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  • Virtually Transparent Structures
  • Mimi Yiu (bio)
Review of: Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel. The Singular Objects of Architecture. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002.

Structured as two free-ranging dialogues, The Singular Objects of Architecture brings into conversation two of the most thought-provoking cultural innovators of our time: Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel. It is perhaps ironic that Baudrillard, the poststructuralist French theorist best known for such works as Simulacra and Simulation and The Vital Illusion, ponders the very material discipline of architecture, and with a practicing architect to boot. Of course, Baudrillard finds in Nouvel a kindred spirit fascinated by the conceptual intersections of transparency, illusion, and ideology. The creator of such landmark buildings as the Arab World Institute and the Cartier Foundation in Paris, not to mention the Hotel Broadway in New York, Nouvel has received the Grand Prix d’Architecture, among numerous international honors, and was the subject of an acclaimed exhibition at the Centre Pompidou last year. His works are marked by a preoccupation with surfaces, textures, falls of light, and the visual framing of spaces. Both Baudrillard and Nouvel are very much concerned with the status of cultural artifacts as products of contemporary state power and, especially in these dialogues, with the notion of singularity in objects.

The extended discussions found in this book are the result of a series of dialogues between architects and philosophers held at a multi-segment conference entitled “Urban Passages,” which took place in Paris throughout 1997 and 1998. The Singular Objects of Architecture was first published in France in 2000; the present volume, a translation by Robert Bononno, includes a thoughtful introduction by K. Michael Hays, the Eliot Noyes Professor of Architecture at Harvard and editor of Architecture Theory Since 1968. The format that Baudrillard and Nouvel have chosen for their collaboration seems intellectually productive and felicitous, especially considering the fate of a similar joint venture undertaken by Jacques Derrida and Peter Eisenman just a few years ago. Invited by architect Bernard Tschumi to contribute one allotted section to the Parc Villette project in Paris, Derrida and Eisenman met, corresponded, and participated in forums over several years, but never actually contributed anything tangible—architecturally speaking—to the Parisian site. Not surprisingly, considering the theoretical nature of both men’s work, the only result of their collaboration is a book entitled Chora L Works, which documents their futile endeavors at planning a built space that would express their mutual commitment to conceptual experimentation. Eventually, as letters published within the book attest, the whole project self-destructed as personality conflicts arose and their partnership broke up. Baudrillard and Nouvel, wisely, do not even attempt to engage the technical and material side of architecture, opting rather to remain in the purely discursive realm amenable to both thinkers and their disciplines.

Ever the provocateur, Baudrillard claims right off the bat that he has “never been interested in architecture” (4); instead, he cites a fascination with the singularity of built objects and the world they translate as his primary point of entry into architecture. It seems curiously appropriate, then, that Baudrillard cites here the World Trade Center as a question mark in interpretation. Does architecture merely translate its contemporary societal context, or does architecture constitute an anticipatory illusion, a sort of self-fulfilling cultural myth? It is telling that, for Baudrillard, the pre-9/11 towers evoke “two perforated bands” whose architectural truth lies in its context of a “society already experiencing hyperrealism” (4). Of course, this prescient apprehension of the twin towers cannot help but resonate with those of us who first and foremost associate the buildings with those hypperreal television and Internet images of planes puncturing the structures, images that have indelibly inscribed themselves upon the national consciousness. Nouvel’s response—that architecture can unexpectedly convey “things we cannot control, things that are fatal” (6)—seems to echo his interlocutor’s concern with the signifying capabilities of built space and the sense that architecture remains a communal enterprise, reaching far beyond the designs of a single mastermind.

Indeed, what the World Trade Center tragedy reminds us, inevitably, is that buildings have ideological weight, that buildings can be singular...

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