by Mark Wigley
'Men and their thoughts were gripped by an intense agitation, the same that drew goods and raw materials into a new circuit. The limits of what could be demanded and also of what could be controlled were stretched beyond belief. A new rhythm destroying age-old habits and forging new attitudes.'
-Le Corbusier, Concerning Town Planning, 1946
Where are the agitators in architecture today? Those who destabilize our norms, making things unsure, and forcing us to move? Who is moving architecture against its will? What happened to the revolutionaries? The disciplinary terrorists? Any survey of the international landscape of our discourse reveals a profound agitation deficit. To agitate is to shake, but nothing seems to be shaking in our field. There are no quakes, no shocks, or even a mild tremor. Despite all the talk of new world orders, new technologies, new crises of energy and morality, our architecture seems resolutely static. The main effect of all the discourse about the new is just to confirm that architecture is old, and getting so more quickly.
This is not news. The seismograph has been flat for years, for centuries, millennia even. Always has been and always will be. By definition, we stop shaking the moment the word ‘architecture’ is used. Buildings have always been seen to stabilize, to secure, to produce a sense of order in a chaotic world. Architectural discourse begins with the thought that the first buildings kept turbulence outside.
More precisely, architecture produces the effect of an outside. It invents the idea of the exterior, the unruly territory that is tamed by a shelter. It is not so much the construction of a secure interior as the production of a picture of external agitation, which is then seen to buffet the building but not move it. Architecture paints a picture of chaos giving way to order, control, safety, security, stability, etc. It frames agitation. If there is no life without agitation, there would be no concept of agitation without architecture. Agitation is even an architectural concept then, but architecture itself is not agitated. Architecture is exactly that which resists. For all its talk of motion, it is a resistance to movement rather than a resistance movement. It is an effect of stillness. It slows things down, it calms, even tranquilizes. It allows mobility to be seen as such by remaining static. Architecture is simply that which emerges from a resistance to agitation. To be an architect is to embroider the line where the shaking stops.
The parable about the first sheltering hut that launched architectural theory in the so-called West is reenacted with every commission. Architects are only ever called in because there is a sense of agitation. In the face of a turbulent confusion of forces, from the contradictory desires of different members of a household to the cauldron of technical, legal, social, economic, and psychological factors impacting a public project, things need to be placed in some kind of order, and no other profession can handle it. The architect is a figure of last resort. Every architectural commission is a reluctant one. In the face of an overwhelming tension between competing demands, the architect has the unique gift of being able to conjure up an organizational figure that is seen to absorb all the forces at play. Heterogeneous and incompatible factors are synthesized with a single form, with the building acting as a kind of sophisticated gear that engages and synchronizes the forces, reducing the friction between them. Architects are hired to reduce the sense of agitation. The site of architecture is never calm. Architecture is always constructed in and against a storm. It is a calming gesture.
The calming can be seen in every detail. The building is carefully shaped to produce a synthetic sense of unity by removing all gaps, all sources of doubt or stress. Each building is credited with a singular, unambiguous, and secure identity that is seen to be infectious, giving a sense of identity to those who occupy or simply encounter the form. The word ‘form’ already implies such a unifying gesture. The ensemble of materials, technologies, and sensuous effects speaks about the resolution of tension. Architecture is a smoothing over of conflict. Regardless of design philosophy, there is a smoothness to every design, not a lack of texture but a continuous sense of transition from element to element, a smoothing out of difference.
The smoothness is reinforced by each architects’ singular narrative about their building that ties up any loose ends. Even if architects love buildings because of their endless mystery, all the doubt is removed from the stories they tell about their designs. Any gap in understanding is kept secret. Even contradiction itself can only be embraced by being precisely framed and tamed by a narrative, like that of Robert Venturi’s famous manifesto of 1966. Ambiguity is absorbed when it becomes an unambiguous goal. Architects keep turbulence as a secret, secreting it inside to produce the effect of a clear line between the wild and the calm, such that this line, the facade of the building pressed up against the ever-changing exterior and exposed to unpredictable forces, is seen to be unchanging and therefore the calmest line of all.
