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The limits of poetics

Neil Leach

To cite this article: Neil Leach (2005) The limits of poetics, Building Research & Information, 33:4,
382-385, DOI: 10.1080/09613210500042788

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Published online: 03 Feb 2007.

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The limits of poetics

Neil Leach

Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation:

The Question of Creativity in the Shadow of Production
Dalibor Vesely
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, US 2004,
506 pages, ISBN 0 262 22067 9
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articulates the central thesis behind Veselys outlook.

It was as though Perez-Gomez was Plato to Vesely as
Socrates, faithfully recording the thoughts of the
great master. Vesely himself went on to teach at the
University of Cambridge. But, despite a long and dis-
tinguished career in academia in an age when research
productivity was becoming increasingly important,
Vesely published relatively little until now, that is.
At last, after years of waiting, Veselys long-awaited
magnum opus, the result of more than 30 years of
teaching and research, has been published.

Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation is

structured around various historical themes that deal
with concerns that can be related to what Vesely
It is a little known historical fact that some 30 years regards as the problem of our contemporary age a
ago a group of talented students gathered around two fragmented existence that has lost any sense of onto-
inspirational architectural tutors at the University of logical grounding. Sumptuously illustrated with exqui-
Essex, Colchester, UK, for a Masters course on the site drawings, etchings and interior views of Baroque
History and Theory of Architecture. Among the churches and Gothic cathedrals, the book takes
students were several now eminent professors and the reader on a rich and erudite journey through the
practitioners, including Daniel Libeskind, Mohsen history of Western culture, in which various moments
Mostafavi, David Leatherbarrow and Alberto Perez- are highlighted for the significant role that they play
Gomez. The two tutors were Joseph Rykwert and in leading to our contemporary culture of divided rep-
Dalibor Vesely. resentation. One can look back to the discovery of per-
spective in the Renaissance, for example, as being a
This remarkable group of people has gone on to be crisis point in the development of Western thought,
highly influential within the world of architecture. the first plausible interpretation of modernity as
Some have published a considerable number of Vesely puts it (p.6). This is the point where, for
books, including Rykwert, who is now one of the Vesely, abstract rational thinking begins to triumph
most prolific architectural historians in the world. over ontological thinking. For according to Medieval
Some of the students even went on to write books philosophy of light, architectural space is formed by
based on the thesis that was being espoused by light before it is structured geometrically, but with
Vesely, notably Perez-Gomez, who published his the Renaissance, an external system of reference
seminal work, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern comes into play. To be able to see the world as a
Science (1983). Here, Perez-Gomez eloquently picture reduces the world to a picture. The
Building Research & Information ISSN 0961-3218 print ISSN 1466-4321 online # 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
http: journals
DOI: 10.1080/09613210500042788

development of perspective into an illusionistic mode figures are cited only on occasions, but remain ever
of representation, notes Vesely, is the main source present. The book is dominated by a strain of phenom-
of modern relativism, beginning the process that enological thinking, and an interest, in particular, in
led to the emergence of divided representation (p.173). the role of hermeneutics, but it is never reduced to
the simplified version of phenomenology that might
This division is further enhanced during the Baroque be found in the work of Christian Norberg-Schulz,
and the advent of modern scientific thinking, where for example. If Norberg-Schulz (whose name is con-
the divide between the Arts and the Sciences begins spicuously absent from Veselys bibliography) provides
really to take hold. It is the very abstraction, for a primer for architects in phenomenological thinking,
example, of the world of the French philosopher Vesely supplies the master class. As such, Architecture
Rene Descartes, a world of Cartesian coordinates, in the Age of Divided Representation will come across
that the lack of any real grounding becomes evident, not only as a somewhat conservative book, but also as
and the subject/object divide of an alienated world a deeply intellectual one.
begins to take charge. This process is consolidated, so
that by the time of Claude Perrault, architecture has How is one to appraise such a work? Should it be
become a symptom of modern scientific knowledge, regarded as a piece of historical research? Or should
until eventually one reaches the crisis of Postmodern- it be viewed as a retroactive manifesto for over 30
ism where years of teaching architectural design? This reviewer
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will treat it as the latter. History has been summoned

