Francesco Vitale

Jacques Derrida and the Politics of Architecture

The concern with architecture covers a well defined period of Jacques Derrida’s work, at least at the first glance. From Labirinth und Architextur (1984) till Talking about Writing (1993), over a period of no more than ten years, when his activity is very intense: Derrida is among the promoters of the collaboration between the new born Collège international de Philosophie and the Centre de création industrielle in Paris. He writes the presentation of the general project of Bernard Tschumi of La Villette park in Paris, and collaborates with Peter Eisenman on the project of a site within the same park. He talks to the students of architecture of Columbia University and the theorists of avant-garde such as Marc Wigley, Jeffrey Kipnis, K. Foster, Anthony Vidler. In 1991 he joins the Berlin Stadtforum, organized to discuss about the future of the city after the Fall of the Wall. He takes part in the interdisciplinary symposium devoted to the Prague Urban Reconstruction project and the presentation of Daniel Liberskind’s project for Berlin Jewish Museum. He attends the early two meetings organized by “Any Corporation”, a team of architects and architecture theorists gathered by Peter Eisenman and his wife Cynthia C.Davidson for the architecture of the third millennium: in 1991 in Los Angeles and in 1992 at Jufuin in Japan. After 1993 no more engagement with architecture.

This was just a break, a standstill, in the framing of the philosophical work we could define monumental today. But it was enough to be even considered, right or wrong, the father of an architectonic movement: the so-called deconstructivism, which is, more or less regularly identified with the work of the above named Tschumi, Eisenman and Libeskind, but also Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Frank Gehry and others.

It is advisable to clarify the subject and begin to situate Derrida’s work on architecture within a perspective useful to get the field free from some traces which may lead to misunderstanding and to point out others which appear for us more pertinent.

Politics of architecture

“The last fortress of metaphysics” – this is how Jacques Derrida determines architecture in Point de folies – Maintenant l’architecture. The work, published in 1986, accompanies the presentation of the project devised by Bernard Tschumi for Parc de La Villette in Paris. It is the first of Derrida's writings devoted to architecture.

I would like to show how the deconstruction of architecture proposed by Derrida is not only concerned with the theory of architecture. It also implies in itself the possibility of a different architectural practice, which cannot be identified with a new aesthetic and formal style. I would like to explain that the deconstruction of architecture implies rather the deconstruction of the political and that it can be put into effect only through the actual deconstruction of the architectural structure into which the Western tradition of the political has embodied itself.

A tradition that grounds itself on the link which fastens the identity – of the individual and the community – to a supposed original space, to the stability of the frontiers separating it from the otherness in general, from what is therefore conceived of, simultaneously or alternately, as external, foreign, stranger or strange.

In Specters of Marx (1993) Derrida names onto-topology the fundamental structure of the political, as it links the ontological and metaphysical value of presence – on – with place – topos – :

“By ontopology we mean an axiomatics linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being (on) to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general”

The essence of the political therefore has been linked since the beginning to the politics of space and place.

In fact, in Plato's Pharmacy (1968), taking on the deconstruction of the Platonic philosophy, Derrida remarks that, from Plato on, the system of oppositions governing our philosophical tradition grounds on the undisputed presupposition of a spatial opposition:

“In order for these contrary values (good/evil; true/false; essence/appearance, inside/outside, etc.) to be in opposition, each of the terms must be simply external to the other, which means that one of these oppositions (the opposition between inside and outside) must already be accredited as the matrix of all possible opposition. And one of the elements of the system (or of the series) must also stand as the very possibility of systematicity or seriality in general”

In particular, with regard to the polis, the practice of ostracism and the related rituals of the purification of the city, Derrida outlines the strict connection among political identity, urban topology and the exclusion of the other, insisting on the spatial opposition inside/outside:

“The city’s body proper thus reconstitutes its unity, closes around the security of its inner courts, gives back to itself the word that links it with itself within the confines of the agora, by violently excluding from its territory the representative of an external threat or aggression. That representative represents the otherness of the evil that comes to affect or infect the inside by unpredictably breaking into it. Yet the representative of the outside is nonetheless constituted, regularly granted its place by the community, chosen, kept, fed, etc., in the very heart of the inside”

In the Western tradition the (individual and collective) identity is thought of as an internal, permanent, stable space, autonomous and independent from the other in general, which is represented as external, stranger and, thus, is experienced as a possible threat.

Referring back to Specters of Marx, Derrida maintains that this axiomatics still structures today the political discourse and action: it is always at work there where one appeals to the defence of the territorial identity against the other, which is lived or rather represented as the external threat justifying the closure from inside.

Since this axiomatics goes back to the origin of the Greek civilization and, thus, of the Western tradition, here Derrida recognizes the return of a “conceptual spectre”, an “archaism”.

