“The purpose of this essay is to frame the inclusion of the piece ‘Bi-Polar,’ developed by students at Texas A&M University College of Architecture in 2011, as part of ‘Fresh Punches.’ . . . The problem of contemporary architecture can be posed in relation to certain anthropological concerns about the subject of representation, which is as much about itself as it is about the radical other. . . .”
*image by and courtesy Adrian CORTEZ, Aubrie DAMRON, Dale FENTON, Matt MILLER, & Emau VEGA, “Bi-Polar.” Texas A&M University College of Architecture. Gabriel ESQUIVEL, instructor. Photo: Emau VEGA.
all images by and courtesy Adrian CORTEZ, Aubrie DAMRON, Dale FENTON, Matt MILLER, & Emau VEGA, “Bi-Polar.” Texas A&M University College of Architecture. Gabriel ESQUIVEL, instructor. Photos: Emau VEGA.
I argue that image-architecture in particular affords an especially useful model of experience. Because image-architecture is rendered vivid by immersion and intensified by the ways in which it multiplies the forms of attention required by the viewer. The experience of image-architecture is specific in the way that it permits new feelings, new thoughts and new social realities to develop, and diagrammatic in the way it models an expanded notion of experience as such.
— Sylvia Lavin on her book Kissing Architecture1
The purpose of this essay is to frame the inclusion of the piece “Bi-Polar,” developed by students at Texas A&M University College of Architecture in 2011, as part of “Fresh Punches.” The inspiration for the concept of faces in architecture comes from readings of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, as well as from the 1968 film Faces, directed by John Cassavetes.
The problem of contemporary architecture can be posed in relation to certain anthropological concerns about the subject of representation, which is as much about itself as it is about the radical other. This tension between identity and otherness, between recognizable sameness and exotic otherness, flows through culture in the form of what Sloterdijk calls “interfacial space.”2
This interfacial space, or sensitive sphere of bipolar proximity of faces (3-D object-facade), has its own peculiar history of catastrophes to be examined. According to philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, the relationship of otherness, face to face, is an original ethical relationship; it is a source of affect that is expressed through the image, through the face that looks at us and seeks remembrance. It is a face that we cannot forget, and we have the feeling of being responsible for its misery.3
For Lévinas the face, and in particular the gaze, is the principle of emotive consciousness, since identity can only come from the gaze of the Other; to it, we unveil our fragile nudity, we become vulnerable and understandable, and by it we are trespassed. A similar response exists in architecture when something cannot understand or be understood except within a complex network of relationships, one consisting of gazes that intertwine with each other in an environment furnished by identity signs of diverse order and registration, by the physiognomy of the face, and by the accent of a gesture.
The surface facade of modern architecture has begun to collapse, and with it all the awards and affiliations of the tradition of classical representation. The face, as artist Francis Bacon knew how to deal with it, is not something fixed. The face of the Other, much like our own, changes, warps, and vanishes. No image can give us the idea of the whole. What is the face of architecture? This question can be answered neither from a purely formal perspective nor from technical considerations associated with the performative; instead, the answer is found in relation to the psychofigural problems of representation, or, more precisely, in relation to the conditions of representation’s inaccessibility. Thus, the history of Western architecture facade is divided into, first, an innocent and faithful portrayal that enjoys having its features and proportions represented in the classical manner, and second, a modern facade that has for itself an awareness of and respect for the contemporary media of architecture, but does not enjoy its subject because there is no cognition of it (or it simply does not want to represent it). An elevation does not cover the entire edifice. It adheres to reality, but does not reveal much—that is, it essentially conceals architecture. Hence the Baconian impossibility of completing a portrait that questions the West’s entire culture of facade.
Thus, the development of facade can under no circumstances be understood as a phenomenon that applies only to the history of architecture, not even as part of the history of the image. Culturally enlarged by the media, the image could still give sufficient account of the birth of the facade from the interfacial space involving an event, which refers to a circumstance long before any matter of representation. This is precisely Sloterdijk’s thesis in his book Spheres I: Bubbles. Spheres are the spaces where people actually live. Human beings have, until today, been misunderstood because the space where they exist has always been taken for granted, without ever being made conscious and explicit.
