The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
8
Being RE



R.E. Somol

is the director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Dear Bob, 

On behalf of the
Cornell Journal of Architecture, issue 8: RE, we would like to invite you to contribute an article.

In “12 Reasons to Get Back in Shape,” in
Content (p. 87) you propose an architecture that “is experienced more like a visit from an alternative world” than a “critique of this world.” It is ironic to us at the Journal that you are undeniably R.E. and at the same time explicitly anticriticality. We would call that anti-RE. Is this Oedipal relationship with your name something that you have you have considered? 

—Eds.

Dear Editors, 

Thanks for the invite. Good to know I was RE long before it became construed as critical fashion. It is not surprising to me, as you will no doubt understand, that it always seems that those with an overdeveloped sense of the ironic are most committed to the critical project. 

In any case, thank you for thinking of the work, but I have to admit my now limited time for writing is aimed at exclusively projective journals (we are starting one here, entitled
Flat Out). For too long those of us on the projective side have been used as straw men for those trying to fan the flames of the critical project’s dying embers. Time to move on and shift the entire context of discussion: arrivederci, Log, Harvard Design Magazine, Grey Room, etc. etc. Nonetheless, I am very interested in seeing the issue and the results of your labors. Hope to get up to Ithaca to see firsthand that and the rest.

All best,
—res

RES,

Thanks for your response. We understand your position but sadly it only encourages us. Blast!

We wonder if you’d be interested in doing an interview with us at the Journal. That way, you get it all out of your system (We’d love to hear more about shifting the context of the discussion away from criticality … it’s actually perfect, no?), but it’s a really minimal time commitment on your part. It might make you feel better to think of it as a final laying to rest of this criticality stuff. One hour, that’s it. What do you say?

—Eds.



In conversation with Caroline O’Donnell, and Zachary Tyler Newton, Adam Murfield, Daniel Marino, Timothy Liddell, Kyle Jenkins, Raymond Fort, Irina Chernyakova

Caroline
As you know, for issue 8 of the Cornell Journal of Architecture, our theme is RE. Since you are R.E., I’d like to start with that: where does your name come from?

R.E.
I suppose I became R.E. in the late 80s, in my first piece of published architectural criticism, no doubt as part of the culture of postmodernism.

Caroline
In terms of that culture, you have said that Colin Rowe saw modernism as a repetition and continuity, in contrast to Peter Eisenman and Rem Koolhaas, who saw it as a break. How do you see the discipline?

R.E.
Breaks, but cyclical breaks. The question is whether one is more interested in suturing over those breaks and looking for continuity and lineage, or one is more interested in those moments of rupture. But the ruptures are part of that structural, cyclical game. The disciplinary question is how you approach history or tradition or precedent ...You only get to choose how to repeat, but not whether to repeat.

Caroline
Your article with Sarah Whiting, “Notes on the Doppler Effect” (2002), reads as a desire for rupture. Can you explain the context of that moment of conception?

R.E.
For me, it went back to my previous education, which was in law school, and the reason that I went to law school was to study with Roberto Unger, a social-political theorist associated with critical legal studies. Some of those people were the first to bring poststructuralist theory into legal studies: deconstructing legal texts, showing the undecidability of precedent, and so on. Law and architecture are very similar in that regard: how do you deploy precedent and swerve from it? Unger used the word projective to imagine new institutional relationships. This went beyond the critical Derridian model to unabashedly declare that, as with classical thought or modern social theory, there needed to be a positive theory of personality as well as a theory of politics to move forward, as opposed to simply undermining or putting quotation marks around those individual and collective formations that already exist. So for me, the projective came out of that legal, pre-architectural, engagement.

Caroline
What does the projective mean for architecture?

R.E.
I think there are three ways in which one engages audience. First, there’s the normative: you produce work that confirms an existing constituency. Then there is a moment of self-consciousness where that idea of consensus breaks down, which is the birth of the critical project. In that second mode, the regime of the critical, alienation, and estrangement become the techniques to expose the fact that there is no easy consensus between form and action. The critical moment displaces an interest in the collective in order to provoke individuation. Without that moment of autonomy or separation from the world, you would still be in the world of the normative. But the question after that eruption and institutionalization of critical self-consciousness, and where I think the current urgency lies, is how to reimagine a collective again. This solicits a third way to engage audience, or the projective.

Caroline
The critical versus the projective could be aligned with the objective versus the subjective or Kant’s notion of the universal subjective, which is potentially an opposition familiar to you: utopia versus heterotopia. How do you see the project in regard to this dialectic and its potential relation to notions of taste? [See: “Taste Is Critical,” David Salomon.]

