n°17 Theory and Project


Karim Basbous

In its seventeenth issue, Le Visiteur presents the work of a major architect of our time. Anchored deep in the landscape of the Iberian Baroque, with its undulating style and traditional motifs that radiate the spirit of their Portuguese builders, the work of João Luís Carrilho da Graça offers the tranquility of the pure surface. The difficult art of simplicity, the art of restraint that Carrilho cultivates, seems to disengage his projects from the present moment. They contrast sharply with the idle chatter that so often dominates today, and stay far away from fashionable ornamentalism of the kind that goes no deeper than a building’s envelope. His projects have a timeless, hieratic character, exhibiting a degree of caution with respect to their immediate context and searching instead for the age-old figures of architecture, the archetypes to be found within each building.

At the School of Music and the Pavilion of Knowledge of the Seas in Lisbon, Carrilho reinterprets the model of the cloister: an opaque, enclosed space blocks the view to the outside, only in order to restore it through occasional gaps, judiciously positioned. In the Belém Palace Documentation Center, he gives new life to the theme of the wall, in the solemn, almost sacred, form of a white rectangle hanging above a moat like a black chasm, with the program located behind and below it.

The dossier devoted here to Carrilho’s work, with contributions by Laurent Beaudouin, Judith Rotbart and Laurent Salomon, and Victor Diniz, is the first critical appraisal in French of this Portuguese architect.

The second section of this issue presents a group of texts from the recent “Theory and project” conference.[1] At a time when theory sometimes seems to be taking the place of the project, to the advantage of neither one, we sought to assess the current relationship of thought to project creation.

In much contemporary architecture, theory arises in the pointless yet obsessive guise of the “conceptual.” In my own paper I seek to show how discourse has taken control of the design process, and to assess the consequences for architecture as a discipline. Michael Hays in turn discusses what he sees as an anti-theoretical step backwards; invoking Jacques Lacan and Theodor Adorno, he argues that this leads to the end of the “Other” in architecture. Philippe Potié probes the roots of the word “theory,” uncovering the link between oracular speech and aphoristic thought. Mario Carpo’s critique of computer-based modeling techniques seeks to unmask, behind the apparent variety of options that digital modeling offers, a loss of control of their morphogenesis on the part of architects. Antoine Picon brings up the question of ornament, comparing two different concepts, the traditional one and that resulting from the application of digital technologies. In a discussion of the Pavilion of Man in Zurich, Olivier Gahinet seeks to demonstrate that analysis is also intrinsic to the project. Through the examination of a central though little explored topic in architecture and architectural theory, he makes us see Le Corbusier’s late work with new eyes: the topic in question is the underside, with all its implications for scale, program, form, and matter. Pierre Caye addresses the double life of theory, or rather the double use made of it: on the one hand, a palliative function that seeks to compensate for architecture’s powerlessness, and on the other the Word, whose task is to bring the act of construction to fruition.

The fruitful alliance between theory and the project can also be illustrated by the unique output of some particular architects. We have chosen in this issue to pay tribute to Michel Kagan, through the words of two of his brothers in arms, Laurent Salomon and Franco Purini, who both recall his importance as an architect and his place in the history of the field.

In the closing section, Paolo Amaldi discusses Alvar Aalto’s designs for the Technical University in Otaniemi, giving a precise and subtle spatial analysis of that work. And Claude Prélorenzo introduces us to Le Corbusier’s forays into cinema, which ever since 1937 have lain dormant in the archives of that sharp-eyed lover of everyday life.

[1] This conference was held on May 6 and 7 2011, organized by the Société française des architectes and the CNRS, with the support of the Urbaine de Travaux.

Translated from the French by Linda Gardiner

Searching for silence
Judith Rotbart and Laurent Salomon
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Some people put their faith in sound and fury, convinced that these are effective and long-lasting bearers of their message. Others prefer to speak in whispers, waiting for silence to fall so that their words can penetrate that receptive stillness. At a moment when we are also witnessing a new worship of slowness, João Luís Carrilho da Graça offers us a Portuguese silence. His is a kind of formal silence, an attempt to make the body of the building disappear, the search for an absence that makes each work seem like no more than a backdrop installed in a pre-existing landscape. One of the things that makes this project attractive is the desire to add value to the Other. The other thing that makes the work attractive is the value that is inherent in this silence, which puts the complexity of the program at a distance, splitting up its components so that each one becomes an independent feature, as if there was some risk that if they ever meet they would start to make a noise, architectural background noise, like a parasitic growth that would undo the harmony of this juxtaposition of elements. In the struggle between the complexity of the real world and this lyrical ambition, Carrilho’s work seeks for a subtle equilibrium that will save his valiant silence from descending into mere dumbness.

