A Virological Architecture

Wiel Arets, A Virological Architecture, A+U Architecture and Urbanism, 1994, pp. 38-43

Lately, architecture has been regarded as a means in which to criticize urban development. More and more, one hears the metaphor that it is up to architecture to make the city healthy once again. If one accepts the metaphor that it is architecture's responsibility to help the city regain its health, what kind of medicine are we talking about and with what medical procedures can we compare architecture?

In the first case, an architectonic intervention in the urban fiber is comparable to a surgical intervention. A dilapidated building or decaying neighborhood can be razed, the ground leveled and new buildings put up. That is in many ways comparable to a situation in which a wound or tumor (the old and decaying neighborhood or building) is disinfected or excised (building demolition and leveling of the site) in order to allow new tissue growth (the renewal, the healing process).

Surgery is, however, not the only medical metaphor with which architectonic intervention can be compared. Not only is a comparison to a surgeon possible, but the architect can also be likened to a researcher in the pharmaceutical industry or a chemist. The plan to make a city healthy again implies that one considers architecture as medicinal. Everyone has an idea of what surgery is: grab a knife and cut. But what is a medicine? If it works, the patient gets better. But medicine works where we can't see it.

The surgeon is visible with the naked eye, but when it comes to medicine, there are biological processes involved, at work out of sight, deep within the body. And the medicine itself is that something different from the illness, or something actually related to the disease? And what is health? Does health mean never being sick, or is it the ability to recover from illness? What types of diseases afflict the city?

These questions are just marking time. Perhaps the metaphor is not a very good one. Maybe the city isn't sick at all, and cannot be compared to a body. The body is, after all, a single unit, a whole, the city isn't. In contrast to the body, a city lacks limits or a contour. Normally, the practice of medicine assists the patient in recovery; it 'repairs' (another metaphor!) the body and restores it to its original state. Architecture, in contrast, has no intention of restoring the city to its previous condition or original state, nor can it. The intervention of physician or surgeon is verifiable; that of the architect in the city is not. It's more a matter of affecting a process in the city with the assistance of the architectonic intervention whereby the result is unpredictable. Surgery concerns 'repair', whereas architecture concerns the experiment.

The Masai are masters of cutting. They carve, for example, a figure in the ear and let an infection take place. Or they carve notches on the skin and stretch their necks with the use of rings, which are the product of silversmiths. Despite the pain, they transform their bodies into works of art and make life a celebration.

Reflections on the Masai and surgery have played a role in the creation of this text; so did considerations regarding virology. How can the design contribute to penetrating the city the way a virus does, consuming it and transforming it into something new? The fascination for the virus and things viral is a product of the fascination for the invisible. It would have been nice if the design for the projects displayed here had led to invisible architecture, a building which you could walk right through but couldn't see and which is the catalyst for unexpected meetings and events. It is exactly the unpredictable character of the virology which makes this discipline such a fantastic source of inspiration. Virology confronts us with things which are of great importance for us but which we cannot understand.

What is a virus? A virus is a source of infection in humans, animals, plants and bacteria that for its reproduction is dependent on the metabolism of living host cells. A virus is therefore a parasite which causes an illness, cannot exist without a host and overpowers, infiltrates and imitates the genetic codes of the host in order to reproduce.

In terms of genetic information, a virus resembles the host to a significant degree and makes use of the host's codes to reproduce and multiply itself relentlessly; differing only slightly from the previous form each time. The original tissue doesn't disappear, but begins to repeat itself in a slightly different form without stopping, grows rampant and becomes disintegrated with respect to the rest of the organism. 

What makes the study of viruses so fascinating is that material, especially living material, should continue to be interpreted as coded information (and therefore as consciousness) and that transformations in the codes are identical to transformations in the tissue. An architect is not only a surgeon and a chemist, but a virologist inasmuch as he recognizes these processes in the urban tissue and has learned how to manipulate the codes to good use.

This brings us to a fundamental equivocalness, as the injection of the identical or a virtually identical virus in small homeopathic doses can only cure many viruses in order to mobilize the defense mechanisms. In this way, smallpox, deadly to humans, was eradicated by immunizing everyone or almost everyone through vaccinating against the cowpox virus. The human defense mechanisms are mobilized and the disease generated in a moderate form so that a dangerous variant of the disease is stripped of its chances. One gets a little sick so as not to get seriously ill.

This equivocalness of medicine, of the toxin capable of both poisoning and inducing an antitoxin, most eloquently expressed in the phenomenon of the toxin—antitoxin, where a mixture of the two was formerly used as a vaccine, has presented virology with an important model in the study of the city and society which exists in the city. We offer two examples of the virological model in social theory. First a comment by Jean Baudrillard: 'For me, the emergence of the virus is a theoretical happening because a remarkable aspect comes into play here which no longer is to be placed at the level of the subject or the history, but at the level of the objective, and which at the same time occurs in every aspect of the economy, over politics and pathology to deep in the heart of biology.' What fascinates him so much in this is 'that no external criticism of the viral processes is possible. The subversion, the destabilization appears to come from within the system itself because the system is exhausted. That is actually a whole new event.'

