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The Other Half of Architecture: Notes on Construction as Emotion and Emotion as Experiment

Ensayo
2 October, 2017

In accordance with your tastes, choose a country, a more or less populated city, a more or less busy street. Build a house. Furnish it. Use decorations and surroundings to their best advantage. Choose the season and the time of day. Gather the suitable people, with appropriate records and drinks. The lighting and the conversation should obviously be suited to the occasion, as should be the weather or your memories. If there have been no mistakes in your calculations, the result should be satisfactory. (Inform the board of editors of the results.) Potlatch, Num. 1, June 22, 1954.

The notes that follow attempt to sum up and communicate certain ideas put forth in the seminar entitled “Cartographies of Situationist Thought”—which took place at the Museo Experimental El Eco over the summer of 2011— and particularly the resonances between Mathias Goeritz and some of the founding members of the Situationist International (si). [1] What do Emotional Architecture and the Situationists’ architectural projects have in common? How are they different? What contemporary issues do they refer to? As we will see throughout this essay, two conceptual leitmotifs connect the answers to these questions. The first is the study and reappraisal of the existential rather than functional “other half” of architecture. In this sense, using different hypotheses, Mathias Goeritz as well as the Situationists Gilles Ivain, Asger Jorn, Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, Constant, Ralph Rumney and Guy Debord argued that inhabiting places was an intangible, subjective and uniquely individual experience and, by extension, that it was important to transform the “invisible” city. The second leitmotif is the pursuit of an experimental methodology in order to reveal the possible emotional effects —which can be reinvented time and again— of “spectacular” architecture on our behavior. There is also a third leitmotif, more anecdotal but no less important than the first two: neither Goeritz nor the Situationists were professional architects working under commission, rather, they were visionary artists who were willing to dedicate most of their lives to the pursuit of their dreams.

Goeritz and the Situationists shared a genealogy of various avant-garde movements (e.g. both were influenced by Dada or the Bauhaus), and this helps us understand the kinship between their conceptions of the relation between art and architecture. However, their most remote common antecedent is the Gesamtkunstwerk (or “total work of art”), translated into their advocacy of the construction of living, dynamic buildings with an emotional impact. In Mathias Goeritz’s case, this conception materialized in 1953 with the construction of the Museo Experimental El Eco. This museum’s conceptualization—described in his Emotional Architecture Manifesto and also linked to German Expressionism—questioned the severity of the hyper-rational positivist architect, adducing that architecture, as a cross between the other arts, reflected and also had to affect the spiritual state of contemporary individuals. The Manifesto makes us realize another point of convergence between Emotional Architecture and the Situationist program: their stern critique of functionalism, not rejecting it altogether, but rather subordinating the functional to the emotional or the imaginative. While for Goeritz architecture could potentially spark aesthetic experiences or spiritual awakenings and genuine emotions, for the Situationists, who understood it more pragmatically, it had to construct situations with two goals: firstly, short-circuit the normal functioning of a city that was spectacular, alienated and whose control had been wrested from passive urbanites; secondly, spark playful, liberated forms of behavior that might satisfy the will of the inhabitants. Architecture had to be able to construct “real” situations that counteracted the mercantile mediatization of the world; it also had to reestablish the very nature of truth in everyday life, i.e. spark creativity with all its revolutionary implications—unbound imagination instead of calculating reason—in order to “make ourselves” instead of the objects that enslave us. What would the Situationists say today about the progress of “spectacular” architecture (to use a Situationist category, in spite of its uncertain meaning), whereby museums, office blocks or airports are clearly aesthetic constructions that resort to large-scale sculptural operations? What can we learn from the similarities between Goeritz’s and the Situationists’ programs, which both acclaim this “other half” of architecture? What do they mean to our current period’s architectural and urban paradigms?

