POETIC ARCHITECTURE OF THE AVANT-GARDE
by David W. Seaman
Letters suggest structures, as Victor Hugo's fanciful description of the alphabet indicates. For Hugo, the alphabet is the source of all human culture, from architecture to philosophy. This relationship between the written letter or sign, and the structure of our buildings is an invitation to poets to design architecture and cities. In this paper, that relationship is explored in the realm of avant-garde poetry.
- A, c'est le toit, le pignon avec sa traverse, ....E, cest le soubassement,...Ia console et I'architrave, toute I'architecture A plafond dans une seule lettre; ... H, c'est la façade de 1'édifice avec ses deux tours;... N, c'est la porte fermée avec sa barre diagonals .... (Victor Hugo, journal de 1839, 715-6)
Victor Hugo may be considered an avant-garde poet when he proposes this view of the alphabet, and his expressive genius was willing to open new avenues of poetry that serve as a model for this investigation. For more direct poetic attacks on architecture, we must turn to the twentieth century. Attack is the functional word, when we consider the Italian Futurists. For the followers of Marinetti, civilization was a decadent mausoleum that needed to be renewed by any means, including violence. Marinetti, in his "Manifesto of Futurism," called for the destruction of the past. Museums are cemeteries, and war, which might lead to the destruction of the past accretions is to be glorified. (Le Figaro February 20, 1909) When creating his poetic texts, which he called 'Parole in Liberté," Marinetti used very architectural forms, including lines and numerical notations to indicate altitudes and distances. Sometimes his poems even referred to building structures and had titles like "Bataille à neuf etages." Marinetti's instructions to poets in Les Mots en Liberté Futuristes suggests using lines and numbers to give the sense of movement and structure without becoming pictorial.
Another Futurist who used architectural suggestiveness in his poetry was Francesco Cangiullo. In his Poesia pentagrammata, he suggests writing a word like viale (avenue) with musical decrescendo lines, extending it to give the "long perspective of an avenue." (10)
The Futurist vision of the interaction of poetry and architecture incorporates the ways in which new lighted signs make a giant text of the city. The Futurist theorist Ardengo Soffici had an understanding of the world where his idea of simultaneità was very much like Baudelaire's correspondences, but with the difference that where for Baudelaire, "La Nature est un temple," for the Futurists the electric city is the temple. When Soffici describes the experience of seeing giant neon signs flashing words in the night on the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris, it seems to him as though the real world becomes a giant collage in mixed media, with music in the air, and the words "Galeries Lafayette" flashing off and on like part of an architectural poetic text. (L 586-87)
The Italian Futurist enthusiasm for the modern accompanies the movements they engendered, but in Dada and Surrealism, the closest relatives, there is not much evidence of the same tectonic interest. This can be explained by the ethereal imagery, the air of imaginary rather than concrete constructions, that dominated the Surrealist esthetics.
To this point we have been examining two basic kinds of architectural relationships with poetry: One is the discovery in letters and pages of text that references to constructions and architectural principles exist, with a corresponding temptation to pull that into the repertoire of poetic techniques. This harks back to the figured verse of the Greek anthology and the Renaissance and later, where poetic meter was used to build columns, altars, temples, and other structures--such as George Herbert's "Church Floor"--out of lines of poetry. The collection assembled by Dick Higgins in Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature identifies many examples of these. [Figure 1] The second sort of relationship is where the poet looks at the architectural landscape and sees text. This is the reverse of Hugo's formula, and it is what happened to Soffici when wandering around modern cities.
