PRINT September 1981

Violence of Architecture

There is no architecture without action, no architecture without events, no architecture without program. By extension, there is no architecture without violence.

THE FIRST OF THESE STATEMENTS runs against the mainstream of contemporary architectural thought, whether “modernist” or “post-modernist,” by refusing to favor space at the expense of action. The second statement argues that although the logic of objects and the logic of man are independent in their relations to the world, they inevitably face one another in an intense confrontation. Any relationship between a building and its users is one of violence, for any use means the intrusion of a human body into a given space, the intrusion of one order into another. This intrusion is inherent in the idea of architecture; any reduction of architecture to its spaces at the expense of its events is as simplistic as the reduction of architecture to its facades.

By “violence,” I do not mean the brutality that destroys physical or emotional integrity, but a metaphor for the intensity of a relationship between individuals and their surrounding spaces. The argument is not a matter of style: “modern” architecture is neither more nor less violent than classical architecture, or than Fascist, Socialist or vernacular variations. Architecture’s violence is fundamental and unavoidable, for architecture is linked to events in the same way that the guard is linked to his prisoner, the police to the criminal, the doctor to the patient, order to chaos. This also suggests that actions qualify spaces as much as spaces qualify actions; that space and action are inseparable and that no proper interpretation of architecture, drawing or notation can refuse to consider this fact.

What must first be determined is whether this relation between action and space is symmetrical—opposing two camps (people versus spaces) that affect one another in a comparable way—or asymmetrical, a relation in which one camp, whether space or people, clearly dominates the other.

Bodies violating space
First, there is the violence that all individuals inflict on spaces by their very presence, by their intrusion into the controlled order of architecture. Entering a building may be a delicate act, but it violates the balance of a precisely ordered geometry (do architectural photographs ever include runners, fighters, lovers?). Bodies carve all sorts of new and unexpected spaces, through fluid or erratic motions. Architecture, then, is only an organism engaged in constant intercourse with users, whose bodies rush against the carefully established rules of architectural thought. No wonder the human body has always been suspect in architecture: it has always set limits to the most extreme architectural ambitions. The body disturbs the purity of architectural order. It is equivalent to a dangerous prohibition.

Violence is not always present. Just as riots, brawls, insurrections, and revolutions are of limited duration, so is the violence a body commits against space. Yet it is always implicit. Each door implies the movement of someone crossing its frame. Each corridor implies the progression of movement that blocks it. Each architectural space implies (and desires) the intruding presence that will inhabit it.

Space violating bodies
But if bodies violate the purity of architectural spaces, one might rightly wonder about the reverse: the violence inflicted by narrow corridors on large crowds, the symbolic or physical violence of buildings on users. A word of warning: I do not wish to resurrect recent behaviorist architectural approaches. Instead, I wish simply to underline the mere existence of a physical presence and the fact that it begins quite innocently, in an imaginary sort of way.

The place your body inhabits is inscribed in your imagination, your unconscious, as a space of possible bliss. Or menace. What if you are forced to abandon your imaginary spatial markings? A torturer wants you, the victim, to regress, because he wants to demean his prey, to make you lose your identity as a subject. Suddenly you have no choice; running away is impossible. The rooms are too small or too big, the ceilings too low or too high. Violence exercised by and through space is spatial torture.

Take Palladio’s Villa Rotonda. You walk through one of its axes and as you cross the central space and reach its other side you find, instead of the hillside landscape, the steps of another Villa Rotonda, and another, and another, and another. The incessant repetition at first stimulates some strange desire, but soon becomes sadistic, impossible, violent.

Such discomforting spatial devices can take any form: the white anechoic chambers of sensory deprivation, the formless spaces leading to psychological destructuring. Steep and dangerous staircases, those corridors consciously made too narrow for crowds, introduce a radical shift from architecture as an object of contemplation to architecture as a perverse instrument of use. At the same time it must be stressed that the receiving subject—you or I—may wish to be subjected to such spatial aggression, just as you may go to a rock concert and stand close enough to the loudspeakers to sustain painful—but pleasurable—physical or psychic trauma. Places aimed at the cult of excessive sound only suggest places aimed at the cult of excessive space. The love of violence, after all, is an ancient pleasure.