In fact, today, that axiomatics comes out as a reaction, since it constitutes itself as a fortress against a process of de-territorialization, which is not only concerned with the migratory flows pressing the Western frontiers, but also with the conditions of development of economical and cultural relations and exchanges, of the constitution of a public space in principle unlimited and, therefore, with the life itself one wants to shelter.

Nowadays, finally, the relation to the other, lived as a threat for the community, turns out to be, at the same time, the irreducible condition of the life of the community itself.

Place turns out to be what it has always been: it is not the mythical origin of the metaphysical identity, but the effect of a process of dislocation and localization where the anthropic presence has come to inscribe itself into space, locating itself in any case in relation to the otherness in general, thus distinguishing itself from itself since its origin:

“The process of dislocation is no less arch-originary, that is, just as “archaic” as the archaism that it has always dislodged. This process is, moreover, the positive condition of the stabilization that it constantly relaunches. All stability in a place being but a stabilization or a sedentarization, it will have to have been necessary that a local differance, the spacing of a displacement gives the movement its start. And gives place and gives rise (donne place et donne lieu)”

Therefore one should think of space not as the surface where originary places, being self-enclosed and forever established, are distributed, but as the element of the relation to the otherness, where it is possible an individual and collective localization that, for this reason, cannot be closed to the other in general, to the relation constituting every identity as the effect of an irreducible opening.

To do space for the other, to give a place for that relation is the task of the deconstruction of the political. This does not mean simply to evaluate the other as such, always and anyhow. Anyway the horizon of the relation to the other always imports a threat for the life of the community, in the different forms that such threat, in fact, might take up. History, even in recent years, does not stop making us face this cruel reality: terroristic, colonial or post-colonial conflicts among states or inside a state. And however, as the relation to other is the irreducible condition of possibility of the community, to avoid, subdue, repress, or remove such relation would mean to expose the community to an even more severe threat.

At least, this is so for a community which aims to be democratic, for which the responsibility of such opening, the always open possibility of its own transformation, is the very life.

Housing Politics

To do space for the other, to give a place for that relation is the task of the deconstruction of the political. The achievement of this task necessarily requires the deconstruction of the architecture which provides such axiomatics with a concrete and durable form, with a form imposing itself to our experience as if it were our natural environment.

It is enough to think of the structure of the town, of the hierarchic layout of the institutional, economic, religious, symbolic, residential sites which constitute the identity of the community, and, at the same time, mark strictly the times and the manners of our individual and collective daily experience.

Let us go back to the essay on architecture: according to Derrida, it is the last fortress of metaphysics exactly because it sets up a concrete, established and durable shape for the identity, which is conceived of as a familiar and self-enclosed interiority or intimacy, engaged with the defence of itself.

This identity has been determined since the origin by the analogy with a specific kind of architectural structure: the house/dwelling.

In fact, if nowadays one considers natural the fact that the dwelling is the end and essence of architecture, this can be understood because, since the origin of metaphysics, namely, from Plato on, architecture has been submitted to the law of the house, of the oikos: the house as protection of the inside with respect to the outside, of the familiar with respect to the stranger.

That is, the house built in defence of the institution of the patriarchal family, the house built according to a precise spatial distribution of roles driven to the management of the property: of the man, the head of the family, open to the outside, in charge of accumulating and exchanging goods, while the woman, closed inside, is in charge of the administration of the piled goods. The first is active in public life, the second is connected with the worship of forefathers:

“Let us never forget that there is an architecture of architecture. Down even to its archaic foundation, the most fundamental concept of architecture has been constructed. This naturalised architecture is bequeathed to us: we inhabit it, it inhabits us, we think it is destined for habitation, and it is no longer an object for us at all. But we must recognise in it an artefact, a construction, a monument. (...). Its heritage inaugurates the intimacy of our economy, the law of our hearth (oikos), our familial, religious and political oikonomy, all the places of birth and death, temple, school, stadium, agora, square, sepulchre. It goes right through us to the point that we forget its very historicity: we take it for nature”

Therefore, since the origin, the metaphysics of presence has used a certain model of architectural building – the house – to determine the meaning of the individual and collective identity. For this reason the dwelling represents the end and essence given to architecture by our tradition.

The end and essence that we still acknowledge today as obvious and undisputable.

Therefore architecture still represents the concrete accomplishment of that model. It is the most resistant and effective accomplishment, for it affects not only our way of thinking but also our most immediate experience.

