Bryony Roberts & Sarah Whiting, “Re: Forms,” Log 31, Spring-Summer, 2014, p67-71.
This is an interview between Sarah Whiting, dean of Rice’s School of Architecture, and Bryony Roberts, guest co-editor of Log 31. Roberts directs the interview along Whiting’s history with formalism and her idea of “engaged autonomy”—a theoretical bridge between the isolating abstract autonomy of Eisenman and the “messy reality” of context and the “collective subject” of urban populations. While Mark Jarzombek, in this same issue, decries the metaphysics of contemporary architecture’s abstract formalism, Whiting’s “engaged autonomy” uses abstraction to develop a legible formalism whose audience is not disciplinary cognoscenti, but the public. Consequently, Whiting’s brand of formalism wedges into a self-made gap between disciplinary isolation and an architecture of the real world. More below.
In the way of initiating the conversation on Whiting’s history with formalism, Robert’s asks her to address the now forgotten history of formalism in architectural pedagogy and the discipline in general. Whiting summarizes that history, which dominates much architectural theory since the ‘60s (see the Hays anthology), with a lineage where Peter Eisenman follows Colin Rowe who follows Rudolf Wittkower. This lineage, she says, is important for understanding Eisenman, Oppositions, and the IAUS. Most students today, however, are unfamiliar with this history or even what formalism is, even if it does dominate their operating understanding of architectural form and practice.
Describing her departure from Eisenman, Whiting explains that his formalism “is tied very directly to estrangement: by estranging the subject, you open up his or her worldview.” It seems equally likely that Eisenman’s estrangement was directed against the real world in general, a means to isolate architecture and thereby justify (or enable) its formal autonomy. For readers unfamiliar with elite abstraction of Eisenman’s project for the theoretical (non-) object, see Gandelsonas’s essay. But if Eisenman operates by estrangement, then Whiting operates by engagement.
“Engaged autonomy” is an obvious allusion to the theoretical strife of the late 20th century, and pretty easily describes the adjustments Whiting has made to the methodology of abstract formalism. It addresses two things that Eisenman and his contemporaries did not: the context of a project, and its legibility to those outside the discipline. Eisenman’s formalism was defined by its will to perform investigations within the architectural language that would be legible to those with the skills to read that language—architects. Whiting’s audience, however, is the “collective subject,” the urban populous who experiences the built object within its context; it is a distinction that “downplays the architectural audience.”
(NB: Whiting also lists Pier Vittorio Aurelii, Jeff Kipnis, Sylvia Lavin, and Bob Somol as others whose work with the idea of the “collective subject, though they might not use that particular term.”)
This legibility is the defining tool of Whiting’s form-finding methodology. It determines that the total form be readable, expressive, and engaging so as to be noticed by the collective subject who “sees architecture in a state of distraction” (a reference to Benjamin). This distracted awareness telescopes from a single building to the relationship between multiple forms and buildings—that is, between a single project and its context and between multiple buildings of the same project, as was the case with WW Architecture’s entry in the 2010 competition for the Kaohsiung Maritime Culture and Pop Music Center.
The shifting scales of engagement and legibility brings context to the forefront, a context that Whiting welcomes, the “messy reality” of the real world. “How can architecture,” she asks, “have enough singularity to offer a new legibility as a singular object, but also as a catalyst—as an object that activates a larger field?” In this question we see the central division of “engaged autonomy,” the two parts Whiting is seeking to resolve: disciplinary autonomy and the real world. Most shocking about this, perhaps, is that the two have not yet resolved their differences even up to today.
The full function of the term “context” is revealed to be more sweeping that we might initially see. Whiting goes on to discuss an interdisciplinary learning that incorporates form, space, context, history, politics, and the city into architectural methodology. This is not for the purpose of contextualism, “but if you learn about [the realities of how big projects get executed], you can be more strategic about how to actually have an influence, and to extend those same realities to unimaginable horizons.” But in this way, the autonomy of formalism can be preserved while legitimating its practice. This is an autonomy for the future, an autonomy braced against the economic, political, and climate uncertainties of the 21st century, even if it is presented as a theoretical opportunity Whiting and Rice are playing with.
If I may continue this review in a more critical light, there are certain very real nuances to Whiting’s “engaged autonomy” that might be addressed, but that remain implicit in the actual interview. Firstly, contextual awareness is an interest far beyond the activation of a larger field of legibility or even urban rejuvenation—which might be the first item on an agenda of architecture-as-catalyst, but one that Whiting doesn’t actually say she’s interest in. The mature brilliance of “engaged autonomy” lies in the immanent collision with the isolationism of traditional autonomy and the destabilizing real world.
I would posit that the autonomy of abstract formalism—an autonomy won by Eisenman, et al., over the Postmodernists—is responsible for the split between the real world and “contemporary architecture.” I explain as much in my review of Jarzombek’s essay from this issue of Log, which points to Greenberg’s avant-garde/kitsch division as the origin point of the separation of architecture from the real world vis-à-vis formalism. This jealously guarded autonomy is the culprit behind contemporary architecture’s metaphysical-abstract formalism, a formalism that Jarzombek accuses of endangering the future of architecture and that I see as verifying the accusation that the institution has abandoned the real world. The most clear and contemporary confrontation between the two is Zaha’s suit of Martin Filler.
Whiting knows that this position is untenable, and so as not to risk the viability of the discipline’s autonomy she has engaged it in reality, bridging the gap. Under the semantic cover of “engaged autonomy”—which sees reality as an interest and valid investment but declines to moralize it—we might pursue abstract, formal work while taking cues from populations, economic and political climates, and more covertly integrate architectural interventions into their context (or more thoroughly integrate the context into architecture, which is probably closer to the point). Contextual/interdisciplinary awareness of construction, resources, infrastructure, politics, and urban issues might further empower an architect to execute their design (or develop a more executable design), but underneath this position Whiting is revoking Zaha’s self-absolution from the humanitarian crimes committed for the construction of her works.