Site of Reversible Destiny – Yoro Park by Arakawa & Madeline Gins
In the middle of the XVIIth century, Baruch Spinoza revolutionized theology by proposing a tremendous change in the definition of God. From the classic transcendental vision of a God creator, he introduced an immanent vision of God creature. Some architects might stop their reading of Spinoza’s Ethics here and consider the whole theory as an external element from their practice. However, this immanent theology envisions the world in such a way that architecture can creates itself based on this vision and celebrates it in composing what we will call, an architecture of joy. The first part of this short essay will attempt to concisely envision Spinoza’s Ethics, the second will present the difference between joyful affects and sad affects, and the third and last one will try to elaborate relationships between this philosophy and the architectural projects designed by Claude Parent and Paul Virilio in the 1960’s on the one hand, and those built by Arakawa and Madeline Gins in the last ten years on the other hand.
Spinoza envisions God as the infinite substance composing the universe. This substance is an infinite amount of infinitely small parts which develop external relations with each other and thus compose bodies. The ability of those bodies to maintain the effort of persisting in their own beings is called conatus and composes the essence of things. Those bodies have then the ability to encounter and affect each other and thus increasing or decreasing their power of action. That being stated, we can observe that Spinoza is not only a rebel against religion but also against the paradigmatic philosophy of his century; the Cartesian philosophy. In fact, in the second book of his Ethics, he demonstrates the following proposition: The Human mind does not perceive any external body as existing, except through the ideas of the modifications of its own body. In other words, a mind knows itself only via the encounter with other things which is in complete contradiction with Descartes’ I think, therefore I am , in which a mind knows itself by thinking. Spinoza, on the contrary could have states something like “I encounter, therefore I am.”
From there, Spinoza distinguishes four modes of perception in his Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding . In order to focus on the proposed topic here, we won’t even evoke the first one, “arising from hearsay” that is negligible. In fact, in his class for the University of Vincennes about Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze – who appears between the lines in this essay- does not even talk about this first mode of perception that he personally calls kinds of knowledge. Those three remaining modes of perception are establishes as following:
- The first one is empirical. It implies only the experience of shock between the extensive parts of respective bodies and thus provides what Spinoza calls inadequate ideas. Deleuze, in order to illustrate this mode, uses the example of the wave. In the first mode of perception/knowledge, one can only experience the shock of the wave against his body. In other words, it provokes a knowledge of effects without a knowledge of causes.
- The second one is both empirical and rational. It involves the composition of relations between the bodies. In the illustration of the wave, one can position his body in such a way that the relations of the wave compose in a harmonious way with the relation of one’s body.
- The third one is strictly rational. It implies a perception of the essence of a thing or, following what we wrote earlier about the essence, the understanding of the mechanisms of perpetuation of a body in its being. It is indeed an understanding of causes and this way can be defined as adequate ideas.
From there, the purpose of this essay becomes probably clearer and one can distinguish the role that the second mode of perception can play in architecture. However, it is still too early in this text to evoke this question as the Ethics itself has not been yet deployed.
The first part has in fact established Spinoza’s theology/cosmology and the different modes of perception of it; nevertheless, the second part needs to develop veritably what makes Spinoza calls his book Ethics. In fact, one more reason for his Cherem from the Jewish Community is that he establishes a fundamental distinction between a religious moral and an individual ethics. The good versus evil both determined transcendentally are replaced by the good versus the bad which are, on the other hand, determined by the accordance or the discordance of relations between parts composing bodies.
As Deleuze explains in his class, when I have an encounter such that the relation of the body which modifies me, which acts on me is combined with my own relation, […] my power of acting is increased . This encounter that increases the power of acting is defined by Spinoza as being good and he calls it Joy. As a corollary, any encounter that tends to destroy the relations of one’s body is considered as bad for this same body and thus is called sadness. In the same way Spinoza decided to keep the same terminology (God) than religion in order to show the revolutionary content of his philosophy, he uses the creationist religious example of the Original Sin in his demonstration, in order to deactivate what used to be the paradigm of the religious moral. He affirms that Adam did not do an evil act when he ate the apple, but rather he did a bad act as the relations of the apple were not composing well with his own relations. What is described in the Bible as a divine interdiction to eat the apple is nothing else than Adam’s instinct that the apple may be poisonous for his body.
Since joy results from the harmony of relations between two bodies, joy can be said to be the motor of the persistence of the parts in their being. We have already seen that this persistence is called essence by Spinoza but it also matches with the notion of desire also called appetite. This notion is central here, as it implies the action that is required for the concerned architecture to be activated and to be legitimately considered as Architectures of Joy.
