Within and Without Architecture
Sometimes you encounter a thing that is not “properly” architectural but which yet has something profound to say about the discipline.
That thing might be a passage of text an image. an analogy, a construction even and it strikes you in a very particular way not because it is delightful (although there may also be that) but because it seems to say something you’ve been wanting to say something you’ve been thinking but have not quite articulated something lurking at the vague shadowy edges of your mind. It’s tantalising such a thing. It holds the promise of extension expansion the pushing-back of some frontier or the naming of some truth even if it is only one’s own. It seems to offer an aperture to a new space a new insight.
So when you find such a thing it’s a writer instinct to examine it, to turn it over in words, to tap it first lightly, then harder; to sniff and shake it, to try and work out what small verities might lie within, and how to get them out. An essay is the way to do it. An essay is your lock pick and your sickle probe your bevel chisel and your sledgehammer. To assay to grope towards understanding through words. This is one such essay.
The object at hand is a cartoon. A single cell image and accompanying caption with the familiar intensely spare visual and textual economy that is the hallmark of The New Yorker’s cartoons. I liked it and laughed at it. because it seemed to me unexpected and witty and illuminating and also something more. I saw something in it and couldn’t say quite what that was or why it might be important or whether it might be important to anyone other than me.
The image seemed telling but I couldn’t quite tell it. Its insights were elusive they feinted and dodged. There were loose ends and they refused to be neatly tied: That’s where we are right now.
In fact the image affected me with an almost visceral thrill. But when I showed it around others seemed unmoved — if they responded it was to laugh but not really a laugh, more that kind of breathy snort that people give to show mild appreciation but not actually raise a guffaw. They seemed to think it was more clever than funny but even then perhaps only clever in a smart-arse one-liner kind of way, maybe even a kind of gimmick, a dimension-bending sci-fi scenario of an M.C. Escher kind. A curio, nothing more. It became clear I was appreciating something here that others were not. This, also, was intriguing.
Maybe it was because my interest was specifically disciplinary: as I saw it the cartoon was saying something particular to architecture, something about buildings, the vagaries of architectural scale, the quality of inferiority: the interiorness of interiors. Maybe also something about the strange and unique point of view of the architect who when designing, protectively inhabits and moves around the building both inside and outside at once in the mind’s eye. I thought I glimpsed something about the melancholy of representation, about the curious status of architectural models. But more than anything else I was fumbling towards an idea about architectural criticism and the obliqueness of the critic’s gaze; also about architectural writing per se. It felt profound to me because it seemed to somehow encapsulate a way to write about architecture an expression of both a critical position and a method. The image seemed to capture something I’d been trying not just to say (although there is also that), but also to do. The only way to find it, then, was to do it, to write it: that’s where we are right now.