Sep 17

Mark Jarzombec

Associate Dean, Dept of Architecture, MIT
Professor of History, Theory and Criticism, Dept of Architecture, MIT

6 Responses to Sep 17

  1. William Patera-Daniele Cappelleti says:

    Mark Jarzombek initiates his lecture with the provocative proclamation: “Architecture is a failed discipline!”  Jarzombek articulates this position by tracing the failure of architecture back to nineteenth century philosophy, where arts and sciences were honored with philosophical importance while, “architecture was left in a philosophical limbo from which it has never recovered.”[1]  Failure is liberating for Jarzombek, because it grants the academic with the ability to analyze contemporary architecture without references or preconceptions, and to postulate new foundations for a discipline (formerly known as architecture).

    Given this liberated position, why does Jarzombek continue to employ linguistic models and ideas that were equally employed, if not generated, by the failed discipline?  We will argue that Jarzombek’s position, while a radical departure from current pedagogy in the academe and dialogue of the practice, is primarily a reactionary posture that seeks to reestablish the postmodern project.  This position will be revealed by a closer examination of language in Jarzombek’s lecture and recent papers, relative to the use of language in postmodern architecture (“difficult architecture”) and philosophy.  We intend for this text to serve as a further provocation and to incite a discussion for alternatives to Jarzombek’s dichotomy of “Architecture” vs “Messy Realism”, and to open critique to our interpretation.

    1.  Language, Communication:
    “As for postmodernism itself, I have not tried to systematize a usage or impose any conveniently coherent thumbnail meaning, for the concept is merely contested, it is also internally conflicted and contradictory.  I will argue that, for good or ill, we cannot not use it…. every time it is used, we are under the obligation to rehearse those inner contradictions and stage those representational inconsistencies and dilemmas; we have to work all that through every time around”[2]
    Jarzombek asks the audience, “why do we use words like ‘architecture’, ‘urbanism’, or ‘nature’…”, when these words no longer have any connection to a concept, or the concept no longer exists?  In semiotic terms, Jarzombek is arguing that the social contract between the signifier and the signified has been severed (perhaps hundreds of years ago), and what remains are floating or “shifting signifiers”[3], or empty signs.  While early modernist architecture argued for a direct connection between the signifier and the signified[4], postmodern architecture took two general positions: a retreat into a world of self refferential signs (intertextual?), or an embrace of the populist sign in the form of pastiche.  Jarzombek suggests that we should produce our own signifiers for our failed discipline, such as “larchitecture” or “burbanism”, or even negate the signifier, “notarchitecture”[5]; proliferating a pastiche of floating signifiers.  Is it the role of the failed discipline to fill the floating signifiers with new signified(s), or would this be too “difficult”?  Or, does failure, as Jarzombek advocates, entitle notarchitects to completely disregard the social contract?
    Jarzombek notes that architecture doesn’t need to be “difficult” (“difficult architecture” discussed in detail below), but that architecture should pose difficult questions.  But, it is a difficult task to pose questions when no language exists to form questions, let alone difficult questions.  Perhaps the difficult questions lie within the formation of language itself, and the willingness to communicate.  But, surely there must be alternatives in the methods of communication, other than the populist, and predominantly visual, postmodern “sign”.
    It is curious that Jarzombek gives so much attention to the visual “sign” as primary mode of communication, even after severing “architecture” from its Western origins.  Juhani Pallasmaa argues that, in Western culture, vision and knowledge are inextricably linked and that architects have become overly dependent on visual readings of architecture.[6]  Again, we find another another connection between Jarzombek’s position and the postmodern, where buildings could be “read”, visually, from their surface (for the populists) and from their deep-structure (for the “difficult architects” — Eisenman).
    2.   Difficult Architecture vs. Messy Realism
    The aim of the Jarzombek’s lecture is to give an example of paradigm and anti – paradigmatic reasoning. He presents the paradigm of “difficult architecture”, where the discipline of architecture has consistently based itself on difficult philosophical texts and the construction of complex, or difficult looking, buildings.  Eisenman, Tafuri, Derrida, Foucault and in general Post- structuralism can be considered the main contributors to the “difficult architecture” paradigm.
    Jarzombek argues that the majority of contemporary architectural work operates within the same paradigm. The issue of Sustainability and the computational formal research, in their attempt to reach a kind of purity, are still in the realm of “difficult architecture”.
    According to Jarzombek the academe and the architecture discipline are ignoring what is happening outside the door. The messy reality in which we live is not being considered. His anti – paradigmatic proposal is to engage with the messy world instead of trying to reach a pure detached form.
    But the attempt to relate with messy reality is, again, a typical postmodern issue. When Venturi wrote Complexity and Contradiction he meant that architects should analyze the complexity of the cities or, using Venturi’s words, “the difficult whole”. In his book Learning from Las Vegas, which explores the quintessential city of messy reality, semiotics is again a core issue. If in language the sound or written symbol would be the signifier and the idea the signified, in architecture the form would be the signifier and the content the signified. Venturi’s famous example of the “decorated shed” is quite paradigmatic: in a duck-shaped building forms and function are linked (like in the modern architecture), while in the decorated shed the sign (signifier) is separated by the shed building (signified).
    Jarzombek’s lecture is based on postmodern theory. When he wants to change the word “architecture” in “larchitecture” he is just changing the signifier, he is just modifying the sound of the word. When he shows the “tree restaurant” in Japan he is again showing a shift in the signifier, in the shape, from a normal building to a tree. But nothing is said about the signified: does the restaurant work? Does it has an interesting space inside? What is its function in the neighborhood?
    [1] Jarzombek, Mark. “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”: Volume 19, 2009, pp 42-45. In reference to Hegel.
    [2] Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  Duke University Press, 1991, pp xxii.
    [3] “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”.  [In reference to NAAB's notion of professional practice equation with a social contract.] “But since when have ‘discipline and stability’ been ‘core values’?  And what are core values when the last two hundred years of architectural history has proven that such values have been, if anything, shifting signifiers.”
    [4] Corbusier. Vers Un Architecture. [See the last page with the image of the tobacco pipe, labeled "briar pipe"]
    [5] Gordon Matta Clark had a similar affinity for wordplay — he often referred to his works as “Anarchitecture” (c. 1973)
    [6]  Pallasmaa, Juhani. The Eyes of the Skin. Academy, 1996.
  2. Chelsea says:

