Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Architecture is (as) a gesture - on 'authenticity' as an architectural criterion by Bart Verschaffel

Only a couple of years have passed since the artist and architect Donald Judd has denounced his 'colleagues' Philip Johnson and Helmut Jahn and their architecture because they supposedly are not 'real' or 'serious' enough. They are not 'real' or their architecture is not 'real' or 'serious' – unlike some of the recent developments in music and dance – because they are only out there to make a profit; their architecture is just 'naked fashion', and they have completely forgotten the 'original purpose'. And most architects do not do much better. 'Almost all socalled architects are now openly commercial...now the only purpose is money and success.' 'Real architects', 'real architecture', with the adjective 'real' functioning here as a synonym for serious – authentic? - architecture.

The 'real', the 'authentic', the 'sincere'; are they all bastard children of the lost, vanished 'Truth'? How are these categories to be used? A sculpture, a piece of music or a building can be well-structured, intelligent, interesting or exciting, but can it possibly be true or untrue, 'real' or 'unreal'? What does it matter whether the artist or writer cheats, whether he quickly cooks up something, whether he makes things in order to have success, earn money, seduce and please power? And the reverse question is even more valid: what does it matter whether someone is honest and sincere, whether he only creates or writes things because of art's sake and whether his work is 'authentic' or 'real'? The work has to be evaluated, not its creator. If something is bad, it is bad; and if something is good, it is good. 'Authencity' as a criterion is furhtermroe totally ineffective: what do you have to know before you can decide – in the case of Johnson for example – whether the artist actually means what he says or does? Forget it; the best solution seems to be that we interpret the word 'authenticity' in a very strict sense. A work is real or authentic if the person who has signed it or to whom it is attributed, is the actual creator. A real Picasso is a Picasso made by Picasso. There is an empirical solution to this problem. Basta.

Non Basta. As a guest who once was invited and now refues to leave – though he is no longer wanted -, the category of 'authenticity' has remained with us in our thinking on art and architecture. There is a certain obstinacy to the awkward, seemingly old-fashioned problem of authenticity that already becomes apparent when we consider the near impossibility to evaluae or think about art and architecture without paying our dues to the category of kitsch; i.e. the category of the objectively truthful. It goes without saying that kitsch can function in a dandyyesque strategy, where the lie serves as an alibi for a furtive and desperatre search for truthfulness now turned impossible in times where the 'real' no longer can show itself immediately. It is also obvious that no one can really fathom artists like Johnson, Kahn and Koons. But apart from the existential logic in which kitsch may fit, it remains in itself and on a 'structural' level a lie. The inveractiy or falseness of kitsch cannot be directly linked with the (still to be qualified) moral intentions or feelings of its creator, audience or user. It refers to the quality of different relations operation with the work, for which the relation between the emperical creator and a work, and the lies and deeit of specific persons can act as a model, or function as a metaphor.

The impossibility of thinking about art without the notion of kitsch – which implies the notion of the inherently untruthful – forces us to try to determine the opposite of kitsch. What are the characteristics of the 'real' or the truthful? What determines it? In 'real' work without making it definitely dependent on morally qualifiable positions or emotions of those who are involved with the work as creator, spectator or user. We will concern ourselves here with the description of the 'structure of authenticity'. Let us try out a hypothesis: that what is 'objectively truthful', the figure of 'authenticity', that which becomes affected by the abstract and cumulative values of 'money and success', is (as) the gesture.

* * * * *

The nineteenth century 'pines away under the weight of the ugliness of all things' and bourgeois architecture is a lie. 'Nothing appearned anymore in its essential, true and convincing form.' For its pioneers, modern design and architecture settles the score withthe nineteenth century in turning into a quest of essential, truthful and convincing objects and houses. In his 'Pages de doctrine' Henry van de Velde recollects an early memory from his childhood which explains his search for new forms and his esthetic and ethic dejection of houses, filled with thousand garrulous objects that 'fail our ezes and minds'. 'And although I have not been raised in such a smug environment, I nevertheless remember well how I suffered in my parental home. It was impossible for me to become attached to any object because none of them adapted themselves so naturally, so plainly well to their assigned goal as the domestics; the maids and the servants.' In this passage, Van de Velde formulates his known aversion to frivolity, to arbitrary and ostentatious styles in a most revealing way. His models for the good and suitable presence and efficacity of architecture is connected with the memory of how well maids and servants blended with life in the parental – not exceedingly rich but well-off boiurgeois – environment. Houses must be helpful and discrete, like servants. 'I loved them, because they were so plain and natural, and they humbly did the task they had taken upon themselves with their real being and true feelings.' Van de Velde writes that once cannot attach oneself to objects that do not possess this authenticity.

