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DIGITAL DARDEN: Resisting the Rhinoceros

Doug Darden has been gone for nearly twenty years now. Yet the conversations (and the challenges, interrogations, demands) we shared in the fourteen years that I knew him reverberate.  The impositions into my complacencies which Doug made on me were spoken and written, but also came to me through his work.  Architectural discourse has changed since he left us, and I as I try to understand just how much it has changed I have asked myself time and again, WHAT WOULD DOUG BE DOING NOW?  What would be his responses to or even use of the magic wands which architects employ now that they didn’t use – or were barely beginning to discover (and which they are still barely beginning to discover) – in April of 1996?

Central to the conversation that I know Darden and I would be having now would be questions of what contemporary theorists loosely – and it would seem ad nauseam – call digital practice.  Borrowing from Jeff Kipnis, I suggest that there are three metacritical attitudes toward digital practice we should consider when thinking of a possible Darden critique:

1 THE PERFORMATIVE

2 THE CONCEPTUAL and

3 THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL

Regarding THE PERFORMATIVE:  Tools used to speed and make more efficient the productions of architectural practices would not be a concern for Darden.  He would embrace them.   Those familiar with Darden’s Discontinuous Genealogies can easily see his categorizing, sorting, and re-forming of purpose and perception finding perhaps greater breadths and depths via methods that build upon what were for Darden a structure for inquiry as simple as iambic pentameter was for Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  The poetry lay in the application of the method once it was invented.

All of which would leave Darden more time left to draw.

It is the question of drawing that would beg us to speculate upon THE CONCEPTUAL and THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL ground for Darden’s post-digital work.

I am certain that the gauntlet Darden would pick up today would still be the same one that our seminal mentor Stanley Tigerman tossed onto the big square table in the poché, as Stanley called our small shadowy meeting place hidden away from all the earlier versions of formal thinkers at Harvard those thirty-some years ago.  Stanley’s admonition was this: “Life is fabulous.  How can architecture be more like it?”

Leon Wieseltier, in an essay in a recent New York Times Book Review titled “Among the Disrupted”, restated Stanley’s call to arms: “[Digital] media is a second order subject if ever there was one.  What does understanding the digital contribute to the understanding of life?  And yet the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new.”  In a recent talk at Harvard, Patrik Schumacher, Zaha Hadid’s “director of design”, sneered that “we have to stop talking about architecture being an art.  Architecture is only form making – it has nothing to do with content!”

I can assure you that had Schumacher said this in his presence there in Piper Auditorium, Darden would have been livid almost beyond control.  He likely would have jumped to his feet and demanded: “Do we no longer accept the importance or even the legitimacy of human agency?  The need for CULTURE cannot be buried by the thrills of the digital revolution!”

Darden would tell us that instead we now must keep our heads.  That we must be careful to not let the Rhinos knock them off.

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The subtitle of my reflections here alludes to that insipid RHINO that many architects and students of architecture know perhaps too well, and I intentionally muddle a computer software application with Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play RHINOCEROS [a production photo of which is above right].  Most us read the play in high school.  A sleepy French town.  Rhinos suddenly begin to appear.  Innocents, unaware that a paradigm shift threatens them on their very streets, turn INTO Rhinos in their innocence.  In the end, only one man resists the stampeding tide of gray.  This man could have been the last humanist architect, perhaps the architect who Jacques Herzog once said he wanted to be.  (Darden might have fought Herzog for that mantle.)

Ionesco wrote RHINOCEROS as an anti-Nazi play.  Yet it is also and in its essence an attack on all forms of collective hysterias and serious collective diseases passing themselves off as ideologies. 

In his introduction to the CCA’s and Yale’s recent exhibits and symposia called ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE DIGITAL, which was contrived as a clearing of the ideological air as to what a CONCEPTUAL digital practice might entail – but which in lucid moments also suggested considerations for PHENOMENOLOGICAL conceits – Mirko Zardini somewhat surprisingly laid the concomitant apology for digital shortcomings thusly:

“The 1990s (remember that Darden was taken ill at the beginning of that decade and died in its middle) were notably defined by the field of architecture’s near total dismissal of history and theory, which were promptly replaced by technology-driven practices.

“This period was also the beginning of a vanishing interest in the social component of architecture.  (These are the losses ridiculed in Schumacher’s rant.)  A fertile ground was thus seeded for architectural projects to be construed as interiorized (i.e. formal) tasks:

“These projects, empty of content, are often in sharp contrast with the friction we see and experience in the world today, and seem to celebrate a vision of harmonious, fluid environments devoid of conflict.”

The ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE DIGITAL symposia, while at first blush touting the paradigm shift’s victory over theory and practice, had a remarkable undercurrent of guilt and apology at having done so, and the tone of Greg Lynn in particular in his moderating of the conversation at Yale was “what have we done, and how do we get it back?”

For Darden, architecture could never touch bottom because it, as indeed all art, MUST be polemical – born from arguments conditioned by DOUBT, by an ontological NOT-KNOWING rather than by the monolithic technological confusion of digital practitioners, which Peter Eisenman has so insightfully if not so eloquently called in one of the conversations surrounding the ARCHAEOLOGY events “making pock-marked skins covering poopoo”.  Every technology is used before it is completely understood.  There is always a lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences.  We are certainly living in such a moment now, and it is often a kind of smug denial of this lack of understanding which keeps the digital practice of architecture from making PHENOMENOLOGICAL as well as CONCEPTUAL advances.  Eisenman has more seriously suggested that the digital should be an opportunity for form MAKING, not form FINDING, but that this is not on the current digital agenda.  It is unto that breach that I believe our Shakespearean Darden would cast himself today.

