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A letter in response to a request to write about architecture.
Text / Shumon Basar
John Hejduk, Kreuzberg Tower, Berlin, completed 1988.
Part of the International Building Exhibition (IBA 1984/87) [photo: Shumon Basar]
I want you to know that by the end of this sentence, you may have lost interest. Why? Because I am about to write about losing interest.
If you are still here: wow. If you're not here: not-wow.
People like to ask me what I studied. It's one of those inescapable questions, like "Where are you from?" My eyeballs roll at both.
The past is only interesting once you've sussed someone out in the here-and-present. Questions like this performed kinship purposes before.
Now, they seem so retrograde.
I answer, "Architecture," and – before I verbally place a full stop after the last "e" – I've launched into a little narrative
that was never really asked for. But you're going to get it. Regardless. It serves you right for asking such a one-dimensional question.
"I wanted to study Fine Art or English Literature," I exposit, "but when, at the age of 16, I told my loving, caring, Bangladeshi, first
generation immigrant parents about these plans – fueled, pretentiously, by reading surrealist poetry and the paintings of Max Ernst –
my mother rolled her eyes at me as if I'd asked them where they're from. They dismissed my artsy ambitions straight away, for in the pantheon
of professionalism, neither 'artist' nor 'writer' were proper careers. Next."
"After some research, I suggest to them, 'Architecture?' unsure what its study would actually entail.
It's met, surprisingly, with instant parental approval. Only years later do I find out that in much of
the non-Western world, 'architecture' continued to signify 'engineering.' Something technical, based on
science and maths more than flimsy art. I effectively stow away undetected in this slippage."
If you are still here: double wow.
In my first week as an architecture under-graduate, I raid various departmental libraries and create a totem
of books: The Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty; Of Grammatology and Writing
and Difference by Derrida;
Zero by Barthes; etc. It's 1993 and post-structuralism is still healthy (just) and I want to know
what it's about, maybe the way kids from New Jersey wanted to know what CBGB's was like in the 1970s.
The avant-garde. Crazy hair. Made-up words.
For the next three years, I read whatever I want to read – philosophy, literary and film theory,
Charles Olsen, Mary Douglas, Mircea Eliade, kinship theories – and insist it's all relevant to whatever
I'm doing. And no one rolls an eye. I'm happy. Nothing seems off-limits and I end up writing my dissertation on
Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 feature film, Pierrot le Fou. Further studies would involve excursions into phrenology,
Zizek, Henri Bergson, Laura Mulvey, Lost Highway, all those Semiotexte paperbacks. You get the point.
Everything is everything is everything.
Many years later, an astute friend will describe the study of architecture as a "psychic dustbin." He says
it's a place certain kids end up because they come from families that – like my own – would never
support the study of art and literature even though that's really where the kid should be going. The study of
architecture (I should add: at certain "elite" schools) turns out, however, to be a fertile holding pattern until
the kid is old enough, or lucid enough, to go and do what it is s/he always wanted to do.
Before the Renaissance, it's arguable whether the term "architect" was really in use the way we use it today
(even that is probably contentious). Medieval cathedrals were built through the concentrated circuitry of different
crafts and economies. Someone oversaw it all and had enough knowledge about the constituent inputs to orchestrate
their synthesis. We still don't know the names of most of these medieval polymaths, but we start to hear names once
the Renaissance "arrives." Because, there's a mirroring between the paradigmatic "Renaissance Man" – schooled
poetry, sciences, ethics, etc. – and the "Architect."
This is what I am most grateful for in my long deviation at the tail end of the 20th century.
Architecture's role in the unfolding of the world (as setting, witness, crime scene, aberrant luxury) is
analogically echoed in what happens to your brain when you study architecture. You're more neurologically wired
to see the interconnectedness of things. You're more predisposed to ignore the sovereignty of disciplines. If you
listened carefully during class, and you care, you will know a little about many things and that's useful in the
21st century because that's the abiding logic of time and space right now. To invoke Foucault – one of my
stalwarts from that first week – we have to be Poets while the world acts as the ultimate Madman.
