The Vintage Object
This is a series of articles based on my research for the MA Architecture ‘history and theory’ module.
1. DIGGING FOR THE ROOTS
“Over against this, let us consider abstract man stripped of myth, abstract education, abstract mores, abstract law, abstract government; […] Here we have our present age, the result of a Socratism bent on the extermination of myth. Man today, stripped of myth, stands famished among all his past and must dig frantically for roots, be it among the most remote antiquities. What does our great historical hunger signify, our clutching about us of countless other cultures, our consuming desire for knowledge, if not the loss of myth, of a mythic home, the mythic womb?” (Nietzsche, 1872, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music).
The 19th century was dominated by the fascination with history. Western cities turned into huge museums that aimed to classify everything, from architectural monuments to domestic dwellings and objects, as artefacts in a giant collection of ‘objects of the past’. Curators and art historians were aiming to unite all disparate events of the past in objective history tomes, while architects were decorating facades in styles borrowed from history, spanning from Ancient Greece, Rome, Middle Ages, to Classicism and Baroque. After exhausting the known ‘historical styles’, they became fascinated by exotic cultures and started designing in new eclectic styles, such as Egyptian, Middle Eastern and Japanese. Others found inspiration in the local cultures and vernacular architecture.
As Nietzsche noticed, Western culture was constantly ‘digging for roots’ among the cultural products of past civilisations, as well as exotic ones. The fascination with ‘otherness’ was common not only among historians, artists and architects, but also among the general public. 19th century European exhibition centres and amusement parks fed on this fascination and exhibited some of the most eclectic structures imaginable. The desire to experiment the values and products of the past was tempered by the development of the ‘Modern Movement’ in the 20th century, who replaced nostalgia with utopia and the myth of progress. However, placing the ‘mythic home’ in the future did not fully satisfy mankind’s need of belonging.
After 70 years of titanic Utopian experiments, the nostalgia of the past returned, more intense than ever. The Postmodern approach could be seen as a manifestation of the same longing for the lost mythic home, that would now coexist with futurism and the myth of progress. From the 70s on, memory and collective myths – completely neglected in modernism – returned to the scene as central subjects in the theories of Aldo Rossi, Kenneth Frampton or Charles Jencks – to name just three proeminent architectural theorists. The fascination with museums continued and expanded into unexpected directions. Buildings conservation and restoration also came back as a major field of interest among architectural historians and theorists.
Pop culture and mass media began a frantic exploration of past ages, and after exhausting historical sources (varying from ancient historians to anonymous sagas and legends), new odd, nostalgic genres started to emerge: Post-Apocaliptic Fiction, Retro-Futuristic alternative worlds, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Gothicpunk, Arcanepunk, Mythpunk etc. The writings of past authors who envisioned imaginary worlds, such as H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G. Orwell, were explored and are still being explored through music (see Led Zeppelin and Blind Guardian’s fascination with Tolkien, Iron Maiden’s fascination with A. Huxley or Pink Floyd’s fascination with Orwell), movies (most SciFi genres) and PC games (Warcraft, The Elder Scrolls, Witcher etc.).
Bored by the present age, mankind continues to explore the ‘back alleys’ of history (S. Boym), both ancient and recent, as well as the ‘otherness’ of exotic cultures and dream worlds. Are these explorations able to fulfil our desire for knowledge and belonging? Will we be able to find a new ‘mythic home’, or are we destined to keep on digging frantically for roots without satiation?
2. ORIGIN MYTH
Functionalism is no longer the defining paradigm in architecture. The fascination with automatic, ‘functional’ devices is paralleled by the Postmodern fascination with ambiguous, convertible programs of use and vintage objects. Concerning the last cathegory, Jean Baudrillard provides a relevant analysis in his book, “The System of Objects”. Although vintage objects seem to have no place in a modern, functional environment, in fact they fit well into its ‘system of ambience’; the functionality is replaced by ‘historicity’; they signify time. “The vintage object gives the owner the sensation of time suspension, narcissist regression, imaginary control over his own birth and death” (Baudrillard, “The System of Objects”). Its symbolic value is therefore given by the origin myth. There are two aspects of this fascination, both deriving from the mythical remembrance of birth:
1. Nostalgia of Origins. The involution towards origins is a maternal regression: the older the vintage object is, the more it gets us closer to an older era, to “Divinity”, to nature, to primitive knowledge etc.
