Warped Space: Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture

by Anthony Vidler

Flashback to 1993, sixteen-bits still the rule the video game world and a little network called FOX is broadcasting a new sketch-based comedy called "the Edge" peppered by the heroic visages of Julie Brown, Wayne Knight and Jennifer Anniston. Throughout Warped Space, one particular short piece called "What the Agoraphobic-Claustrophobic is Doing Right This Minute" kept coming to mind. It opens with a shot a quiet suburban bungalow from which comes a scream followed by a woman running out side. Once outside, she pauses, looks around nervously, screams and runs back inside, pauses, screams, runs back outside, pauses, screams... the cycle repeats once and then fades to commercial. In one thirty second sketch, the premise and much of the content of Anthony Vidler’s book is nicely summarized: modern life makes us loco and fundamentally destabilizes spatial conditions upon which we thought we could depend, leaving us alienated and uncomfortable. Add a little paranoia into the mix and a lot of quotations from early twentieth century aesthetic, spatial and cultural theorists and you’re good to go. One of Vidler’s premises is that we’re all crazy, a bunch of crazy nuts running around in cities trying not to touch or look at other subjects or objects and that architectural and artistic production concretizes that condition. Ostensibly, this book develops these claims through a series exegeses and case studies which range from limpid to opaque and from inventive to pat. Each chapter lends itself to be taken individually but the real strength of the work lies in its overall engagement with recent developments with the hopes of reaching new understandings and definitions of "space."

Warped Space is presented in loosely tethered halves, both of which register more as collections of self-sufficient essays related only by a shared set of interests and sympathies. The first charts the development of the urban and spatial pathologies in question and the second turns this "warped" lens to case studies of contemporary art and architecture. In the author’s own words, "In this book I explore the anxious visions of the modern subject caught in spatial systems beyond its control and attempting to make representational and architectural sense of its predicament." From the beginning, he positions the book as a tentative initial step, which wilts the entire project. Nonetheless, the premise is engaging enough to maintain some integrity even without a strong thesis. Vidler draws from an array authors in the first eight chapters: Benjamin and Freud mostly but also Simmel, Kracauer, Eisenstein, Bataille, Rand, and Le Corbusier. In the second half, the architectural case studies are what you might expect in a book called Warped Space: Coop Himmelblau, Eric Owen Moss, Morphosis, Greg Lynn and Daniel Libeskind. The predictability of these examples is disappointing and saps some potency from the book.

Still, Vidler manages to keep a critical eye and, by drawing from his well of literary and critical background, to offer some inventive readings of the projects at hand. Consider the chapter titled "Skin and Bones: Folded Forms from Leibniz to Lynn" in which Vidler, in reference to Deleuze and his folds, points out that "it is not at all clear that folds, in the sense of folded forms, correspond in any way to Deleuze’s concept...the consequences of these distinctions for ’folded’ architecture are significant, especially as designers and theorists have tended to see the Deleuzean model as an invitation for a rather literal folding of the envelope... that tends to ignore rather than privilege the interior". To counter the more conventional reading, Vidler offers the following: "No literal interpretation of ’folding’ or of material folds, whether of fabric, façade, or space, can perform the Deleuzean/Leibnizian function; it would not be so much a question of illustrating complex folds, with all the geometric rigor of computer-generated images, as it would be of discovering the equivalent ’form’ that might join the two floors of the material and immaterial". It is a good thing that some of Vidler’s analyses are inventive because his choices are simply too easy. It would have been more interesting and provocative if he turned his eye away from new-skool decon architects to work which has formally less to do with some kind of "warping" - perhaps the way spatial anxiety is played out in a Herzog & deMeuron, Nouvel or Seijima project. On the other hand, the five artists in question prove less predictable as case studies (though all deal with architecture in some way) and their examinations are rewarding; unfortunately it is also the only instance, in a book that spends a good deal of time addressing gendered space, that female voices are actually heard. Vito Acconci, Rachel Whiteread, Toba Khedoori, Mike Kelley and Martha Rosler each have a chapter devoted to their work and its relationship to the ideas outlined in the first half of Warped Space.

Warped Space is good because of its breadth, because of Vidler’s comfortable writing style and because of his demonstrated cultural literacy and understanding of the material in question. There might be a reference to Bataille and to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in the same sentence and he name-checks "hip" things like Gibson, The Matrix, A Bug’s Life all in pointed ways (It should be noted that sometimes this self-conscious coolness is undermined with phrases like "Space warp has become an almost daily experience as we are hurled at apparently mind-numbing speed through the computer simulated corridors of the latest cd-rom game release..." See? It’s not as bad as listening to your parents rap but still a little rough.) In spite of the lively writing and stimulating content, the work runs into trouble in a few spots.