A second example is related to Baudrillard: the panic—viral theory of Arthur Kroker, a theory 'which no longer is externally based from the position of an autonomous subject, but a theory which interprets itself as a viral agent which functions according to three rules of biology: invasion of the host, cloning of the genetic master code and copying of the virus with the aid of the waning power of the organism. And that not only in a parasitical fashion, but as viral theory which attempts to probe the deeper logic of the genetic code, forcing the host to relinquish its secrets. Viral utopia, in a way: the end of a post—politics of invasion, cloning, and instantaneous copying.'

For both Baudrillard and Kroker, the power of attraction of the viral model is found in the social theory that is hidden within: the subject of its (supposed) autonomy is discarded and the pretention to omnipotence of the cultural criticism is done away with. It no longer makes any sense to test the social reality against political or other ideals and to subsequently devise processes of change.

They no longer dispute a social system which is considered to be static from the point of dynamic alternative models, but recognize the instability of that system and point out that on a micro level the social system itself is constantly subject to changes and alterations in power relationships, and that this instability and insecurity, which characterize the system from within, are best recognized from the point of view of a virological model.

In terms of thoughts regarding the city, this means that one jettisons the idea of creating a perfect city and works on an imperfect perfection, an incomplete completeness. It comes down to creating space for the unpredictable and allowing there to be tension in the city: not that the unpredictable actually happens, but that it can happen.

One should be able to construct a virtual biotechnology in the city, an art of living which hands over the laws of existence as a living organism to the urban tissue, putting modern technology to use for the urban and architectonic design and making it fruitful. In this way, architecture can become a chance game, a condition for chance meetings and a condition to let things happen. If architecture is consciously prepared to take chances and to create room for the `unplannable', then it no longer has to strive for harmony or reconciliation, but can make a start with accepting the dysfunction which invariably accompanies the growing pains of the first applications of new media and technologies and no longer look back nostalgically on times past. The urban fiber is then recovered or revitalized and regarded as a substratum, as a sick body which can be cured by combating the virus in the city with the help of injections of the  architect's antitoxin.

Perhaps the virological model is for some too negative due to associations of fear and insecurity. That is understandable. Many unknown and deadly viruses do exist, and AIDS has an acutely disintegrating grip on our society. When one recognizes, however, that the architect is a kind of doctor, then one must also recognize that architecture has something in the way of virology and that the fear must be conquered to recognize the problem.

A similar problem happens when one ponders the question of living space and reflects on the status of the interior in the information society. The architect is presented with a major dilemma. On the one hand, information technology makes it possible for us to be up to date on and take care of everything without leaving the home or workplace. But we also run the danger of locking ourselves up in that telemetric home or workplace and not going outside any more. There is the risk of our own functioning becoming uncoupled from ourselves and spinning around us in prosthetic devices, while we ourselves hardly ever leave our desk with its computer screen or living room with its television and video screen.

Paul Virilio has expressed this in rather cogent terms: 'Instead of assigning various domestic functions to different spaces within the home which the resident comes into contact with in his movements, all activities are grouped together at one point and are concentrated, using remote controls the intention of which is to free the resident from `the burden of' movement. `Interacting with each other no matter where the other person is', the paradox of computer communication or teleconference, amounts to a `summary of distant things in one place' in the interactive home. This point, or rather this centre of lack of movement, is clearly the user — the resident of these places of absolute comfort which in no way 'resemble the classic distribution of the normal home layout.' Virilio adds to this: 'Finally, man is not so much in the architecture, rather the architecture of the electronic system is in him and invades man himself.'

This invasion of the architecture in people again confronts us with the virological model. The interior is no longer the exterior of our inner being, no longer the expression of our souls and the interpretation of our moods and feelings in the room arrangements and placing of furniture. Information technology has led to the virtual space which belongs to technology claiming us, making us forget our own physical surroundings.

With this, new light is shed on the controversy surrounding living. For Loos, it was matter of separating the interior and the exterior from each other. The exterior articulates the home to the city and does not maintain a forced relationship with the interior, which in the first place is a protective shell, a cocoon for the inhabitants. For Le Corbusier, it was a matter of abolishing the division between inside and outside and interpreting the living functions as akin to installing a machine in the home. Bachelard thought in terms of a poetic architecture: the home is an oyster and the people living in it slumbering pearls. And Deleuze opted for a nomadic way of thinking where homelessness is confirmed as a part of the freedom of longing. For Heidegger, living is the repose in the footsteps of the once—present gods and the withstanding of a namelessness that perhaps once again will bring man closer to being. Finally, uprooting and displacement are necessary conditions according to deconstructivism. These conditions should be made visible through a planetary architecture.

It seems, therefore, that architecture is no longer a question of windows and wall, doors and thresholds, and that it is necessary to ask us how architecture can contribute to the realization of a new balance between man and technology and how architecture can give shape and form to technology without sacrificing itself to it. Protecting people from technology will definitely become a task of architecture, as well as articulating the difference between the physical and the technical in an ergonomically responsible manner. Architecture will be responsible for preventing the physical aspect from being completely undermined and for creating an alternative in which the physical aspects of the human condition are done justice. However much telematics is on the move and however immaterial our lives may become, there will always be a physical dimension of the body with all its pains and pleasures. When I drink a glass of wine, what does the table on which I set the glass look like?