The Architecture of Freedom

Wiel Arets, Wiel Arets Architect (Rotterdam010 Publishers, 1989), 16-19.

When Paul Valéry, during work on his Cahiers, turns out a poem like ‘Le cimetière marin’–the churchyard by the sea–we might view it as an arbitrary coagulation of his thoughts. It is a product that may be described as only temporarily finished, from the point of view of the mind that produced it, but also through the eyes of those confronted with it. His products are on the one hand always fragmentary, provisional, not definitive, and on the other hand, perfect: in that sense, we could consider his work and life as much unfinished as perfect. It was a striving after the perfect product that could not exist, and that every day provoked him into indulging in a permanent exercise, a mental sport. ‘I consider Poetry the least idolatrous of genres. It is the sport for people insensitive to the powers of conviction of everyday language, and who do not speculate on the forgery called Truth or Nature. I just used the word ‘sport’, for the reason that everything I think about art I trace back to the idea of exercise, for me the most beautiful conception there is’, according to Valéry.

With this, the form–the one prescribed form elevated to a norm, the limit of the mind’s function–is deliberately disregarded so as to delay arrival for as long as possible; and the fragment becomes a pause, a junction, that enters into relations with an unlimited, hitherto unspecified whole. Each fragment is a beginning and an end, a pause in an implicit development; it disturbs the chronology in which the interval should be interpreted as the moment of activity.

The ideas of Valéry, Jean-Luc Godard, Leonardo, Mies, and others, who could be included in this series, indicate a situation that can reappear in the ‘great works’ of architecture. It is these works that keep managing to become detached from the categories into which some people try to slot them; should this eventually happen, they would immediately vanish without trace. It is the ‘great thoughts’ that are important, in which a choice, as an alternative to a hard and fast rule, as expression of individual subconsciousness can be deemed of great importance, whereby death in this way of thinking is seen as a myth. What is interesting about the permanently active mind is that it gives no answers to questions like ‘does truth exist?’, but satisfies questions with questions, creating a dialogue that ceases only when the askers sink into sleep from fatigue, or are disturbed by external factors. As such, the mental coagulations of the architect should be seen as questions, and not as death scenes in which the crystallized dying product is the sublime expression presented by the architect as an idea given shape.

Within this context, we can see the history of architecture, but also that of a new field like the cinema, as the history of arbitrary coagulations in the thought of the respective designers. So it is not the history of a linear course of events we are discussing here, but the history of possibilities. We could speak of a dependent reality, dependent because the angle of approach is constantly changing.

We are constantly talking about the production of ideas, as it was, the production of ideas at specific moments, at moments gone by, because reality is evanescent, constantly in motion. Thus reality is progressive–the individual who makes choices applying for no longer than a moment of existence stipulates it. We observe this progressive reality only through the slowness with which we move. Historically, this slowness has been continually subject to acceleration, because we ourselves keep moving faster; which means that the evolution of ideas takes place at an ever-increasing speed. Particularly since the moment Gagarin stepped into space, this motion has altered drastically, not only materially but in a mental sense too. With this, our relation with the history of architecture and that of other fields has changed equally drastically during the last thirty years, and so, too, will architecture itself through this development, as a logical consequence of the fact that it involves a discipline related to reality. It is within the emphemerality of the moment that the architect’s way of thinking becomes modified; it is his theory, which, partly through the glut of information, is given shape by the combination of such moments. It is within the architect’s way of thinking that choices can determine, that the creation of questions leads to new questions, that a precision of expression is striven after: it here concerns the defining and redefining of fragments possible only with a freedom of thought.

Following on from this way of thinking, we can interpret designing as the link between ideas and form leading to a product with a seemingly inexhaustible potential, or as Duchamp puts it, with an energy whose capacity depends on the quality of the product–a potential, by which is meant that the product is able to acquire meanings, functions, thoughts besides those existing in the mind of the architect. What is concerned is the assembling of elements that form a whole because of the underlying idea. It is interesting in this respect how the development from the emotional montage of Sergei Eisenstein to the intellectual montage of Jean-Luc Godard coincides with the evolution of thought in the field of architecture. Whenever freedom is discussed in this context, it simultaneously implies a lack of freedom. Here, freedom is a synonym for emptiness, and emptiness for potential, potential for festivities, festivities for dialogue, and dialogue for asking questions and thus for making choices, because of which freedom represents not looseness, not the banal luxury, but the perfect dialogue.

