The Inhabitable Flesh of Architecture

Marcos Cruz (2009)

Article published in SA - Singapore Architect,
#249 March 09, Singapore, pp. 82-91

It is been widely acknowledged that contemporary architecture is undergoing profound changes, many of which are triggered by the impact of new digital media and also the growing influence of fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, new material sciences, as well as bio-technology, suggesting quite extraordinary, yet uncertain prospects for our future built environment. However, there has little been said about the risk that architecture today is in the process of loosing its crucial cultural as well as social significance if it continues neglecting its most fundamental agent, the body.

Today’s architecture has failed the body
The present research was done in the context of the PhD by Design programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture University College London (supervised by Prof. Sir Peter Cook and Prof. Jonathan Hill). It combines theoretical and historic investigations, including the analysis of buildings and artworks, with my own design projects, which I understand as research tools to generate critical and analytical, yet also propositional thinking. One of its key arguments is that today’s architecture has failed the body; and throughout the research it is recognised that this is the outcome of a pervasive body detachment that has led to so many contemporary buildings being, in essence, bodiless and experientially rather empty. This is obviously a serious problem when considering that architecture is in its true nature a prime social art [01]. The American sociologist Richard Sennett has alerted us to this problem in his book Flesh and Stone (1994), when he saw this as being the result of a ‘sensory deprivation which seems to curse most modern buildings; [and] the dullness, the monotony, and the sterility which afflicts the urban environment’[02]. Sennett believed that it was more than ‘a professional failure’ in which ‘architects and urbanists [have] … lost an active connection to the human body in their designs’; it is a problem that ‘has larger causes and deeper historical origins’[03]. In part, I believe, this goes back to the legacy of the Bourgeois society in mid eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century Europe, and the global impact of the Modern Movement in the early and mid twentieth century. In fact, one could argue that since the invention of the printing press architecture has already lost its function as the main ‘archive of thought’[04]. And it is in our information age that it is also in the eminence of losing its prime protective role, and, even worse, the significance as a central stage for social interaction. Is the security of our personal credit card not becoming of greater importance than that of our home, and the Internet the key place of communication and social exchange?[05] I wonder then what architecture is left with when precisely in a period of financial turmoil, scarceness of energy sources, a sharp increase in world population, and consequently a rising demand for more architecture, designers are neglecting the human body. When I look at what is being built around us today, it seems clear to me that we are missing the opportunity to question in more depth the social and aesthetic dimension of architecture in our future societies will be. As the architect and theorist Anthony Vidler has pointed out in his book Warped Space (2000), a lot of these transformations are also driven by a digital argument in contemporary design through which a profound discontinuity of direction in theory and practice has been introduced. This is particularly so, when considering that ‘the generation of form from outside’ – and by this he means the contemporary focus on topological issues - got rid of ‘the humanistic subject definitely from all individual consideration’. His critique about the lack of ‘the “human” as a generative instrument’, as opposed to ‘”an abstraction based on process and movement”’[06] is clearly in line with what I argue is a necessary integrated approach, combining a typological, topological and ecological, and, why not ‘corpological’[07] understanding of architecture. Unfortunately, designers in practice seem to read very little about what has been discussed with regards to new definitions about our contemporary body, while those who wrote it are notoriously uninterested in buildings and the application of their theories to architectural design. The theorist Robin Evans, on the other hand, refers back to the bourgeoning phenomenon when he talks about the prevalence of architecture as a preventive measure,[08] while similarly the sociologist Mark Cousins alerts us to the existence of a sense of defensiveness[09] in buildings, which resulted in spaces that primarily lack, as he has calls it, ‘the vivacity of the subject’.[10] But the bodilyness in contemporary buildings can also be understood as the result of a Modern heritage that defined the body as a measurable, abstract and functional being, which was eventually taken for granted in the process of design. In response to that, I claim for a more body-conscious approach, which might sound slightly conservative, but don’t take me wrong! Much on the contrary, it is an appeal to a far more inquisitive and experimental attitude in which we should consider a new relationship between our physical surrounding and us. Many of our great buildings of the past have shown us that they were indeed body conscious, and how that has been achieved in a both experiential and experimental way. This is why we need to newly reflect on our past heritage in order to find new paths for our future.

The Body
Overall, this research is dedicated to a new vision of the body in architecture, questioning in conceptual, as opposed to just functional terms, who we are, and how we might inhabit the buildings we are designing. It puts forward for the first time a comprehensive aesthetic investigation about different body conceptions – from the Classical and Grotesque to the Bourgeois and Modern Body – leading to the conclusion that we are all driven by the conceptual precincts of what can be considered the Cyborgian Body. And I am here not so much referring to the cyborg as a sci-fi figure, but rather considering the phenomenon of contemporary body transfigurations through the means of plastic surgery for example, and also the growing dependence on VR and other sophisticated digital technologies. The Cyborgian Body, however, is a still unclear concept, which swings between that of an increasingly perfectionised and that of an ever more deformed and fragmented bod. In both interpretations nevertheless, we are facing the image of an increasingly networked body that has an unstable identity; a hybrid between machine and organism that can ultimately be fully redesigned. It is a body whose flesh is grounded on broader aesthetics of the abject. With that, notions of ugliness and the grotesque are exposed as artistic resources; [11] they are compelling criteria in the context of a new aesthetic, which can be found in a wider and ongoing postmodernist debate. But although art has dealt with the abject in the 1960s through the counter-modernist movement, architecture, in fact, has not. After the Modernism era, critical movements such as Rational Historicism, High-Tech, Deconstructivism, and, more recently, Parametric Biomorphism seem to have left the body out of their debate. This is why, I believe, it is so important to hold such a discussion now, and recognise the crucial importance of a cyborgian body aesthetic in architecture.

