Architecture, Bruno Latour, Philosophy

Geography of time #2: Latour on architecture (‘buildings do not live in Euclidian space’)

As I noted earlier, I found an interesting article by Bruno Latour on ‘architectural anthropology’ called Give Me a Gun and I Will Raise All Buildings: an ANT’s view on architecture in which he makes a few quite interesting remarks.

First he compares the architectural building with Marey’s photographic gun with which he tried to capture movement. In a sense, as Latour states, for an understanding of architecture we need exactly the opposite since the problem with buildings is that they are, or seem to be, hopelessly static. Latour then underlines the fact that buildings are never static objects but always moving projects (it has to be designed, calculated, meetings have to be arranged, building sites have to be designated etc.) Our problem then becomes that we don’t have the tools to conceptualise this movement. This is why Latour states that we need a new theory ‘in order to be able to transform the static view of a building into one among many successive freeze-frames that could at last document the continious flow that a building always is.’  (p. 81)

We are being hindered here by the practice of perspective drawing: that is by the definition of space as Euclidian. As Latour tells us: ‘buildings do not live in Euclidian space.’ Where do we place meetings, legal planning, logistics, the struggles of architects who shape and reshape, draw and redraw their designs? By defining space as Euclidian, we cannot espace the fact that buildings are static and resemble their design on paper; in this way we will never understand the space in which a building is built as environmental, as a lived world and not as a paper world. Latour relentlessly refers to phenomenology as the tradition that has added a human dimension to the material world. Like in other texts (for instance We Have Never Been Modern) Latour shows that phenomenology, despite the important move, keeps the rigid distinction between object and subject alive: we don’t add human subjective intentional dimensions to the material forms or buildings: our intentions don’t float around the geometrical shapes of the Boijmans van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam since ‘matter is not ‘in’ Euclidian space for the excellent reason that Euclidian space is our own way of accessing objects and making them move without transformation; it is definitely not the way material entities have to transform themselves to remain extant.’  (p. 83) Just like Latour showed in books like Science in Action and Pandora’s Hope that Society is as much a product of action as Nature, he shows in this article that reducing buildings to Euclidian space, to geometry, to materiality, doesn’t do justice to the ways humans and things get by in the world, how they remain in existence, how they align themselves. 3D projections of buildings can’t contain the work that has to be done to make a building come into existence and when they are built, the three Euclidian dimensions don’t capture the eyes of those who look at the building.

When abandoning the regime of Euclidius two things happen: we can get rid of the distinction between objective and subjective and we can pay justice to the material dimensions of things. Just like scientists are attached to their laboratories, their instruments and their graphs, architects are attached to non-humans as foam, cutters, drafts and computers. They are in no way capable of transforming the designs in their minds to the layering of bricks at a building site without material assistance or tools. A building as such is thus always a ‘thing’ in the sense that it is a gathering of demands, conflicts, alliances and not in the sense of a material substance. So, in the end, a building can neither be reduced to its materiality (objectivity) nor to our gazing (subjectivity).

This means that understanding the existence of a building in it’s temporality doesn’t mean to add the fourth dimension of time (as we have seen in Dodgshon): space is time in the sense that it only exists through the course of actions and relations between humans and non-humans. ‘Only be enlisting the movements of a building and accounting carefully for its ‘tribulations’ would one be able to state its existence: it would be equal to the building’s extensive list of controversies and performances over time, i.e. it would be equal to what it does, to the way it resists attempts at transformation..’ Yet, Latour proceeds, ‘we either see the uncontested static object standing ‘out there’, ready to be reinterpreted, or we hear about the conflicting human purposes, but we are never able to picture the two things together!’ (p. 86) So a building is neither fully material or fully ‘contextual’. Both just sum up the various elements of the architectural project. Architecture is, according to Latour, more biological than geometrical. Latour concludes: ‘Only by generating earthly accounts of buildings and design processes, tracing pluralities of concrete entities in the specific spaces and times of their co-existence, instead of referring to abstract theoretical frameworks outside architecture, will architectural theory become a relevant field for architects.’  (p. 87)

Latour thus provides us with a sort of pragmatist view on the dimension of time-space. Adding time to the existence of buildings doesn’t mean adding something new, since space as such always is being kept in existence its foldings in time. Seeing the Boijmans Museum doesn’t mean seeing bricks and glass and imposing subjective thoughts, but means understanding both at once.

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