Thresholds: (before the Law).
Urban life often presents itself as nothing more than a collection of murmurings operating on or below our conscious threshold. However the origin of these insistent intrusions into the background noise of our lives need not only be auditory. The source of one such ever-present murmuring lies in the awareness of a perpetual low-level liminality of visual origin; a sense of threshold formed out of our personal experience of urban space (the product of the meeting of public right of way and private property). On the threshold of consciousness we apprehend the threshold. Movement through city and suburb is sensed as a flow channelled between multiple membranes. All passage becomes a passage between parallel walls of potential permeability. Everywhere there are openings; yet many are closed; those barred to our entry only stimulate a greater murmur as we imagine what lies beyond. The threshold. The imagination of what-lies-beyond as a reflex action. In this form the threshold is a constitutive factor of modern life. And when we come to move within an area replete with the architecture of public institutions, the intensity and proximity of the threshold operates at a higher level, as does our awareness of this condition. The awareness of our condition. The condition of the subject before architecture: to be found standing, or mentally kneeling as in supplication to a presiding deity, before buildings within which the answer or service we desire is to be sought.
Operating as much within us - an organ of social origin- as without, an interiorised geo-physical relation, transformed by our dependency upon our field of vision; the perpetual threshold of public architecture.
On the threshold: the condition of the subject before architecture.
Before architecture: the total 'hard body' of the urban visual experience; exo-skeleton of the otherwise intangible insect of bureaucracy; facade covering the naked yet fore-ever absent body of power; public face of the institution. Pillar of the national community. Totem of the Social.
Before architecture. The brute presence of absence. Massive - pierced with a guarded entry. Brute solidity framing the void of passage. An intimate confrontation; the very particular sense of proximity that marks the experience of the entry-fronting of a building. The hole in the wall. Breach in the fortifications. Absence framed by brute presence. Rusticated stone. The entry and the encompassing wall it breaches. Gateway. A place before which we wait. Before which we hesitate before entering. Portal. A possible transit point into the interior. Passageway leading into another open space; a courtyard, perhaps, or another place of waiting (another Place of Before, part of the genre of places that are made for waiting, like the gateway to the place of the Law in Kafka's Trial).
In front of the front. Multiplying
the effect of the cathedral (West) Front.
Before/now. Before architecture. Before our institutions, before our modernity and our civilisation, ourselves before us. Shelter and cohesion. Belief. Law (the passing down of and obedience to tradition). Now rationality... rational law, framed in institutions (rationality, pretending its difference to nationalism, to certain national, cultural and linguistic identities). Before architecture: Law; the power of repetition. Now architecture.
The threshold: simultaneously the centre and edge of our culture - the citadel that founds and the chasm at the end of our world. Edge and centre - only a step away - always a step away (on the other side of the threshold). The Law -centre of our being- supported by the marble pillars of an mythic elsewhere - edge of our being.
All communities recognise themselves by their Law, by what is sacred to them (hence the upper case) and the entities or institutions that bear it. In the case of minority identity groups, those constituting a sub-division of society (rather than a fracture or poly-aspectuality of the self), a similar structure would wish to emerge; but the general, jealous guardian of the default, be it the State or the state of public opinion, forbids it. Hence the sub-of sub-cultures, the status of sub-alternates - cultures which would evolve in their own right, but must define themselves against (or rather, be defined by) the dominant (if imaginary) normative identity and its partisans. Hence the Law of communities (always borne up by the sacred and so more powerful than any mere canon law) can be found to sustain increasingly smaller worlds right down to the world of the individual. Whence we return again to the whole - even if only as ground sustaining a lonely figure, or as a negative image (in the case of those who 'will not serve'). Division of community, multiple allegiances, difference, virtue and fact of post-modern society, do not negate the impact of Law (all identity presupposes it, all forms of identity require it) nor do they adulterate the impact of the threshold, the force of architecture (each reinterprets the threshold in their own way, according to their own beliefs and loyalties, according to their own...).
Being at large. Face to face with society. A relation given face by the facade. Facade of the building that shelters or represents an institution and its bureaucratic fundament. The facade; both actualisation and mediation of the invisible relation of the individual to the social, of individuals and their sense of community, with its ambiguous, eternally double-edged, relation of figure and ground (like the alternating priority of an illusion made from complementary colours). An oscillation which obscures the many levels of mediation. A mediation realised in the many actual meditations that make up the everyday experience of the facade. As symbol and as product of labour, the facade is a permanent reminder of the co-present levels of the social; of its invisible levels, of the labour of identity and human labour, now forever frozen in stone. The facade: the institutional face of society; the face appearing in the folds of stone and plaster, in the fold of concrete and glass. The face of society, invisibility incarnate, smiles out of stone. The institutional facade. The institution of the statue. The stone face of governance.
The blind face. A blind face that does not see. The face that does not see us. The facade that here functions as a promise, as a structure of debt. We are owed the sight of those eyes. We expect the comforting smile of recognition in the eyes of the face. We arrive to make good on the promise; we come to collect that which we feel we are owed. But end up by finding that it is in fact we who are owing something.
