Architecture at the Mirror. On Architecture’s critical Ontology

massa critica | giacomo pala

One of the advantages of editing a webzine is the possibility to enter in contact with (and give space to) discourses that move far away from one’s own imaginary, and therefore, to be enriched by that famous “other” that is progressively being suppressed by the algorithmic formulas of the so-called “filter bubble”. Not that Giacomo Pala and I don’t share a similar critical way of looking at contemporary architecture, but his approach to the discipline – filled up as it is of history, philosophy and a taste for postmodernist formalism - is that of an atypical Italian researcher: one that is capable of diving deep into architectural culture without running the risk of becoming dogmatic. The present text, which I am very happy to publish, sums up some of the research lines that Giacomo is currently working on, and particularly, the possibility to define theoretically a more open and inclusive ontological status for architecture, in response to the “normative” effect that accepted discourses, even in a period of disciplinary fragmentation as the one we live in, have on it. DTF

03_Copertina_Paolo-Pellion-di-Persano-Michelangelo-Pistoletto.-La-forma-dello-specchio-Galleria-Multipli-Torino-1978-1018x1024Fig.0. Paolo Pellion di Persano, Michelangelo Pistoletto. La forma dello specchio, Galleria Multipli, Torino 1978

1. The Self

Bruges, 1434; the subjects represented in the painting are looking at each other. At their back we see a convex mirror showing their shoulders and two others mysterious persons looking at us. The mirror shows another place outside the picture’s frame: a room represented in the distorted perspectival space of the mirror. We see a window showing an outside green space. Between the same window and the mirror there are the represented subjects yield up by architecture’s volume. In here, the subjects are mixed and reality is observed from multiple points of view. This famous painting by Jan van Eyck representing duke Arnolfini and his wife, has to be considered not just as one of the masterpieces of Flemish painting due to the mysterious character of both the subjects on the painting’s foreground and the ghost-like ones appearing in the mirror, but also because it shows some interesting novelties unseen up to the 15th century: perspective and an object relatively new; a mirror.

00_van_eyck_-_arnolfini_portraitFig.1. Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434 (detail)

Of course, the mirror was known since the antiquity (Romans had mirrors made of polished metal and obsidian), but only in this century the glass mirror was invented, becoming one of the most sold “new” objects. Even though this invention might seem trivial if compared to some others of the same period such as Gutenberg’s printing method or Prague’s astronomical clock, it can be useful to develop some arguments in relation to architectural theory and architecture’s ontology.

First of all, in this century the mirror became an important object for aristocrats, kings and queens, so much so that – for instance – in Henry the Fifth’s private room there were not just one, but even three glass mirrors1. The success of the mirror in this century – and it must be pointed out that the increasing number of self-portraits during this period was not something happening by chance – has been extraordinary important for architecture. In order to prove it, it would be enough to mention Brunelleschi’s experiment on perspective: the use of a mirror to measure the distance between Santa Maria del Fiore and Florence’s Baptistery.

Nonetheless, the invention of this object can be considered as a metaphor for something much bigger that was happening in that century: a major paradigmatic shift in culture, that started as a rebellion against the medieval culture in the attempt of mirroring the world, its reality and men’s self. Indeed, the need of the architects to be identified as intellectuals and the need of architecture to be recognised as a cultural discipline that is epitomized by Leon Battista Alberti’s cultural project, falls within the simultaneous cultural clashes aiming at the establishment of new forms of subjectivity. As Francesco Petrarca was studying ancient Latin instead of the medieval one, in order to affirm his modernity; as Martin Luther would have shown men that it was not necessary to rely on someone else’s interpretation of the holy books in order to be Christians, so Alberti, Ghiberti, Filarete and all the architects of humanism were affirming their modernity – their self – by the reinterpretation of ancient texts and by the reinvention of the classical orders and language. For the first time in Western history, architecture explicitly proclaimed itself as modern by mirroring history and reinventing itself. Following this principle, all the architectural movements from the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century, should be regarded as a major architectural crisis, which started as a rebellion against the medieval world, and then against itself. As Alberti reinvented the classical, so did, in different centuries and from different point of views, architects such as Sebastiano Serlio, Vincenzo Scamozzi or Guarino Guarini, mirroring more and more the image of architecture in the attempt of ordering architecture’s rules, truths and methods. Then, if the initial crisis arising from the Renaissance led to a cultural approach that constantly re-defined its rules (it-self), this cultural paradigm turned out to become a cultural discourse the supremacy of which lasted until the end of the 17th century, when this same culture started to face its own crisis.

