ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)

Book Review: Empty Space Or A Black Hole? The Proto-Baudrillardian Labyrinth.

Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.

Reviewed by H. Masud Taj1
(School of Architecture, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada).
 

What you are looking at, in the end, is nothing but an hallucination, a projection from the inner self, the hologram of a sublimation.2

It’s like, with this equipment, you can agree to share the same hallucinations. In effect, they’re creating a world. It’s not really a place, it’s not really space. It’s notional space.3
 

            “This book” as its editor explains, “is conceived as a circular pathway”4. The pathway infects the speech of its wayfarers. From Proto’s “circularity of thinking”, “vicious circle”, “metalinguistic vortex”, “hurled into a vortex”, “unknown vortex”; you progress to Baudrillard’s “form of vertigo”, “all things are curves”, “fulfil their own cycle”, “labyrinthine convolution”, “labyrinth of a city”, “spiral in the simulacrum”, “the vertiginous”, “everything is round”, “vertigo of duplication”, “slight vertigo, the vertigo of a previous life”, “tactile vertigo”, “mental geometry, one of labyrinths”, “the same vertigo” and finally “if you had to have something in Beaubourg, it should have been a labyrinth” (aptly Beaubourg is a site that infected its resident, Centre Pompidou, as a pseudonym).5

            The architectural writings of Baudrillard, with all their “labyrinthine charm”6, flow through an architectural archetype. Introductions are by Mike Gane and Proto who quotes extensively from Baudrillard’s Requiem for the Twin Towers. The extended quote is interspersed with ellipses which act as so many sieves through which inexplicably slip away Baudrillard’s most extreme architectural hypothesis: “one should build only those things which by their excellence, are worthy of being destroyed”.7 If Proto forgets to include it, Baudrillard forgets to apply it to the recipient of his most sustained architectural criticism: Beaubourg.

            The book is sandwiched between two Baudrillard interviews: an initial long conversation with architect Jean Nouvel and a final one with Proto that reads more like a FAQ in the absence of counter-questions. In-between are five chapters that move from “the consumption of places to the places of consumption”.8 In the Labyrinth the wayfarer turns at the centre and likewise the shift in analysis, the reversal, occurs midway through the book: Chapter Five, that ends in a neighbourhood of Paris known as Beaubourg, is where the wayfarers turn. The labyrinth is the site of the book’s conception and Beaubourg its privileged centre and thus this review cuts a cross-section through it.

            The Labyrinth was constructed by Daedalus to trap a monster that was finally despatched by Theseus. Exceeding Abu Ghraib, where the soldier softens up the hapless victim before the interrogator extracts dubious confessions, architecture is pulverized by Proto before it confesses to Baudrillard. As architecture “in its ambitious form no longer builds anything but monsters”, there are several “urban monsters”, to battle: “Beaubourg, La Villette, La Defense, Opera, Bastille, etc”.9 The “etc” includes a plethora of places such as Disneyland and buildings such as the Bonaventure Hotel (analyzed with greater nuance than Jameson’s). However the mother-of-all-monsters that “remains their prototype”, like the “monster in Alien that roams the passages of the spacecraft”,10 the Minotaur that inhabits each chapter of the slim volume, that roams through the passage of the Proto-Baudrillardian Labyrinth, is the monster that has devoured the name of its environs: Beaubourg.

            In the second of two introductions by Proto (the Master had warned against “the vertigo of duplication”) the Beaubourg monster is referred to no less than thirty times; a metaphorical overkill even before the masses can “throw themselves at it”.11 Proto’s Beaubourg out-Baudrillards Baudrillard. Beaubourg breathlessly represents, “anti-monument to culture”, “western myth of democracy, the ephemeral and fanatical ideal of a mass”, “a hyper technological screen”,  “a useless distraction”,  “the death rattle of a one-eyed post-modern wave”.12 The “violation of post-modern codes”, “the mega-logo escalator sign”, “the deconsecrated founder of the family line that will leave behind it a massacre”,  “a mise en scène”,  “the stupefaction of emptiness”, “a fairground attraction, a petroleum refinery, an astonishing super tanker”, “an architectural counterfeit”, “a work-in-progress structure”, “an interactive object”,  “the sacred cow of democracy, the Great Mother who spreads knowledge”, “the opportunity for incest”, “an invitation to a collective rape”, “ a self-representing and self-celebrating simulacrum, a supersign”, “a cheeseburger served during a Buckingham Palace banquet”,  “Salome who, in the excited frenzy of the dance, asked for the head of contemporary art”, “the sparagmòs of knowledge, caused by a mass enraged by the horror of decapitation”,  “the end of social architecture” and indeed “the death of architecture itself through euthanasia”.13

