An Alabaster Skin

Wiel Arets, An Alabaster Skin (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1991), 5-8.

Architecture may be considered a desire for purity, a striving for perfection. The principal color white marks a process in which the undecidable is respected; it is not a question of meaningful or meaningless. The whiteness of newly fallen snow in the morning light, the white of a perfect skin, the white of paper on which the design will be sketched–white is everywhere and may be considered the color of origin and beginning. White is the color of the between: between conception and execution, between unblemished and defiled, between innocence and seduction, between virginity and marriage.

Architecture is unblemished. Its entire logic risks something that is of only short duration. It appears only to disappear. It seduces through innocence, yet it loses that very innocence through seduction. It presents us briefly with freshness and untaintedness, only to lose those properties precisely by offering them to us.

Architecture is therefore a between, a membrane, an alabaster skin, at once opaque and transparent, meaningful and meaningless, real and unreal. To become itself, architecture must lose its innocence; it must accept a violent transgression. It can only become part of the world by entering into marriage with its surroundings. Therefore architecture is not only untainted but violent, and its violence once again has two sides. On one side architecture is violent because it resists having to be the victim of its surroundings; on the other it can distort those surroundings. This relationship lends it cunning.

Those who engage in architecture should keep their wits about them. This applies first to architects. Architecture bestows upon us not the pleasure but the fear of freedom. If we are to prosper, we must learn to see through its ambiguities and find a way of coping with its vagaries, for it inflicts incisions everywhere. Architecture cuts through the skin of the city; as an image, it graves images; itself defiled, it defiles others. However, we should not be intimidated by this. Too often it cuts itself, and seldom does it intend to cut off our retreat. It is more likely to cut to make something visible. It makes incisions to make life more comprehensible. Architecture with its surgical interventions parallels biology as a science representing life. As a virus can radically alter the human organism, so can a building radically alter the organism of a city, and just as a body is a functioning assemblage of organs, a city is a functioning assemblage of buildings. It is appropriate to speak of traffic arteries and traffic streams, of the heart and lungs of a city, but the city can be compared to the human body in many other ways. Architecture is to the city what an artificial organ is to the human body. We all may agree that the city is sick and needs curing. It no longer functions spontaneously but calls for prosthetics and surgical operations. Wherever the city is functioning below standard, architecture takes action. It takes the place of the city’s spontaneous and organic functioning; it is a prosthesis, architecture is always the place of, 'in the place of'.

Architecture is ephemeral due to the fact that it always takes the place of something. Though built of brick and concrete, architecture is temporary. In addition to the cuts of biology and surgery, it is subject to the cuts of film and cinematography. Through the rapid succession of images and the torrent of stimuli, architecture is cinematic. We experience the city through the car window, as if watching a film. Architecture is to the city what a film director is to the script he wants to make into a film. Film is a skin lit with images. The succession of these images is governed by a rhythm of intervals, incisions, ‘cuts’. We are not aware of this when watching a film. It is the same with architecture–it introduces intervals into the urban fabric often without our awareness.

The space in the city is the artificial space for a scenario. The way in which we perceive a city has been structured beforehand by films, and so architecture introduces programmatic transformations into the urban structure without pretending to preserve its original character. Architecture is essentially incision.

To speak of film and architecture is not innocent; it suggests how the city and urban life are drastically altered by new media and technologies. Perceiving life as if it were a film is only the beginning of an altered reality. We are discovering how traditional ways of observing are being transformed into new strategies of perception. 

Just as architecture of the modern movement attempted to respond to production techniques then in practice, so architecture today should provide an answer to the simulation techniques now emerging. Technology at the beginning of this century was largely a machine technology, geared towards making things; today's fabrication concerns the immaterial, particularly controlling and sending information, regulating and channeling images.

Fifty years ago technology brought us reality. Now it is destroying it. The design of the thirties already contributed to a series man-machine communication; today architecture has reached the status of an interface. It is architecture‘s task to mediate between man and everything that befalls him.