The next step is for poets to make these perceptions of the city into poetry, and that occurs in the Concrete Poetry movement of the era after World War II. The Paris Concrete Poet Julien Blaine demonstrates this with texts like his "Julien Blaine the i-constructor," [Figure 2] where he puts a dot on a photograph of the column in Place Vendôme in order to make the letter i out of it. The Concrete poets make ready use of photographs to discover letters and alphabets in unconventional places -- body parts, for example, mirroring the suggestions made by some illuminated alphabets from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and later. Alexander Nesbitt's volume of Decorative Alphabets and Initials is full of illustrations that show medieval illuminated initials where a group of monks could inhabit an 0, and handsome Renaissance initials on which cherubic infants swing and play like modern children on a jungle jim. (PI. 19, 44) [Figure 3]
The most aggressive variety of poetic relations with architecture comes in the design of structures and even towns. This is attempted in a,.1965 collection by Ilse and Pierre Garnier, called PrototypesTextes pour une Architecture. Although the concept had been introduced by the Lettristes a few years earlier, this seems to be the first extensive application of concrete poetic composition to architecture. The Garniers are central to a branch of Concrete Poetry called Spatialisme. This was generated around the journal Les Lettres, Poésie nouvelle, which began in 1963 to be the organ of French Concrete Poetry, following on the developments in England, Germany and South America. This journal carried Pierre Garnier's manifestos founding the Spatialisme movement, which extends the idea of concreteness into all dimensions. Thus for Garnier words are objects. He sees literary history since the Renaissance as a film moving at increasing speed and numbing the mind, so he want to call a halt to reading: "C'est pourquoi nous remplaçons la lecture par la contemplation de l'objet Mot." ("Deuxième manifested 16) Again Baudelaire's poem Correspondences comes to mind as Garnier declares that in visual poetry, words look at people, and people look back at them; for Baudelaire it was the forest of symbols that observed people passing through them.
The concept of the poem as "prototype" is important for the discussion of poetic architecture, because the poet is usually not in a position to realize the construction projects created in the imagination and rendered on the page or in a maquette. Thus the Garniers specify several fundamental characteristics of the prototype in an introduction to this collection:
This introduction to the Prototypes concludes with a statement about the poet's changing role: With these texts, the poe t enter technical and industrial society, making functional objects. While that is a retreat from the metaphysical quality of the poet, "c'est une promotion par rapport aux structures universelles et A la Société."
- Le poém-prototype ... est homogène, précis, linguistique .... C'est un projet .... Il est d'abord fabriqué á un seul exemplaire, puis peut-etre multiplié avec variation e formats mais conservation des rapports .... ! (folio 1)
The prototype textes are intended for various kinds of applications. First, the Garniers acknowledge Hugo's observation that certain letters are architectural, with horizontals, verticals, and curves--they are "poésie habitable." They can be presented as surfaces or volumes, hence in the construction of buildings, but they can also be projected onto buildings by film or slides, giving a lively text a place in a structure. (The Garniers did not have the advantage of today's giant screen projections and moving computerized walls of light; one can only imagine the opportunity these media would have afforded them!)
Most of the texts in the Prototypes collection (a folio of loose sheets, similar to a collection of prints) appear to be intended to ornament walls or windows , and specific applications are suggested-- "Lys" is for a stained glass window; "Cosmos" is for a morgue; "Cinéma" for a motion picture theatre.
These poems have been created on a typewriter, the handiest tool of the concrete poet in the pre-computer age. With its regular full and half- spacing, the typewriter offered some structural possibilities that were not easy for poets in thepreceding centuries. It also suggests the mechanizatioit-of the industrial era to which Garnier seeks to ally the Prototypes. At the same time, the typed and mimeographed pages have informal production values that give the folio a tentative quality--like projects, as Garnier suggests, and also like experiments, introductory efforts.
The poem "Cinéma" is a fine illustration of kinetic poetry. This form is discussed in articles by Mike Weaver and Stephen Bann that appeared in Les Lettres (no. 34, 12-21), and it is intended to suggest or introduce motion into the poem and thereby release some of its potential energy. In this text the nature of cinema is employed, where a progression of still images creates the effect of movement. The Garniers accomplish this by displacing the word 'cinema" by one letter in each successive line, so that the word moves across and down the page in steps of one letter at a time, just like a movie film advancing one frame at a time, with a slight change in the still image in each one. [Figure 4]
With the text "cosmos," a similar kinetic effect is achieved by dividing the letters of the word into fragments placed in a pattern that is not entirely symmetrical or regular, but which repeats itself enough to suggest a higher order of reason to it. Both "cinema" and 'cosmos" work with very structured patterns, while another technique the Garniers use in their prototypes involves the reduction of a pattern. In "mer," the action of the sea is implied by gradual elimination of letters from the solid grid of repetitions of the word "mer." [Figure 5] This simple technique not only refers to the endless action of waves and the changing seascape, but it also alludes to the effect of waves on a shore which gradually erodes.
