Course Correction

Course Correction

The received history of architecture is marked by ruptures, moments when architecture fundamentally changes in response to—or in the service of—new cultural paradigms, such as classical high styles, or mannerist manipulations of these styles. In the first category falls the whole history of the avant-gardes, their social and aesthetic goals, as well as their formal innovations. In the last century, the distilled clarity of high modernism—the century’s high style—gave way to a formalism devoid of a social ideology and tending toward the eccentric forms of the latter half of the twentieth century. History often overlooks, however, those moments in which there is neither a recognizable avant-garde, nor a reigning high style.

It is possible that this model of linear, historical evolution can be problematized by other temporal models. Following on the observations of Edward Said and Theodor Adorno, one such temporal model might be described as “lateness.” While Said and Adorno cite lateness as a “style,” it might also begin to structure an understanding of those temporal disturbances lodged within reigning artistic paradigms. Lateness, then, acts as a critical consciousness which allows one to choose and eliminate certain strategies. It is not possible to use lateness per se as a design strategy. It is rather a consciousness allowing the selection of one strategy over another.

There seem to be two ways to think lateness: First, as a moment in time, in that late work confronts the impossibility of unproblematically translating any present, any spirit of an age, into forms of art; Second, as in Said and Adorno’s sense, a late style describes those works of the aging artist which, often following a lifetime of virtuoso production, refuse the formal clarity of earlier work and court, instead, discordant multiplicity and irresolution. Unlike the work of the young artistic genius, a messenger of the zeitgeist, the works of the late artist appear out of time, resisting the call for spectacular form and coherent meaning.

This resistance to any present moment carries implications outside the oeuvre of the individual artist. Lateness (as opposed to “late style”) suggests not only the broader, disciplinary dimension to this mode of temporal resistance but also posits an internal structural dimension. Thus, more than a style, lateness signals the latent presence of a deep temporal disjunction within any artistic paradigm. While a “late work” might appear at any given historical moment, it is at those moments during which a dominant paradigm begins to lose its structural tenability that lateness emerges not as an aberrant artistic style, but as a capacity to register the contradictions within that paradigm.

This is not a shift away but rather an extreme form of allegiance to this paradigm in all its contradictions. Accompanying an apparent exhaustion of formal ingenuity, a late work resists the drive for novelty and insists, instead, on continuing to define the rules and limits of disciplinarity. In one sense, lateness prolongs a project for artistic autonomy, and yet, because of its drive to extend an idea to its limits, lateness discovers a project’s fundamental insufficiency, a critique within a critique, as it were.

The project of autonomy is crucial for understanding lateness as a possible internal disciplinary phenomenon. Said describes the capacity to “endure ending in the form of lateness but for itself, its own sake, not as a preparation for or obliteration of something else.” This autonomous mode of a late work, its existing primarily “for itself,” determines its displaced temporality. The autonomous work of art obeys its own internal set of rules and inaugurates an internal time apparently at a remove from historical time. Lateness frustrates the zeitgeist.

The critical possibilities inherent in lateness are especially pertinent today, when the very real collapse of disciplinary concerns into the concerns of the market and the political effects of mass media threaten to overwhelm the specificity of architectural or artistic criticism. In fact, there is a direct correlation between a temporal (present) lateness and the rise of the influence of mass media. Viewed from an historical perspective, the discipline of architecture itself seems to be in a moment of lateness. For architects in the ‘60s and ‘70s, for whom the project of autonomy served as the touchstone for a critical architecture that would discover a program ripe for deconstruction, the destabilizing effects of such critiques also inspired far less sober explorations, jump-starting the architectural appetite for splintering, serpentine, anamorphic, and parametric expressionism which exists today.

