PRINT May 1971

On The Liberation of Architecture

The tiniest fragment of everyday life says more than
—Walter Benjamin on “The Author as Producer”

EARLY IN 1969, AN ANNOUNCEMENT in the Canadian press invited architects to participate in a competition for the design of an Air Force Memorial. The competition called for a Memorial which was also to be a museum to air flight, and a place for meetings of Air Force veterans.

The program of the competition allowed for only one type of design solution: a building. Any other response to the problem, one which might, for example, involve modes of experience other than those circumscribed by the form of a building, was clearly beyond the scope of the competition. What would not “look like” a building most certainly would not reflect architecture.

Since these conceptual limitations are characteristic indeed of the condition of much of contemporary architecture, this competition offered as good an occasion as any to re-examine some of the underlying premises.

To begin with, even though new and important idioms have been introduced into contemporary architecture, to say the least, innovations have also tended to reinforce the existing conception that architecture resides solely in the design of a specialized object in the form of a building. Anything beyond these premises is largely situated as meaningless, regardless of the legacy of the Constructivists, for example. Contemporary theory and criticism tend to mystify the existence of this barrier which fetters architecture to a repressive condition, refusing to acknowledge that architecture is reflected in the meaning of a “building” as found in the use we make of our artifacts.

To the extent that the relationships between people and physical things can be found mirrored in the “things themselves,” the raw material of the architecture of an Air Force Memorial can be found in readily available artifactual bits known to materialize for people the remembrance of air flight and Air Force.

Proceeding in this way, existing artifactual bits recognized for their Memorial content are described and cataloged in a series of MEMOs. These constructs describe the evidence of “object correlatives” of the Memorial, and the physical conditions that support this evidence. The MEMOs then extract from the constructs design propositions. In other words, the idea of the MEMOs is to expose the possible design of a Memorial, and hence its architecture, rather than impose a design.

These constructs are drawn directly from the community. They are not so much given, as they are taken out of a constantly elusive matrix of experience implicating different sets of physical things. They are said to come from the people, with the understanding that this means, for one thing, that different people experience “things” in different ways, even though the mechanisms of their experience may be similar. Since the relationship of people to the reality of their artifactual environment changes with time, regardless of consistencies in these relationships, and their conception of reality itself changes with time, the selection of MEMOs constitutes an on-going process of continuous defining and redefining of the design experience.

This process tends to be divergent and inclusive. A proliferation of Memorial constructs strengthens the assumptions of a possible architecture, and brings to light conditions that would otherwise remain inaccessible.

The MEMOs then provide the sources of a design program. The subsequent implication of these sources in the actual external form of a Memorial depends upon some sort of communication; access to communication depends upon available channels, and the content of communication on the expression of experience.

Given the best of intentions to design in the interest of the people and to have people participate in the design process, in the present limitations of architecture, the design action—the process of selecting a suppressed range of access and experience—contradicts the design intention.

If architecture is conceived of as creating the sources of design, people can be actively engaged according to opportunities they have to externalize their experience. Their act of externalization—their design—involves a selection of experience: specific, stylistic, and idiosyncratic to the probability of a design and the demarcation of meaning is found in a certain kind of activity rather than in a specialized medium.

This distinction between architecture and design, and the consequent shift in both social and esthetic sensibilities, by-passes the persistent contradiction in contemporary architecture between its elitist and repressive condition and its obvious origins in social content.

Ideally, it may be possible to avoid this contradiction by restoring to people the full responsibility for their surroundings and for their shared identity. Design can then assume its architectural condition by virtue of its granting existence to an architectural concept in the heads of people, where it really happens, and where it belongs in the first place.

Thus two levels of design are set out. The first deals with the structuring of design resources, and the second with the communication of design.

On the first level, the MEMOs map out patterns of resources which are available for the architecture of an Air Force Memorial. Any subsequent reinforcement of these patterns by the selection—i.e. design—of one or several of these patterns constitutes an act of design intervention, and a deliberate political, social and esthetic act. For example, the selection—design—of the Memorial in the form of building is readily seen to constitute a repressive act, given limited resources, the size of the country, and the range of possibilities available, such as the reinforcing of a cross-country Memorial network by the installation of old aircraft or video equipment in centers of population, or the opening of old airports near several cities as instant Memorials where Air Force veterans could meet in the abandoned hangars. Rather than invest resources in capital expenditure on an isolated building set in a corner of the country, the money could be invested in real services such as housing, and the return used to maintain a network of facilities that can bring the “building” to the people.

The second level of design then belongs to all of us. The MEMOs describe the resources for the personal design of a Memorial which is so general and particular, simple and complex, as to encompass any experience that may be included in its architecture. The resulting continual variation of the external form of the Memorial reinforces the internal structure of personal experience.

