Failure to Communicate, part 2

If the drawings, models and other images that architects make form a language, then they live as other languages do in a world of grammar and meaning, capable of communicating everything from scientific specificities to poetic pluralities. They are also capable of describing, wishing, promising and outright lying. In the case of our problematic perspective which represents a possible world as if real, it’s worth asking if it is a performative or a seduction.

A performative is a kind of utterance, such as an oath or a promise, which does what it says. To say “I pledge allegiance...” is to pledge allegiance; to say “I promise” is likewise to promise. Of course, that’s where the action ends; the fulfillment of the promise itself is unfortunately outside of the boundaries of language. For example, I once promised to help others and be a sister to every other Girl Scout, I’m not sure I can claim to have done what I promised. But some performatives can be assessed for completion. If I promise to bring the beer to band practice, but fail to do so my future performatives may become suspect. The promise remains, in memory, as does its power to shape future behavior.

Now, a seduction is not technically a category of utterance, at least according to my sources, but it makes a useful rhetorical contrast for my purposes here. It may not always be clear in the moment whether something is an oath or a seduction--such confusion is the source of endless plotlines in film and music: think Meatloaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light-- and one is rightly suspicious of the language, or image, that seems too glib, too good, too slick. In the CADmosphere the sky is always blue and the people translucent. Paul Patnode of the Environmental Simulation Center, with whom I shared a panel at the SIGGRAPH convention in New Orleans in August, distinguished between digital animations and digital simulations to the same end, suggesting that an animation is a seduction while a simulation is a performative. The animation, while in the guise of presenting a possible world, has discarded the responsibility of representing essential parts of reality. But a simulation becomes a kind of promise: this proposal will change the world thus. In this case all those elements of the world as it is are represented faithfully and the consequence of the new, not yet real, work changes the resonance of the possible like a note added to a chord.

When we represent a possible world we become responsible for everything in that world, inclusive of the kids, their balloons and the Mercedes, as constituents in the vision of what could be. The sharing of images of what could be, the essence of by-now familiar visual preference surveys, is the first step in motivating us to change. Change, as I’ve written about previously, is scariest as an abstraction. It becomes both doable and desirable when we can all envision how things might be. As architects take up the challenge—which they must do—to open the window to the view to better, sustainable worlds they need to reflect quite seriously on the difference between a performative and a seduction.


ciderman said...

If it is at all possible to determine if it is the carrot or the stick that inspires one to offer a performative over a seduction......or vice versa, then each offering might be imbued with enough sincerity/technique/responsibility and truth, among other attributes, to make the vision easy to digest...effective.... inspirational...or even admired. Your work, here in written form and other efforts are such. Thank you for the care and feeling you have contributed, while suggesting protocols for the grand scale. Brava. If you forgot, I would pick up the beer on my way......

kashuo said...

I often think of architecture as analogous to language. In particular, it can be said that the architect constructs a drawing in the same way that a philosopher constructs an argument. If the philosopher begins with certain immutable premises ("I am a citizen," for example, or "theft is wrong") and then builds upon those premises with further premises that lead towards a conclusion (i.e. "it is wrong to steal from fellow citizens") then the architect similarly begins with certain rigid lines and then builds upon those lines with gestures and ideas until a rational whole is reached. These beginning regulating lines might be the ground plane if drawing in elevation, or the permanent edge of a nearby building if drawing in plan. The architect then introduces their own new graphic ideas, analogous to the pilosopher's conjectured premises, until when taken together, the assemblage of lines make up a logical construction that concludes in the building design. The beauty of the finished drawing is analogous to the truth of the philosopher's argument.

Indeed, drawing's parallel to language can also be seen in the realities of contemporary professional practice and the establishment of liability. Architectural construction documents are in fact legal documents intended to be examined in a court of law in the event that a contract dispute arises. The project owner wants to know whether the architect or the contractor was at fault so it becomes very important what the architect "means" by every group of lines. The judicial process of very carefully questioning meaning, definition and identity of concept (i.e. who EXACTLY do you heretofore mean by "plaintif"?) is underpinned by the practice of the philosopher in the same way that the architect's meticulous documenting of the project attempts to eliminate duplication of dimensioning across drawings, for example.