Robin Evans, “In Front of Lines that Leave Nothing Behind,” 1984.
Robin Evans’s essay—the fortieth in the Hays anthology—is a review of the previous entry, Daniel Libeskind’s Chamber Works. We are certainly grateful to Hays for including this text, as the appearance of the drawings and the typical, vaguely genius (or ingeniously vague) blurb from Libeskind can now be understood within a conversation and situated against other architects. Hays’s intro seems a little too overtly intellectual: “What is at stake in the Chamber Works, Evans shows, is an interpretive logic and performativity of reading that negates visual representation and likeness.” That is, Evans explains that the drawings are neither representative, nor allusive, nor investigative, and so are different from, say, Tschumi’s Manhattan Transcripts; their content is the drawing itself and the deconstruction of the architectural drawing. Their power lies in the their potential to redefine Architecture, specifically to exclude the practices of the Jencks-defined genre of Postmodernism.
Evans begins his review with a semantic critique of criticism, one that obviously provides the source for the essay’s name as well as a loosely useful metaphorical tool throughout the review. Evans observes that the use of spatial metaphors in criticism belies a conception of whatever item as having an explicative space behind it or around it. This “face-to-face relationship” turns the objects of investigation into “frontages, facades, things that signify what they stand in front of.” Through this metaphor Evan’s recognizes the proclivity of criticism to turn things into an architectural object, a framework behind a façade. (Interestingly, this is also the quintessential characteristic of Postmodernism, which, arguably, is the set up for a larger, implicit argument.)
In the case of architectural drawings, the drawing may stand as a signifier for the project’s process, a representation of the building itself, and/or contextual research. In the case of Tschumi, the drawing is the product and process of an investigation, ultimately representing “the complex relationship between spaces and their use.”
The book accompanying Libeskind’s 1983 exhibit included other reviews from Eisenman, Hejduk, Rossi, and Kurt Forster. We’ve already grown to associate the first three with representation, drawings, and process, so their involvement with the text seems obvious, but Evans argues that each of them misunderstood the set of drawings. Rossi, for example, describes the works as “hieroglyphics,” which seems unsurprising given his propensity to see meaning in signs to an almost mysterious level.
There is also a bunch of near-nonsense about Libeskin’s process, but eventually we arrive at some pretty grounded observations about the fascinating, if confounding, drawings. “There can be little doubt that Chamber Works are in some way systematic, but they are certainly not a system of conventionalized notation or representation.” In this way they are fundamentally separate from Libeskind’s previous drawings and exhibitions, which feature more collage and referential fragments. Evans traces their possible lineage to Erich Mendelsohn, Hans Hartung, Roberto Crippa, Joel Fisher, or Sol LeWitt. But these are all approximate influences. Libeskind, he says, has made something remarkably removed from all representation, from the “behind,” from even abstraction: “What is so remarkable is the near total disengagement from signification of any kind. Such a condition is immensely difficult to achieve; mere abstraction does not begin to approach it.”
“The work of a line, its functions, the things it does other than just being a line, are to divide one territory from another, to enclose areas, to join points, to mark paths. This is what they do as edges, traces, contours, trajectories, vectors. The lines of Chamber Works do not do any of these things. Though perfectly regular in construction, and looking as if they belonged to geometry, they may well be amongst the least geometrical lines ever drawn…lines which on occasion more less accidentally deposit geometrical figures in the same way that they occasionally engender signs”
This is all mostly a description of what the Chamber Works are not. The fascinating bit of Evans’s review comes towards the end. Not only do they not represent anything in particular, they are strictly not spatial; the observer must read space into them. In terms of the traditional “frontal subject” behind which there lies intellectual meat to investigate, these have none, and laconically decline to explain why. Evans’s point is that the drawings are the object in front of which our own readings about architecture are projected. They are also not even remotely fragmented, like Libeskind’s previous work, which suggest legible parts of a whole, of a unity. Chamber Works is, Hays explains, something outside of the unity-fragment diametric; a different concept of space and object.
One fascinating blurb about what the drawings are can be found at the end, where Evans tells us Libeskind has separated “systems of representation and the aspects of reality they normally stand for”—the “uncoupling of signifier and signified in linguistics” that has never before occurred in architecture, despite the colorful semiotic arguments of the 60s and 70s. But Hays tells us the drawings break the sign-signified bond, they are “a telescoping of different registers of the architectural sign onto the same immanent plane—the real system, the notational signs, and the connotative signs.” (All linguistic theory.)
As promised, we arrive at the “potential” these drawings present. In short, they represent a new kind of architecture, an “Architecture without Building” (Evans), a “Not-Architecture” (Eisenman), an architecture that rejects the Postmodernism embodied in Michael Graves’s Portland Building, which opened in 1982. “Suppose the word ‘architecture,’ instead of having its center somewhere over a block in Portland, Oregon, had its center close to these drawings…Then whatever is renounced in the drawings…would be excluded from architecture’s central concerns…Building, space, image, program; the essences and crutches of architecture in Portland would be centrifuged to the outer edge of the subject, maybe beyond.”
With this last bit we see that Evans’s essay, while overtly proffering a new kind of reading and conception of architecture based on layered and simultaneous processes as embodied in Libeskind’s drawings, is covertly aimed directly at what we might call “classical” postmodernism. Even his “frontal subject” metaphor is constructed to subvert the Postmodernist game of the façade and sign. Instead, we are given something that is perhaps decidedly post-postmodern, an Architecture the resides as much in the drawing (noun) as it does the building:
“And it is true that the imaginative work of architecture has for a long time been accomplished almost exclusively through drawing, though manifested almost exclusively in building. The great peculiarity of architecture as a visual art…is the considerable distance between the process of composition and the thing being composed. By truncating architecture and disposing of building, an intimacy between a way of designing and the thing designed is achieved.”
[Keep an eye out more notes on drawing and representation from this essay to come in a review of a few essays from Log 31.]