It is in this context that as an architectural idea, Villa Romanoff can be tied in with Villa Rotonda; both are villas ideal for festivities, where the hangover must be seen as synonymous with the desire to continue the dialogue, the dialogue with architecture, amongst architecture–the dialogue between the revellers, the dialogue between the moments carried within each individual; it is, to use Valéry’s words, a feast for the intellect.

In the ‘architecture of freedom’, freedom should be understood as the potential typifying the product, the macchina, but also the person confronted with it in the broadest sense.

By potential is meant the wealth of meaning architecture offers at each new reading; it is the activity that makes space for the unutterable, the uncertain, the immaterial, and takes the place of beauty in the conventional approach. Thus we no longer see the world, the architect, the product as the all-embracing whole; this mode of perception if replaced by deformation, by the otherness of a free and indirect discourse. The open totality is understood as macchina: on one hand there is activity–energeia–which attends to the mental and material combinations; and on the other hand, work–ergon–itself.

It is within the context of free, indirect vision that we can refer to the method of Godard uses in his films. It is no method of collage; rather he integrates simultaneously the degree of probability and the paradox of logic. His oeuvre as well as the individual films produced by him, constructed from fragments, can be seen as a method of montage typified by a non-chronological time relationship. What matters here is not the series of images, but rather the interruption of the series, or of the associations. It is a question of ‘betweenness’, between two actions, between two visual images, between sound and visual image, in which the capacity to combine plays a central role. Within the montage we are discussing here is the ‘cut’, the border which belong to neither of the two shots, a no-man’s-land we could define as ‘emptiness’; it is an operation of disappearing and of making possible, of differentiation, and not of association. It is this shift from association to differentiation, from nature to knowledge, which in this context occupies a central position, as does interest in the unfinished project–the void, the ‘interiority’, the uncertainty. So it is the architecture that speaks, that controls man; man in turn reacts only after having observed the appearance of the architecture.

It is in the degree and manner in which architecture can be understood as a potential, that we could describe the product as being freer, that is, more open, prepared for the unexpected, and thus the greater the purity with which it submits what it says to a painstaking scrutiny. It is within this condition of the unknown, the immeasurable, that the ‘architecture of freedom’ should be considered; within this context that the thing that sets us thinking–with which we consider thought and functioning the essence of architecture–is the powerlessness of thought, the nonexistence of the whole, the image of meaninglessness.

It is ‘choice’ that we must firmly relate to ‘thought’. Choosing the respective fragments or details establishes a difference of potential; choosing also means making interruptions, ‘cuts’ made by the one and observed by the other. In this context choosing is not related to intuition nor to selecting from available material, both of which in fact mean choosing what is already known. So it is not the image, the form, of the architectural product as dominant item which is important, but the emptiness, the ‘void’ created by the product, by the product as fragment or detail, within the fragments of the product, but also by the product in relation to other products. It is the condition of what we could term the ‘potential of the fragment’: the thought evoked by the uncertain unfinished fragment because we define the fragment in this sense as an element doomed to extinction–a ‘mortal’.

In this context, ‘fragment’ is used in relation to other fragments within the urban framework to indicate the totality, what we have defined as macchina–a material, but also a mental machine, an eternally unfinished, open representation of the idea behind the project. It is within this context that we can introduce the dialogue as a constant interrogation, a perpetual answering with questions which constantly throws up a void, a void intended not as left-over space but as an ‘interiority’, a potential creating thoughts. All this is seen in the ‘inbetweenness’ of objectivity and subjectivity, which we in the architectural field have to accept as a progressive condition.

Architecture is not a luxury, it is in fact an instrument of thoughts constantly in expectation, it is a feast for the mind, with ‘potential’ as its prime function. It tries to express in a built fragment what is in fact inexpressible, something we cannot capture in a single expression. By expressing the fragment, it tries to evoke an unlimited number of expressions. As such the architectural fragment is a ‘mortal’; it is never finished, though in a materialized form it has reached a point we call the result of the design and building process. In that sense, it has a reason to exist only when in a state of ‘potential’.

When we speak here of the ‘architecture of freedom’, we are not trying to create a Utopian world, to reshape the world as the avant-garde of the twentieth century tried to do: it is not our intention to control everything. We are not trying to define in an all-dominating way, but to make possible; we are not out to create a Utopia. Within the ‘architecture of freedom’, the architectural product will dissolve in purity, to rise again in eternity, and encourage our minds to restore it.

It is here a question of eradicating the one preconceived meaning, above all by making possible more than one meaning, by dissolving the one in a multiplicity, something we could typify as a voluntary submission.