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Exercise your mind in mental labyrinth

Michèle Woodger

In these challenging essays French art-theorist Hubert Damisch juxtaposes philosophy and architecture to reveal new insights

Noah’s Ark: Essays on Architecture is a new translation of work by French art-theorist and philosopher Hubert Damisch. Written between 1963 and 2005, the essays are arranged chronologically starting in the Renaissance (not with Genesis, as the title would imply). Intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking, they combine philosophy, architectural theory, anthropology and art history.

Damisch is a leading philosopher of aesthetics, having studied under phenomenologist Maurice Merlau-Ponty and art historian Pierre Francastel. Across the academic’s lengthy, interdisciplinary career, he forged ties with key thinkers including Meyer Schapiro and Rem Koolhaas.  

As with many academics of his generation, Damisch is influenced by structuralism, a theoretical model expounded by anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, linguist Roland Barthes and their contemporaries in the mid-20th century. (Or, in layman’s terms, the school of thought most associated with the black-polo-neck-wearing academics of 1950s Paris). Proponents of structuralism are concerned with meanings and representation, and throughout his essays Damisch frequently uses academic terminology which has very specific connotations in this context – signs, signifiers, phenomena or objects, for example.

Damisch sees his essays as ’exercises’ in which philosophy and architecture, juxtaposed, reveal new insights, and although some are 50 years old, the essays still offer something new to Anglophone readers. This is due partly to their distinctly French style: it requires a mental leap to engage with a different mode of expression. His sentences are tangential, digressive and circular. Double entendres twist, turn and take the reader down unexpected side-alleys into a mental labyrinth.

Yet each word is carefully chosen; preoccupied as he is with meaning and representation, Damisch revels in word-play. How much of 1975, one wonders, did he spend searching for le môt juste in this chapter title: ‘L’Autre “Ich” – L’Autriche – Austria or the Desire for the Void: Toward a Tomb for Adolf Loos’? The Frenchness is also evident in the figures Damisch holds up as paragons, the majority of whom are Franco-European: Derrida, Descartes, Foucault, Lacan, Le Corbusier, Ledoux, Perrault, Prouvé, Sartre, Viollet-le-Duc…

In ‘Perrault’s Colonnade and the Functions of the Classical Order’ for example, Damisch considers the Louvre palace colonnade. Rather than attributing its appearance to Louis XIV’s ostentatious personal tastes, he explores its significance according to Foucault’s understanding of order and measure in classical thought, within the wider 16th century logic of grand dessein.

‘Against the Slope, Le Corbusier’s La Tourette’ looks at the relationship between this monastary and its landscape. Geometry, perspectives and horizons are favourite themes for Damisch, as explored in his previous book Skyline: the Narcissistic city. ‘Against the slope’ questions why La Tourette continues to generate interest, when its raison d’être is slipping into the past even as the ground falls away from the building (designed to house over 100 Dominican brothers, only 10 use it today).

This essay discusses the relationship between design and execution, architect and inhabitants. Corb visited the site only three times, left much of the detail to Iannis Xenakis, and did not share the faith of those who commissioned the building. Yet the structures imposed by his design and ideological principle of la promenade architecturale dictated how the monks circulated within the building – which in turn influenced how they meditated and prayed. Was this a way of playing God?

Returning to the watery realm of Noah, in his final essay ‘Blotting out Architecture: A Fable in Seven Parts…’  Damisch looks to his earlier work A Theory of /Cloud/. Nothing could be further from solid architecture than ephemeral clouds, yet what interests Damisch is their shifting perspectives. The essay’s main focus (if it’s possible to focus on fog) is ‘Blur’, the cloud machine designed by Diller + Scofidio over Lake Neuchâtel for the Swiss expo 2002. Damisch reflects on the blurred lines between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ – a paradox, a piece of built architecture which is formless and transitory, a building which literally erases its own facade (effacer).

These essays are certainly challenging. Nevertheless, if you are willing to take on the structuralist ‘exercise’ it makes for an interesting and mind-expanding read.

Noah’s Ark: Essays on Architecture by Hubert Damisch, MIT Press, £22.95, RIBA Bookshops