Architecture Beyond Experience
Applied Research and Design, 2020
“Architecture Beyond Experience” (ABE) is a book by Michael Benedikt. It features a turtle on its cover. It measures seven inches wide by 10 inches tall and is three quarters of an inch in thickness. Its text is printed in a black sans serif typeface with blue endnote and figure indicators. Figures are isolated on dedicated pages on a light tan background.
Benedikt is the director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, where he holds the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism. He has taught, written, and lectured about architecture for over 40 years. Much of Benedikt’s work has been concerned with the intersection of architectural theory with other discourses, namely philosophy and religion. It’s clear that the ideas of ABE have been developed over a long period of time, and their maturation is evident in the intellectual expertise deployed throughout the book.
ABE advances the idea of “Buildings as Beings” as a new operative metaphor for architecture. Over the past century, a series of conceptual regimes has organized architectural thought: “Architecture as Machine,” “Architecture as Language,” “Architecture as Organism,” “Architecture as Landscape” — and now, Benedikt hopes, “Buildings as Beings.” The phrase’s plurality and alliteration are nice. The difference between architecture and buildings is interesting but beyond the scope of this review, except that it seems safe enough to exchange one for the other in this context.
The book has three parts. In part one, “Locating the Sacred,” Benedikt tours the philosophies that enable his theory. He takes aim at experientialism, popularized by phenomenology and later object-oriented ontology, and its expression in architecture as the Experience Economy. He has participated in this intellectual movement, most recently as one organizer of the Secret Life of Buildings symposium at UTSOA in 2016, but his thinking has now moved beyond this mindset. Benedikt writes, “I argue that it’s time to find a deeper basis for making and judging architecture, a basis which is not personal-experience-multiplied, but which is dialogical and relational from the start.” An interesting book with parallel intentions is Timothy Morton’s “Humankind,” which seeks to build solidarity with nonhuman people. Morton successfully takes an old idea — Marxism — and extends it for usage today, in a loopy voice that’s similar to Benedikt’s.
In part two, “The Fabric of Glances,” Benedikt introduces concepts and tools for articulating relationships between people and buildings. Chapter 10, on why Environment and Behavior Studies hasn’t yet changed architecture, is particularly good. Benedikt establishes the categories of Person, Room, and Thing, noting the slippage between these terms, and he reviews the isovist, a technique that images visual connectivity using heat-map representation (Benedikt has developed this tool with collaborators over a number of years, so it’s convincing, even as it reduces architecture to a binary condition of form or void). Benedikt masterfully proceeds from Kahn’s declaration that “a plan is a society of rooms” to the fabric of glances to the order of shoulders to formations in order to establish how gatherings of bodies might inform gatherings of rooms and buildings.
In part three, “Architecture Beyond Experience,” Benedikt delivers the book’s core thesis before deploying these ideas in an extended series of case studies on the work of important architects. He addresses major works of contemporary art and architecture and closes with a brief coda that assesses three contemporary examples.
The book’s most evocative passages are the portions of part two and the first three chapters of part three in which Benedikt showcases strong, useful thinking, and powerful tools for visualizing space emerge. “Buildings as Beings” offers new modes of ethical engagement with the built environment. This is an exciting premise! Though empathetically voiced, the book has some issues, which is frustrating as the promise of the ideas — distinct from the ideas themselves — is so great. The difficulties of this text also point to generational issues at work in contextualizing the architectural history of the 20th century and in articulating architecture’s agencies for living today.
In seeing buildings as beings, Benedikt invites us to consider them as entities with awareness. They become “alive” in a way they haven’t been previously. While Benedikt dismisses Le Corbusier’s early proclamation that the house is a machine for living, he praises the architect’s later “animist” works, notably the chapel at Ronchamp. But this work, among others, was shaped in part by an enduring fascination with Islamic architecture and urbanism, as presented by Zeynep Çelik in her 1992 Assemblage article, “Le Corbusier, Orientalism, Colonialism.” Corbu’s visions were formed by travel writings and images, and his obsession with formal unity came in some way — so argues Çelik — from his admiration for the cellular organization of Islamic architecture. Benedikt also suggests influence between the casbah and an image of a grave in Morocco relative to the work of Aldo van Eyck and Louis Kahn, respectively. These linkages, however brief, indicate how modern architecture extended some form of the colonial gaze, a topic which has been studied in recent scholarship in order to understand cultural exchanges under Eurocentrism, and how architecture participates in structural racism. Rather than seeing buildings as “others,” the metaphor of buildings as beings actually invites an intimacy between buildings and people that subverts historically objectifying practices, but this corrective strength goes unmentioned in Benedikt’s text.