            The frenzy of Proto is merely a foretaste of the Baudrillardian delirium (add wit and élan that escaped the earnest editor). The hapless hi-tech succumbs to the thinker’s “metaphysical musings” of “Implosion and Deterrence” that persist with Beaubourg as an architectural suicide bomber. But this bomber does not explode; it implodes “absorbing all the cultural energy and devouring it – a bit like the black monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey: insane convection of all the contents that came there to be materialized, to be absorbed, and to be annihilated”.14 Lest you think the “contents” are the periodic exhibits, Baudrillard clarifies, “the only content of Beaubourg is the masses themselves, whom the building treats like a converter, like a black box...”.15 Once you get the pseudoscientific Black Hole drift, the implosion gets rather predictable.

            Baudrillard errs when he asserts, “all intentions underlying the Beaubourg project were contradicted by the object…Instead of being contextual, it created empty space around itself and became a sort of black body”.16 Given the architects design predilections, the building, with its guts hanging outside (thus accessible for upkeep) and skin uninterrupted inside (thus providing a flexible interior), was designed not to be contextual (though the eastern facade admirably respects the street edge reinforcing the vista to Notre-Dame). Given the architects Italian connections,17 it was designed to have empty space; an un-Parisian piazza equal to half the site. “The center is a public event,” the designers declared, “thus the greater the public involvement, the greater the success” and that involvement included “walking, meandering, love-making, contacting, watching, playing, sleeping, passing, studying, skating, eating, shopping, swimming”.18

            Ever since, people have been voting with their feet to arrive at a structure that is decidedly not a black body and, in empathy with the body, is kinaesthetic. The engineers of Beaubourg, experienced in advanced roofs in Mecca and Riyadh, pursued steel casting that allowed structural forms to follow the flow of forces. The articulated mobile joints of cantilevers with cross bracings having hinge pins held by cast stirrups, are as expressive and intuitive as any skeletal joint embedded within us. We view them close up as we view Paris zooming out while our bodies ascend diagonally on hung escalators. Even for mute witnesses, leave alone the piazza revelers, it is this frozen choreography of the moving joints and dynamic dance of the body in space that is missing in the dead “weight (that is to say with the characteristic most deprived of meaning, the stupidest, the least cultural)”19  of the Baudrillardian paradoxically-disembodied “masses”. Far from imploding, Beaubourg exploded boundaries between piazza and building, between structure and movement, between museum and library, between institutionalism and ad-hocism and between national monument and user friendliness. It remains an exciting catalyst that rejuvenated a nondescript site in an erstwhile neglected neighbourhood.20

            This is what the reviewer saw when, as one of the individuals that showed up en masse in its inaugural year, he visited Beaubourg more than 25 years ago, escaping the Schwarzchild radius while merrily throwing all of his then 50 kg on this building and becoming “a destructive variable of the structure itself”.21 This is what the architects saw when this reviewer had a wide ranging discussion with one of them, Renzo Piano, appointed to conserve the building. This is what the masses see, but this is not what Baudrillard sees. He admits that it is “not the architectural sense of these buildings that captivates me but the world they translate”.22 The “world” they translate need not be the world the masses inhabit but often the world of Baudrillard’s “metaphysical musings”23 which are draped on to architectural monuments turning them into convenient scaffolds that attract the fictitious “masses” (whatever happened to “the social” with all its multicultural idiosyncrasies) and equally fictitious theories (“too bad for Beaubourg”).24

            “Theory”, according to Baudrillard, should begin “from their presumed altitude and move back down towards their “reality”, but not even stop there, for that is only an imaginary line”.25 Just as, “what is consumed is not the object anymore, instead it is the relationship with the object and what it symbolises”,26 so also what is consumed is not the architecture anymore, instead it is the relationship of Baudrillard’s self-fulfilling theory27 with architecture and what that relationship symbolises. When architecture is less the instigator and more the recipient, the unanchored musings crossing the imaginary line, loop back upon themselves as micro-labyrinth iterations sinking the monster-monument under a deluge of text imploding unto itself.  It is not the monument that implodes, as Baudrillard would have it, but the Baudrillardian text that implodes.

