Beyond Buildings


E-book Assassinates Architecture?

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And opening the window of his cell he pointed out with his finger the immense church of Notre-Dame, which, outlining against the starry sky the black silhouette of its two towers, its stone flanks, its monstrous haunches, seemed an enormous two-headed sphinx, seated in the middle of the city.

The archdeacon gazed at the gigantic edifice for some time in silence, then extending his right hand, with a sigh, towards the printed book which lay open on the table, and his left towards Notre–Dame, and turning a sad glance from the book to the church,—“Alas,” he said, “this will kill that.”


This, one of the most devastating moments for buildings in world literature, comes in the fifth book of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As Hugo goes on to explain in the next chapter, the printed book, with its efficient transmission of information and its ability to gather a huge (virtual) audience for ideas, will be a more effective conveyor of ideas and will free readers from the dogmas and the monumental facts of the church. So, now that Amazon has announced that last month it sold more virtual than hardcover books, will Hugo’s prediction finally come true? Will buildings finally succumb to the onslaught of information and sheer stuff that swirls all around us, becoming just billboards or screens? Or, will we still need libraries to house the records of the past, reading rooms to read in, and objects to fix shared values into something more certain and accessible than thumb drives? Better yet, will buildings still be the sphinx of architecture?

Hugo goes on to explain, in a subsequent chapter that was not in the original, 1831 edition, what he meant by this phrase:


But underlying this thought... was a presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable. In this connection the archdeacon's vague formula had a second sense. It meant, "Printing will kill architecture."


Buildings, however, have proven to be remarkably resilient. They have withstood the onslaught of ever more easily accessible information for more than five centuries now. Along the way, however, they have suffered. They have become less-legible and less-shared cultural artifacts that mediate between us and a better world, or that fix meaning in our communal lives, and have become ever more neutral frameworks for flexible spaces whose audiences are more and more limited. Architecture doesn’t use buildings to tell us many stories anymore, and we don’t learn about either the past or a possible future from its forms and decorations. Instead, architecture has to use more subtle tools to inform our lives.


I am, as I try always to do, making the distinction between architecture and buildings. Certainly the book did not kill buildings, and ebooks will not either. Architecture and the meaning of buildings, what buildings are about, how we design them, or how we understand them, rather, is another matter. Signs these days tell us what to do and where to go. Information appears in our hand on a little screen as easily as it appears on a shelf. The disappearance of the hardback book is just another stage in the ephemeralization of information and the mobility of meaning. Architecture has to find another home than buildings, and that is a problem, as it is about buildings.


Around the corner is the appearance of information and even whole scenes or forms in thin air, the way you see in science fiction films.You will be addressed by name when you walk down the street and told a good story (what to buy). You will set the controls by your bed so that when you wake up you will be in Eden, or in New York, or on the 99th floor. Buildings as containers of meaning or character will disappear with them, and architecture will become as if nothing, always changing, adapting, appearing and disappearing. Hugo foresaw this:


In its printed form, thought is more imperishable than ever; it is volatile, irresistible, indestructible. It is mingled with the air. In the days of architecture it made a mountain of itself, and took powerful possession of a century and a place. Now it converts itself into a flock of birds, scatters itself to the four winds, and occupies all points of air and space at once.


We repeat, who does not perceive that in this form it is far more indelible? It was solid, it has become alive. It passes from duration in time to immortality. One can demolish a mass; bow can one extirpate ubiquity? If a flood comes, the mountains will have long disappeared beneath the waves, while the birds will still be flying about; and if a single ark floats on the surface of the cataclysm, they will alight upon it, will float with it, will be present with it at the ebbing of the waters; and the new world which emerges from this chaos will behold, on its awakening, the thought of the world which has been submerged soaring above it, winged and living.


And when one observes that this mode of expression is not only the most conservative, but also the most simple, the most convenient, the most practicable for all; when one reflects that it does not drag after it bulky baggage, and does not set in motion a heavy apparatus; when one compares thought forced, in order to transform itself into an edifice, to put in motion four or five other arts and tons of gold, a whole mountain of stones, a whole forest of timber-work, a whole nation of workmen; when one compares it to the thought which becomes a book, and for which a little paper, a little ink, and a pen suffice,--how can one be surprised that human intelligence should have quitted architecture for printing? Cut the primitive bed of a river abruptly with a canal hollowed out below its level, and the river will desert its bed.


Assuredly, it is a construction which increases and piles up in endless spirals; there also are confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labor, eager competition of all humanity, refuge promised to intelligence, a new Flood against an overflow of barbarians. It is the second tower of Babel of the human race. 


The new Babel is being built, digit by digit.What will be the role of architecture in its construction?




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.