R.E.
While the critical moment can undermine, expose, and make fun of the consensual model of modernism and its belief structure, at some point, the issue is: what next? If you are interested in forging new collectives, then at some point you have to go back to the embarrassment of that modernist possibility, but at a point at which there is no longer a convincing “true” way to represent the group, the collective. So, at that point, after the naive faith of modernism and the critical-ironic posture of postmodernism, you are in what Jeff Kipnis has called genre politics. You choose which genre you are in, and then you operate in that way. It’s no longer a choice between having a true world or perpetually undermining such a faith. It’s the project of appealing to different audiences to join your thing. In that sense it’s a type a heterotopia or serial utopia, or nonmonogamous utopia. So the projective does recuperate some ambitions of modernism, but at the level of exaggerating in each world a degree of artifice and plasticity.

Caroline
You often use the word cool. What does coolness have to do with the projective?

R.E.
Whether it’s associated with the modern or the contemporary, the cool characterizes the last moment when a certain optimism seemed possible—a precritical optimism—that is a useful complement to the projective.

Daniel
Regarding taste: I was really struck by something Jeffrey Kipnis once said to a student. He said, If it looks like shit, it looks like shit, and I was wondering how one could be a critic, while having the cool always embedded in one’s criticism?

R.E.
The important thing is to differentiate criticism from criticality: the former can indeed be cool and optimistic, the latter is invariably negative and pessimistic. In the terms of McLuhan’s differentiation between hot and cool media, “criticality” (critical theory, if you will) is typically “hot” in that it requires high definition in one channel of information: intricacy, difficulty, complexity, and so on. But the open-endedness of the projective thrives under coolness in the sense of a degree of vagueness and abstraction—one I have tried to associate with the concept of “shape” and the discursive history of an antiformalist minimalism—one that solicits participation and completion due to its expedient low-definition.

Caroline
Does the rejection of the difficult in favor of the easy produce better architecture, however one defines better?

R.E.
Easy is not a process, not a cause, but a desired effect. For me the easy was never about something being easy to do, it was always about the effect of easy. We shouldn’t need to advertise our torture in public. We shouldn’t need to expose the fact that it was really hard work. Deal with it, man, it’s hard work; that’s your job, now move on. What makes you good is the fact that you make hard work look easy, not that you don’t do hard work. The problem today, of course, is all those people doing not much “work” at all, but disguising or justifying their flimsy production under the aura of difficulty and complexity: whether in the form of writing or design. For them, the “critical” must be maintained at all cost as the excuse for an overwrought complexity on autopilot.

Caroline
There’s a relationship between the word projective and the psychological term projection, which is about the transmission of desires onto another, and your equating the projective with minimalism really makes sense in that it allows the participants to project their desires onto the project. This could be the coolness you are referring to.

R.E.
Yes, I think that it’s similar to the projection onto Obama of very different agendas, or the way in which a project like the Seattle Public Library can produce a new form of identity for formerly disparate groups. Jesse Reiser said recently at his lecture at uic that he wasn’t interested in contextualism like Zelig, meaning disappearing, but actually the kind of contextualism of Chauncey Gardner, who was the vague character everyone was able to project their desires onto. So the specific character doesn’t change, doesn’t try to mimic an existing context, but the relation of the audience is transformed by the character’s ability to have different wish fulfillments projected onto and through him.

The Seattle Public Library does that. Part of it is that you need a surprising initial image that then recalibrates the field. It needs to be imageable without representing an existing constituency, and in this way enters into a debate with Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s interest in the icon. On the other extreme, you don’t want to defer resemblance entirely, either, like the informalists, who mimic landscape or mimic infrastructure. You need some form of imageability, but it can’t be one that represents a particular constituency, because that limits the possibility of producing crossover audiences.

Kyle
It seems like you’re more promoting a plurality of voices, or the underdog, instead of any kind of system of unification.

R.E.
It’s not like just any third thing will do. Part of that is how do you be a political deconstructivist. If we at least accept that there’s no truth in the world, at least then we know that what everyone else is parading around as truth can’t be right. Consequently, my ambition for the school, and what I think of as the goal of education, is the development of counterintuition.

Kyle
It sounds like multiple readings by a number of people is of one of the agendas or aspirations of the projective. The disciplinary knowledge that goes into the work isn’t necessarily for the observer, is it?

