The absurdist liberation of architecture
I am Sisyphus and architecture is my boulder. For those who are not already familiar, Sisyphus is the Greek mythological king of Ephyra. However, he is perhaps most well-known for his unique, boulder-rolling, fate. As punishment for deceitfulness, Sisyphus was condemned to a life in which he was to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again; he was to repeat this task for eternity (Homer, Odyssey, XI.593). At the beginning of the final year of my architecture master’s degree, I felt much like I imagine Sisyphus to feel as he walks back down the hill to begin his task once more. Another year at university pushing another piece of architecture up the hill of hopeless, sure to be lost to interpretation, meaning - something with which many contemporaries, and architectural critics seem to have become mildly obsessed. This incessant striving for meaning is reinforced through the typical university design project’s marking schedule. It is common a student must prove that his or her design is meaningful, and was not merely plucked from their imagination. Often, according to these marking schedules, a ‘good’ design must have undergone numerous conceptual iterations (methodology), have included a range of theoretical and practical influences (context) and be something that no-one has seen before (originality). Other than undermining a student’s confidence in his or her own imaginative creativity and the value of creativity alone, this demonstrates the level of the contemporary architectural critics’ obsession with meaning. It is this hopeless push back up the hill of meaning that we now too often call design. This phenomenon can also be observed outside of the university walls. A fine example is Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye which, though no longer contemporary, is still undoubtedly relevant due to its lingering influence and fame. I will also admit that I would certainly be lying if I said that provocation has had no effect on my selection; I find it serves as a useful tool in point making. Regardless, Villa Savoye is a landmark of hopeless intended meaning. Corbusier’s five points of architecture are indicative of the meaning he had hoped to convey through this building: an original expression and glorification of the Modern (Western) context of living (Corbusier, 1986). This is all fine and well, and yes it is true that one can recognise this expression in the architecture once it has been explained. In fact, I have no doubt that some uninformed observers may even realise that the semicircular path of the Villa Savoye’s driveway is exactly the turning radius of a 1927 Citroën automobile. However even of those impressive few who do, even fewer will recognise this as a design strategy to aid in the celebration of the industrial phenomena of the automobile. The building’s context, originality and methodology, its meaning, have undeniably been lost to interpretation - a fate shared by all attempts to portray and interpret meaning in architecture. So is it sensible to strive for meaning so passionately? A remarkably similar question was identified by a number of post-war philosophers who, spurred by the atrocities and revelations of war, went on to become the pioneers of movements which now collectively fit under the heading Existentialism. Questions around the conditions of existence, and whether any human can experience true meaning within the apparent meaninglessness of our universe, began to be considered (Solomon, 1974). Within this, the theory of Absurdism arose from the identification of the paradoxical act of an individual’s hopeless attempt to determine meaning within a meaningless existence; that being the Absurd Act. The similarities are, I hope, apparent, as it is the identification of this similarity that initiated this thesis. Just as individuals seek meaning in their existence, they seek meaning in their architecture. And both can undeniably be considered Absurd Acts due to the limitations of perception and interpretation. I need to explain Absurdism in more depth, and I do so in the following chapter, but what needs to be understood for now is that, according to the Absurdist theory, no individuals will find true meaning in their meaningless universe, or in their architecture. Assuming you too refuse to accept this bleak outlook, we must ask a question of architecture, and existence also. How can its meaning be validated? The clues to a solution lie in the discussions of Absurdism; and it is the findings and explanations of Albert Camus that will pave the path that I will follow in the establishment of architecture within the paradox of meaninglessness.