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In the aesthetic theory proposed by The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer describes architecture as a great drama of gravity: “The position, size, and form of every part must have so necessary a relation to this stability of form that if it were possible to remove some part, the whole would inevitably collapse” (Schopenhauer 215). Architectural forms are thereby expressive of the Ideas of “gravity, cohesion, rigidity, hardness, those universal qualities of stone” (214). As such—and as representative of the larger thrust of the Western aesthetic tradition—Schopenhauer proposes a kind of “hard architecture”: an emphasis on the essential, depth characteristics of materials and their contribution to a durable, structure. This is precisely the metaphysics of form against which Lisa Robertson reacts in proposing “Soft Architecture” as “the metaphysics of surface”: “performing a horizontal research which greets shreds of fibre, pigment flakes, the bleaching of light, proofs of link, ink, spore, liquid and pixilation, the strange, frail, leaky cloths and sketchings and gestures which we are” (Robertson 21). As the enactment and subsequent thwarting of gravity’s force, Schopenhauer’s hard architecture is a contrarily vertical research, which “greets” only masses of stone and eschews surface effects.

Except, that Schopenhauer’s architectural theory is an oppositional one: the Ideas of rigidity and cohesion made legible to perception by architecture are expressed only in relation to those Ideas of “fluidity, light” (Schopenhauer 214). The full extent of a hard architecture is cognizable only in relation to the soft accents, which illuminate—literally and in contrast—its substance. Particularly, Schopenhauer sets up an oppositional analogy between his architecture of solidity and fluid hydraulics: “What architecture achieves for the idea of gravity where this appears associated with rigidity, is the same as what this other art achieves for the same Idea where this idea is associated with fluidity, in other words, with formlessness, maximum mobility, and transparency” (217).

This is literalized, of course, in Robertson’s “The Fountain Transcript,” which recognizes “the emblematic potentials of moving liquid and light” (Robertson 50). It is only through its dialogue with formlessness that form comes to emerge. The transparent occlusion of stone by water is what brings stone into existence as gravity, rigidity, hardness: “Flow in itself, with its fatal grandeur, does not interest us; we prefer to describe obstacle to flow, little impediments, affect-mechanisms, miniaturizations of sublimity” (55). The interaction of fluid and solid stages a series of dramas of form—those miniaturization of sublimity, in the conflict and overcoming of impediments—that bring substance to the surface. Something about Hadley+Maxwell’s “Fountain Portraits” seems, for this reason, simultaneously theatrical and expected, continuous with the skyline even as it attempts to defy it.

“Formlessness, maximum mobility, and transparency” are the literal conditions of fluid architecture, of course, definitive of the kinds of fountains Hadley+Maxwell imagine. However, motion, formlessness, and transparency are also the predominant conditions of contemporary architecture, structures that in many ways instantiate Robertson’s doctrine of Soft Architecture. I am thinking, particularly, of architectural “transparency” as defined by Rowe and Slutzky in their seminal article “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal.” There is, of course, the eponymously literal transparency as “an inherent quality of substance—as in a wire mesh or glass curtain wall” (Rowe and Slutzky 161). This is the “intelligence, that’s tall and silver” of the homes of Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, and Frank Lloyd Wright (Robertson 68). But there is also phenomenal “transparency”: “a simultaneous perception of different spatial locations,” in which “space not only recedes but fluctuates in a continuous activity” (Kepes qtd in Rowe and Slutzky 161).

In architecture, phenomenal transparency is accorded to a series of surfaces, of “stratifications, devices by which space becomes constructed, substantial, and articulate” (175). Substance thus emerges, not through Schopenhauer’s essential drama, but at the level of the translucent and immaterial surface. Things do not happen at the depths of some drama of cohesion: “To experience change, we submit ourselves to the affective potential of the surface” (Robertson 123). I am interested, then, in the rhetorical structure of the surface, in the way that the surface communicates softly and makes use of its transparency. Soft architecture abolishes metaphor. Metaphor is, of course, the organizing logic of Schopenhauer’s architectural expression of ideas, and soft architecture has only one imperative: “Change its name repeatedly” (41).

This returns us, as we reach the end of the course, to one of our first concerns: the structure of description, not as verticality, but as a besideness (of the sort theorized by Sedgwick). Besideness, too, seems the organizing logic of Robertson’s soft architecture. “Description,” she writes, “is mystical” (20). It effects transparent changes, changes at the surface. Again: “Description decorates”; it is ornamentation, which was always extraneous to Schopenhauer’s schema (60). How can we imagine a poetics of the surface, which is “anti-metaphoric,” “disperses convention”? (41). Might we realize this as instantiated in an actual architectural of surfaces, or must Robertson’s structures always remain as “mystical” as the “Fountain Portraits”?

-Emily

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