    In beginning a constructive critique, I would first like to extend to William and Daniele a job well done in their comprehensive analysis of Mark Jarzombek’s lecture on “Architecture as a Failed Discipline.” Their argument certainly raises some potent points of contention within Jarzombek’s lecture that deserve noting. In addition, however, I would like to raise some further points by dissecting aspects of their argument.

    The Respondent’s use of “difficult” in “difficult questions” raises the point of the establishment of a language as a necessary precursor to the asking of these questions, but when the need for a new terminology of “architecture” (into “larchitecture,” “notarchitecture” ect.) itself is a “difficult question”, how can we be so sure that “willingness” and the use of the “postmodern ‘sign’”[1] are seemingly the only alternatives that Jarzombek poses in a new communication? This question is stated, yet no other explanation or possibility is given to replace this notion. Correct me if I’m wrong (as I am a “lart dis-torian,” not a “larchitect”), but aren’t architects still today influenced by the postmodern, and as such, still operating under much of the same language? The “postmodern ‘sign’” of Robert Venturi’s “decorated shed” may not be as emblazoned in literal form on many contemporary structures built by leading architects (except for the Takeshi Hazama Nana Harbor Diner as a unique and interesting example), but Venturi’s “duck”, with some linguistic and visual interpretation, may still be directly applied in the autonomy-seeking forms of many contemporary architectural forms [2], without being too obvious.

    According to Jarzombek, and stated by the Respondents, architecture is still not “severed” from its “Western origins”, and “larchitecture” remains treated by the academic and professional community as a cute snarky joke. Aptly so, without the establishment of an alternative “language” that can even accept that possibility in the here and now. And really, what is aesthetics without folly, and creativity without play? So Jarzombek’s introductory “exclamation” is exactly that: a call to arms for the pedagogical community, using a humorous twist of terminology as a springboard for discussion (as we are involved in now), to consider what may be received at first reaction as absurd and delve into the “why’s” of that reaction. In turn, however, the same, long-established “linguistic models” must be used, at least initially, in all renderings of a new language, as many manifestos in the art historical context, from Futurism [3] to Dada [4], have sought to explore.

    The points that the Respondents make toward the lack of language to pose questions is very valid, as well as their critique of the “signifier/signified” of his terminology, yet I can’t help but feel that the evolution of this language, and the ties it may exhibit with postmodern theory, is only just beginning, and that the shaping of our language TODAY is what Jarzombek is seeking in his reactionary statements.

