Thursday, September 05, 2019

Non-Referential Architecture

Non-Referential Architecture
Ideated by Valerio Olgiati, written by Markus Breitschmid
Park Books, August 2019

Hardcover | 4-1/2 x 7 inches | 144 pages | 1 illustration | English | ISBN: 978-3038601425 | $25.00

Publisher Description:
More than ever, architecture is in need of provocation, a new path beyond the traditional notion that buildings must serve as vessels, or symbols of something outside themselves.

Non-Referential Architecture is nothing less than a manifesto for a new architecture. It brings together two leading thinkers, architect Valerio Olgiati and theorist Markus Breitschmid, who have grappled with this problem since their first encounter in 2005. In a world that itself increasingly rejects ideologies of any kind, Olgiati and Breitschmid offer Non-Referential Architecture as a radical, new approach free from rigid ideologies. Non-referential buildings, they argue, are entities that are themselves meaningful outside a vocabulary of fixed symbols and images and their historical connotations.

For more than a decade, Olgiati and Breitschmid’s thinking has placed them at the forefront of architectural theory. Indispensable for understanding what the future might hold for architecture,
Non-Referential Architecture will become a new classic.
dDAB Commentary:
I must admit to rolling my eyes when seeing that this book was "ideated by" Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati. The phrase came across as trendy, buzz-wordy and even a bit highbrow, so it didn't make me want to dive into the albeit slim book. And while I like Olgiati's architecture a lot, I hadn't come across anything in his words that indicated his textual ideations would be disruptive or impactful. (Am I using those buzzwords correctly?) That said, Non-Referential Architecture, written by Markus Breitschmid with Olgiati, is one of the most rewarding books I've read in a while. It stakes out a theoretical position at a time when theoretical positions, at least in architecture, are rare or nowhere to be found. Based on conversations between the Swiss architect and American theoretician over the course of about a dozen years, and first made into a book in 2018 by Simonett & Baer, the book is a compact, highly accessible argument for architecture that looks toward itself for meaning rather than to economics, politics, society, religion, or anywhere else. It's a call for architectural autonomy at a time when many architects, once again, are looking beyond the profession for justification, reasoning, and meaning.

There are many phrases that permeate the book (thankfully none of them are buzzwords like "ideate"): "non-referential," "creativity," "form-generative," and "sense-making," to name just a few. The two authors use the first third of the book to introduce non-referential architecture and how it relates — or should relate — to the contemporary, non-referential world. Put simply, there is no religion, politics, or social movement that prevails over humanity, unlike in previous generations, so every area of production, architecture included, refers to itself rather than to something greater. Ideally, Olgiati and Breitschmid argue, architects design buildings and their rooms in a way that stimulates the creativity of their occupants. This happens when architects start with form-generative ideas and then focus on design, materials, construction, order, and other areas that are traditionally the purview of architects. In the end, a building arises from an architect's use of sense-making, the most vague term in the book: their judgment about what should be done nearly every step of the way to achieve a truly Non-Referential Architecture.

The book includes just one illustration, the floor plan of the Zapotec Temple of Mitla in Mexico, and rarely refers to specific buildings or architects. (The plan is used to illustrate the formal analysis of a building regardless of age or style.) Regardless, it's easy to imagine buildings that fit the seven principles (Experience of Space, Oneness, Newness, Construction, Contradiction, Order, and Sensemaking) laid out the by authors: Olgiati's own, be it earlier ones such as Yellow House or more recent ones like House for a Musician and Museum and Entrance to the Pearling Path. I can't help but wonder if the duo's conversations were about Olgiati's buildings, served as rationalizations of them, and then became lessons that could then be applied on a larger scale. In that sense it reminds me of the Nature of Order series by Christopher Alexander, which made similar arguments to Non-Referential Architecture (especially against the subjectivity of experience in architectural space) but illustrated it with neo-traditional buildings throughout. I'm also reminded of Arakawa + Gins, the artistic duo that created environments specifically geared to stimulating their occupants creative lives. Yet while their works clearly bore their somewhat wacky signature, the text of Non-Referential Architecture is more open-ended. Nevertheless, in its words I find buildings that are quiet, monolithic, respectful, but also surprising. I'm skeptical that architects or students of architecture would adopt the non-referential approach, though it's not hard for me to imagine how much better the built environment would be if architects grasped the lessons and everybody else (clients, builders, users) fell in line.

Author Bio:
Markus Breitschmid, born 1966, is a professor of architecture theory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, VA. Valerio Olgiati, born 1958, is an architect based in in Flims, Switzerland, working on projects for public and private clients in various countries.
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