Flesh as an extended meaning of skin
Critical in this context, is the proposition of flesh as a way to extend the meaning of skin, one of architecture’s most contemporary and critical metaphors. It stands in opposition to a common, yet reductive understanding of skin that the English architectural theorist Adrian Forty recognised has for long been used to define walls as flat and thin membranes, denying them the virtue of being thick walls. As he cunningly observed ‘there’s no equally compelling metaphor to convey the qualities of thickness’. [12] While a lot of contemporary buildings expose an evident fetish with the outer ‘skin’, reducing the interior to a simple juxtaposition of repetitive floor plates, the use of digital technologies is also helping flattening the ‘skin’, disembodying it ever more, and thus depriving it from its human and material content. Hence, my aim of this research is to stress the urgency of a Thick Embodied Flesh that encompasses new corporeal qualities in architecture.

The problem with the term flesh is that it has a far less clear definition than skin; in fact, it can have a variety of contradictory meanings. If, on the one hand, it refers to a soft substance that includes fat and muscle, which covers the bones and lies under the skin, on the other, it can also refer to the body as a whole, or just to the skin itself. Perhaps, the controversial American art critic James Elkins is right after all when he proposes flesh as a kind of ‘fluid’; a concept ‘that refuses the distinction between skin and viscera, inside and outside, hard and soft, in favour of … viscous matter’.[13] In philosophical terms, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty speaks about the underlying existence of an existential thick flesh, which ‘is not matter, is not mind, is not substance … The flesh is … an “element” of Being’.[14] This is interesting because it describes an ultimate state through which ‘the body belongs to the order of things as the world is universal Flesh’.[15] Merleau-Ponty’s definition, although profoundly inclusive, is of great significance because it places the body in the centre of a world that he defined as Ur-Flesh. But as an architectural metaphor, this term is not derived from the sciences as so many others, and therefore does not aspire to a scientific truth. Instead, its origin lies, I dare say, in an existential depth in which the body and architecture are fused through an ‘experience of reversibility’ [16] into an undividable phenomenological whole.

Inhabitable Interfaces as Inhabitable Flesh
In design terms, the implication of an Architectural Flesh is most clearly understood in what I identify as being Inhabitable Interfaces. These imply both typological and phenomenological conditions that enhance an intensified body engagement with its physical surrounding. When revisiting buildings of a wide range of twentieth-century architects one comes across a great variety of different Inhabitable Interfaces, and by that I don’t mean just Inhabitable Walls, but also Inhabitable Media Façades, Columns, Cubicles, and Voids, etc. Noteworthy examples include the thickening façades in Lluis Domènech i Montaner Casa Fuster in Barcelona, the masking of bourgeois intimate life in Adolf Loos’ Moller House in Vienna, the merger of body, building and surrounding landscape in many of Richard Neutra’s projects, as well as built-ins and three-dimensional constructs in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Schindler, Richard Lautner and Charles Moore, amongst others. Moreover, there is to mention the inhabitable technology in Pierre Charreau’s Maison de Verre in Paris, the interaction with an increasingly artificial space in François Dallegret’s drawings, the sensual engagement with an ‘appliance-way-of-life’ proposed by Alison and Peter Smithson in their House of the Future in London, and the dressing of building suits in Michael Webb’s Archigram period. Other types of interfacial inhabitation can also identified in a variety of public buildings. This includes the spiritual depth of walls in Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, the experience of exhibition cones in Jorn Utzon’s project for the Asger Jorn Museum in Copenhagen, the inhabitation of media façades in Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s Kunsthaus Graz (of which I was a design team member during the competition stage), as well as with the inhabitation of columns and tubes in Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque and Preston Scott Cohen’s proposal for the Museum of Art and Technology in New York. On the whole, the Inhabitable Interfaces that I talk about involve both a mental and physical activity, ‘inhabitable’ being a condition that is ever transient and implies the potential act of becoming inhabited.[17] It implies an embodied experience, which is the interplay between the body’s presence, its perceptual practice, and the engagement with the environment around it. In my own work and the projects of my practice marcosandmarjan (founded with Marjan Colletti in 2000) I further speculate with new ways of inhabiting wall-interfaces through a teletactile digital flesh,[18] and the physical and virtual immersion of the body in space.

