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Thoughts on urban planning, city design, architecture, the built environment, social issues, Seoul, Korea, and soon... London

24.3.04

Architecture of Reality? 

In "For an Architecture of Reality" Michael Benedikt argues for, as the title implies, an architecture that "just is". That is, an architecture that does not seek to express meaning beyond its existence. He sites for example a description in a novel of the unintentional beauty of the suburban street lights and their effects on a suburban "reality", this beauty being the beauty of the light itself and the silhouettes of objects, themselves, in this light and a poem that describes some cat lazing near a window near a plate of peppers. He proposes that architecture, like the "bone white plate" in the poem, should express simply the reality of what it is, and not express further meaning. For him this "bone white plate" simply is.

However, this "bone white plate", like architecture, is a designed and manufactured artefact. If the poem read the "hot pink plate", a whole different set of connotations could arise and alternate meanings inferred. Benedikt has fallen into the trap set by the poem's author, who has chosen "white" -- a colour that in Anglo-American culture can connote purity, void of meaning, a clean plate have you will. Whoever made the plate, intentionally or unintentionally was intending some sort of meaning beyond the plate, the thing, itself -- why did the designer not make it black, pink, white with purple flowers? And why did the owner of the plate not own a different plate, or put the peppers on a differently decorated plate? And again, the poet chose a "white plate" for a reason. Similarly, architecture is a made, constructed object, extremely more complex than a plate and impossible to be void of cultural meaning. Architecture cannot be simply of itself. It cannot be of reality in the purist, abstracted -- nearly "modern" -- sense of the reality Benedikt is aiming for. When a building is designed, choices on behalf of the designer are made -- meaning is imparted a la differance.

Caveat: I have only started to read the book.

It must also be noted that his argument, formulated between 1979 and 1984 and published in 1985, is in reaction to the "scenographic attitude" of postmodern architecture -- of growing dominance at the time --, as Benedikt notes in the preface. And against this, his argument does raise the valuable point that architecture at this time/of this movement was very surface level, even in its highbrow attempt at self-referentiality and "tongue-in-cheek witticism" (as per Venturi et al.).

So what then is reality?

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