In the interfacial sphere, a human animal achieves completion in being viewed by another—a fairly simple concept. According to Sloterdijk, “The game of the individual’s self-completion before the mirror would lose its attraction if it were not usable for the sublime fiction of independence—that dream of self rule which has influenced the model of the wise life since the beginnings of classical philosophy.”4
The elevation of the profane facade to the category of architecture is in itself a very late and precarious operation in the “space-between,” similar to philosopher Jacques Derrida’s argument that the distinction between inside and outside can never be fully attained. According to Derrida, the outside always comes into the inside in order to define an inside,5 which cannot appear in an isolated format. The development of the facade, so long as the process revealed demonstrates or brings individuality to light, belongs to a broad movement of facade production with the status of a historical genre beyond all historical manifestations of artistic and plastic facade making, which should instead be linked to a morphogenetic proposition.
All of the specific and singular aspects documented on a facade as character traits—patterns and lines of regional temperaments, acquired properties, and so on—can only enter into the facade if they remain rooted in historic synchronizations of protoscenic games, as part of a set of innate, emotive bipolar participation schemes. Modern individualism is born when architects themselves write their self-descriptions, their essays of self-creation—that is, when they begin claiming author’s rights on their own stories, biographies, and opinions, as well as rights on their image, thereby becoming designers and entrepreneurs of their own appearance.
In the configuration of identity settings, we have to weave a “self”—and, for good or for evil, we attempt to do so. All the figures conceal the void, which takes over both forms and fictions. The theater of our strengths, our image in the world, our commitment—the void swallows such structures as if they are nothing. All claims of building a stable self from a social point of view lead us to a position that lacks both authenticity and an ontological anchor.
Modern facades are full of identities adrift, of faces without user profiles; they are new spaces of anonymity. Public space behaves not as a social space determined by structures and hierarchies, but as a protosocial space, a space prior to the social at the same time as its requirements become the premise of any society. From this point of view, we begin to question how we can create a facade for a society that has a vanishing identity. Are there any possibilities for fixing this problem in the eye of the vortex that is the flow of new liquid societies?
Bi-Polar, then, is a sensitive bubble. It is an interfacial space where the two different identities in tension attempt to negotiate their differences. Bi-Polar faces opposite directions like two lovers in bed in the middle (border) of complex relationships, the space that separates or completes them becoming the main focus of the argument and the third condition which emerges from this tension. At first we find a bipolar interfacial game where the Other sometimes takes the role of a personal mirror, but with a peculiarity that is the opposite of a mirror: there is neither the discretion of a reflection on glass or metal, nor the reproduction of an image, but an affective echo.6
The interfacial space in Bi-Polar can be viewed as performative. However, it runs deeper than that. The interfacial space is the refusal of the modern condition of permanent catastrophes of cultural constructions. By reading these surfaces as masks rather than as facades, we unravel possible dynamism and avoid games of self-reflection.
Current language games fail to identify the experiences of the origin and fail to recognize identity. We are entering a ground at the border between discovery and invention. Thus, we can only set an image anchored to an identity created through our own narrative of the invention, over that cross-eyed gaze toward the tension between what we have been and what we want to be.
1. Sylvia Lavin, “Sylvia Lavin on her book Kissing Architecture,” Rorotoko, August 10, 2011, http://rorotoko.com/interview/20110810_lavin_sylvia_on_kissing_architecture/. ↩
2. Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres I: Bubbles (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agent Series, 2011), 195–205. ↩
3. Emmanuel Lévinas, Humanism of the Other, trans. Nidra Poller (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006). ↩
4. Sloterdijk, Spheres I: Bubbles, 195–205. ↩
5. Jacques Derrida, The Truth of Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 63. ↩
6. Sloterdijk, Spheres I: Bubbles, 195–205. ↩