Neither/nor. A promissory note lies at the heart of the architectural symbol. And in the case of the soaring facade, the 'front', of collective consumption, all we can see is symbol (forget the false claims of function, there are no blind architects). Everything resides in the promise. Yet there is no entry. Neither to the final telos of Modernity. Nor to God (nor gods). Nor to heaven, nor utopia. Is it that an ideology is advertised, sold, but not delivered upon? We have been sold the optics, but the vision remains blurred. The communion of collective experience is daily performed; yet the vision of the promised land is forever deferred. Is the symbolic force of our architecture just another advertisement or can we discern the hidden spur of the ideal? The nature of the external anchor demands deferral when we try to cash in on its promises - the grasp of endless deferral hold us in its unrelenting grip in return for the favour of community. Infinity is the advance on the promise of eternity.
(On the other hand the check on the ideal does not have to be met - there is, after all, such a thing as a free lunch...)
Diversion/comparative. Are these concerns applicable only to the older historicist architecture? Or are they equally applicable to the modernist and postmodern forms of the facade? Certainly the return of historicism as the return of the face of typical institutional architecture suggests continuity on one level - but with a friendlier face than the two preceding architectural epochs. Yet this new face is also discernible on recent architecture designed in a less traditional manner, suggesting the general application of these concerns both to modernism and to modern architecture now - as well as to the broader set of institutional architecture as such and to the architecture of power in general. As can be seen in the case of the openness -the cracked-open tower- and glass wall transparency of the Strasburg Parliament, where a new democratic illusionism has come to replace the rhetoric of the recent past of state paternalism with its obsessional cube, together with its more distant relative, the lost illusionism of the imperial glare.
Waiting. (Outside. Incomplete. Without).
With such places (such palaces of power, such towering structures whose omnipresent physicality shelters the soft pupae of organisation, grounds the immaterial structures of the institution) there is always the ever-present sense of waiting. Of taking one's allotted place in an invisible line. (Of) Being kept in a state of expectation. Of always being kept in a state of expectation. Of always being held in a state of desire (approaching at times a state of anxiety). A desire that is finally not that destined for an object, nor to solicit a favour or service, but is rather aimed at eliciting the response that reveals the reflected light of recognition. The need or desire for recognition. The bestowal of recognition. The gift of presence. The sense of being where one is as beyond question. However, this gift of presence, of self-presence -the shining self in the palace of the golden court- takes not only its healing force, but also the omnipresent threat of its withdrawal, from the fact that it is a gift only to be conferred by others (either through the voluntary performative of the Other of the collective Same, or the involuntary performative of the other of sacrificial abjection). Final catch: this gift is actually a prerequisite prior to any possibility of service, interaction or exchange. What is at issue is the recognition of our membership of a community such that the transaction in question is regarded as legitimate, as fundamental, as flowing from the foundation of our social being. Hence the terror at the prospect of refusal. Under these circumstances the lack of a service becomes more than a personal affront, it is a direct denial of one's membership of one's own community. It is as if one has always been promised something by it; a perpetual performative transferring goods and services. However it is a promise which, nevertheless, reminds us of the risk we take with our identity when we come forward to ask for our due.
Waiting. Waiting for oneself. Expecting one's self. Waiting as perpetual division. Perpetual vulnerability. The flaying of the exposed social nerve. Perpetuated by architecture. Perpetuated in stone. Reminder of the frayed open end that is the self before others. Restored by architecture. Restored by waiting. Before architecture - the Good Other. Cure for our sense of falling, our vertigo at the freedom induced by social invisibility (and by the fear of social invisibility). Big Brother. All the more powerful for being the source of the Good. All the more powerful for being both disease and cure, source of dis-ease and its solace. Architecture as infinite mercy.
Waiting/awaiting. The sense of awaiting given by certain exteriors. The aura of the sacred affective. Sacred to a desire or design it can not deliver upon. To follow the sacred deixis through concealing clouds and on to its destination in eternity. Impossible (with this impossibility already written into the symbol, condition of its function). Awaiting: is this the closest one can get? If so it is already enough and we are grateful even for this small foretaste (to ask for more might be to risk disillusion). And so it is that we rest forever before, waiting on the threshold, and this sense of expectation is repeated right across our basic experience of the built-environment. A truth nowhere more self-evident than in the sense of the facade. The state of waiting before the imposing nature of the facade. No matter how we might rush to pass; the facade will always make us feel we are waiting. An urban constant. Always there. Whatever its state of upkeep or condition, always so much larger than ourselves. Maintaining, as the shell of the inconceivable, as barrier to transcendent vision, a kind of sublime relation within itself (within ourselves, for we have found an image for the unimaginable; what better than soaring architecture, then monolithic architecture, than imperial intimidating architecture, to clothe this unattainable image). The repetition, the sheer number of attempts at its realisation, the endlessly-copied sky-ward reaching, indicate that its force is in proportion to its absence. Incarnate, the man-made canyon of the general, the community; commonality actualised. It is the inert aspect of community that is risen before us. At the least we are provided by a daily fund of available awe. Sacralising the stones of our world; by extension a blessing on our existence; a sanctifying power, as well as sanctifying power (the institutions of power). Our choice: to suspect the institution (and to use the glow it may inspire as an ideal to hold up against it) but still to keep the sacralised sense it puts forth to help illuminate our world. To retain the light whilst avoiding being burnt by its source.
