….signs, effects, and atmospheres.
…that is not the tracing of a particular trajectory but rather a reverberation or echoing of a particular idea. This idea itself mutates as it flows across thefield, responding to the specifics of the discourse to which it is applied,responding not only to its contemporaneous adjacencies but historical ones as well….
As the ghost of Saussure still haunts me, all I can see are signs. I try not to see them,but they are still there, I do not read them, yet they do not go away. Even the ones that say “Do Not Read Me” are there to be read. So I have learned to live with the signs. I tell myself that they lie, and I always look to see what is lying behind them (rarely cops on motorbikes). I close one eye and I squint to see them in different ways. Sometimes I stare at them so long, they become 3d,like those posters that some people can’t understand no matter how hard they try, even though they stand there for hours. Stubborn people don’t realize that some signs aren’t meant for them, like the way trains are tagged, and some signs normal people can’t even see, even if they are 40 stories tall. Even though the signs are continually changing, in ways subtle and not, they are always there.
Like a child in the back seat on a family road trip, sometimes I play with the signs. I count how many times I seethe same one. But they are never really the same, sometimes it’s up high, or down low; looming large over me, putting me in its cold shadow, or far away calling to me like a beacon of light. Sometimes I think certain signs are not there for me. They must be for some other child, in some other backseat, in some other family’s car, yet I still see them. I think this, because I feel like I am missing something. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I am aware of an absence, I know that the other child sees the sign differently. Even though they are not intended for me, sometimes I like them more than those that are.Sometimes I can still figure them out, somehow I get it, and it’s a kind of guilty pleasure that makes me giggle even if it’s a sad picture.
Then there are those in English that act like they are written in some foreign language. They seem to act as if I do not exist.Then there are those buildings that act as they do not exist, those I’m not intended to see. I know I am not supposed to see them, because they are hiding.For example the building down the street with a giant forest painted on it. I guess everyone else thinks there is a forest there; it must make them very happy. I just see paint. It would be a nice place for a forest, a busy street with noise and pollution, it would be great to wait for the bus by a forest rather than a building with a forest painted on it. The people who painted it must have really wanted a forest there too, because it’s a really unfortunate building, with awkward looking doors, and no windows; it just occupies space where there could be forest. Not that I am always thinking of the woods, I personally like buildings but it insists to talk about the forest. There are worse buildings, but I don’t notice them as much, perhaps because they are not hiding, everyone can see them, so they are just simply not as interesting, fading into the background.The building with the forest on it calls my attention;there are no other forests nearby. I always thought it was funny that a building would try to hide by looking like a forest, when it could just hide among st the many other undistinguished buildings.
There is another building close by that is painted as well, and I’m not sure if anyone else can see it either, as it appears to just be a shadowy void, especially during the day, when its thick, unrelenting coat of black paint obscures any characteristics that may identify it, other than as a building with a lot of black paint. A dark slot between two adjacent buildings even during the bright of day, it stand out, as every other lot appears full, often big bright buildings, but even the empty lots are full of colorful trees and grasses instead of this building that is hiding. And who is it hiding from?
Then there is the cloaked building, trying to adopt the model of science fiction fantasy movie. It appears you can see right through the building (that you are not supposed to see to the sky and trees beyond. But the sky doesn’t appear quite right; the clouds seem to be flying in the opposite direction than in the rest of the sky, the sun appears to be ahead, even though there are shadows that tell me otherwise. You can see a faint grid of lines if you look closely, they become obvious once you do. The building is covered in mirrors though I can’t imagine anyone trying to see their reflection in them. As odd as it may seem, the building must be ashamed of itself, it prefers to show me everything around it, except for itself. I do not know why it is hiding, it is nearly identical to so many others, creating a shadow (no matter how much it wishes otherwise, it is not transparent) and strong winds. Its bright reflections of the sun (surprising since the sun is actually shining in the other direction) are a traffic accident waiting to happen. I guess then it will truly have a reason to hide.
These buildings seem like they are either trying to be something, not there, or something else entirely. I like the fact that they are trying to do something, just unfortunate that it seems like it is out of embarrassment. I like the way the mirrored building glimmers, and the way it seems to slither out of sight.It could be so much more effective,instead it is a normal building covered in mirrors, reflecting everything around it, everything everywhere. And the building painted like the forest? Its rather depressing, because there isn’t really a forest there, Its bad enough not to have forest, its bad enough to have an unfortunate building, but to have an unfortunate painting of an unfortunate non-reality on an unfortunate building is really well, unfortunate.