Architecture has given way to Design. Design, in this context, is seen as a surplus cost put into any system of capitalist production. Architecture, on the other hand, is an excess, existing outside of any system of production. This is a crucial distinction. As a surplus, design propagates the endless and expansive pursuit of novel forms devoid of critical content. To adapt the language of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, the reigning building type today is that of the “hyper-duck.” That is, branding has overcome one-to-one legibility. This leads to a politics of media where the marketing of a work becomes more important than the work itself. As Alejandro Zaera-Polo argued in “The Politics of the Envelope,” in a recent issue of Log, “The contemporary city is built for corporations run by administrative boards for multinational shareholders’ interests…. How does one construct the face of the faceless?” Contemporary architecture already seems to meet these new demands for a mutable iconicity. New methods of “non-hierarchical” facade design, such as parametric processes, only make apparent the latent potentials for architecture’s geometric development to produce infinitely variable forms. How does one choose? What are the operative value systems?

This apparent assimilation to a program of product design, also inflates the field of operations internal, now, to design. As the media politics of consumer legibility become the dominant mode for constructing and perceiving the built environment, little remains today that is not designed. The naming of an object, its perceptive and aesthetic availability, accords with its exchange value. The result: the drive for aesthetic innovation, originating as an aspect of an hermetic formalism, assumes an ever greater relevance to all spheres of human production.

What is the difference between a hermetic formalism and lateness—innovation for its own sake rather than a critique of that very same formalism? The very expansion of design effects a sealing off of that which constitutes non-design. This process both complements and parallels the operations of an increasingly autonomous—and pervasive—system of capital. Late capitalism describes the annexation of the political, social, and aesthetic by relations of exchange. The proliferation and intensification of these relations constitutes an ever-expanding and auto-generative field of operations: an autonomy of the market.

While every autonomy is premised on a disavowed heteronomy, late capital, as a program of expansion and, also, integration, subsumes this difference within its very self-sufficiency. If the internalization of difference is at the origin of any project of autonomy, then architecture, like other autonomous projects, has co-opted the market’s demand for novelty as coextensive with an autonomous practice of formal generation and experimentation. Of course, the assertion of architecture’s autonomy and the autonomy of the marketplace are not, necessarily, entirely discrete. The one does not preclude any relation to, or even overlap with, the other. Rather, the very “outside” on which autonomy depends has been demolished: “Alles ist Architektur,” declared architect Hans Hollein in 1968. The proponents of architecture’s autonomy in the 1970s believed in quite the reverse, that architecture’s autonomy constituted a closed linguistic system that could be clearly distinguished from other artistic modes. Both proved feeble in face of the recent decline.

If there are two versions of autonomy, there are also two modes of lateness. First, there is an expansive autonomy, the autonomy of the marketplace and of design, and second, an internally-organized autonomy, the autonomy of language and of an embattled “architecture.” The former subsumes its other (with exteriority or impurity), while the latter discovers this difference within its very originality. The philosopher Jacques Ranciere has suggested that “a form of autonomy is always at the same time a form of heteronomy.” This coincidence of autonomy and heteronomy is nowhere as evident as in the contemporary aesthetic order. In his Aesthetics and Its Discontents, Ranciere writes: “For aesthetic autonomy is that of an art where there is no border separating the gesture of the painter devoted to high art from the performances of the acrobat devoted to amusing the people, none separating the musician who creates a purely musical language from the engineer devoted to rationalizing the Fordist assembly line.”

Architecture’s untimeliness in this current sense is not so much a reflection of a change in times, of styles, of the relation of the artwork to divine or state power—or even, in a reductive sense, the changing relationship of architecture to capital—so much as it is an effect of the stuttering discrepancies of architecture’s internal mechanisms, which, it is being argued, are exposed by a model of lateness.

The abolition of the time of experience in the modernist plan (the plan as the instantaneous reading of space) underpinned a modernist architectural autonomy. The current degradation of the plan—no longer the site of radical architecture—corresponds with the disruption of a modernist architectural temporality. And while the ascendancy of the architectural surface represents contemporary architecture’s dominant mode, late work continues the unfolding of a modernist temporality.