Zardini closes:  “Current trends in digital practice – digital defined here not as the search for higher efficiency and speed of production (aforementioned as Kipnis’s PERFORMATIVE attitude), but refers to experimental projects and ideas fomented by digital means – trends which (tragically) seek to displace or exclude the SOCIAL, CULTURAL, ECONOMIC and POLITICAL contexts from digital research.”

These excluded contexts were, and would still be, the contexts of Darden.

And so, in our changing dialectic, how might Darden’s work be evolving?

After our studio with Tigerman, Doug left Harvard for Baltimore, and I transitioned into a studio with Eisenman, a studio which Doug deeply regretted not being able to participate in.  If Stanley was for us the herald and the conscience of what might be righteous and just about the cause of architecture, Peter was (in his albeit circumscribed way) our advocate for and exemplar of its practice.  Doug and I (well, mostly Doug) was determined that his and my collaboration toward these goals would somehow continue in the Eisenman studio in the spring of 1983.

This didn’t go far with Peter.  There was a brief and weird three-way exchange, wherein Doug would snail-mail me drawings (there was no email then, of course) in response to what Peter was asking us to do, I’d pin them up, Peter would say something like “I’m not going to spend our time talking about that Tigerman shit!”, I’d relate Peter’s comments to Doug, etc.  The last missive I remember getting from Doug that semester about his own absence was one of his almost daily postcards, this one of the photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin that Doug always referred to as “our twentieth century Mona Lisa”:

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On the back of the card was scrawled in large red letters the admonition: “SPOON FEED ELIADE TO PETER!!!”

A word about influence and the importance of collaboration for Darden.  I hesitate to show my own work here, but I think it is important to show my own project in Tigerman’s studio because Doug took his influence where he found it.  [The top image in the pair below is Darden’s SALOON FOR JESSE JAMES, the bottom image is my SCHOOL FOR THEATRE, DANCE, AND THE HIGH WIRE].  In my project one also, naturally, sees the influence of Darden.  And though I would contend that I learned and continue to learn far more from Doug than he did from me, he always credited my work in that studio as a turning point in his thinking, and a challenge to him to possibly move away from what a friend reminded me were Doug’s classicizing tendencies.  (Though after all, it was architecture’s canons that Doug spent much of his energy unraveling.)

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It might also be worth noting that the many-layered histories which influenced my SCHOOL I called ARCHAEOLOGIES, that Doug told me I should more correctly call them GENEALOGIES, then later reclaimed his word and prefaced it with DISCONTINUOUS.

I believe that the potentials for naming and the evolving methods to be named which Doug tentatively sought in Tigerman’s Harvard studio, at what was clearly the beginning of his work, and which he continued almost literally until the day he died, would most certainly by operative for him now in the merging CONCEPTUAL AND PHENOMENOLOGICAL metacritical attitudes of his own digital possibilities.

And what would his work confront now?  What would it look like?

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In 1988 I bought two copies of this book, one for me, one for Doug.  We had talked about Francis Bacon often, but the script for a continued and now guided conversation offered in David Sylvester’s extraordinary interviews with Bacon was irresistible. 

On the night Doug received his copy he called me from wherever he was then living and with our scripts in hands we read to each other for over an hour.  I want to conclude with excerpts from what we might have pondered that night, crossed over with a few images from the works of these two lost friends of the possible, and ask you to look for intimations of what we might have expected from a DIGITAL (or not) DARDEN.

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into what you see here I believe are a kind of parable of Darden’s method, a suggestion of how Doug’s lateral, all-encompassing interests and influences, as so tenuously outlined in his discontinuous genealogies, increased into the buildings (and buildING) he so lovingly condemned.  Bacon called these distortions of the image both a caress and an assault.  [Below left Bacon’s center panel of TRIPTYCH 1972; right Darden’s studies for CLINIC FOR SLEEP DISORDERS] The two artists layered allusions into paintings / architecture in their differing attempts to set “traps” to catch “facts” at their most living points.

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These facts themselves are and remain ambiguous, and as they combine, the ambiguity builds.  Their forms work first upon our sensations, then slowly leak back toward the facts – as might be delineated in Darden’s discontinuous genealogies – of their originating forms.

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Heavily underscored in my copy of THE BRUTALITY OF FACT are these lines: “It is in the artificial structure that the reality of the SUBJECT will be caught, and the trap will close over the subject matter and leave only the reality.  One always starts work with the subject, no matter how tenuous it is, and one constructs an artificial structure (this artificiality might be central to the CONDEMNED in CONDEMNED BUILDING) by which one can trap the reality of the subject matter one has started with.”

I would contend, and I think Doug Darden would agree, in those so missed long conversations, that digital formalists (just as, truthfully, formalists of pre-digital times) have no subject.  Such unreflecting digital theories and practices flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.  Darden would sense this post-humanist danger, and would readily take up the cause for substance in his dissent.  [Above left, Bacon’s center panel for TRIPTYCH 1971; right, Darden’s discontinuous genealogy for SEX SHOP]

POSTSCRIPT

When I taught at Tulane University in the mid-eighties I invited Doug down several times to lecture and to review my student work.  As I talked with him on the night of one arrival about the program of my studio we would review, which was a slaughterhouse with two sites – one in the city, now outlawed by zoning, and one “legal” site in the swamps outside the city –  we sat in my darkened living room listening to Keith Jarrett’s Köln concert.  After a long silence Doug observed that Jarrett played like a man in a cage, and that he wanted to know where in New Orleans we could go to feel the cage of the city.  The next morning I drove him to the industrial section of the levee, upriver.  Not for the industry, I told him, but for the revelation the industries there might suggest of the city’s land-hewed shoving match with the Mississippi River. 

We had answered Heidegger’s question concerning technology.  Doug was in heaven.

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