Lars Bang Larsen

Doubt rebuilt

Some thoughts on Knut Henrik Henriksen’s deviation from architecture (and other normalities) 

Modern architecture is here with us, yielding its effects. Decades after it has been planned and built, it still works over generations after generation of users; “work us over completely,” as Marshall McLuhan said of electronic media. Constructed of mute materials—mortar and stone, glass and iron—architecture is as effect-generating as any medium with a colour screen, loudspeakers and an electric circuit. More discrete, perhaps, but more immersive than any multi-media environment, and impossible to switch off: a building is aliveand teeming with forces. A building’s presence in space exudes a fundamental socio-cultural facticity that may seem counter-intuitive to the ephemerality and unruliness of effects. Yet for all its palpable domestication of human intention, isn’t a building as silent and powerful a masseur and shaper of behaviour as any, as it travels unshakably through time? 

           

To Gilles Deleuze, architecture is a machine of visibility. Human bodies absorb it in a state of distraction as they pass through this medium that participates in shaping our thoughts and perceptions:

 

If different examples of architecture… are visibilities, places of visibilities, this is because they are not just figures of stone, assemblages of things and combinations of qualities, but first and foremost forms of light that distribute light and dark, opaque and transparent, seen and non-seen, etc.[i]

 

buildings make subjects and objects appear, create the conditions for their being seen or not, with effects that—as effects are wont to—are often imperceptible, delayed, out of control. Effect-spaces are not enclosures but force fields.

Architects could easily metaphorize their work as drug cookers engineering dope: ‘Try live in this, baby, this is the good stuff… We will make you see this city. We can get you high, low, and sideways, always hemmed in by the right proportions. Yeah, you’ll be coming back for more architecture soon, we got you hooked now…’ This highly active, restless, immaterial power to massage the minds and bodies of users of architecture sits uneasily with the fundamentalist metaphors that architects are fond of. For instance Charles Jencks pronounced in a 2012 lecture that “Crystallising and personifying the basic human condition is what architecture does well, and what monumental architecture does very well.”[ii]It is hard to think of any living artist who entirely without irony would praise art’s essential relation to the universalist phantom of ‘the human condition’ and get away with it. And that still leaves Jencks’ mysterious idea of monumental architecture’s ‘personification’ of this basic human condition to be explained: How does a monument personify a condition? Perhaps the latter is a case of the power of autonomous architectural effects that elude the command of the architect and resist articulation.

 

If smug modernist ideologies are still espoused amongst architects who hold that their practice is an arché-civilizational activity, Knut Henrik Henriksen works with architecture not as the first thing, but as the last; not with architecture as a base for human activity, but as a superstructure of materialized ideas that transform and that find themselves in processes of transformation. In Henriksen, the dynamics of built space reveals itself through what he calls architectural doubt and frustrations. His is not the bauen-wohnen-denkenof Heidegger’s phenomenology of living, but rather a situated echoing of that; a deconstruction of the material fact of built space that removes the habits from habitation. He finds the limits of the discipline of architecture neither in marginal, post-utopian practices, nor in what Felicity Scott has called the ‘defensive re-demarcation of disciplinary boundaries’ of postmodernist endgames, but in the mainstream of a modernism whose global dissemination manifests its universalist aspirations.[iii]
 

Henriksen’s installation Scale of Proportions Which Makes the Bad Difficult and the Good Easy (2006) took as its inspiration a meeting between Le Corbusier and Albert Einstein that transpired in 1942. Their meeting is one of those moments when you can almost hear 20 century history click. The architect availed himself of the opportunity to explain his work on the Modulor system, an attempt to locate the golden section proportional to the height of the average person: The human body could thus become the pivotal point of built space, promising an ideal basis for commodious, harmonic, universally standardized edifices. Einstein responded that if realized, the Modulor would make "the bad difficult and the good easy."