Why has architectural theory regularly refused to acknowledge such pleasures and always claimed (at least officially) that architecture should be pleasing to the eye, as well as comfortable to the body? This presupposition seems curious when the pleasure of violence can be experienced in every other human activity, from the violence of discordant sounds in music to the clash of bodies in sports, from gangster movies to the Marquis de Sade.

Violence ritualized
Who will mastermind these exquisite spatial delights, these disturbing architectural tortures, the tortuous paths of promenades through delirious landscapes, theatrical events where actor complements decor? Who . . .? The architect? By the seventeenth century, Bernini had staged whole spectacles, followed by Mansart’s fêtes for Louis XIV and Albert Speer’s sinister and beautiful rallies. After all, the original action, the original act of violence—this unspeakable copulating of live body and dead stone—is unique and unrehearsed, though perhaps infinitely repeatable, for you may enter the building again and again. The architect will always dream of purifying this uncontrolled violence, channeling obedient bodies along predictable paths, and occasionally along ramps that provide striking vistas, ritualizing the transgression of bodies in space. Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center, with its ramp that violates the building, is a genuine movement of bodies made into an architectural solid. Or the reverse: it is a solid that forcibly channels the movement of bodies.

The original, spontaneous interaction of the body with a space is often purified by ritual. Sixteenth-century pageants and the reenactment of the storming of the Winter Palace in Leningrad, for example, are ritualistic imitations of spontaneous violence. Endlessly repeated, these rituals curb all aspects of the original act that have escaped control: the choice of time and place, the selection of the victim. . . .

A ritual implies a near-frozen relationship between action and space. It institutes a new order after the disorder of the original event. When it becomes necessary to mediate tension and fix it by custom, then no single fragment must escape attention. Nothing strange and unexpected must happen. Control must be absolute.

PROGRAMS: Reciprocity and Conflict
Such control is, of course, not likely to be achieved. Few regimes would survive if architects were to program every single movement of individual and society in a kind of ballet mécanique of architecture, a permanent Nuremberg Rally of everyday life, a puppet theater of spatial intimacy. Nor would they survive if every spontaneous movement were immediately frozen into a solid corridor. The relationship is more subtle and moves beyond the question of power, beyond the question of whether architecture dominates events, or vice versa. The relationship, then, is as symmetrical as the ineluctable one between guard and prisoner, hunter and hunted. But both the hunter and the hunted also have basic needs to consider, which may not relate to the hunt: sustenance, food, shelter, etc. Hunter and hunted enjoy these needs independent of the fact that they are engaged in a deadly game. They are respectively self-sufficient. Only when they confront each other’s reality are their strategies so totally interdependent that it becomes impossible to determine which one initiates and which one responds. The same happens with architecture and the way buildings relate to their users, or spaces relate to events or programs. For any organized repetition of events, once announced in advance, becomes a program, a descriptive notice of a formal series of proceedings.

When spaces and programs are largely independent of one another, one observes a strategy of indifference in which architectural considerations do not depend on utilitarian ones, in which space has one logic and events another. Such were the Crystal Palace and the neutral sheds of the 19th-century’s Great Exhibitions, which accommodated anything from displays of elephants draped in rare colonial silks to international boxing matches. Such, too—but in a very different manner—was Gerrit Rietveld’s house in Utrecht, a remarkable exercise in architectural language, and a not unpleasant house to live in, despite, or perhaps because of the fortuitous juxtaposition of space and use.

At other times, architectural spaces and programs can become totally interdependent and fully condition each other’s existence. In these cases, the architect’s view of the user’s needs determines every architectural decision (which may, in turn, determine the user’s attitude). The architect designs the set, writes the script, and directs the actors. Such were the ideal kitchen installations of the twenties’ Werkbund, each step of a near-biochemical housewife carefully monitored by the design’s constant attention. Such were Meyerhold’s biomechanics, acting through Popova’s stage sets, where the characters’ logic played with and against the logic of their dynamic surroundings. Such also is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. It is not a question of knowing which comes first, movement or space, which molds the other, for ultimately a deep bond is involved. After all, they are caught in the same set of relationships; only the arrow of power changes direction.

