1958, 110 minutes
directed by Jacques Tati
What a beautiful film this is. Last year this film series screened Playtime, Jacques Tati’s later, larger, and more ambitious, though not funnier, film that deals with a similar scenario: the character Monsieur Hulot and his comic interactions with his urban environment of old and Modern Paris. You can’t look up Jacques Tati and not read about his films as a critique of Modern architecture; however, I’m not going to get into that here. My foot is getting tired from incessantly kicking at the dead horse of Modernism.
What I’ve been thinking about recently are children. The title Mon Oncle means “my uncle” in French, and though there isn’t really anything that resembles a traditional plot in this film, a continuing narrative strand involves Monsieur Hulot and his playful nephew. Monsieur Hulot is himself a large child in these films, dispossessed of the sophistication and suavity to understand how to operate within Modern environments. What’s surprising to me is the poignancy of an architectural critique from the viewpoint of a child (and/or man-child, as the case of Monsieur Hulot may be). In fact, children are constantly poignant to me —be them in the published photos of James Stirling’s buildings or as a political device in the recent film by Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men. What children could then represent is something that is imminently necessary to acknowledge in the study of architecture: that is, the presence of something beyond the reach of intellection.
Philip Nobel wrote that changes in governmental policy, among other factors, forced architects to compete with engineers in the middle of the 20th century. I agree with him to a certain extent—I think the bigger factor was the dominance of German philosophy that prioritized progress and science in the Modern era. Thus, architects had to sell themselves and their work as scientifically rigorous. But as Alberto Perez-Gomez has written, the way we know that architecture is separate from science is that architects are constantly using scientific metaphors. If architecture and science were really conjoined, there would be no need for architects to reach for flimsy scientific metaphors to justify their designs.
I’ve stated glibly many times before that “logic will break your heart,” which is a phrase partially taken from a mediocre album by The Stills, a rock group from Montreal. But the phrase succinctly (and catchily if not also reductively) sums up the theories of one of my favorite figures of late, Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931 essentially stated that in any closed system of logic there are both true and false statements that cannot be proven from within that system. Therefore, the attempt to create and justify any closed system of logic is fraught with inconsistencies and incompleteness—this is the hole that Derrida fell into in his otherwise brilliant theory of differance. This is also why the charge of arbitrary hurts Eisenman more than any other critique—he wanted his designs to be logically inevitable from within the parameters of architecture that he so painstakingly constructed.
Lately, Gilles Deleuze has taken the helm of the most inspirational writer for architects of the moment. Everybody is jumping on the Deleuzian bandwagon, and for good reason. His recently translated book, The Logic of Sensation, is amazing. His ideas of “figuration” and “sensation” are explicitly defined as something that passes beyond the brain, an “irreducibly synthetic . . . plurality of constituting domains of sensation.” In essence, the logic of sensation is distinctly different and separate from formal logic. In Deleuze’s theory, though it is ostensibly about painting, he brings into architecture those aspects that Modernism had left out: namely, the other four senses.
In that way, Deleuze is deliriously liberating. He renders null and void the need to endlessly and unyieldingly generate meaningless diagram after diagram, encourages us to break rules, play around, abandon logic, and explains why stunningly, rigorously formal architecture, like that of Ben Van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen, sometimes ends up feeling soulless and dead. The work of great architecture lies beyond logical coherency—it lies somewhere in the realm of sensation.
(originally written March 6, 2007)