PRINT May 1990


Future Architecture

PEOPLE INHABIT CAVES, TENTS, HOUSES, cubes piled on top of each other. People need habit, for it is only within habit that an experience acquires meaning, just as information theory asserts that it is only within redundance, or repetition, that a noise becomes information. But you don’t have to know information theory to see that a tourist who has no home wanders about, and finds no meaning anywhere. In the Middle Ages we believed that we were all such tourists: homines viatores. Having lost our heavenly home, we were all roaming erratically in this vale of tears called the world. That is why Maimonides wrote a “Guide for Errants.” Today we have the Guides Michelin, and we have houses, and our secular culture says that our life on earth is more meaningful than whatever precedes and follows it. Still, somehow we feel unsheltered.

A house is a roof and four walls; the rest is secondary. The roof is a tool to protect the inhabitant from what lies above, from those superior forces we hope will never find us, be they raindrops or a hailstorm of tablets of the law. But we no longer believe in any superior force in the sky. (As for the rain, these days nature is a mere technicality.) Architects used to be the most important of all artists; today, we no longer need them. We are sovereign people, nobody’s subjects.

A wall is a tool to protect the inhabitant from what is different. It has two sides: the outside faces the dangerous foreigners who threaten to immigrate, the inside faces the indigenous natives. The Berlin Wall showed how this tool works: whichever side of it you were on, the other side was a political danger, and your side was your own secret, what distinguished you from the evils to the east, or to the west, depending. But we are no longer convinced that what’s dangerous is always outside us, and we no longer like to be imprisoned within secrets. We tend to think that walls should come down.

In any case, even those of us who still believe in keeping secrets (and in being kept themselves) cannot help but make holes in walls: doors and windows. Because even patriots like to take a stroll, or to look at what’s happening outside. Windows are tools for seeing the outside from the inside. We might call such vision by the Greek term theoria, which means “looking” and is the root of our “theory”: looking without going out and getting wet (thinking separated from action). But we are no longer convinced that such uncommitted, “pure” vision really brings knowledge. Windows are no longer useful.

Doors are tools for exit and entrance. One goes out the door to conquer the world, where one loses oneself; one comes bock through the door to find oneself, and one loses the world. Hegel used to call this pendular motion the “unhappy conscience.” Doors are not very happy inventions. Also, there is an inner dialectic in doors and windows: politics (the police) may enter through the door, and burglars (private interests) through the window. All in all, the house as we know it is not a very successful idea.

In fact, these days a house consisting of a roof and four walls can only be found in a fairy tale. The earthquake called the communications revolution has reduced it to ruins. Material and immaterial cables have made an Emmenthal cheese of it: antennae through the roof picking TV and radio out of the air, telephone lines snaking through the walls. We don’t live in houses anymore, we hide in ruins through which blow the blizzards of communication. No use trying to adapt those ruins: we need a new architecture for after the earthquake.

This demands rethinking. We con no longer see houses primarily in terms of geography—on a city street, say, or on a hill near a river. We have to give up geography for topology. We used to think of Earth, for example, as occupying a place within the solar system, but computer-generated images show us Earth as a curve within a net called “the gravitational field of the Sun.” Similarly, we must imagine a house as a curve or crease in the net called “human relations.” The curve reflects the changes in the net where human relations grow denser, and the house is the point where those relations are densest.

The new house must be attractive, in the gravitational sense in which Earth is attractive: it must constantly draw in new human relations. It must exist as a process rather than a static construction, for it must absorb new relations as its input, and it must process them into information. This information must be transmitted to its inhabitants and to other houses and agencies. The new house must be a knot within the human network, a creative knot within which the sum of information (the sum of “culture”) at its inhabitants’ disposal increases. It must be a knot built on material and immaterial cables.

This is a dangerous architectural project. There are two ways of connecting cables: as nets (in the telephone system, for example, information can go in both directions through the network) and as bundles (the television, where the same information is piped in one direction from broadcaster to consumers). If the new house were only to be part of a bundle (the Latin fasces), it could support an as yet unimaginable form of totalitarianism, with every house disposing of the same knowledge, no more, no less. (In Nazi Germany this was called Gleichschaltung.) Future architects must take care to avoid bundling, and to provide for a “dialogical network.” This is a technical problem. Architects, being technicians and artists, are competent to solve it.

But there is yet another, nontechnical (existential) danger. The people who will inhabit such houses will have nowhere to hide: roofs and walls may keep out the rain, but not the hail of communications. We can do nothing but reach out our hands and try to hold on to the hands of other people, and thus, hand in hand, face the void, without any guarantee that we will not be swallowed up by it. We must accept that danger, because the alternative is even more dangerous: it is to go on hiding within the ruins of houses become uninhabitable, or to wander about in motorcars without any meaning. We must either run the danger of becoming upright creators within the void, or continue to be squatters.

Vilém Flusser is a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and of the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.