R.E.
If you go back to Jenks’s idea of multicoding, the idea is that the people will get one thing and the experts will get another; that different fragments address different constituencies, like a collage of references. I think anybody, musician, fashion designer, artist, needs to know their field inside out before they can produce those sorts of effects.

Caroline
At the end of Doppler, you say that the projective is not a capitulation to market forces, but instead it “actually respects or reorganizes multiple economies, ecologies, information systems and social groups.” Does the financial crisis that was recently experienced have an effect on that, does it produce a new kind of possibility for the discipline?

R.E.
Current events certainly could be used to rescript normative agendas. Unfortunately, there has emerged a new metanarrative, loudly advertised by journalists and some of those in the field, which has to be overcome. Their new norm is that the heyday of economic excess is over, thank God, so we can roll up our sleeves and get back to work building public infrastructure. That, to me, is not a new economy; they are now just the ambulance chasers of the new (old) deal, simply confirming the current market.

Caroline
In almost every article you’ve written, Peter Eisenman is somehow present. But your newer texts are—first in the Doppler and then in subsequent articles—a strong attack on Peter’s methodology. Can you explain your ambivalence?

R.E.
It’s not ambivalence. Peter established a territory for a lot of people to do things other than what he did. That is what I’m interested in exploring. What’s admirable is that Peter is in it for the game of architecture, and he likes people to disagree with him. The list of people he invites in to be rude to him is extensive. And that’s something you really have to give him credit for.

Also, I see—though he might not—a political dimension to what he has done. He’s precisely produced an alternative economy and ecology in architecture that wouldn’t have existed but for him. Forget the writing, forget the architecture: he is first and foremost an institution builder. Whether it was CASE, or the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies, or Oppositions, or Any, he loves making groups and publications and movements. He is a projector of institutions and a great impresario, orchestrating and bringing together people from diverse fields and ideologies to come and debate architecture. And you don’t have to agree with him—better if you don’t.

By accident, perhaps, he always was a projective figure, he just generated it through a formal agenda. What else is splitting the queen bed into two twin beds in House VI, and therefore interrupting the domestic bliss, except a sadomasochistic disciplining project of power? In other words, it comes about by a formal manipulation, but the effects are in fact behavioral, social, political, domestic. So he may not be explicitly interested in those things, but they are in fact embedded in the formal project. And people who overlook the effect of those forms are simply bad critics.

Caroline
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is a good example, because it’s really not based on any legible reference: it’s purely visceral. It produces an experience, not a close reading.

R.E.
Yes, and I think that even he likes that aspect of it, unlike some of the more overheated projects. In other words, the documentary that shows the way in which different people are enabled to do things on it illegally, how they have to police people from sunbathing or skateboarding or whatever. There’s a case where a formal preoccupation and relentlessness releases energies and opportunities that others are invited to complete or realize. In fact, it’s very much the cool solicitation of participation one also gets in minimalism.

For me it’s the stone soup phenomenon, which is the Obama and Seattle Public Library situation: throwing an attractor into the world that starts to associate a community around it, by virtue of being drawn to something that can encourage that set of aftereffects.

Caroline
You and Jeff Kipnis recently commented on a dialogue between Peter and Rem in London, and the book that came out of that is called Supercritical. It sounds from this like the discipline is moving beyond the postcritical. Is that the case?

R.E.
You have to realize that the term postcritical is introduced precisely by those who would continue the critical project, by (strange as these generational bedfellows may be) the Peter Eisenmans and Reinhold Martins of the world. They don’t want to be left behind, and so characterize their would-be adversaries as a defective, later version of themselves. Despite Martin’s belated attempt to recuperate the “utopian” impulse of modernism, the point of the projective all along was to reinvigorate the power and possibility of making alternative worlds, a power that was indeed sacrificed by the critical Ph.D. factories of the east coast. Those critical doctoral centers represented the final academicization of postmodernism’s ironic turn away from modernism: abdication without the humor. The projective was precisely an alternative to that subindustry of established academic architecture.

Caroline
We had Rem here last week, talking about his relationship to Ungers and Cornell, and obviously Peter has a relationship with Rowe and Cornell. These two figures, Rem and Peter, are arguably the two most important figures that we have in Architecture today and both of them have this paternal relationship with two other important figures here. Is it that resistance that produced what they are today? Is resistance necessary?

