- Chora IV: Intervals in the Philosophy of Architecture, Volume Four
Chora IV is a volume of twelve essays of phenomenological criticism and critical history of Western architecture, and can be traced to the influential 'Essex school' of Dalibor Vesely. (This school produced the volume's coeditor, Alberto Pérez-Gómez, as well as such theorist-practitioners as Daniel Libeskind, Marco Frascari, and Peter Carl.) Through interdisciplinary, hermeneutic scholarship, the volume's editors present the compiled essays as a corrective to mainstream architectural theory, where structuralist and poststructuralist scholarship prevails.
That the volume's title, Chora, is taken directly from Plato's Timaeus, is instructive: chora is understood here as the space of architecture, the intersection of human and divine worlds, and thus exemplifies the phenomenological bent of the Essex school. The topics and approaches in the compiled essays span a wide methodological, historical, and stylistic range, from Mark Dorrian's whimsical 'The Breath on the Mirror: Notes on Ruskin's Theory of the Grotesque' to Dorian Yurchuk's more temperate 'Ranelagh Gardens and the Recombinatory Utopia of Masquerade.'
Underlying these differing approaches, however, are two central tendencies, neither commonly seen in present-day architectural theory. The first, an ontological concern, is the diagnosis of architecture's changing status throughout Western civilization's history. Here, the contributors to Chora IV are not content to define architecture in its contemporary incarnation as a modern, codified profession; the continual questioning of architecture's status reveals an antediluvian discipline all but indistinguishable from the larger concerns of theologians, mathematicians, and philosophers of the time.
The second tendency is the advocacy of architecture as a mode of unique and speculative spatial thought, and not, on the one hand, a kind of contemporary conceptual art, and neither, on the other hand, an efficient exercise in planning. This particular framing offers a way out of the seemingly insuperable dualism of function versus beauty, liberating 'architecture' from 'architectural artifacts' (in the most conventional sense, buildings). Moreover, the door is opened beyond the scope of architecture itself to questions of embodiment in the histories and theories of theology, mathematics, and philosophy (to name but three), thus beginning to frame the question of thought itself as an aesthetic and spatial problem. Of note [End Page 205] here for illuminating the possibilities of interdisciplinary research are Caroline Dionne's reading of the mathematician Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland as indicative of his refusal of Euclidean geometry's demise, and David Theodore's analysis of the relationship between Wittgenstein's thought and his endeavours in architecture and engineering.
We see most clearly the implications of this 'radical' conception of architecture in Pérez-Gómez's historical work on Luca Pacioli's Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et proportionalita. Pacioli was known as the father of double-digit accounting, a noted Franciscan professor of theology, and a mathematician, and has hardly been seen to have relevance for conventional architectural history. However, the analysis here illuminates an area of Renaissance architectural discourse largely ignored - that where the relationship between the divine and the quotidian is reconciled is through the application of the Divina Proportione.
The historical and critical program put forward here does much to counter the sometimes unknowingly scientistic, fashionable formulations of contemporary architectural theory. However, the volume may be criticized for falling short of a considered analysis of contemporary technology's import to architectural practice. Though this criticism may issue from the impression that technology has been here unduly characterized as 'brutal,' the issue is more complex: a critical distance from, rather than an outright condemnation of, technological tools is hinted at in the essays, with several implications teased out to varying success.
In sum, Chora IV aims to convey architecture' s essence 'from the inside out,' a discourse constituted through the efforts of practitioners, historians, and theorists. In framing architecture as a discipline whose aim it is to understand and manipulate place and space, the very scope of 'architectural theory' is called into...