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The Conceptual Bearings of the Intercultural Role of Architecture

Nader El-Bizri

[Slide 1: Marcel Duchamps Nu descendant l'escalier, 1963]

Prolegomenon: In-der-Welt-sein This aim behind this paper is to investigate the principal philosophical presuppositions that underlie some of the fundamental theoretical reflections on the intercultural roles of architecture. This line of inquiry focuses on some of the salient interconnections that this question may have with ontology, epistemology, and theories of value. We proceed in this context with prudence, since we are perhaps still unprepared for the interpretation of this question, given that the realm from which

it addresses us has not been hitherto sufficiently thought in terms of its metaphysical constitution and unity. Based on metaphysical perspectives, architecture appears as being intimately connected with the existential dimensions that underpin the worldly nature of the human condition, in the sense that being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein; tredans-le-monde)2 is essentially a mode of being-in-architecture. Even in its most rudimentary forms, the architectural is ontological in terms of how it relates to the question of being, its meaning, truth and place. In sheltering and emplacing the modes of dwelling, with the extensional envelopment of the kinaesthetic spatiality of the human body and its ocular-motor sensory inherence in phenomenal and perceptual fields, architecture demarcates the conditions of possibility for enclosing the everyday existence of human beings, from birth till death; while retaining also the material traces of past mortals, the physical layering of history or the tangible signs of its erasure. Embodiment is the vital mode by which I inhabit the life-world (Lebenswelt) as a body-subject (corps propre).3 Even the constitutive spatiality of childhood is inscribed in our corporeality, in recollecting traces of past sensory experiences, of localities of pleasure and pain, safety and trauma, and of memories in-between. By surrounding the body, architecture envelops it in multidirectional sequences of displacements that reveal the ambient surroundings as being perceptual phenomena, in the continuum of their manifold appearances, instead of letting them simply appear as objects. After all, not a thing is seen in its entirety at once, nor is it given to immediate intuition in its multiple visible aspects. Rather, things manifest their visible properties through a spatial-temporal continuum in the manifoldness of their appearing; hence,

unveiled authentic appearances conceal hidden potential appearances that are imagined. Vision is modulated by judgement, memory, discernment, comparative measure, and is principally saturated with imagining; in the sense that genuine immediate appearing is supplemented by imagined potential appearances through perceptual un-concealment. This phenomenon of vision, which is confirmed in

phenomenology of perception, and through the principles of optics (and in dioptrics and catoptrics), is manifest in experiencing architecture, its external surfaces and interiorised spaces... Architecture cultivates our perceptive potencies in the interplay between concealment and un-concealment, veiling and un-veiling, visibility and invisibility. Furthermore, its architectonics connect with our attuned detection of subtle proportions in physical reality, and facilitate their reflection a fortiori through nuanced proportional adjustments in terms of the production of spatial harmonics, scales, orders and ratios, through the formal modelling agency of geometry.

[Slide 2: The West-Bank Wall, cutting the Occupied Territories, 21st century]

Praxis The architectural is intertwined with the worldliness of humans at existential depths that ground the sequence of civilisation and the unfolding of its multifarious material cultures. Architecture is ultimately paradoxical in terms of its

accommodating nature and the manner it produces space and apportions its regions and localities. Architectural settings can allow for the improvement and betterment of the conditions of the built and natural environment in which they are emplaced; and, contrastingly, they could also hinder the emancipating possibilities of the milieu that interactively receives them. Architecture dialectically facilitates constructive societal evolutions, transformations, and edifications; or, in extreme opposite forms, it enables

the politico-economic practices of oppression.4

In making and use, architecture

serves instrumental functions that operatively reflect, perhaps, almost the entirety of the spectrum of human comportment, in its handsome and unhandsome expressions. Architecture serves opposites, anomalies and antinomies, it measures objectivism against relativism, with minimal adjustments in its spatial-materialformal qualities; and yet, it requires in praxis far more dramatic dialectical displacements of its signifiers, or a radical re-orientation of its shifting symbols. The phenomenon of the dividing-spacing apartheid-wall is a latent potency that preexists its actualised physical appearance; its construction is the objectified sign of the intensified hardening of the petrifying realities of tyranny, hate and conflict.