Words like 'plain', 'natural', 'real' and 'true' are used in this context. Van de Velde is not the first nor the only architect who, on te fringes of his own middle-class life, finds out that he has lost a certain authencity and immediacy and that these can be retrieved by the right kind of architecture or work. There are many architects who shared those views without necessarily agreeing on what this right kind of architecture should be like. In his famous opening pages of his essay 'Architektur', Loos compares the work of the farmer and craftsman with that of the architect. Go to the mountain lkae, and look at the houses, farms and chapels, notice the beauty and the quiet and then see how the villa of the architect (no matter whether it is good or bad) defaces the landscape. 'A dischord amidst this harmony, like an unnecessary scream.' It is no coincidence that Loos uses the image of the scream disturbing the harmony, the silence. Good houes do not need many words. It is furthermore no coincidence that farmers or craftsmen are important for this comparison. Those people have larned not to speak learnedly, and do not need to pretend. The craftsman 'konnte sich nicht viel um Bücher kümmern' (could not be concerned a lot about books). It comes natural to him not to mince words. The farmer's houses or those of the craftsmen; these servant-like houses are true, not because they say something but because they say nothing; they are taciturn and 'discrete'. 'He makes the roof. What kind of a roof? A beautiful or an ugly one? He doesn't know. The roof.' Adjectives only enfeeble things, too much talking splits everything up. For Van de Velde this has in fact become a criterion. 'Go stand in front of any monument, facade, piece of furniture, jewelry, porcelain, or even a lamp and then try to describe accurately what you have seen.' The more words you have to use, the less trustworthy the thing will turn out to be. 'If that monument, facade or cupboard is all that; if I have to use all those words to describe a soup bowl, a tabletop or chandelier, than that monument is not fit to serve the purpose for which it was erected; that facade cannot be linked to a building; and that cupboard cannot be a cupboard, and nothing that I have found beautiful so far is as it should be.' That which aims at its 'true goal', its 'true destination', is, as the servant, totally orientated towards its task. It is strong and essential and it coincides with itself. 'A cupboard, a cupboard'; 'a roof, a roof.' Naked substantive, substance, essence.

The fact that it is impossible for architecture not to be ostantatious (and ultimately incongruous) is explained by Loos with a reference to the new barbarism. The architect lives in the city, hence he is 'uprooted', and has lost 'the balance between the interior and the exterior man' which makes up for 'culture'. This diagnosis can hardly be called original, any more than this longing for the unbroken, untouched life that harbors not doubts nor modernity. The bourgeois consciousness is an unhappy one. The longing, however, for authenticity and genuineness that resonates with this consciousness, is so widespread, so irritatingly familiar, that it remains important. But what is this thing that the farmer has and not the architect, what is it that the farm has not the villa of the architect? Just as the lies of man serve as a modefl for the structure of kitsch, the lives of farmers and servants serve as models for the 'real' or the 'authentic'.

'Our live and work is somewhat impious – I cannot find a better word for it. Am I a pious person? No. But a certain 'life piety' can be found in a rough miserly small farmer, in a godless desperado like a horse thief or in the painest sailor. It can go together with the most extreme lowness; absolute faith in a gin bottle can also be a religion'. (Von Hoffmansthal)

'Life piety', pietas seems to mark plain people and their lives automatically. How can a man – a farmer, a sailor and consequently also a house – be 'pious' without any religion? Wittgenstein, who wanted to escape philosophy by remaining silent and evading the world as a school master, a gardener or a hermit, not only contrived and built a house, but also wrote down 'Vermischte Bemerkungen' (mixed comments) on architecture. According to him, 'all architecture glorifies something'. 'Architecture both immortalizes and glorifies something. This is why there cannot be any architecture where there is nothing to glorify something and that it really, at least in the eyes of its builder, is a gesture. But with this characterization of (good?) architecture as a 'gesture' or a 'glorification' Wittgenstein gives modern architecture very consciously the 'spiritual' task to become a 'true', clear and quiet presence close to the elementary things of life (eating, sleeping, hiding, touching, sheltering yourself). This presence should contradict the predominant modernity of the dance of signs, of the cynical nakedness of money and of the mirror labyrinth of 'information'. Architecture is a gesture. Not every purposive movement of the human body is a gesture. And not every functional building is architecture.'