The range of sources in Warped Space strengthens it but also stretches the continuity nearly to failure. Occasionally Vidler’s text wanders into a realm of obscure and tangential references where readers feel a little like Al Michaels in the booth next to Dennis Miller: slightly amused, a littleconcerned and mostly just baffled. Another larger concern has to do with Vidler’s methodology in which he uses late nineteenth- and early twentieth century critical writing to study art and architecture of only the last ten years. One wonders if it’s not a little like looking at Hadid with Vitruvius in hand. Certainly the idea that modern psychoanalytic and spatial theory offers new and relevant insight to the architectural and artistic trajectories of the last ten years is intriguing but raises questions about the scope of the inquiry. Much of his analysis has to do with urban space of today but it seems problematic to rely on these texts from an era in which urban space (or lack of it) was seen as a primarily malignant entity and cities seen as badbad things that make you sick. Vidler, canny as ever, addresses this leap by writing: "To compare contemporary forms of expression to early twentieth century avant-garde aesthetics may seem forced, however, or at least superficial; after all, the revivalisms of postmodernism and deconstructivism have tended to debase any sense of continuity with the architecture of the teens and twenties".

He is arguing for typically more continuity over the last century (a very "art- history" kind of thing to do) and as readers, we pretty much have to shut up and go along with the conceit if we want to get much out of the work. He further defends the comparison with some astute observations that support the claims of a continuum longer than perhaps usually accepted: "While it is true that the gamut of representational techniques has apparently increased, it is also the case that little has changed in the framing of space itself over the modern period. Perspective is still the rule in virtual reality environments; objects are still conceived and represented within all the three-dimensional conventions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practice." Vidler manages to sidestep these concerns a little, but questions about why and when and who continue to surface.

Each chapter of Warped Space is relatively autonomous and can be read in any order, which makes it welcome on the ol’ bookshelf. However, the real value of the book comes when it is seen as a complete entity whose overall goal, it seems, is to redefine "space" or to at least identify new spatial paradigms in ways that are relevant, applicable and understandable given our current conditions. Most of the chapters raise new questions about how space, architectural, social, and cultural, is both constructed and defined. Some do it more explicitly than others and some more successfully than others, but all seek to question and reexamine our assumptions about space. The examination of spatial understanding is exciting because it is a step toward an engagement with new tools and technologies in a way that leads not just to new forms but new space, (perhaps similar to the spatial shifts triggered by supremacist and DeStijl employment of axonometric/isometric projections?). In other words, Warped Space is not simply a catalogue of recent architectural developments but the beginnings of a search for their meanings.

Three of the most exciting explorations into the world of space are the notions of "post-domestic space" in the work of Rachel Whiteread, the violent and exhausted space in the work of Bataille and a reading of Daniel Libeskind’s work as "post-spatial." At the heart of this endeavor is Vidler’s identification of the changing role and perceptions of modern space, which "from the late nineteenth century to the present ... space [was considered] a projection of the subject, and thus as a harbinger of and repository of all the neuroses and phobias of that subject. Space in this ascription, is not empty, but full of disturbing objects and forms, among which the forms of architecture and the city take their place." Space, in this sense, is no longer a panacean expanse but something to be avoided, something to be afraid of. Along these lines, it s no surprise that Vidler spends some time talking about the O.J. Simpson trial and, in reference to the glove, how space cannot be trusted anymore: "The entire trial was destabilized by a defense that exploited space against object, that knew how to set in motion every fixed notion and stable clue by situating it in a field of other spaces and sites that raised the possibility of doubt as to its fixed place. The fluidity of space was pitched against the stability of place, the object consistently displaced by its spatial field." In other words, no one could be sure where the evidence really was, and therefore the absoluteness of space can no longer be relied upon.

There is a tendency among architects to beatify space for its own sake so one of the really valuable things about Vidler’s book is a willingness to critically question those assumptions in ways that will help us move forward in our understanding, engagement and deployment of it. In the chapter "X marks the spot," he cites Bataille, who argues, "Space is ’pure violence,’ escaping time and geometry to affirm its presence as the expression of the here-now, the instantaneous, the simultaneous, and, by extension, the event." This is not to say that Vidler denies space, or that he is seeking to eliminate its importance (as Frampton seems to want to do in Studies in Tectonic Culture) but more to examine its role in our perception and experience of contemporary urban conditions. Though Warped Space suffers from some scattered content, uninventive case studies and some strange methodology, the resulting examination of contemporary ideas of space proves to be ultimately worthwhile, even if we’re all crazy.