acques Derrida, “Point de Folie—Maintenant l’architecture,” 1986.
In the early 1980s, Bernard Tschumi won a competition to design a ‘new park for the 21s century’—part of President Mitterand’s urban beautification program for Paris. Tschumi’s project, the Parc de la Villette, is a composition of 35 bright red deconstructivist “follies” composing a 135 acre grid—a play on the 19th century “follies” that mark British gardens. As part of the over all project, Tschumi’s drawings were also published in a portfolio (La Case Vide: La Villette 1985)—recalling his earlier Manhattan Transcripts—accompanied by this essay from Derrida. Apparently, Tschumi approached Derrida to ‘read’ Tschumi’s own work and write about the levels of deconstruction it embodied. Or something like that.
“Point de Folie—Maintenant l’architecture” is Derrida’s first essay dealing with architecture and truly one of the most willfully opaque texts in the Hays anthology. The essay is best read as a piece of literature, indulgently pluralistic in its word games and double talk, rather than a piece of theory or criticism. Stemming from a bilingual word game circling the eponymous term “folie,” Derrida’s multiplicity of meaning is the root of the problem as well as the quintessence of his own thesis: while a true deconstruction of architecture and meaning requires the dissociation and rejection of the inherited metaphysical structures surrounding them, the dislocation of this system produces a multiplicity of simultaneous meanings and elements. (This essay is the source of the oft-quoted line dubbing architecture the ‘last stronghold of metaphysics.’) The product is a kind of hazy suspension bordering on madness (also “folie”), a simultaneous pluralism where all possible meanings and forms are concurrent, implicitly if not materially.
Ultimately the Point de Folie refers to this ‘point of madness’ and contradiction as well as the individual follies Tschumi built as points on the grid. This is but one of Derrida’s word games. Below is a careful breakdown of the essay’s salient points; also consult Hays’s own introduction to situate Derrida’s architectural insight into a more familiar context. The essay itself, of course, is full of micro-articulations of Derrida’s various points.
It is unclear how much of this essay is Tschumi or Derrida reading Tschumi, a distinction complicated by Derrida’s use of the royal “We”; let us operate on the likelihood that this entry in the anthology is the combined theoretical and material work of both. That being said, the essay’s thesis is relatively ‘simple’: an inherited system of metaphysical values has determined all architectural production throughout history. This is a sophisticated system based on one core principle: architecture must have a meaning and, presumably, must signify that meaning. While most deconstructivist work claims to break down architecture, only Tschumi’s supreme deconstructive work fully subverts the system and momentarily replaces it with an internal one. The subversive-deconstructive operation of the Parc de la Villette dislocates meaning and suspends all physical and metaphysical elements in a moment of simultaneity and contradiction. In this instant, the “just now” (“maintenant”), architecture is resuscitated from the sepulcher of metaphysics.
What do these metaphysics look like? The metaphysical “architectonics” is a structure of four invariables, four inherited axioms and imperatives that direct architecture from the outside to the purpose of signifying meaning.
First, and most concise, is dwelling (Wohnen), the obviously Heideggerian idea first encountered in Cacciari’s “Eupalinos or Architecture.” Basically, as architecture’s language “naturally” refers only to itself, there is a gap in experience that must be explained or described, and it is described by this metaphysical atomic unit: “dwelling” is the experience of “meaning” that is the moment or event of Architecture happening to a subject. There is also a curious inclusion of ‘function’ to this point.
Next is architecture’s imperative to embody or represent the moral, cultural, and ideological hierarchy, what Derrida calls the “myth of the city.” Third is the insistence to put architecture in or at service to the hierarchy, to dwelling, to function. This is the “teleology of dwelling,” “the end principle of the archi-hieratical order,” where the various nuances of “function” are fully implied. Lastly, the specific formulation of this constrained architecture is determined by the fine arts, “the value of beauty, harmony, and totality”—aesthetics. These four inherited metaphysical invariables make a frame that governs every evaluation, criticism, and theory of architecture.
(It is my experience that the concision of these points devolves from 1 to 4, though there is a loose internal, semantic system that holds them together. They are found in the #8 passage.)
This metaphysical inheritance and the hegemony it exercises over all architecture is a given, a system that supersedes the idea of an architectural language that evolves over time. (This is a reference to the langue-parole argument that Derrida is implicitly rejecting, explained in the Hays intro and exemplified by George Baird.) The most significant part of this frame is its natural antinomy: the system ultimately applies to all cultural production, for which Architecture stands as a placeholder, a metonymy. However, Architecture remains its most powerful embodiment. “Hence the resistance: the resistance of materials as much as of consciousnesses and unconsciouses which instate this architecture as the last fortress of metaphysics.”
Metaphysics aside, we are left with these questions: How does true deconstructivism break away from this architectonics of metaphysics? What exactly is “architecture maintenant?” Similarly, what is the “point de folie?”
The subject and architecture maintenant.
The relationship with the subject is the departure point for “architecture maintenant,” which begins with the “event of architecture.” Initially, Derrida refers to architecture’s “event” as something occurring in the “just now” (“maintenant”)—an immeasurable period of time in which the subject experiences architecture and interprets its meaning, usually based on inherited metaphysics. This “happening” of architecture to the subject is architecture’s “event.”