R.E.
It’s not a question of resistance, because it’s not a choice. To operate at the highest levels of a cultural discipline, you have to work with the material and discourses at hand, and figure a way to redirect them, to cheat them out of becoming historical facts. This is Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence—which is that to establish yourself you have to establish your predecessors. Every strong poet is first a strong critic, and needs to produce a misreading of a previous poet. I think that’s what both Rem and Peter do brilliantly. But resistance implies a critical form of repetition, and therefore is a limited case, and not so useful in discussing how Peter or Rem operate today.

Caroline
You hold up Rem as somebody whose work is potentially projective. But then Peter, in Ten Canonical Buildings chooses Jussieu Library and relates it to Le Corbusier’s Palais des Congrès project for Strasbourg. How can Rem be your figurehead while exhibiting this referentiality?

R.E.
I don’t think that rearranging genetic material for new ends precludes the projective. Even the paranoid-critical method as Rem defines it: we only have a deck of cards, we don’t like how they got played out, so all we can do is reshuffle the evidence. And I think that is what he is doing. He’s reshuffling the deck of cards he’s been given to produce new effects. No one is obsessed with originality and it’s neither necessary nor desired for the projective. So really you are saying, “If I put these things together, I will have a surprising affect that people didn’t expect before”—it’s not that the material isn’t getting reused. And so I think the question is: is it getting reused in ways that people already know? Which, in the case of the Corb repetition, is Richard Meier. If you look at a Richard Meier house, you know that it’s Corbusier on steroids. If you look to Villa Dall’Ava, there’s a vague resemblance to certain aspects of Corbusianism and the five points but they are exerted into a different domain.

Kyle
Isn’t this idea of projective heterotopias at odds with the reshuffling of the cards that you are dealt? You’re very consciously pulling things which are very recognizable and mashing them together in a way which makes them unique and new, which seems different from, but somehow wed with what you’re discussing.

R.E.
I think your job as a critic is to be a cool hunter in that way. And in a sense find material in the world and rearrange it. My secret project is the Johnson Museum by I.M. Pei on this campus. I love that thing. Part of the reason why I love it is that Klaus Herdig, a student of this school, hates it. For him, it’s all that’s wrong with architecture as the “decorated diagram,” but my positive call for the cartoon plan is just another way to say decorated diagram: cartoon instead of decoration, plan instead of diagram. And I love all the projects that Herdig says are bad. Systematically you can read that book as a monograph on cartoon style: the totemic diagrams, or the concretized diagrams, and so on. His “proper” Roweian formalism couldn’t allow him to appreciate that project. But it’s also true that the Pei project can’t be appreciated without Neutelings Riedijk and a series of contemporary projects that allow you then to see it as a false origin for that genealogy.

Caroline
Now that you are the director at UIC, you finally have the chance to teach the projective. But it seems like it’s a lot easier to teach the critical because it’s referential. It seems like the critical becomes easy when it’s taught whereas the projective becomes less easy. So how do you teach that? Or, as you have put it in the past: How do you teach green dots?

R.E.
The first year I was there we radically restructured the curriculum, and for the first year just basically appropriated Alejandro Zaera Polo’s alternatives of control and power and decided that the Fall studio would be about control—the internal geometric protocols—and the Spring would be about power. And so, sotto voce, the two studios are the Eisenman studio and the Koolhaas studio, to get those pedagogies and legacies out right away in the first year and basically start the contemporary discipline from there, from that conversation. It’s the same way that Rowe and Slutzky and Hejduk started from the Domino and the van Doesburg. Their idea was that modern architecture is space and structure. There is also truth in what Colin Rowe once said: What you teach in the first year is what you want them to rebel against in their last year. So for me, I think that you need a firm critical foundation in order to end up with a projective education. I think you need to know the nuts and bolts of your discipline, which is not the same as the nuts and bolts of construction.

Caroline
Does the issue of sustainability fit into your thesis?

R.E.
Sustainability is no thesis. It’s the new panacea for having no thesis. This is the lecture that I’ve been giving over that past year, which discusses the difference between “-ities” and “-isms.” I’m on the side of -isms and not -ities. And so all of the -ities, I can do without, because for me they are not disciplinary issues. So affordability, sustainability, interdisciplinarity, everything that ends in -ity or -ability is out of the question because it’s a kind of LEED check-off. And once you’re in the world of averaging out check-offs, you’ve left the world of ideological projection, and therefore a cultural field, which is what I maintain architecture is.

