Soft Architecture: Incommensurate & Irreduceable

The more I post sections of this in between revisions, the more confusing it must be for anyone reading it…

Openness, following Hejinian, emerges in a text where “all the elements of the work are maximally excited…because ideas and things exceed (without deserting) [the] argument[s] that they have taken into the dimension of the work.” Behind this is an implicit call to describe, as an observer would, so that the reader is able to pull the material together in their own imagination. Consider, for a moment, an oppositional stance that would set up a scenario in such a way as to manipulate the reader to feel something specific. An open text refuses to set such limits on the reactions of each reader, inviting reader participation while rejecting the writer’s authority over the reader.1

In accordance with these principles, Robertson’s work is descriptive rather than prescriptive. “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto” makes this point clear: “All doctrine is foreign to us.”2 Then, in the next paragraph, she exhorts: “Practice description.”3 Though at first glance that may seem an order, the phrase lacks a direct object, allowing it to otherwise be viewed as a reminder to the self to avoid falling into the -ism trap. The SI had impossibly attempted to avoid this same fate, claiming “There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine for interpreting existing conditions.”4

Such an ambition seems destined to fail, despite all intentions. As Simon Sadler outlines in The Situationist City, his study of the SI’s fertile early years, “The situationists’ caution about a ‘situationsim’ was a clever way of reminding themselves of the dangers of becoming ‘academic’ in their procedures, a fate that had befallen their avant-garde predecessors.”5 The open textuality that Robertson employs recognizes that danger lurking in the prescriptive modes of the modernist avant-garde: “That institution is all doors and no entrances.”6 Her attempt here was to test a purely descriptive mode of writerly dérive, one that renders the reader not merely a spectator, but a partner in understanding the increasing dimensions of sensation that unfold over the course of reading and rereading.

Individual sections of the book both reproduce and reference themselves in manner conducive to wandering in a non-linear fashion, as one does exploring a new city. The book’s first essay, “Pure Surface”, which details the stifling ambiance of the planned, rationalized suburb, closes with an acknowledgement that, “this interminably symbolic landscape finally does not refer to anything other than itself.”7 “You can take the kid out of the suburb…,” Robertson seems to say. Her project is self-creation, a process that, like our universe, simultaneously has boundaries and is infinite. Later, at the beginning of the “Fourth Walk” she reports, “We breached the city’s principal at every moment with out incommensurate yearnings, and in the quasi-randomness of our route.”8 With the text its own city, any description is inadequate and non-reductive because the project itself continually gives birth to new possibilities.

Incommensurability and irreducibility are two of the most prominent characteristics that make the book amenable to Hejinian’s open form. Robertson’s work purposefully strives to continually alter its own internal structure and, in Hejinian’s words, “thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; that is, it resists reduction and commodification.”9 These qualities intermingle throughout and though on their face may seem antithetical to any fractal-like sensibility, they are actually the modes most responsible for the book’s looping, self-reflexive nature. One can understand the whole book in relation to itself, but it is impossible to explain its core essence, lest we return to a convoluted discussion of whether it’s a book of essays or poems or an oblique “art journalism”.

Furthermore, this incommensurability lends a distinctly feminist slant to the work and acts as a counter to more narrowly masculine (read: closed) avant-garde forebears like Futurism or situationism. Neither of those two fields were open to possibilities outside their developed frameworks—regardless of how often situationists refused to consider their work doctrinaire—and, thus, eventually revealed inherent limits to their adaptability. They collapsed because they were insufficiently expansive. Feminine textuality is a refusal to bow to a linear process with clear origins and terminals in an attempt to supercede the limits imposed by a closed order. Instead, it manifests “as a desire to say, a desire to create the subject by saying, and as a pervasive doubt very like jealousy that springs from the impossibility of satisfying these yearnings.”10

Interestingly, the situationist desire to become the “last avant-garde” may have been an implicit acknowledgment that masculine modernism was doomed by its sterility. In an early SI tract, they declare the position that, “The fundamental work of a present avant-garde should be an attempt at general criticism of this moment, and a first attempt to respond to new requirements.”11 Though their response may not have been successful in the short term, like Marx, what they observed and described was later confirmed to be a profoundly real condition of everyday life. In this light Robertson’s own fondness for description as a practice, shorn of the prescriptive formulations that so regularly failed her antecedents, seems all the more like a revolutionary response to contemporary requirements.

Of course the SI’s body of work wasn’t the monolithically masculine entity which comprised that of Futurism. Indeed, one could argue that the movements that succeeded Futurism each grew incrementally more feminine over the next three decades. By the time situationism proper began to unfold in the late 1950s, its products demonstrated a notable departure from the linear functionalism of modernist design. In fact, as Sadler makes clear in his account, “virtual incomprehensibility was an inherent feature of the situationist architectural project.”12 And because that project never succeeded in actually constructing anything physical based on its formulations, the virtual nature of their architecture uncannily resembles the “language-based rhetorical practice” of Robertson’s Office for Soft Architecture.13

Situationism’s incomprehensibility was not accidental, either; it was both an emphatic element of their societal critique and was to be a crucial component of any future development. In their 1960 tract, “The Use of Free Time”, they asserted:

“Previous avant-garde movements presented themselves by declaring the excellence of their methods and principles, which were to be immediately judged on the basis of their works. The SI is the first artistic organization to base itself on the radical inadequacy of all permissable works; and whose significance, and whose success or failure, will be able to be judged only with the revolutionary praxis of its time.”14

Similarly, Robertson’s own work is replete with phrases denoting its inadequacy, skepticism of its potential and the unfulfilled nature of its many desires: “These are memories, so the scale of things is vast, the horizon unattainable, the vegetation sparse, symbolic.”15 Her attempt remains incapable of fulfilling the duties ascribed to it because all “permissable works” are bound, in the SI’s formulation, to the logic of the dominant totality. This was arguably the failure of Moby-Dick in its time and the same incommensurability is recognized by Robertson despite her achievements. The “off-kilter” nature of this text reflects an attempt to burst through those boundaries, hence the huge risk taken in being possibly incomprehensible to the reader.

  2. Robertson, Lisa. “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto”. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Astoria, Or.:Clear Cut, 2003. p.15.
  3. ibid. p.16.
  4. Anon. “Definitions”, Internationale Situationniste #1. June 1958.
  5. Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge Mass.: MIT, 1998. 3.
  6. Robertson, Lisa. “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto”. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Astoria, Or.:Clear Cut, 2003. 17.
  7. Robertson, Lisa. “Pure Surface”. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Astoria, Or.:Clear Cut, 2003. 28.
  8. Robertson, Lisa. “Fourth Walk”. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Astoria, Or.:Clear Cut, 2003. 249.
  10. ibid.
  11. Anon. “The Meaning of Decay in Art”, Internationale Situationniste #3. December 1959.
  12. Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Cambridge Mass.: MIT, 1998. 157.
  14. Anon. “The Use of Free Time”. Internationale Situationniste #4. June 1960.
  15. Robertson, Lisa. “Pure Surface”. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Astoria, Or.:Clear Cut, 2003. 26.

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