Although not explicitly saying it, the author seems most frustrated by architects engaging with philosophy not genuinely, but as a means to justify their value and necessity to clients and general public.
While I share the author’s sentiment about the original blurb, it’s important to note that these texts are written for clients and people outside the field in general, not us. In other words, it’s sales patter. For it to be so easily exposed as such only makes it poorly crafted piece. Most of the mission statements of commercial practices barely have enough content to be even argued against. In this sense I think it’s actually commendable of this particular office to mention a specific philosopher such as Popper, however terribly they abuse him. What’s revealing is not how banal the text is, but how easily the audience it is meant for accepts it regardless, and why it takes another architect to point this out. Surely if this office is so clueless as to what it stands for, it should be obvious to their clients too? Rather than individual practices, it speaks of a general condition of the profession and how architects talk about their work to people outside their field.
The psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan once admitted to an audience of laypeople that he has very little idea what psychoanalysis is and how it works. What’s more, anyone who claims to know is a phoney. Psychoanalysts, he jokes, as a group have taken up the habit of implying that they do know, without actually saying anything significant. As a result everyone thinks they know what psychoanalysis is, except for psychoanalysts themselves. It is tempting to see architecture as a similar profession. Like an analyst, the function of an architect is not self-evident and there is no self-explanatory reason for their status or place in the world. It is perpetually reinforced and invented by architects themselves, and people who have something to gain from it. The reason architects feel a pressure to put out such jabber is not because they personally or as a profession don’t know what they stand for, but because there aren’t any satisfactory answers. One can stand for the environment or for social justice or family values all they want, but this doesn’t really explain what it is that we do. Just as little what an engineer or an artist stand for say about how engineering or art works. What makes architects suspect, is that they might believe otherwise.
Up to a point, everyone agrees with what architecture is. We agree that there needs to be a school and a department to teach it, for example. The issues that really bother us and spark debate happen inside and after the school, for those ‘in the know’.
"We enter this field of knowledge by way of a unique experience that consists, quite simply, in being psychoanalysed. After that, you can talk. Being able to talk does not mean that you do talk. You could. You could if you wanted to, and you would want to if you were talking to people like us, people who are in the know, but what’s the point? And so we remain silent with those who do know and with those who don’t know, because those who don’t know can’t know" (Lacan, 2008)*.
When talking to people outside the profession, we only offer an easy way in. We say things they already recognise. Like psychoanalysis did at the time of Lacan’s lecture, architecture enjoys a strange prestige that is unusual in an age of scientific demands and belittling of anything artsy.
Undergoing psychoanalysis and architecture school can be hardly compared of course, except for the amount of money and time they take to complete. But the effects of sales patter, or boniment as Lacan calls it, is the same. We begin architecture school thinking that we know what we’re getting into. Only we become ’in the know’ by practising doing things in the way they are expected. Until the very end of our education and beyond, we may hope to find some confidence as to what it is that we really do in essence, but in the meanwhile there’s not much choice but to resort to a cliché of our choice to explain. Or even better, let others tell us what to tell them.
Popper admittedly might have been an ill choice for an architectural manifesto, but it is not difficult to defend a view of architecture as dealing with problems. Popular as ever amongst architects, Gilles Deleuze defines thought altogether as a result of an encounter with a problem. All creative processes arise from problems, but while for example engineers’ work consists of inventing solutions, architects primarily invent novel problems. Great inventions in architecture happen as a result of a reimagined problem that opens up paths to new solutions. This is also why students with the same brief design different things; the brief is always so vague that it needs to be specified and reinvented to arrive at a product at all. The final design, or solution, is only ever as interesting as the problem it describes, and ideally serves to further specify it.
In this light the original snippet seems quite inoffensive. Perhaps the architects believe in it themselves, perhaps they don’t. As long as they produce interesting work it doesn’t really matter, in my opinion. As the author notes, architecture is not philosophy, so maybe writing about architecture should be left to architectural philosophers. Deleuze too wrote about art as a philosopher, not as an artist writing philosophy. On the other hand I’m sure most remarkable architects are capable of putting their achievements into words. Only it is usually done for others in the know. And of course we should avoid spreading meaningless sales patter, and expose it where we can. However the alternative way to talk about architecture in public is not to put out even denser patter, but to admit that as operators we have nothing to say when it comes to what is most essential in our operation. And that is what makes it interesting to pursue. To answer the titular question of the original piece, it turns out my problem is the lack (of architecture).
*Lacan, J. (Ed). (2008). My Teaching. London: Verso, p.9