This is not an apology for camouflage (whose effect I appreciate), but the stuff soldiers wear doesn’t really look like leaves, it performs rather than signifies. It is atmospheric rather then legible; though if it calls your attention it remains interesting whether you see it for a few seconds or a few hours. Architecture should operate in multiple modalities.Contributing to an atmosphere at a distracted glance or exposing an operation of systems at an in depth stare.
These are things, which one should not see, but yet I do, and I spend even more time with them. Perhaps it is because I am looking for them, that I see them. Perhaps if you looked very quickly you would not notice the banal utility building, the low-rise office building, or the nightclub and you would surely dismiss the billboard written in a foreign tongue. If you were distracted, you would only see a group of trees, a shadowy void and the sky, perhaps the only reason I can see these things is that I pay attention to such things.
It makes all the difference when you pay attention…
The problem that appeared when I first started paying attention was at first I thought that I could read signs and understand the way they worked, I thought I could manipulate them, and use them to construct an argument. Then I discovered the confusion of signs, with their endless multiplicities of meaning. With communication, came mis-communication, and non-communication. Whom was I trying to talk to anyway?Who was there to talk to? Did they even speak the same language? Or was there a universal language that we all knew down deep somewhere? Was anyone paying attention? Could they find my voice in this cacophonic mess and would they even care to look?Then I remembered something I read by Walter Benjamin:
“the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator...Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: a man concentrating before a work of art is absorbed by it... the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction…Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception - or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side.Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. The latter too occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion. The public is an examiner, but an absent minded one.”
Benjamin himself was echoing ideas also held by that Clement Greenberg about the nature of art itself; but for whom the dialectic was between the high and the low rather than attention and distraction. For both the connective factor remained the same,labor. For Greenberg art requires labor by the subject in order to uncover “the miraculous and sympathetic”, its reason d’ etre. Kitsch on the other hand “predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort that is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except for their money and their time.” But Greenberg held an almost Marxian belief that economic “circumstances” would always deny the artist of an audience able to provide such labor. This is corollary to Benjamin’s masses seeking distraction. 
So for Benjamin,architecture is indeed very well positioned to be art to received in distraction, for (in agreement with Greenberg) the artist/architect operates from a point of power in relationship to the subject; who is left to say: “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.”Does that imply that the artist/architect is able to supplant those thoughts?Or is any revelation at all possible when in a state of distraction?
“A society, as it becomes less and less able in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything....the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.”
But later Barthes will counter that the artist/author is not even relevant to the work once it is completed, therefore the assumptions made about communication do not even enter in to the argument let alone estimating the response:
“We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings none of them original,blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. Once the author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.”
The multiplicities of readings are what give an artwork its depth, “the miraculous and sympathetic”qualities that are revealed after the labor of reading them. As each reader comes from a variety of backgrounds, no reading is done in the same context with the same results. “This semiotic critique would register that form was no ta purely visually-optical phenomena, not neutral but constructed by lingual and institutional relations.”
Greenberg’s“miraculous and sympathetic” then are critical operations on these institutional, social and cultural assumptions, even if it is the creation of“beauty”. But often this has been accomplished through a methodology of resistance to normative states. By denying the normative paradigm architecture can then call into its question social norms themselves. For example, Eisenman in his early work deployed a series of forms that begin to deny use, without being specific identifiable signs. This is one of Benjamin’s two methods of appropriation, though requiring the subject to optically engage the geometry at a level of high attention.
Robert Venturia nd Denise Scott Brown have emphasized the difference between the connotative and the denotative; a distinction that too can be seen in terms of the attention/distraction dialectic:
“orthodox Modern architects, who shunned symbolism of a form as an expression or reinforcement of content: meaning was to be communicated, not through allusionto previously known forms, but through the inherent, physiognomic characteristics of form. The creation of architectural form was to be a logical process, free from images of past experience, determined solely by program and structure...”
Thus “Modernist”architecture must continually struggle to achieve new forms, as forms justr ecently created have already become full of referential connotations. Though the need for it is decreased these new forms temporarily create a moment of attention through their sheer novelty at the time.
So it is not just the death of the author with which we are confronted; it is the death of the universal subject (and narrative) as well. While the critical and resistive operations of architecture need not cease, its heavy reliance on the semiotic model remains problematic. As architecture must operate in the arena of distraction, signification becomes more and more difficult as it is everywhere…
“we live in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. The obscene is what does away with every mirror, every look, every image. The obscene puts an end to every representation... It is the obscenity of what no longer has anysecret, of what dissolves completely in information and communication.... There is in effect a state of fascination and vertigo linked to this obscene delirium of communication. A singular form of pleasure perhaps, but aleatory and dizzying.”
