Making Strange

Poetry is strange and poetic language is strange. Some words make pleasant or interesting sounds. Other words may sound peculiar while others may be similar – or different – in special ways. Still other words occur in unexpected positions or with some new role or roles. All these poetic devices fall under the general concept of making strange and they all call attention to themselves so we can see something in a new way. This is what poetry does and what art in general does.

Making strange is so intrinsic to poetry that its absence is also a way of making strange. There’s quite a famous poem called “This is Just to Say”. [1] Over the years, people have spent much time trying to work out what makes it poetry. 

If making strange in poetry is about words and language, then making strange in filmmaking is about film as celluloid. I remember De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves as having a scene in which a person walking up some flights of stairs has the same footage briefly repeated three times. The effect was “Did I just see what I think I just saw?” Then there was the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker in which two birds fly away across The Zone but only one of them is seen to have crossed it. It’s a powerful scene made strange by simply removing some footage. Both these techniques are specific to film.

I’ve written elsewhere [c.f. Aesthetic Effect #5: COMBINEabout the Cathy Dennis and Rob Davis song Canʼt get you out of my head performed by Kylie Minogue. It’s a pop song made strange by beginning with chorus and a fade-in that allude to the upcoming lyrical content. In the spirit of repetition, let’s appreciate it once more for what it is.

[or vimeo]

Towards the end, the buildings in the background are made strange by lighting up as if they were VU meters, showing us a city made strange getting down.

Light show projections are a new form of public entertainment that shows us buildings in strange new ways even if only for short periods of time. More recent projections involve 3D mappings spectacularly combined with animation – a quality that’s very very strange for a building.

Like anything else that stimulates endorphins, increasingly stronger doses are needed if something is to be made strange and new over and over. In art, once a technique of art has been used to indicate something is art it can’t really be used again in the same way as it won’t be so strange anymore. It might still be art but it probably won’t be good art. This is why artists are under such pressure to continually outdo themselves.

In stage drama, making strange involves preventing the audience from becoming involved in a pretend story and faked emotions. Techniques such as wooden delivery, stilted dialogue, awkward silences, or having the actors carry the scenery onto the stage remind the audience they’re there to concentrate on the content of the play and not its superficialities. Bertold Brecht was the main proponent of this type of theatre. He called it Verfremdungseffekt. In English it’s known as the distancing effect, the alienation effect, the defamiliarization effect, or the estrangement effect. This last is apparently closest in meaning to the priyom ostraneniya (приём остранения) as understood and used by the Russian Formalists. [3]

Viktor Shklovsky was head of OPOJAZ – the Society for the Study of Poetic Language group (1910~1930-ish) was mainly concerned with technique and device. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines: they are the result of an intentional human activity in which a specific skill transforms raw material into a complex mechanism suitable for a particular purpose.” [4] According to Shklovsky, “art is a sum of the literary and artistic devices the artist manipulates to craft his work.”

The Russian Formalists’ literary criticism emphasised how literary or artistic devices unique to imaginative writing actually functioned. There’s an admirable purity to a literature that doesn’t aspire to be painting, a painting that doesn’t aspire to be music, a music that doesn’t aspire to be sculpture, an architecture that doesn’t aspire to be cinema, etc. In other words, Goethe was wrong. It makes no more sense to evaluate architecture according to rhythm and harmony than it does to evaluate music according to site conditions or climate. The Russian Formalists began by not allowing psychology or culture or history to enter into their evaluations of how well the writer used what they did to achieve they set out to do. It’s still a refreshing approach, as shown by Helen Vendler’s analyses of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. [c.f. Twelve Books on Architecture] It’s also the opposite of what we currently have.

Today, when we read a review of a piece of art, we’re almost certain to read a list of references to the choice of thematic material as filtered the artist’s reading of history, politics, gender studies and contemporary society. If no such context readily presents itself, then the fallback context is to discuss the work in terms of everything the artist has done before or is currently working on. [c.f. Conceptual Continuity] Everything seems worthy of our attention except how the artist has mastered the techniques and devices specific to their particular art form.

Understandably, the Russian Formalists were keen to determine exactly what is intrinsic to literary language. If we were to let such an approach transfer to architecture – and it could transfer directly and with better fidelity than the literary concepts of Post-Modern or Deconstruction ever translated – then it would have huge consequences for evaluating architecture.