Thought in suspension
Laurent Beaudouin
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João Luís Carrilho da Graça is outstanding among Portuguese architects in the power and clarity of his thinking. This paper examines the role of abstraction in his work. For him, geometry is a way of interpreting the shape of a site, and begins as a relationship with the landscape during a gradual process of simplification. His work exhibits a desire to “sum up” the project with a single stroke or a single plan: simple lines fold in one continuous movement that envelops the site. His interpretation of the idea of ​​the fold does not represent a baroque vision of complexity but a desire for unity and coherence.

“He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden”
Victor Diniz
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Beginning of the article…

“He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden.”[1] The way that João Luís Carrilho da Graça looks at the world recalls these words of Horace Walpole: tautologically, the English garden seeks to transform the countryside into a garden that looks like the countryside. It is not coincidental that the two works that I have chosen to discuss in order to explore the relationship of the work of Carrilho da Graça to the landscape both demand physical involvement by their users – specifically, walking. Walking, especially at the point when the walker begins to feel tired, gives the body back the capacity to be affected by the elements that surround it.

[1] Horace Walpole, The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening, 1771. Quoted by Isabel Wakelin Urban Chase, Horace Walpole Gardenist (typescript of a thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of doctor in philosophy, Graduate School of the University of Cincinnati), 1938, p. 40.

In the name of the “concept”
Karim Basbous
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In Vitruvius’ definition of the kind of knowledge characteristic of the architect, the intellectual activity that subsequently became known as “discourse” or “theory” is essentially retrospective: it seeks to clarify and explain the nature of buildings, which are understood as the result of an activity whose resources are not confined to discursive reason. Since then, the status of architectural discourse has changed considerably, and it is increasingly common to see it aspire to the position of “giver of meaning,” assigning buildings a subaltern role as mere physical illustrations of something inherently conceptual. This triumph of the “legible” over the “visible” removes architecture from the sphere of the spatial, where it has its own rules of evidence, and places it under the authority of the word, through a literal application of metaphor. We will seek to understand this reversal and to measure its implications for the discipline of architecture.

A Sketch of Architecture’s Desire
K. Michael Hays
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Using examples from the early work of Aldo Rossi and John Hejduk, I will discuss a latent notion of what Jacque Lacan called the “big Other,” or simply “l’Autre” — the order of the architectural-social symbolic operating behind the architectural-typological imaginary. I will argue that the recent anti-theoretical retreat in architecture can be understood as the demise of architecture’s l’Autre. As well as to Lacan, I will refer briefly to Theodor Adorno’s conceptualization of art’s “non-identity” with its social context and his insistence that art’s existence emerges from its negation of its origins. I will then suggest that contemporary architecture’s dismissal of the complexities of negative thinking and dialectics is bound up with its embrace of purely economic parameters of evaluation. In the negative dialectic of the late avant-garde, the possibility of architecture as a socially engaged, critical practice is understood to be lost from the beginning. Dependent on an Other, an organizing field in relation to which it is exterior and decentered, architecture is nevertheless possessed in the very form of its absence. (The examples of Rossi and Hejuk will show this.) But there was never anything to guarantee the authority or the consistency of the Other on which architecture depends. And later, in our own time of dedifferentiating technologies coupled with the technocratic positivism of an architecture-managerial class, then architecture will have shriveled into mere design — purely instrumental, strictly operational, a set of opportunistic maneuvers in specific, limited contexts, possessing neither transcendence nor mystery.

Theory’s eye
Philippe Potié
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Theory, in the earliest sense of the term, formed part of the art of divination. Theorein literally means “to contemplate,” and was originally the art of deciphering the patterns in the heavens from which the Delphic oracle would derive its prophecies. The ancient concept that wove together divine pathways and prophetic speech serves as a model to describe the work of theory as it functions in architecture. We show that this intellectual discipline, based on an Olympian view of the world, creates a “concept on vacation,” in the phrase of Peter Sloterdijk, and at the same time a mode of thinking that leaves room for the ambiguous, the contradictory, and the poetic. We suggest that the aphorism would be its preferred form of expression, and that “contemplative” theory makes it possible to build an aphoristic architectural scenario, a templum, on the site of a spatial fiction.