[Slide 3: Diego Riveras Detroit Industry, northern fresco; 1932-1933]

Tekhn The making of architecture, in its materiality, and in its spatial and formal qualities, is essentially channelled through the developmental workings of economics and the ever-evolving specifications of technology, with their differential and variegated manifestations in material culture. The question concerning the essence of technology, and its institutional-industrial entanglement with Capital, is also connected with reflections on being. Hence, from the technological standpoint,

interrogations about architecture relate again to ontology, and also to the epistemic conditioning of knowledge, via the powerful machinations of techno-science, of information processing technologies, and their impress on determining the measure of thought and organising labour. Investigating the cultural role of architecture is

consequently connected with epistemology, and with the (approximating) reflections

on truth and the conditions of its un-concealment through tekhn, scientific-artistic invention, or sapiential contemplation.5 The dominion of technical thinking about thought itself transforms the notion of contemplation into an instrumental tool of problem-solving, of utilitarian functionality. This power of technical ratiocination contrasts the picturing of thinking as useless or workless; not simply as what is malfunctioning and unworkable, but, more essentially, as what is lifted from the spheres of use and the commerce of work, amidst the loud cacophony, speed, and disarray in everydayness; especially in the flux of hasty acculturations within rapid inter-societal transitional epochs. This state of affairs does not point to tranquil absorptions in contemplation with solitary repose, which are not determined through productivity or the metaphysics of making, or that are overseen by technocrats, and organised under the superintendence of committees of bureaucracy and the directives of financiers. The picturing of objects in the world as ready and present at hand entities, as potencies of use, focuses on systems of handiness, of tools, instead of being primarily open to the lived worldliness of nourishment, of edible beings (nourritures).6 The cultivation of growing beings, of harvest, wherein the arrival of care endures, contrasts with the production of tools, the manufacturing of equipment, the erection of edifices in the arts of making and the precincts of procurement.

[Slide 4: Jacopo deBarbaris? Fra Luca Pacioli, ca. 1495]

Paideia ... Epistm The emphasis on quantificational technicalities, and their translation into the functional statistics of economic impact (resonating with the Capitalist consumerist culture), all are increasingly marginalising the traditional cultural roles of

architecture, and the conscious critical engagement of the architectural thinker with the humanities, arts and letters. The prevailing exemplars of education and

professionalism are articulated around reductive, fragmentary, and abstractive constructs, which are disconnected from the historical integrative-interpretations of the exact sciences and the visualisations of geometry, with their epistemic directives in the enactment of architecture. Furthermore, the educational investigation of

architecture and its connections with the profession, within mainstream university curricula, is not cultivated in the context of the unfolding of architectural thought in its outlooks on the cosmos, on beauty, goodness, truth, justice, law and governance. Yet, judging the intercultural role of architecture is contingent upon reflections that are external to the explicit preoccupations of architectural thinking. The

developments within 20th century philosophy, and its linguistic turn, facilitated the systemic replacement of Euclidean geometry with logic and algorithm as primary epistemic models; mainly evoking also the emergence of non-Euclidean geometries in the nineteenth century, and their integration in physics. Arithmetic and algebraic notations became more dominant than geometric visualisation in modelling reality. This state of affairs unfurled in parallel with the focus on the play of language in Continental philosophical thought, which shifted away from the exact sciences and the logical investigations of the Analytic school in philosophy. Textual

hermeneutics, literary analyses of narratives, the modulation of methodologies in decoding signifiers (semantics, semiotics, psychoanalysis), became emphasised in orientations that are detached from scientific visualisation as a mode of grasping reality. Historically, the textual served as a source of inspiration to the visual and plastic arts; particularly in its scriptural manuscripts and codices. This association with the letters was not separated from the classical epistemic role assigned to the

study of reality and nature via the agency of geometrical visualisations, or the belief in their veridical qualities in terms of securing a firm ground for the construction of rational knowledge. It might be argued indeed that linguistics, semiotics, and psychoanalysis constitute scientific disciplines that study signs and symbols, and can thus offer methodological directives in terms of investigating the structure of meaning in relation to architecture and its communicative cultural role. However, it is still unclear how a transition takes place from the focus on natural language, its grammatical structures, its interrelated systems of signs, and its modes of generating meaning, into the spheres of their applicability within architectural analytics. Even if such scientific disciplines can guide certain domains of research in architecture and its play of signifiers, their role cannot replace the need of architectural thought to be more directly engaged with the exact and mathematical sciences; and especially with fields focused on optics, mechanics, and geometry. This calls for thinking about the epistemic and conceptual dimensions that underpin the positivistic directions in the empirical and quantificational frameworks that guide architectural research, particularly in terms of exploring the techniques of construction, the systems of information technology, the sources of renewable energy, and the policies associated with urban planning. The theoretical text in our era is becoming the prime intellectual guide in understanding design drawings and maquettes (architectural models) and the manner they potentially translate into constructed-built forms and authorial agents of finesse and culture. The role once played by architectural thought and inquiry, in terms of contributing to the construction of knowledge and the understanding of natural phenomena (and even rethinking the problems of philosophy itself), through the