historicism [is] taken for history, aestheticism up here, largely to support an argument about the
taken for symbolic meaning, individual style present. (Here I am reminded of Veselys own com-
taken for participation in tradition, and individ- ments about Heideggers false etymology of the
ual creativity taken for architectural order word building in the essay Building, Dwelling,
(p.274). Thinking, when he once noted that it was not import-
ant whether Heidegger was correct in his etymology, in
As a result of this process, architecture has turned into that Heideggers argument was about the present
an instrumental rather than a communicative art, and rather than the past.) This is indeed a deeply ideologi-
has been stripped of its richer level of cultural cal book. It amounts to a somewhat nostalgic lament
meaning. For Vesely, the challenge that faces architects for values that have been lost. And it is most certainly
today is a humanistic one of reinvesting architecture a manifesto for a particular approach towards design,
with what has been lost, and reconciling the now see- as is made clear by the proliferation of illustrations of
mingly autonomous domain of technology with the work from the School of Architecture in the University
conditions of human life, so as to provide a communi- of Cambridge. Yet it is not presented as a piece of angry
cative space that serves to overcome the current state agit prop. No, Veselys words are nothing if not
of fragmentation. soothing.

It can be seen that the role of contemporary scientific As such, this book may appeal to a limited constitu-
knowledge is central to Veselys concept of an age of ency. The content and language of the book might
divided representation. It is important to note that appear obscure to some readers. Only the initiated
Veselys campaign is not against science per se, but will know what Vesely means precisely by terms such
rather against the split that allowed the Sciences to as representation, situation, meaning and
become divorced from the Arts. Consequently, the symbol terms that are common enough in everyday
Arts themselves have suffered especially through the language, but which take on a different resonance in
introduction of the field of aesthetics, and the Sciences Veselys discourse. Furthermore, Vesely often resorts
have become increasingly remote from ontological to hazy and imprecise words such as deep and pro-
thinking. Veselys solution for a reconciliation blematic that leave the text looking like a linguistic
between these two realms is to reintroduce poetic version of the smudged drawings that illustrate it.
thinking to provide a form of synthesis, since poetry Throughout, this reviewer was left with the feeling
is the concept of truth restored to its artistic that many of the words are mantras, not fully under-
dimensions. stood (even by many of the initiates), that serve to
reinforce the somewhat mystical tone of the text.
Veselys work is an overview of the history of Western
intellectual thought and its impact on the domain of The book is illustrated throughout with examples of
architecture, but it is an overview constrained by a student work from the University of Cambridges
certain conservative tradition of thinking. Throughout School of Architecture to such an extent that the
the book, there lurk the shadows of the intellectual thesis itself cannot be separated from a certain aes-
figures that have inspired Vesely, especially the philo- thetic. This is not only an architectural aesthetic, in
sophers Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, terms of what the eventual buildings will actually
Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. These look like, but also an aesthetic of representation, in

terms of how they are presented in drawings. The into account is the very chameleon-like capacity of
drawings are all very stylized. Both the architectural people to absorb and appropriate the new and unfami-
aesthetic and the mode of representation appear to be liar, and to incorporate it within their own symbolic
indulgences. What is it that necessarily associates this horizons. Nothing remains alienating forever.
architectural aesthetic with Veselys philosophical
sources? By contrast, one could point to an architect The criticism of contemporary culture is reinforced by
such as Nigel Coates, who has read and digested the overarching references to history throughout the
Merleau-Pontys philosophy and incorporated it into text. If Vesely is to be believed, one might as well
his own architectural sensibility, and yet seems to admit defeat, in that we now live in a thoroughly alie-
adopt a very different approach towards architectural nated culture. We ought really to be living in the Age of
design. One is left wondering whether Heidegger, the Baroque. Meanwhile, Vesely claims throughout
Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty et al. would have been just that he is dealing with concrete reality. Yet by
as mystified by the architecture produced under the failing to engage with the actual concrete realities of
aegis of their work had they ever seen it as todays existence a world of advanced capitalism,
Derrida was by so-called Deconstructivist Architec- digital technologies and globalization Vesely is con-
ture. There is, in short, nothing to connect a certain structing a very seductive, but ultimately escapist,
philosophical outlook with this particular aesthetic, historical cocoon. This cocooning threatens to
still less to connect it with a particular style of undermine the very project that Vesely wishes to
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presentation. pursue that of overcoming the problem of divided

