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Gepubliceerd op Esthetica (http://www.estheticatijdschrift.nl)






Rick Dolphijn

Things are not either wholly alive, or wholly dead. They are less or more alive.

John Ruskin

The details are not the details. They make the design.

Charles Eames Writing architecture Especially among architects and practitioners, Lars Spuybroek is known to be one of the radical forces in contemporary design, and since his earliest products he was praised by the major names in the field (Charles Jencks among others) and got awarded important prizes by the architectural institutions that matter (from Archiprix to the Cologne Thumper). And then, in 2010, Spuybroek closed his office NOX in order to spend his time ‘more efficiently’: he decided to devote his time solely to writing, to architectural theory. Not being bothered by a difficult clientele that came up with new demands again, inevitably slowing down the creative process, he could now devote his time fully to conversations with ‘dead people’, as he recently named his turn to theory in a lecture given at the AA in London. He added to this that closing his office was the best decision he made in his life and he advised all the architects present to do the same thing. Writing is simply a quicker way of experimenting with form compared to actually getting things built/produced. Over the past twenty years Spuybroek's main emphasis was designing objects (buildings, installations, artworks). He created fantastic surfaces like the Maison Folie in Lille, interactive artworks/statues like D-tower in Doetinchem, installations/houses like Son-O-House in Son en Breugel, and a vase called Tommy. Next to that, from 2001 he was appointed various chairs in architecture and consequently he became increasingly concerned with creating the concepts that architectural experiments give rise to, making timely books in which both his designs and his theories found their way (for instance Spuybroek 2004, 2009).

As such, an analogy with that other famous Dutch architect – Rem Koolhaas – is easily made here, though it is also clear that they appear to be travelling in opposite directions: Koolhaas was very much into research at the start of his career (think of his magnum opus Delirious New York, Koolhaas 1978), whereas now he seems to spend most of his time designing buildings and urban areas. Spuybroek moves in the opposite direction. Another difference between Koolhaas and Spuybroek appears both in their designs and in their writings, though I will focus primarily on their writings here. Koolhaas' architectural innovations set out a cultural analysis in which a ‘sociology of form’ is being developed. Very much in line with how architectural theory, especially since the 1990's, went more cultural, Koolhaas too seems to practice a major critique of form always in search for those forces (potentially) active in the built environment that caused a new (emancipated) kind of people to emerge (Fraser 2005, 138). Major concepts he brought forward, such as ‘the generic city’ and ‘BIGNESS’, are proposing a tactics that are ‘those of spatial transgression within different cultural contexts, as in the public right of way that is to snake through the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, or embedded spatial redundancy, as in the wastage of retail volume in the Prada store at Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles’ (idem, 320).

Koolhaas' buildings and writings definitely continue to give a new impulse to theory (architectural theory, aesthetics) as he, in a Virilio-like style, demands that we think architecture or form in terms of an ongoing accident always in process at the margins of our (modernist) focus. Especially in his later written work, Koolhaas emphasizes the cancerous growth of the suburbs, the shopping mall, and the megalopolis (from Lagos to the Pearl River Delta). Koolhaas is the ethnographer whose observations confront us with uneasy conclusions, with a keen interest in the 'inhumanness' of business districts, of ultrafast design practices (I once conceptualized his theories on Shenzen as 'photoshoppolis' (Dolphijn 2005)) and pop culture. Together with Sanford Kwinter, Saskia Sassen, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Stefano Boeri and Anthony Vidler, Koolhaas’s new sociology of form delivered a sharp critique on the modernist heritage in architecture and the humanist logic that it (implicitly) preferred.

Spuybroek too has major issues with how the idealist or even 'fascist' ideas of for instance Bauhaus tend to push all design towards the undecorated empty white cube, a space that cannot be felt anymore, that refuses to become part of a life. Yet instead of opting for a sociology of form, in search for the inhuman to distort or rethink humanity, Spuybroek is much more interested in what we could call an 'ecology of variation', an inhuman vitalism that reminds us of a crucial concept that the postmodern Koolhaas and his modern predecessors banned from their theories: beauty. For rather than breaking up the opposition between the human and the inhuman, the city and the countryside, perhaps even between beauty and ugliness, and using form in order make this happen, Spuybroeks interest in beauty (and not in the sublime) not so much critiques but wards off all of the modernist oppositions in the first place. Much more a (non-)philosopher, in line with Laruelle, than a sociologist, Spuybroeks interest in beauty brings us to rethink form itself. Instead of focusing on how the objects act upon us and reinvent us, Spuybroek is in the first place interested in the much broader issue of how matter happens. Crucial in this, is the claim that matter only happens beautifully. This means that it is only in actualizing beauty one way or the other that ‘something might happen’.


Spuybroek has always been interested in the myriad of unforeseen ways in which beauty kicks in. Saving us from mechanicism and organicism that still dominates architecture, and both of which he detests (2009, 38), his designs have always been created around the idea of making-beauty-happen. This is never a single trajectory but rather asks for a radical opening up of all possible form, since beauty might happen in many different ways. The Son-O-House for instance, is a house, with its different rooms, its different possibilities for usage. Yet it is a house gone mad. It is radically contingent housing. A schizo-house. Its multiplied surfaces (holey surfaces, multiple layerings and radical curvability) and the soundscapes entangled in it, un-organize ‘the house’ with every step we take, while it de-mechanizes each of our movements, proposing a different inhabitation, a different (and new) type of life even as it proposes its 'inhabitant' to be ‘intermeshed and conjoined with all that surrounds her architectural surround’ (Gins and Arakawa 2006, 28). It is a new unorganized, demechanized motor schema.