2. The Self(s)

In the 17th century, a systematic questioning of the cultural and political assumptions of the Western world started to occur. This new hermeneutic process led to the establishment of new languages and discursive phenomena. Moreover, if we can consider the French architect Claude Perrault as the first one who explicitly questioned the truth underlying the “classical” by the definition of “arbitrary beauty”2 in 1683, it is nonetheless during the 18th century that this Cultural Revolution reached its peak. In other words, it is in the Age of Enlightenment that, once again, modern individuals found their role in the world thanks to the use of reason, which, autonomously from religion, promised a new “modern” subjectivity. In fact, just as from a political and cultural point of view this age is characterised by the secular thinking of Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as by Diderot’s and D’Alembert’s encyclopaedia, architecture features new forms of expressions and different cultural developments too. For instance, While in Germany Johann Joachim Winkelmann envisages a key role for Greek arts (rather than the romans) within the history of art because of their pureness, in France, Marc-Antoine Laugier defines the beauty of architecture as its essentiality, rather than the application of orders and ornaments3. Eventually, after Perrault’s arbitrary beauty, these architectural experiences represent a break with the paradigm of classicism, making it just an architectural genre among many others. Here, architecture finds new shapes, rules and assumptions to generate its future: a multiplication of the self. Since then, there would not have been anymore just one truth (ontology) and method (epistemology) for architecture, but a multiplication of values. According to Immanuel Kant, this change of perspective in Western culture can be defined using the motto: sapere aude (dare to know). In fact, quoting the Prussian philosopher’s words:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance. Sapere aude! “Have the courage to use your own understanding” .4

Going back to the metaphorical image of the mirror, the motto “sapere aude” can be considered as the mirror useful for – as Kant might put it – the development of one’s own understanding of reality: the critical attitude of modernity.

Das Theater von BesançonFig.2. Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Theatre of Besançon (built around 1784), circa 1800

Still, it is interesting to refer to Michel Foucault’s observations on this text5. According to Foucault, although the principle of reason has an emancipatory power, Western culture has also felt the need of constructing a discourse of rationality that is embodied in the invention of the modern state and its discourse of power: a political discourse that tends to homogenise contradictions. In a sense, we can see the construction of a similar myth in architecture too. Indeed, Ledoux’s and Boulèe’s architecture made of pure forms, figures and rational principles have often been regarded as the beginning of modern architecture. This is particularly patent in Emil Kaufmann’s work. Kaufmann identifies the origin of modernity in the works of Ledoux and, by combining it with the Kantian principle of “autonomy”, traces a path featuring pure abstract shapes, which extends up to Le Corbusier and Gropius6. Furthermore, in the German world, the continuity between the assumptions of Winckelman and others such as Gottfried Semper have been often studied, thus paving the way to the theory of tectonics in modern architecture7. Consequently, architecture’s modernity is usually studied as an evolution of classical paradigm through the work of architects such as Auguste Perret or Peter Behrens who tried to implement classical language using modern technology or – vice-versa – tried to use modern technology in classicist manner, in the attempt of saving the classical principles of architecture. In this sense, the idea of the self in architecture is seen as a history of continuity that finds its roots in the Renaissance and evolves into the forms of the post-industrial society.