agencies of geometry, optics, mechanics, the visual and plastic modelling of space and objects, is replaced in contemporary architectural humanities with an overreliance on textual analysis, without sustaining the ancient gravity of the Word due to the apparent flight of divinities from modern secularised languages. These

circumstances reinforce the dominance of quasi-philosophical narratives on architectural theory. Architectural thinkers become seduced by the mimetic

emulation, in fragmentary forms, of the propositions of poststructuralists, postmodernists, and deconstructionists. This channels architectural theoretical

research on pathways that leave behind the historic role of being actively involved in scientific investigation, in geometric demonstration, in experimentations with technology, along with the refraction of these domains within the practicing of art and its expressive meditations on religion, its signifiers and symbols. The architect is increasingly unable to assume the role of being a genuine functionary of society, or an honest rational and poetising interpreter of its cultures, away from facile or dilettante intellectual appropriations from the humanities. Architecture as a

disciplinary profession of design and building, is haunted by current cultural insecurities in the search for epistemic and practical legitimacies. Confronted with this picture, we proceed by way of indecision; and yet, we abide by the matter to be thought; while also cautioning that a call for certainty in this regard constitutes an arrogation of our voice that invites scepticism!

[Slide 5: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, etching; ca. 1740s]

Exodus Phronsis Richness brims in inherited visual and scientific sources, literary texts, historical narratives, handed down over awe-inspiring monuments, vestiges,

vernacular settings; all revealing the complexities of the architectural manifestation of the decline, demise and fall of a people, as well as their collective renewal, rejuvenation and rise from the ruins. The names of cities become synonymous with the destinies of nations and civilisations, since the earliest dawns of history and its epochal appropriative determination of the horizons of our understanding of being. And yet, this outlook on the civitates orbis terrarum invites reflections on the relationship of the architectural with the natural, in terms of topology, or climatic and geographical determinants. On symbolic levels, the natural feeds also into the idea of the garden, the orchard, as a paradisiacal realm, which invokes also the image of nature as a temple; as a sacral sphere of romantic, poetic, mystical signifiers. Picturing the symbolism of sites of Revelation, of the Desert (Sinai...), the Island (Patmos...), the Mount (Jabal al-nr...), and the Cave (Ghr Hira...); along with the natural shrines of Gnostics and hermits; grottoes of apparitions; blessedblessing trees; ponds of purification; vast landscapes of atonement and redemption, spiritual meadows... All let architecture appear from afar in different lights (and at times with the impress of disquietude and sorrowful regret) as delicate pointers to the place where truth and beauty may be named!
[Slide 6: St. Simeon Stylites; Wellcome Library] To the placeless what are

east or west, north or south? To the homeless what cities or gardens do architects display? Sour-faced; does the alienated and deprived eye look with resentfulness or coveting? Lodging in the hidden, dwelling the unseen, being a temple of divinities; this is the journey of the self out of self; the cogito recoiling on itself in circumambulation; brought into the circling sphere; thinking with anguish about being-towards-death in the age of the abandonment of divinities, the advent of nihilism. Through territories of deranging desolation, the signs of remembrance, of

penitence and resurrection are sought in patient waiting, in fasting.

A liminal

clearing, a leeway, takes place in-between ecstasy and despair, weeping and laughing. The gaze is oriented towards an invisible salvific telos, as promised by antique soteriology and eschatology. At the summit of the Lebanon, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, a Levantine hermit carved his abode at the heart of a millennial Cedar tree! This image attracts meditations on hagiography, on the Holy; on Gnosis and mysticism drifting away in the drunkenness of Love from the logos of theology, the laws of the polis. In evoking the longing adoration of what presences in its absence more than all appearing actuality, we recollect the memory of the steadfast Syrian ascetic, St. Simeon Stylite (Mr Simn al-md; d. 459 CE), surviving for three decades on a small platform, ever abiding at the top of a pillar; there, in the vicinities of Aleppo, not too far from Antioch: For that the evil ones come here, and say, "Fall down, O Simeon: thou hast suffered long For ages and for ages!"7 The migrant pilgrim is summoned to return to quotidian life, to establish cities of words in toil and pain, with stone, mortar, masonry; elevating edifices that gather mortals, earth, heavens, divinities.8 Like the Prophets, Zarathustra descended from the mountain,9 and the dwellers on the summits of Olympus were called upon to edify a Republic, a Virtuous City (Madna fila)!
[Slide 7: Pieter Bruegels The Tower of Babel; ca. 1563] Enshrined in language,

