I was putting together drafts of syllabi, and I kept coming across the term “fiction” in specific writings of architectural theory. As frequent readers of this and many other sites know, the term “architecture fiction” has been bouncing around the blogo-twitto-tumblo-sphere. It’s emerging as an alternative and experimental form of architectural writing and as a potential form of architectural practice. Among the numerous discussions of this subject, architect Pedro Gadanho has a new book out on architecture fiction — Beyond: Short Stories on the Contemporary. I look forward to reading it, and potentially reviewing it on this site.
In writing this post, I certainly was not hunting for a genealogy of the term “fiction” in architecture; in fact, I was looking for discussions of “program”. But the fiction term emerged, often in surprising ways.
The earliest reference I found to architecture fiction (a reference that relates to its contemporary use) was in Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. Koolhaas refers to Manhattan and his philosophy of Manhattanism as ” urban science fiction.” This use of “fiction,” also related to Koolhaas’ concept of narrative program, is what we see in the work of Bldg Blog or Bruce Sterling — fantastical tales situated within equally (but not obviously) fantastic structures, each informing the other.
“Fiction” also appears as a more specifically critical strategy in post-war writings; eg. Peter Eisenman’s 1984 article “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” In this piece, Eisenman writes of architecture’s enduring fictions:
“Architecture from the fifteenth century to the present has been under the influence of three “fictions.”…They are representation, reason and history. Each of the fictions had an underlying purpose: representation was to embody the idea of meaning; reason was to codify the idea of truth; history was to recover the idea of the timeless from the idea of change….”
Eisenman argues for a “dis-simulation” of the three fictions, which, I think means that architecture’s inherently fictional quality should appear doubly so. That is, the critical architect is one who builds these representations of architecture as a fiction, versus fictional representations of architecture as reality (eg. various strains of modernist or contemporary minimalist architecture). Eisenman arrives at a more critically fictional architecture through strategies such as scaling, grafting, tracing, and so on. A building such as the Wexner Center or his Canareggio project (below) are forms of architecture fiction within this latter definition. The building becomes a set of narratives (minus the “story” evident in Koolhaas’ work).
Most recently, this post-structural concept of fiction has been aligned with the earlier programmatic concept of fiction in the writing of Felicity Scott. Scott uses the term “fiction” in a piece from October, which also appears in her book Architecture or Techno-Utopia. The use of fiction is not unlike Eisenman’s, but Scott reaches for a definition of the term traceable to Foucault’s discussion of history as a type of fiction. If all of this sounds confusing, read the quote below. Referring to the strategies of Koolhaas, Italian Experimental Architecture, and Foucault, Scott writes
“Fiction is not just escape from reality but can produce an engaged withdrawal. Foucault commented on this quality in his own work, noting that ‘I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions.” And of fiction’s importance, he went on to explain: ‘I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or “manufactures” something that does not as yet exist, that is, “fictions” it. One “fictions” history on that basis of a political reality that makes it true, one “fictions” a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.'”
Here the Koolhaas idea of fiction and the more critical Eisenman concept of fiction come together. But something else is added. In the above quote, fiction becomes a utopian project, an idea that I think is missing in the most recent discussions. It is a planned escape versus an alternate reality that better enables us to understand what is real and what is not, or simply what could be just for the sake of difference. But what the Foucault discussion also suggests is that historians are active in developing this form of fictional political activity. How that will be staged, remains to be seen.