Violated Perfection: A Critical Review, by Diane Ghirardo – March/April 1991

Violated Perfection: Architecture and the Fragmentation of the Modern, Aaron Betsky, Rizzoli, 1990, 208 pp., illus., $50 hard cover, $35 paper back

In Violated Perfection, Aaron Betsky attempts to place the work of a diverse group of contemporary architects into a coherent framework, one which Betsky defines as “the fragmentation of the modern.” “The modern” for Betsky is singularly transparent, unitary and easy to pin down – hence the definite article “the” which more cautious minds might hesitate at using. In the first chapter, Betsky briskly defines “the project of the modern” as “the exploration of the possibilities created by technology that gives a guiding structure to its transformational potential.” This sentence resists even the most persistent probing: how might “possibilities” give a “guiding structure” to “transformational potential”? Such niceties of meaning do not trouble Betsky.

A few lines later he sweepingly declares that “modernity is the consciousness that man and nature have indeed become separate.” I am not at all sure what this means, but I doubt whether the many scholars who have sweated and struggled mightily to cast light on the possible lineaments of contemporary human consciousness will find Betsky’s neat formula very helpful. Have women here too been subsumed under “man”?

I found Violated Perfection a difficult book to review, for a close reading of the text is exasperating, well-nigh impossible. Poorly written, edited, and proofread, the text was rife with errors in dates, spelling, and grammar; capricious tense shifts; annoying neologisms such as “artifacting”; and contradictions in thought.

But I was interested in trying to figure out what Betsky was trying to say about the often interesting work he illustrated. What began to emerge, from a variety of clues, is the familiar vision of the heroic architect as supreme artificer, uniquely capable of translating vague zeitgeists into triumphant form. The architect here falls squarely into the category of artist, whose work is to be assessed on formal grounds. So secondary are considerations other than formal ones that Betsky complained that “architecture as a barrier is removed … the whole legal system is now bent on the negation of traditional architectural elements: smooth ramps, which elide the differences in ground planes so important to defining the traditional architectural object, replace the striation of stairs.” Handicapped individuals fought for many years to gain access to inhospitable buildings, and they struggled against people with attitudes precisely like those of Betsky. Just as the racist and sexist character of the book (language and choice of designers) implicitly ignores more than half of the population, so architecture in Betsky’s view must give clear priority to formal considerations, even if the handicapped must pay the price.

The profound reactionary character of Betsky’s thought emerges even more clearly a few lines further on: “Finally, an image of authority, or dignity, is eroded by our inability to agree on anyone center of power …” At the same time, he also asserts that architecture has a critical capacity “that will allow us to remake a community in which we can mirror our humanity – a true unity.” Out of this confused mix, one begins to understand that he echoes the commonplace view that architects are involved with something a good deal more significant than shelter, as if shelter were some crippling handicap from which architecture must be liberated (and we already know where the handicapped belong), and that only the spiritual essence which architects address by means of “meaningful forms” somehow allows them to escape the constraints of ordinary building – those imposed by clients, markets, budgets, building codes, and so forth. I say somehow, because the text is silent on this point. As Betsky further remarks, “Each maker (architect) believes that he or she’s engaged in an authentic act that is free from, and thus violates, all systems of control.” Autonomy guarantees instead high cultural status, and nothing less than the list of those who commissioned works included in this book – from Disney to Lloyd’s of London – reveals more about the pretensions of autonomy than Betsky is able to confront. Betsky offers a shorthand version of much recent architectural discourse, wherein it is held that architects can build for anyone and maintain autonomy, and Betsky is not the only one to fail to offer convincing demonstration of how this is possible, while examples of the reverse abound.

Betsky does illustrate a large number of projects by designers with diverse design philosophies, and he offers capsule commentaries on them. But even the purely formal descriptions are often wide of the mark: inexplicably, in discussing Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute, he makes no reference to the Arab design traditions married so successfully to sophisticated technology. He instead comments that the building “emblemizes the modern – devoted to circulation, yet leaving spaces as undefined and floating planes,” which illuminates little indeed. More importantly, descriptions such as these do not help us understand what “critical artifacting” is, among other things, nor what an architecture of empowerment might be.

Most of my comments in any event are beside the point. Books such as this are not meant to be read – they are there for the pictures, with texts just an embarrassingly necessary gloss to provide a semblance of intellection. With the exception of the descriptions of the Arquitectonica projects and a strikingly poetic account of the Morphosis Cancer Center project, even the limited descriptions are not helpful. It would be wrong to evaluate Violated Perfection by standards other than those of glossy monthlies on homes. But it does have an arresting and original design (courtesy Lorraine Wild and staff). Which just reaffirms the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Diane Ghirardo

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