2. Authenticity. The obsession with authenticity focuses on certainty: the object’s origin, its date of fabrication, its author and his signature. The mere fact that the object belonged to a powerful, influential person, gives it value. It’s the fascination with the handmade object (unique because the moment of creation is irreversible). “Seeking evidence of the creation of the object is characteristic of paternal transcendence. Authority always comes from a father who confers value. Thus, the vintage object stirs the owner’s imagination, offering him the sense of this sublime filiation, as well as the involution towards the maternal presence” (Ibid.). Seeking authenticity is in fact the quest for an alibi (being somewhere else).
When designing a new building in a historical location, an architect will propose a modern functional house. However, in order to transform it into a living ‘dwelling’, he feels the need to bring vestiges of the past. “Just like a church is not entirely hallowed until there are brought inside the bones of a saint, the architect will not feel at home unless he perceives somewhere, between his brand new walls, the discrete, yet sublime presence of a stone that bears witness of past generations. The man is not at home in the functional milieu; he needs some sort of a remnant of the true Cross; thus, the vintage object receives in the functional ambiance the value of an embryo, of a mother cell” (Ibid.).
A few months ago I participated in an architectural competition organised by a group of Romanian poets and professors who wanted to convert and old heating factory into a Museum of the Daily Life in the Communist age. Their main request to the competitors was that the building’s finishes, pipes and industrial artefacts would be kept and integrated within the new proposition. The professors were not nostalgic for the previous regime; in fact, they wanted to emphasize the absurdity of its forced industrialisation. Therefore, the massive, rusty pipes had to be kept and integrated as sinister vintage objects into the functional museum – an extreme example of nostalgia, in which the fear of forgetting a past trauma keeps its disturbing relics; “Forgetting would be to let them be born again in another form.” (Alice Hunt, “The Village” film, 2004)
3. MEMORY AND THE PRODUCTION OF MEANING
1. Individual Memory. Is memory relevant to the production of meaning? Neuroscientists like Michael Gazzaniga have demonstrated through experimental studies that the brain makes sense of the world through the process of
memory (Gazzaniga, 2012). Meaning is created only by the mediation of memory; the neural activity in the human brain is distributed in countless “modules”, groups of neurons that specialise in very distinct activities and computational processes. There is, however, a module in the left hemisphere, colloquially named by Gazzaniga “the interpreter”. Its activity consists of gathering disparate information from the other modules and from the stimuli (the only information that made it into the left hemisphere), and putting these in a consistent pattern, based on cause-and-effect inductions, literally creating meaning out of chaos.
The implications of these facts are relevant to this study because they show that the first way in which we make sense of the world around us is through unconscious memory. The emergence of the ‘self’ from the multitude of brain activities enables the further conscious exploration of the world, the real quest for meaning and values. From the infinite interactions of chaotic phenomena that affect us every day, we identify a small fragment – the ones we consider relevant to our experience, values and familiar meanings, and treasure them as memories. They show us who we are, give us a sense of belonging and continuity over time, offer purpose for the present and hope for the future.
In one of his blog posts (Woods, 2012, Beyond Memory) Lebbeus Woods reflects on the elusive character of memory, which puzzles scientists to this day. Considering human memory just a storage device, similar to a hard disk, doesn’t do justice to many of the observable facts. First of all, human memory seems to be extremely fluid; different individuals remember the same event differently; even when considering a single person, his memories of a past event change with every new recollection. Scientists tend to think that every recollection is in fact a reassembling of the original ‘memory’, a reinvention based on some raw data provided by the brain and shaped according to the individual’s current personality and beliefs (Ibid). Therefore, it seems that not only unconscious memories affect our understanding of the world and the production of meaning, but also conscious ones, which are not given facts, or discrete packages stored in the brain, but fluid productions which correspond to our interests, desires and beliefs more than we realise.
2. Collective memory. Myths. In a cultural context, over a long period of time, the most cherished values and ideals materialize as myths – meaningful stories from the primordial past revealing the link between humanity, the world and gods. They speak of the purpose of the world, the divine intentions concerning it and the destiny of humanity (based on a definition by Daniel Quinn – Quinn, 2008, p20). Myths are collective memories, based on a culture’s past experiences, its shared achievements and traumas. In relation to the collective realm, Walter Benjamin, quoted by Christine Boyer, considered that there are two definitions of the term ‘memory’. In its traditional definition, “memory is an epiphany, flashing up in ephemeral moments of crisis, searching to exhibit at that particular time the way of the world in order to direct one’s pathway towards the future” (Boyer, 1996, p130) This definition corresponds to the individual memory, the process through which we make sense of present situations by involuntarily recalling relevant events from the past. It follows that myths, as basic elements of the ‘collective memory’, have to be absorbed gradually through daily experiences in order to become potential epiphanies for the individual. In its modern definition, memory is “a regressive gesture, holding onto a past that had been torn asunder by the hurricane winds of progress” (Ibid.).