And then I lost interest in architecture.
I realized that this epistemological generosity served by architecture's academia is not from selfless reasons. It is
partly born from a kind of ontological insecurity that goes back to the man overseeing the building of the medieval cathedral:
"What exactly do I know and what exactly do I do that makes me unlike anything or anyone else?"
The answer is at best fuzzy. At worst, it's existentially a downer.
David Byrne recently posted a piece where he outlines why he's lost interest – love, even – in contemporary art.
I won't rehearse the entire argument, but it's the same gist as Dave Hickey's from 2012, when the irascible dealer-turned-critic
declared he was quitting the art world because contemporary art has become one of the prime venues for the gratification of global
capital. It makes contemporary art richer – but maybe uglier to some people like Dave and David.
As a comparison, think about the venue of contemporary literature. Do you see Russian or Chinese oligarchs queuing to rub up against the
latest feted novelist? It doesn't happen. There are no Sotheby's and Christie's of writing. Books haven't been 1% commodities since
Gutenberg gutted the sacral quality of text. Today, literature may hold a gaze upon the bloated excrescences of 21st- century wealth
but it doesn't work the other way around.
Art on the other hand is the orgy-on-a-yacht everyone wants in on.
In this sense, art is catching up to architecture. Wealth, power, privilege always found their most boastful expression in buildings,
which are portraits at a bigger scale. Architects – from Le Corbusier to Albert Speer – were just puny paper dreamers when
they were not being backed by a bank or Benito Mussolini.
Architecture without money is poetry and no one got rich from being a poet.
Remember when there was a glaring difference between clothes you could afford on the high street and those you couldn't in Yohji Yamamoto or Balenciaga?
It seems so quaint now. High/low divisions, ha! The same thing's happened in architecture. Corporate offices churn out their own versions of
Zaha Hadid and Zaha Hadid's office has grown to a corporate size.
The only people who still use the word "avant-garde" are from real estate marketing. They, unlike poets, become very rich indeed.
I'm in danger of providing an all too clear reason for my architecture apostasy. It's more mercurial than late-blah-capitalism (one of today's
easiest alibis for shallow thinking).
Other probable reasons are the computerization of space (also responsible for the banalization of Hollywood), the endgame of 20th-century
aesthetic experimentation (why all painting and sculpture looks déjà vu), the true International Style as Amazoned by Flat Earth globalization,
evil Google, Snapchat, the Islamic State, Ebola, the shitty iOS8 update, a history of slavery, bad feminists, Bashar al-Assad, Mark Regev,
and kale. Mostly Mark Regev.
Having said all that, it's probably just me.
Sidenote: I've been living in a very special piece of building made of squares, cylinders, rectangles, triangles. Shapes that are child-like or
Platonic. Abstract or figurative. For the architect John Hejduk, probably both. Hejduk will be known to the academic architectural cognoscenti
but not to anyone else. He built very little in his lifetime, not because he couldn't, but rather, he chose not to. Instead, he drew scratchy
drawings of carnivalesque objects wandering Europe. He wrote many, many poems. He constructed strange animistic installations. He taught.
Lots. And yet, I've been residing on the 10th and 11th floors of a social housing block in Berlin which he architected, where each room exists
in its own independent tower, linked to each other by short walkways. There are only seven apartments in total. It's utterly irrational –
no developer would condone it – and therefore utterly compelling. Finished in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall, close by, came down,
this piece of pure auteurship stands alone, apart, even from itself. Every day I wake up inside it, a spectral pulse runs through me, mediated
by this odd, oblique entity I temporarily call home. It is enchanting and unnerving. It is the palpable strength of a strong idea.
Without an abiding curiosity in the world – which should find form as vigilance against complacent comfort in what you know – you die inside.
Boredom is irradiation of the soul.
Shumon Basar is a writer. He is co-authoring The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present with Douglas Coupland
and Hans Ulrich Obrist, to be published by Penguin and Blue Rider in March 2015.