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Discipline vs. “Field” Discourse

The original rather pretentious title (I was young then) was:
Towards An Old/New Way of Thinking, Writing, Designing…
(written in 1991 for one of my Ph.D. courses at the University of Michigan)

…the validity, usefulness, adequacy of popular standards can be tested by research that
violates them…

— Paul Feyerabend

illustration by E.S.


Stumbling. However, quite revealing as experience – in Professor Senkevitch’s class on “Thresholds of Architectural Thought…” students have to read the original writings of “well-known” theoreticians – Vitruvius, Alberti, Laugier, Sullivan.

Original writings turn out to be long, complex, unclear, and sinuous – compared to the “well-known, clear, concise, and straightforward” ideas-principles ascribed to these authors by the architectural discipline.

Let us consider Vitruvius. Here are some of my notes/questions/readings of/on/about him:

  • What we term “architectural order” seems to be only the external appearance of what Vitruvius contemplates as “proportions”. Here is what he writes: “Since the external appearance of the Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic proportions has now been described, it is necessary to explain the arrangements of the cella and the pronaos…” (Vitruvius, “The Ten Books…”).
  • Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic proportions (orders) are measurement systems embracing the whole temple – cella and ptera.
  • The ptera is only an “external appearance” (articulation) of the cella (body).
  • There is a chapter titled “Proportions of the Base, Capitals, and Entablature in the Ionic Order” (In Book III of “The Ten Books…”). It is about the ptera as a whole – and not about a separate column and its vertical articulation.
  • The measurements of columns and intercolumniations are, according to Vitruvius, work on the “high relief” of the temple… seen obviously as a sculptural whole.
  • For Vitruvius, the colonnade seems to be a sculptural form-articulation of the cella-body.
  • The columns are NOT structural elements for Vitruvius.
  • Through them, an “external appearance” is presented – uncovering the truth of the temple – its character.
  • Here is what George Hersey (1986) says: “When Vitruvius’ myths are analyzed, the origins of the Doric and Ionic orders impart gruesome lessons. They are tales of betrayal, enslavement, invasion, colonialism… Finally, practically all classical moldings are called after things used in catching and eating victims – human, animal, or vegetable – or after bits and pieces of the victims themselves… Moreover, he (Vitruvius) uses the word ‘entasis’ to describe the slight outward curvature in the silhouette of the Doric shaft, which means ‘tension, straining, exertion’ of the human body…
  • The Caryatides are “placed so as to carry a load” (Vitruvius). The “carrying of a load” in the position of a column is a metaphor only. Metaphor of sin, punishment, and sacrifice.

So, there is “content” in the architectural orders, largely unfamiliar to those trained in the discipline of architecture.

Still, the metaphor of “tension, straining, exertion” seems to be recovered as “mastery of structural forces”. The metaphor of “pro-portioning” (articulating a body in pieces according to sacred rules) is recovered as “mastery of formal order”, and the metaphor of “the entablature as a table of offerings” (Hersey) – recovered as “mastery of function”. Forms of a myth are resemanticized (in a sense and logic suggested by Olga Freidenberg, 1978) as structures of what we call discipline of architecture. Repeatedly recovered through the history of architecture as discipline, this cluster of mythical forms-themes is established as axiomatic structure of the architectural discourse.

In this way, the “origin” of architecture is re-covered/lost in principle for a thinking based on the discipline itself. And “origin”, in a historicist tradition like ours, means explanation and validation. This is why, paradoxically, disciplinary thinking in architecture is obsessed with an ever disappointing search for “primitive huts”, “origins”, “primary needs”, or “reasons”.

In fact, by writing his treatise, Vitruvius fixed the first (known to us) broad referring of the architectural practice to a set of “historical”, “socio-logical”, “psycho-logical”, and “techno-logical” “origins” and “reasons”. In this way, a disciplinary self-consciousness was defined by positing an “otherness”. Stanley Tigerman (1991):

Otherness: From generation to generation, it seems as though architects have been determined to define their craft through the examination of issues extrinsic to architecture. They seek definition in the consideration of function, structure, and stylistic referentiality rather than looking within architecture’s own precinct to discover what, if anything, constitutes its essence.