(If I outline these two relations of independence and interdependence, it is to insist on the fact that they exist regardless of the prescriptive ideologies—modernism versus humanism, formalism versus functionalism, etc.—which architects and critics are usually keen to promote.)

Most relations, of course, stand somewhere in between. You can sleep in your kitchen. And fight and love. These shifts are not without meaning. When the typology of an 18th-century prison is turned into a 20th-century city hall, the shift inevitably suggests a critical statement about institutions. When an industrial loft in Manhattan is turned into a residence, a similar shift occurs, a shift that is undoubtedly less dramatic. Spaces are qualified by actions just as actions are qualified by spaces. One does not trigger the other; they exist independently. Only when they intersect do they affect one another. Remember Kuleshov’s experiment where the same shot of the actor’s impassible face is introduced into a variety of situations, and the audience reads different expressions into each successive juxtaposition. The same occurs in architecture: the event is altered by each new space. And vice versa: by ascribing to a given, supposedly “autonomous” space a contradictory program, the space attains new levels of meaning. Event and space do not merge, but affect one another. Similarly, if the Sistine Chapel were used for pole-vaulting events, architecture would then cease to yield to its customary good intentions. For a while the transgression would be real and all-powerful. Yet the transgression of cultural expectations soon becomes accepted. Just as violent Surrealist collages inspire advertising rhetoric, the broken rule is integrated into everyday life, whether through symbolic or technological motivations.

If violence is the key metaphor for the intensity of a relationship, then the very physicality of architecture transcends the metaphor. There is a deep sensuality, an unremittent eroticism in architecture. Its underlying violence varies according to the forces that are put into play—rational forces, irrational forces. They can be deficient or excessive. Little activity—hypo-activity—in a house can be as disturbing as hyperactivity. Asceticism and orgiastic excesses are closer than architectural theorists have admitted, and the asceticism of Gerrit Rietveld’s or Ludwig Wittgenstein’s house inevitably implies the most extreme bacchanals. (Cultural expectations merely affect the perception of violence, but do not alter its nature; slapping your lover’s face is perceived differently from culture to culture.)

Architecture and events constantly transgress each other’s rules, whether explicitly or implicitly. These rules, these organized compositions, may be questioned, but they always remain points of reference. A building is a point of reference for the activities set to negate it. A theory of architecture is a theory of order threatened by the very use it permits. And vice versa.

The integration of the concept of violence into the architectural mechanism—the purpose of my argument—is ultimately aimed at a new pleasure of architecture. Like any form of violence, the violence of architecture also contains the possibility of change, of renewal. Like any violence, the violence of architecture is deeply Dionysian. It should be understood, and its contradictions maintained in a dynamic manner, with their conflicts and complementarity.

In passing, two types of partial violence should be distinguished, types which are not specifically architectural. The first is formal violence, which deals with the conflicts between objects. Such is the violence of form versus form, the violence of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s juxtapositions, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau collages and other architectural collisions. Distortions, ruptures, compressions, fragmentations, and disjunctions are inherent in the manipulation of form. This is also the disruption inflicted by any new construction on its surroundings, for it not only destroys what it replaces, but violates the territory it occupies. It is the violence of Adolf Loos’ House for Tristan Tzara in the context of vernacular 19th-century suburban Paris or, alternatively, the disruptive effect of an historical allusion in a curtain-wall avenue. This contextual violence is nothing but the polemical violence of difference. To discuss it is the task of sociology, psychology, and esthetics.

A door flanked by broken Corinthian columns supporting a twisted neon pediment, however, suggests farce rather than violence. Yet James Joyce’s “doorlumn” was both a pun and a comment on the cultural crisis of language. Finnegans Wake implied that particular transgressions could attack the constituent elements of architectural language—its columns, stairs, windows, and their various combinations—as they are defined by any cultural period, whether Beaux-Arts or Bauhaus. This formal disobedience is ultimately harmless and may even initiate a new style as it slowly loses the excessive character of a violated prohibition. It then announces a new pleasure and the elaboration of a new norm, which is in turn violated.

The second type of partial violence is not a metaphor. Programmatic violence encompasses those uses, actions, events, and programs which, by accident or by design, are specifically evil and destructive. Among them are killing, internment, and torture, which become slaughter houses, concentration camps or torture chambers.

Bernard Tschumi