This institutionalized calm can even be seen in the figure of the architect. Architects rarely smile in photographs. It may be the only profession, other than that of the undertaker, in which the smile is banned. Yet the architect cannot be unhappy either. Even if resentment and frustration are required tools of this highly fragile and competitive trade, photographs have to exude a sense of intense, engaged, thoughtful sensitivity while remaining unmoved by anything that this special sensitivity might pick up. It is as if the agitated architect is a contradiction in terms. The face of the architect, like that of the building, is that which begins when agitation stops. The architect’s lips have to be sealed. The profession has to make sure that it never exposes even a hint of its teeth. The most famous architects have to be admired for their ability to keep their lips in a straight line for their whole career. Le Corbusier, the most influential of all, is yet again a role model in keeping a remarkably level mouth for over half a century of practice. In whatever position we see him, his lips are like a little ruler, acting as the key reference line for all his works. The muscles around his lips are clearly working hard to hold the line. Nothing can quiver. Even the smallest amount of turbulence is banned. All signs of life, starting with breathing, must be stopped so that architecture can start.
It is as if the architects’ ability to draw a line between the building and its turbulent exterior depends on this ability to keep their own interior secret. The first line drawn by architects is across their own face. When they gather together, it is a chance to unify these facial lines. In the canonic team photo of the first congress of modern architects in 1929, for example, the new army of designers held the party line by not smiling for the camera, professionally flaunting their impassivity before dispersing around the globe with their freshly hardened faces. At any moment, in any scene, the architect must be ready to present a sealed look. The facade of the architectural discipline must be seen to be impervious. Lack of affect is the key disciplinary effect.
The genius of the notoriously impassive Mies van der Rohe is to perch on a comfortable chair with a large cigar, a large whiskey and some friends, but manage to appear neither happy nor unhappy. It is as if the concept of the architect and pleasure can never coincide, that each defines the other. Architects keep testing the limits of their craft. Gropius demonstrates that he can ride a horse or ski while seeming unaffected. Wells Coates can show off an absurdly elegant car in the pages of Vogue without breaking character. Le Corbusier manages to be equally impassive alongside a cat, a pig, or an elephant. He even pioneers the ultimate level of artistry in seemingly mastering the ability to lecture without opening his mouth. Meanwhile even the most unsophisticated designers try to maintain the profession’s trademarked permanently earnest look as they pose in all the standard steps of a commission from first input to final output, stoically absorbing information, then analyzing, then synthesizing, then projecting. In the end, they project everything while revealing nothing - being forever unmoved, even by their own gift.
In all the countless photographs of each architect, some might be caught smiling by accident. But these do not become canonic images. Rather, they are seen as images of what happens when architects stop working, and clearly they should never stop working. Those images of smiling designers that become well known are an embarrassment to the field and the offending architect is ostracized as too obviously committed to the incompatible values of pleasure or success. A very young or very old architect is allowed a brief smile, credited to premature innocence or mature experience, but even this is a risk. When the brilliant young designer Charlotte Perriand beams openly alongside the ever resolute Le Corbusier, it is just a matter of time for the puritan machinery of unease then disavowal to engage. It is important not to be mistaken for a human being. Sometimes an image catches the edge of an emotion, the beginning of a smile or the end of a frown. These can be the most disturbing faces of all, as if the architect flaunts the secret of the field, smirking at his or her clients and colleagues. To start to smile is already to break ranks. The biggest attack on another group of architects can be the smallest of grins. When an older Frank Lloyd Wright starts to curl his lips softly, the threat to his colleagues is palpable. Younger architects have only to open a side of their mouth to annoy. Those that keep showing their teeth have to be permanently marginalized or sent to a disciplinary asylum.
The architect’s face, story and building must conspire against turbulence. Architecture offers itself as a form of insulation from the weather, not just from the physical turbulence, which any builder or engineer could provide, but all forms of changing conditions, whether social, economic, conceptual, perceptual, psychological, moral, or political. It is a shelter from change itself. It is difficult to overestimate the passivity of architects or, more precisely, how hard they have to work to simulate passivity.
What of those who conspicuously agitate for change in architecture, those who try to move the field, the propagandists and polemicists who call for revolution in every medium they can? The more ephemeral the medium, the more violent the agitation - from substantial but temporary exhibition buildings, to exhibitions of models, drawings or photographs, to books, magazines, pamphlets, essays, manifestoes, and energetic lectures. But in most cases it is less a call for architecture to initiate change than a demand for architecture to catch up. The agitators for ‘modern’ architecture, for example, with all their provocations to overthrow tradition, portrayed themselves as helping their field to finally catch up to the innovations of mid nineteenth-century steel and glass engineering. Le Corbusier’s key manifesto of 1923 is pointedly Towards an Architecture not Towards a New Architecture. Modern architecture already exists. It has been invented by modernity itself. ‘The Pioneers of the Modern Movement,’ in Nikolaus Pevsner’s influential formulation of the 1930s, were simply those architects who were first to follow the technical and social innovations of the previous century, the first to no longer be traumatized by the shock of the new technology. The nervous discipline had finally started to catch up after so many nervous decades. In architecture, even the pioneers are late.