Implementing Le Corbusier's quest for a universal standard, Scale of Proportionswas an intervention in the space of a commercial gallery, lowering its ceiling height to the French architect's paradigmatic 7'4 3/4". The new ceiling—consisting of square white grooved Styrofoam panels mounted on a prosaic wooden frame—is in effect a horizontal sculpture that hangs above you and that you hence look at from below. It is the exhibition's only work, a sort of Bauhaus-meets-Home Depot gesture: Henriksen's use of cheap standard materials from DIY shops injects the whole scenario with an inescapable sense of everyday life economy. As one stood in the gallery, the new drop ceiling feels more like an amputation of the space or a piston coming down on your head than a harmonious proportion, and it seems to squeeze your attention from the empty white cube out toward the street life ho-humming past the windows of the gallery’s not-so-uptown location. So while the work did what Minimalist sculpture did best—enhancing scale, material, and perception by means of a kind of elated banality—it is less about Minimal mystique and industrial sublimity, and more of a reminder of the actual meanness of modernist space in the meetings it had—and has—with real bodies. Not ‘the human body’, as per Le Corbusier, but male and female bodies, white and black bodies, young and old ones, healthy and incapacitated, and so on.   

 

Seemingly true to Le Corbusier's humanist intentions, the beholder became the protagonist in the transformed void of the gallery space. However, the paradox was that you found yourself in a place where objects are usually the focus, and instead of mastering the central perspective you were a pawn in a game of visibility whose transparency had turned sour. Scale of Proportionsalso neatly dissected the metaphysical overtones of heroic modernism. From the outside at night, one could see through the large shop windows of the gallery how the space created above the drop ceiling made for a kind of Platonic realm lit up by strip lights, while the lower part—the gallery space—wallowed in darkness. This sharp divide between the ‘realm of ideas’ and the nether, material world is akin to other dualisms inherent to the constitution according to which the moderns sought to organize the world. Pertinent to Scale of Proportionsone can mention aesthetic idealism and art market commerce; material contingency and architectural blueprint; transcendental and visceral; authentic and fake; visibility and opacity. Le Corbusier’s Modulor is a universal, Cartesian logos that illuminates embodied being from the point of view of an ideal, rationalistic-universal, abstracted human body towards a dwelling adapted to our needs, “beauty in the sense of good proportion”.

Corbusier’s golden proportioning of space has its precedence in the early 20thcentury processes of standardization in architecture and design. Architectural standards illustrate the unprecedented new powers that norms enjoyed in the 20thcentury. This is not only a question of how things are made. As Nader Vossoughian points out, standardization cannot only be equated with ‘mechanization, prefabrication, or mass production.’ Instead “Normung” or “Normierung”, as it is named in German, ‘expresses a dimension of normalisationthat is frequently overlooked in architectural discourse (…) Conventions that govern the dimensions of brick also shape understandings of the body politic.’[iv]In this way, through books such as Ernst Neufer’s Bauentwurfslehre (1936) and Charles Ramsey and Harold Sleeper’s Architectural Graphic Standards(1932), builders, and students and practitioners of design and architecture were furnished with a ‘systematic and encyclopedic picture’ of knowledge that acquainted them with ‘norms for vacuum cleaners, chicken coops, and bookshelves’.[v]The most successful of these proposals for what the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald called ‘coordinated conventions’ was the standardization in 1922 of the dimensions of paper in the A series paper formats; this, Vossoughian writes, stands as ‘the Urnorm against which all other standards in Germany are still measured.’[vi]In Germany and elsewhere at the timeit was held that unsystematized organizational principles were symptoms of inferior and barbaric cultures. Although it cannot be reduced to a fascist cultural phenomenon, it can be mentioned here that Neufer’s efforts to root his dimensional norms in a theory of the “well-proportioned man” find parallels in National Socialist propaganda and that his Bauentwurfslehre was instrumental in the militarization of civil life in Germany prior to World War II. It is an educated guess that after the integration of the computer in architectural planning that the normalization of standardization has reached a new level of globality, algorithmic sophistication, and conformity.  

Students of architecture are familiar with the narrative that starts with the so-called Phalansteries of the libidinal communist Charles Fourier from the 1820 and culminates in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in the late 1940s. Fourier replaced the Cartesian methodological imperative of absolute doubt with that of absolute deviation from established philosophies and institutions. His was a principle of utopian derive that eroticized the entire social space, and whose pervasive re-imagination of human existence resulted in this vision of communal living—conceived as a kind of prototype of the hippie commune—that became an inspiration for the modern movement’s models for qualitative, mass-produced housing. If humankind started living according the Fourier’s insights, that Fourier himself and very few others considered scientific, it would have beneficial effects on a planetary level: Earth would correct its planetary tilt, a permanent Northern light would illuminate the sky, and cosmic music would resound throughout the universe.So good would life be in Fourier’s fantasy world that life would exceed all later expectations to good proportions: humankind would reach an average height of seven feet, and a mutant third sex, a kind of kick-ass hermaphrodite, would see the light of day.