Poetic architecture is a full-blown program in the hands of a group of Lettristes who published a Manifeste pour la renovation de I'architecture in 1992. This volume draws on some of the earlier statements of the Lettristes, citing references to architecture and construction in Isidore Isou's Les Journaux des Dieux (1950) and L'Art Supertemporel (1960), for example, but here, in characteristic Lettriste fashion, it gives an etymology, a history, theoretical positions, technical formulas, and finally a "Conclusion sur notre action future." In a typically sweeping Lettriste statement, it invites readers to consider all their previous works in any medium as "plans de maisons lettristes...." (23).
The Lettriste point of view of art history, and indeed of the history of civilization, is that there are periods of amplification, where new forms are discovered and applied, then periods of excision, where superfluous forms are reduced and eliminated. This Lettriste view of art history has been fully discussed in "French Lettrisme--Discontinuity and the Nature of the Avant-Garde." As applied to architecture in this Manifeste, it means that construction has been primarily devoted to the utilitarian need to house and defend. (10-11) Now, the Lettristes are ready to initiate the phase of excision, performing for architecture what they have done for poetry and other arts. Baudelaire comes once more into the formula, as he is cited in the Manifesto as a model: "Les lettristes effectuent d'abord, dans I'architecture, l'apport réalisé, par Baudelaire, dans la poésie." (15) In short, they want to wipe out--by demolition if necessary--the banality of utilitarian buildings. (16)
With Lettriste manifestoes and position papers it is necessary to deal with a clutter of new vocabulary, and in this case it is for instance the "polythanasie de I'architecture," which is actually a sweeping concept of the annihilation of old architecture, to become a "Genghis-Khan ou Attila de la banalité des constructions." (16) After this euthanasia has been performed on the boring look of cities, then a more constructive and positive kind of creation can occur.
The new program takes its tune from the great innovators of modern art, so following the lead of Tzara, Picabia and Duchamp, the Lettristes will infuse architecture with the "polyautomatisme de I'architecture." and "le vers libre ou l'inachévement de I'architecture," and even "le collage et le ready-made de I'architecture." (17-18) The "Meca-esthétique intégral de l'architecture" (MEA) is explained by some complex formulas that include humans, botany, science and so forth. This is complemented by some thematic and rhythmic formulas as well, whereby it is clear that this architecture embraces all thought, and takes on forms that parallel familiar poetic structures, such as the sonnet and ballad, as well as Proustian prose, symphonies, and film montages. (19-20)
The highest level of this accomplishment, and the latest stage of Lettriste aesthetics, is excoordisme, an abbreviation of "extension-coordination," or using Greek terms, "tdisynisme." The first step in this process was to return to minimalism, and work with architectural particles, such as bricks. (21) It must be recalled that Lettrisme is based on the concept of returning poetry and language to its minimal element, the letter.
The Lettriste manifesto concludes with words about their future program, which is happily not as destructive as the Futurist project to, destroy all old masterpieces and replace them with modern works. On the contrary, authentic masterpieces must be preserved, and they would destroy only "toutes les maisons banales, sans originality, même si celles-ci sont modernes." (22)
The Lettriste faith in creativity and innovation remains the same for architecture as for art and poetry, and they conclude this manifesto with some highsounding words: "L'époque créatrice A venir exige une architecture de novateurs." Realistically, they also call for a transformation of the teaching of architecture. (23)
The twelve signers of this document include the current most active Lettristes, clustered around Isidore Isou, who is in every way the founder and leader of the group. The language of the manifesto suggests he is the principal author, and those closest to this project are identified in the copyright information: Gérard Philippe Broutin and Roland Sabatier, along with Alain Satié.
The rest of this volume is a collection of projects, shown mostly through photographs of models, sculptures, and events that are either enacted or scripted. The keynote is a text by Isidore Isou, painted on a wooden panel in 1970: "je vous dis merde. Logez-vous dans cette insulte" (28) [Figure 6] This is the prototypical avant-garde poet's statement about architecture, and it should be treasured for its economy of expression and the purity of its theoretical position.