What his designs (like the Son-O-House) are calling out for, and what he now considers to be a crucial concept in understanding how beauty gives form to life, is ‘sympathy’. His newest book The Sympathy of Things can be read as a manifesto for this old and beautiful concept that stresses the intra-action by dint of which the individual objects are. Sympathy, in short, ‘is what things feel when they shape each other’ (2011, 9). Sympathy aptly serves as the fulcrum of Spuybroeks vitalism.

In sharp contrast to Koolhaas’ focus on the new, on the post-modern, implicitly and explicitly critiquing the old, Spuybroek does not critique but rereads the modernist bias thus uncovering a minor history of architecture that tells us a very different story compared to what the History of Architectural Theory has been telling us for the past two centuries. As the title of the book already tells us, the theories of the 19th century art critic John Ruskin are central to this project, but also William James, Henri Bergson, Wilhelm Worringer and Charles Darwin are crucial to Spuybroeks ecology. Rewriting their ideas on form, on matter, on difference and on human subjectivity, Spuybroek indeed shows us how ‘sympathy’ – revitalizing the way this concept was not yet ‘humanized’ at the end of the nineteenth century – gives form to us and to the world around us: sympathy might happen between us and a vase, between a wasp and an orchid, between the oceans and the moon.

Coming back to architecture, Spuybroek shows us how the undecorated empty white cube has always already been a false ideal, a deadly idea even, to speak with Arakawa and Gins: a transcendentalism that had very little to do with how life takes place. Finding his soul mates in Romantic aesthetics, rewriting their architecture, their ideas on design, as it was always involved with the sympathy of things (to come), can help us ‘find our ways back to beauty’, as Spuybroek promises us in the introduction, to the power of creation. Thus he works towards a genuine romantic aesthetics, rewriting Fichtes idea that aesthetics is the necessary starting

point for the understanding of any ‘spirit’ (1992, 474), or turning back to Herder (from 1778):

‘[O]nly inner sympathy, i.e., feeling and transposition of our whole human self into the form

that has been explored by touch, is the teacher and indicator of beauty’ (Herder quoted in:

Spuybroek 2011, 147).

Finding our way back to beauty equals finding our way back to life, out of idealism, and perhaps even out of modernism as a whole, as it dominated the twentieth century in architecture and society at large. Finding beauty/life means opening ourselves up (again) to the pleas of matter, to the creative forces of the unforeseen, and the ever changing imagery that it possibly produces. Spuybroek, like his nineteenth century predecessor Ruskin (whose writings on art history indeed show a similar need for embracing beauty/life, rejecting the horrors of idealism) thus puts great emphasis on Gothic design and the crucial role this myriad of styles played in the history of design as opposed to its contemporary idea of form, Roman Classicism (much more favored by modernism). Especially the Gothic ornament in that sense, needs our fullest attention.

We, modernists, all remember that it was by all means the ornament which was explicitly excluded from architecture by modernism. Spuybroek reminds us that in search for the purification of the object, it was in fact Adolf Loos who wrote ‘Ornament und Verbrechen’ (Ornament and Crime), declaring the ornament the enemy of form, or, which comes down to the same thing, considering the ornament that which disturbs the Cartesian Line. Inspired by theories of William Morris (and not by Owen Jones), Spuybroek rereads the ornament to propose to us a wholly other history, claiming that ‘Ornament is profoundly related to matter, to the way it structures itself as it undergoes forces, be they natural or technological, which is a complicated way of saying that ornament and texture share the traces of being made, of the constant reconfigurations of matter.’ (2011, 77) In other words: ‘Nothing passes through undecorated’ (idem, 96). Ornament then, as Spuybroek conceptualizes it, is not ‘added to’ a structure, but rather creates the transversal movements that make structure in the first place.

This is definitely the most thought provoking and radical outcome of Spuybroeks notion of beauty: beauty is both ornament and structure (or as he puts it: ‘in the Gothic, ornament acts like structure and structure acts like ornament (idem, 44, emphasis in original)). It is beauty that works, beauty is use, and it simply cannot be isolated and condemned. His study of Gothic ornamentation proves this entanglement, showing us how tesselation (from two to one dimension) and ribboning (from one to two dimensions) make spatiality.

Elsewhere Spuybroek put it in different words claiming that ‘[i]t is not only a changefulness of columns, vaults, or traceries in themselves, but also one in which columns transform into vaults into traceries' (idem, 25). In more mathematical terms, praising variability, he adds to this that: ‘Variability within an element leads to variability between elements. This makes the Gothic more radical than any other architectural style up to the present day.’ (idem, 26) In the end then, he comes up with a term that nicely links the Gothic to contemporary practices, talking of the digital nature of gothic, where the digital not necessarily refers to electronically computed but rather to the type of variation that forms the flexible rib. Referring to Bergsons idea of variation both in terms of difference in degree and in difference in kind, Spuybroek emphasizes that the simple behavior of individual elements (the smallest geometrical modulations that practice a difference in degree) leads to complex and irreducible collective behavior (with a new and unique beauty that reveals a difference in kind).


Rewriting the notion of the ornament as the transversal key to Gothic vitalized geometry, necessarily converting physical movement into


structure, allows Spuybroek in the second half of his book, to create a general theory of aesthetics, or, ‘a radical picturesque’ as he would call it. Still emphasizing ‘sympathy’, which he prefers over Worringers ‘empathy’ (as is too antropocentric, or as he puts it:‘Sympathy is abstraction and empathy unseparated.’ (idem, 177)) Spuybroek searches for new concepts for his vitalist aesthetics. Showing us that there is thought in matter, the second part of his book naturally builds on the forms developed in the first part, that has already indicated the aesthetic theorizing to come, that is, the speculative aesthetics that comes with the artificial forms and processes from which life happens.

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