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A Script of Space
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A Script of Space

Marie-Theres Stauffer

The concept of architecture is itself an inhabited construct, a
heritage that accommodates us before we have even attempted to
consider it.

Jacques Derrida Point de Folie - maintenant l'architecture

Since 1971 Jurg Da Vaz has worked on large-format drawings, characterized technically by the restricted choice of means of production, i.e. ink, canvas and paper and formally by abstract, linear structures: layers of successive, bundled bands; series of erratic, fanning segments; excessively long tectonic lines bent out of the grid and superimposed at dissonant angles unveil a space bereft of any scale. The pictures, due to their spatial effect and formal idiom, reveal a striking proximity to drafts of deconstructivist architecture.

The concept of deconstruction is borrowed from Jacques Derrida's proceedure of critically reading philosophical texts. In the field of architecture he refers to the contributions of various authors who treat themes of structure and morphology in a comparable formal language but who differ - sometimes considerably - in their semantic and methodological approach. Peter Eisenman from New York undertook the most comprehensive development of Derrida's method into a theory and practice of architecture. His drafts contain methodological and thematic parallels to Da Vaz's oeuvre extending beyond a formal similarity.

Interpretations of latent phenomena

Eisenman's draft and Da Vaz's concept of space are founded on a conceptual proceedure supplanting a subjectively defined representational or compositional determination of form. Umberto Eco described such an approach - constituting the artistic activity of the avant-garde - in opera aperta as an «operative program», which corresponds to the «methodologies of modern science, psychology and logic» and «which the artist drafts from case to case as the plan of the work to be created, in the way the artist, expressly or not expressly, understands it».

The thematic overlapping is apparent in the research and elaboration of various traces of the past. Such a perspective endeavors - in accordance with Derrida's theory - to raise to the surface what has been occluded as a latent phenomenon.

Eisenman's reading of the traces that have fashioned a locality commences with the project for the piazza of the Canareggio quarter in Venice (1978). The grid that Le Corbusier established in his design for a hospital in the sixties constitutes the reference system, which is in turn subjected to deformation.5 The architect implants therein «at random excessively large objects from his House 11a, creating a Square of Centurions, so to speak, and thus restoring the topology of this urban area».6 The fragments towering from this «embedded structure» of the city are installed without any original or anthropomorphic scale and hierarchy.

In the case of the residential building for the International Building Exhibition (1981-1985) in Berlin Kreuzberg the Wall, «which divided in two halves the unity of this historic site and removed everywhere visible traces of the past», is the constituent part of the project. Its transfer to the geometry of the building has symbolic value, «superimposed and permeated with the uprooting of the Jewish people from its country and with the holocaust». The work focusses on the subject of «memory» in «expressive intensity and at the same time on forgetting in its purest form».

In the «Wexner Center for the Visual Arts» project (1983-1989) the course of the walls of the old, removed buildings, the incongruous axes of the city and the campus, the song «Carmen Ohio» of the football team of Columbus University (on whose land the institute stands), finally the lanes of the planes flying over the building are engraved in individual layers. Due to their vertical superimposition, their displacement, intensification and rotation the material is «destructured». Eisenman chooses the determinants for the new building from this range. The building is designed to (permit), besides the memory of earlier phenomena, «countless other metaphorical, symbolic interpretations». By means of the «deconstruction of the geography and history of the site, of the archaeological memory and tradition of modern architecture» Eisenman seeks to «advance (from a) rational approach to the realm of irrationality». The idea of a «textual architecture linked to the site», which in a manner of speaking «operates on the border» in a «non-visual» fashion, is a determining factor, which is decisive for what follows.

Da Vaz initially takes his bearings from the «inner world». He draws without any intention, without any fixed criteria; the form is apparently generated from «nothing», i.e. from itself. The dimension of the concrete site indirectly consists in the linkage with the experience of an environment structured by space-defining elements, an environment continuing to exist in - latent and manifest - memory. Da Vaz pursues archaeology in the sense that he reconstructs «places in his memory» by drawing without any intention.

The working process is not tied to any given rules, but left to the progression of the working instruments - pen/pencil and the body. The overall length of the arm, the lower arm, the hand and the fingers determine the radius of a consecutively developing process: the process of tracing a line across a given ground surface in an uninterrupted, linear curve is complemented successively, already existing lines overlapping and passing under spontaneously. The development does not follow any structural plan, the development takes place non-simultaneously. It commences at various points, is executed a-compositionally, fragmentarily.11 The fact that existing works become the foundation for subsequent works means infinite possibilities of combinatorial substitution or permutation.