Towards a biologicalisation of architecture?
Finally, it is worth mentioning the most speculative part of this research, which investigates an emergent biologicalisation of architecture that relies on a growing number of inventions and creations that make use of design as a method to explore and manipulate actual biological material. This is not just happening on a formal level – look at the conspicuous biomorphic tendencies of a lot of contemporary design - but also in technical and aesthetic terms. Especially in biological and medical sciences innovative design processes have been implemented whereby interdisciplinary work methodologies, traded between designers, artists, engineers, biologists and physicians are giving rise to hybrid techniques, new materiality and hitherto unimaginable living forms. The results of these conditions which I define as ‘neoplasmatic’, [19] are partly designed object and partly living material, or ‘neo-biological’, as the American science writer Kevin Kelly calls it.[20] His predictions are important because they give us a broader picture of how our surrounding is becoming increasingly infused with ‘principles of bio-logic’, merging ‘engineered technology and unrestrained nature until the two [will] become indistinguishable’, and how this has to be taken in to account in our visions of a more body-conscious architecture in the future. A summary of these investigations can be found in the latest AD - Neoplasmatic Design which I guest-edited with my former student and colleague Steve Pike.

In conclusion, I would like to use The Inhabitable Flesh of Architecture as an invitation to an open discussion about the future role of the body in architecture. I consider it a possible starting point to this debate, and with that launch a broader inquiry into the forthcoming aesthetic, social, as well as cultural dimension of our profession.

[01] This is an expression taken from Leon van Schaik’s introduction to his guest-edited AD – Poetics in Architecture, Volume 72, No2, March, Wiley-Academy, London, 2002, p. 6

[02] Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone. The Body and the City in Western Civilization, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, p. 15

[03] Ibid., p. 16

[04] See Mark Cousins’s article, ‘The Ugly’ (third article), in AA files – Annals of the Architectural Association School of Architecture, no 30, Autumn, London, 1995, pp. 65-68

[05] In this case I am specifically referring to the emergence of our information age. If, on the one hand, our sense of protection is not reduced to the defensive power of architecture and its impermeable walls anymore, on the other, social interaction seems to be escaping from the symbolic, social and political premises of architectural into a far broader virtual space. As Joshua Meyrowitz has argued, we are becoming a society with ‘no sense of place’. For more see Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place. The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985

[06] Anthony Vidler, Warped Space. Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2000, p. 229

[07] The idea of ‘corpology’ (the logos of the body) that I am suggesting here is close to what other authors consider a study of ‘people-centric’ architecture.

[08] Robin Evans, Translations from Drawing to Building and other Essays, AA Documents 2, Architectural Association, London, 1997, p. 89

[09] Cousins, ‘The Ugly’ (third article), 1995, p. 65

[10] Ibid., p. 68

[11] Ibid.

[12] Adrian Forty, ‘Inside the Whale’, in Laura Allen; Iain Borden; Peter Cook, and Rachel Stevenson (eds.), Bartlett Works. Architecture Buildings Projects, August Projects / UCL, London, 2004, p. 51

[13] James Elkins, Pictures of the Body. Pain and Metamorphosis, Stanford University Press, Stanford California, 1999, p. 116

[14] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Intertwining – The Chiasm’, in Claude Lefort (ed.), Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Visible and the Invisible, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, Evanston Illinois, 1968, p. 139

[15] Ibid., p. 137

[16] See Claude Lefort, ‘Flesh and Otherness’, in Galen A. Johnson, and Michael B. Smith (ed.), Ontology and Alterity in Merleau-Ponty, Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Northwestern University Press, Evanston Illinois, 1990

[17] According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term ‘inhabitable’ refers to conditions that are ‘capable of being inhabited, occupied, or tenanted.’ The meaning of ‘inhabitable’ was, however, until the seventeenth century related to the opposite; it referred to conditions that are ‘not habitable, not adapted to human habitation, uninhabitable.’ On the other hand, ‘inhabitable’ differs from the term ‘inhabited’ in as much as it refers to conditions that are ‘dwelt in’ or ‘having inhabitants’.

[18] See chapter 12 ‘Teletactility: The Skin in New Media’ in Claudia Benthien, Skin. On the cultural border between self and the world, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, pp. 221-234

[19] I borrow the expression from medicine where in biological terms it is referred to an abnormal tissue that arises without obvious cause from pre-existing body cells, has no purposeful function, and is characterized by a tendency to independent and unrestrained growth. But more than focusing on its biological inside structure, or it being a pathological phenomenon, I am interested in its shape and flesh, i.e. in the quality of being ‘plasmatic’. For more see my article ‘Synthetic Neoplasms’ in AD – Neoplasmatic Design (guest-eds. Marcos Cruz, Steve Pike), November/December 08, Vol. 78 No 6, John Wiley & Sons, London, pp. 36-43
[20] Kevin Kelly talks about a ‘neo-biological civilization’, or a ‘neo-biological culture’. See Kevin Kelly, Out of Control. The New Biology of Machines, Fourth Estate, London, 1994, p. 606