Feature Article: Austin Architecture

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Are Buildings Beings?
According To Michael Benedikt And Object-Oriented Ontologists, Your House Is Inhabited By Much More Than Your Family.

 
 


By Brittani Sonnenberg
Photographs by Hayden Spears & Casey Dunn

Buildings talk. You’ve heard them. Remember the nook that called out to you when you were a kid, looking for a spot in the cabin to cozy up with Nancy Drew? Or how about the shady cathedral that whispered your name on a hot summer day in Barcelona? If you’re like me, you talk back to buildings, too. In graduate school in Michigan, I moved out of a terrible rental with five roommates to my own lovely little apartment with hardwood floors in the living room and black-and-white tile in the kitchen. Each time I walked in the door, I said, “Hey, beautiful,” like I was greeting my partner, and the sunshine streaming in through the windows was a kiss in return.

Up until three weeks ago, when I met up with Michael Benedikt, a professor of architecture and the Hal Box Chair in Urbanism at the University of Texas, I figured my habit of speaking to buildings as if they were living beings meant I was mildly insane. Turns out, I’m just an object-oriented ontologist.

Michael Benedikt Tribeza
Michael Benedikt

Say what? Object-oriented ontology, or OOO, a movement founded by a philosopher named Graham Harman, claims that everything—from rocks, to pencils, to buildings—has being, a very primitive form of life. It’s a notion that’s beginning to catch fire in the worlds of art and architecture, too. From October 20-22, Benedikt and his colleague Kory Bieg will host a symposium called “The Secret Life of Buildings,” to discuss OOO’s intersection with architecture. “The secret life of buildings goes back to the notion that we don’t know what buildings are or what they do,” said Benedikt. “There are spaces in buildings that no one knows about. There are corners no one looks in. Buildings talk to each other, even if no one is there. They lie, they cheat, they protect.”

In a 2012 essay, “Posture,” Benedikt pushed this metaphor of “architecture as being” even farther: “Works of architecture have character; they have presence; they have posture,” Benedikt wrote. “They live and breathe and project attitude. They have rights and stake claims. They have feelings; they have souls.”

Hold on a sec, you say. Buildings have souls? As in, every house is haunted … by itself? Why not? said Benedikt. After all, a building breathes, and takes in water. There’s bacteria in the carpet and cockroaches in the closet. He wants architects to read buildings empathetically. “You can’t understand [Le Corbusier’s] buildings unless you see them as animals,” he told me. “The same drama is played out in sculpture, which often resemble creatures: tortured, happy, flying, emaciated, motherly, fighting, etc. Even if there aren’t heads, eyes, legs, you find a way to get your body into them … There’s a huge literature on how to project yourself or an animal life onto something. I accept that completely; I think it’s what ordinary people do.”

Michael Benedikt Tribeza
Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut

For Benedikt, projecting life onto a building isn’t a silly evolution of “Toy Story,” it’s an ethical stance. “There exists an essential, anti-reductive rule to ethical life as it is practiced by humans,” he writes. “And that rule, stated broadly, is this: to treat stones like plants, to treat plants like animals, to treat animals like humans; to treat strangers like friends and friends like family; to treat family like your own self and yourself as a sputtering flame of the divine, a bringer of greater life—elevation—to all participants in the great chain of Being … We can do this only when we uphold our own dignity and that of others’, and this involves, because we are architects, making buildings whose character embodies the virtues and attitudes we would want everyone to have, including ourselves.”

Think about the last time a building consoled you. Why do we reach out and touch old walls, put our cheeks on cold marble, warm a window with our breath? Why does the prospect of a move fill us with such deep sorrow? Why does the slated destruction of a beautiful old building strike us as a sort of murder?

“Things have a life of their own,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes, in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” “It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” As Benedikt and other object-oriented ontologists would have it, it’s not about waking up the souls of buildings, it’s about waking up to their souls, and tending them with the reverence and curious awe with which we tend our own mysterious being.

“The Secret Life of Buildings” symposium will take place at the University of Texas from Oct. 20-22, with talks by Graham Harman, Michael Benedikt, Kory Bieg and others. If you’re interested in attending, please contact leora@austin.utexas.edu.


Read more from the Architecture Issue | October 2016


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