[13 August 2003]
The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Most people rush through their lives giving little thought to the buildings that surround them. While certain buildings might have personal, emotional meaning—a childhood home, a former workplace—it’s rare for anyone to consider the architects who designed these backdrops. But whether or not it gets much attention, architecture is more tangible than most of the arts. On a subconscious level, it greatly affects people’s states of mind, as anyone who has thrilled at New York’s Times Square, admired a Gothic cathedral, or been trapped in a dismally designed office space will attest.
Given architecture’s cultural omnipresence, it is surprising that intellectuals—critics, philosophers, psychologists, or theorists—and architects rarely speak face to face. The Singular Objects of Architecture promises to fill this void by chronicling a fascinating conversation about the nature of architecture and, by extension, the current state of society. The speakers are two particularly qualified intellectuals: the controversial French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the startling contemporary architect Jean Nouvel.
Jean Nouvel’s buildings are impossible to ignore or forget. His famous Parisian Cartier Foundation building stops taxi drivers in their tracks, astounds tourists, and amazes even cynical French locals. The building is made of glass, and it is almost entirely transparent; its walls reflect the surrounding trees and garden, reveal patrons and visitors inside the structure, and play with light. Most remarkably, the structure’s appearance changes as the day progresses and the seasons change: it is interactive with its environment. All of Nouvel’s designs follow basic principles present in the Cartier building—they are site specific, they play with natural elements, and they incorporate the latest technology—and this is what sets Nouvel apart from most architects.
Jean Baudrillard’s ideas are infamous, even if his name isn’t ubiquitous. His most provocative book (and the one that received the most attention from the general public in the United States) is called The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; in it he claims that the military’s reliance on radar and satellites and the American public’s experience of the war through television has created a new form of remote control warfare that seems as fantastical as a video game to all but the dead Iraqi soldiers and civilians. Baudrillard’s critique of consumer culture is similarly astute: put bluntly, mass media has brought about a hyper-reality where divisions between reality and fantasy have dissolved and the meaning and context of images has become unimportant. Baudrillard has numerous texts and theories to his credit and the respect of his contemporaries, but—unlike most contemporary philosophers—he is also accessible to all readers, and he has something interesting to say on almost every subject.
The loose focus of Nouvel and Baudrillard’s discussion is the “singular object”: an irreducible, irreplaceable, transcendent cultural artifact. Both Nouvel and Baudrillard believe that singular architectural objects are of the utmost importance, and they agree that any building that ignores the culture, time, and space where it resides, whether to please its owners or conform to conventions, cannot be singular. While examples of non-singularity in architecture are abundant and obvious (e.g.: cookie-cutter colonial style suburban homes, or Asian skyscrapers that replicate existing American buildings), identifying a singular object is a bit more difficult. One exception is the World Trade Center, which—according to Nouvel and Baudrillard—was a singular object even before its horrific collapse, since it translated the hyper-real, almost post-apocalyptic climate of New York City through its verticality, while also hinting at the biological and metaphorical role of cloning in contemporary society through its duality.
Although the idea of “singularity” might seem unimportant to those not interested in architecture, the deeper philosophical concept at work beneath this notion holds universal appeal. Baudrillard calls this concept the “secret” and believes that it resides at the center of all great art. This secret—much like the singular object—is difficult to describe and, in contemporary society, has dissipated. Baudrillard says:
the secret obviously becomes increasingly difficult in a world like our own, where everything is given to us totally promiscuously, so that there are no gaps, no voids, no nothingness; nothingness no longer exists, and nothingness is where secrecy happens, the place where things lose their meaning, their identity—not only would they assume all possible meanings here, but they would remain truly unintelligible in some sense.
In other words, there is less and less room for the “secret”—the primal je ne sais quoi that provokes a profound and visceral reaction in the consumer of art—between the billboards, reality television shows, art criticism, and pop psychology that consume the attention of contemporary humans. Similarly, the aestheticization of all art—discussions, critiques, examinations, analyses—dissipate a work of art’s singularity or secret (In other words, viewers have pondered the Mona Lisa’s singular smile for centuries, but in today’s world, DaVinci’s model, or the artist himself, would be a guest on a television talk show, forced to spill secrets and submit to psychological evaluation). Taken on its own, this concept is a profound critique of contemporary culture, which deserves the attention of anyone concerned about the future of art.
Beyond the topic of singularity, Nouvel and Baudrillard’s conversation is engaging and provocative but raises more questions than it answers. The pair’s discussion includes globalization, modernism and postmodernism, third world housing, the Berlin Wall, virtual communities, and postindustrial cities, among other things. With such a range of topics and two brilliant commentators, The Singular Objects of Architecture rarely fails to entertain. In such a slim volume, however, this conversation is ambitious to say the least, and on most subjects the pair only have space for a few tantalizing proclamations before they must move on. Although this book could present some difficulties to those completely unfamiliar with critical theory, the text’s overall effect is most akin to that of an intellectual cocktail party: the reader is enticed by an array of witty propositions, but never forced to think too much.