Architecture When the Time Comes, 2017
Architecture is uniquely poised—today, and perhaps as never before—to confront and contend with the most recalcitrant and pressingly critical issues of our time. Among them, war. Given its awesome and fearsome scale, and the belligerence of those who wage it, and the leveling destruction of places, and the ensuing and harrowing flight and displacement of people, and the depth of their trauma and suffering—given all of this, the urgency of architectural responses to the human and material plight that we witness daily, and that we suspect is unparalleled in history, cannot be understated. What also cannot be understated is the degree to which architectural responses to the crises of war must be undertaken with thoughtful dispatch and not with the hurried abandon and unrestraint typical of postwar reconstructive efforts. The project places in relief some of the imperatives of and directives for the reconstruction of architectural ecosystems destroyed by war. It is grounded in the premise that no one can responsibly approach and enter into questions and projects of post-war reconstruction without first pouring over the record—some of which is archaic and poised toward oblivion—of what historically defines a people and constitutes the conventions, forms, and legends to which they are dedicated. The paper assumes the need for attentive and sensitive responses to the deep-rooted psychological, social, cultural, and environmental needs, requirements, and conventions of people who have faced and who reel from the ultimate of existential threats. The paper also assumes the need for an equally attentive and sensitive response to the very material conditions of the locales that, prior to war, supported a people in complex and lively ways. For, despite their overwhelming ruin, these locales, along with the conventions of a people, hold the promise of healing and recovery. In short, it is both a material and a cultural tectonics that must be sought by architects—and sought precisely within existing material and cultural matrices—before committing to the awesome task and responsibility of reconstruction.
19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt contributed profoundly to the study of culture with three fundamental intuitions. 1. First, he acknowledged the multiplicity of cultures. On this basis he might be considered the precursor of global aesthetics. 2. Second, he understood culture—one of three great powers next to state and religion—to have a disruptive function with respect to the other two powers, powers which are fundamentally hostile to it. 3. Third, he broke ground for the invention of a method of emancipation from the cultural colonialism of the West. The method consists in breaking up the relationship between modernization and Westernization and in rethinking in new terms the cultural traditions of the colonized. Mario Perniola, who brings these intuitions of Burckhardt to us in his 20th Century Aesthetics, summarizes: “Cultural modernization does not occur, therefore, in the colonial form of an uncritical and passive adoption of Western mentality, but through a step back towards one’s own past, which makes it possible to present it in a new and appropriate form to withstand comparison with the West. (Mario Perniola, “Aesthetics and Culture” in 20th Century Aesthetics: Toward a Theory of Feeling 137-38) Quoting Perniola further and at length: “Since the nineteenth century, the challenge for non-European countries has been simple: their modernization is absolutely necessary to avoid being completely colonized by the Euro-Americans, but this process must not follow slavishly the cultural models proposed and imposed by the Euro-Americans, but must invent new forms of modernization which, by maintaining a relation with their past, are capable of withstanding on all points of view the attack that comes from the West.” (Ibid., 139) Following these formulations, I propose that the path toward autonomous modernization is to be found in material and cultural tectonics dormant and embedded within material and cultural conditions that lie in the past prior to Westernization. A passage through the foreign It does so at the very limit of culture, at, that is, the very moment when, threatened by war, a culture faces eradication and erasure, whether as the direct result of war or as the result of postwar reconstructive efforts indifferent to material and cultural context. The project sets out some of the parameters for this consideration through the lens of architecture. It proposes that and war. But, it proposes, not a nostalgic return to lost forms, but an attentiveness to them and their adaptation to present needs, circumstances, and technologies.