Villette is a Grand Project with enormous cultural pretensions: it is supposed to be nothing less than the first piece of Deconstructivist architecture, which has no coherent meaning: one that can be experienced by each visitor in a unique way: we are all guilty to participate. What is supposed to be Deconstructive about Villette? First a denial of coherent meaning. This is not to say that the place is intended to have no meaning, rather that a single dominant meaning is supposed to be unsustainable and therefore not worth aiming for. Everyone will experience it in a different way, making his or her own interpretation. It would be very bad news for if a consensus interpretation were to arise: ’ I would have to come like Howard Roark in TheFountainhead and blow it all up!’
This claimed incoherence no doubt fits in with literary Deconstruction theory in which the meanings of words become increasingly unfathomable as one attempts to pin them down: it is supposed to be the current human condition. The lack of shared meaning is said to invalidate past approaches: Modernism, Post Modernism, Functionalism, Formalism are dead, so now…the game of architecture is neither function (questions of use), nor form (questions of style), nor even the synthesis of function and form, but rather the bringing together of possible combinations and permutations between different categories of analysis – space, movement, event, technique, symbol, etc. I am not interested in form, I attack the system of meaning. I am for the idea of structure and syntax, but no meaning.
Villette is said to present us, for the first time in history, with a ‘dis-structured structure’. This is achieved simply by overlaying, without synthesis into a higher order. Our perception copes rather well with such conflicts, and I am not convinced by the novelty, for surely there is plenty of architecture from earlier periods in which different systems of order conflict, if not quite in the same way. For just as many of the more realistic Expressionist projects of the early ’20s were nourished by an implicit Neo-Classicism, transformed perhaps, inverted, even perverted. What else could we do? We are all trapped by our past. New sentences in an old language, old sentences with a new twist: a tussle with abstraction, formalism, functionalism, the plan libre,the neutrality of the grid. The whole emphasis on transgression; on breaking rules, is less iconoclastic than it first seems. The breaking enhances their importance. The most devastating satirists often turn out to be conservatives by nature, for the power of their critique stems from a deeply held conviction about the way things ought to be.
We like the grid because of its rationalist nature, but one can go further. It is the same gesture of complete artifice that the Romans and countless other civilizations employed in laying out their cities: originally a sacred order. Surely it is this rather than the purely mechanical repetition of a kit of parts as in so much Modernism, if only because the interval is not confirmed by a mechanical system. Yet, it is merely a tool, meaningless. Can a grid ever be meaningless, can it ever be neutral? The order is generally highly perceptible, and even when adopted purely for the convenience of construction, demonstrates the designer’s priorities in no uncertain terms. The neutral grid: seductive promise of a helpful trellis on which the the tender plant might grow. Yet did not the Miesian theory about universal flexible buildings turn out to be the alibi for producing some of the most powerful monuments of the twentieth century, theoretically exchangeable in function only to remain resolutely constant in form?
The lavish silk-screen images produced for the gallery wall invite admiration in their own terms, visually, without intellectual understanding of the rules and syntax which go un-presented, given the power of exhibitions and magazines, of the visual image propagated as visual image, a so-called architecture without habitation and without tectonic identity, we have reason to be suspicious of product icons such as this. Is it merely the souvenir pack for an operation which has its primary existence in the world, or is the built object following on from the world of paper? After all, it is possible to build almost anything these days, the only prerequisite being that someone believes in it enough to provide the money.
If formal autonomy brings accusations of formalism, they can only effectively be countered by showing a relation with content: surely the essential issue with any living architecture. The relation between form and content is undoubtedly extremely complex. However, it is neither random nor insignificant. When one suggests the cathedral as cinema you can surely understand that the fascination of the somewhat surrealist disjunctions is entirely to do with the understood conventions which are broken, conventions about use and meaning. Conventions, you’ve said it, they are only conventions, they have no basis in hard fact. Yet what kind of basis in hard fact could they be expected to have, could anything have for that matter? We have been beset by the vertigo of relativity for half a century, which makes any kind affirm truth problematic, for we can only know the world through the conceptions which we inflict upon it. This makes it difficult to achieve any stable basis against which to judge the artifice of conventions. Arguably, reality is a social construction; space and time are social constructions. Thus conventions, along with our other mental constructions, are perhaps all that we have.