So, Tigerman is sup-posing an “essence” of architecture as opposed to its disciplinary “otherness”.

Now, it seems to me that, instead of opposing “essence” to “otherness”, we could see them both as “other”. I think that the architectural discipline cannot not look for the non-architectural “other” (Tigerman’s “otherness”) – as a substitute for an always re-covered/lost pre-architectural “other” (Hersey’s “content”).

The non-architectural is what the discipline is thinking, speaking, writing, and designing about. It is the “object” of the discipline as “seen” by the discipline. On the other hand, the pre-architectural is what the discipline cannot “see” (even less speak about) because of its own de-finition (conceptual closure). The disciplinary discourse was formed as to look “outward”. All the disciplinary metaphysics (theory) of architecture was “gathered” through looking at and interpreting of the “outside” – because of this inherent/inherited directedness of the discourse. Directedness “outward” paradoxically stemming out of continuing efforts to recover “essences”, “origins”, “disciplinary cores”.

The non-architectural consists of all traditional “objects” of the architectural discourse – structure, function, form, history, theory, practice, use, façade, plan, section, etc. The pre-architectural is analogous of what Julia Kristeva (1989) means by “semiotic imprints of an interchange with the other”. The pre-architectural is the “affective” experience of the profession – felt by architects and transmitted as the un-speakable and the un-thinkable of the discipline – the undefined “other” of the profession. Julia Kristeva (1989):

Westerners… are convinced they can convey the mother – they believe in her, to be sure, but in order to convey her, that is, to betray her, transpose her, be free of her. Such melancholy persons triumph over the sadness of being separated from the loved object through an unbelievable effort to master signs in order to have them correspond to (re-cover, E.S.) primal, unnameable, traumatic experiences…The initial belief in conveyance (recovery, E.S.) becomes changed into a belief in stylistic performance for which the near side of the text (the pre-architectural, E.S.), its other, primal as it might be, is less important than the success of the text itself…At the boundaries of emotion and action, writing (architecture, E.S.) comes into being only through the moment of the negation of the affect so that the effectiveness of the signs might be born. Writing (architecture, E.S.) causes the affect to slip into the effect – actus purus as Aquinas might say… From that moment on, the world of signs lays down its own logic. The jubilation it affords, that of performance as well as reception, intermittently erases the ideal as well as any possibility of external justice. Immoralism is the fate of that process…”

The architectural discipline is “locked” in a dramatic opposition whose terms are “re-covery” (repression) of the “inner” complexities and contradictions (semiotic imprints, Kristeva) and “mastery” (symbolic order, Kristeva) over the “outer” complexities and contradictions. The traditional directedness “outward” of the architectural discourse (having a hidden root “inward”) sanctions the axis of opposition – inward/outward. “Sacred”, serviced is only the closing, blinding, dividing, conflictual potential of the discourse.

Still, the pre-architectural somehow “shakes” and “nurtures” the disciplinary discourse from inside – making possible the architectural practice as well – as a continuing and necessary transcendence of the discipline. But how does this work?

Field Discourse

Here is an interesting parallel. A Russian author (Porshnev, 1974), writing on the origins of culture, speaks of the “absurd” as being the very foundation of our language, thinking, and social history. On that base, he elaborates: (the translation from Russian is mine, E.S.)

Normally, the absurd is presented as a non-fulfillment of logic’s conditions. What would be to reverse: logic – as a non-fulfillment of the conditions of the absurd… As conditions of the absurd, we could posit the opposites of the three basic laws of logic: (1) necessary polysemy of terms (ambiguity as minimum), (2) necessary contradiction, and (3) instead of “either-or” – “both-and”. Accordingly, we will have to see everything logical as a violation of these rules.