As it is easily noticeable, this theoretical and historical discourse represents a possible truth that is based on the dethronement of traditions, but this same dethronement is achieved only through a prejudice against prejudices: not just because it does not consider the development of new scientific and technical knowledge, but also because it tends to ignore experiences considered as “minor”. In fact, it would be enough to mention the names of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, John Soane or John Lautner to immediately see how modern architecture was (and is) not so rational after all. Consequently, if the principle of reason is based on a prejudice that neglects eccentric experiences, considering them kitsch, or simply bad, how would it be possible to consider architecture’s self? How would it be possible to define architecture’s truth?

3. The Terrific Self

To answer these questions it could be useful to refer to Richard Rorty’s philosophy. In fact, if the theory of Enlightenment and its principle of “reason” have left us with a renewed attention for the centrality of the subject, Rorty’s philosophy could help us to change our point of view. Indeed, thanks to methods of rationalization (Descartes) and thanks to a critical approach to reality (Kant’s “I think”) the modern subject is thought to be able to interpret reality using an epistemological and interpretative strategy as a mirror. According to Rorty, however, this same idea is based on the properties of the same interpretive theories that are chosen by the subjects. Consequently, the truth is a concept that is based on a set of beliefs that we suppose to be sufficiently justified so as not to require any verification. The truth then, “is just the idea of a proposition which is believed because the “grip” of the object upon us is ineluctable. Such a truth is necessary in the sense in which it is sometimes necessary to believe that what is before our eyes looks red.”8

Consequently, if we take these theories literally, there is not either any objective and common truth, nor any autonomous subject. In this sense, any principle of rationality can be seen as a rhetorical construction of knowledge based on the necessity to give a meaning to a meaningless reality, but, at the same time, this necessity for a truth is a discourse of power that, as such, has an oppressive nature based on the constitution of limits and prescriptions. From this point of view, the subject finds its own terrifying (rather than terrific) truth: he is in a house of mirrors where his image is mirrored over and over again, giving him the illusion of seeing a truth each time he is looking at one of his reflections. Here, the self is literally stuck in the middle.

Hall of MirrorsFig.3. House of Mirrors, Prague © Harold Davis

Probably, the only way to get out of this postmodern loop is by abandoning a dialectic approach to these issues. Rather than opposing power vs. knowledge or rationality vs. irrationality, it might be helpful to operate a change of perspective. Doing so, the terrifying subject might become a terrific self. Of course, we can find discourses of rationality, even though multiple, in contemporary architecture too. Parametricism, Aureli’s project of autonomy, OMA’s storytelling – just to name a few – are all discourses based on theoretical and poetic axioms that are defined by (ultimately arbitrary) rules. Even though anyone might like one or the other discourse among these depending on one’s ideological and cultural background, it must be said that all of these have similar power structures. Furthermore, today’s architecture presents a vast amount of discourses of truth that are defined by design methods. Indeed, all of these experiences seem to share the same questions (what is architecture? What can architecture do? How is it designed?); despite giving very different answers. So, in these experiences we can still see the self’s critical attitude as defined by the Kantian “dare to know”, but, as Rorty might have put it, since there is more than one way to interpret reality, the different subjects’ answers irremediably differ from one another.

Then, given the existence of these different principles of rationality, it might be interesting to define an agenda for architectural theory and practice that is moving between the folds of these different multiple discourses. Rather than defining a project of autonomy or a style for the 21th century, it might be possible to identify a discourse that is in its nature heteromorphic and that can be based on critical interpretations and strategies.