“On the one hand, this general architectonics effaces or exceedes the sharp specificity of architecture; it is valid for other arts and regions of experience as well. On the other hand, architecture forms its most powerful metonymy; it gives it its most solid consistency, objective substance. By consistency, I do not mean only logical coherence, which implicates all dimensions of human experience in the same network: there is no work of architecture without interpretation, or even economic, religious, political, aesthetic, or philosophical decree. But by consistency I also Mean duration, hardness, the monumental, mineral, or ligneous subsistence, the hyletic of tradition. Hence the resistence: the resistence of materials as much as of consciousnesses and unconsciousness which instate this architecture as the last fortress of metaphysics”

However, the law of the house, as ancient as it is, is not an immutable law of nature. It corresponds to a historically determined order, that one of the metaphysics of presence which still rules our notion of individual and collective identity by means of the strong and durable form granted by architecture.

The law of the house can be, therefore, transformed, deconstructed, in view of another experience of individual and collective identity. So it is necessary to set free the theory and praxis of architecture, the experience itself of architecture, from the link that submits it to the law of the house and the dwelling:

“Any consequent deconstruction would be negligible if it did not take account of this resistence and this transference; it would do little if it did not go after architecture as much as architectonics. To go after it: not in order to attack, destroy or deroute it, to criticise or disqualify it. rather, in order, to think it in fact, to detach itself sufficiently to apprehend it in a thought which goes beyond the theorem – and becomes a work in its turn”

The deconstruction of architecture must become in turn work, it must become architecture.

Architecture to come

But how (should the architecture of deconstruction be built?)to build the architecture of deconstruction? Derrida, in the essay we are reading here, does not give us clear instructions: he poses a question and leaves it open since only architecture can take it up.

Is an architecture of the event possible?

It seems to be a paradoxical question: on the one side, the architecture of the firm and durable presence, on the other an architecture of the aleatory and contingent event. How is it possible to build it up?

In Point de folies, Derrida goes back to the Greek civilization where he finds the historical matrix of metaphysics imposing its well known law to the essence and the history of architecture: the law of the house and the dwelling. He retrieves the moment where the possibility of dislocation, as the condition of every process of anthropic localization, is removed into the order of onto-topology, and buried under the weight of an architecture devised and set up in order to consolidate this removal.

A removal, evidently, not accomplished since from the inside of the house-fortress the external space is still lived as the element of the unknown, the other is still lived as a threat, the frontiers are still lived as unstable.

Nowadays there are many instances, that are known to everybody but not less worrying for this reason.

The architecture of deconstruction must be therefore the re-writing of space which brings back to light the experience of the original dislocation recalled by Derrida in Specters of Marx: an experience of the space as an irreducible opening to the other in general, an experience of dislocation as the condition of every localization in time and for the time to come.

Here one can find an experience which is finally human and no longer metaphysical.

Architecture, in fact, with its material and, at the same time, symbolic presence, fills up not only space but also time, it fills up the space for the time to come. It imposes its presence to the future, a rigidly structured space, a coercive space where the possibility of the relation to the other has already been anticipated and calculated at the level of the project, a space where, therefore, the other has already been rejected, ostracised, avoided because of its feared irreducible otherness.

This is what Derrida understands as event: the possibility of the future (to-come) in its non-foreseeable otherness, as the irreducible condition where the relation to the other can take place.

The architecture of deconstruction must be responsible for this space, its opening to the other yet to come, it must take care of it.

Although it appears absurd from the inside of the fortress, architecture must build avoiding the coercive saturation of the space. The project, as the realized artefact, must remain open to the chance of a transformation yet to come. It brings about a different thinking of the place where the dwelling is built, on the consistency and the resistance of the materials to be used, on the flexibility and rigidity of the architectural solutions; and this thinking is not absurd at all. Derrida mentions the instance of the temple of Ise in Japan, which is disassembled, deconstructed and re-constructed every twenty years.

In particular, in his talk at the Berlin Stadtforum and, in particular, with regard to the future of Prague, Derrida maintains the necessity to include within the scientific and professional training course of architects the responsibility of this opening, using the paradoxical definition of an “axiom of incompleteness”:

“In other words, what makes possible the living community of generations who live or build the city, who set permanently themselves in the very projection of a city to de-re-build, is to give up the absolute tower, the total city touching the sky, is to accept what a logician would probably call an axiom of incompleteness. A city is a whole which must remain indefinitely, structurally not saturable, open to its transformation, to the minimal additions which come to alter or displace the memory of its heritage. A city must remain open to the fact that it does not know yet what it will be: it is necessary to inscribe the respect of this not-knowing into the architectonic and city-planning science and skill, as it were a symbol. Otherwise what else would one do but carry out some plans, totalize, saturate, suture, suffocate? And this, without taking a responsible decision, since to carry out a plan or to make a “project” into a work is never a responsible decision.”

