From Lessing to Hollywood

Enrique offers a meditation on Doris Lessing, recent Nobel laureate, whose last book imagines an alternate future where she was never born:

In undoing her own history, Lessing presents us with an interesting premise. There are plenty of works where authors write themselves out of historical narratives, give themselves different names, genders, etc. But what strikes me as particularly poignant is that Lessing has declared Alfred and Emily as her final book. Her last act as an author is to erase herself from the record. I can’t explain precisely why, but this act carries a transcendent power.

For a few years now it has been fashionable within architectural circles to claim either collaborative authorship or a lack of authorship altogether. As is typical, Architecture is a couple decades late this this philosophical party yet somehow the death of the author is apparently new to us. Lessing would be the patron saint of this movement except for the fact that she accepts her position as a writer of fiction.

As Enrique hints at, the impressive feat of her most recent book is not that it disclaims authorship but paradoxically eclipses itself, makes itself impossible. Reflected back onto the practice of architecture- where things are brought into the world with real dimensions, materials, weight- Lessing’s novel highlights for us the inescapability of architectural authorship. Paradoxical states of matter remain the realm of science, missing from any architect’s palette of material choices.

Things in this world bear testament to their creators, whether we like it or not, and until the LHC folds us into another couple dimensions the burden of physicality is that it insists that meatspace holds a mutually exclusive view towards matter. A building exists at the intersection of choice and matter, both piled in massive accumulations.

One of the unique joys of design is the interchangability of ideas, but this soup of thought always ends up puddling on somebody’s spoon. Ideas are judged and selected before they’re passed down the line to the legions of hands that will bring them into a state of physical reality. This is a long way of getting at the fact that whether one writes, curates, or picks out of a hat, there is ultimately a set of quite-visible hands and minds at work in the production of architecture and things like it. Ask anyone who worked in Rex’s supposedly collaborative office about the level of input allowed to the non-partners for verification of this strawman. Of course design teams tend to be large and varied, but the size of a team is not what matters: it’s the decision making graph.

Or to take it further, it’s the meta-characteristics of that graph, the possibilities for authorial expansion that are built in to the organization of the firm. Currently, the top eschalons of architecture are dominated for the most part by firms that still rely on the individual(s): Herzog & de Meuron, Nouvel, Foster, Gehry, et al. are difficult to imagine without their namesakes. What is OMA without Koolhaas? How many pluses can DS+R append? No wonder my generation of offices are eschewing names for more ambiguous, almost ominous labels: The Living, Para Project, UNI… Perhaps those even younger will bring us back to the time of super-acronyms with a new crop of SOMs, HOKs, and CRSes.

As more and more of our world evaporates into the cloud I expect that the percieved stability of a known author will become a premium. Brand Me is the implicit logic behind some of the more successful weblogs like Jason’s irrepressible Kottke.org. Curation-as-authorship will doubtlessly continue as a strong phenomonea but, to return to the burden of the architect, it’s impossible to escape the requirement of producing new content. Dealing with the tricky issue of authorship on a project that has a necessarily complicated, nested and looped decision making graph is still a mess. I’d like to offer an alternative to the oppositional modes of authorial escapism and starchitect celebrity fetish: if production of buildings were thought of like the production of films the credits would bear testament to the dense network of collaborations that brought the finished product into the world. This means everything: designers, back office staff, contractors and their staff, subcontractors, etc. In other words, why doesn’t this look more like this?

Forgive me if I’m calling the bluff on whatever general sentiment towards authorless works exists right now in the architectural ether, but there’s a difference between writing yourself out of existence and productively problematizing your output. As Lessing herself puts it “There isn’t much to be said for sincerity, in itself.”

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