PRINT March 1981


THE LIMITS OF ARCHITECTURE are variable: each decade has its own ideal themes, its own confused fashions. Yet each of these periodical shifts and digressions raises the same question: are there recurrent themes, constants that are specifically architectural and yet always under scrutiny—an architecture of limits?

As opposed to other disciplines, architecture rarely presents a coherent set of concepts—a definition—that displays both the continuity of its concerns and the more sensitive boundaries of its activity. However, a few aphorisms and dictums that have been transmitted through centuries of architectural literature do exist. Such notions as “scale,” “proportion,” “symmetry” and “composition” have specific architectural connotations. The relation between the abstraction of thought and the substance of space—the Platonic distinction between “theoretical” and “practical”—is constantly recalled; to perceive the architectural space of a building is to perceive something-that-has-been-conceived. The opposition between form and function, between ideal types and programmatic organization, is similarly recurrent, even if both terms are viewed, increasingly, as independent.

One of the more enduring equations is the Vitruvian trilogy—venustas, firmitas, utilitas—“attractive appearance,” “structural stability,” “appropriate spatial accommodation.” It is obsessively repeated throughout centuries of architectural precepts, though not necessarily in that order. Are these possible architectural constants, the inherent limits without which architecture does not exist? Or is their permanence a bad mental habit, an intellectual laziness observed throughout history? Does persistence grant validity? If not, does architecture fail to realize the displacement of limits it has held for so long?

The 20th century has disrupted the Vitruvian trilogy, for architecture could not remain insensitive to industrialization and the radical questioning of institutions (whether Family, State or Church) at the turn of the century. The first term—attractive appearance (beauty)—slowly disappeared from the vocabulary, while structural linguistics took hold of the architect’s formal discourse. Yet early architectural semiotics merely borrowed codes from literary texts, applied them to urban or architectural spaces, and inevitably remained descriptive. Inversely, attempts to construct new codes meant reducing a building to a “message” and its use to a “reading.” Much of the current vogue for quotations of past architectural symbols proceeds from such simplistic interpretations.

In recent years, however, serious research has applied linguistic theory to architecture, adding an arsenal of selection and combination, substitution and contextuality, metaphor and metonymy, similarity and contiguity, following the terms of Jakobson, Chomsky and Benveniste. Although exclusively formalist manipulation often exhausts itself if new criteria are not injected to allow for innovation, its very excesses can often shed new light on the elusive boundaries of the “prison-house” of architectural language. At the limit, this research introduces preoccupations with the notion of “subject” and with the role of “subjectivity” in language, differentiating language as a system of signs from language as an act accomplished by an individual.

The concern for the next term—structural stability—seems to have disappeared during the ’60s without anyone realizing or discussing it. The consensus was that anything could be built, provided you could pay for it. And concern with structure vanished from conference rosters and dwindled in architectural courses and magazines. Who, after all, wants to stress that the Doric pilasters of current historicism are made of painted plywood or that appliqué moldings are there to give metaphorical substance to hollow walls?

The progressive reduction of building mass over a period of centuries meant that architects could arbitrarily compose, decompose and recompose volumes according to formal rather than structural laws. Modernism’s concern for surface effect further deprived volumes of material substance. Today, matter hardly enters the substance of walls that have been reduced to sheetrock or glass partitions that barely differentiate inside from outside. The phenomenon is not likely to be reversed, and those who advocate a return to “honesty of materials” or massive poché walls are often motivated by ideological rather than practical reasons. It should be stressed, however, that any concern over material substance has implications beyond mere structural stability. The materiality of architecture, after all, is in its solids and voids, its spatial sequences, its articulations, its collisions. (One remark in passing: some will say concern for energy conservation replaced the concern for construction. Maybe. Research in passive and active energy conservation, solar power and water recycling, certainly enjoys a certain popularity, yet does not greatly affect the general vocabulary of houses or cities.)