    [1] Patera & Cappelleti, September 17th Lecture posting, section “1. Language, Communication:”, paragraph four.
    [2] “The architectural systems of space, structure and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form…building-becoming-sculpture.” Venturi, Scott-Brown & Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977): 89.
    [3] “Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!” (F.T. Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto, 1909,
    [4] “The Futurist is dead. Of What? Of DADA…Imitators of DADA want to present DADA in an artistic form which it has never had…CITIZENS, You are presented today in a pornographic form, a vulgar and baroque spirit which is not the PURE IDIOCY claimed by DADA…BUT DOGMATISM AND PRETENTIOUS IMBECILITY” (Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Max Ernst et al., DADA Manifesto, 1921,

  3. Ian Caine says:

    Criticism v. Cynicism, Aesthetics v. Folly
    Initiator Chelsea Behle writes:
    “And really, what is aesthetics without folly, and creativity without play? So Jarzombek’s introductory “exclamation” is exactly that: a call to arms for the pedagogical community, using a humorous twist of terminology as a springboard for discussion…”[1]
    Let’s hope that Behle is correct and that Professor Jarzombek’s “call to arms” is solely pedagogical in nature, not a re-prescription of postmodernism to the architectural community. For a slide back into the cynical and unproductive depths of this discredited orthodoxy would only serve to prove the title of Jarzombek’s original thesis: “Architecture: A Failed Discipline.”[2]
    Jarzombek’s argument is Venturian in the best and worse sense. It is most convincing as an updated critique of re-emerging indulgences in the current modern movement. In 1972 Venturi made the radical decision to call out Paul Rudolph and Mies van de Rohe as undercover purveyors of “modern ornament,” as de facto enthusiasts of a symbolic architecture [3]. Venturi writes of Mies: “Less may have been more, but the I-section on Mies van de Rohe’s fire-resistant columns, for instance, is as complexly ornamental as the applied pilaster on the Renaissance pier or the incised shaft in the Gothic pier…”[4]
    Jarzombek powerfully names architects such as Tadao Ando as conspicuous successors to this hypocritical modern tradition. Jarzombek channels Venturi by challenging Ando’s renewed quest for geometric and material perfection. Such critique is timely—hopefully it will prompt architects to turn their attention away from contemporary indulgences and towards more pressing matters (yes, overpopulation and climate change).
    Nonetheless, Jarzombek and Behle would be wise to remember the slippery slope that delivered Venturi from the role of cultural critic to that of cultural cynic: for while Venturi brilliantly identified and assessed the post-modern city, he simultaneously demeaned his audience by delivering buildings such as Philadelphia’s Guild House [5]. This seminal postmodern piece might have provided a cautionary tale to emerging postmodernists about the absurdity of chasing supposed populist aims through the esoteric use of structural linguistics. Unfortunately, the potential lesson was lost on a generation of architects who followed Venturi and later trail-blazers such as Peter Eisenman. In the end, Venturi was quite right to identify the role of post-structuralism in the production of architectural culture; wrong to celebrate his discovery by planting a gold-plated T.V. antenna on the roof of a retirement home.
    Jarzombek’s decision to celebrate the merits of the “tree building” unfortunately recalls this disdainful tradition. As Respondent’s Patera & Cappelleti point out, Jarzombek does not claim that the building enriches its occupants or community in any meaningful way [6]. Instead, Behle notes that Jarzombek’s interest lies in the structure’s polemic value, in its ability to act as cultural folly. Such cynical readings imperil the production of genuine cultural artifact by elevating the act of folly into the realm of meaningful building. This is true whether you describe the act of building as architecture, larchitecture, construction or anything else. Instead of celebrating the discipline’s failure, as Jarzombek suggests, we might continue to critique it’s contradictions in the best tradition of Venturi; resisting the temptation to indulge the irony and absurdity of it all.
    [1] Chelsea Behle, September 28th Lecture posting, paragraph three
    [2] Jarzombek, Mark. “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”: Volume 19, 2009.
    [3] Venturi, Robert et al. Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. The MIT Press, 1972, p. 114
    [4] Venturi, Robert et al. Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. The MIT Press, 1972, p. 114
    [5] Guild House, Philadelphia, Venturi and Rauch, Cope and Lippincott, Associates, 1960-1963
    [6] Patera & Cappelleti, September 17th Lecture posting, section “2. Difficult Architecture vs. Messy Realism,” last paragraph