Anthropomorphizing buildings isn’t necessarily bad, but some assumptions ensue. If buildings are like people, then they have faces. So, then, facades with windows are preferable to blind facades — faces with no eyes. People associate symmetry with beauty, which explains the importance of axes, mirroring, and bilateral organization. Benedikt continues: “Buildings that are organized symmetrically … seem to have an integrity to them, a wholeness, a presence that is not dependent on ours.” A non-symmetric space, in contrast, “does not gather itself into a unified place with a center of gravity or spine, much less a body with a semblance of a soul.” Formal problems: If a building is not identifiably symmetric, we cannot identify it as a body. Because we cannot identify it as a body, we cannot empathize with it and develop a coherent understanding of its rooms. What does this say about bodies that don’t conform to normative ideals of symmetric beauty? Over the “International Style’s morbid fear of anthropomorphism,” Benedikt cites Jaap Bakema’s “family model” concept of urbanism, which is explained using a diagram of two parents (one male, one female) walking with four children. What of families that aren’t “normal” in this way? Later, Benedikt assesses Frank Gehry’s work, including a reading of the “conviviality” with which the figures in his designs hang together. It’s interesting to compare this passage to Lucas Crawford’s close reading of Gehry’s UTS building in Sydney in “The Crumple and the Scrape,” a long essay for Places Journal — Crawford offers much more subversion. He, too, constructs an anthropomorphic relationship to the facade’s surfaces, but it is through queerness rather than normative assumptions about behavior or appearance.
Throughout ABE, Louis Kahn’s work is offered as an example of how to make space that is deeply considered at the scale of the room, even down to how a window opening is detailed so as to direct awareness. His buildings are truly powerful spaces, but this came at some cost to Kahn himself, his designers, families, funders, and those who labored to construct the buildings. Perhaps they are great because of this sacrifice, not despite it. Also, as Manfredo Tafuri wrote in “Architecture and Utopia,” Kahn’s terminology of “served” and “servant” spaces comes from Jefferson’s Monticello, with its attendant ideas of labor and race, but this goes unmentioned. Benedikt recognizes Carlo Scarpa’s practice as one of fine art and suggests that practitioners can still learn from him, but there is no real articulation of an alternative. If we wish to make beautiful buildings but cannot find the proper patrons, what to do? Benedikt offers us a “post-human” humanism, but in doing so he highlights models of practice that ignore humans themselves. How can we consider buildings as beings if it remains difficult to account for designers as beings? If we first succeed in humanizing architectural practice, might it then be easier to being-ify the buildings we make? If we haven’t yet succeeded with normal humanism, how can we proceed to its “post-human” variety?
ABE is not about the end of form, but it sustains a new ethical relationship to it, with it, and among its components. Benedikt’s ideas seem to work well with other contemporary discourses, but there aren’t any comparisons. What about discussions of part-to-whole relationships that have flourished lately? ABE would likely find common ground with newer blunt flavors of formalism or, in the opposite direction, any number of offices that continue to produce quiet monastic space. What would Benedikt make of Valerio Olgiati’s work or that of Kazuo Shinohara? What would Benedikt think about First Office or Fala Atelier or Lütjens Padmanabhan — all recent offices who make strange characters? As the final case study, Benedikt addresses MOS but doesn’t fully account for what’s at stake in their work, or how widespread its influence has been on younger practitioners (this author included). He relates to them via Kahn. It almost works, but MOS’s concerns of indifference and randomness are distinct from Kahn’s interest in divine geometry. ABE could have been made more powerful by stronger lateral connections to ideas of its time rather than its deep dive into historic antecedents.
ABE is stimulating theory, but it hasn’t yet been applied to its fullest extent. It would be inadequate if Benedikt’s ideas remain only a vehicle for critique instead of being used as a methodology for design. The most promising aspects of his inquiry are projective, but the book dwells in analysis. His considerations seem like powerful tools for the act of designing, but this remains to be seen, as there are only a handful of developed design examples in the book. Has there been a studio taught with these principles as a working framework? Not clear.
