Architecture, as a way of thinking, requires something outside of itself. It requires something to think about. The point is simple enough, though it seems that, because of the incessant pressure towards the production of a tangible, built object, architects have become more likely to lose sight of architecture’s fundamental capability to evaluate subjects. This suggests not only a deficiency in the culture of contemporary architectural practice, but also a deficiency in the forms of media we utilize.
A brief consideration of two iconic modernists can provide insightful case studies on the act of looking outward through architecture. A recurring trope in Le Corbusier’s writing was his near fanaticism for so-called “objects of an arresting novelty” that emerged early in the 20th century, such as cars and airplanes. His enormous collection of images and subsequent deployment of those images in the pages of progressive journals were seamlessly integrated with his architectural production. A similar fascination can be located in his search for three-dimensionality in the flatness of the painted canvas. Alternatively, Mies van der Rohe’s prolonged engagement with certain philosophical doctrines and his ethic of ceaseless drawing contributed more than any particular building experience to the development of his architectural language. These provided the underlying subject of his life’s work, of which the repetitiveness of his later buildings can be seen as the mature embodiment. Mies saw the “building art” as a way of articulating our various forms of life.
Perhaps the most pertinent contemporary heir to this tradition today is Rem Koolhaas. However in Koolhaas’s case, the evident desire for collecting and analyzing outsider or grotesque urban phenomena informs not just a spatial sensibility, but the inevitable bifurcation of an entire practice, OMA/AMO. It is highly relevant that, in this situation, objects and subjects are split in two; where OMA builds objects, AMO investigates subjects. Where Koolhaas himself embodies a posture of apparent integration or synthesis, his decision to structure one of the most influential practices of the last several decades as a divided endeavor has had an enormous impact on the profession as a whole. The notion of practice today would benefit from a significant shift in meaning, embracing the act of investigation as its reason for being. However, passing this threshold can only take shape if a fundamental change occurs in the objects we make and the subjects they serve.