One has heard the characterization of the work of the recent generation of architects as neo-postmodern. The assumption behind this label is twofold: first, that postmodern architecture sought, through index or metaphor, to reference specific and multiple historical precedents; and second, that certain contemporary practices, because they can’t fathom any other way forward, reference that referencing in a modius-strip-like bending back of history—the eternal return of same.
Might it be suspected, then, that the title of “Inscriptions” signals a retreat to old certainties? Is it not difficult to deny the appearance of emphatically familiar, fundamental, and even ancient forms in much recent work—a retracing of architecture’s most solid tropes in order “to regain the innocence of archetypal symbols; the pyramid, the sphere, the circle, the ellipse, and the labyrinth” (Tafuri)? And does not the contradictory impulse reaffirm the rule by exception—boxes, stacks, arrays, sets, mazes, bodies, mark, blocks…. Not to mention the rock. At first glance it is an almost nursey-rhyme list, a survey of objects in an untidy room. But that’s just it. The logic of the list is, again, the block-by-block assumption of fundamentals.
We see the situation differently. If the ancient labyrinth was supposed to contain the path to wisdom and freedom, then the contemporary one signals the acceptance of the failure of a universal language, the failure to complete the Tower of Babel. Jacques Derrida recognized this: “Only the incompletion of the tower makes it possible for architecture as well as the multitude of languages to have a history.”
This course begins with the failure of modernism’s effort to install a universal language (an effort now recognized in all its imperialism) and the failure of postmodernism’s critique (and the consequent demise of any symbolic authority for architecture’s practice). The course will then proceed to investigate what seems to be a shared mechanism among current architects, an agreement about how architectural objects emerge from the procedures of design. This conjecture emerged in the last days of 2017 as the instructors of this course collaborated to mount a survey exhibition of contemporary architecture and noticed a pattern. It was not the unearthing of similar forms exactly but rather the flash of recognition itself that gave the discovery of each project a quality of confirmation, of underscoring premonitory knowledge. That under-scoring is part of what we mean by inscription—opening a space for new architectures by abrading, marking, and overwriting the discipline’s known tropes.
The course is the inaugural seminar in a series that coincides with the instructors’ forthcoming book, Inscriptions: Architecture Before Speech. As such, it is organized around cases in contemporary architecture collected in the volume, following its four structurally related domains and fourteen descriptive categories. Rather than spend the entirety of the course “exhausting” or retracing the contours of this organizational scheme, the course will use it as a point of departure for rigorous but open-ended discussions and exercises grounded in scales of view. In this sense the cases engaged by the course will return to the long gallery wall of the original show as a metaphor for systematically drawing closer to the artifacts under consideration and applying different methods of analysis as the scope of view changes from a delirious constellation of everything all-at-once to sustained attention on a single project or image.