These statements of Wittgenstein may sound unmodern. We still are used to calling architecture 'modern' when it resigns from its representative function and/or when it claims some functionality or finality for its construction or use. For Loos and many others only the engineer for example can be compared to the farmer and carpenter since his building is purely based on the knowledge of available means and a precise understanding of the objectives. The architect, who has the urge to do more than plain and pragmatic building, precisely alientates himself from the 'real' architecture because of that. But Wittgenstein's gesture-architecture, for which rationality, 'Klarheit' and 'Durchsichtigkeit' is a 'Selbstzweck' and no means to an end, is not the opposite of the 'modern' architecture of purposive, useful, pragmatic or 'functional' houses and buildings. There is even more than purely external, formal affinity. In early modernist thought, the basic notion of usefulness and purposiveness is not linked to the really modern, industrial-economical notion of usefulness and benefit. The model for 'usefulness' was the servant. The farmer and the carpenter are not like the engineer, but the engineer is like the farmer and the carpenter: his work is familiar to the work of those for whom work is still a gesture.

* * * * *

Every act for which only the result counts is exchangeable. When a well-defined goal has to be reached, there are always other possible alternatives. When a picture has to be hung on a wall, you can use a hammer to hit the nail on the wall, or you could use a stone, or you could screw a hooknail into the wall, etc. It is the result that matters. The act 'itself' has no value. Hitting a nail in the wall is therefore not a gesture.

The opposite of the purely instrumental praxis is the ritual act. A ritual consists of a strictly ordered succession of acts that have to be performed according to prescribed rules and conditions. 'For a ceremony, the careful and faultless execution is of major importance. It must be executed completely according to the rules of the many rites, recitations and songs. The result is important, but it is merely significant within the context of the ritual. It can only be reached when it is executed according to the way prescribed by the ritual.' In a ritual it is not important to reach a certain result or to communicate a certain message, but rather to perform the known prescribed acts coorectly or to speak the right words. Within this context you would only make fire by for example rubbing two wooden sticks together; it would be unthinkable to use a match. The precise goal of these ritual acts has almost been forgotten, but people know exactly how to build an altar, how to bury someone, how to clean someone's body etcetera, and those are the things upon which all attention is focused. The importance of this highly essential accuracy is unclear – why three fire altars and not four? - but when things are not executed as prescribed, 'it' does not work. And it is absolutely uncertain that this 'it' may be, except precisely following the rules. In a ritual, purposiveness has faded away and only exists on a formal level. Frits Staal writes that the ritual 'has no sense, goal or meaning'. As alternatives are unthinkable, the act itself has value. Since these rites are empty in a certain sense, you cannot account for them personally, nor can they be interpreted or appropriated. Participating in a ritual dissolves everything personal. You can only repeat it, no personal matters can be communicated or alluded to. As the ritual is essentially a repetition, it installs cyclic time, links the present to an ever more essential 'beginning', and in that way it neutralizes (secular) time.

Between the instrumental act and the ritual which, in western culture at least, has almost completely been incapsulated by religion, there is a third act which cannot be reduced to the other two: the 'gesture'.

The gesture – for example greeting people or pouring wine – is a clear purposive act that is a part of life and accepted as 'normal'. Greeting is not outside of 'secular time', it is no ritual. But is also not an instrumental act. It is not the result that counts when you greet somene. The gesture, as Wittgenstein observes, is not directed towards a final result. The gesture, as Wittgenstein observes, is not directed towards a final result. The instrumental orientation – to make clear that someone is welcome, or to give somebody a drink – is just one and fairly external aspect of the act. Using Aristotelian terms, you could say that greeting someone correctly is not a technique but an art.

