Architecture has always had a tenuous relationship with reality. Two millennia ago the ur-source of architectural history and theory, Roman architect Vitruvius, describes in Book VI Chapter II of his Ten Books on Architecture that “If things that are true appear false, there should be no doubt that it is proper to make additions and subtractions according to the nature of the site” – indicating that it is not only the responsibility of the architect to build buildings, but to orchestrate the very perception of their reality. Andrea Palladio accelerates this use of fictions to describe what is real beyond buildings and into their representation via his own canonical text, The Four Books of Architecture, among the most widely published architectural treatises of the Renaissance. In this publication he illustrates his own projects not as they were actually built, but as idealized versions of how he wanted them to be. For instance, his Villa Valmarana in Lisiera, constructed in the early 1560’s, had it been built according to the drawings in the Four Books, would be too large to fit on the site on which it was actually constructed. Other projects, such as Villa Cornaro, were they built according to his published floor plans with their exaggerated dimensions, would require impossible feats of architecture, if not physics, such as negative wall thickness. While architecture defines the physical framework of our reality, it often does so through the rarely discussed assistance of architectural fictions.
While this would normally be of merely academic interest, this historic strategy of producing reality through gently calibrated fictions might be of particular social relevance today with the emergence of fake news, ‘alternative’ facts and the nefarious political choreographies of our partisan reality. Today we might ask of architecture, as a discourse with a history of ‘creatively’ framing the real, to re-assess its agency in these new political landscapes. Concluding a recent Artforum essay, eminent art critic Hal Foster asked the same of the arts when he writes “what relation do the real fictions reviewed here [in Damien Hirst’s work] have to ‘alternative facts’ and might the former be deployed to challenge the latter…?” It would seem that, for architecture, there are then two options on the table, the first being to ignore such contemporary issues regarding the definition of reality, as well as ignore our history of engagement with such issues, or secondly, that architecture seeks to somehow engage such issues in new ways and with a more contemporary, if not yet fully developed, suite of intellectual and design tools. This installation seeks to prompt the latter- to explore how architecture not only contains, but describes our reality—through all sources of its contemporary output including built form, representation, narrative description, video and social media. Accordingly, it has multiple existential trajectories- the first and foremost of which is as an actual collaboration between the Southern California Institute of Architecture, the Yale University School of Architecture and Mark Foster Gage architects that aims to showcase a new technology of laser-resonance geothermal welling for sustainable energy generation. The only flaw is that such technologies do not yet fully exist, as early testing has resulted in no notable successes. In fact, there has been no testing. Yet for this project we occupy a speculative territory where such testing has resulted in astounding achievement- and the promise of inexpensive, sustainable and plentiful energy has been fulfilled by the very technologies so showcased. As this latter reality exists, even briefly, for some viewers might it prompt speculation? Is being immersed in a speculation different than merely being intellectually presented with it? Is such curiosity-prompting agency ethically nullified through the use of fictions presented as real, or does it altruistically challenge the increasingly predictable outcomes of our current conceptual framework? Might architecture’s power in this new world be conducted through an elasticity of the real, that encourages citizens to develop doubt about their presented realities- and therefore perhaps become more resistant to fake-news and alternative facts? If architecture is used to generate curiosity or doubt in one’s surroundings, is that disempowering or does it prompt in others an instinct to dig deeper for truths rather than accept what is presented by others? Where is this most successful and where does it break down? This exhibition is about architecture’s ability to call attention to the manipulatable elasticity of our reality today. It is an exploration into how we, through architecture, engage reality, how we locate its position, frame it through design, and orchestrate our passage through it in the spaces we occupy both physically and intellectually. Through stretching the believability of “the real” to the breaking point, and assessing its trajectory through various forms of culture and media, this installation addresses its perceptual malleability. Even to the point that the words you are now reading are, perhaps, not true. ††
†† This technologies used in this exhibition are an attempt to fuse architecture with the use of philosophical ‘counterfactuals.’ A counterfactual is defined, within philosophy, as a “conditional containing an ‘if’-clause which is contrary to fact,” but in contemporary creative use it has been expanded to include the use of strategic fictions to prompt unexpected creative directions. Counterfactual ideas have been used as the basis for recent projects ranging from Margaret Atwood’s translated Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” which imagines the contemporary United States caught within an alternate, and terrifyingly prescient, political reality where women are unbearably suppressed, to the art world where celebrated artist Damien Hirst recently produced a counterfactual series of works titled “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” in which he invents the entirely fictitious narrative of a recently discovered Egyptian shipwreck that contains vast treasures, which he sells as his artworks, including giant sculptures of sea monsters encrusted with coral and a bronze statue of Mickey Mouse eroded by centuries of ocean exposure. While the idea of philosophical counterfactuals can be traced back to Hume, the subject has received a renewed presence in philosophy today, significantly through the philosophical movements surrounding Object Oriented Ontology, but also tangentially within the news media, criticism, television, film, and, in particular- politics. Previously-enlisted art critic, Hal Foster, seemingly, if tentatively, flirting with this momentum of philosophy’s return to realism, recently wrote in Artforum that “Despite rumors of its disappearance, the real remains with us.” He continues, through references to the work of Frederic Jameson, to note that “the question of the real is not a matter of its presence, but of its position—where it is located, how, by whom and for what reasons.” This sentiment echoes similar concepts as they emerge from contemporary philosophy- particularly through the work of Jacques Ranciere and his “Distribution of the Sensible” through which aesthetic access to one’s surroundings becomes political.