Caroline
Fair enough, I agree with you. But I want to disagree with you on something you said recently in a lecture at Otis College of Art and Design. [See excerpts of this lecture at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVnElp-Qgdw.] It was a quote from Martin Scorsese’s Departed, when Jack Nicholson says, “I don’t want to be a product of my environment, I want my environment to be a product of me.”

I don’t think it necessarily follows that being a product of one’s environment is a bad thing. There are examples in nature where being a product of your environment is really a good thing. The giraffe, in terms of genetic evolution, is a product of its environment. With its food source at the top of the trees, evolutionary survival depended on the elongation of the neck, plus re-adjustments to heart and ankles to allow for groundwater drinking. The giraffe’s map of the world might consist of just treetops and watering holes. It’s a product of its own particular environmental analysis. If architecture was fundamentally reactive in this way, it could potentially have a sustainable consequence. What’s wrong with architecture being the consequence of its environment?

R.E.
Well, clearly it’s not very projective in the sense of installing artificial worlds into the world. And in fact, for me, my problem with the -ities, sustainability among them, is that it’s no different than indexicality or parametrics, which to me is just how do you accommodate the forces in the world as they exist? You don’t try to reimagine a world, you just say these are the forces that we are stuck with. And so there’s a kind of essentialism or necessitarianism that I object to.

Zachary
I’m interested in the paradox of being a “projective critic.” Is there the potential as a critic to be projective?

R.E.
I am nostalgic for the era of the generalist, and the people who wore many hats, and I think that Peter and Rem are two exemplars of that moment where it wasn’t a case of the critic-historian versus the architect. They would do both jobs and jump back and forth. That’s still a territory that I want to occupy. It’s a territory that has shrunk in recent years.

In the context of a collaborative practice, I have produced built work. It’s probably minor work in the constellation of the world. It was important for me to do and was an attempt (with a self-imposed budget and an idiot for a client) to combine these issues of modernism and mass culture, which is what I was interested in. How do you hybridize that model as an alternative to the way that New Urbanism hybridized the vernacular and the Classical as a potential thing in the world that you could proliferate? That was the question. Of course, I also simply wanted a pool.

I don’t see any medium of architecture as privileged over any other. So, to me, a book and a building—one is not higher in the hierarchy of architectural possibility. There are media in the world: buildings, writing, painting, films … and then there’s architecture. And architecture transects those horizontally. So part of architecture is the world of building, but not all of it. Part of architecture is the world of writing, but not all of it. To be a projective architect doesn’t mean one of these media, it actually means deploying the many media at your disposal.

Zachary
You have spoken of a nostalgia for print, and an ambivalence for, or even a dislike for the blogosphere, but it seems that since that’s where the dialogue and conversation is moving, that’s something that definitely needs to be engaged with. How do you gather a community there in the projective model?

R.E.
My problem with the blogosphere is the fact that it becomes amateur hour, and so disciplinary knowledge evaporates when it becomes a more or less a thumbs-up thumbs-down solicitation of peoples’ thoughts on something, with good results being how many people liked a person’s work. That’s the downside of participation. But to me it’s the mirror of Mark Wigley saying that architects write about their own work, so we shouldn’t or don’t have to. That attitude abdicates the role of contemporary criticism in favor of specialist scholarship. The blogosphere and the tenurable Ph.D. are mirror sides of the same phenomenon, which is eliminating the generalist from the field in place of expert criticism or a public audience.

Daniel
Is that the ugly face of the cool? That quick response, that informality, “uneditedness.”

R.E.
There might be a sort of McLuhan response here; he says that all cool media eventually become hot. So there is a way in which that form of demagogic, “bottom-up” vote becomes a new form of hot media. I think it’s a failure of critics to model an alternative position to their presumed “real-time” audience.

Caroline
In Pidgin 1, you are quoted as declaring that nobody reads anymore. How does our not reading affect the production of architecture? If we take seriously that nobody reads anymore, that means that nobody is going to read this interview. So now that nobody is listening, what do you want to say?

R.E.
To the extent architecture is a cultural discipline, its task is to propose artificial worlds. Thus, despite the current calls for architecture to become a new form of civil engineering, I tend to think that architecture is more like fashion. When Jesse Reiser and Stan Allen invented infrastructuralism in the early 90s, alongside the digital, paperless studios of the same moment, it was an -ism. Today, because of an external shift in the market and public policy, architecture has dropped the -ism and now infrastructure has become just another fact in a new era of necessitarian politics. All I want to say is, don’t ever mistake your cultural practice for a set of facts. Once you do, you will have absolutely no leverage in the world that our discipline seems so desperate to engage.

 

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