3. Hierarchies vs. Heterarchies. Political or administrative structures (which we will refer to as ‘hierarchies’) constantly interfere with the formation of collective memories. Making use of collective and individual memories is a valuable tool for maintaining the status quo and exerting control over individuals. In some cases, memories become mystified or altered through ideology, in order to legitimise hierarchies. Conservative structures of power focus on the continuity of history, of the slow process of gradual changes, encouraging feelings of belonging (nationalism, nostalgia), while revolutionary regimes tend to accentuate disparate events in the past, relevant for their adopted ideology. In both cases, collective memory becomes altered through the mediation of hierarchies.
In Lebbeus’ view (Woods, 1997), the role of hierarchies in altering the processes of memory is even more subtle and substantial. By claiming exclusive access to ‘objective’ knowledge, hierarchies become infallible sources of wisdom. Lebbeus sees them as consequences of deterministic thought – the titanic quest for objective knowledge. In classical science, Plato’s ‘idea’, Descartes’ ‘duality’ and Newton’s ‘mechanics’ – human knowledge is considered objective, independent of cognitive processes, thus residing in hierarchies – sources of objective wisdom. On the other hand, heterarchies represent the consequence of a different definition of knowledge: “is […] knowledge existential? Does it concern a world in which existence precedes essence, in which knowledge cannot be verified by the assumption of a reality external to the processes of human cognition? Yes, according to principles of quantum theory (matrix mechanics, Copenhagen Interpretation) and cybernetics (recursive, closed systems). This is a reality in which authority moves within the shifting, dynamic fields of the self-determining, self-organizing systems known as “heterarchies”. According to these principles, absolute and relative, objective and subjective, no longer have any meaning” (Woods, 1997, p14).
Walter Benjamin’s definitions of ‘memory’ can be seen as deriving from the ‘hierarchies vs. heterarchies’ distinction: the traditional definition, in which memory is seen as an epiphany, corresponds to the organic heterarchical processes of meaning production, while the modern definition corresponds to the interference of hierarchies: when threatened by destabilising events, the governing instances produce artificial, ‘objective’ knowledge of the past, such as official ‘history’ in its modern definition (Forty, 2004).
4. WAR. DESTRUCTION OF MEMORY. NOSTALGIA.
1. Open war. From the perspective of individual and collective memory, war is perceived as a temporary, violent state which destroys the continuity of memory, thus threatening to obliterate shared values and meaning, in other words – personal identity itself. In Lebbeus Woods’ view, war destroys the multiple layers of meaning distributed across the urban centers, reducing them to a single layer of political power: “the monologic, monomaniac structure of hierarchy as its most logical and terrible extreme: the all-or-nothing polarity imposed by radical ideology and its rational overdeterminations” (Woods, 1997, p15).
Once a political power defines a ‘toxic other’ (Zizek, 2009), a group of people who threaten the establishment, its values or ideology, it engages in a process of open war and willful destruction. In many cases, armies aimed to destroy more than enemy military objectives; monuments, iconic buildings and cultural edifices have been constant targets for bombers. In extreme conditions, invading armies proceed on murdering civilians and ethnic cleansing. In the ‘all-or-nothing’ polarity that ideologies impose, these atrocities are completely rational: the ‘toxic other’ is not only the enemy (or rebel) force, but the foreign, demonised culture itself; its own hierarchical or anarchic structures, its own ideology, its cultural landmarks, its memories. When the ‘toxic other’ is defined as an ethnic group, a social class or a cultural dissidence, hierarchies proceed in erasing its memory as a means of control.