Other works of note shown in this document begin with some inscribed bricks by Isou and Sabatier, which represent minimal elements of previous art forms, transformed into the elements of a new architecture. All is in the potential. [Figure 7]
The most enchanting and fantasy-inspiring visual form is the "Projet d'une ville nouvelle," created by Alain Satié in 1981. (44) Shown both as a model and as a cut-away drawing, it suggests a city in space, an incurving and ecstatically surging many-layered city with endless surprises and comforts. This massive pile of shapes, recognizably based on Satié's favorite calligraphic forms, actually looks like something that might be constructed. [Figure 8]
In a recent interview, Alain Satié suggested that the work of the poet/artist is to make the models, and it is up to others to construct them. This was in reference to a maquette for a poetic work, and would apply here to the architectural designs the Lettriste poems and paintings and sculptures lead to.
It would be a great adventure to construct Satié's city, based on today's architecture, and this design lends credence to the whole Lettriste architectural project, where so many of the proposals might remain as games or intellectualizations.
Similar to Satié's architectural designs are some projects by Frédérique Devaux, who is very much involved with cinema. Her designs include a 1991 "Musée du cinéma créateur," where she imagines a giant rotating screen within an architectural ball. [Figure 9] Like a multi-faceted crystal, this structure would present all sorts of images and information on the different surfaces. (71) With a comparable intent but less formalized style, Devaux also proposes a village which looks like folded newspapers, and where the walls of houses are designed to show the current news continuously, in order to keep the populace continually informed of the events of the day (72). This optimistic idea would appeal to the fifth estate, but it may have been preemptor by the new channels on television. And yet, why not broadcast CNN and C-SPAN continuously on the surface of a village? Is that not what Devaux is proposing?
Several of the texts gathered here include puzzles or mazes. They are part of an equivocal game and mind-teaser quality to many avant- garde works. An illustration of the game is Cérard-Philippe Broutin's series of photos proposing uses of the now-familiar Pyramid of the Louvre. [Figure 10] Employing the Lettriste hypergraphic technique of drawing on photographs, Broutin suggests redecorating the pyramids (42), re-conceptualizing them to include humans as part of the construction (41), and reshaping them into asymmetrical forms (44). This project has the appeal of working with a ready-made object that has interest for most viewers, and it provides easy access to the idea of re-designing urban environments. This also seems like an invitation to graffiti artists; are the two tendencies simply parallel expressions of the same aesthetic drive, simultaneously destructive and creative?
The ludic impulse in Lettriste creations is represented by Woodie Roehmer. Her invented letter-signs in the 1989 "Prélude au jardin" are plump, agreeable forms which nestle against each other in accommodating curves (60). [Figure 11] They are humanoid signs with suggestions of limbs and noses, yet they form phrases and have a syntax assisted by arrows and dotted lines. In addition, some of the signs have spring-mounted balls and one guesses from the photograph that certain signs are also spring-mounted. There appears to be a congenial motion to this composition. Since we have been instructed in the Manifesto to consider all these texts as architectural designs, this would appear to be a town plan, or at least a housing development.
This latter impression is reinforced by Roehmer's three-dimensional model of a "Maison individuelle," (61) Here again the familiar sign with legs and nose is extended to a "head" with spring-loaded antennae; as a house design that must be a suggestion of a penthouse-- possibly a gymnasium or solarium--in the sky. As indicated before, the playful quality of these designs is not unwelcome among the Lettriste architectural projects. Remembering Victor Hugo, we can add to his fantasies of the letters E and H, and propose new letters to stimulate the human occupants.
The avant-garde teaches us new ways to see our world. When the poetic avant-garde focuses on architecture, it makes clear that, in a post-Gutenberg world, all of human construction can be read like letters, lines of type, and pages of poetry. The development of the two technologies of construction are almost parallel, so that when cantilevers and sky scrapers and built, the poetic page is also released to ejaculate lines of text and pull words and images from anywhere. The post-modern constructions of Frank Gehry and the Mendini Atelier, and especially Deconstructivist productions like the Groningen (Netherlands) Museum spaces designed by Coop Himmelb(I)au are natural partners to the Lettriste poetic vision.
Beyond pointing and mirroring, however, the Spatialiste and Lettriste programs also capture the spirit of the architectural age and the poetic moment and attempt to launch a new wave of creativity by showing how poets would redo our constructed world. Perhaps they are right: perhaps our brains are polished by the fast-paced motion picture of civilization, and perhaps our world is over-burdened by the flea-market collection of badly-designed utilitarian buildings. If we pay attention to these avant-garde poets, we may see the establishment of a new creative living environment, where we inhabit poetry.
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