  4. Hanna says:

    There is no shame in admitting that indeed in today’s context architecture is a failed discipline. As Professor Jarzombek said himself, “the discipline not need to be rejected, it just has to except the fact that it fails… it tries to pretend that it succeeds”. To deny the dysfunction of architecture as a discipline to keep up with the rapidly shifting paradigms of today’s reality is to give in to the “fake ethical” opposition. Instead, Prof. Jarzombek’s proposition is to “celebrate architecture’s disciplinary failure”, and furthermore, “work its failure into our theoretical frameworks and even engage it in our architectural practices” [1].
    To some such a statement may seem unprecedented; and as Ian Caine expressed his hope for it not to “slide back into the cynical and unproductive depths” [2]. On my part, I interpret it as an attempt to suspend the comfort in the world with all its definitions that we are so accustomed to take for granted. Sometime ago we stopped speculating and lost the ability to “listen” to the paradigms, we lost the connection with what Prof. Jarzombek calls “messy world”.

    He starts with questioning the meaning of the words “architecture”, “urbanism” and “nature”… to name a few. Than he proceeds deeper into the issue: questioning how and why we came to use them he puts the emphases on the western origin of the word “Architecture”. Perhaps, right here, in a subtle way by asking “why not Urdu?” he not only tries to discuss the architecture as a field of study and its meanings, but also how it was made, or rather constructed, as a discipline. Perhaps here he wants the audience to look into the deliberate making of history, a discipline that was fabricated through a denial, creating new elements, and cutting others; and who stitched these pieces together to create one pastiche.

    Prof. Jarzombek raises the issue of the “difficult architecture” paradigm in terms of what it “wants” to be, instead of what it has to be to reflect “messy reality”. Pointing out that it wants to be such not necessary based on intellectual ground, but rather of the fact that there is a certain pride to “master” something difficult. Architects looking for self-indulgence and self-satisfaction became unduly numb to the external world. As a result, architecture as a discipline stopped searching for the ways to improve all odd situations into favorable conditions. What had to be a means to achieve a goal became a final destination itself, as in the case of computation and the role of technology in the field itself. To justify “monastic” existence of architecture and somehow make it look as if it is doing something more than just self-admiration, a “hypocrisy of green” came into play.

    Juhani Pallasmaa says: “…The ultimate meaning of any building is beyond architecture; it directs our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being. Significant architecture makes us experience ourselves as complete embodied and spiritual beings” [3]. And that, in my opinion, is exactly what Prof. Jarzombek is trying to do – “to put the truth back into architecture” [4]. Inevitably, two presented examples (Gehry and Takeshi Hazama) are the product of the same idea, and indeed could be interchangeable. The Respondents’ frustration is quite understandable here; they say: “When he shows the “tree restaurant” in Japan he is again showing a shift in the signifier, in the shape, from a normal building to a tree. But nothing is said about the signified: does the restaurant work? Does it have an interesting space inside? What is its function in the neighborhood?” [4]. It is true, there is not much said about the signified, but maybe simply because it is not there. The “tree restaurant” is a fake tree and it doesn’t pretend to be something else; its fakeness is celebrated, while Gehry’s building is “a fantasy world of its own aesthetic ideology”. And the ultimate message of Prof. Jarzombek is that it is much more difficult to be true, but somehow it has to be a starting point for the architecture as a discipline.

    [1] Jarzombek, Mark. “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”: Volume 19, 2009.
    [2] Ian Caine, September 29th, Lecture posting.
    [3] Pallasmaa, Juhani. “The Eyes of the Skin”. Academy, 1996.
    [4] Jarzombek, Mark. “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”: Volume 19, 2009.
    [5] William Patera-Daniele Cappelleti, September 24th, Lecture posting.