  • It means harmony and rhythm are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Music.
  • It means composition and proportion are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Painting.
  • It means three-dimensionality and form are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Sculpture.
  • It means transparency and blurring are not valid concepts for producing or  evaluating architecture, as they’re borrowed from Photography.
  • It means organicism and self-similarity are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re qualities intrinsic to Nature.
  • It means history, philosophy, psychology, politics and culture are not valid concepts for producing or evaluating architecture, as they’re not qualities that influence Architecture alone. Everything has a history or, more precisely, everything has many histories.

What’s left standing?

  • The notion of space seems to survive intact and I’m not the first to suggest it as a fundamental property of architecture. It may well be the real essence of architecture is the void and not the pretend solid enclosing it.
  • Following on from that, there’s moving through a space. The Acropolis and The Villa Savoye have been famously identified and described (yet never evaluated) as sequences of spatial experiences. Nonetheless, those sequences of spatial experiences are still distinct from the flashbacks, flash forwards and other devices intrinsic to Cinema and that evoke similar feelings of anticipation and suspense.
  • Materials, construction, and structure – but only at scales distinct from those of furniture and civil engineering.
  • As long as buildings are constructed objects, the senseable qualities of materials are as valid as their physical ones. This isn’t to argue for a touchy-feely architecture but just to say that, as long as buildings are constructed from materials with qualities, one quality is just as valid as any other.
  • Site.
  • The notion of function survives, in the sense that people still experience a space even if they’re not moving around admiring it.

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims function is not a fundamental quality of architecture. In a perversion of the Russian Formalist position, he states that people can use the space inside a cave or a hollowed out tree for shelter as they might a building. From this he jumpily concludes that function is a quality that can be satisfied by something other than architecture, and thus not a quality by which architecture should be evaluated.
[p341, Vol I. if you’re keen.]
perverted formalism

  • Watertightness, servicing, security, durability, sustainability, energy performance and so on, are all specific to Architecture [I know, I know …] despite their current relegation to The Art of Building.
  • The solving of many conflicting requirements together is integrated design and not unique to architecture, but solving the above set is. 

Schumacher would [and did] say that since all these can be solved by engineers, they are not a concern of architects. This is a distortion of a perversion of the Russian Formalist stance and also an example of either ecological fallacy or circular reasoning since what we’re trying to establish is what makes architecture architecture, not what makes architects architects. We can debate whether all architecture is made by architects but it’s contrary to both commonsense and logic to claim all architects make architecture. [5]

These candidates for qualities unique to architecture hit upon all the contentious ones. Why site and not context? If we admit context then why not historical, political and cultural ones? I don’t know.  Perhaps Asnago & Vender got it right by considering history as the site condition of What’s already there. [c.f Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago & Vender]

In some later post I’ll try to illustrate how this concept of making strange can be used to evaluate architecture and, by association, the efforts of architects.

To close, this concept of making strange shouldn’t be reduced to shallow novelty or narrowed to mean only aesthetic innovation. Something novel or innovative can only be considered to have been made strange if it employs a device intrinsic to architecture, and even then only until strange becomes the new normal.

If architecture is an art, then its devices must be capable of interrogation in the same way we can talk about painting not by its subject matter or what we presume the intent of the artist to have been, but by the hard and lasting evidence of brushstrokes, their colours and the patterns they make. Seeing architecture in a similar way might even prove useful in the long run. You never know.

• • •

  1. This is Just to Say was written in 1934 by Walter Carlos Williams.
  2. More on the distancing effect and its chief popularizer, Bertold Brecht.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_formalism This entry will probably tell you all you need to know about the differences between Mechanistic Formalism, Organic Formalism, Systemic Formalism and Linguistic Formalism. The differences hardly matter given our conceptual distance from any of these sub-stances.
  4. “Literary works, according to this model, resemble machines … ” Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. 1925. A poem became a machine for meaning about the same time a house became a machine for living. 
  5. The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I contains no reference to Shklovsky or even to Brecht but the question of what is intrinsic to architecture and nothing else is one Patrik Schumacher had to answer if he was to argue for the autonomy of architecture and for it being a great function system of society rather than a mere subset of the art system. His suggested answer is in the book’s final chapter I still haven’t gotten around to writing about.

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One thought on “Making Strange

  1. Gulzar Haider, architectural educator

    Dear Graham McKay: thoroughly enjoyed reading you current “making-strange”. Eagerly awaiting what you share with us after you have gone through the last chapter of Patrik Schumacher. With much respect.

    Reply

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