Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 24, 2018
Hubert Damisch Noah's Ark: Essays on Architecture Ed Anthony Vidler Writing Architecture. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2016. 392 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Paperback $30.95 (9780262528580)

Noting the manner in which Leon Battista Alberti treated the column in his architecture, French philosopher Hubert Damisch commented on its ambiguity: at times structural element, at times a nonstructural, expressive point of punctuation. If there is one motif recurrently embedded in Damisch’s writings on architecture, it is the column and its potent identity as a fixture of ambiguity and multiple meanings. The column is rendered structurally elemental, as it is conceptually, and presents two important points of departure for thinking about architecture critically. The first, tied to the issue of structure and form, is the column’s function as an index of architecture’s origins and its evolution, a kind of archaeological object. The second, tied to the issue of meaning, is the tension between the column’s function and its symbolic value. Whatever its role may be, it constructs the de facto ambiguity that Damisch celebrates as architecture’s great contribution to the arts, embracing ambiguity as an emancipatory state of both form and thought and as a way for synthesizing a structural model for understanding architecture. As Anthony Vidler writes in his introduction, Damisch’s aim, compared to that of standard architectural history, “is both more philosophical (to think of architecture in another key than that of its internal disciplinary forms) and less systematic (as he constructs a kind of parallel universe for architectural thought)” (xii).

Beyond this, Damisch is himself reticent to impress upon architecture the overarching dictums one might expect from a philosopher of aesthetics. His writings, vividly brought together and translated into English in Noah’s Ark: Essays on Architecture, and synthesized in Vidler’s introduction, instead reflect another form of productive ambiguity, one in which buildings are read as exercises in dialectical partnerships—Claude-Nicolas Ledoux with Immanuel Kant, structuralism with formalism, and so on. It is to the advantage of architectural theory that Damisch’s interest in architecture is actually secondary to his interest in art; he carries little of the obsession with autonomy (although there is certainly an interest in this theme) and criticality that has bottlenecked contemporary architectural theory. Although several of the essays, all written between 1963 and 2005, will be familiar to those who have followed Damisch’s writing in both French and English, a good portion of them have been translated for the first time. This collection will serve to deepen his reputation as an architectural thinker, free of ideology but equipped with recurrent intellectual questions that are openly credited to his mentors, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Francastel.

The book’s second essay, “The Column, The Wall,” centered on the role of structure in Renaissance architecture, is Damisch’s most incisive examination of the column. Damisch makes the compelling argument that, despite all of its artistic achievements, Renaissance-era architecture was hostile to the idea of celebrating structure the way, for example, Gothic architecture did. Rather, Damisch argues, both the column and the wall took on primarily ornamental functions and unsettled the idea that any element of architecture as primary as the column, or the wall, was an “objective idea.” Damisch asserts, on the issue of the wall, “a wall is only a wall when it is instituted as such, and this institution acquires a logical and structural value depending on whether the structure operates as a generative, or merely subordinate, element of a system” (52). To determine what is generative or subordinate about a column or a wall is a tall and somewhat ambiguous order, but it is also one on which Damisch gives guidance. For the wall, Damisch directs us to consider the openings in the walls of Alberti as destabilizing forces that, on the one hand, generate light and air in the interior and a dynamic between inside and outside, but on the other also serve to compromise the structural potential of the masonry loads. It is, in other words, an indivisible partnership of both form and meaning.

It is telling that the most revisionist essay is on Jean Prouvé, perhaps the volume’s least canonical subject, despite the fact that Prouvé is far from an unknown figure. In the essay, entitled “Architecture and Industry: Jean Prouvé, or the Parti of the Detail,” Damisch’s central argument is that Prouvé was the most cognizant architect of his generation of the perils of the confounding of industry and architecture into the so-called machine aesthetic. After all, it was Prouvé who famously argued, “If we built a plane the way we build a house, it wouldn’t fly” (21). For Damisch, Prouvé’s passion for industrial logic, together with his reluctance to blindly transmute it into architecture, is what distinguishes him from Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. That “his architecture was neither nostalgic nor utopian” was what made it “resolutely contemporary” (232). Damisch locates this special quality of Prouvé in the details of his designs for furniture and prefabricated structures, not exactly a novel motif but certainly a convincing one in this case. Damisch pointedly reminds us that Breuer’s beloved Wassily chair was essentially dishonest to the industrial logic it purported to represent, in that a bending tube does not hold a constant section when produced strictly through the means of serial, industrial production. That Prouvé sought to celebrate the awkward, if honest, details in his designs is what allows him to attain a special status that Damisch constructs from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of the bricoleur (one who collages things together, as desired, for an effect) and the engineer. The engineer represents a certain universal truth and ambition, whereas the bricoleur represents the subjective purveyor of a beauty whose ability to attain universality is by definition impossible.

The final essay, and certainly the one concerned most explicitly with contemporary architecture, may be the volume’s most experimental if not its most generative. Titled “Blotting Out Architecture? A Fable in Seven Parts,” the essay addresses Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s Blur Building, constructed on Lake Neuchâtel for the Swiss Expo in 2002, and proceeds to relate it to traditions of “blotting” in medieval Chinese painting as well as the metastasizing, cloudlike form of traditional Chinese wood joinery from the same period. Damisch characterizes the Blur Building as a thing, not as an object or phenomenon, applauding it for its conceptual ambition while also tactfully intimating that it is precisely the architects’ preoccupation with the phenomenon of a formless, cloudy building (which he notes is not without historical precedent) that prevents it from actually becoming a true phenomenon, instead becoming the subject of a fetish. In turning to China, Damisch offers an antidote to the Blur Building and perhaps a new and pure phenomenological architecture vis-à-vis an unlikely source: Oswald Siren, a scholar of Chinese art and architecture. In reading the blurry precipices on which buildings sat in medieval Chinese paintings and by looking closely at the details of the bracket systems supporting roofs in medieval Chinese architecture, Damisch sees a negation of materiality that is more poetic than it is in Blur. He thus confirms Siren’s hunch, in the case of the brackets, that “whereas the wood architecture of Ancient China had the principal merit of being eminently logical and appropriate to its ends, as it was guided by the laws of the material used, it then lost what amounted to its immemorial soul when the original building principles began to be eclipsed by what [Siren] calls ‘decorative tendencies’” (322). Damisch not only critiques the facile distinction between structure and decoration, he goes one step further to credit their union, their confounding, as the ultimate generator for a phenomenological architecture.

The architects Damisch analyzes, the buildings he uses as evidence, and the philosophers he engages are almost entirely French, with the Blur chapter being the prominent exception. This inarguably limited scope of vision will be something many find frustrating, if not a bit nationalistic. That the majority of essays were written before the so-called global turn in both architectural theory and history must be kept in mind, but the narrow scope nevertheless may hinder Damisch’s ideas from fully registering as transposable beyond a coterie of canonical subjects. The search for origins and the vitality of ambiguity are certainly universal themes, so why must we still lean so heavily on Jacques Derrida, Marc-Antoine Laugier, and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye for the expansion of our theoretical horizons? It is here that Damisch’s distance from architectural theory qua architectural theory may for once be to the work’s disadvantage, signaling its isolation from the discursive developments, particularly the threads of postcolonialism and agency, that have advanced the field in precisely the same period in which Damisch is writing. The fact that this collection of articles is by and large geographically circumscribed does help advance the central contention of universal ideas. On the merits of its intellectual rigor and synthetic methodological propositions, this volume delivers and is an enjoyable read as the genre goes. In making his essays more widely available, the volume may certainly bring Damisch himself into a more universal milieu of architectural theory.

Peter Christensen
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Rochester