The Absent Debate, by Aaron Betsky – December 1989

She wore a yellow jacket and a two-foot high pillbox hat. She explained that she was currently engaged in “investigations along a Freudian-Lacanian axis,” though her “ground had been somewhat disturbed” by the recent earthquakes. After the presentation, she then asked those “fulfilling the role of auditors whether they had questions, interventions in any modality?” She became the icon of the recent conference, “Postmodernism and Beyond: Architecture as the Critical Art of Contemporary Culture,” held last month at U.C. Irvine. For three days, we wondered in what modality we might interject ourselves into a non-occurring debate about how architecture might somehow be a critical part of the culture in which we live. The pillbox hat focused our attention, Jacques Derrida our fears. Absent, he sent a fifteen page letter to “Cher Peter” Eisenman. A translation was read on stage after an excerpt of a tape recording in French was played, echoing its French modalities through the hidden loudspeakers of the auditorium. The letter accused Peter of “reifying absence” (including his own) and urged him and the other architects to address the issue of “homelessness”, whether in the literal or metaphorical sense. This is the one thing that got architects upset (the non-architects only got upset at Frank Gehry’s architecture, presented the first evening). Homelessness has no place, after all, in a debate about serious matters like architecture, literature, simulation and difference. Political debates are dangerous. When Diane Ghirardo, desperately trying to prove that nobody, absolutely nobody except her, would admit that Terragni was a fascist and, failing there, turned instead to fellow panel member Frank Israel, accusing him of being apolitical, audience member Bob Stern cut her off sharply by telling her to get her slides in better shape. The danger of real issues was avoided, and we were off to lunch. (That selfsame Bob Stern, by the way, took an hour and a half to explain why his Disney Recruitment Office was the logical outcome of the development of Western Civilization, leaving this author twenty minutes in a failed attempt to tell a cautionary tale of a long-dead architect who had also tried to build for the ruling class.) The final word was had by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who told a little story about a hero called “the system” (meaning our universe) which, in its increasing tendency towards data translation, storage, and retrieval, was becoming completely performance-oriented, heading towards its inevitable death through entropy. Somehow, architecture had a place in this “little narrative,” although where was not clear. And a good thing, that clearly articulated architecture, real buildings – as Eisenman’s silly Wexner  Center, laconically presented as an encore to his lecture about nothing, proved – would ruin all the fun.

Aaron Betsky

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