Framing Experience: Camera Obscura, and the Confessional

V. Safak Uysal
V. Safak Uysal

One of the driving forces behind the shaping of this study was a concern over the critical role of architectural history. This concern grew out of a constant and necessary confrontation with the question of “How does one engage with architecture and space, historically and critically?” Among many other past and present responses to this question, what is taken seriously here is a suggestion by Foucault: “Focus on what the Greeks called the techne” (1984, p. 255).

Space, perhaps more than architecture as such at times, is always of great magnitude for Foucault — to such an extent that virtually all of his discursive analyses include architectural configurations as their non-discursive counterparts. Then again, he does not claim the analysis of space as a self-inflicted method of his own, but rather as a necessity that inflicts itself (Flynn, 1993; Mitchell, 2003).

When he argues, in ‘The Order of Things’ (1970), for instance, that knowledge is spatialized, this is not simply because he finds delight in thinking with spatial images and metaphors. This is rather because what matters for him, in the epistemological transformations of the seventeenth-century, is “to see how spatialization of knowledge was one of the factors in the constitution of this knowledge as a science” (Foucault, 1984, p. 254). Or else, when he talks about architecture in ‘Discipline and Punish’ (1979) as something that takes a political stand at the end of the eighteenth-century, again, this is neither because of his own, self-motivated appeal to architecture nor because architecture was not political before. Rather because he claims to observe in the eighteenth-century “the development of a kind of reflection upon architecture as a function of the aims and techniques of the government of societies” (Foucault, 1984, p. 239).

In short, space and architecture are matters of historical import mostly because of their weight and position on a power/knowledge scale.

That is why it is not surprising to see that, when asked of the particularity of the knowledge (savoir) of architecture as a discipline, Foucault points towards “what the Greeks called the techne.” Here, he does not refer to the narrow meaning of the term that collapses it into technology — as in hard technology, the technology of wood, fire, and electricity, etc. Instead, he refers to the rather general meaning of “a practical rationality governed by a conscious goal” — as in the government of individuals, the government of souls, and the government of the self by the self, etc. (p. 256).

When taken earnestly, this brief suggestion comes to mean that to do a history of architecture is to place it along the lines of a general history of techne in the wider sense of the word. It is to relate architecture to a general history of rationalities that give rise to historically specific structures of possible experience; it is to conceive of architecture as technology, so to speak.

Another driving force behind the shaping of this study was an interest in the capacity of architecture as a practice. This interest, again, was nurtured by a perpetual and inevitable confrontation with the question of “What does, or can, architecture do?” One of the most provocative answers to this question gains life in Bernard Cache’s self-reflections on his own work as a practitioner: Architecture as the art of the frame.

In Cache’s scenario, the proper place of architecture is liberated from its conventional roles of sheltering, housing, or grounding. Instead, it is reclaimed among a series of practices that function by “framing images in such a way that they induce new forms of life” (Speaks 1995, p. xvii) — architecture as life-generator.

The ways in which frame and image are conceived of here are at once very much familiar and as much strange. They both flicker along the line between that which is close and that which is far away. In fact, Cache’s work begins precisely with a redefinition of the nature of that interior world which is the most proximate (furniture) and that exterior world which is the most distant (geography).

Inside and outside, everyday self and everyday world, all are taken to be made up of “images” — in the widest sense of “anything that presents itself to the mind,” be it real or imaginary (Cache, 1995, p. 3).

The concrete implications of Cache’s abstract language cannot be easily unveiled. But, perhaps, it would be helpful to set him against Foucault in whose thought architecture likewise but more clearly emerges as “a plunge into a field of social relations in which it brings about some specific effects” (Foucault, 1984, p. 253; emphasis mine).

On the one hand, there is a conceptualization of architecture as an element of support. It ensures “a certain allocation of people in space, a canalization of their circulation, as well as the coding of their reciprocal relations” (p. 253).

This is an architecture fundamental to any form of communal life and any exercise of power. Foucault, on the other hand, there lies another conceptualization of architecture as a concrete interlocking of frames.

Each one of these frames has different orientations and functions (the wall, the window, the ground-floor, etc.). This is an architecture characterized as a constituent of a primary new world.

Cache, when taken together, architecture as a framing technology, what can be said about the sort of functionalism and constructivism attributed to architecture by these two lines of thought?

Whether Foucault and Cache are commensurable is far from obvious. Yet it is possible to leave this obscurity in suspense for the time being and simply suffice it to pose the question of “How can architecture be said to bring any effects at all?”

The juxtaposition of these two initial concerns already sets the ground in all its complexity and affluence.

How does one think of, or think in architecture? How does one think architecture — while taking into consideration the nature of that which is architectural in thinking? This is not the least to say that “thinking through architecture” (Birksted, 1999) is possible only and exclusively through producing architectural works. But, to the extent that this is a dissertation driven by questions as to the very basics of architecture (i.e. its historico-critical apprehension and its capacities), bypassing the question of architecture in relation to thought sounds just about impossible.

Such an account necessitates not only another view of the work-of-architecture, but also another way of doing architectural history. It necessitates that one seeks at least the indicators of “a new strange tongue in architectural discourse” (Boyman, 1995, p. viii).

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