Greeting is not a ritual, greeting correctly or pouring wine is not dependent on a series of precise rules, but at the same time you cannot greet someone just anyhow. Greeting someone or pouring wine cannot be invented all over again. 'We', people who live in the same culture, greet one another or pour wine for one another, in a certain, familiar way. There is something obligatory about those acts, and it is not a set of rules. The gesture is an act that relates to a known and familiar form (i.e. a convention, a formality), which determines the act, just like a music score or theatre text determines a performance. The 'score' for greeting someone is not a model that you can or must repeat. The gesture is always a rendition of a given and existing form, i.e. the gesture always follows what is given, but at the same time it constantly interprets.

The gesture is an assignment, a task you measure yourself up to, just like a musician and his score, you compete with yourself and others. There is a certain personal obligation to greet people correctly, pour a drink the in the right way. 'Correctly' means here 'appropriate', 'convincing'. 'Appropriate' can be defined by 'successfully relating to the given form' and 'convincing' means as much as 'personal', 'attentive' or 'with maximum effort'. There are various levels of committment and perfection for a gesture and they form the basis on which every gesture is judged. 'Perfect' does not mean that the gesture is completely in accordance with the rules. A gesture can only be perfect or flawless in the way in which an actor's or a musician's interpretation can be perfect; not as a mere repetition but as a faultless, impressive interpretation in which both the score (or the part) and the performer (or the actor) are very much present.

The qualifications 'appropriate', 'convincing', 'impressive' refer to the inherently theatrical character of the gesture: it is a performance; a form of theatre that can be evaluated and appreciated as such. All these criteria are not relevant for a ritual. This is why for example the act of baptizing – when it is correctly done – always 'works': it is independnet of the style or inner life of the priest. It speaks for itself that you can consider a ritual as a performance and stylize it in such a way that the 'performance' of a certain priest is more convincing than that of one of his colleagues, but that would be concentrating on one of the non-essential aspects of the ritual. A ritual can and must be interpreted or performed 'personally'. A ritual is never the act of someone: the performer disappears in the act, the personal element dissolves or, if you like, becomes exonerated. Neither is the purely instrumental act a performance. An instrumental act is not formal and in that sense it is always spontaneous and direct. There are of course certain habits, certain ways in which to do things, but no one relates to these examples as to given forms that have no identifiable origin but are to be executed following the rules. There is nevertheless a peculiar lack of anything 'personal' in a 'spontaneous' instrumental act. You may do certain practical things in your own way, or invent new ways to do it, but even then you are not yourself 'present'. And no one will ever consider your 'personal creativity' as an act of tedious impertinence; it will not be looked upon as an attempt to ignore or destroy the collective heritage of convention or culture.

To greet someone correctly is a commitment; you immerse yourself completely in the 'form' of greeting. He who performs the act is totally differently involved than during a ritual or an instrumental act. Throughout the gesture the personal presence remains emphasized. A gesture is always somebody's gesture. But it is essential that the personal element does not appear immediately within the gesture. It is not 'naked'; it always relates to an already given form. A person 'puts a lot of himself' in the gesture, but the gesture is not the immediate, spontaneous expression of his highly personal, intimate,unique personality. In a gesture the person is very much present and deeply involved, although he is concentrating not on himself but to something else. Compare it to the way an actor during his acting or a musician during his performance is more concentrated and more attentively present than when he is walking down a street just being himself. In the gesture the subjective or the 'Self' is very discreetly present, as if it is dressed or has gloves on; it is not visible and it is silent. The very personal has become here a private matter. During the gesture the personal element is only discreetly present: it fills the form completely without breaking it. Quite the opposite: every successful, totally appropriate act of greeting or pouring wine shows at the same time the personal element – circuitously because of the form, i.e. indirectly, detached, slowly – and confirms and glorifies the form.

