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Repetition « Andrew Pulliam


This is another brief piece of writing that I submitted for a call in a magazine for architecture writing.  Most people have suggested that it needs and introduction, or conclusion, something that ties it together…and maybe explains what the point is.  But it was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he offers no explanations beyond the fairly cryptic aphorisms.  To me his ideas were meant for chewing on more than sharpening to a rhetorical point, so that is the spirit I carried forward.


Architecture, Again

or Arriving Once More at the Beginning


REPETITION AND ARCHITECTURE  Consider repetition as one of the fundamental concepts of architecture.  It is a pervasively self-questioning practice which is most comfortable when it re-examines its origins, goals, methods, processes, forms, products and disciplinary limits.  In every question there is a return to something like an origin or primary grounding upon which a program of reform, reorientation, or reformulation is offered.  To be always starting again and to meet this eternal recurrence of the same with an attitude of affirmation is the architect’s burden.

REPETITION OF DISCIPLINARY LIMITS  What is architecture?  What might its products offer the world?  What extra-architectural thinking might be brought to bear on its workings?  In both avant garde and traditional practice the architect must recall a definition of architecture in order to stretch it into new territory or reassert its timeless status.  How many have returned to Vitruvius, to Alberti, to re-establish an account of the architect’s origin?  Has any other discipline returned to the plow with more vigor to excavate once more the furrow that delimits inside from outside?


REPETITION OF THE TYPICAL  Thinkers of architecture have frequently appealed to the notion of type or the typical to ground their ideas. This includes the admirers of historical type-form who perceive in timeworn spatial paradigms enduring structures of urban life, as well as the heralds of the everyday who depict architecture as a vehicle that elevates the practices of the unexceptional through design.  Each of these lines of thought appeal to what has been repeated, or what has become regular or commonplace out of habit.  The longer a habit endures and repeats the more reasonable it is to consider it essential, or constitutive of the human condition.


REPETITION OF FORM  A modulated repetition of specific forms, for example the classic Greek temple, can be seen as tracing the story of architecture in the western humanities.  Architecture cannot resist a certain amount of standardization, and the rhythm of the peristyle is evidence of the same impulse as the unbroken grid of the corporate tower or city gridiron.  The architect has nearly the same client every time after all: the embodied human form, which with its recurrent sympathies and tendencies will always be the starting point and final measure of design.


REPETITION OF HISTORY  Events in the chronological past are not history until they are recalled and put into play by the historian.  This leaves us in an odd position of awaiting the account of what has already come to pass.  As Walter Benjamin illustrated, we imagine the angel of history with its back to the future, facing instead the past with a desire to repair the fragmented heap of events.  In such a position the angel is drawn forward in reverse by the drafts of progress, echoing the position of the architect whose forward motion is suspect unless enacted through a confrontation with what came before in precedent.


REPETITION IN DESIGN PROCESS  The double meaning of architectural “practice” is often cited to indicate that the profession of architecture relies upon skills, knowledge, and experience developed by steadfast repetition.  The design process is iterative and moves forward through a series of projections issuing from a revisited set of assumptions. All of architectural production returns to drawing, whether by pulling a marking tool across a blank sheet of paper, or by the broader act of eliciting a proposal for constructed space from the array of factors–site, program, occupancy, climate, civic attitude, aesthetic agenda, etc.  To draw is to pull, to bring forth, to extract, to instigate a flowing from, and the architect’s job, whether they ever pick up a pencil, is to draw the ideas of the brief into the built world.


REPETITION OF CRITIQUE  When a project has been completed only then is it ready for presentation and critique.  In an interesting way, once the end has been achieved then one can circle back and re-tell the story for the benefit of the critics who can then offer outside interpretation and commentary.  The story told at the critique is not necessarily the factual life of the project–this may have developed totally differently, perhaps in a non-linear way that doesn’t lend itself to a coherent or meaningful telling.  The broader process of architectural criticism relies on a similar process in which the project in question is represented through the eyes of the critic.  The critic situates the project and proposes a framework for understanding its intentions and execution.  The movement of the critic, as in the Platonic dialogues, is in turn taken up by the reader who retraces the critic’s story and then is in a position to take up or reject that account.


REPETITION OF THOUGHT  To the extent that the architect can be seen as the intermediary between concepts and material presence it may be beneficial to look to the progenitor of western idealism, Plato.  One way to approach Plato’s dialogues is to see them as discursive movements repeating conventional accounts to arrive at more revealing understandings of the world.  The notion of truth in the dialogues is expressed by the term aletheia, as a negation of lethe or forgetting.  Readers of the dialogues are asked to reenact these conversations from their beginnings and as they read the ideas are reconsidered by the reader as to their possible meaning.  While static doctrinal Platonism became a staple repetition in western philosophy, the process of discourse depicted in Plato, the movement of repeating, of bringing forth again from the forgotten into the present, problematizing and reinterpreting our intellectual inheritance, has remained pervasive.  In its repetitive motions architecture is a strikingly analogous movement. While not explicitly epistemological, instead dealing directly in the pragmatic and poetic,  it nonetheless enacts the production of self-knowledge.  The architect as image maker creates a reflection of human life, doubles, repeats, the world such that it can be more readily uncovered in the experience of people.


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