It is only according to this perspective that architecture can keep the chance of the relation to the other open, that is the necessary condition in order that the other may live and take place. The other whom the community needs, to be itself. When the community is not captive within the walls it has erected to reject the other and to defend a pure and, at the same time, empty interiority, which has no future.

I would like to conclude with a quotation, drawn from Derrida's last writing on architecture, Faxtexture (1993, the same year when Specters of Marx was published). It is meaningful that the writing ends by announcing the necessity to deconstruct, through architecture, the onto-topological axiomatics in view of the very future of the political, in the name of a democracy to come.

How is it possible to re-politicize the architectural theory or practice just de-constructing a certain concept of the political, even of democracy? The question may disclose enormous and unending tasks, but it must remain open: that is a necessity and an obligation. This “must” is more original and important than the question it bears and makes possible. It gives the question its opening. It cannot be but the opening to the other, to the other to which it addresses itself or from where it comes; opening from the other and to the other and, thus, to the future, to the otherness that cannot be anticipated, to the possibility of surprise without which there would be no opening. Deconstruction, or if you like, re-building does not only get through discourses. It proceeds also from what is coming and has not come yet, through events and inventions. Future, invention, event, that require a re-politicizing deconstruction of the political, must open calculus, project, program, rule and law on what must remain non-calculable. To open them does not mean to put them out of play or destroy them. It has to do with another gesture, another movement, another relation to space”

Francesco Vitale

Francesco Vitale (Salerno 12/2/1971)
(Ph.D. University Federico II of Naples, Italy)
Lecturer of Aesthetics and of Hermeneutics of the French philosophical text at the University of Salerno (Italy).
Member of the European Foundation of Drawing directed by the artist Valerio Adami.

His academic interests have been focusing on Derrida’s work since the Ph.D. dissertation on his relation to Hegel. He has been working since last year at a research project on Derrida and architecture and has recently published the first complete collection of the Author’s papers and interviews on architecture. I attended the first Derrida Today in Sydney 2008, where I presented the paper “Let the Witness speak”.

His main publications are:

2009, ‘Let the Witness speak. From Archi-Writing to the Community to come’, in DERRIDA TODAY, Vol. 2, num. 2.
2009, ‘Spaziature. Derrida architetto’, in ANNALI DELLA FONDAZIONE EUROPEA DEL DISEGNO (FONDATION Adami), 4/ 2008. ISBN: 978-88-7018-742-7.
2008, Spettrografie. Derrida tra singolarità e scrittura, GENOVA: Il nuovo Melangolo. ISBN: 9788870186888.
2008 (edition, translation and introduction) DERRIDA J., Adesso l’architettura, MILANO: Scheiwiller. ISBN: 9788876445682.
2007, ‘L'invenzione della decostruzione’ in Il del tutto nuovo, pp. 127-136 ISBN: 9788883535888. Quaderno di comunicazione 7/2007. ROMA: Meltemi
2007, ‘Spettri della tecnica: Derrida, la tecnica, la vita’ in RUSSO, N. L'uomo e le macchine. Per un'antropologia della tecnica, pp. 313-344 ISBN: 978-88-6042-270-5. NAPOLI: Guida
2006, ‘C'è da fidarsi. Sulla fiducia in Jacques Derrida’ in Quaderno di comunicazione. (vol. 6, pp. 57-65). ISBN: 88-8353-535-9. ROMA: Meltemi
2005 (translation and introduction) DERRIDA, J. Economimesis. Politiche del bello ISBN: 88-1640708-5. MILANO: Jaca Book
2005, ‘Introduzione alla lettura di Spettri di Marx’ in QUADERNI MATERIALISTI. vol. 3/4, pp. 169-183.
2004, ‘Decostruzione’ in COMETA M., Dizionario degli studi culturali, pp. 164-170 ISBN: 88-8353-283-x. ROMA: Meltemi
2003, ‘Sacrificio, segreto, maltolto. Note su una nota di Donner la mort’ in FENOMENOLOGIA E SOCIETÀ vol. 3, pp. 86-101 ISSN: 0394-2759.
2000, ‘Le fonti della decostruzione. Derrida interprete di Hegel’ in ATTI DELL'ACCADEMIA DI SCIENZE MORALI E POLITICHE. vol. CXI, pp. 5-50 ISSN: 1121-9270.
2000, ‘Hegel: la famiglia e il sistema. Derrida interprete di Hegel (II)’, in ATTI DELL'ACCADEMIA DI SCIENZE MORALI E POLITICHE. vol. CXI, pp. 117-158 ISSN: 1121-9270.
1995 ‘L’amico, il nemico, il fratello’ DIRITTO E CULTURA. vol. 2 ISSN: 1824-4572.