As an interpretation of a certain formality, part or music score, the personal element is always a 'servant' to what is already there, to what everybody considers common property. The formality of pouring wine, presenting a meal, greeting someone or enjoying friendship is already there and common knowledge. The gesture that relates to the appropriate formality is something that we could describe as 'commonplace'. The gesture is common property, a priori familiar and clear to everyone. A 'lieu commun' (a commonplace) as Anne Cauquelin writes, is also always a 'lien commun' (a social bond). In every gesture the personal appears, while every gesture confirms at the same time something collective – the form(ality) – that is commonly known and kept and which forms the basis on which people understand one another. On the surface every gesture is of course directed towards a goal or a result – one slices bread in order to have sliced bread – but at the same time the gestures sinks to the bottom of daily life and amplifies – 'glorifies' – it. It confirms and amplifes that with which one identifies. Whens omeone wants to greet another person or pur wine in a totally new, original, 'personal' way, his or her act becomes incomprehensible, it destroys itself. He or she is simply not able any more to really greet someone. The act becomes a mirror in which an immediate naked 'Self' appears. The act turns into a pure act of self-affirmation and stops being a gesture. The desire itself to stand personally close to the beginning or the origin of a gesture, to put oneself above the commonplace or the formal, perverts the gesture and makes it an obscene manifestation of destructive vanity.

One can imagine a life that entirely consists of a series of gestures, or better still: a life form that is fundamentally a 'gesture'. The prototype is of course a life that is principally and explicitly detached from all earthly objectives. In the life of a monk for instance, even the most elementary utilarian acts – e.g. working the land – are fundamentally a 'gesture'. Monks who work the land do not do this for the sake of a ritual – they want to harvest – but at the same time this harvest is and is not their main concern. This is why automatized agriculture, where less monks at the control panel can gather in a double harvest, is not a neutral alternative for their work. 'Work' here carries an ancient form, the labour itself has its own value; it is always a gesture. But there are also non-principal, 'secular' variants for this life form where there is neither a very basic orientation to the result, nor an explicit affirmation of the own identity. Which brings us back again to the work of the plain sailors or the horse thieves of Hoffmansthal, the farmers and carpenters of Loos or Van de Velde's servants.

Close to the edge of bourgeois culture – which judges the result of every work according to the degree of profit, power, money or calculated pleasure it gains – the mythical (for totally 'different') figure of the plain man appears. He plays his known and understandable part on the stage of the world in a suitable and convincing way. The carpenter only wants to be a good carpenter, and make a good roof: he simply cannot make a worthless or fancy roof just to earn a lot of money or make good impression. Those goals – money, success – are simply not his concern. He wants to show and confirm what a good roof is and what a carpenter is. 'This modern nervous vanity was foreign to the old masters' nature. Forms were dictated by tradition. They did not change the forms. But they could not loyally use these given, sanctified, traditional forms in all circumstances. New assignments changed the form, rules were broken and new forms came into being. The people in those days however were one with the architecture of their time.' The carpenter is a man of character. He is not ambiguous, he is completely immersed int he work that he has agreed to do. This attitude, the life piety of a trade that is attributed to the ancient world, has escaped bourgeois culture and its architects, and hence has become an ideal.

The servant is a stranger to bourgeoisie consciousness precisely since the latter has no role to play in the world theatre. The bourgeois consciousness itself is a way to relate deceptively to all these roles. Within the bourgeois world a gesture is always just a means to an end and it is a mask. It can be of service in a life where everything is ultimately directed towards neutral, abstract, capitalized values like power, possession or potential pleasure and which ultimately declares every tangible goal invalid. The bourgeoisie consciousness swaps parts, it never immerses in its act since every part is always interpreted with the desire to play a different, better part later. The carpenter really wants more or become someone different: a rich man for example with a lot of money and success. In this context he is no longer concerned with the roof, and his carpentry is no longer a 'gesture'.

The 'life piety' of (life as) a gesture is alien to the bourgeois mentality, but at the same time it becomes an ideal. Out of the agony of lies and false conventions this admiration for sailors and servants is born, a romantic adoration for the People with whom the artist tries to enter a pact, an analysis of 'real' life – a life for which one has to build – composed out of the elementary acts of eating, looking, moving and sleeping. This agony also wakes up the desire to become a 'builder' instead of an architect, the desire for 'craftsmanship', that serves as a model for the intellectual activity of writing, painting, designing...The lie gives rise to the desire for the real and the true, and both are at the same time always 'simple': clear, plain, distinct...

