This article was written on 07 Oct 2013, and is filled under Urbanities.

Soft architecture, etc. III

Mies, the old softie. Photo by SimonP at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (] from Wikimedia Commons.

Mies, the old softie. Photo by SimonP at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (] from Wikimedia Commons.

A follow-up to our epistolary discussion of “soft architecture” with Léopold Lambert of the Funambulist.  Link here to Part I and Part II

Dear Léopold,

I’ve read your response with great interest, and wanted to go over the Warren-Crow and Robertson texts that Craig mentioned before I got back to you about it.  I agree with you totally on several points.  Happiness is a very dangerous goal towards which to orient any politics or architecture; I would settle for “peaceable stasis” rather than need constant happiness.

I also feel that Warren-Crow is rather deluded as to what “soft architecture” would actually be.  She seems to look at the animated projection and confuse it with being the actual architectonic object.  Objectively speaking, however, architecture is really about the durability of structures that cannot be seen, or can just barely be seen under the surface.  Structures that juggle and balance forces so that the entire object does not collapse on itself.  (Physical forces? Political-economic forces?)  When we look at a modernist structure like Mies van der Rohe’s T-D Centre in Toronto, we might be put off by the austere black forms of those skyscrapers; but the actual object there is the steel shaped and welded according to relatively simple rules of geometry that assure that the winds off of Lake Ontario won’t topple them any time soon.  The austerity of the form stems from the austerity of geometric laws that are unbendable.  Geometric laws that are fairly visible on the surface of those buildings, otherwise stripped of any further accoutrements.  Alternately, one might be amazed that Gehry can create such fluid forms on the surface, when these surfaces are obviously undergirded by a durable structure below.

Warren-Crow, however, appears to be enthralled with the animated spectacle, but that spectacle itself is not architecture.  “Soft architecture” as she refers to it should *really* refer to the underlying structural processes and manipulations of force by which the spectacle is produced.  She’s captured by the phenotypical expression, in other words, of genetic processes that cannot be readily observed on-site.  And curiously (not so curiously, though), these same genetic processes are why that site in downtown New York City exists in the first place.  In other words, there’s an accidental overlap (though perhaps not accidental at all) between the digital networking architecture required to create the animated spectacle on that massive of a scale; and the digital networking architecture clustered in lower Manhattan around the area of the World Trade Center, by which global financial markets thrive.  She sees the image and calls it “soft architecture,” but if I’m not mistaken she doesn’t even discuss the software that is the real architecture.  In the visible field of the WTC site, then, any building is but a shiny object to distract the viewer from observing how global capitalism makes them so unhappy — including the capitalists!

Or rather than “unhappiness,” let us say that the global financial transactions that course through lower Manhattan at a rate of perhaps billions of operations per second, create billions of political-economic antagonisms per second that cannot, in turn, be discussed, negotiated or otherwise contained with the space of the site itself.

Would this be a correct way of re-phrasing the “antagonism” you mention in your last message?  Is this what you mean by the violence inherent to both politics and architecture?  Perhaps such violence has been so discussed in critical theory that it seems obvious, but are those two forms of violence — political and architectural — the same violence?

More to the point of “soft architecture,” and with all due respect to Craig’s interest in discussing it (which I do not mean at all to disparage), I’m extremely wary of any attempt to design “soft” spaces in any sort of deterministic fashion.  That implies a level of total control over the movements of people and things — not only how they move within buildings but also between them.  Perhaps “soft” and “hard” distract us from what this is all about, no?  Perhaps orientational metaphors that refer to “closure” would be more apt.  Certain architecture is oriented to the production of “enclosures” — this is what I think when I look at a Mies van der Rohe building.  Other architecture might be oriented to “unenclosed” spaces, but nonetheless work to enclose and foreclose those spaces by design.  But is there such a thing as an “unenclosed and unforeclosed” architecture? Would it be valuable to think in terms of an “open” city, if indeed such a term is not just another code-word for “utopia”?

All best,

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