Significant shifts in technology, material, fabrication, and program clearly impact architectural production, but these shifts can only be institutionalized when society has already moved on. To be resolute in their resistance to agitation, architects must always wait until the very moment that it is almost too late. If technology is just one of the many forms of weather, and architecture is forever a shelter from such storms, architectural technology must be seen to be slow. Most pieces of equipment in our houses are far more sophisticated than the house itself. Buildings must wait for every possible use of new methods to be exhausted before inheriting them.
Yet this very effect of slowness depends on some movement. Architecture has to move. It has to be seen as a response to the world. It must respond, but slowly. It must be alive, but only just. To be an active shelter from change, it must change slowly. The labor of the architect is to give slowness itself a form.
Slowness becomes poetic even, if not especially, when architects call for immediate change, as when Le Corbusier’s Urbanisme of 1924 agitates for new forms as the necessary response to the violent revolution of modernity:
Movement is the law of our existence: nothing ever stands still, for if it does it begins to go backwards and is destroyed, and this is the very definition of life. Therefore we must act, we must advance, we must produce. After a century and a half of miraculous preparation, reason has come into her own in company with science, and science has flung us violently into the machine age. Everything is revolutionized…the violent forces of life seem to have thrust us once more into a new adventure.
When Le Corbusier again writes eloquently after the second world war of the ‘intense agitation’ that will ‘destroy’ old habits and force a ‘mutation’ of the concept and form of the city, he is talking about speed itself. He often talks about the architecture of speed, even drawing a chart during his lectures of the late 1920s that goes back to prehistory to show the sudden exponential increase in speed from the 1850’s on. The successive arrival of the train, ocean liner, plane, and then the ‘immeasurable speeds of telegraph, telephone and radio,’ along with electricity, photography and film, forces architecture into a new response. But the response is precisely to absorb these new agitations. Le Corbusier’s architecture polemically domesticates all the lines of communication in the city by bringing them into the interior, turning the interior into a landscape in which nothing is ever still. Architecture dematerializes itself as much as possible to allow this to happen. Walls dissolve to minimize the friction. Rooms give way to trajectories. Architecture is no longer agitated by speed, no longer buffeted by the revolutionary accelerations of modern life. The architect prides himself on the way in which his architecture allows all the different forms of movement to co-exist without conflict or interruption. Agitation is turned into smooth flow.
It is remarkable that the architect most associated with radical change in almost every aspect of architectural practice and theory sees his primary role as the preservation of order and the minimization of stress. With all the abrupt transformations in program, client, material, form, facade, fabrication, lighting, color, texture, services, section, plan, and structure with the new architecture, there is no room for the embrace of the shock of pure speed, no room for the Futurist crash. Just before announcing in Urbanisme that ‘A city made for speed is made for success,’ Le Corbusier insists that ‘this is no dangerous futurism, a sort of literary dynamite flung violently at the spectator.’ Instead of ‘some neurotic passion for speed,’ the newly efficient patterns will smoothly ease the toxic pressures of congested movement that threaten ‘the human nervous system.’ The city will no longer be ‘terrifying in its confusion’ because it embodies a new sense of order. In a reversal so symptomatic of his discipline, Le Corbusier credits the structure of old Paris with all the provocatively alienating properties ascribed to avantgarde work in the other arts. It is the old city that agitates people with its ‘disturbing’, ‘twisted and mis-shapen,’ ‘abnormal,’ ‘unbalanced,’ ‘hostile,’ ‘nerve-wracking,’ ‘shocking,’ patterns. Citizens are ‘brutalized and battered by this torrent’ as their city has become as traumatic as the chaos of nature that provoked the very first architectural shelter described at the beginning of the book: ‘Placed in the midst of a chaotic nature, man for his own security creates and surrounds himself with a zone of protection in harmony with what he is and what he thinks.’ The modern city must again be a ‘harnessed tempest.’ Architecture has been violently agitated into a new life by modern conditions but responds by removing the sense of violence to restore the calm of ‘equilibrium’ after the storm, ‘a great calm.’ It evolves but only to maintain its non-agitated state. It has simply been agitated by the tempest into a new form of ‘serenity.’ In the words of Towards an Architecture, modern architecture celebrates itself for being ‘cold, clear and calm’ in the face of overwhelming forces. Turbulence is once again thrown to the outside.
