08 April 2014

Habitat # 8 (Preface)

"It was during the nineteenth century that the 'building' became distinct from the 'monument,' a distinction that slowly entered architectural terminology. Monuments are characterized by their affectation or aesthetic pretension, their official or public character, and the influence exercised on their surroundings, while buildings are defined by their private function, the preoccupation with technique, their placement in a prescribed space. The architect came to be seen as an artist devoted to the construction of monuments, and there was a question of whether buildings were a part of architecture at all.

"There was a terrible loss of meaning that followed the extensive promotion of the building and the degradation of the monument. The monumental was rich from every point of view: rich with meaning, the sensible expression of richness. These meanings died over the course of the century. We may deplore the loss, but why return to the past? Negative utopia, a form of nostalgia motivated by a rejection of the contemporary, has no more value than its antithesis, technological utopia, which claims to accentuate what is new about the contemporary by focusing on a 'positive' factor, technique.

"The meaning ascribed to monuments disappeared in the wake of a revolution that had multiple aspects: political (the bourgeois democratic revolution, for which the revolution of 1789–93 provided the model), economic (industrialization and capitalism), and social (the extension of the city, the quantitative and qualitative rise of the working class). The demise of the monument and the rise of the building resulted from this series of cyclical events, from this conjunction of causes and reasons.

"The monument possessed meaning. Not only did it have meaning, it was meaning: strength and power. Those meanings have perished. The building has no meaning; the building has a signification. An enormous literature claiming to be of linguistic or semantic origin is now seen as derisively ideological for its failure to observe this elementary distinction between signification and meaning. A word has signification; a work (at the very least a succession of signs and significations, a literature, a succession of sentences) has meaning. As everyone knows, the most elementary sign, letter, syllable, phoneme has no signification until it becomes part of a larger unit, becomes part of a larger structure.

"The destruction of meaning, a democratic as well as an industrial revolution, engendered an abstract interest in significations. Paradoxically, and yet quite rationally, the promotion of the building was accompanied by a promotion of signs, words, and speech, which erupted together with the significations to which they corresponded. The power of the thing and the sign, which complement one another, replaced the ancient potencies, endowed with the ability to make themselves perceptible and acceptable through the symbols of kings, princes, and the aristocracy. This does not imply, however, that political power disappeared; it was simply transferred to an abstraction, the State.

"The complementary powers of the thing and the sign are incorporated into concrete, which is twofold in its nature, if we can still continue to employ the word: a brutal thing among things, a materialized abstraction and abstract matter. Simultaneously — synchronically, I should say — architectural discourse, highly pertinent, filled with significations, has supplanted architectural production (the production of a space rich with meaning). And the abstract and flawed signs of happiness, of beauty, proliferate among concrete cubes and rectangles."

- Henri Lefebrve, excerpt from Towards an Architecture of Enjoyment, c, 1973. Recently translated by Robert Bonanno, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

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