the tongue stutters in encountering the ineffable (lindicible); for all may have been exhaustively said, and what remains un-thought is so ever shrinking; and with it, is


reduced the capacity of testimony, of veridical testament. In an epoch when the pursuit of transcendence is forsaken without the signs of immanence, thought may be in descent rather than ascent. No measure is sufficient or reliable in Babel! Lo to the tribes raising the Ziggurat in glory of man! The oldest of old, which follows behind us in thinking, cometh to meet us in the future! What we contemplated with mindfulness turned away from us. Thankfully, it mysteriously draws us along in the draft of its withdrawal.10


This present paper offers a dense account of complementary investigations that I conducted

elsewhere as noted in the list of selected publications below.


Ho hagios Sumen ho Stults. Saint Simeon Stylites; Wellcome Library (V00 17502;

Library reference: ICV No 17848, Iconographic collection: 44955i); Tempera on wood, 45.533cm; undated.
2 3

Appealing to Martin Heideggers Sein und Zeit. Heeding the phenomenological analysis of Edmund Husserl (Ideen I; Ding und Raum), of

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Phnomnologie de la perception; Le visible et linvisible), and Gaston Bachelard (La potique de lespace).
4 5 6 7 8 9

Considering the analytics of Michel Foucault (Les mots et les choses; Histoire de la folie). Paying homage to Jacques Derridas reflections in La vrit en peinture. Reflecting on Emmanuel Levinas Le temps et lautre. Evoking Lord Alfred Tennysons verses (St Simeon Stylite). Invoking Martin Heideggers parlance. Pointing to Friedrich Nietzsches tale. Recollecting the Mnemosyne verse of Johann Christian Friedrich Hlderlin.



Selected Publications Nader El-Bizri, 'Qui-tes vous Khra?: Receiving Plato's Timaeus', Existentia MeletaiSophias 11 (2001), 473-490 ___________, 'A Phenomenological Account of the Ontological Problem of Space', Existentia Meletai-Sophias 12 (2002), 345-364 ___________, 'Religion and Measure', Phenomenological Inquiry 27 (2003), 128-155 ___________, 'Ontopoisis and the Interpretation of Plato's Khra', Analecta Husserliana 83 (2004), 25-45 ___________, 'On kai khra: Situating Heidegger between the Sophist and the Timaeus', Studia Phaenomenologica 4 (2004), 73-98 ___________, 'La perception de la profondeur: Alhazen, Berkeley et Merleau-Ponty', OriensOccidens: Cahiers du centre d'histoire des sciences et des philosophies arabes et mdivales, C.N.R.S. 5 (2004), 171-184 ___________, 'A Philosophical Perspective on Alhazen's Optics', Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 15 (2005), 189-218 ___________, 'Uneasy Meditations following Levinas', Studia Phaenomenologica 6 (2006), 293-315 ___________, 'In Defence of the Sovereignty of Philosophy: al-Baghdadi's Critique of Ibn alHaytham's Geometrisation of Place', Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 17 (2007), 57-80 ___________, 'Imagination and Architectural Representations', in From Models to Drawings: Imagination and Representation in Architecture, eds. Marco Frascari, Jonathan Hale, Bradley Starkey (London: Routledge, 2007), 34-42 ___________, 'Le problme de l'espace: approches optique, gomtrique et phnomnologique', in Oggetto e spazio. Fenomenologia dell'oggetto, forma e cosa dai secoli XIII-XIV ai post-cartesiani, eds. Graziella Federici Vescovini and Orsola Rignani. Micrologus Library 24 (Firenze: SISMEL, Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2008), 59-70 ___________, 'Epistolary Prolegomena: On Arithmetic and Geometry', in Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. The Ikhwan al-Safa' and their Rasa'il: An Introduction, ed. Nader El-Bizri (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) ___________, 'Creative inspirations or intellectual impasses? Reflections on relationships between architecture and the humanities', in The Humanities in Architectural Design: A Contemporary and Historical Perspective, eds. Soumyen Bandyopadhyay, Jane Lomholt, Nicholas Temple and Rene Tobe (London: Routledge, 2010), 123-135