Why Should We Examine Unbuilt Architecture?

The essay was first published in the Book ‘India: Unbuilt Architecture Vol 1.0’

If we view unbuilt architecture as a photograph of the inner turn of the architect, what is revealed in this photograph will demonstrate whether architecture is captured by an ideology of arrogance or an ideology of humility.

If we are to do justice to this collection of unbuilt architecture, we must critically examine the purpose it serves. Some light can be thrown on this challenge by enumerating why a design could remain unbuilt:

  1. Speculative design that has not been commissioned by a client, done of the architect’s own volition as a form of design-research that explores potential in a radical architecture.
  2. Commissioned projects that get stalled for legal, financial or other reasons. These account for the vast majority of unbuilt architecture. 
  3. Unrealised design competitions, either because the design did not win, or because the competition never evolved into a built project.

The first category is not a subject of this particular collection of unbuilt architecture – so, if revolutionary potential is not what we seek to examine here, what can we gain from the projects in this collection? Some direction is suggested by Anupriya Saraswat in an essay on unbuilt architecture where she states, “Untouched by numerous rounds of negotiations and adjustments – which any design inevitably faces upon execution – unbuilt projects retain their original ideology in its entirety.”1 Her argument implies that the complexity of negotiation involved in moving architecture to the state of built completion tends to contaminate the original intent.

Saraswat’s argument echoes that made by one of the iconic superstars of contemporary architecture: Peter Eisenman. In an interview with Iman Ansari, Eisenman makes the polemic claim that “The ‘real architecture’ only exists in the drawings. The ‘real building’ exists outside the drawings. The difference here is that ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ are not the same.”2 He draws attention to a key debate “between architecture as a conceptual, cultural and intellectual enterprise, and architecture as a phenomenological enterprise − that is, the experience of the subject in architecture”3, making it explicitly clear that he has little interest in the latter and focuses his attention on the former. To Eisenman, the architect is a cultural innovator, and the dynamism of culture requires the resisting of any contamination of an architect’s’ creative intentionality to maintain the purity of his/her innovation. He cites advice given to him by Manfredo Tafuri that he must build in order to be taken seriously – not because his ideas may otherwise be dismissed as mere abstractions, but because “Architecture involves seeing whether those ideas can withstand the attack of building, of people, of time, of function, etc.”4 The goal of architecture is to resist distortions affected by this ‘attack’, and Eisenman expresses his pleasure when a French magazine, while covering his work, mistakes the photograph of a constructed house for an image of a model of the design, interpreting this error as a demonstration of success in his quest. From this perspective, a collection of unbuilt architecture possesses great significance, for it presents architecture at its purest moment before subsequent contamination.

But can we dismiss the quest for architecture as a phenomenological enterprise with the same ease with which Eisenman does? To raise the phenomenological question is to grant recognition to the inhabiting subject in architecture as necessarily significant to the architect’s reckoning. Rejection of the phenomenological enterprise is tantamount to derecognition of this subject: an action fraught with ethical pitfalls, for architecture’s inherent status as a public art that shapes and constrains daily life places certain limits on didactic luxuries which may be afforded to other arts that are comparatively private or sporadic. An examination of the historical roots of modern architecture throws some light on this dilemma.

The Foundations of Modernity in Architecture

We cannot easily condemn the derecognition of the inhabiting subject, for we must acknowledge that it is central to the category of unbuilt architecture we are not focusing on here: speculative design. And we owe a great debt to this category, for modern architecture would not have existed if not for speculative and provocative proposals by early innovators such as Antonio Sant’Elia, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Paolo Soleri, Archigram, and many others. The value we acknowledge in these architectural visions would never have been realised if the recognition of the inhabiting object were to be mandatorily held central to the effort, for they were created at a point in history when most people viewed traditional idiom as inevitable. 

