Perusing recent collections of essays by two of the most perceptive critics in architecture, Catherine Ingraham and Todd Gannon, AIA, reminded me of the function such serious evaluations of both the nature of architecture and its core products, buildings, have in nudging us to keep asking some basic questions of the discipline. These range from “How should we design?” to “What is good architecture? to “What is architecture anyhow?” If this dyad of authors ultimately provides more questions than answers to these posers, that only underlines the value of their criticism.
They bring two different perspectives to their critical work. Ingraham was trained outside the field, in literature and philosophy, and entered into architecture both through a family connection—Frank Lloyd Wright was her great-grandfather—and through the fascination with the discipline displayed by quite a few of those critical thinkers she admired. She is now a professor at the Pratt Institute in New York.
Ingraham's collection of essays, Architecture’s Theory (MIT Press, 2023), proceeds from the writings of philosopher Jacques Derrida, the central figure of what has come to be known, after one of his techniques, as deconstruction. Ingraham and Derrida both begin their discussion of architecture not with the primitive hut, as so many standard assessments of architecture do, but with the Tower of Babel. “If the tower had been completed,” she quotes Derrida remarking, “there would be no architecture. Only the incompletion of the tower makes it possible for architecture as well as the multitude of languages to have a history …” For Derrida, the continual work and necessary diversity, contradiction, and uncertainty of making our society is at the core of all cultural production, and at the core—if not in reality, certainly in metaphor—is architecture. Since construction on the tower stopped, there is no appeal to a beginning, an authority, or the facts of building: God cut themselves off from that continual construction by effectively frustrating the vertical connection the tower tried to build to them.
Following Derrida, Ingraham thus looks not for origins or supposed facts, but for what is missing, what is implied, or what is sensible in the reality of our constructions, but only if you keep asking difficult questions about what appear to be complete assemblies. To do so, the author says, you have to go beyond immediate perception, or even beyond relying on what you think are basic truths you see all around you. “I don’t believe that there is any perception,” Ingraham goes so far as saying. She does not mean that we do not see, hear, smell, or touch, but that these unreliable faculties offer us only clues to the much more complex realities (and unrealities) through and in which we operate every day.
What interests Ingraham instead is how architecture activates certain ways we understand our world and represses others. Some of the most perceptive essays here do address archetypes, but in a way that contradicts our standard sense of these elements. Thus Ingraham’s reading of Greek tragedy leads her to note that gates are not just places of arrival and welcoming, but “… an archaic threshold, a family idea … defensive, a fortification, and a mythic enclosure whose walls bind it to a narrow set of principles.” In contrast, the amphitheater “… amps things up and fans out as a space … The amphitheater is a theatrical machine that also begins to govern, in some benevolent sense … the way things are said, and to use [Judith] Butler’s word, the ‘speakability’ of things.”
This analysis leads her to note how architecture as a discipline has long concerned itself with “… the protection of a site, a table of operation, territory, and property.” She criticizes how defensive the language and methods of architecture are, even as it has “colonized” other fields (“information architecture,” anyone?). Instead, Ingraham notes, ”Architecture—buildings built not simply as constructions but as constructions with a symbolic import—activates concepts of place in several ways: through the design of a site that intersects with social and legal systems, through symbolic transfers of meaning encoded in legal systems, through symbolic transfers of meaning encoded in ordered spaces, through dynamic relations to labor and material production, and through the intellectual relation of the architectural discipline to its practice.”
Beyond such observations, Ingraham does not go into many details. Early on, she notes an interest in what she calls “figural play … a way of combining the symbolic, the real (as unstable givens) and the senses.” She cites a competition entry for the Wolfsburg Science Center by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects as an example of this mode, but does not follow through with specific analyses of this or other buildings.
In the latter part of the work, Ingraham’s interest becomes more fixated on a particular notion of the word “organic” that is rather more visceral than Frank Lloyd Wright’s. She sees not a conflict between nature and the human-made, but rather a “biotechnically imbricated [overlapping]” architecture in which “biospheres and mechanospheres are inseparable.” She becomes fascinated by a clear case study of such hybrid forms, namely slaughterhouses, but unfortunately does not draw her acute observations on that particular mode of disassembly into a broader critique of architecture, or even to other building types.