Ornament and its users: from the Vitruvian tradition to the digital age

Ornament yesterday and today: continuities and discontinuities

Antoine Picon
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Nowadays we hear much about the “return of ornament” associated with the advent of a digital architecture that is readily inclined to play with effects of texture and color. But at first sight the ornament in question has little to do with that discussed by classical architectural theory or the beaux-arts tradition. While traditional ornament was confined to specific locations on a building, digital ornament often runs rampant over whole sections of a facade. Formerly ornament had a recognizably symbolic dimension, but most contemporary theorists of ornament admit that it has no meaning beyond itself. In fact, the only things that the ornament of yesterday and of today have in common may well be the connections between the question of ornament and that of the individual. It is these connections that this article seeks to clarify.

The End of the Digital: the End of the Beginning and the End of the Project
Mario Carpo
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For almost twenty years now digital tools for design and fabrication have inspired and excited architects, innovators, philosophers and critics. Starting from the early or mid 1990s, CAD-CAM technologies have extraordinarily expanded the repertoire of forms that architects could design and build. New geometries and free-form, non geometrical objects have become staples of digitally designed architecture. The technological and social implication of digitally supported, non-standard seriality have upended–and in fact obliterated–more than one century of modernist theories, and a new technical logic of on-demand, customized variations has already supplanted the old paradigm of mechanically based, standardized mass-production. But today, the latest developments in digital information modeling promise far less architectural excitement, and are in fact being met by many, including some the most technologically minded architects, with prudent skepticism, if not alarm. It now appears that the technical logic of parametricism contains the seeds of a new design process which may threaten the architects’ control over the design and making of form–and with it, the very same existence of architectural profession, as defined in the humanistic (Albertian) tradition. Digital designers are increasingly finding out that the full implementation of today’s participatory design tools may toll the knell of architectural authorship as we used to know it–and of most intellectual and social practices that used to be related to it.

Does architecture have any good theories?
Pierre Caye
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In response to the abundance, diversity, and sophistication of architectural theories today, I propose a number of criteria for determining their applicability to the project and the construction system. The purpose of this attempt to discriminate among and cast light on these theories is not to hand out good and bad grades, let alone to formulate yet another theory, but simply to reflect on how architects can make the best possible use of the theories that influence the structure of the domain in which they work.

Lifted up for ever

Fragments for a portable theory

Olivier Gahinet
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Visiting Paris in the 1920s, Prokofiev said of the French composers of the time that “only Ravel knows what he is doing.” To know what we are doing: this is perhaps the primary aim of a theory of architecture: a theory of practice, in short, to borrow what Pierre Bourdieu said of sociology. At a time when the world is in crisis – economically, socially, culturally, and ecologically – and the most prominent architectural work chimes in with its own trivialities, it is more necessary than ever to “know what we are doing” and to master the meaning of form. Asking – and answering – theoretical questions ought to help us in this respect. We offer here an episode from the projectual history of architecture, or rather of an analysis that became a project, in order to compare the issues affecting the project today to those that affected it in the past. We will examine the “projectual career” of one of the subjects that runs all through the history of modern architecture: pilotis and their related features, that is the uplifted structure and the underside. Among the “five points” proposed by Le Corbusier, the pilotis have always seemed to occupy a position that is theoretical rather than practically convincing; in reality they often create a space that is difficult to characterize. At the end of his life, Le Corbusier was to return to this issue, with several projects that focused more on the underside than on the pilotis themselves. We show how in these projects, in which he seemed to be initiating a new “manner,” the underside becomes the locus of representation and status, and how Le Corbusier’s thinking offers a way to deal with a question that affects the whole of modernity and is today more relevant than ever: how can we give a building at once stature, individual identity, and function?

Michel Kagan: the building as polyptych
Laurent Salomon
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We may think of the work of an architect as an ongoing self-portrait, evolving over its author’s lifetime through the events that guide it and the beliefs that nourish it. This article is written with that in mind, and draws on a close association with Michel Kagan. It presents a reading of his work informed by a knowledge of his philosophical and aesthetic predilections and the key events of his early training, and on many hours of work in collaboration with him during which he explained very clearly how his thinking has evolved, illustrating this with telling formal examples. It is to these hours spent together that I owe my belief in the narrative capacity of form, and it is in these discussions that our ability to analyze and transmit forms was honed. This is what we owe to the shared aspects of our respective histories. The hypothesis proposed here synthesizes the questions that marked our discussions in the late 1970s: it makes central the question of the unity of the work faced with the complexity of reality, seen as a meeting of the technological and the social. Kagan’s aim was to ensure this unity without diluting the context of its manufacture or its use. His approach has proved his foresight with respect to formal strategies, the result of his natural talent as well as his aesthetic training.

