What identifies us?
‘For the moment when the model will be most like him (her)self, In knowing how to find and catch such a moment consists the art of portrait painting.’
Whilst Dostoyevsky is more obviously talking about identity in portraiture, his observation might well be applied to the understanding of the nature and identity of place. The project endeavours to construct an authentic sense of itself and in part this is intimately derived from an understanding of its location. This sense of belonging or genius loci being sought in the project is not however a dainty act of contextualism nor an act of heroic, abstract intervention. Paradoxically, the proposal as it ultimately emerged is as much an exercise in repairing as it is one of scaring. Especially when read from a distance (in both senses) the project represents a scar or tear running across what remains of the city grain in this part of Bucharest. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the term ‘scar’ can be read less derisorily as a distinguishing mark. In this regard perhaps, ‘tattoo’ would be a better word in that it signifies identity and belonging. Paradoxically both a scar and a tattoo are made by an act of wounding either inflicted upon, or willingly chosen by their host. Likewise, even the most delicate acts of ‘architectural dentistry’ are disruptive and even destructive. Ironically then, architecture could be understood as a process of creative destruction.
The third of Ardeshana’s analytical gazes is the ‘labyrinth’. This viewpoint sits enigmatically between the earthliness of the ‘child’s gaze’ and the meta-perspective of memory as manifest in the ‘ruin gaze’. As a compositional grammar, this third gaze not only consolidates competing strata but in doing so develops a spatial complexity, uniqueness and authenticity which is enchantingly clear and diffuse at the same time. This is the project’s true identity.
The symbolic charge of the labyrinth stretches at least as far back as the archetypal maze which Theseus navigates with the help of Ariadne’s thread. It continues through history to the Gothic cathedrals, although the allegorical centrality of the labyrinth in the pavement of Chartres is perhaps lost beneath the tourists’ selfie shuffles these days. Nonetheless, the etymological affinity of the words maze and a-mazing is suggestive of the labyrinth’s enduring hold on our imaginations. This is the thesis of Charlotte Higgins aptly titled Red Thread – On Mazes and Labyrinths. 9 - Published by Jonathan Cape, London, 2018.From an aerial (removed) perspective, the labyrinth’s twists, turns and dead-ends make sense – less so from the disorientation experienced on the ground.
In the mythologies of both Greece and Christendom, the phenomenon of the labyrinth is linked to a directional force in that there is symbolic destination. In the first instance, the labyrinth is a mechanism of oppression as the minotaur is incarcerated within it. But what were the Cretans (and us now) really scared of exactly? As with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the minotaur is much understood as a being that stands for a dual nature – that of human and beast – read ‘rational’ and ‘intuitive’. Whether Theseus did humanity a favour when he killed his prey, I doubt. And as for his abandonment of Ariadne, whose intuitive guile unwinds the story – enough said! By way of contrast in the second, Christian, example, the teleology operates almost in reverse as it is more aspirational than repressive. The allegory suggests that whilst the metaphorical way is difficult, glory ultimately awaits. Indeed, the attainment of that glorious end is contingent upon that labyrinthine difficulty. It would be too obvious to suggest that the creative process is labyrinthine but in reading both of the above symbolisms concurrently, we can interweave two considerations: firstly ‘destination’, whether that be ‘monster’ or God – i.e. project in the directional sense of the word. And secondly ‘journey’ – i.e. process by which we find our way. Considering the notion that ‘to wonder is the beginning of all knowledge’, here we might just as well supplant wonder with wander. The project’s ludic methodology alludes to this interchangeability and complementarity in its imaginative process.
By way of a final point regarding the labyrinth, its designer was Daedalus, the father of Icarus and the archetypal representation of the craftsman as well as architect. Whilst Icarus’s soaring exploits with the ‘garish sun’ more obviously has a firm hold on our mythological imaginations, those of his father are less well remembered. Who do we honour as hero and heroine? The tension between thinking and making is also implicit in this issue, and of course both define the art and craft of architecture. The project’s narrative materiality offers a fine grain methodology which complements and continues the three gazes of the child, ruin and labyrinth. The architectural gaze is surely one seen from afar and close up, and is heroic as well as ordinary.
The figure of the hero/heroine figures large in Jungian psychology. For example, the story of Odysseus’s homecoming to Ithaca is often read as a metaphor for evolution of the psyche. This is a process which Jung terms ‘individuation’ – the imperative of consciously becoming one’s ‘true self’. This is distinct from the individualism which arguably characterises the contemporary world. The Jungian model posits a self-realising, regularising force at the core of the human psyche referred to as the Self. The capital letter ‘S’ is deliberate in that it is used to distinguish it from the idea of ego and coupled to it are the concepts of (and issues with) persona and shadow. The persona or social mask(s) are ones we all necessarily wear; Jung’s argument however is that our persona become psychologically problematic when we over-identify with them. The shadow is in part the realm of repressed and ‘darker’ aspects of ourselves but more so, the dormant, unfulfilled and unknown potential within us. The stereotypical image of the architect (and indeed any project itself) can be seen through this conceptual lens. Working methods, built projects and architectural personalities alike are vulnerable to mimicry and a kind of expedient, uncritical idealising. An authentic architectural identity or ‘true self’ is as much a question of belonging to oneself, as it is a relational engagement with people, locale, programme and cultural context. The chance encounters evident in the project assist the search for an authentic architectural identity.