Soft Architecture: A First Stab at an Understanding

In the beginning there is a timeline and we make acquaintance. Perhaps we, unwittingly, go farther. Here we lay, creating and created. Rumpled, ruffling sheets vaguely insinuate sex and newborns; a human encounter recognizable by its passion and contradiction. “We walked through the soft arcade. We became architects.” Familiar images, sounds and physical sensations spring forward whose immediate purpose remain mysterious, though inviting. A whimper projects from swaddling, marking entrance to a long, arched building or gallery; an amusement center; a dense collection of inference composed to lead us down this memorial path. It would not be amiss to apply the adjective “vaginal”. Around our heads the cultural artifacts of Homo Sapiens Sapiens are displayed in successive bursts; history as a museum, the way our modern eyes can recognize it and become familiar.

This is Lisa Robertson’s Office for Soft Architecture. Welcome. Make yourself at home and familiarize yourself with the accoutrements: spider-like chairs, worn bedsheets, chipboard tents on silken floors. You’ll notice the only walls are tapestry, the only “rooms” produced of mental space. After all, the English word “office” is derived from the Latin for “make work”, so be prepared to exert.

How did we come to be here? An arbitrary starting point was fixed upon successive trips around our sun. Mesolithic and Levantine, Natufian culture was notable for sedentism pre-dating the introduction of agriculture to the region. Babylonians codified law. Egyptians constructed massive monuments of geometric and religious complexity. So on and so forth. The canopy that envelops us traces the illusive progression of Western Civilization, through its propriety and eroticism, its obsequiousness and transgression, in the span of four brief paragraphs. “We arrive at our long century.” Modernism’s exposition is an array of mutable textures and what is texture but an architecture of the smallest proportions at our sensory scale? We find ourselves among the decomposing factoids that separate the happening from the already-occurred.

Forty years earlier decomposition was defined as:

The process in which traditional cultural forms have destroyed themselves as a result of the emergence of superior means of dominating nature which make possible and necessary superior cultural constructions.¹

“Under the pavement, pavement.” This line went unnoticed the first time I visited the office, another hint dropped that an excavation to unearth and restore the buried means of a lost mischief was already underway. We’re looking for the beach, but there are many layers of false leads and faulty planning to unpeel. “A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers’ hands, hands worn smooth by coins.”² The line that caught and forced me into a corner arrived two essays after this manifesto; I had to ask how deep a reference could be planted for it to make an impact on the reader. I am not going to attempt an answer now, but I will in short[ish] order. For the time being it’s important to recognize a breadcrumb trail when you see one.

Yet we mustn’t fail to recognize that this is, indeed, still a manifesto. Contrasted with the trouble spattered liberally throughout history of these exclamatory—and oh, so very modernist—visions, there is a notable lack of prescription from this office. Welcome to the party, we will not be issuing proclamations of expulsion. “We say that thought’s object is not knowledge but living. We do not like it elsewhere.” There is no practice here but description.

In reaching for that unscribable space, Robertson’s formulation of a “permanent transience” puts a feminist twist on the heavily masculine/martial concept of the avant-garde, operating as a haven instead of an advance battalion. She has witnessed the failures that followed each previous declaration and so must ask: How does one attack everything everywhere? Lost in the struggle to reclaim public space was the notion that such an idea was only ever nostalgic from the outset. Detritus piles along peripheries, provides distraction and impedes imagination. Of course the problem is not failure itself and it never has been. If insanity is repetition of action in expectation of different outcome, why not tinker with the experiment?

But I have left aside what is meant by Soft Architecture. Perhaps—and that seems an appropriate word for the occasion, repeated as it is in the work itself—it desires no fully concrete definition. That would lead it hard and fast into the destruction of its own name and purpose. Its soft-ness is to be found in the fleshy nature of both inter- and intra-personal relationships as it is in human interaction with the constructed environment. “Soft Architecture will reverse the wrongheaded story of structural deepness. That institution is all doors but no entrances.” Permeability and flux, then, are positive attributes. In the breaking down of barriers between art and everyday life there is no distinction between the openness of text and the playfulness of constructed situations.

Formally, Robertson’s refusal to even mention doorways is a subtle reminder that this soft “gallery” possesses an open floor plan. Rooms are described but the implication is that any real delineation between their character is tentative and shaded, temporality being the only immutable attribute. But even that property is relevant only to the effect that we recognize within her list Natufians as predating Babylonians whom, in turn, predated the European Renaissance which occurred before the rococo period in which Fragonard produced. To take note of this distinction is to engage in an act of negotiating the disrupted terrain between discrete fields as described by Lyn Hejinian.³ “The work of the SA, simultaneously strong and weak, makes new descriptions on the warp of former events.” It is no accident that Robertson employs the word warp here, as it denotes both a surface distortion and one of the fundamental halves of textile production; our soft architecture is an emergent phenomenon, the curvature of woven human gravity.

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