The construction of architecture: when talent meets ideas

Notes on the work of Michel Kagan

Franco Purini
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Michel Kagan’s training was rooted in a complex debate that took place during the 1970s. This debate primarily took the form of a critical review of the Modern Movement, viewing it (in the case of the New York Five for example) not as a group of strategies to be applied to the real world, but as a world of style, to be rethought from a Mannerist perspective. This orientation gave birth to a critical rationalism opposed to the eclecticism of many undertakings of the time. In the work of many architects, including the young Michel Kagan, this orientation encouraged a reinvention of the discipline calling for the autonomy of architecture, thus positioned as yet another avant-garde with world-wide influence. A student of Henri Ciriani, who had developed a personal and creative interpretation of Le Corbusier’s style, Michel Kagan was also interested in what was going on in architectural theory in Italy, where critical rationalism was seen as a very innovative idea. From these beginnings, his architecture developed with remarkable coherence and lyrical intensity. Certain patterns can be recognized in it – the dialectic between the parts and the whole, a precise sense of the fragment, a tendency to express himself in terms of the fundamental, mysterious force of the archetype, an ability to organize space in surprising series of perspectives that endow a building with narrative possibilities. At once analytic and synthetic, initially the result of a real innate talent, Kagan’s architecture has gradually acquired theoretical solidity and an introspective quality that have amplified its meaning and value. For all these reasons, it should be viewed today as valuable and lasting testimony to a period in which architecture was suspended between the desire for continuity and the suggestion of discontinuity, between the interpretation of the site and the attraction of the non-site, between the dimension of topical specificity and its disappearance in the banality of globalization.

Alvar Aalto, or the silent structure
Paolo Amaldi
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Alvar Aalto has acquired a unique reputation in the history of twentieth-century architecture and an “outsider” position in the Modern Movement. Critics and historians have turned him into the standard-bearer of a current opposed to the more radical proposals of the avant-garde, while in fact he was an inveterate traveler who knew and was on close terms with the artists and patrons who mattered. Sigfried Giedion, who left him out of the first edition of Space, Time and Architecture, became one of his fervent supporters. Walter Behrendt and Bruno Zevi claimed him as the primary exponent of an organic, live, sensitive current in modern architecture. His silence with regard to his own work, and the few, banal observations he offered about his country, Finland, led to his being viewed as a spontaneous, unreflective craftsman working by instinct, while his work was dismissed as too difficult to categorize. Louis Kahn voiced his disappointment at being unable to understand his architecture, and in an article published in 1973, Venturi went so far as to apologize for not knowing what to say about Aalto. Being seen as an architect ruled by intuition has meant that the rational side of his approach has too often received short shrift. This paper aims to demonstrate, through discussion of a key project – the Otaniemi Technical University – not only his strongly rational side but also the nearly flawless rigor of his perceptual and sensory organization of the project. The article begins with a comparison of Le Corbusier and Aalto, identifying their various affinities, which first developed in the 1930s and were strengthened later in the post-war period. Recent archival research serves to demonstrate how each part of the university’s main building acquired its individual expressiveness during the process of implementing the project. There is a rigor in Aalto’s collage style of composition also to be found in Le Corbusier, which coincides with the emergence in the same period of new theories of architecture influenced by semiology and Gestalt theory. But this kind of composition is applied less to the building’s physical form than to the experience of space understood as a phenomenon. The Otaniemi project helps us to apply the structuralist method to an interpretation of a spatial phenomenon.

Corbu’s home movies
Claude Prelorenzo
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Over two years, 1936 and 1937, Le Corbusier shot about fifteen rolls of 16mm film, for the first and last time in his life. This one-time foray into film is a little-known and mysterious event. Why take up a new medium, and why abandon it? Unlike the still images he took with the camera, which belong to the genre of the “artist’s sketchbook,” what he recorded in moving pictures were almost exclusively scenes of home life; only a few sequences taken in South America are connected to his activity as an international architect. Given that Le Corbusier left little to chance in any of his production, and that nothing in his carefully organized legacy can escape from the cultural history of the twentieth century, we have decided here to speculate about the “function” of Le Corbusier’s films, as aesthetic experiment (a very individual way of handling the camera) and as “home movie” (the subjects recorded).


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