It is this overloading of signs that creates an atmosphere of distraction. But is there noway to overcome architectures position as a dizzying backdrop of signs, which are not received due to the need of attentive labor? Situationist Guy Debord shared in this disenchantment: “...All that once was directly lived has become mere representation... The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, itis a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” For Debord the situation or event provided the disruption of the distracted state. Though whether the “situation” resulted in attention or further distraction remains questionable. Bernard Tschumi would take up the idea of the event later:
“The fascination with the dramatic, either in the program (murder, sexuality,violence) or in the mode of representation (strongly outlined images, distorted angles of vision--as if seen from a diving air force bomber), is there to force a response. Architecture ceases to be a backdrop for actions, becoming the action itself...”
All this suggests that the architect must manufacture ‘shock’ if architecture is to communicate. This shock or spectacle must be achieved by a method other than that of the sign, otherwise risking being lost in this delirium of communication and is best accomplished by the “event” whether it be a manipulation in program or shift in atmospheric conditions.
One strategy that has emerged is to reduce component identity, decreasing the number of independent signs, decreasing required labor and thus attention. This reduction is often accomplished through the techniques of field theory. “A theory of complexity that abandons both the single and the multiple in favor of a series of continuous multiplicities and singularities is one way of escaping a dialectical definition of identity.” The field however does not fully escape the system of signification,particularly those of external reference.
“The field is a material condition, not a discursive practice. But I also want to suggest that a return to the ontology of construction... is not the only alternative to a scenograghic or semiotic architecture. By remaining attentive to the detailed conditions that undermine the connection of one part to another... it becomes possible to imagine an architecture that can respond fluidly and sensitively to local differences while maintaining overall stability.”
While signification is not fully escaped, it is reduced. Though Venturi and Scott Brown would assert that it merely reasserts itself at the larger scale; and the fix may only be temporary, as connotative signifiers will soon catch up with this latest technological development. Though, the field remains an alternate system for form generation. “The field describes a space of propagation, of effects. It contains no matter or material points, rather functions vectors and speeds.”
The field relies upon an understanding of factors operating as a system; that there is a structure beneath it all. But even as we grasp the nature of the field condition we can never fully name it / understand it. As Eisnstein affirms in the Theory of Relativity, Galileo found that a relational system can be determined only from a point outside of that system..This echoes Derrida’s theories of difference, where difference itself cannot be named outside of the system of which it is apart, even though Derrida holds it as a required a-priori condition.
In Kabalistic thought; G-d is the un-knowable, un-namable intrinsic structure that is at once internal and external to the system. In Kabalistic thinking we can never exit the system itself, to study the internal underlying structure of the universe is to uncover G-d as we can only know the "un-knowable". That G-d is an immaterial force which orders that under its influence at this point seems entirely logical.
Architecture and divinity intersect at the field; where the form of the individual matters less than its actions or relations in the greater whole. The overall effect gains importance, and by its nature is immaterial.
“it slipped into my consciousness through my will eluding any and all resistance as it began to reprogram my architectural thoughts and feelings... an intoxicating, almost erotic allure. [The sirens] with the sheer beauty of their voices, voices that sang but said nothing, meant nothing,promised nothing. …in so doing to assert the trans formative power of the cosmetic... The field of effects of the cosmetic is quite different [than ornamentation]. Cosmetics are erotic camouflage, they relate always and only to, skin... Where ornaments retain their identities as entities, cosmetics work as field. Thinness, adherence and diffuses extent are crucial to the cosmetic effect which is more visceral than intellectual, more atmospheric than aesthetic.”
The field relies on effect and performance. It is “effect” that offers the greatest alternative to the semiotic model. By relying on impression rather than meaning, reliance on the universal subject is greatly reduced, there is no longer the need for attention. The effect is able to transcend the delirium of communication by becoming experiential rather than literal. The experience need not be optical,in fact it need not be noticeable, it simply needs to be effective. The field remains only one method for achieving the experiential effect.
This shift from the denotative and effective indicates a shift away from the traditional static and formal physical nature of architecture as it has come to be known. As previously indicated, the spectacle, event and variable programmatic conditions become increasingly important. As do the visceral qualities of space, light,sound, atmospherics and social effects.
The mood is the resultant social condition created by the compounding of factors. An architecture of atmosphere can operate without signification. It is the experiential difference between a funeral home and a wedding chapel. It includes the social element as well as the physical one, as they are not unconnected. This architecture operates and performs to effect its impressions. This architecture does not say, it does, operating in distraction and attention.