A discourse that, rather than being a principle of rationality, is an attitude that puts under constant analysis the truths of architecture and its methods, but at the same time, does not take for granted its being historically determined. To do so, it would be necessary to develop a number of specific historical investigations. In fact, rather than accepting the principle of “reason” remaining within the “tradition of rationalisms” [classicism, modernism, brutalism, (meta-,post-,neo-)modernism, minimalism, deconstructivism, parametricism, materialism, realism(s)], or criticizing the principle of rationality in favour of an obscure and unclear “irrationalism”, it might be necessary, from a theoretical point of view, to study the actual limits of architectural truths and methods. In other words, it might be necessary to pinpoint what is no longer necessary for the construction of experiences and ideas, defined as autonomous and self-determined, as well as to identify what is external to the cultural and dialectical discourse of contemporary architecture. From a historical point of view, for example, it could be worth studying once again the set of eccentric experiences with respect to the heart of the cultural discourses in architecture. Doing so, it might be interesting to analyse the work of the above-mentioned Piranesi, Lequeu, Soane or Lautner from this point of view, as well as all of the experiences that are hardly definable stylistically, formally or ideologically. Consequently, to get out of Rorty’s loop, it might be useful to develop an idea of ​​architecture as a “limit attitude” that eludes the alternative of being inside or outside of certain cultural discourses. An architecture that is, in a sense, at the borders between different realities, truths and design methods, and that turns the Kantian motto sapere aude in the theory of overcoming the limitations imposed by the different structuring paradigms of architectural cultures. In this sense, it may be possible to overcome the generalized tendency to develop a metaphysics for architecture, being nonetheless able to grasp the historically determined contingency that since the Enlightenment has defined the theoretical and practical framework of modern architecture. In other words, a critical methodology that is nonetheless able to understand the genealogy of its transformation over time in the attempt to develop an alternative, or in a sense, to embrace its indeterminacy.

It would be important however, in order not to just produce a set of contradictory worlds in a theoretical vacuum, that this attitude had also an operative side, that is the development of design methods able to test this strategy in actuality. While it is true that any attempt of determining a radical re-start for architecture in order to develop an avant-garde project that lives in an autonomous symbolic space, has almost always renewed authoritarian traditions and developed systems of power (at least in the academia), this design approach could work through the circumscription of specific problems, whether disciplinary or practical. This architecture, therefore, would be able to interpret and criticize the main disciplinary authorities and might be able to use relations between different truths (and methods) as well as to rethink experiences usually considered as non-important such as, for example, the so-called architecture built by non-architects. An architecture, then, that is based on what Michel Foucault calls as a “critical ontology” of itself9. But, since for any architectural experience is still required the development of generalities in the organization of thinking, as well as the definition of systematic methods and the delineation of purposes, this idea might be ultimately bound to failure. However, since this attitude cannot be defined as a doctrine (otherwise it would loose its raison d’être), it can still be worthwhile to work on a kind of architecture and a theory that would be able to analyse the historical limits imposed to both the discipline and the profession. Doing so, it might be possible to overcome the terrifying self. Finally, this would promote a set of concrete practices, historical analysis and theoretical definitions that could give back a terrific truth as well as a terrific self.


1. See: Chris Woolgar, The Senses in Medieval England, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2006
2. See: Claude Perrault, Ordonnance des cinq espèces de colonnes selon la method des anciens, Paris, 1683
3. See: Johann Joachim Winkelmann, Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst und dem Unterrichte in derselbe, 1763 and Marc-Antoine Laugier, Essay sur l’Architecture, Paris, 1753
4. Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment”; originally: “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” in, Berlinische Monatsschrift, DezemberHeft, 1784, p. 481
5. See: Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984, pp.32-50
6. See: Emil Kaufmann, Von Ledoux bis Le Corbusier, Leipzig-Wien, 1933
7. For a general introduction to this argument see: Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004
8. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1979, p.157
9. Micher Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984, p47. “I shall thus characterize the philosophical ethos appropriate to the critical ontology of ourselves as a historico-practical test of the limits that we may go beyond, and thus as work carried out by ourselves upon ourselves as free beings”.


Giacomo is a PhD candidate studying under the guidance of Peter Trummer at the University of Innsbruck. After some experiences in the “practice” of architecture, Pala has decided to conduct his research. More specifically, his PhD research is about the concepts of crisis and modernity, using as a departure point Piranesi’s work in the attempt of starting the development of an alternative genealogy of modern and contemporary architecture. Pala has taken part to different research programs at the Architecture department of Genoa’s University. He was a collaborator in a research project about parametric representation in  Genoa’s during the academic year 2015/2016. In 2014 he won the “DiaStízein Prize”. In 2013 he also co-founded Burrasca: an independent cultural association for which he has co-edited some of the homonym magazine.

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