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    Representation and Crime

    Joe DeBenny
    Nov 9, '11 1:43 AM EST

    No, I'm not dead. Busy, but no different from any other architecture student I suppose. What has delayed me was a bit of a crisis of confidence in what I was doing. 'Disillusionment' is a bit of a strong word. Maybe 'questioning' is more accurate. Regardless, I have been somewhat of a lost architectural soul these last two weeks. But perhaps every believer occasionally has these periods. I've already begun by rambling-- let me take a step back and try to articulate what I hope is not as ineffable as it once felt.

    Averaging 4 hours of sleep with a deadline hot on your heels is fertile ground for angst. At 2 a.m. I sat staring at a model that frustrated me to no end. I had fiddled and compromised with the thing for 5 hours at this point and the urge to crush it under my heel grew with every curse I gave it.

    It gets to be so frustrating that I begin to question the whole value in even doing it. I can start to feel a self perpetuating loop of anxiety forming as I fight to justify my own work while struggling to make progress on it. I had to stand up and get some air on the balcony to break the cycle.

    Standing on the balcony and leaning over the rusted steel railing I spotted a couple new podiums the school erected near the garden to exhibit some of the features the new eastern expansion building boasted. Procrastination got the better of me and I found myself descending the stairs to get a better look.

    At the threshold of the garden the podium stood encased and ornamented with the school's logo and titles. An anonymous set of hand drawn diagrams were carefully composed and presented an abstracted plan of the gardens with their relationship to one another. The several desert types of Arizona labeled and delineated in the paths of the schools rear entrance.

    I was taken back by the sudden realization of the symbolism. I had walked through these gardens and the school as a whole for 2 years and never once even noticed the contrast between the different biomes. I glanced around the garden and tried to discern the difference myself while avoiding referencing the drawing. Even having lived in the state for over 12 years I still couldn't make the distinction unaided.

    Chalking it up to my own ignorance of the field of ecology was too much of a cop out. How could I possibly make the excuse that I couldn't differentiate a cholla from a saguaro? There had to be something else at play.

    My modeling crisis had me in a rather pessimistic state of mind and I immediately jumped to blaming the architect. If your building needs a diagram at every corner for its users to understand it, there must have been some failing on the part of the designer. If it isn't obvious for a school of students studying the field of architecture, how could one possibly expect those without any applied interest in the subject to even begin to comprehend it?

    I sulked my way back around the garden. The small foray I had planned to distract me from my existential crisis only ended up reinforcing it. My design was attempting to embody far more visceral and impassioned ideas than representing the ecology of the region. How could I possibly succeed where I felt these professionals failed?

    With just a taste of doubt, my mind quickly gave way to a rush of cynicism. For a brief second, this entire institution we refer to as architecture presented itself as a lie and I felt a terse but intense sense of pity for my idols. I didn't look up to Libeskind and Calatrava for that moment-- they were guilty of approaching architecture in a way that was as artificial as it was ineffectual. It's quite a ridiculous  assertion for a 2nd year student to be making looking back on it now, but the emotion at the time was raw and real.

    Images of Daniel Libeskind's work flashed in my head. His Jewish Museum in Berlin in particular with its striking aesthetic and irregular form. Yet all of the praise I could remember for the building was about its symbolism and cultural sensitivity. As one writer put it:

    •       "The entire structure of the museum with its intersecting axes acts as a symbolic        representation  of the Jewish culture in Germany – the connection of the Jewish people with German history  and the German people, the forced emigration of the Jewish population and finally, the terrible Holocaust."


    The Jewish Museum of Berlin- Daniel Libeskind

    When I first read those words months prior, they garnered no reaction out of me. Yet now, standing alone in a dark garden, I was beyond angry at the though of it. How could anyone make that interpretation from the work? If I had asked 100 random Berliners who interacted daily with the building what their understanding of it was, I was willing to bet my life they would never read the work with a perspective even slightly resembling that of many architectural critics'. And even the self proclaimed experts probably wouldn't either without being told up front the cultural allusions.

    It was highly reminiscent of the pseudo-intellectualism that has most casual art observers repulsed by the idea of modern art. Pedantic rationalization was replacing the substance of actual architectural experience in the name of symbolic sensibilities. Is this what architecture was about? Were we all kidding ourselves about the actual value of our work in the eyes of everyone but ourselves? I didn't know. I was too tired and aggravated to stand there any longer let alone consider questions beyond my capability of answering.

    Many days have gone by since. I didn't head back up to my studio and throw my drafting board through a window to call it quits. There was no dramatic exit from my passion. I cleaned up and went home. I rightly attributed my agitation to stress and over-exertion. I formed no internal response to it. I just... let the doubt linger.

    Since then my doubt has fostered itself into a renewed sense of resolve. I am reminded daily of the night in the garden as I make a design move. Will the user actually, truly understand and appreciate this? Is it performing as intended or merely post-rationalization with a hint of tokened gesture? I can't stand the thought of making unintentional art under the thin guise of intended architectural meaning.

    I've become that cliched snobby modernist. Adolf Loos only nailed half of it in his essay Ornament and Crime. If I could, I would revise it to Ornament, Representation, and Crime. Postmodernism has no 'wit' or 'reference.' Only a representational meaning in place of actual meaning. I can think of nothing more arrogant and self-serving than using the pretense of architecture for exhibiting public art on an inescapable scale. It serves no one but the architect and his desired image as the artist. Not the users, but the ego.

    I like to think that what I have experienced is akin to religious doubt. Perhaps the worshiper finds rejuvenated faith under the scrutinizing eye of incertitude as well. With it, I have a new sense of what I want to accomplish in my own work. I will strive to bring the substance to the forefront while constantly expelling the frivolous and superfluous. Since the 80's the postmodernists have begun to leak from museums and into architecture. If there are any trenches in this war against them, move over. I'd love to help.


    • stourleyk

      Representational meaning vs. actual meaning.  Reminds me of the disdain some people have for facebook 'friendship.'  It's the other's meaning that is inauthentic.

      Make a religion of doubt.

      Nov 9, 11 4:38 am

      I'll make it. You in?

      Nov 11, 11 8:51 pm

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About this Blog

Design is a field rooted in the marriage of the objective and subjective. The line between the two is often blurred and obscured to the point that there is little to distinguish them apart. A student can offer a unique perspective on the tenets of architecture with thoughts and musings unadulterated by the dogmas of traditional theories of practice. This is a blog about ideas. It's not a diary or a means to vent my personal frustrations. My aim is to stimulate architects and students alike.

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