As one can tell, Fourier’s writing is anything but ridden by logic. It is intoxicated, rather, and it has long been considered exotic and intractable. According to Kenneth White, writing in 1969, it is a “grotesque item, for dilettante admiration and curiosity (…) on the shelf of political antiquities.” Strangely, from this perspective Le Corbusier married Cartesian logocentrism with a Fourieresque vision of happy co-habitation for the common man and woman.Henriksen’s navigation of built space from the vantage point of deviation and doubt can be seen as a fascinated, artistic attempt at establishing bigger, more complete mechanisms inherent to architecture considered not as machines for living but as effect-producing apparatuses that may be out of whack, or that may produce unexpected vistas. 

 

A Story About the Sun and the Moon and a Chipboard Removed to Reveal the Pearls of Water(2003) takes its cue from ahidden construction error in the new wing—designed by Corbusier students Atelier 5—of the Kunstmuseum Bern, where condensation water in double-paned windows quite literally provoked a cover-up in the form of a wall. By removing a cut of this wall with a cubistic gesture, another strata of the seen is opened up as the error re-appears, and a chipboard crescent seems to have slid down to reveal the punctured windows with the pearls of water. This is an example of how Henriksen shows the autopoietic potential of built space and the public volume, by calling attention to a feedback structure in which the drops of framed condensation become the lesson that the Kunstmuseum Bern learns about itself. This can be compared to the feedback whine that acid rock guitarists in the 1960s produced not by playing their guitar, but by placing themselves within the electronic circuit and playing the flow of already amplified sound. The feedback whine is the sound of the circuit learning to learn—something that it wasn’t supposed to do at all.

It is not that Henriksen converts architecture into an anarchist playland, or a employ a Fourierist, proto-Surrealist aesthetic. He doesn’t attempt to turn Corbusier, for instance, on his head and make a revolutionary claim for architecture. In his book from 1923 Towards a New Architecture,Corbusier famously writes, “It is a question of building which is a the root of the social unrest of today: architecture or revolution.” Also Henriksen is on the side of (the) building, but he is likely to detourn and short-circuit it, materialize its side-effects and invite it to live with its failures, or implant a consciousness that makes it recall the conditions of its making and realize future potentials. Henriksen’s originary fascination with Modernist architecture is not only due to its need for deconstruction. In this respect, because he lets loose its effects and after-images, he engages with the traces of the traces of Modernism, as much as he debunks its epistemic edifice. So if he sees Corbusier as the real thing it could be because the latter was among the architects for whom the stakes were high and who had the ambition that—regardless of its unrestrained claim to ubiquity—in fact exacerbated architecture’s problem with the realization that, yes, built space and revolution are intimately connected, becausearchitecture is complicit with power and the social divisions of life in the city, becauseit reappears in the marketplace as real estate, becauseit codifies behaviour and reproduces forms of control. 

Today it is not a question of architecture or revolution. Instead architecture needs to be lead in a revolt against itself. There is reason to believe that an urban environment produced by architectural doubt would be a new, more liveable and inclusive kind of city. It would not be a utopia—not New Babylon, not Brasilia—but neither would it be London or Paris, with their privatized boroughs where the young are priced out. It would be a city whose foundation is made of the lasting effects of built spaces and public volumes that critically and self-critically search for their limits and embark on learning processes away from their determining and normalizing conditions.

Lars Bang Larsen is an art historian, writer and curator

[i]Gilles Deleuze: Foucault. University of MInnesota Press, Minneapolis 1988 (1986), 57.

[ii]Charles Jencks: Can Architecture Affect Your Health?ArtEZ Press: Arnhem 2012.

[iii]Felicity Scott: Architecture or Techno-Utopia. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass. 2010.

[iv]Nader Vossoughian: ”Standardization Reconsidered: Normierungin and after Ernst Neufert’s Bauentwurfslehre(1936)” in: Grey Room 54, winter 2014. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 34-55. 

[v]Op.cit.

[vi]Op.cit. 

Knut Henrik Henriksen, Kurfürstenstrasse 14, D-10785 Berlin, Germany  Email:knuthenrikhenriksen@gmail.com 

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