Non-Referential Architecture

Sometime around the 5th of August 2020, I saw a reference to a book called Non-Referential Architecture and thought it sounded interesting but, as I was just about to leave Dubai, I never ordered a copy. A few weeks ago the book found me. The front cover tells us it was ideated by Valerio Olgiati, and the back cover tells us it was written by Markus Breitschmid. I’m not sure what this means.

Ideate seems like one of those words that’s been invested with more meaning than it can carry – much like what happened to curate. I understand the relationship between ideated and written in much the same way as I do architect and architect of record despite the use of “we” in the preface.

The preface lays the justification for the book and the approach the authors – let’s call them – took when writing it. We’re told there are no citations and few names unless it seemed absolutely necessary to orientate the reader. I suppose this makes it an exercise in non-referential writing. What’s more, images are avoided as much as possible so their “thesis of a non-referential architecture will not be interpreted as a stylistic recipe. Instead, it allows for the emergence of multiple formal possibilities in the mind of the reader”. Ugh – but okay. I’m invited to make of it what I will. So I shall.

Introduction to Non-Referential Architecture

Non-Referential Architecture

The first two sentences were a bad start. We live in a non-referential world. Therefore, architecture must be non-referential”. The third sentence restated the first two. “Non-referentiality is the only way to conceive buildings that make sense in a world in which simple attributions of meaning no longer exist”. It’s easy to object to this and ask why architecture should mirror the world, and it’s only when I remember Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock saying “an architecture without an aesthetic still has an aesthetic” that I check myself. The ideological roots of non-referential architecture are in the 20th century and the first of those simple attributions of meaning was the social mission of modernism, now seen as no longer existing. The authors probably aren’t wrong on that. The other simple 20th century attribution of meaning was of course post-modernism and its flatulence of references. Me, I still believe a social mission is not some “simple attribution of meaning” but the bigger question is in what sense do we want our buildings to make sense?

The authors object to “imbuing buildings with meaning from extra-architectural sources” and I agree but what’s an extra-architectural source? They exclude the economic, the ecological and the political as the chief bases for making an architecture they see as “imbued with relevance and moral righteousness.” Hmm, but if you can’t acknowledge the political, the economic, and the ecological, then there’s not going to be much left to work with. I’m assuming the word ecological is being used as a catch-all for energy performance, thermal comfort, selection of materials and their efficiency of use but aren’t these all intrinsic rather than referential? They’re only referential if it’s greenwashing. Before I forget, for a building to refer to its context is a no-no.

“Architecture is first and foremost the conception, construction and building of rooms; it deals with scenography and movements through rooms” p.15

“… a building, for and by itself, has the innate capability not only of being purely architectonic, it can also be sense making. In that respect, non-referential architecture relies on and is justified by the basis of the most fundamental quality and characteristic of what a building can be, namely, it is its own sense-making thing”. p.19

Nor do they recognize “building as an overly artistic endeavour by means of permeation with esoteric-rhetoric concepts” for even the artistic approach “cannot be the answer either because it propagates that the precise and well-conceived existence of architectonic order alone will engage human being in a meaningful way”. (I’m not sure the authors don’t contradict themselves later on this question of order.) On p.29 we learn what “gives a building its spatial and formal sense-making expression“. “We say that the best thing about buildings is that one can physically experience their rooms. Such experience of space is the “raw” material with which any building must deal. It is the key to non-referential architecture”. Now we’re getting somewhere, even if space and rooms aren’t always interchangeable.

“… the forms of rooms – both inside and outside – ultimately remains the most general architectonic of a building. It is form that brings to people an added cultural value and it is form that sets individuals and society in motion.” [p.30]

“… non-referential architecture can only be of general validity if it expresses something that is real and actual, as generally valid as possible, and as close as possible to be true … non-referential architecture is a question of form, namely, the conceiving of rooms on the outside and the inside.” [p.30-31]

I have no problem with these either, although this book might just be one of those texts that lets you read into it anything you like. I think Adrian Forty said in Words and Meanings that “whenever you hear the word form, you can be fairly certain you’re listening to a modernist discourse”. I’m still onboard if the authors use the word form to mean no more than some configuration of building elements in space. If they’re not, then it means we’re talking about art after all.

The conceiving of rooms on the inside and outside, how we experience that inside and outside, and what sense we make of it is what the 1,700 words of last week’s Architecture of Sharing post were all about. I’m maybe a fifth of the way through this book now. I understand what a non-referential architecture is for me. It’s an architecture that doesn’t refer to things outside of the experience of rooms and spaces. Although, in my case, it’s not about the rooms or the spaces but the walls and floors that create them, which side of those walls and floors you are on, and how you know and experience that. I’ve made my peace so, I’ll skim the rest of the book for the author’s position on how they imagine us experiencing these non-referential rooms and spaces. I won’t be sensitive to what “sense” those spaces make or don’t make, but to what sense they make to persons inside them or outside them. For me, it’s all about what inside and outside mean.

After Postmodernity: Non-Referential World [p.32–41]

Nothing here, apart from the last sentence (that restates the previous chapter).