So… the parallel is with Robert Venturi – who, it turns out, also was speaking in “Complexity and Contradiction…” (1966) about rules of the absurd exactly in Porshnev’s sense – and about the need to respect them. Venturi contemplates the “complex” and “contradictory” ways architecture relates to people, cultural contexts, and its own history. But the idea is even older:

The Sophists… proposed a theory claiming that the world itself was in full motion and contradiction, and that consequently the motion of la langue was only corresponding to real mobility … language could not express anything fixed or stable, since it was in full motion itself.” (Kristeva, 1981)

Recent work of Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown is characterized by Alan Plattus (1990) as post-analytical, conversational:

…the Sainsbury Wing, for all its thoughtful consideration of the program and the site, is neither predicated upon nor predicted by any single model or method in the architectural arsenal unless it be that distinctly non-theoretical model of a conversation… the VRSB scheme does not hold up to a rigorously analytical interrogation. Indeed, I think anyone would agree that something else is going on in VRSB’s project – something largely incomprehensible, and certainly indigestible, from a strictly analytic point of view.

Frank Gehry’s architecture is discussed by Carol Burns (1990) as an example of topical (rhetorical) thinking and design. Burns takes the notion of topical thinking from David Leatherbarrow’s review (1988) of Donald Kunze’s book “Thought and Place: The Architecture of Eternal Places in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico” (1987). In his review of Kunze’s book, Leatherbarrow discusses the liminality of topical thinking:

Liminality in Kunze’s book is the topic that directly links philosophical and architectural subjects; it is a sort of seam, joint, or knot. Architectural educators and practitioners know that these days this seam is torn. Students, not faculty, move between the departments of a school and the different subjects of a curriculum, and no one teaches both technology and theory! Likewise projects, not lectures, mediate between what can be envisaged and what can be built. The challenging difficulty of Kunze’s book is a result of its preoccupation with the ground between the separate territories of architectural knowledge, the space between “eidos and polis”, and “type and locus”, “discourse and nature”, “subjects and objects”, “transcendence and immanence”. At worst this is a space between, a gap, or a divide. Seen at its best, however, it is a figure between, a seam as I have said, a joint, or a knot. Understood in experience, such a figure exists in tension, it is a knowledge being pulled or stretched as taut cable. So are Vico’s rhetorical topics… topics are sited at boundaries. In fact, they are boundaries. Topics are limits which articulate points of connection. A rhetorical topic is a Janus in space and January in time, a true coincidence of opposites. The liminality of the middle will be difficult always because it illuminates the greatest differences by inventing points of agreement, which makes it aggressive to the status quo, but also productive.

The conversational discourse produced in Professor Senkevitch’s class on “Thresholds of Architectural Thought…” is liminal. Erudition (authority) meets ignorance (respect), clarity meets unintelligibility, enthusiasm meets (sometimes) lack of interest. Speech meets silence, answers meet other answers, questions meet questions. Of course, sometimes questions meet answers and vice versa. This is not exactly knowledge. This is more like an ongoing (mis)understanding. At its best provocative and productive, at its “worst” – a chat between friends. This discourse is not necessarily “elegant” or “effective”. It could be “ordinary” in a Venturian way; it could be playful and poetic in Gehry’s sense.

This conversational thinking, I believe, should be “allowed” in theoretical writing, and should be professed in design. I see leaving the directedness of the disciplinary discourse for a kind of a “field” discourse – a meandering, “sewing” movement that does not oppose sides, but links them, engages them in a “polylogue”. And I am certainly not seeking a new, “liminal” essence.