And so to Kafka (for whom we have been waiting). Kafka as modernist; definer of the modern: himself modernity defined. Reader of the signs of the much diagnosed 'sickness' of modernity (of modernism as the crisis of modernity) and of the modern sensibility (together with Weber, Simmel and Durkheim). Symptom as well as chronicler of modernism. Literature as the work of divination. Kafka as shaman. Architecture in his work also describes modernity and its institutions as a whole and in the form of their (imaginary) perversion. The critique of institutions taken in our time, which is also a critique and description of modernity. Hence Kafka's rhetoric of the threshold as it applies to architecture, the facade, the maze, the audience chamber, as a normalised icon of modern life, of the life of modern institutions, of our lives in the world of institutions (a trace of which adheres in every passage down every major street). For it is the threshold (when it is more than just the entry to the hearth, the pause before the entrance to the home, the rhythm of return to the household) that is the embodiment and carrier of reason in society. Just as reason makes up a threshold out of the sliding world of signs that floats upon the infinitely larger world beneath (just as in the relation of our reason to ourselves, and of ourselves to our organic lodgement). Architecture. Threshold. The mark of the structures of governance beyond the tribe - the stone face of the State, evolving since the Stone Age. We see it in concentrated form in the stone face of the statue, the concretised, glazed stare of the State, not returning our supplicatory gaze -the demand of an infant for its parent's attention- but staring out to infinity.
Architecture/ generation/ gender. The face of the good parent, the mother. The face of the indifferent parent, the bad mother. The face of the Law, the father. The impact of the maternal metaphor, hidden behind that of the paternal; the concealed influence of the former, disguised by the obviousness of the latter (as in the well-worn analogy with the physical). The echoes of infancy in the experience of architecture.
Waiting for Kafka. We are always outside. Waiting. As with 'K' in Kafka's 'Trial'. Before the Law (yet never outside the Law, always subject to the Law, subjects-in-waiting, attendants at the feast, waiting on those who dine, so many servants on trial, waiting for our place, waiting on our selves). 'Waiting for Godot'. Waiting for the Law.
The Rhetoric of the Threshold. Formula ([f>]...
~T). The future will always be the place where we search for the grail of
eternity. The forest in which we seek the distant glimmer of redemptive gold. A
forest stretching out to the horizon of our vision. The memory of the golden
chalice, our guide through and beyond the dark and empty reaches of the forest.
For always it is that something more must stand behind... beyond... on the
other side of that which is before. Before one in space and that which lies
before one in time. Both after and for always (which also happened before). As
if one were fore-ever armed with a forward stare, aimed straight ahead,
straight-through the wall before one (for intentionality and temporality,
unlike sight and time, do not travel upon light waves). Obstacles are waved
aside like so-many curtains that would conceal the stage. The direction of
vision. The future. A vision constituting temporality. And beyond the folds
that conceal the rituals of the sanctuary. A vision transcending temporality.
Straight-through that which pre-exists one in the present to that which always,
must always, pre-exist one; the vision of first and last things waiting behind
every wall. The very lack of transparency encountered encourages visions of
hope; and so prophecy comes to lurk in every look. As it might have been with
the fabled walls of
And as we wait upon the future... We look up at the figures that gaze down upon us so dispassionately. At all those... 'decorations'. So much architectural... waste. The watchers over the threshold. Symbolic figures, figurines, the immortals who look down from above, figures we must look up to see - and if absent, their place above nevertheless remains, normally marked by some solar feature, as seen from below, from our place outside the decor of facades and entry-frontings of buildings (aspects of the building which can not be seen from the inside, nor often from above). A place made for us (the implied viewer) by the building itself, its construction of its own audience, (we) participants in its own ritual. Witnesses to its performance of itself as arbitraitor of our excluded inclusion. Traitor to our cause. Our place. A position facing the future, desiring a given future, or a future beyond the given... expecting access to sublime gods, to witness their procession, hear their words, to take council, to bask in their presence. The spectacle, the power and the force of reflected recognition. Presence defined; deified (as a result). Entropy defied (as a further result); the half-life of public recognition prolonged. A pale echo of this pantheon is to be found in the gods and goddesses of the Media - the glittering presence of 'the Stars'. And, of course, in the aura surrounding those with power. This reflected glow in turn provides fuel for the fire burning at the altar of those whose glow it is that is reflected; fuel for the force of yet further symbolic figures and figurines. The figures on our buildings, the figures on our screens, the figures on our minds. The figures of our minds.
The figure of threshold (the threshold of figure).
Copyright 2003 Peter Nesteruk