'Twas All in My Head – Reflections (and Frustrations)

Why can’t a building look like my head? Why is »taking on human characteristics« forbidden in architectural language? For that matter, and to zoom out on the architecture discourse, why is there a roadblock for making architecture by chaining signifiers, like how our mind works? Why wouldn’t architects want to develop buildings based on the thing that admires it? It is incredibly odd that humans making things for humans have an adverse relationship to humans; like an indifference to our bodies by massively reproducing frameworks that work best for steel, concrete, glass, and machines. This refusal of self-reflection by an architect – to discover a personal architecture – seems paradoxically to be also a refusal to step out from collective, Ozian masks. Or is it because there’s a fear that if architecture takes on human characteristics, architects will lose their capacity to make nice with novelty (sadly we all-too-often see it proliferate today by architects with »modern architecture’s technocratic machismo«)?[1] What is it about architecture directly relating to the human visage, that makes architects today so afraid, repulsed, and intimidated? From what I can see, there are infinite avenues of research, speculation, and design that could arise from the body and mind we carry around every day. And the architecture of the human and its sophisticated discourse is mostly unknown, yet has long maintained a latency in anthropomorphic art; a significant research area in which architecture seems to be deficient.

It could be said that anthropomorphism (human characteristics imbued in an nonhuman object) in art and storytelling cultivates myths indispensable to humanity. Consider the Chinese myth about how lightning came to be, a story handed down from generation to generation – here we find a myth that isn’t far from the popular scientific findings for how life on earth began. Bierlein tells a tale about the meaning of myths, »on first reading, the Chinese myth sounds quite primitive. It is anthropomorphic; that is to say, the characters are natural forces personified. The two elements that form lightning are referred to as ›emperors,‹ and chaos is portrayed in human form.«[2] The grandfather’s story is akin to other origin stories. They tell the story of how life began on earth, but these stories also act for something far greater. They become realized through human culture in many other forms, such as fiction, poems, songs, movies, and architecture. Except that for architecture the value of anthropomorphism has been left out, even though it has such a long and illustrious importance throughout history. Simple symbolism has popped up in architecture fairly frequently, from the fairy tale of the old woman that lived in a shoe, to Robert Venturi’s and Denise Scott Brown’s Duck, the gardens of Bormarzo (»The Monster Park«), and Gehry’s and Oldenberg’s Chiat/Day building (notice how the architect was not allowed to make the binoculars; it had to come from an artist). But you have to look hard, long ago, and in another cultural context, to find the anthropomorphism in architecture; for instance the Adspectus Incauti Dispendium (The Cost of Careless Looking) by Jan David in 1601, a woodblock print title page showing a medieval town with »a house in the shape of a head, with a skeleton climbing up a ladder through a window, and is accompanied by captions in Latin, Flemish, and French.«[3]

To me, Jan David’s head-house is much more than allusive and symbolic, it is a weird building, never before allowed in architecture. It is also an anomaly in the urban fabric, a singularity of irony and specimen from a dreamland that humbly stands outside of trend-setting modern or »Heroic & Ordinary (H&O)« architecture.[4] On the one hand, the irony and paradox with this structure is familiar to the freak, the eccentric, such as »Nanook the Massive,« the »Lilliputian Village« with 300 dwarves, the many other side shows at Dreamland on Coney Island.[5] On the other hand, this structure could certainly be used to demonstrate rare wit in architectural language. Here is something raw that deserves to be researched further. And my frustration with the lack of these studies is endless. A dramatic demonstration of this would be Peter Weiss’s 1964 play, Marat/Sade in which it is unclear whether the inmates of the asylum are talking to themselves, »the insane,« or if they are directly talking to the audience, »the sane.«[6] This obviously creates a disturbing affect, both when the fourth wall (by the way, architectural language appropriated) is broken and because it draws into question who is the sane one – the audience or the players. There is a slight slippage in reality to these studies reminiscent of the effect of the uncanny valley, which can be seen in Bunraku Puppets. These puppets demonstrate the relative loss of believability and association when animatronic or humanoid robots look and move almost, but just not quite, in the same way as humans. The irony created by these various kinds of anthropomorphism are not only intriguing, but they also seem to be a bit mysterious and perplexing – » … a violation of the brain’s predictions. When we anticipate one thing but see another, we get an error, and that error makes us shy away from the thing we’re viewing.«[7]