Those principles of Spinoza’s Ethics being expressed, we can now begin to evoke the two architectures we proposed to investigate in this essay.
The first one is the work of the association between the two French architects, Claude Parent and Paul Virilio between 1963 and 1969 under the name of Architecture Principe. In 1964, they established an architectural manifesto that can be summarized by an action of tilting the ground that replaces the paradigmatic assemblage of horizontal plans with vertical ones. They call it, The Oblique Function.
Explanatory diagram by Claude Parent in Architecture principe : 1966 und 1996 . [Besançon] : Les Ed. de l’Imprimeur, 2000.
The previous diagram illustrates the effect of the tilted surface on the body. If we apply a Spinozist reading on it, we can observe that the first mode of perception is necessarily occurring as gravity forces the bodies’ parts to interact with the architectural surface’s parts. However, in the difference of architectures which proceed only with flat floors, in the Oblique Function, gravity imposes an additional effect on the bodies, a directionality. In fact, any movement of the body in any direction will exercise on it, a degree of acceleration. This acceleration will be negative if the body attempts to climb up the surface and it will be positive if the same body attempts to go down the slope.
If we accept to consider as negligible -for the sake of this argument- the effects of a flat surface on the body, we can obviously not do the same for the Oblique Function’s effects. In fact, a negative acceleration imposed on the body creates a fatigue on the body whereas a positive one triggers an exhilaration. One could thus hastily argue that only half of the potential movements on this surface provide a Spinozist joy when the other half provokes sadness. However, this affirmation would be inaccurate as the body in action while conquering –we use the word conquest here in the same way that Deleuze talks about the conquest of colors by Gauguin and Van Gogh – the slope is expressing its power of existence. This last argument is the one that lead us to think that comfort and joy are not synonyms if not veritably antonyms.
In that sense, the Oblique Function, in its experience, requires the exercise of the second mode of perception. On this tilted surface, a body can only persist in its being if it manages to compose harmoniously its relations with the relations of this surface. That is how we can affirm that Claude Parent and Paul Virilio manage to create an Architecture of Joy in the Spinozist meaning of joy. The Oblique Function, being only a manifesto, it is interesting to observe the work –mostly by Parent- that has been built based on those principles:
- The Villa Drusch in Versailles (1963)_
- Sainte Bernadette Church in Nevers (1966)
- The French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1970)
- Claude Parent’s apartment in Neuilly sur Seine (1973)
French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (1970) designed by Claude Parent
The second architecture on which we propose to apply a Spinozist reading is the work of Arakawa and Madeline Gins. In fact, despite the fact that their work has been comfortably categorized by critics as having more to do with art than with architecture in the same way than many radical architects, their production is probably the best achievement of a Spinozist architecture.
In order to illustrate this point, we have to start by evoking the notion of the Architectural Body developed by Arakawa and Gins. In fact, in their research of an interaction between the human body and the architectural environment, they establish this notion as a symbiosis of those two entities. The Architectural Body is thus an entity in which the second mode of perception is continuous. Placed in a state of disequilibrium as in Arakawa and Gins’ architecture, the human body keeps re-harmonizing its parts in relation with the architectural parts and thus develops a conscience of its direct environment. Via this process of harmonization, the body learns and becomes both stronger and more skillful.
Reversible Destiny Lofts – Mitaka by Arakawa and Madeline Gins. Photograph by Masatako Nakano.
That leads us to the main purpose of such an architecture for Arakawa and Madeline Gins which consists in a adamant refusal to death. In accordance with the XVIIIth century French physiologist Xavier Bichat who stated that life is the ensemble of functions that resist death , they undertake to architecturally train the body against the continuous degradation of human tissues.
One could not be more wrong to associate this enterprise with the Modernist belief for potential healing characteristics own by architecture. Indeed, what Arakawa and Gins calls Reversible Destiny is an absolute refusal towards the modernist comfort that triggers a process of weakening for the body and decreases its power. On the contrary their architecture challenges the body, put it in danger and leaves it without any other alternative than to react to this delicate situation. In this regard, this architecture is profoundly anti-paternalist and own some clear emancipative characteristics. It releases the exact same Spinozist freedom, when he writes A thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its nature alone, and is determined to act by itself alone.
Spinoza describes death as the change of belonging of a body’s parts to another body. The parts do not persist in their being anymore and they start to populate one or several other bodies. The goal of Arakawa and Gins is therefore to maintain this persistence as long as possible via a continuous conquest of joy as we have been defining it earlier in this essay. Describing the condition offers by the Bioscleave House (Life Span Extending Villa), Madeline Gins has this evocative sentence: Everyday, you are practicing how not to die.