MEMO 1: on Location as a Network. Map of Air Canada flight routes linking principal cities and a schedule. The network locates Memorial constructs at any given point in time. It identifies and links specific zones where design opportunities exist or may exist. These zones may be found at an airport, or at the location of other similar experiential linkages. These locations are neither fixed in place nor time since there are no “real” physical boundaries to the Memorial’s beginning or end or to its actual location. A Memorial may disclose itself in several places simultaneously: a construct in Vancouver may be a Memorial at 8:00 AM, and at the same instant another construct in Montreal may become a Memorial for someone else. Meaning is found in “real-time” and in subsequent immobilization of space.

MEMO 2: on Real-Time Topologies. Flight path zones of an aircraft guidance system. Linkages throughout the network are established by reference to an existing physical matrix associated with flight. Airports locate points of contact between air flight and the ground readily accessible both physically and conceptually. The on-ground topology of the airport is determined by the configuration of in-flight air space: the lowering of buildings, warning lights on all projecting constructions, the flattening of the terrain, and a distant view of the horizon across a vast, flat, windswept clearing. The original function of the airfield suggests the possible function of the airfield as a Memorial. As Robert Smithson once suggested, in dealing with the simulacrum of the “object,” the runway transforms itself into an enormous slab hovering over the expanse of the field, and on the scale of this slab, isolated aircraft appear as scattered buildings. Further perceptual mapping could extend the identification of fine-grained design opportunities: MICRO-MEMOs on Micro-Memorials.

MEMO 9: on a Topology of In-Place History. The externalization of architecture includes a morphology of destruction—building-in-meaning—in reverse: The ruins of aircraft buildings and cities form a record of an architecture created by the Air Force. It is found and maintained in actual, in-place remains as some archeologic deposit. In the case of a bombed-out building, or a destroyed aircraft, the “son and lumière” of the ruins would include a list of casualties, personal histories, families and friends, as well as the sounds of destruction, and remains of bodies left in place in order to personalize the experience.

MEMO 4: on the Simulated Experience as the Actual Experience. Flight simulators with the addition of taped visuals and sound on the history of air flight and military aviation used as Micro-Memorials located across country. The experience of Lindbergh’s flight is recreated by being closed in behind a vibrating engine for 331/2 hours looking out at a passing ocean through a periscope. The experience of bombing in a Junker over Guernica, in a B-29 over Hiroshima, or in a B-52 over Laos, includes close-up zoom views of the victims, sounds of their cries, and a free napalm burn on the palm as a souvenir of the “Souvenir” for each visitor. Finally, developments in extra-terrestrial flight, such as deep space probes have resulted in telemetered flight systems in which the astronaut-pilots are located in a capsule on earth which simulates an actual in-flight vehicle which it controls and which in turn provides the remote operator “real-time” information on the progress of the flight.

MEMO 3: on Usage Preceding Meaning. A B-29 open to visitors, parked off the end of a runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The aircraft is used as a “building,” and isolated on the slab of a runway it appears as a “building.” A visitor can enter the aircraft, pass through its fuselage, fit him self into the gunnery turret or into the cockpit. The moving stick, the switches and dials of the controls, along with taped sound, offer one man the opportunity of a Memorial to himself as a bomber pilot, and another man visions of himself on a bombing mission during World War II. As long as it can fly, the aircraft can bring this “Memorial Building” to several cities across the country and take people on Memorial flights.

Memo 5: on Discrete Usages. Roll-O-Plane in Belmont Park, Montreal. As one becomes aware of the removal from the ground, motion through the air, and total dependence on a machine, communication discloses the relevant features of both “building” and “language.”

MEMO 6: on Discrete Meaning. A wind-up replica of an amusement park airplane ride; made in Japan.

MEMO 7: on Instant Access the media as virtual history. Multiple screen video monitor. Video tapes on the history of air flight and military aviation available for instant distribution through any outlet. The tapes present actual scenes from the first flights to recent bombing raids including details of the lives of the people involved. Real images are transferred by the media into the realm of virtual events; history is simulated with the images of warfare. History and war become events locked into the media: important flights or air battles get prime viewing time, alternative outcomes are selected by instant audience rating, and “War is over if you want it” happens by simply pushing the off button.

MEMO 8: on Instant Access the media as actual history. Radar device giving the pilot a “view that is constant and visual confirmation” on the position of the aircraft; developed by Texas Instruments. A real-time Memorial based on “view that is constant and visual confirmation”: a series of monitor channels giving a world-wide audience immediate access to actual events, such as bombing in Laos, via satellites and any home receiver. What is suggested is a rerouting of existing “intelligence” system so that the technology of military intelligence be tuned to keep the people intelligent.