            Conspiracy theories are founded on secrecy. Thus “the Pope, the Grand Inquisitor, the great Jesuits and theologians all knew that God did not exist; this was their secret, and the secret of their strength”.28 Thus the windowless studiolo of the Prince in Urbino hides a “dangerous secret…the very secret of his power” i.e. his power is a mere simulation, “an effect of perspective”.29 Thus “culture is a site of the secret” which is antithetical to cultural production and it is this that “the Beaubourg Museum wishes to conceal”.30 Furthermore, “Beaubourg is at the level of culture what the hypermarket is at the level of the commodity”,31 what Disneyland is at the level of California, and what California at the level of America and what America is at the level of the West.32

            When you reach the centre of the labyrinth you find the centre to be a place of turning and returning, and not of tarrying. If you decide to tarry at the centre, you soon find, much to your chagrin, that you who have metamorphosed into the very Minotaur that you sought to battle (as another author discovered in The Shining who tarried at the centre of the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel typing away a novel that imploded into a single repeating sentence, looping back upon itself). “The Minotaur remains trapped in a labyrinth precisely because it is trapped in a loop-mode. The choice remains between a loop-physical and a loop-mental; the cessation of one is the inception of the other for at the centre the status quo is never static”.33

            The labyrinth’s centre is the birthplace of the Baudrillardian conspiratorial microcosm according to which the centre is a pseudo centre concealing the fact that it is actually periphery in disguise, the very lack of the centre in turn rendering the periphery itself fictitious. Thus the “park [La Villette] and the museum [Beaubourg] seek to disguise and exorcise the devastation and desertification of the town”34 thus “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation” and likewise New York is “the epicentre of the end of the world”.35

            An exhilarating analysis of the trompe l’oeil concludes that the “real is relinquished by the very excess of its appearances”.36 Eroticism being the pleasure of excess, the very excess of  Baudrillard’s contemplations renders his writings on architecture erotic. Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, Proto’s compilation is an endeavor for which architects, among others, will be thankful. The others include, in particular, science fiction aficionados of the cyberpunk sub-genre (hence the captioned quote).  Like them, Baudrillard writes in a post-apocalyptic mode (even before 9/11 supposedly changed the world), like cyber-heroes, he moves as a disembodied being (when the body does occur it is a catastrophic mass); his identity, like theirs, depends on his ideas of the new; like them he quarries the ruins of modern and postmodern architecture and cities for future-present habitats, ignoring their original semiotic context and investing them with new meanings; in both their writings and unlike other genres, actors recede into stereotypes while the scenery takes center stage. Just as cyberpunk fiction remains ahead of any VRML representation of cyberspace, so also Baudrillard’s poetic interpretations remain evocatively ahead of the architecture that provokes him to write. The reader chances upon stunning insights that are dizzying in the vistas they open. A flick of the wrist, a turn of the page and you are looking back nostalgically at 2005, receding rapidly in the rearview.
 



Endnotes

1 Architect-Poet H. Masud Taj directs Black Cube:www.taj.ca

2 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:6

3 William Gibson in Timothy Leary "High Tech High Life – William Gibson and Timothy Leary In Conversation." Mondo 2000, 7 (Fall 1989): 61.

4 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:x 

5 Passages in quotation marks appear respectively in Ibid.:1, 4, 6, 9, 13, 25, 29, 29, 44, 56, 66, 70, 77, 84, 87, 87, 91, 91, 115. 

6 Ibid.:63. 

7 Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso 2002:51

8 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:xii.

9 Ibid.:75, 54.

10 Ibid.:71, 72.

11 Ibid.:116

12 Ibid.:1, 2, 3.

13 Passages in quotation marks appear respectively in Ibid.:3, 3, 4, 5, 9, 9, 9, 9, 10, 10, 10, 11, 11, 16, 16-17, 4, and 3.

14 Ibid.:59, 112.

15 Ibid.:117. 

16 Ibid.:76.

 

17 Renzo Piano is Italian and Richard Rogers is half-Italian.

18 Nathan Silver. The Making of Beaubourg: A Building Biography of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994:104. 

19 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:120. 

20 In the 1930’s, housing on its site, infamous for prostitution and tuberculosis, was gutted; the forlorn clearing became a parking lot for trucks. 

21 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:119.

 

22 Ibid.:22.

 

23 Ibid.:59.

 

24 Ibid.:115.

 

25 Ibid.:52.

 

26 Ibid.:2.

 

27 Self-verification is the very flaw that Baudrillard detected in Pierre Bourdieu. See Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, Mike Gane (Ed). London: Routledge, 1993:63. 

28 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:90.

 

29 Ibid.

 

30 Ibid.:114.

 

31 Ibid.:119.

 

32 Ibid.:43.

 

33 H. Masud Taj. Doctoring Strange Loves Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying Stanley And Love Monsters In Scholarship, Chess, Films & Architecture. Dissertation. Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 2004:29. 

34 Francesco Proto. Mass Identity Architecture: Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2003:73.

 

35 Ibid.:90, 28.

 

36 Ibid.:88.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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