I always liked writing books — not that I published any of them as seeking publication is a whole other job that doesn’t interest me at all. I just like writing. And, with the book as distinct from the essay, I enjoyed building this elaborate edifice, this convoluted structure of rooms and hallways, verandas and vistas, gardens, atria, and arcades.
It began with my dissertation (oh, my, that’s 1997). Many grad students endlessly kvetch about their dissertations but not me. I loved it. It was like building my dream house from the inside out. I’d hint at a foundation, sure, but then I’d go and build this incredible (to me!) space in which I roamed about Paul Ricoeur. Then, I’d construct this fancy little passageway that lead to Paul de Man; around the corner, to Harold Bloom; and then this small rumpus room that I named Derrida. Oh, but that was just the beginning, the foyer. Next came the great rooms: Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, adjoining, Gilles Deleuze. What a building! It had vistas here onto ancient rhetoric and windows there that gazed upon structuralism. Whatever I wanted to see, where ever I wanted to dwell, I simply built it. It was magnificent.
I play the guitar, poorly. But every time I play (too often for those around me) I am struck by the shapes and interplay of shapes — the way the Orion of C can move or not move and be supplanted by the dash of A. Often, rather than hearing a tune or melody, I see and play with shapes — I’ll move that C, shift that dash, bend it into an arch. Just as writing a book entails linking these different spaces together, I found playing music to be a matter of the same: shapes linked to shapes.
After many, many years of reading philosophy, I finally began to see it as architectural. It began with studying for my oral exams and in particular, the part on Hegel with Judith Butler (of all people). I kept returning to the strange shape of The Phenomenology of Spirit — the way it offered structures that gave way to new structures, this slipping and sliding and giving to but each scene, as it were, embedded within another, a kind of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, the repetition of the same gesture on smaller and bigger scales, like a slurred fugue.
Suddenly, I saw all philosophy as sculptural, as these elaborate shapes in motion. But they were more than sculptures, more than these things to be looked at. They were to be inhabited. One could dwell, and indeed frolic, inside Nietzsche. I could hop, skip, and jump around the thousand plateaus of Deleuze and Guattari. I could slowly climb the rigid edifice of Kant’s critiques which had a propensity to become rope swings and carousels — a fantastic playground set.
What is language — and particularly grammar — if not an architecture of sense? And what is rhetoric — what are tropes — but shapes? Metaphor: a bridge between two sites. Metonymy: a site continuous with the rest. Synecdoche: a condensation of the whole, like a model. Irony: a facade. All of language is a collection of structures. The media of communication are architectural, nudging and distributing words, ideas, experiences, and sense itself into a structure we can inhabit.
Change the shape and you change experience. We of new media know this well as the rhythm and shape of knowledge and ideas, their creation as well as consumption, change with each new widget.
This understanding of language and philosophy began to shape how I viewed movies. I remember first seeing this as I watched Luc Besson’s The Professional a dozen times in a row after finishing those same said oral exams on Hegel. I kept seeing the construction of the film. Look how the scene is constructed: a boot, a metonymy, of her precocity. Léon’s milk and gait, a metaphor for his childishness. The film is constructed of all these shapes, a 4D Lego set. The screen was not a looking glass onto a place; the screen was a place to be designed, defined, shaped. Look how Mathilde (Natalie Portman) leaves the screen one side only to appear on the other side.
Wes Anderson is an architectural filmmaker. But I don’t mean this as most mean it — in the sense that he builds his movies around spaces — a home, school, boat, train, island, hotel. Here’s what the “Architect’s Journal” writes: “Anderson is easily the most architectural film-maker out there. Virtually all his films revolve around a single, hermetic, highly detailed, often custom-built location.”
I want to argue that it is not that Anderson’s films operate in the scene of these distinctive spaces. It’s that the very construction of the film, of the story and its characters, of how events proceed, is architectural. His narratives are shapes. The elaborate sets he builds are his stories. You can’t separate the mad escapade up and down the mountain top — the emotions, the actions, the motivations, the obstacles — from the place itself. He doesn’t build the set to house his film. On the contrary, the shape of the story creates the set.
But what am I saying? That things exist in space? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying: things — all things, including song and story and concept — are spatial. But they are not just spatial just as architecture is not just a definition of space. What makes architecture so beguiling, so grand, is that it is the hedging of events, steering the great tumultuous flux of time this way and that, more or less gently, more or less ardently.
Architecture is a setting of a scene that has infinite permutations all within these limits. Architecture is not the stage upon which we act but is the very stuff of time-space. Consider the New York Guggenheim for just a moment and you see, you experience, a narrative, a song, an idea all at once. It tells a different story, sings a different song, constructs a different idea than the Met or Bilbao, for that matter. There is no non-architecture; there is no nothing. When I see the world, when I see all things, I see shapes — shapes everywhere, shapes everything.