representation. If the worlds of Art and Science are to
Veselys appropriation of a particular language of grow back together, would not a more constructive
architecture is posited as though it is seamlessly con- engagement with contemporary conditions be more
nected with a certain philosophical outlook. Yet, it is productive?
precisely in the realm of appropriation that the
project of hermeneutics itself is so suspect. According In the context of Veselys discourse of divided represen-
to such an outlook, meaning is accessed seemingly tation, it is worth exploring further the question of
unproblematically, as though the subject is always col- division itself. As the German sociologist Georg
lapsed into the object and everyone is at one with Simmel once observed, for something to be divided, it
culture. Yet the standard (and very powerful) post- must have been connected originally, and for some-
structuralist critique of this is that in hermeneutics thing to be connected, it must have been divided orig-
the agency of the interpreter is never disclosed. As a inally. What Simmel hints at is the dialectical nature
result, the interpreting agent posits the truth, as of division and connection. The two mechanisms
though it were unproblematic to access. Yet, as enter a relationship of reciprocal presupposition.
Derrida has so convincingly argued in his celebrated They invite and presuppose one another. This relates
critique of Heidegger in Truth in Painting (1987), to the question of fragmentation. While for Vesely
this claiming of the truth is itself a form of appropria- the problem of the contemporary world is one of frag-
tion. It is, therefore, potentially relativistic, since it goes mentation, for Fredric Jameson and other thinkers, it is
unchallenged. Derrida is nothing if not thorough, and one of homogenization. One persons brick is another
his whole project seeks to ensure an epistemological persons element of a wall.
check at every level by questioning the foundations of
any statement. Contrary to Veselys oft-pronounced In the same vein, one should be suspicious of anyone
view of Derrida as a relativist, it is surely hermeneutics who mounts an undialectic argument, which is
itself that is more relativistic, by failing to question the almost always the hallmark of any manifesto, includ-
grounds on which its assumptions are being made. ing Veselys own. Manifestos tend to repress the
other side of an argument. One has to question
Yet, the question of appropriation also feeds in at a whether the scapegoats in Veselys thesis Descartes
different level. Vesely takes a very critical stance et al. are quite as undialectical as Vesely presents
towards the question of technology. He differentiates them. In the end, Veselys project fails to pay sufficient
technology from techne, which is seen as a bringing heed to the logic of the dialectic, and with it the logic of
forth rather than an action of making, and from repression that is always at work.
which technology via technique is derived. Tech-
nology effectively distances us from the world, and When Vesely first arrived in Britain, his message was a
blocks our access to truth, according to an outlook fresh and decidedly necessary one. Against a somewhat
drawn largely from Heideggers seminal essay The impoverished architectural culture dominated by posi-
Question Concerning Technology. Technology, there- tivism and instrumentalism, Vesely helped to inject a
fore, comes to be associated with a form of alienation. much-needed richness of thinking. Yet, the failure to
It prevents humankind from being in touch with a engage substantively with any external critical dis-
richer form of revealing that operates within a more course or the shifting material conditions of architec-
poetic dimension. What such an outlook fails to take tural production stifled the development of Veselys

ideas. For example, he refers to virtual reality as a hal- and technological issues from sustainable development
lucinatory world and dismisses the contemporary to digitized production. Every intellectual epoch has its
obsession with digital production as a fantasy. Aside time, and one has the sense of the twilight of one such
from the fact that any Lacanian theorist would insist epoch, as the theories of Heidegger, Gadamer and
that fantasy is actually constitutive of how one sees Merleau-Ponty are on the wane, and the philosophy
reality, one is left wondering where the real fantasy of Gilles Deleuze and new scientific thinking are
resides. In an age where the capacity to use digital tech- increasingly catching the imagination of the powerful
nologies has become a prerequisite to employment in young minds in architectural culture, now that technol-
an office, Veselys project has become increasingly ogy occupies such a dominant position in the contem-
remote from the real world. The irony about this porary psyche. Yet, it is precisely for this reason that
book is that its long gestation and delayed publication Veselys book remains so significant. Architecture in
has meant that the world to which it was addressed has the Age of Divided Representation is an important his-
somehow changed so that its message no longer seems torical record of a sensibility that held considerable
quite so relevant. sway and potency in architectural education. It will
continue to attract a limited following.
In short, there is a real richness and historical charm to
Veselys work, and this book is obviously an example Neil Leach
of a powerful mind at work. Vesely takes the reader Architectural Association, UK
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on a beguiling intellectual journey through architec- and Dessau Institute of Architecture

tural history. His thinking is very profound, and his Germany
text is dense with complex ideas. But he offers a some-
what partial view of the world. To my mind, it is a
comforting, historical cocoon that, like all such pro-
jects, remains sadly remote from the realities of Reference
twenty-first-century life, where architects are asked to Derrida, J. (1987) The Truth in Painting, trans. G. Bennington
embrace an increasingly wide range of social, economic and I. McLeod, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.