But the goal of Tschumi’s truly deconstructive architecture (or its affect, depending on how you read Derrida) is to suspend the initial “event of architecture” and draw it into an “architecture of events,” an “architecture maintenant.” This is an unfolding architecture of plural meanings, nuances, and contradictions that is experienced in prolonged and often self-contradictory ways. It is an architecture of multiplicity. In the case of the Parc de la Villette, architecture is suspended not just in the moment of experience, but also physically over the grid of the follies.
Follies, folie, and the point de folie.
Tschumi’s 35 material constructs, “follies,” are scattered on the points of a grid—rather, they represent the points of the grid. (This is an annoyingly pertinent distinction that at first seems to have no value.) Together they pursue one goal: the dislocation of the metaphysical structure, real deconstruction. Together they mark space but do no fill it. Individually, each explores its own purpose, “offered up in its articulated structure to substitutions or combinatory permutations which relate to other follies as much as to its own parts.”
“Folie,” translates to madness, the madness produced by the thorough dislocation of traditional meaning and means of interpretation, madness prolonged by the plurality of meaning and architectural permutation created by the collective field of follies. Derrida/Tschumi is saying that there is no finite reason for decisions in the field of follies, that each element is as replaceable as the next, each choice as subjective and instantaneous as any other choice for any and every other folly. This multiplicity “becomes abyssal,” its simultaneity is madness (“folie”).
The “point de folie” and the “point de folie,” arise out of this madness, and you’ll have to bear with me for one more second to see how. The former, the “point de folie,” simply refers to the place of a folly itself. The points of the grid of the Parc de la Villette are not actual points, but are spatial constructs that represent the points, they demarcate the grid’s spacing. In that way the location of each folly is the “point of the folly.” Understanding that each folly signifies the madness (“folie”) of Tschumi’s desconstruction, then the location of each folly becomes a focused locale of madness (“point de folie”).
The “point de folie,” however, is something a little more complicated. It is a temporal point, the ‘edge of madness,’ and is the immanent horizon just beyond the architecture maintenant of the Parc de la Villette. The follies gather into them all meaning, function, purpose, physical elements, and material choices. Together they permutate these options, each as viable as the next. This permutation is suspended in time and space—through the ongoing “event” of the experience, and through the space of 135 acres marked out by the 35 follies—as a simultaneity of Architecture. The abyss of this simultaneity, the extent of its deconstruction, will take everything in, all of Architecture and Metaphysics, resulting in a kind of cataclysmic madness. But “architecture maintenant” is a prolonged event of unfolding, a stretched period of time right at the edge of madness, right before the “point de folie.”
Antinomies and games
The construct of the Point de Folie is marked by opposed pairs: construct-deconstruct, assemble-dislocate, institution-subversion, subject-object. The role of most of these should be obvious by this point. Tschumi constructs his follies through choices as an act deconstructing the metaphysical superstructure; each folly is an assembly of elements that dislocate the teleology of dwelling/function/service/meaning; the subversive power of the Parc de la Villette and its madness is a product of the institution and the dissociation of the built architecture from the metaphysical frame; the event of the architecture-subject relationship has the power to define either of those things, and as the subject moves through the field of follies going slightly mad the architecture defines the subject and vice versa.
Just as this seems like semantic games, as you may already expect, the answers to our initial questions lays in Derrida’s multiple word games, which use the blurriness of translation to produce a whole cloud of meanings, all of which are valid and also codependent. Architecture “maintenant”—architecture “just now”—means the experience of architecture (its event) as well as the immateriality of the experience, an architecture that does not physically exist. “Architecture maintenant” is the willful exploitation of this event in order to deconstruct architecture.
Likewise, Derrida calls each folly “folie” so as to further the confusion of his folie-folie game that itself reflects a bit of willful madness. Take into account the possibility that Derrida constructed many passages of this essay as a kind of example of the multiplicity materialized in the Parc de la Villette. Which brings me to an important point in the way of summary: while Derrida’s language teaches us about madness, deconstruction, meaning, and metaphysics, the truly significant words are buried in the text. These are permutation, simultaneity, and suspension; these are the functions of Tschumi’s construct. If architecture maintenant is supposed to resuscitate architecture from the metaphysical reductivism in which it is trapped, then permutation and simultaneity—of meaning and physical architectural material—are its characteristics; its event is a suspended experience of reading, evaluating, and interacting with the architecture itself.
There is quite a bit more in Derrida’s essay, obviously, particularly in the later passages (esp. #14-15), where there is a bit about invention and how architecture maintenant takes into itself cinema, photography, choreography, and psychology. But I believe this review is a break down of the most significant points. From “choreography,” and at many other moments, we see how Derrida sweeps the Manhattan Transcripts right into the dialogue, though we could first see that with the discussion of an architecture of the unfolding event/experience. There is a significant underlying understanding of the drawings as being as much a part of the deconstruction as the built material of the Parc, and this should not be underestimated. It is part of a trend that sees drawings in this way, a trend that we’ve already seen in the Manhattan Transcripts and the Chamber Works, and which we will see in the next post about Eisenman.