Alan Colquhoun, “From Bricolage to Myth, or How to Put Humpty-Dumpty Together Again,” 1978.
Alan Colquhoun’s essay about Michael Graves’s work, accompanied by Hays’s essay intro, should be used as a core sampling of the theoretical and ideological levels in the postmodern debate. On one level, it is a fascinating, if tedious, reading of Graves’s architecture, separating it into an early, volumetric, ‘post-Corbusian’ period, and a mature later period based on the play of solid and negative and historical signs. On another level, this analysis is semiotic architecture theory at its best, ‘reading’ Graves’s work as a composition of signifiers distinguished by the seriousness of its content and the number of ‘languages’ he incorporated over time. On yet another level, Hays explains that Colquhoun is a mythologizer par excellence, indiscriminately assimilating Graves’s architectural decisions into historical and ideological contexts and vice versa.
Already, those of you who have read other posts from this series may suspect the arguments we are dealing with: semiotics, meaning and signs, therefore language, criticism, and mythification—issues prevalent in recent essays. Check out the review of Silvetti’s essay about criticism and commentary and myth, and Roland Barthes’s original essay “Myth Today” for a brush up.
Colquhoun begins his analysis of Graves’s work with a loose analogy between it and criticism, defined as occupying “the no-man’s-land between enthusiasm and doubt, poetic sympathy and analysis.” Criticism “must try to get behind the work’s apparent originality and expose its ideological framework without turning its into a mere tautology.” Obviously the first thing to come to mind is Foucault’s definition of “criticism” employed by Silvetti to define his criticism from within, a definition that notes criticism’s attack point at the origin of ideological production. According to Colquhoun, Graves’s work is just about in that no-man’s-land, enthusiast and doubtful, poetic and analytical.
Graves’s is early work is an experiment in the architectural (not visual) lessons of Modernism, at once French (á la Corbusier) and International (á la Terragni), as well as markedly Cubist. The work (the essay discusses primarily residential architecture from the ‘60s) is obsessed with the Plan—inherited from the Beaux Arts tradition through Corbusier—and the vertical plane—inspired by Terragni—as ways of exploring traditional notions of ‘house,’ deconstructing it in a layered, overlapping, “adumbrated” way that compels the reading of Cubist influence. Spaces and volumes are insinuated rather than ‘enclosed,’ while their overall composition is orchestrated by Graves’s beliefs about man and nature and the nature of ‘house,’ as an idea. (Or so Colquhoun would have us believe.)
On the other hand, Graves’s later work is better described as ‘carving space out of solids.’ This is the era of the Portland Building, feels as heavy as the early period feels light, and is more obviously composed of signs. It is this idea of Graves’s work being an evolving meta-language of signs that drives Colquhoun’s reading, in turn bringing us closer to semiotics, language, signifiers, and “meaning”—that is, into the realm of the pop culturists and semiotic architecture.
At first glance, we may read Graves’s work as ironic or witty, thereby drawing comparisons with the obvious Post-Modernists like Venturi and Moore. But Colquhoun separates Graves from the body of semantic postmodern architects, no matter their sect of theory or ideology. Charles Moore and Venturi are despised for their ‘cynical exploitation of graphic fragments’ while the neo-Rationalists are rejected for their ‘technical abnegation for archetypal figures.’ We are already familiar with the weird place Eisenman and Graves share as being mutually distinct from these postmodern factions while also diametrically opposed to each other: Eisenman is syntactic while Graves is primarily semantic (See Gandelsonas on Eisenman’s syntactic architecture, and Jencks on the role of signs and meaning in Post-Modernism.)
It is this semantic work that drives Colquhoun’s analysis. Graves’s early work is a semiotic exploration of two languages: that of structure (columns, walls, threshold, enclosure, &c.) and of form-function (arguably a language in itself, composed of space, sequence, volume, arrangement, &c., dominating the decisions of Graves’s Modernist predecessors). Use of the balloon frame, specifically, allowed Graves to turn the language of structure into a plaything, and his rejection of the form-function axiom (like Eisenman) allowed for layered, nuanced composition in signs in meanings that deconstructed the notion of, for example, “house” and reconstructed it in originally, densely significant ways.
This reconstruction was organized by exterior ideology (as Colquhoun argues) and guided by the meditation on Plan and Plane. But by the mid-to-late 70s, Graves’s “dissatisfaction with the Plan” led to the radical shift in his architecture. The solid forms of his later, most famous buildings, illustrate the introduction of a new language into his compositional cosmos: architectural history. This is something we’ve come across before, something that is also quintessentially modern: when a language incorporates itself into its discourse. This is the meta-language encountered in Silvetti’s essay.
In Graves’s architecture, structural, programmatic, and architectural (historical) languages are all made equal, all potentially useful in the construction of new meaning, “all elements must be reduced to the same condition of ‘raw material’ They have become de-historicized and ‘potential,’ and must be reconstructed consciously as a ‘structure.’” The elements themselves are not deconstructed (as they are in the work of Eisenman) but are mutually exploited as part of a total language. Here we come across the mythologizing role of Colquhoun, and of Graves’s architecture per Colquhoun’s reading.
Colquhoun has reduced the agency and ideological intent of Graves’s architecture by making it appear historically and ideological inevitable. But this maneuver runs parallel to Graves’s own mythification of architectural signs. Barthes: “In [myth], history evaporates. It is a kind of deal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears; all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.” That is essentially what Graves has made of the historical signs in his architectural language: pretty, pleasant elements made divorced from their historical role and collaged into new constructs of meaning, part of Graves’s language.
This third layer of Colquhoun’s essay, the mythification of history, is difficultly distinguished from Graves’s mythification of architectural signs. But it is, perhaps, the most insidious function of the essay, a function that is difficult to spot at any time. The importance of pointing it out lies in the ability to see the ideological purposes behind it, both on the part of the architect and the theorist.
(I should also note that, though tedious, Colquhoun’s analysis of Graves’s early residential work is personally fascinating and at least be read as an analytical reference. Specifically, his elaboration on Graves’s deconstructive exercise and the use of spatial, structural, and traditional (archetypal, really) signs is a brilliant exercise for all who regard Graves’s work as a semiotic joke on architecture.)