On Chance in the Life of Monuments
The former headquarters of PIDE-DGS in Lisbon were recently transformed in luxury apartments. During the refurbishment, the existing memorial plaque was moved to a less visible area, certainly to avoid jeopardizing the good image of a building that in the wake of the revolution never became a monument, and in the course of its life allowed itself to be desecrated by the housing market. Before such an affront to the memory of fascism and oppression, but lacking the capacity to purchase the building and transform it into a monument - or because it was already a monument to neo-liberalism - the only decision remaining was of where to re-locate the existing memorial plaque. In the meantime and as expected, both the plaque and the façade of the building were vandalized. Honor to the Heroes, it said. After much discussion it was left to the City Council to make a new memorial plaque, inaugurated with all due pomp and circumstance. Two monuments in one, chance dictating something that certainly the building's architect never imagined.
In the relationship between architecture and chance two competing claims gain prominence: 1) if architecture does not think about luck it is because it believes not to depend upon it and 2) if architecture thinks about luck it is because it wants to control chance. The first assertion is confirmed by the Vitruvian ideal of stability: Firmitas not only refers to a stability or firmness of construction, but to its necessary permanence over time as a permanence of that which is established by architecture itself. The best examples of this desire of inscription are monuments, buildings with a ceremonial function, representative pieces that supposedly speak forever. And if the validity of extending this specific assumption to other architectural objects might be debatable, the questioning of to what extent - even in the design of monuments - is architecture fulfilling this quest for permanence seems to be far more relevant. Hence, to illuminate this issue we must question what is it that is meant by the object (purpose) of architecture.
This issue doesn’t exist. Simply because for long a choice has been made, that architecture, even the one that does not aspire to monumentality, does not generally want anything to do with life, but only with death and perfection, which may explain a greater interest in the petrification of the design proposal than in its possible mutations. And why? Perhaps because in this difference between the proposal and its built life stands a figure that requires the separation of the two, i.e. chance.
Thus, the second assertion given here seems to be the more correct one: one thinks of luck when one allows oneself to get carried away by a paranoia of control that refuses to accept the becoming of architecture itself. When unexpected transformations of buildings are described in terms of good or bad luck, it's a sign that priority has been given to the design proposal as object, and in there lies the first treacherous stab to architecture and its life.
YOU TOO, BRUTUS!
Brutus here is the archive, as an attempt to kill architecture (one speaks exclusively about the design proposal and not the building). The archive is, as noted by Kent Kleinman in "Archiving Architecture", a supplement of qualities that the built work will not necessarily possess (uniqueness, stability, permanence) and lives precisely of this forced separation between the conceptual project and the living built work. The archive insists on this separation under the assumption that architecture rests in the design proposal and the future of what's built is the work of chance, thus also trying to convey the idea that what is observed in the design proposal can be also observed in the initial stage of the built work: "The archive should be more accurately described as a machine to forget that architectural designs are ontologically distinct from their representations". Unfortunately, danger is lurking and moths eat books.
In fact, the design proposal as an object of archive or reference suffers, as such, the necessary vicissitudes of the passage of time, in the form of its compulsive integration into new genealogies or historical interpretations. By other words, we face a much simpler problem: the influence of chance over architecture is voluntarily ignored because it is something that cannot be avoided, but at the same time we seek refuge in the archive as if it would be protected from the elements, even if providing nothing more that an illusory protection.
But some go further and decide not only to archive the proposal but also to archive the building itself. The case of Villa Muller is exemplary: within the desire to restore the original design according to the drawings and ideas of Loos, layers of paint that hid the original colors were removed, non-original furnishings were re-placed, the house was cleaned down to its perfect-past condition - a past that was not much more than a proposal. In this we can see terror, the terror inherent to the idea of monument, the terror of the mundane that against the lived life of architecture transforms the object into a work of art, untouchable. Hence, the refurbishment of Villa Muller (like many others) is in fact profoundly anti-architectural. And even more so if viewed in the light of Loos' own positions. But what is even more curious is that in a time where it is assumed that architects no longer build monumentally, monuments are built everywhere: monuments to institutions, to past history, to thought, revolution, culture, architecture, etc...
The restoration of the Villa Muller was verified against the archive containing its original drawings and available photographs. But by restoring-it, the building ceases to be architecture and becomes a built archive. As such it cannot be touched, it becomes a monument, an image of society's self-imaging. When to archive is not enough, then the building has to be killed. And all this is done to prevent mundane chance from desecrating or vandalizing the beautiful image of architecture.
