And it is a world I have trouble navigating.

Is this a bad thing, our reliance on words? Perhaps it is a nonsensical question. After all, how else would we communicate our ideas? How else would we exchange our thoughts, our opinions? How else might we learn from those around us, grow from our interactions with the strangers who become our teachers, our colleagues, our friends?

But it strikes me as strange that, as I delve farther into my masters research, that so much of what my professors cite for inspiration, is found in print, rather than in brick or stone. It is a world of the hypothesized, a world of theory, of imagined possibilities. It is a world that has not been realized. Or maybe, not realized yet.

I find myself facing this conundrum. These theories – ideas written down by other architects seeking to explore the boundaries that define the field, either academically or professionally –exist in words, on pages, and rarely, if ever, with a physical companion to visit, tour, dissect. And so, while the ideas have been formalized, and now circulate throughout the discourse of architecture, there is no way one can validate, challenge, evaluate. It’s your word against theirs.

If architecture’s charge is the built environment, must we build before our ideas are added to the cannon of architectural theory? Or are words enough? I am not sure if I can decide…and it is, in part, why I have such difficulty defining the parameters of my work.

With the rise of technology – of virtual worlds, modeling programs, animations and movies – some argue that, in this new medium, we have already begun to address impossible architectures. But have we? Though these programs are intended to replicate certain aspects of the physical world – dimension, scale, proportion – they are, for all intended purposes, still illusions. They are imagined abstractions, using the ancient tricks of perspective, light and shadow, to make us believe that what we are seeing is real physical space. Even the movies so delicately made, frame by frame digitally shot by a digital camera looking into a digital world, gets rendered into a two dimensional image, projected onto a screen, for us to imagine the three-dimensional possibilities.

It would be impractical to believe that every architectural idea we wish to explore should be built, full-scale, just to see “what happens”. The resources aren’t available, the time isn’t available. As for modeling, it too can be deceptive, our eyes tricking our sense of scale, size, etc.

So I guess it comes down to this: how do we truly research architecture? Are words and images enough to merit distinction? Or should we require more? Should our inquiries turn towards our modes of communication? Should we be seeking methods that incorporate more than sight – more than reading letters on a page or staring at beguiling images and photographs? That might be, in itself, an entire avenue of research separate from my own. And, if I find an answer, I’ll still face the problem of sharing it with others.


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