Soft Architecture: A Brief Literary Lineage

Another installment in my ongoing investigation of Lisa Robertson’s Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture

My initial impression of Robertson’s “Seven Walks” was dominated by the implicit association with the situationist concept of dérive. However, upon familiarizing myself with just the first three essays of “Occasional Work”, I realized that the similarities shared with dérive was just one of several fundamental associations—or inspirations—developed from her knowledge of the Situationist International (SI). That the book opens with a manifesto signals Robertson’s clear engagement with an avant-garde modernism stretching back at least to the Futurists, whose leader, F.T. Marinetti, issued the “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in 1909. Though Robertson’s work under the auspices of the Office for Soft Architecture (OfSA) often reads vaguely like a contemporary feminist retort to Futurist masculine-ism, there otherwise hardly seems to be any direct correlation in content between the two—a contrast all the more notable for Robertson’s occasionally clear, regularly subtle overtures to the SI.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, formally speaking, the OfSA owes a great debt to Marinetti and company. Lawrence Rainey, in his introduction to Futurism: An Anthology, illuminated a novel and defining facet of that early movement:

“Futurism had done something startling. It had revealed the power of a new type of intellectual formation: a small collectivity, buttressed by publicity and spectacle, that could produce cultural artifacts that spanned the spectrum of the arts and were constructed in accordance with a coherent body of theoretical precepts grounded in not just arbitrary aesthetic preferences, but a systematic reading of contemporary society. Futurism had irreversibly forged that fateful link between a theory of modernity and the project of the avant-garde, setting a precedent followed by all the avant-gardes to come.”1

Despite the fact that the OfSA only had one true member in Robertson, the writing presented in Occasional Work demonstrates a form that echoes Rainey’s sentiments exactly. The creations produced by the OfSA take direction not only from concepts developed in the “Manifesto for Soft Architecture”, but recycle themes successively introduced in the book’s subsequent sections. Occasional Work possesses a fractal-like nature that serves to guide the reader through the various commentaries and into the “Seven Walks”; the walks being a realization of soft-architectural praxis while the commentaries emulate the investigations out of which a praxis is realized.

Perhaps the most notable display of this fractal nature is the formal similarity between the manifesto and the book as a whole. Rainey noted that the Futurists reliably utilized three distinct styles of the manifesto throughout their existence. Embodied in the group’s founding document was “a prototype for one sort of manifesto: a narrative preamble that recounted an event assigned emblematic stature, then a more programmatic section of demands.” Ultimately, very few examples of this form were ever produced and narrative elements “largely disappeared” after a few years.2

The second style noted by Rainey “began with a sweeping condemnation of the state of affairs in the art under discussion, then proceeded to survey its current condition on a nation-by-nation and artist-by-artist basis, and finally advanced innovations…that would resolve the crisis.”3 Robertson, possibly sensing her energies were better spent elsewhere, almost wholly avoids this most confrontational style. Her politics of synthesis lead her to discard the unwanted or unfruitful rather than engage in ego-affirming denouncements. This also sets her work apart from that of the SI, who gleefully denounced cultural artifacts and transformations with such consistency that it not only put the Futurists to shame, but eventually caused its own implosion under the gravity of its myriad internal disputes.

Rainey’s third style is the least willing to be pinned down by definite characteristics. On their surface, these writings would be nearly “indistinguishable from the essay” were it not for a tension arising from their “brash assertiveness” combined with an “improvisational character”.4 The poetry that emerges from this maelstrom is striking in its resemblance to Robertson’s writing throughout Occasional Work. Each of her “essays” are composed with a musicality to match the depth of content, simultaneously gripping and unsettling the reader. But the refusal of the writing to be categorized in established terms isn’t merely a pleasant accident, it is a fundamental component of open, feminine text.

Stay tuned for another exciting installment in no particular order!

  1. Rainey, Lawrence S., Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman. Futurism: an Anthology. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009. 1.
  2. ibid. 44.
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid. 45.
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