Here are a few notes on this “field” discourse, in no particular order:

  • It is a balancing (not planned balance) between symbolic order and semiotic experience (in Julia Kristeva’s sense).
  • It is a discourse produced as existential need, not as instrument. In a recent interview, Venturi says that he found himself in “Complexity and Contradiction…” There are no clearly articulated intentions, plan, strategies, purpose, conclusions. The discourse is not produced as “useful”. This does not mean that it could not eventually turn out to be very useful.
  • The “field” discourse does not convey a totalizing “idea”. Professor Senkevitch does not necessarily try to summarize the discussion – it is rather open ended. Every student is left with his/her own (mis)understanding of what was said. So, we have a dis-course conveying by de-finition many interpretations – and re-interpretations – conversations after class.
  • This rhetorical discourse necessarily produces confusion – it con-fuses experience and knowledge (semiotic and symbolic). It does not “translate” experience into knowledge.
  • This rhetoric is suspicious. Because it reveals a fundamental undecidability. It can be seen as a resurgence of a suppressed “feminine” side of our phalocratic tradition. By “feminine” I rather mean the pre-male (male’s non-defined otherness), and not the fe-male (male’s defined otherness). Jeffrey Kipnis (1989) says that we should perhaps take seriously Nietzsche’s question: “What if truth were a woman”. I would rather say: culture seems to be a wo-man – there is always that semiotic “chora” that bears the symbolic “chorus”. For a discussion of the Platonic “chora” as analogical to the semiotic experience – see Graafland (1989) and Kipnis (1989).
  • This poly-logical rhetoric is not an evolution of author’s ideas, nor is it a revolution against ideas of other authors. It is a co-evolution and ongoing mutual displacements between a personal stand and cultural context. There is no author in the traditional sense (author/audience). The thinker/speaker/writer/designer is a mediator between cultural realities (semiotic and symbolic) – facilitating tendencies for self-organization which are always pre-existing in any context (for the terms “co-evolution” and “self-organization” – see Jantsch, 1980). There is no text, but always, and only, a con-text.

See related:
The Anti-Architecture Manifesto


  1. Burns, Carol. “The Gehry Phenomenon” in: Thinking the Present: Recent American Architecture, ed. K. Michael Hays and Carol Burns, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1990.
  2. Freidenberg, Olga. Mif i literatura drevnosti, Nauka, Moskva, 1978. For English translation, see: Image and Concept: Mythopoetic Roots of Literature (Sign/Text/Culture), Harwood Academic Publishers, Amsterdam, 1997.
  3. Graafland, Arie. “Peter Eisenman: Architecture in Absentia” in: Recente projecten Peter Eisenman Recent Projects, ed. Arie Graafland, SUN, Amsterdam, 1989.
  4. Hersey, George L. “Vitruvius and the Origins of the Orders: Sacrifice and Taboo in Greek Architectural Myth”, Perspecta no23, 1987, pp 66-67, Yale Architectural Journal.
  5. Jantsch, Erich. Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution, Oxford, New York, Pergamon Press, 1980.
  6. Kipnis, Jeffrey. “The Law of Ana-. On Choral Works” in: Recente projecten Peter Eisenman Recent Projects, ed. Arie Graafland, SUN, Amsterdam, 1989.
  7. Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Columbia University Press, New York, 1989.
  8. Kristeva, Julia. Le langage, cet inconnu, Seuil, Paris, 1981.
  9. Leatherbarrow, David. “Review of Donald Kunze’s Thought and Place: The Architecture of Eternal Places in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico”, Journal of Architectural Education, Spring 1988, vol.41, no3, pp 52-56.
  10. Plattus, Alan. “Toward a Post-Analytic Architecture: Recent Work of Venturi, Rauch, and Scott Brown” in: Thinking the Present: Recent American Architecture, ed. K. Michael Hays and Carol Burns, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1990.
  11. Porshnev, B. F. O nachale chelovecheskoi istorii (problemi paleopsihologii), Misl, Moskva, 1974.
  12. Tigerman, Stanley. “Other Architectural Problems and Recent Projects”, Architectural Design (AD), Vol.61, 3-4, 1991, pp 38-45.
  13. Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966.
  14. Venturi and Scott Brown. “Entre imagination sociale et architecture”, (interview by Philippe Barrière and Sylvia Lavin) L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, Fevrier 1991, no273, pp 92-104.
  15. Vitruvius. The Ten Books on Architecture, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1960.