The profanation of the architectural object means, according to Agamben, its return to the common, the mundane space, now free from the apparatus of power that inscribe it: "Once profaned, that which was unavailable and separate loses its aura and is returned to use". If we use the example of Portuguese architecture during the Estado Novo - what better example can you have of an architecture that inscribes certain forms of pastoral power in the collective identity of a nation?, - then we will have as examples of profanation the Court turned into a bakery, the Post Office into a club and Portugal dos Pequenitos into a Convenience Store. Of course this does not often happen - or happens less often than would be desirable - which may suggest some problems in this idea. Nonetheless, to profane means to remove from the sacred. Now, we must begin by noticing that with regard to architecture, the sacred is that which is determined by the idea as function, and crystallized in its 'speaking' representation. The sacred refers not only to a legal or religious space but also to the crystallization of the design as such. The issue here is the notion of architecture as the production of sacred, and itself a sacred production. Thus, the sacred spaces of architecture are those determined by a specific ritual, designed to allow the inscription of the sacred (the Idea). Put another way, are those likely to be desecrated. Therefore, this structuring of power via the object is not unique to state-architecture or architecture of exception, but strangely inherent to the idea of architecture itself. Moreover, we find that in most cases the architectural object is the scene of constant profanations, constant re-uses and adaptations, consequences of occasion and circumstance, or - to follow the line of this essay - of chance. Profanation is then, the definition of thresholds above which it is considered that the building is being misrepresented, thresholds above which in certain cases it becomes possible to resort to available legal mechanisms that intervene and restore order. Profanation forces an awareness of the irreparable gap between the ideal design proposal and the lived and necessarily transformed reality.
Sometimes profanation is not merely the result of everyday life and earthly concerns, but of a deliberate act against the image of the built object. This action that by the object (or through it) aims to produce a particular political effect, indicates that if it is possible to go from sacred to profane, then its inverse is also possible, the passing from profane to sacred. To this action we will, for lack of better, give the name of vandalism.
The act of vandalism presupposes that the separation between sacred and profane, between power and living (or between power inscribed in the design and the savagery of mundane buildings) is nothing but a fabrication, a maneuver to hide the real power of the building and the truth of architecture. One vandalizes because it's worth it, because the building represents something. The wall of the university is a monument to instituted power, the chapel in disuse is actually a manifestation of a conservative institution, the vandalizing of a façade will certainly infuriate supporters of rival political party, etc. Vandalism is an attack against the profane (against the building that pretends to be profane) showing that it is deeply sacred, bringing to the fore the totemic monument that lurks behind the mundane routine of everyday life. In a short essay on monuments, the writer Robert Musil said to be suspicious of their "inconspicuousness". This suspicious inconspicuousness of monuments derives from their ability to go unnoticed when left in the background, lost in the everyday of habits, until someone removes them from this invisibility. Vandalism assumes that for others the building is a taboo, but in trying to be iconoclastic, it reinvests it as a totem, providing it with the ability to articulate and give visibility to a power struggle that necessarily exceeds it: exposes the sacred, makes it visible and at the same time doubles its power. Vandalism assumes that by defacing the façade the idea that is expressed on it is simultaneously under attack. And it presupposes that someone cares (and in fact there is always someone who cares...).
Thus, if profanation seems to mark an ontological difference inscribed in the very foundations of the practice of architecture, between the object's design and it's life - i.e. two architectures - vandalism by its turn, through its sacrificial action, never relates to the profane, but always to the sacred. However it is precisely due to this being in the world that vandalism is able to restore the ideal dimension to the mundane object, and thus to resuscitate it from the dead.
And it is this moment of enchantment that becomes decisive. At the moment of vandalism, the separation between sacred and profane collapses, and the building, its use and representation, retrieve an immanence that eluded them since they mutated from design proposal into a built object. After all, it facilitates the union, the encounter even if momentary, between these two lives of architecture, the ideal life, designed, and the real life mundane and conflictual. Vandalism unearths the Idea to monumentalize the terrible reality that hides in the profane.
Between these two aspects of architecture, or between its two objects, there are many relations, of appropriation, of profanation, of violence, moving from symbolic to the profane, from casual to monumental, moves that reflect the power struggles revolving around the built object or making use of it. Beyond Kleinmen, we will finally say that this is not so much or simply an ontological separation, but two lifelines that casually intersect only to separate again, producing moments of transfer between them, forced by various magical incantations of built objects and design proposals. Thus, the object of architecture is no more than the attempt to have some control over the relationship between inscription and transformation or between life and death.
After all, the problem is that monumentality - which is usually identified with classical symbolism - does not simply come out of a decision to build monumentally, i.e. to follow a certain type of design, but is mainly dictated by unforeseen circumstances dictated by the life of architecture, resulting in the building made monument. And sometimes this process might help to crystallize in the history of architecture a spatial organization and a formal language that was based precisely on the idea of anti-monumentality. Consequently it produces the lexicon of a new monumentality, that is, a new way to represent and to make visible by through of architecture. Benjamin would say that it is the aura that is at stake; we say that the anxiety against chance that seems to animate the architect's delusions of control, results from this inability to accept the totemic and fetishistic nature of the architectural object. And it is this ability to discover hidden powers and a kind of living soul in inanimate matter that makes the life of architecture.