In conjunction with a place and an idea, this thing is part of a trilogy of nodes that aim to describe cutting edge architectural theory in the closing decades of the 20th Century.
One of the most talked about theoretical processes that dominated discussions of the architectural avant-garde until the mid to late 1990's (as one of the techniques of deconstruction) was superimposition. As already discussed in detail elsewhere, the central idea of this post-structuralist work, first proposed by the philosopher Jacques Derrida, was the questioning of accepted system hierarchies. Through his writing and critique of structuralist texts Derrida advanced the notion of 'undecideability' between binary oppositions. The eschewing of the subjective prejudice inherent in either side of a binary argument attempts a new critical clarity. Let us look at the source of the ideas behind undecideability, it's affects on theory and architecture and how this might lead us to a technique of superimposition.
Derrida explores this position by making a critique of Plato's 'Phaedrus', specifically the part that deals with the question of hierarchies between writing and speech. Derrida is interested in the way in which Plato introduces the story of the birth of writing and the terminology used to describe it. Plato uses the discussion between Socrates and Phaedrus to tell the story of the an ancient Egyptian inventor-god called Theuth.
"...he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters." (1)
All the inventions were to be brought before the King of Upper Egypt, Thamus, for approval. Each was presented in turn until eventually they came to writing or letters,
"...This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; for this is the cure of forgetfulness and of folly." (my emphasis) (2)
The translation used here describes writing as a cure, but as Collins (3) points out the original Greek word pharmakon is much more ambiguous in meaning, simultaneously suggesting both cure and poison. In this way it is similar to the English word 'drug', inhabiting both good and bad representations. The pharmakon then, is undecideable.
Plato's story commits the word to one of the two opposing possibilities, and tells how Thamus decides that writing will in fact make men stop using their memories and become lazy
, however, continues to explore the reasons why the word pharmakon
was used in the first place, deciding that writing is not so easily committed to either pole
of the argument.
"Writing as pharmakon cannot be fixed down with Plato's oppositions. The pharmakon has no proper or determinate character. It is the play of possibilities, the movements back and forth, into and out of the opposites." (4)
Thus begins Derrida's quest to destabilize the foundations of Western philosophy, by reaching a new understanding of the level of affect that accepted binary oppositions have had on logocentric metaphysics. The ontological search for truth exists only through its attempt to leave behind that which must be non-truth. To understand that which it deems to be positive, philosophy must, by definition, denounce the negative. The metaphysical journey then, can be said to privilege it's foundational term over any other that follows; the essence of 'being' is questioned by the notion of 'not-being'. Instead of simply overturning this hierarchy, Derrida searches for a way to disrupt from within and avoid re-enacting the hierarchy from another direction. Undecideability as a position of ambiguity that denies either pole becomes the method for destabilizing the flow of logocentrism. Elsewhere this has been described as analogous to the idea of the zombie (5).
This line of questioning began to affect the architectural avant-garde. Philosophical deconstruction and architecture had their most important meeting in Paris, as part of the process involved in the design of Parc de la Villette by Bernard Tschumi. Faced with the political, economical and ethical complexities of one of President Mitterand's 'Grande Projets', Tschumi began by aiming for an architectural 'mediation' or a conceptual framework that would accommodate the likely changes in brief and the introduction of other artists into the design. Effectively designing the system within which the park would occur, rather than the singular composition or gesture. The system was produced through three exclusive parts: points, lines and surfaces. The final event was brought about by the superimposition of each onto the site.
"Parc de la Villette project had a specific aim: to prove that it was possible to construct a complex architectural organization without resorting to traditional rules of composition, hierarchy, and order. The principle of superimposition of three autonomous systems of points, lines and surfaces was developed by rejecting the totalizing synthesis of objective constraints evident in the majority of large scale projects." (6)
Tschumi's work was greatly influenced by Derrida; Tschumi's essay 'Abstract Mediation and Strategy' (7) demonstrates a clear connection in it's terminology.
"Superimposing these autonomous and completely logical structures meant questioning their conceptual status as ordering machines: the superimposition of three coherent structures can never result in a supercoherent megastructure, but in something undecideable, something that is the opposite of totality." (8)
Here we can see that the act of superimposition represents Derrida's in-between or denial of hierarchy. One of the most important shifts in ideology to be recognised here is the way that the position of the architect himself is also questioned. The role of the creator is an implicit part of the systemic hierarchies that Tschumi is trying to disrupt. By devaluing his own position within the system Tschumi makes the traditional understanding of his presence tenuous.
By understanding how Derrida's undecideability has led us to the question of an architects loss of self we can begin to make the first connection between this early example of deconstruction (arguably one of the few to have a clear understanding of it's philosophical background rather than just becoming a style or -ism) and contemporary hypersurface theorists such as Greg Lynn.
Superimposition can be described as an act of collage. The bringing together of two disparate systems to create a new, multi-valent object or space. Yet something has occurred since the time of Tschumi's superimpositions to make collage seem inadequate to architects like Lynn. If '...collage is reliant upon available collageable material...' what else can be brought to the process to move it out of this closed, self-referential position? The failings of collage can be described by considering the lack of 'feedback' within the system. Two new considerations are proposed. Firstly, as we have already examined, there is the suggestion that superimposition is in fact not sufficiently unpredictable (if the disparate systems are known then so must the result) and secondly, that each system should be allowed to continue to progress through it's own deformations generated by the interaction with others, i.e. feedback.
Collage or superimposition is accused of being a singular action that merely introduces the systems to each other but does not allow them to interact or affect each other.
As we move into the 21st century, many contemporary architects are searching for ways to employ computers as iterative design tools, hungry for feedback in the endless search for the new.
1. 'The Dialogues of Plato' Vol. II, B. Jowett, 1875. Oxford University Press.
3. 'Derrida for Beginners', Jeff Collins, 1996. Icon Books Ltd.
4. ibid (quoting Derrida).
5. see Deconstruction and Tea: The persona held in limbo between life and death becomes unleashed as a new and indescribable force unrestricted by any normal patterns of behaviour.
6. 'Architecture and Disjunction', Bernard Tschumi, 1996. MIT Press.