Not by chance did the Situationist collective single out Le Corbusier in the late 1950s as ‘public enemy number one’ in their attempt to liberate the revolutionary force of the always agitated unconscious. They offered the most radical of all attacks on architectural conventions, discarding the very concept of the architect, and even that of the building, to promote a continuously shifting sensuous interior life. They treasured all the destabilizing qualities of cities that had been denounced. The architect’s tight-lipped control gave way to a kind of open-mouthed, wide-eyed architectural delirium, unleashing and intensifying the uncontrollable flows – an architecture of agitation itself. But the discipline soon set about absorbing Constant and his friends. All the diverse experiments of the 1960s, and the image of the shamelessly pleasure-seeking radical architects of the simultaneously psychedelic, political and electronic revolution, were discretely forgotten. The traditional impassive figure quickly returned to tame traffic rather than succumb to it.
With the latest revolution in traffic, and all today’s talk of the speed of movement and the interactive complexity of forces in the spaces of information flow, we are back to Le Corbusier’s tight-lipped authority. Most so-called digital architecture is the absorption of forces rather than their explosive release. The designs are characterized by their seamless, low friction, low turbulence character. It is a new smoothness, not simply in the visible geometries of the buildings or their molded materials and precision minimal joints but in the type of calculations being made: the absorption of whole new densities of real time statistics about external and internal conditions; the dependence on software based on the resolution of all tension and the dynamic minimization or balance of all forces; the newly smooth transition from design to fabrication to assembly; the lack of difference between the most subtle spatial and atmospheric modeling and the final effect; networks of global offices linked in real time interactivity; and so on. Contemporary architecture remains faithful to the discipline by devoting itself to multiple forms of smoothness. Once again, the form of architecture changes but only to preserve the figure of the architect in the face of the new conditions that might threaten the survival of that figure. Once again, slow evolution instead of revolution.
Now, as in the beginning, the figure of the architect seems to be the opposite to that of the activist. Throughout the world, there are strong architects trying to actively challenge social and physical conventions but they are restrained by the millennial context of architectural passivity. Even those who argue the most for change do so in the name of calm, as in the famous words at the end of Towards an Architecture: ‘Architecture or revolution. Revolution can be avoided.’ A sentiment that is expanded in the less well-known but more decisive last line of Urbanisme: ‘Things are not evolutionized by making revolutions. The real Revolution lies in the solution of existing problems.’ Even when social revolution is the very point, architects are a strangely calming influence - most obviously with Agit-Prop, the work of the Department for Agitation and Propaganda in Russia, agitating for a revolution that had already taken place, institutionalizing agitation to resist resistance. Meanwhile, numerous forces agitate against architecture for being insufficiently calm - most obviously when preservationist or community groups condemn it for shaking things up. No building is protested for being insufficiently provocative, and building regulations help restrict all change and architectural ambition to a minimum.
For architects to start agitating instead of calming, they must turn against their own discipline, shaking ancient and contemporary assumptions in order to shake the occupant, or shake the very idea of the occupant. There has to be a tactical redefinition of the client, program, construction, publication, ethics, and so on. Architectural agitators must be disloyal to their disciplinary norms. Architecture can only shake us when it takes the risk of not being called architecture. The challenge to architects is to challenge architecture, to shake us, and keep shaking. The concept of the architect must be expanded. Role models can be found in the most unlikely of places.
This expansion of the architect cannot be smooth. It is not a matter of adding some new features, absorbing more skills in yet another display of the architect’s ability to accommodate heterogeneous forces and smooth out conflicts. Rather it is a matter of destabilizing the current assumptions by admitting otherness in a way that disturbs the very concept of architecture and the architect. It is time for expanded architects to publicly explore the enigmas and destabilizing elements of all buildings rather than repress them, allowing the mystery or instability of the built object that attracted them in the first place to come to the surface, and admitting mystery into their own stories. It is time to admit turbulence into the very core of the building, to the story about that building, and to the image of the person telling it. Precisely because it is meant to move the least, architecture has the capacity to destabilize the most. Calming monuments to existing order can be displaced by new forms of agitation. It’s time for the architect and the building to unseal their lips. Time for an architecture with teeth. Time for a storm.