While these designs covered a wide variety of approaches, their intellectual roots all evolved from philosophies proposed in an earlier era in Europe known as the Age of Enlightenment5. Modernity, as proposed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, was at its core an ethical and political project. It critiqued traditional authority, arguing that hierarchies created by convention or circumstances of birth should not suppress the autonomous potential of individual will. Energy latent in history could only be released by freedom and democracy. The work of the early modern architects echoed this ethical impulse, permeated by a strong social idealism that is extremely significant. If the experiencing subject was not a constituent in the philosophies that drove radicalism at the moment of revolution, that subject was drawn into the model through the validations of democratic participation as revolution evolved into routine practice. 

This is not the case today, since the mainstream of architecture is no longer a political enterprise. As an artistic practice that relies on a constant negotiation between tacit creativity and intellectual critique, architectural ideas have never been easily separable from their creators. Once political and ethical idealism retreated into the background, architecture evolved into a personality-centric profession where the creativity of heroic figures came to be perceived as the cutting edge that pushes at the frontiers of the discipline to drive its evolution. The experiencing subject has become marginal to the process.

In an essay that asks why the creations of architects tend to stand out rather than merge into landscape, even when the landscape is claimed by the architect as a source of design inspiration, David Heymann suggests that this question is tied to how the experiencing subject is viewed by the architect.6 Drawing extensively on the writing of Adolf Loos, Heymann argues that natural landscape is a spatial category that is not tied to a specific moment of creation, and must therefore be experienced before it can be interpreted. In contrast, architecture’s claim to status as an art tends to foreground the ideas of the artist, seeking interpretation before experience – and consequently, architecture does not merge easily with landscape. Vernacular building, which does not claim status as an art, does not exhibit this attribute. Heymann cites the assertion of Loos that the monument and the tomb are the only typologies that deserve consideration as an art, whereas all other typologies of architecture should not make such a claim. 

We need not delve further into whether architecture is an art or not, for that would be an unproductive side-track. But the relative privilege we give to experience and interpretation is crucial. If we privilege interpretation, we cast modernity as primarily a space of creative and inspirational ideas. But in that case, we face the danger of losing sight of the ethical impulse of modernity. If architecture accepts this ethical dimension, then it must privilege experience through a democratic recognition of the inhabiting subject. 

This creates further questions in looking at unbuilt architecture. The very nature of being unbuilt makes interpretation far clearer, but renders the evaluation of experience as comparatively inaccessible. To resolve this, we must examine the relationship between architecture and life more closely, and for this we must review how the design process actually happens in practice.

The Design Process

In his seminal book on reflective practice, Donald Schön argues that we tend to labour under a misconception of how effective professionals practice their craft.7 We assume that a professional first constructs an idea, philosophy, or theory, and then applies it in practice. This assumption dominates formal professional training – thereby conditioning most professionals – and Schön calls this ‘the model of technical rationality’. This model never occurs in effective practice, for the average professional challenge is far too unique and indeterminate to allow the straightforward application of an idea or theory. Schön proposes, and empirically substantiates, that rather than the conventional assumption of ‘reflection-and-action’, effective professionals develop a capacity for ‘reflection-in-action’, where they develop a value-based framework of expertise in their discipline, and treat each professional assignment as an opportunity to challenge, critique and stretch this framework in order to evolve it further. 

Prior to writing ‘The Reflective Practitioner’, Schön co-authored a book with Chris Argyris that looked at learning in practice, identifying a model they call ‘double-loop learning’8. This can be explained with the metaphor of a thermostat in a room air-conditioner. There is a single loop of learning by which the thermostat offers experiential feedback on temperature, humidity and other factors, and the air-conditioner learns from this in order to improve and optimise its performance. But the thermostat could function at a far higher level of effectiveness if it could also cast a second and wider loop of learning that looks beyond experience, taking an overarching view to critique governing variables such as the room’s insulation or the extent and orientation of its fenestration. 

Effective professionals use the technique of reflection-in-action to achieve double-loop learning, so that each professional situation is leveraged as a means of evolving a framework of disciplinary expertise and human values. The work of Schön and Argyris implies that the day-to-day negotiations of practice are far from being a source of contamination. On the contrary, they serve two functions of great significance: firstly, they are a validation of the architect’s quest, for they reveal the resonance between the architect’s expertise and the aspirations of the inhabiting subject, providing the crucial link between disciplinary autonomy and human life; secondly, they offer a foundational source for renewing and expanding the architect’s expertise and values. Negotiation does not contaminate architecture; on the contrary, it renews it. This is the perspective from which we must examine unbuilt architecture.