The sole judge of the last term of the trilogy, “appropriate spatial accommodation” is, of course, the body, your body, my body—the starting point and point of arrival of architecture. The Cartesian body-as-object has been opposed to the phenomenological body-as-subject and the materiality and logic of the body has been opposed to the materiality and logic of spaces. From the space of the body to the body-in-space—the passage is intricate. And that shift, that gap in the obscurity of the unconscious, somewhere between body and Ego, between Ego and Other. . . . Architecture still has not begun to analyze the Viennese discoveries at the turn of the century, even if architecture might one day inform psychoanalysis more than psychoanalysis has informed architecture.

The pervasive smells of rubber, concrete, flesh; the taste of dust; the discomforting rubbing of an elbow on an abrasive surface; the pleasure of fur-lined walls and the pain of a corner hit upon in the dark; the echo of a hall—space is not simply the three-dimensional projection of a mental representation, but it is something that is heard, and is acted upon. And it is the eye that frames—the window, the door, the vanishing ritual of passage. . . . Spaces of movement—corridors, staircases, ramps, passages, thresholds; here begins the articulation between the space of the senses and the space of society, the dances and gestures that combine the representation of space and the space of representation. Bodies not only move in, but generate spaces produced by and through their movements. Movements—of dance, sport, war—are the intrusion of events into architectural spaces. At the limit, these events become scenarios or programs, void of moral or functional implications, independent but inseparable from the spaces that enclose them.

So a new formulation of the old trilogy appears. It overlaps the three original terms in certain ways, while enlarging them in other ways. Distinctions can be made between mental, physical and social space, or, alternatively, between language, matter and body. Admittedly, these distinctions are schematic. Although they correspond to real and convenient categories of analysis (“conceived,” “perceived,” “experienced”), they lead to different approaches and to different modes of architectural notation.

A change is evident in architecture’s status, in its relationship to its language, its composing materials, and its individuals or societies. The question is how these three terms are articulated, and how they relate to each other within the field of contemporary practice. It is also evident that since architecture’s mode of production has reached an advanced stage of development, it no longer needs to adhere strictly to linguistic, material or functional norms but can distort them at will. And, finally, it is evident from the role of isolated incidents—often pushed aside in the past—that architecture’s nature is not always found within building. Events, drawings, texts expand the boundaries of socially-justifiable constructions.

The recent changes are deep and little understood. Architects-at-large find them difficult to accept, intuitively aware as they are that their craft is being drastically altered. Current architectural historicism is both a part of and a consequence of this phenomenon—both a sign of fear and a sign of escape. To what extent do such explosions, such changes in the conditions of the production of architecture displace the limits of architectural activities in order to correspond to their mutations?

Three Limits
In Europe and in America, certain works are symptomatic of these recent changes. Variously decried for their lack of practicality, their iconoclasm or for being out of touch with architectural practice, they are both a positive consequence of, and a contributing factor in, these transformations. They are not a matter of “style” or “generation.” They do not encourage imitators and blind followers by proposing “how to design a house,” or “how to reconstruct the city,” with simple rules and well-drawn instructions. On the contrary, they each attempt to push back the limits architecture bears upon itself. Raimund Abraham’s seminal series of architectural drawings explores clashes between boundaries, oppositions between inside and outside, void and solid, artifice and nature. The ironical “collisions” shown here play on both the power of mass and the sensuality of contrasts. Peter Eisenman’s research on the nature of architecture and its language is fundamental; it both fills a gap and reaches for extremes. The excerpts from the transformational diagrams of Houses presented here are only a part of a large body of theoretical studies and writings. Kenneth Frampton’s role as a critical historian emphasizes the social and cultural circumstances of architecture. His fragmentary polemic on the body covers a nearly “forbidden” ground in the field of architectural thought.

Bernard Tschumi is an architect living in New York whose drawings, constructions and theoretical writings have been published in AD, Oppositions, Studio International and in a special issue of A + U. He teaches at Princeton University and at Cooper Union.

Part I of “Architecture and Limits” was published in Artforum, December 1980.