  5. Maria says:

    The logic in Mark Jarzombek’s argument that architecture is a failed discipline comes full circle with the idea of architecture as a contemporary profession. Perhaps the freedom of separating architecture from the idea of discipline makes it free to not answer deep, intangible, philosophical questions and rather focus on the “messy realism” of the physical world [1].
    Despite that Jarzombek makes this argument, his insistence that architecture should begin to make polemic cultural statements without regard for form seems to be an attempt to return architecture to its ‘discipline’ status rather than accepting it for what it now is. The argument of making cultural statements without regard for accepted, cultural aesthetic harmony [2] is in itself contradictory, since regionalism often is based (among other things) exactly on that.
    The study of philosophy within the field of architecture often seems to be yet another type of attempt to somehow legitimize architecture as a discipline. Is philosophy necessary in order for architecture to be a significant profession? Does it need to answer philosophical questions about its significance in order to be so? Is the architectural profession responsible for saving the world? Can architecture be a significant profession through its inherent nature of shaping the built environment? Why do we need anything more than this?
    The idea of an academic discourse is always interesting and within the setting of MIT, it can be more so since it is meant to derive relevant information from various disciplines; however, the constant theoretical and philosophical discussion should be a backdrop to focused and proactive engagement in architecture as a profession—not the other way around. Getting too involved in these deep discussions can separate us from the actual practice of our profession and detach us from the “messy reality.”
    Aside from the contradictions within Jarzombek’s argument, he poses the idea of looking into postmodernism as a means to find an answer to the current state of facelessness that architecture is currently in. [3] Whether he does this because he thinks it will answer many of the questions architecture is facing today as a profession in terms of style and ultimate direction or because of postmodernism’s inherent controversial nature does not matter. It is important to understand the break that occurred after postmodernism that brought us to where we are now and how that historical discontinuity affects the profession because of its detachment to centuries of history rather than because of postmodernism’s principles or aesthetic qualities.[4] Completely denying postmodernism’s value in history and in the architectural profession today is probably equally detrimental as reviving it. [5]
    Perhaps the first step would be to accept architecture for what it is and take ownership of the profession in light of the world that we live in today. Architecture has changed drastically from its beginnings when it was taught as one of many disciplines, when the gentlemen architects were also trained in history, philosophy, mathematics, etc. Now, architecture is a profession with several sub-fields and is no longer taught as part of a curriculum that was tailored for the privileged few. We cannot hold on to discipline principles that were established centuries ago in order to feel we are part of a legitimate field of study and in thinking this way, perhaps it should be called something else—something like “barchitecture” perhaps.

    [1] Jarzombek, Mark. Introduction: Educational Paradigms in Architecture. 17 September 2010
    [2] Patera & Cappelleti, September 17th Lecture posting, section “2. Difficult Architecture vs. Messy Realism,” last paragraph
    [3] Jarzombek, Mark. “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”: Volume 19, 2009.
    [4] Jarzombek, Mark. Introduction: Educational Paradigms in Architecture. 17 September 2010
    [5] Ian Caine, September 29th, Lecture posting.

  6. Timothy Cooke says:

    I’m interested in Ian Caine’s inference of guilt regarding the profession’s “contemporary indulgences” and his call for the discipline to instead turn its attention toward the pressing matters of overpopulation and climate change [1]. This invocation of guilt is found at every turn in our society, with architects often times in a most public role. Architects can be held up as possible savior in one instance and just as easily blamed when society at large needs a scapegoat. This tension is fascinating, and ultimately causes me to find affinity in the way Jarzombek sets up the dichotomy of “Architecture” and “Messy Realism”. His cynical delivery notwithstanding, I would propose that the core of his message can be seen as a call to engage the world in all its messiness as apposed working within the “paradigm” of self-righteous eco-responsibility.

    As Jarzombek asserts in his essay, Architecture, A Failed Discipline, “advocates of Sustainability have taken up the cause of trying to return meaning and purpose to architecture. They want Sustainability to be architecture’s new Enlightenment.” [2]. Whether we like it or not, this cause is infiltrating every aspect of the pedagogical and professional discourse. It is this cause that Jarzombek questions when he talks about the discipline’s penchant for neo-purist desire for authenticity. Shining examples abound, but one that hits close to home is Norman Foster’s zero-carbon city, Masdar, located in the UAE and soon to house MIT laboratories [3]. This utopian city is the epitome of an architecture that cringes away from the messy world and creates a hermetically sealed utopian landscape. In this refuge–literally an oasis in the desert–our guilt can be soothed by the knowledge that our cleanly created world is free from the messiness that surrounds us. The profession can cloak itself in this self-righteous superiority precisely because it chooses to ignore the Takeshi Hazama Nana Harbor Diners of the world.

    The discipline’s embrace of sustainability as providing the meaning and purpose for architecture is a dicey proposition and provides easy fodder for critique, as evidenced in Ouroussoff’s piece on Masdar in the Yew York Times. He faults architecture as enabling “the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance”. Is there not any room for a middle ground between architecture as a failed discipline on the one hand and architecture as savior of the planet on the other?

    [1] Ian Caine, September 29th Lecture posting, paragraph three.
    [2] Jarzombek, Mark. “Architecture: A Failed Discipline”: Volume 19, 2009.
    [3] Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises”, September 25th, 2010.

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