- Space as Storyteller: Spatial Jumps in Architecture, Critical Theory, and Literature by Laura Chiesa
In the section of Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project devoted to the Parisian flâneur, he envisions a scene in which the space of the city speaks, saying, with a wink, "Now what may have [End Page 623] gone on here?"1 If it does not exactly tell stories, Benjamin's space nonetheless seems to invite stories about it—a perception that brings about an inventive relation between the subject and the built environment. Such relations are at the heart of Chiesa's original study. More generally, she wishes to direct our attention to "specific moments when space speaks, entrains, performs, or is questioned in order to imagine the new or, conversely, to display its junk-like side" (1). This announces a distinctive style of inquiry, simultaneously allegorical and expository, which calls on a variety of works from the three disciplines of her title. These include The Arcades Project itself, the theatrical projects of the later Italian futurists, the fiction of Italo Calvino and of Georges Perec, and, beginning with the 1960s, the experimental architecture of Superstudio, Bernard Tschumi, and Rem Koolhaas.
Chiesa does not pretend to a traditional academic argument, instead introducing two guiding concepts, in addition to "space as storyteller": "colportage"—a term borrowed from Benjamin and meaning, here, space as a purveyor of experience; and "architecturability," or architecture as it relates to other media. The formal model of her study derives from the works it examines. The Arcades Project is "an endless scattered cumulus of annotation and quotations" (5) with its own rhythms. Futurist experiments take place in "oblique, abstract, ephemeral, invisible constructions within a dynamic of interruption, jumps, and distortions, which will never come to form a static whole" (10). Similar observations are made of the literary and architectural projects that come under review, such as Tschumi's Parc de la Villette in Paris, with its folies or small-scale constructions punctuating its space. As Jacques Derrida has noted, the distribution of the folies gives the overall space of the park the constellated form of disjointed points that are nonetheless maintained in suspension. Chiesa cites this configuration of disjunction-in-suspension to describe the relation that holds among the parts of her book. This produces interesting if uneven results: what she loses in coherence and historical depth she at least partly makes up for in intellectual adventurousness.
In moving among various instances of spatial narrative, Chiesa seeks to convey a kind of insight that she characterizes in terms of dynamic metaphors: the "jump" and the "flash." The jump is the sudden movement, without transition, from one text or project to another; it takes the form of a "twisted jump" when the move is between two relatively incomparable instances, as from Benjamin's remarks on Jugendstil to the experimental theatre of the futurists. The aim of this abrupt juxtaposition of historical moments is a "flash" of insight into the narrative potential of architectural space. For a proper understanding of this method, we must go back to Benjamin's own coupling of the flash and the jump. Chiesa cites a well-known fragment in The Arcades Project where Benjamin states that the legibility of an image as a historical index is produced at the critical point where "what Has Been comes together in a flash [blitzhaft] with the Now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectic at a standstill" (Passagen, I, 578). In another formulation of the dialectical image, he characterizes it as leaping out (sprunghaft) at the viewer (I, 577). The Arcades Project is a series of leaps and bounds, flashes of insight, and image constellations. Chiesa herself aspires to this critical mode, on several occasions proposing to "flash out" from the material she examines those elements she deems relevant to her own project.
As an example of the jump, let us return to the moment when Benjamin remarks in passing that a reactionary tendency...