Criticism is a slightly paranoid activity. When questioned about their design intentions, you’ll find most architects cover their tracks, whilst some of their works go far beyond the awareness of every motive and move.
To elucidate and construct a coherent interpretation of a given building means to hack your way through the evidence – based on potentially deceptive clues. You return to the artefacts themselves, scrutinise them carefully, exercise your curiosity, explore your intuitions, surrender to them if needed, launch into hypotheses, confront them, make mistakes, follow secondary leads, and rebuild your narrative until it starts to makes sense. In this respect, a critic is a kind of private eye, a cultural detective who splits open some of the meanings and aims embedded, consciously or not, into the work he or she is considering.
Search and research entertain closer acquaintances than their mere etymological link. I cherish their kinship. In this, I am not alone: recently, literature, linguistics, art history have produced numerous profound theoretical statements generated by exacting investigations into the material crafting of some chosen works.
By paying attention to the ambiguities placed by Edgar Allan Poe in his short story The Purloined Letter, Jean-Claude Milner has produced a stunning new interpretation of this canonical text. By looking afresh into what is actually represented in some famous Renaissance paintings, Daniel Arasse has created disturbing readings of their apparently exhausted iconography.
This lecture will develop these ideas in architecture through two case studies of notable buildings: Jørn Utzon’s Bagsværd Church (1968-76) and OMA’s villa Dall’Ava (1984-1991). This detective exercise will “just” try to understand a little of their why, lifting the enigma of their architectural intentions to keep it alive in our present: a way to cultivate a playful reflection on theory.
Photo credit: Detail from a photo by Hans Werlemann, OMA.