Todd Gannon, on the other hand, looks a lot at specific buildings. Trained as an architect before obtaining his Ph.D. and subsequently focusing on writing and teaching, his volume of collected essays, Figments of the Architectural Imagination (Applied Research & Design, 2022), offers short and pithy evaluations mainly of contemporary buildings or phenomena. At times, these lead him to make broader historical and philosophical points, as when his analysis of a ceiling sculpture or scaffolding by the Los Angeles–based firm Oyler Wu Collaborative moves him to a dash through history to predict a shift in focus from the wall to what is above us as a focal point:
“A précis of that history might run as follows: The stone ceilings of the past drew our attention ever upward, belying their chthonic weight with pattern, pendentives, and illusionistic paint. Later, a shift from spiritual to secular concerns found expression in new material and tectonic configurations, and our disciplinary attention slid from the ceiling to wall. Out of work, ceilings offered their vacant surfaces to mechanical equipment and got involved in the production of subliminal environmental effects. Vertical surfaces, in turn, stepped to the fore to take on increased expressive and representational responsibilities. In time, these surfaces registered increasing dematerializations, as modernists pursued both literal and phenomenal transparencies. With contemporary practice increasingly focused on digital media and the production of ambient effects, dematerializations have become more pronounced, and architecture emerges as a field seemingly committed to staging its own disappearance.”
It is two longer essays, both co-authored with the renowned literary critic N. Katherine Hayles, that lead Gannon to make (even) broader theoretical points. In “Virtual Architecture, Actual Media,” the authors propose that:
“Architecture … is not building, nor is it some privileged subset of building. Rather, we posit architecture as an emergent property of building. It is that which makes building meaningful to an ongoing tradition … Further, we posit that architecture is a function of embodied discourse, that is, discourse instantiated in speech or, more typically, written or graphical documents. Document, as the term is used in textual studies, is distinct from text or work because it implies the existence of a physical (or digital) object. Just as all buildings hold within them the potential of becoming architecture, so the documents that precede, surround, and follow buildings are constitutive players in imagining, planning, and implementing architectural practices and thus also participate in creating architecture. Embodied buildings and embodied documents are physical objects witnessing to architectural acts, but architecture can never be reduced to these objects.”
This statement leads them to posit that “architecture, by virtue of its dynamic interaction with actual media, infuses the physicality of the written and the built with the infinite potential of the virtual. Inhering at the very heart of the discipline, architecture’s ineffability, unspeakable as such, is the reservoir that renews the discipline and makes innovation possible.”
Whereas Ingraham wants us to see that there is no core tradition of buildings that stand independently of either the society in which they appear and operate, or the wider biological and technical systems of which they are part, Gannon and Hayles ask us to understand that we should not try to separate “real” and “virtual” buildings, but rather realize that the physical and its digital version are both “documents” of certain forces architects try to direct.
In the essay “Mood Swings,” this position leads the authors to propose that we understand that there is not a new style or fundamental fact in how we design, make, and use buildings, but rather a “mood swing” that includes a bias toward the “materiality of surfaces” and “an emphasis on the changing environmental inflections of ambient surfaces, along with the renewed interest in the relation of architecture and effect.” In one of the clearest moments in the essay, they compare pictures of Peter Eisenman’s addition to the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning and Herzog & de Meuron’s Signal Box auf dem Wolf in Basel, Switzerland to show how we have moved from a fascination with structure, whether physical or not in Eisenman’s work, to an acceptance of the dense structures forming buildings as given and a focus, instead, on surface effects that are still relatively free in the work of Herzog & de Meuron.
The sense that something about architecture is different today than it was when these critics started writing a few decades ago (Ingraham, it should be noted, a good 20 years or so before Gannon) is clear, but one of the strengths of both of these collections is exactly that they do not claim any fundamental shift and make no assertions as to what might be the right way to make architecture in our current conditions. Instead, they ask us to reconsider the history and theory of the discipline from our more virtual, more complex, and more technologically defined situation. They get us to look up at the ceiling and see what we have long ignored; they ask us to consider the “improper” sites of the discipline where we kill other living beings; and they suggest that we consider a different “ambiance” our buildings might have now. The mood and the theory might be different today, but the continual groping for what architecture might be or become remains the same as it has always been.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.