For some time now, I have tried to argue for an autonomy for architectural thinking. My interesting colleagues and friends have been asking me to clarify what do I mean by autonomy? Why speak of autonomy now? It seems like a discussion of the 80’s. I thought I will try to respond to these questions and in the process clarify the idea for myself -through this text. At the moment, I am thinking I will take up this response in several parts built over time.
First thing to clarify is that, I will follow Graham’s object oriented ontology in accepting the Kantian noumena or the thing-in-itself. Which basically means that I will work with the thesis that all things in the universe have an autonomy that is beyond the finitude of humankind -including those things that are produced by humans and also humans-in-themselves. Everything in this universe, real or sensual, is equally and object and has its own autonomy. This is the first point I would like to clarify about the stance that I am taking about the question of autonomy.
One of the things that we learn from Graham’s notion of autonomous objects or thing-in-itself (a.k.a Kant’s noumena) is that there is a surplus in every object that cannot be exhausted. This is the notion of autonomy that I would like to build upon here and test what potential it may have for thinking about architecture.
Often autonomy of architecture is discussed in the frameworks of the disciplinary autonomy. One can think of a whole lineage of architects who have celebrated this sense of autonomy or what can be referred to as formalists: Eisenman, Ungers, Aureli, Tschumi and many others.
If we, however, follow Graham and Bruno Latour then we can fold in a universe of things that are autonomous in their own right which come together to form a compound object. Here, it becomes possible to explain why and how the discipline and practice of architecture can fold in such varied enterprises.
I also think, this also can explain why most architectural theories work well as extremely local discourses-while they can end up having global resonance. For instance, in Mumbai it is impossible for architects to not discuss the built form of the slum, the tribal settlements, interior design, furniture design, housing and so on when they are thinking about architecture. May be architects do not speak of slums so much in Mysore or Bangalore.
However, what makes architects in Mumbai speak about such broad range of built forms as part of the architectural discipline? It is certainly not given or offered a priori in some textbook of architecture. Often, it is credited solely to the context within which one is practicing. Which is true provided the context had an all-encompassing effect on all its components. You do find architects in Mumbai who are least bothered about the conditions of the slum or product design. Another usual answer to such ignorance by some architects is their class, and recently to the caste, context. Which means, that there is no one context, but many. Usually it is then argued that contexts fold on to one another to create certain specificities: of urban conditions, knowledge systems, architectural discourse, power structures and so on. I am not saying that the context doesn’t have any effect on us -we are after all within something larger: house, neighborhood, city, society, class, caste, state, world, climate, ecology, economy, pandemic and so on. I am simply trying to point out that despite all the context everything is something. Because, such an insistence will always undermine objects, including the individual, the collective, the minority, marine life, animals, insects, microbes, faith and fictional beings. Only the context appears to be autonomous.
I would argue that it is the autonomy that the architect or group of architects bring with them equally populates and shapes the disciplinary boundary. It is the person who has taken efforts to translate the urban condition into some sort of theory shapes the disciplinary boundaries. The same true of translating arts, philosophy, sciences, computer technologies, chemical and mechanical processes, literature, cinema… literally anything into a rigorous theory of design / architecture.
But this would leave the autonomy only on the side of the architect -while saying nothing much about the autonomy of the ‘discipline’ of architecture or of the, built-environment, the people of the city, the various species that inhabit the constructed environment, the streams, the oceans, various agencies and organizations and a whole universe of artifacts that populate the city. It becomes important to consider all things in the city as equally important -to begin with at least- as we are starting with a commitment to flat ontology and the basic premise of OOO i.e. all objects are equally some-thing and autonomous.
Graham, in his Dante’s Broken Hammer and later in Art and Objects opens a wonderful way to think about autonomy and formalism. He argues that the person and the work, in our case the architect and the work of architecture or the passerby and the work of architecture, the inhabitant and the built-form together form a new and autonomous unit, an autonomous object that is different from the both the constituent parts.
Perhaps two important concepts to think through here would be sincerity and symbiosis. I will try and work them out in one of the next posts.