montage based on Graphic Standards and Ernst Neufert’s work originally created for Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012).
TRANSGRESSING THE IDEALIZED NORMATIVE BODY ///
(originally written in French for Swiss magazine Tracés based on two older articles: “A Subversive Approach to the Ideal Normatized Body,” and “The Modernist Ideology of a Normative Body.“)
We all have in mind Leonardo da Vinci’s ink drawing dedicated to Roman architect Vitruvius whose motto “Solidity, Utility, Beauty” is still engraved in the Pritzker prize’s medal nowadays. The Vitruvian Man is thus this drawing introducing the anatomical proportions of a theoretically perfect man, placed in the center of the universe. Since this body is placed in the center of the universe, it seems reasonable to think that the universe was built around it and adapted to it. In the 20th-century, several architects also undertook to elaborate a body around which architecture could be conceived. We can think of Le Corbusier’s Modulor (1945) of course, as well as Ernst Neufert’s bodies (1936) that both still constitute absolute references for architects of multiple countries. We can also refer to Henri Dreyfuss’s characters, Joe and Josephine (1974), who live in a graphic standard world whose dimensions are invading the entire available space. What is the height of the table, the chair, the door? Those are only a few instances of architectural components that, not only seem to be given to us without letting us questioning them, but that also constitute a fundamental problem as far as the standardization of the body as well as their own.
Let us first observe that the body considered as norm has more to do with the schemes of domination within a given society’s relations of power, than with a question of majority that would still remain problematic anyway. In Western societies, the healthy white male heterosexual incarnates this normalized body around which each non-specific architectural form is built. The diversity of the bodies reading this present text will easily illustrates the multitude that does not correspond to this norm. What I would like to demonstrate consists in the fact that the norm does not stop at this four criteria named above: it integrates others that are also of social, behavioral, linguistic nature, etc., that makes no body veritably corresponding to it. The ideal body is not incarnated: it is a fantasy. This allows me to think the oxymoron that gave this text its title, the normalized ideal body. Of course, some bodies incarnate this norm in a closer manner than others. In this regard, colonial architecture that imposes its own standards to a local population actively participates to the domination process that the colonial project represents. For this reason, it is problematic that a certain amount of colonial building did not change their function during the decolonization process. That is how several administrative, judiciary and educative buildings in Bombay are still working in the way than the British were using them, and how the former Viceroy palace became the Presidential palace in New Delhi, against Gandhi’s opinion that was recommending to changing it into a hospital for the poors.
It is therefore correct to think that the norm favors, by definition, some bodies more than others. Nevertheless, since the normalized body is a fantasy, we can also realize that considering this idealized body as the essence of architectural creation is harmful to various degrees for the totality of the bodies. To docilely use the norm has an impact in the scale of the species’s evolution itself: each architecture, each space, each object conceived around it will act like a prop on a small tree. This evolution will not be effectuated within the scheme of an acquisition of power (in the Spinozist sense of power) from generation to generation, but on the contrary, it will effectuate within the scheme of an impoverishment of the bodies since they will always tend to reach this idealized norm.
Nevertheless, the idea of exiting the norm would also be a fantasy. Each society applies different forms of relations of power that create norms, which refer to the domination of behaviors on others. We cannot exit them but we can transgress them in order to reduce these relations of dominations in the best way we can. In other words, if we conceive a table or a chair in the same way than we usually think of it, we would need to choose at which height we should place it. In this regard, whatever our decision will be, it will contribute a certain norm. However, this norm can be different from the one of the political milieu in which we live, and it can also vary within a same building rather than imposing an absolute standard. The body that we consider to conceive an architecture should not be a fantasy, it should be incarnated. Just like architecture – often too disincarnated by architects too – the body is an assemblage of matter in movement that composes relations with its environment. When this environment is built in such a way that these relations are thought in their most harmonious dimension rather the most normalized one, we can talk of an act veritably political since it complexities and transforms the relations of power within this society.