Space Wars

Fredric Jameson

  • The Invisible in Architecture edited by Ole Bouman and Roemer van Toorn
    Academy, 516 pp, $115.00, February 1994, ISBN 1 85490 285 7
  • The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism by Roger Scruton
    Carcanet, 158 pp, £19.95, October 1994, ISBN 1 85754 054 9

To what degree is our experience of modern – let’s say rather, contemporary – architecture mediated through photography? To what degree, in other words, is that experience really photographic rather than architectural (and spatial)? And would such ‘contamination’ be a bad thing? Is it possible that the buildings themselves are complicitous, no longer offering the grand head-on, Neoclassical façades for simple reproduction (see, for example, the magnificent Richard Pare collection, Photography and Architecture 1839-1939)? Photography would then be co-operating in the actual construction of the newer buildings, angling into dimensions of built space that our ordinary human bodies have little daily commerce with, combining planes we normally separate in dramatic visual ‘chords’, and absorbing the signs of space in order to produce a new simulation. The older photography wished to isolate the building from its surroundings and render it visually independent: this new kind uses it to render a seamless web of spatial texture, like a Mayan frieze.

Maybe we need to separate space from the visual; and to the allegation that architectural photography today superimposes a secondary spurious or fictive space on the presumably realer one of the actual building, add the rather different reproach that it subverts space itself (the fictive as well as the real kind, if that distinction still makes sense) by the techniques of modern colour photography and the splendour of colour reproductions. Is this not, as Aristotle might have wondered, a ‘peculiar pleasure’ of a different type from what engages us in the experience of the architectonic? Does it not feed, extra-aesthetically, into the social tendencies and temptations of a new ‘society of the image’ in which consumerism and market frenzy are not the issue so much as consumption by the eyes, a concupiscio oculis?

That the builders, too, are formed within such a system removes the conspiratorial onus from the photographers and explains the heliotropic drift of built space in the direction of such visual thrills and highs, which are sinful only in the pleasurable sense and not to be stamped out by puritanical conceptions of what the beautiful ought to be (but see Roger Scruton, below). To be sure, both Baudrillard and Susan Sontag have recommended something like a diet cure for images: that we try to be reasonable and reduce our intake, to fast once in a while perhaps, and exercise other senses. Yet this is pre-eminently an addictive society, and of all conceivable responses to visual overload, this one is the least plausible.

Such are some of the reflections inspired by The Invisible in Architecture, an extraordinary work compiled by the Dutch architectural critics and historians Ole Bouman and Roemer van Toorn (the book is unfortunately no longer available in Britain). The mere mention of a book about architecture seems suddenly to deflate worries about visuality, for language is an equally suspicious mode that makes the purely architectural over into something as distant from its original function and Aristotelian telos as a colour plate might be. I don’t doubt that styles in architectural eloquence have evolved historically, and have even been structurally modified, particularly since the new resources of photography rendered a purely verbal evocation less urgent and less vulnerable. It also seems possible that the verbal might function to contain the excesses of the visual, if excesses there are and you need to have them contained: for a surrounding envelope of words, however impoverished, drains our libidinal investment in the visual field by mobilising it for an altogether different form of attention. Yet perhaps the visual stimulus is capable of responding to such controls in subtle ways. At any rate, our research into such interactions does not seem greatly advanced, with a few signal exceptions such as Hillis Miller’s remarkable Illustration or the pathbreaking work of W.J.T. Mitchell.

One might, for example, imagine the counter-attack of the visual in terms of CD-ROM technology, where the image virtually erupts from the bureaucratised grid of a computer text, whose ceaseless mechanical succession seems to call into being over against it a geyser of old-fashioned moving pictures – newsreels, the orations of long-dead politicians, classical film clips, this or that standard architectural tour or illustrated guide to modern art. This would seem to explode the traditional book far more effectively than any of the now traditional Modernist strategies (which longed to preserve the Book in some transfigured form). The volume to hand, however, suggests 1) that the idea of the CD-ROM may be more subversive and exciting than its still impoverished reality, encaged in its plastic frame, and 2) that the ‘book’ may well be better exploded, if I can put it that way, by the stimulation and vigorous reactivation of its own internal relations and circuits. Hugh Kenner once observed the not-so-subterranean formal influence on books like Ulysses of the existence of dictionaries and encyclopedias as proudly linear modes of organisation. Mallarmé imagined in vain a book that would remodel itself perpetually, like a transformer or a superchangeling: an unrealisable ideal William Burroughs brought down to the affordability of ordinary people in his proposal for the cut-up book, which you could simply rearrange at home according to your fancy. But The Invisible in Architecture is closer to these ideal images than the literary works that attempt to find inspiration in them.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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