Once the open war is finished, societies tend to erase their traumatic memories and revert to the previous states of ‘normalcy’ as if nothing happened. This aim is also supported by political hierarchies, who use nostalgic and restorative feelings as a means of maintaining the status quo. “The maintenance of this passive state is possible only in the absence of crisis, simply because crisis throws things out of balance and into some sort of unpleasant, yet dynamic, state” (Woods, 1997 p13). In Lebbeus’ view, the passive state maintained by hierarchies is only an illusion. Wars are not unfortunate accidents, but cyclical states of crisis that occurred throughout history and will continue to occur.
2. Nostalgia. Wars, catastrophic events, sudden shifts and accelerated changes generate a memory crisis, a sense of disconnection with the past. One of the crisis’ most recognisable symptoms is nostalgia. Svetlana Boym analyses the different nuances of nostalgia in her essay, “Nostalgia and its Discontents”. “The word “nostalgia” comes from two Greek roots, nostos meaning “return home” and algia “longing”. […]
Nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time —the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. The nostalgic desires to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition” (Boym, 2007, p7). In the context of war states or post-war societies, nostalgia manifests as an aim to recover the past, with its continuous flow of familiar memories: rebuild the damaged cities, restore buildings to their prior state, restore the authority of administrative institutions, reenter the pre-war routine.
As mentioned in the previous article, hierarchies use nostalgic feelings as a means of regaining control and maintaining the public in a passive state. However, fully reverting to the pre-war conditions might be impossible, since war itself generated a trauma, a state of crisis materialized as new memories. Refusing to assimilate these new memories might make the recovery from the trauma impossible. Also, the potentially useful consequences of the state of crisis would be irretrievably lost. In many cases, painful experiences generated valuable insights. We learn to avoid behaviours that had led in the past to catastrophic outcomes; we learn to protect ourselves and develop new, useful skills.
Even if the painful experiences haven’t taught us anything, or proved confusing, such as in the case of a foreign invasion that didn’t have anything to do with our own choices, we can still learn how to recover from the traumatic experience and transform it into something entirely new. For Lebbeus, this process constitutes the very basis of creativity and innovation: “The only thing we can learn from the experience is how to recover from it, and that is a creative act of our choice that requires our transcending the pain, that is, not merely reliving it by remembering, but transforming the memory into something entirely new and affirmative” (Woods, 2012, Beyond Memory).
In Svetlana Boym’s terms, Lebbeus might be considered a ‘reflective nostalgic’. Realising that past experiences can no longer be reiterated in the present, ‘reflective nostalgia’ doesn’t aim to completely restore a past state of things; it doesn’t fall into the trap of idealising the past and refusing modernity and transformation. Instead, it aims to explore the past critically, identifying familiar details and memorial signs, while continually postponing ‘homecoming’. “It is precisely this defamiliarization and sense of distance that drives [reflective nostalgic persons] to tell their story, to narrate the relationship between past, present, and future. Through that longing, they discover that the past is not that which no longer exists, but, to quote Bergson, the past is something that “might act, and will act by inserting itself into a present sensation from which it borrows the vitality” (Boym, 2007, p16).
How should mankind (and architects in particular) deal with crisis of meaning induced by wars or other violent social/cultural mutations? An attempt to ‘dig and grub for roots’, as Nietzsche put it, to find meaning by completely restoring values of the past, is utopian, and also makes us susceptible to ideological propaganda and manipulation. In Lebbeus Woods’ view, the only way of recovering from a crisis of memory and identity is through decentralisation, through replacing hierarchies with heterarchies. It is a paradoxical approach: giving up on memory in order to recover it; giving up on the collective quest for meaning, allowing individuals to take control over their lives and their built environment and hoping that in time, new collective values will emerge. Furthermore, the violent patterns emerging from destruction are in themselves elements of a heterarchical semi-chaotic order that might reveal some useful insights for a heterarchical society. This is why the painful processes of war and traumatic experiences shouldn’t be ignored by their victims, but somehow integrated in their experience and turned into something positive.
Boyer, Christine (1996), “The City of Collective Memory”, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
Boym, Svetlana (2007), Nostalgia and its Discontents, Available from: <http://www.iasc-culture.org/eNews/2007_10/9.2CBoym.pdf>
Forty, Adrian (2004), “Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture”
Gazzaniga, M. (2012), “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”
Quinn, D. (2008) Ishmael, [online], Romanian edition, Available from Permacultura.
Woods, Lebbeus (1997), “Radical Reconstruction”
Woods, Lebbeus (2012), “Beyond Memory”, Available from:
Zizek, Slavoj (2009), The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectics? Available from: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8_hROT8VF0>