All in all, both works are marked by the «attempt to discover and raise to the surface things unexpressed and suppressed, foreign to linguistic and social expression in order to transpose it to the plane of the architectonic idiom».12 A clear «influence of Freud's psychoanalysis»13, displayed either directly or in the reception of Derrida's theory, is revealed in two ways: the latent aspect relates to a «tradition» - that of the author in Da Vaz' case, that of the site in Eisenman's. At the same time this tradition exists in reverse: the site exists in Da Vaz' memory; the personal biography - as in the Berlin project - is present in Eisenman's Jewish origins.

Structure and Coincidence

The previous juxtapositions are not intended to prove that the similar formal language is solely generated by the process described. Firstly, the creation of these forms is basically linked to the procedure of the (later) tracing of lines. Moreover, an existing human «'must' to create a structure» seems to be in effect. The findings of research into ruleless behavior substantiate the thesis that the human being, when attempting to proceed «on the basis of coincidence», without any preconceived notions, avoids repetitions, but relies on automated systems of order which he tends to reproduce.

Da Vaz's conceptual method of using no rules whatsoever beforehand thus starts out from an inherently paradox rule - applying a system of order that is the basis of creativity per se. The tracing, intersecting and overlapping of lines without any prior intention is - «automatically» - intensified to become a system. By means of - apparently mechanical - reproduction, superimposition, intensification and rotation Eisenman actually transfers «found» material in his inventories to a - complex - order, in which he subsequently fixes the determining paths.

On the one hand, this would explain the variety of forms in the details and, on the other, the relative coherence within the whole. The aesthetic appeal of the products could also be ascribed to the unconsciously effected propensity towards a system. Beside these conclusions, the conditions inherent in a common cultural background (i.e. occidental and particularly the north American of the seventies) also deserve a mention: in Eisenman's own words, his oeuvre is the «fruit of a general and inevitable condition». Or as Colin Rowes put it: «No more than the result of the age.»


Despite all the possible comparisons there are also incongruous aspects. Eisenman gleans the constituent elements of his drafts not only from the «etymologizing perspective of the site», but also from the discipline itself: the geometric grid in its capacity as a «foundation of architectonic composition» is part of the material, that «[is] initially deformed and then dismantled» (Ciucci). With regard to Da Vaz this can only be maintained in the case of his works where material from existing pictures is processed further. Destructuring rational foundations is not the subject of his analysis, however.

Furthermore, Eisenman's drawings are in the final analysis geared to constructional realization. The reference to deconstruction evokes the question of whether the actual materialization does not run contrary to a method that raises the «open-endedness, the non-finalized system» to the plane of a program. Construction requires the «closed», static system - of constructive stability. Deconstruction turns against every completed system, seeks to «afford a place to what is 'unplannable' and meaningless», it «is directed against the teleological orientation of construction».18 Even the inclination towards a functionlessness of form in Eisenman's constructions19 cannot completely negate the «appropriateness of the product for a certain use» (Kant) - and in this respect is «addicted» to «what it wishes to deconstruct».

Derrida's conception of architecture maneuvers between a common, metaphorical and strategic application. He describes the «organization part of architecture» as «central» and «hierarchized» : «Not only regarding its foundation on the ground surface but also regarding its political-juridical foundation, the institution recalling the myths of the city, the founder heroes or gods. (...) Architecture will have gone on to materialize the hierarchy in stone or in wood (hylË).» Termed the «last bastion of metaphysics», architecture acts as a metaphor of thinking in systems, as a metaphor of constructive reason, traditionally understood to be architectonic on account of its hierarchical structure of argumentation. Deconstructing «architecture as well as the architectonic element» means «really thinking it, gaining sufficient detachment from it in order to capture it through thought extending beyond the theorem - developing into the oeuvre in its own individual way».