“With its independence of extra-architectural contents and its liberty from being a vessel of some moral paradigm, non-referential architecture can express – by means of its form – not only something that exists in actuality but also something that is as general as possible and as true as possible.” [p.41]

There’s that word form again! I’m wondering what counts as a moral paradigm, and I’m still lacking specifics on what “extra-architectural” is. Coming back to this idea of rooms or, to see it my way, the elements that configure those rooms, I don’t believe it’s possible for a room to not be a political statement. For one, in order for a room to exist, it is necessary to own the property and to have the resources to build it. This is fact, whether or not architecture is used to articulate it. And once that room is constructed, it makes a different sort of sense depending on whether you are inside it or outside it. And even then, that sense will differ according to whether you are that space’s owner, tenant or a squatter. None of this has anything to do with form, whatever it’s supposed to mean.

Geneaology of Architectonic Ordering Systems [p.42–50]

Here, we meet a sentence that reads “We can surmise that the formal space-constellation of buildings contains everything that is necessary to understand a building” and I wonder in what sense we’re to understand the word understand? It becomes slightly clearer when we see the sole image in the book, a plan of the Temple of Mitla in Oaxaca, Mexico.

We’re told the experience of the central, inner space is that it is higher than the lobby space because one doesn’t enter it on axis (i.e. within the “formal” organization of the building). I’m disappointed. Is this all there is? Presumably, that experience is a good thing. Or was to the authors who seem to have a thing about roofless buildings.

Doors that exist outside the formal organization of a space aren’t unknown in architecture. Look at the door, presumably to the waiters’ pantry, at Gio Ponti’s 1940 Professors’ Reading Room at the University of Padua. Or how about the door to the upstairs bedroom in Kazuo Shinohara’s 1966 House in White?

The Ponti door refers to a social hierarchy while the Shinohara one refers to a spatial hierarchy or, more to the point, his prioritization of living rooms over bedrooms or kitchens as carriers of (his) architectural meaning. Doors such as these may exist outside the formal organization of the house, but they aren’t independent of social references.

The authors tell us that the architectural experience of space is universal, even for persons of different cultures and educations and that understanding the history and context of a building has nothing to do with appreciation of its “space-constellation”. Not so fast! Even the off-axis door at the Temple of Mitla is off-axis because it is, after all, a temple. If I visited the Temple of Mitla, carrying my copy of Non-Referential Architecture, then I would wager that my experience of entering that centre space now would be very different than if I were a preist there 600 years ago, or the next in line to be sacrificed. There are more important things than the experience of architecture. I don’t claim to know what these are but the experience of oneself in society might be one of them if – one believes architecture can help mediate that.

The Idea in Non-Referential Architecture [p.51]

There are two qualities that an idea for a building must have: an idea must be form-generative and sense making. [p51]

Because we find ourselves in a situation in which these believable ideas do not exist in the non-referential world, tghe architect is no longer supplied with a set of guidelines on how to design a building. It is now the responsibility of the architect to author an idea for a building. The situation in which each building requires its very own idea is a consequence of the liberating non-referential world. [p.52]

As I said earlier, if we remove climate and context and social, political and individual circumstance from the equation, there’s not going to be much left to have architectural ideas about. Olgiati may well have achieved this with his own architecture. Without any references to people or why those building elements are there, it’s a bit dead to me.

The Principles of Non-Referential Architecture

I could at this stage complete the book and give you a run-through of what they are, but I’ll just provide a quick summary in case you want to give it a try.

  • First Principle: Experience of Space
    “In what way? And to what end?” And what of the virtual experience of space via images? It doesn’t make sense for a non-referential architecture to exist or even be virtually experienced as images.
  • Second Principle: Oneness
  • Third Principle: Newness
    Some of us might know this as its lesser cousin, novelty. The authors claim that Gaudi was too new, but Gehry was just new enough for his times. I won’t get drawn on that. The closing paragraphs of the book stress the importance of Authorship, and the sole creator, thereby placing the creation of non-referential architecture on the treadmill of artistic production.
  • Fourth Principle: Construction:
    Having said that, using a single material is better than multiple, presumably because to use materials in the way best fit for them would be to refer to specific materials rather than some formal-esque materiality.
  • Fifth Principle: Contradiction
  • Sixth Principle: Order (This seems to overlap “architectonic” and the grisly “space-constellation” of earlier.)
  • Seventh Principle: Sensemaking

Having reached the end, I still have doubts. Is designing a building that takes say, the climate or the context into account really about the introduction of extra-architectural matters into architecture? My thinking is that climate and context don’t need their real or imagined meanings referenced. Id’ve thought some tangible response to their physical realities more in order. This experience of space that’s so fundamental to the authors’ argument is a kind of aesthetic one-on-one contemplative experience so there’s nothing new there. What’s more, all this experiencing is never about how a different space might be experienced differently by different persons one inside and one outside the space, or by one that owns it and one who doesn’t. The possession of land on which to build, and the resources with which to build to me seem hardwired into the making of architecture and then, once it’s made, are equally hardwired questions of who gets to experience that space and how and from where? If we accept that all of this isn’t external to architecture after all, then wen might see it as the basis for a different, less formal, kinder kind of formalism.


1 thought on “Non-Referential Architecture

  1. Alia

    I was meaning to read this book, because Olgiati’s architetcure is so appealing in every architect’s eye, but now I’m not sure anymore. Seems like another theoretical afterthought? Does it fit any longer now that they deisgn for Kanye West? Lately I’ve been enjoying Kongjian Yu of Turenscape landscape theories. Maybe it’s cultural distance, but his view of the future of the cities is refreshing.

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