Unbuilt Architecture as a Photograph

The negotiations of architectural practice do not proceed along a smooth and linear trajectory. They are sustained by an ongoing rigorous and critical dialogue between the inner self of the architect and the outer world in which he/she practices. The architect’s practice involves two gazes in opposing directions: one trained within to seek introspective creativity, and the other trained outward to seeking ethical empathy with the world. Each gaze critiques and validates the other – the authenticity of architecture rests on the continuity and rigour of this critique, an interplay that lies at the heart of effective design. If unbuilt architecture remains relatively detached from the chains of the outer world, it is best viewed as a photograph that captures one of these gazes: the inner introspective turn of the architect.

In his analysis of photography, John Berger observes that art appreciation has always struggled with the question of photography given its easy reproducibility.9  He suggests a way out of this bind by positing that any artwork must be viewed from the perspective of the social function it serves, rather than the creative process that produces it. Photography makes the observation of a moment in time highly self-conscious by suggesting that this moment is worth recording. The freezing of time is significant, for the photograph “isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum.”10 and resists the entropy of life by preventing the captured moment in time from being subsumed by subsequent moments. Consequently, when the photograph is considered artistically worthwhile, the captured moment is read as containing generalisable value. This value can be comprehended through speculation over what happens next. In a good photograph, the moment offers its presence and exactitude while inviting wonder on what might happen if it were released from its frame to re-attach to life through surrender to the subsequent. Photography thus is “a memento to the absent.”11

Viewing unbuilt architecture as a photograph of an architects’ introspection, we must ask what critique can be deduced from this image. We must resist the easy assumption that the purpose of criticism is to discern between the good and the bad, and heed the words of Alan Colquhoun, “Criticism occupies the no-man’s-land between enthusiasm and doubt, between poetic sympathy and analysis. Its purpose is not, except in rare cases, either to eulogise or condemn, and it can never grasp the essence of the work it discusses. It must try to get behind the work’s apparent originality and expose its ideological framework without turning it into a mere tautology.”12

What ideology is revealed in unbuilt architecture as a photograph? If we privilege the critical dialogue between inner self and outer world as the source of renewal and validation, we can examine this photograph of the inner turn as a moment that captures how the architect is poised to sustain this dialogue by reversing his/her gaze toward engagement with the outer world. What kind of reversal of gaze is divulged by this photograph? Do we recognise a quest for dialogic continuity, as Juhani Pallasmaa suggests, where the perceptions lent by the inhabitant contend with the aura of architecture to produce an enticing emancipatory experience?13 Or does this moment reveal a compulsion to preserve the revolutionary heroism of the architect? What is revealed in this photograph will demonstrate whether architecture is captured by an ideology of arrogance or an ethic of idealistic aspiration.

  1. Anupriya Saraswat, “Unbuilt Architecture – UnBuilt Seeks To Celebrate Not Only What Could Have Been, But Also What We Will Leave Behind,” Accessed 20 February 2019, http://architecturelive.in/unbuilt-architecture-unbuilt-seeks-to-celebrate-not-only-what-could-have-been-but-also-what-we-will-leave-behind/
  2. Peter Eisenman, “Interview: Peter Eisenman – by Iman Ansari”, Accessed 23 February 2019, https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/interview-peter-eisenman/8646893.article
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. For those unfamiliar with this period, for a concise summary see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment
  6. David Heymann, “A Mound in the Wood”, Accessed 4 January 2019, https://placesjournal.org/article/a-mound-in-the-wood/
  7. Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (London: Temple Smith, 1983)
  8. Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schön, Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1974)
  9. John Berger, Understanding a Photograph, Edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer (London: Penguin Classics, 2013), Kindle Edition
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Alan Colquhoun, “From Bricolage to Myth, or How to Put Humpty-Dumpty Together Again”, in Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981), 169
  13. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons Ltd., 2007)

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