The “situation construction program,” whose corollary would be the revolutionary diversion of modern architecture and, ultimately, the instauration of unitary urban planning, was configured from various fronts that crystallized into a single one with the founding of the Situationist International in Cosio d’Arroscia in the summer of 1957. For the young Gilles Ivain (a.k.a. Ivan Chtcheglov), architecture, understood as a medium of knowledge and a means of action, was a modulation that influenced reality inscribed in the never-ending curve of human desires and The Other Half of Architecture: Notes on Construction as Emotion and Emotion as Experiment 158 159 the progress towards their achievement. Asger Jorn repeatedly criticized Le Corbusier for reducing architecture to a mere means towards an end, instead of conceiving it as an end in itself. In Jorn’s opinion, our “architectural frameworks for living” had to follow a unitary artistic logic as organic as life itself—a logic that would ultimately also blur the boundary with art to the point of being reborn as a cooperative construction situation open to the desires of the city’s inhabitants. Pinot-Gallizio played an important role, not as an artist, but as a passionate defender of the rights of gypsies to set up camps in Northern Italy, as he was fascinated by their nomadic culture.

Belgian artist Constant was also interested in gypsy settlements; he worked on the design of a mobile, borderless city he named New Babylon—the si’s best known and most ambitious project, named after a film made by Kozintsev and Trauberg in 1929 in the USSR about the Paris Commune. This utopian city’s name thus invoked the St. Petersburg and Paris revolutions. This city’s inhabitants, idealized by Constant as liberated builders of changing environments, would playfully experience the quest for “new” emotional states, odors or plays of light that were deliberately disorienting in spatial terms. The purpose of New Babylon was to convert existence into a fascinating game and gradually assemble a community of homo ludens. Though it never came into being, its value consists in presenting the Situationists’ peculiar idea of beauty as a sum of possibilities in a manner that could be described as moving, without a hint of cynicism.

We must also mention the conceptualizations about Situationist psychogeography developed by the Englishman Ralph Rumney—the founder of the “London Psychogeographic Association” in the early 1950s—and Guy Debord. The latter was apparently impressed by Paul Henry Chombart de Lauwe’s 1952 study, Paris et l’agglomération parisienne, and especially by his maps, which were often used as illustrations for the si’s journal and books. Among Debord’s references to Chombart de Lauwe’s work, there is an especially suggestive one that clearly depicts the spirit of psychogeography. It is a detailed map of all the movements over a year of a student living in Paris’s Seizième Arrondissement: his itinerary forms a tiny triangle without deviations, whose tips correspond to the university’s political science faculty, his own apartment and his piano teacher’s house.

In the Definitions published in the first issue of the Internationale Situationniste journal, psychogeography is described as a field of study of the precise, direct effects of the geographic medium—consciously ordered or not—on the emotional behavior of individuals. We thus come to the crucial question of the cross between emotion and experimental research. As one can read in the article “Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation,” “The really experimental direction of Situationist activity consists in setting up, on the basis of more or less clearly recognized desires, a temporary field of activity favorable to these desires. This alone can lead to the further clarification of these simple basic desires, and to the confused emergence of new desires whose material roots will be precisely the new reality engendered by Situationist constructions.” [2]

In a world that privileges the tangible over the intangible, the enduring over the instantaneous, and the sedentary over the nomadic, the resonances between Emotional Architecture and unitary urban design make us recall the need to incorporate new dimensions to construction and new conceptual categories that might help us better understand the complex process by which we invest architectural spaces with meaning. A territorial and thus political ethic is impossible to uphold without an adequate decoding of the genius loci and of the spectacular ideology of standardization that renders everything thematic and banal. The “other half” of architecture is really all of us, since, with our experiences, reflections, identities, memories and feelings, we transfigure each space into a unique place that is paradoxically our own even though we share it with others.

Bibliography

  • Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critic of Urban Geography” (1955), reprinted in Situationist International Anthology, p. 6. <(Available at www.inputpattern.com/portfolio/text/ disney_vs_debord/index.html)> [Fecha de consulta: 10 de julio de 2012].
  • Debord, Guy, La sociedad del espectáculo. Valencia, Pre-Textos, 1999.
  • Internacional Situacionista, entire texts from the magazine Internationale Situationniste, Vol, I,II y III. Madrid, Literatura Gris, 2008.
  • McDonough, Tom, ed., Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT, October, 2002.
  • Potlatch Internacional Letrista. Madrid, Literatura Gris, 2001.