In the penultimate chapter, Benedikt addresses “architecture in the second person,” or the abilities of architecture as an engaging performative art versus the false facades of postmodernism as a performing art (the slight denigration of this campy register is another reason to read Crawford’s text). There’s an idea of confrontation: “Buildings could have non-neutral attitudes toward the world they were in.” But the explication of this idea doesn’t live up to this exciting provocation. What about all the social engagement practices that are flourishing, or the rise of public-interest design? What of architecture making and colliding publics in new ways, as seen in the spectacle of MoMA PS1’s Young Architects Program? What about actual performances? Instead, we’re offered the same greatest hits of organic modernism. How to be more like performance art? Peter Zumthor’s practice is offered as an example, but his is more of the same medieval master craftsman vibe. Assemble is performance art; what about them?
Benedikt praises postmodernism for standing up to the terrors of late modernism, whose buildings expired under a “starvation diet of space, steel, and glass.” This is where some aesthetic bias is exercised. Is it problematic if a building appears as a quiet, cool expanse of glass? If a building has a vastly reduced carbon footprint, but as a result its design has significantly less “personality,” is that acceptable? At times, this inquiry seems to be a rehashing of the conflict between rationalism and functionalism, with Benedikt lamenting the former’s victory. He notes the loss of fineness in the recent architectural focus on urbanism rather than on rooms, and rightly praises furniture as a lost architectural entity between object and room. Rather than ignoring the commodification of architecture (and everything else) in the past half-century, perhaps one could ask why architecture’s barren expanses so often look the way they do. Why would a discipline avoid confronting the economic realities of its practice?
Architecture is not art. To call architecture an art practice is to ignore its participation in the material construction of our shared world. It seems that Benedikt’s interests have remained consistent even as the context around his work has shifted. The same could broadly be said of architectural theory as a wide academic effort, which is why so many search for new ways that the discipline can claim agency — or, to put it bluntly, can be even slightly relevant to contemporary life. In the coda, Benedikt explains the beliefs of the Omaha people of Nebraska, leading to presentation of a design by a (white male) architect that’s a “study in animistic modernism rivalling Le Corbusier’s,” an “abstract conflation of several Omaha artifacts as well as a frozen performance by them, or rather, by their underlying form-types.” That its framing as the elevated product of “animated” forms realized through a culturally alienating gaze and delivered to a population that has been thoroughly disenfranchised was not identified as a problem is actually the problem. Are there not better examples of work to uplift when thinking about buildings as beings? Another one: There are only three works of architecture designed by women at least in name (one by Diller Scofidio Renfro, two by MOS) included as images in ABE. This is not to say that publishing a book with 50 percent (or all) works by women architects is the goal, but a goal would be to have that simply happen and pass without comment either way. These frustrations aren’t with ABE only, but instead are deployed in an ongoing effort to match the concerns of our time with an appropriate revolution in the awareness of architectural thought. ABE invites this conversation; it is up to us to advance it further.
In closing, I’ll mention that a difficulty lies in the design of the book. It is long. The writing is conversational, which stretches the space needed to work through its ideas because there are many stories, parables, examples, and thought experiments. It could’ve used a strong edit that focused on the text’s core ideas, especially in later sections, where it could’ve built a stronger case for what designing with these ideas looks like. The book would likely fare better as a series of lectures spread across a semester, rather than something that is consumed over the course of a couple of weeks. The long line length per page makes a difficult text harder to read. Figures are sometimes on separate spreads from their references, which makes it hard to connect close readings of the images to the images themselves. It is disappointing that ABE contains a glossary but not an index, which would have been useful in stringing together the author’s lively referential universe.
It’s admittedly a bit unfair to assess a book written over a span of many years during today’s intense crises, but here we are. ABE traverses Benedikt’s architectural philosophy to prepare a gracious understanding of how we can cultivate ethical relationships among people, things, and rooms. But it also evidences how much work remains in addressing not only architecture’s history, but its role in history, all while seeking its agency in our world today. ABE raises the question: What is theory good for? We’re still working on the answer.
Jack Murphy is editor of Cite magazine. He lives in Houston.