The essay on Bernard Tschumi's Parc de la Villette - a constructed deconstructivist form of architecture - starts out by referring to the «pretext»: a «pretext gave rise» to this park, which was Tschumi's pretext for a draft - and Derrida's for this discourse!? The direct statement on Villette refers to the aspect of subversion and thus a strategic dimension: consequently, (Tschumi's) deconstructions led to a re-writing of architecture. «But without proposing a 'new order, the work classed as architecture will be (located) elsewhere, which, at least in its underlying principle, will no longer obey this external imperative in its essential driving force.»

The prime consideration will cease to be the organization of «the space according to the function of or with a view to the economic, aesthetic, epiphanic or technically useful norms. These norms will be considered, they occupy solely a subordinate role, in a position of the text, and inscribed in a space they will no longer govern with the final word. (...) All this conforms to a program of transfers, transformations and permutations whose external norms are no longer accorded the final say.»

Da Vaz's abstract drawings also allow an interpretation based on metaphor and strategy. Their inclination towards a lack of specific purpose and their genesis as an unplannable, unplanned progressive draft, gradually developing into expansive, border-free systems, point to Da Vaz works as a «way of writing» in a deconstructive con-text.

Signature automatique

In historical terms Da Vaz's approach follows a surrealist tradition. Starting out from Freud, the surrealists attributed to the unconscious an immeasurable, fallow, creative potential, which they attempted to develop - among other things - by means of the so-called Ècriture automatique: the intention was to put to paper both the «no longer conscious» and the «more than conscious» area by way of the uninterrupted flow of writing. Contrary to their expectations, it was difficult to express the unconscious in language, however. The transformation process that contents pass through was not only non-reversible; the «putting into writing» of «concealed» information meant in the (renewed) verbalization a further transformation, whose outcome was and remained cryptic.

In abstract art the cryptic form of a manifold transformed content does not lead to a problem, but to an aesthetic quality: as abstract symbols, the form of which takes priority over the content, this «writing» does not have to become unequivocal or explicit. If these «cryptographs» are understood as a (secret) writing code, it could correspond to what Derrida and his reading draw on a bead on in the text: «The substratum of written symbols (is in the catastrophic context of tradition) the sole element that resists corruption. The written text guarantees duration for the word, transitory in the gentle medium of the voice; deciphering must precede interpretation. Often the text is so damaged and fragmented that it bars the after-born interpreter all access to the content. But the record of an incomprehensible text remains, the symbols remain - the matter survives as the trace of a departed spirit.»

The drawing in its «cryptographic state» allows many associations and no final commitments. Da Vaz's pictures entice interpretation - only to withdraw from it at the end. They induce reading, but in their abstractness they communicate nothing.

The Architecture of the Event

Such «absence of a message» was emphasized as its most significant aspect by Jean François Lyotard in an essay on the abstract painting of Barnett Newman. This was the consequence of an «attempted rupture with the space of the vedute»: the triadic «communication structure» of classical modern, which «demands a sender, a receiver and a reference», has disintegrated; the relationship between the work and the recipient now exists «face to face». This art knows no point of departure for a message - which consequently is not communicated. According to Lyotard the picture, the message medium and the message thus coincide31: the «message (the picture) is the medium of the message. (...) The reference (what the picture talks about), the sender (its author) contribute nothing, not even in the negative sense, not even as an allusion to an impossible presence. The message is the presentation, but of nothing, i.e. of the presence.»

This form of abstract art does have a content, however. Admittedly, Da Vaz's works do not constitute a narration of events in the sense of figurative references to scenes from narratives which are known to the observers or can be reconstructed in their minds. According to Lyotard this art has «no other aim (...) than to be a visual event of its own account». If there is a «content», it is that of «the moment».

The «intangibility of the moment» was a central topos of the historical avant-garde. While Marcel Duchamp, for example, attempted to describe the «impossibility of representing the epiphany» by the portrayal of the previous state («not yet») and the subsequent state («no longer»), the perfect abstraction determines the event itself: such a picture «does not set out to show that the duration extends beyond consciousness, but wants to be itself the event, the immediate moment», «happening» here and now.

The event is also a central category of thought in the deconstructive proceedure. In Point de Folie - maintenant l'architecture Derrida reflects on the immediate moment in the repeated use of the word «now»; he wants to have «designated» «what is presently arriving», what «seems likely to occur». The event taking place here does not come from without, but is elicited by the act of drawing, by the trace left by the pen or pencil on the paper «marking the canvas». «The event thus 'spaced' is accorded its place or position», namely as a «Script of Space».