When this permanent 'double' attitude towards the formal -i.e. both as a means and a mask – prohibts one to confirm or amplify commonplaces (since they are perceived as untrue), when one neither can choose the side of the carpenter or the servant, there is just one alternative: originality and /or genius, the 'aesthetic negation of the bourgeois mentality'. When one is oneself the beginning or source, forms of expression can be conceived of, even new forms can be created that have nothing to do with the existing old forms, and therefore become entirely 'new', vibrating with 'genuineness'. Opposed to deceitful formality and lost life piety there is 'genius' or, in its later, democratic version, spontaneity. Genius is real and authentic, or – in a reduced version – the spontaneous or informal is real and authentic. Everybody is original, is a genius, is an artist... The genius, the artist, the poet tries to 'speak anew' and to make – from the heart, in sudden bursts of creativity – original forms that are at the same time very personal and immediately become 'form' – universal, generally human, eternally accessible. In the best cases this strategy works, in the worst and most common cases one makes a spectacle of oneself and only an highly inflated ego appears. All by yourself, Loos writes, it is impossible to invent 'forms' – commonplaces.

When one cannot live as a servant, when you can no longer live with the servants, one can – with Van de Velde – long for a house that is as a servant. Bourgeois, modern life can imagine an environment and a house that is not bourgeois, not dissociated and deceitful, that does not stir 'feelings of deep unrest' suddenly changing into an 'intense disklike' and 'a great sadness'. It is possible to counter the agony of time passing and private feelings of bourgeois schizophrenia and artificiality one cannot escape, with comfort to be found in a house or in objects, the first environment where nothing is contaminated with duplicity, falseness, or simulation. To build a non-bourgeois, modern house is possible. But this dream of modern architecture, that wants to build against the bourgeois mentality, may perhaps be less 'modern' than it pretends or thinks itself to be. Affiliating with modern age and its techniques, rejecting monstrous and frivolous forms produced bz an overheated imagination, and choosing for concise, rational living and building, can perhaps not be summed up by the will to be modern, but rather by the desire to give genuine modern life an environment that does not reflect its own age, but rather the life of the servant. The modern movement is maybe sooner an incarnation of a resistance against modernity – a resistance that is itself inherently part of modernity – rather than a push towards the essential things of life like eating, sleeping, moving, breathing, looking, keeping silent etc., which are apparently part of 'nature' and not of history, has to lead to a 'truth', an authenticity, a 'true being' that gives the unhappy bourgeois consciousness space and a place to rest. For bourgeis culture, Adorno writes, functionality is in the first place dreaming of a thing that 'has lost its coldness': objects that have found their objective, are 'saved from being just one thing'. The concise, functional architecture that relates to 'life', is not a way to bring time close to oneself, but rather to retrieve the lost 'gesture'. When Van de Velde models his architecture on the servant who 'has naturally adapted himself to the objective for which he is used', he is not thinking of the unsurpassed, machine-like functionality of servants, but rather of those who 'do the task they have taken upon themselves with their real being and true feelings'. Funcitonality is here a metaphor that has turned literal, 'a ting turned human, the reconciliation of objects, that do not isolate themselves from man and no longer bring him shame.' Art is revolutionary, set in the future, but the house is conservative – but Loos does not refer to the 'past': he uses 'Gegenwart'. Presence, present. The roof.

Good architecture does not resemble us but only slightly, it is not a contribution to modern age, but a way to accept and endure modernity. Good architecture has 'life piety', like the servant; not the slave of exchange, money or success. Architecture as a gesture then, a variation on the already given score of the house's 'form', as the proud and confident confirmation of the commonplace house like a child would draw it. 'Ordinary, but with a reference to its original power. However weak that reference may be, it is the commonplace that holds it down. It rendes it debatable and accessible, without this property losing itself in the distant reflections of a refined high culture. The commonplace is a protection of, but also against, the great emotions. It resists rational one-sidedness. Common and popular, without referring to national customs or tradition, as interpreted in heimat literature, but rather to the universal sense of the word which Marx used for his concept of the proletariat, i.e. that part of the population that is not only oppressed but for which the immdiacy of life, the commonplace, the tradition of the ordinary, the experience of daily life with all its banality and singularity, its life and death, predominations any cultural expression'. (Geert Bekaert)


'Archictuur is (als) een gebaar'. Over het 'echte' als architecturaal criterium', was published in: Hilde Heynen (ED.), Wonen tussen gemeenplaats en poezie. Opstellen over stad en architectuur, Rotterdam, Uitgeverij 010, 1993, pp. 67 – 80. Translated from the Dutch by Jeroen Olslaegers.


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