The idea of an anthropomorphic art suggests the appropriation of concepts and tools from the applied sciences, especially of the biological functions and anatomical allusions. It also suggests that the processes, functions and outputs are not »pretty« things; in fact they are necessarily abject. When Wim Delvoye created his digestive machine Cloaca, he was forcing us to see, through sterile machines and commercial advertising, the abject horror that we all experience in daily life through our biological processes.[8] This idea, of conflating artistic production with human production in art wasn’t new, the Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit) in 1961, canned his own shit and displayed it in the gallery on a shelf. »Thus, what distinguishes Merda d’artista from the whoopee cushion is, not surprisingly, discourse. It is a gesture … didactic to the degree that it teaches ›by irony and epigram, by cunning and by shock.‹«[9] This work might also appear metaphorical to the process of creating art. Sigmund Freud understood art making as a sublimated anal drive, »In the infantile imagination, feces, the first thing a child produces, also counts as a primordial gift.« Projecting this idea onto human introspection via biological research, Delvoye developed this idea, art as the production of feces, into machines that replicated the digestive tract of the human body, beginning with the digestion of food all the way through to the output of waste. »Purest nightmare or fondest desire, we all dreamed of it; Delvoye has made it. After eight years of collaboration with a team of experts in fields as diverse as gastroenterology, computer technology, and plumbing, the Belgian artist debuted his defecation machine . . .«[10] This artwork was developed as research into the human body, and through artistic representation that appropriated the complexity of the biology of the body and the sympathetic discourse with the humanities to reconsider how we understand our own organism. Ultimately, the science becomes subsumed and surpassed through the intent of the work. Likewise, however instead through anatomical allusions, Matthew Barney also addressed ideas of anthropomorphism throughout The Cremaster Cycle:

The Cremaster Cycle takes as its point of conceptual departure the male cremaster muscle, which controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The cycle circulates around anatomical conditions of ›ascension‹ or ›descension‹ to metaphorically describe the evolution of form through biological, psychosexual, and morphological allusions. Barney’s Cremaster Cycle is an intricately interrelated symbolic system: the locations, character, prosthetic effects, costumes, and sets portray an ever-evoling organism that thrives through competition with itself.[11]

What appears in The Cremaster Cycle is a sort of self-recursive personal evolution, constant developments in Barney’s work that shape-shifts and is always coming of age. It could be said that this anthropomorphism is an internal focus for Barney, the subject, as a way for him to negotiate his surroundings.

There have been many artworks with a concept around the abject and forms of representations made to purport »all sorts of phenomena that have to do simultaneously with disgust and fascination.«[12] Of course Julia Kristeva was greatly inspired by Georges Bataille’s Abjection and Miserable Forms: »When excreta are held too long in the bowels, they are not however the object of any positive appeal . . .«[13] The abject seems to appear to Bataille as the tension that arrives in the negation of an imperative act; that there may be acts that have to happen, to be released, where eroticism can occur from negating an immediate release. This emphasis on the tension of delaying an imminent production, perhaps a creative act, as opposed to positivist outputs for the sake of production, seems like a productive territory that architectural discourse has generally been longing for. In addition, this is what has produced creative singularities in culture. People who feel the tension in the cultural fabric, and have deliberated on those problems to an unknowable, intensive creative production – this is special.

Alas, there actually have been a few obscure architects in history that have worked on these ideas of anthropo/zoomorphic architecture. For example Guy Rottier’s L’Architecture en Liberte, which includes the Maison Antti Lovag, an »aluminum housing project for habitologue Antti Lovag,« in the shape of the architect’s head.[14] Another example, although this time an animal (elephant) is zoomorphically transformed for human function, is a series of outsider-designer structures: Charles Ribart’s architecture proposal for the Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon Bonaparte’s monument the Elephant of the Bastille, and James Lafferty’s patented novelty Elephantine Colossus. These examples (although ranging in intentionality of architectural value) transform architecture through a likeness and animality, primarily through their novelty in a relatively banal urban context. This also stands in contradistinction to Robert Venturi’s and Scott Brown’s Duck because of the outsider-designer’s use of space and the narrative I have imbued upon it. The structure’s functions were however a definitive limit to the sophistication of the architecture: the first a sign of conquest, the second a monument to power, and the third a hotel for leisure. The last example was only just poking through the architectural egg when it mysteriously caught fire and burned down after being repurposed as a brothel. Imagine that: a hollow elephant form is designed to satisfy human’s innate psychological desire for pleasure and is intentionally burned down for its abject humanity and precocious immorality. I guess in the end, weird »[a]rchitecture must blaze.«[15]

[1] Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour. Learning From Las Vegas, Revised Edition. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977). 150

[2] J.F. Bierlein: Parallel Myths. New York1994, pp. 3–6.

[3] Jean Luc Baroni LTD: Master Paintings and Drawings. Status:: October 30, 2014.

[4] Learning From Las Vegas, revised edition. p. 129.

[5] Kevin Baker: Dreamland. New York 1999. p. 5.

[6] Peter Weiss: Marat/Sade. Long Grove, IL 2001.

[7] Elizabeth Landau: Why zombies, robots, clowns freak us out. Status: September 20, 2014.

[8] Wim Delvoye. Cloaca. Status:November 9, 2014.

[9] John Miller. Excremental Value. Status: September 23, 2014.

[10] Jean-Pierre Criqui. Eater’s Digest. Status: June 30, 2013.

[11] Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle. Status: November 1, 2014.

[12] Julia Kristeva in conversation with Sylvere Lotringer. Status: September 15, 2014.

[13] Georges Bataille: »Abjection and Miserable Forms« in: More & Less. New York 2001. p. 12.

[14] Guy Rottier. ARCHITECTURE en LIBERTE. Status: October 31, 2014.

[15] Coop Himmelblau. Architecture must blaze. Accessed October 30th, 2014.