Mimetic desire and other Symptoms

Yehuda E Safran

Columbia University, US



Mimetically speaking, Piano and Rogers’s Beabourg entry was largely due to two examples, Cedric Price’s Fan Palace and Jean Prouve’s work. Indeed, Jean Prouve was the Chairman of the jury for selecting the winning project for the Beauburg in 1972. He must have been greatly satisfied seeing this entry, it must have pleased him enormously to see a project in which some of his ideas were followed through They learned, no doubt from Ernesto Roger, Richard’s uncle, from the Russian Constructivists Archigram etc. They produced a new paradigm of high-tech architecture, which in its turn, will be mimed again and again. Today we are presented with a new paradigm known as biotech or Emergent Architecture, Fractal etc. We have attempted to look at the modality of such development and to the extent to which there could hardly be any development of new ideas totally free from the need to digest and developed a given set of prior assumptions. Some time being conscious of this process is an advantage, sometime on the contrary; certain blindness is conducive to an unprecedented undertaking. Different architects have forged different methods to achieve their objectives, to discover, or invent their individuality. Others have maintained with the classical tradition that it is far better to make a good copy of a masterpiece than to attempt the unknown new, for them the original is the monster.

This article presents the argument that ‘mimetic desire’ plays an important role in the processes of developing, assimilating and appropriating the elements of architectural design, its grammar and language.

It occurs on the scale of individual oeuvre as much as on the culture collectively. Here we are concern with a few examples in order to pose the issue in the form of a certain interrogative observations and remarks. Originally the term ‘mimetic desire’ refers to the difficulties human being have in forming their desires. As a result, and quite often they form their desire on a model taken from those happy few who acted upon theirs. Anticipating such a situation affect our modes of response, it require a certain irony, a critical distance from spontaneous belief in the existence of the world in which we live; we simply take it for granted with all it contains. As we suspend our belief we create an instant of contemplation, pure intuition becomes possible.


Mimetic Desire and other symptoms

“Why does almost everything seems to me like its own parody? Why must I think that almost all, no, all the methods and conventions of art today are good for parody only?”

Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus.

It is as if each and every project registers the all-important fact that architecture, if it is to live up to its own concept, is historically constituted as a convergence of different forms of knowledge and experience, strata of reference, and modes of ideality and reality. It therefore follows that an inner necessity responding to external contingency: a architecture as empirical object, overcoming its empirical tyranny; architecture as thought. Thought which is a relationship with oneself and with the world as well as a relationship with the other: therefore it already has a spatial character at the same time. Architecture for itself and in itself, thus architecture itself.

And yet, appropriating other types of knowledge, knowhow, ways of doing and making, chameleon like adaptation, are an inevitable part of the architect’s modus operandi.

Mendelsohn produced one of his least convincing project in the Einstein Tower.

Consider Frank Lloyd Wright in Japan. Virilio and the Atlantic fortifications to mention only a few extreme examples. And then, of course, there are the positivists, who adopted natural science models, mathematical models etc as an ideal type. Buckminster Fuller, Fri Otto, Luigi Nervi et al are among the most admired in this genre. More recently Shigeru Ban in Hanover and Metz, followed the example of Fri Otto with diminishing distance.

Zaha Hadid begun her path by producing drawings close to the Russian Constructivists, until a moment arrived, much later, in which her drawing language took off and became independent of its ‘origin’, she made it her own.

Imitation is an inevitable part of learning. Cezanne drawings made after Rubens could provide a paradigm for such practice. Indeed, Cezanne was moved to tears reading Balzac’s novel Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu, and said he himself was Frenhofer. Balzac imagined a painter who wants to express life itself by color alone, and keep his masterpiece hidden. When Frenhofer dies, his friends find nothing but chaos of colors, of elusive lines, a whole wall of painting. In certain traditional Chinese painting, on the contrary, imitation is an obligatory part of every new painting, which takes sometime the form of a dialogue with the distant predecessor.

In the practice of the Russian Biomechanical Theater around Meyerhold there was much that was borrowed from machine workshops of the time. Technical drawings provided the anti dote against too much ‘style’ in the production of conventional theater.


A NOX’s recent publication by Thames and Hudson presents an odd picture. It is if all that happened in science and technology inevitably lead to only one possible conclusion: NOX’s architectural practice. Mark Twain remarked, a propos the theory of evolution, that it was as if a piece of color on the top of Eiffel Tower considered the entire edifice was built in order to support it at the top. We are treated to a summary of the history of architecture from Gottfried Semper to Frederick Kiesler… and NOX. We are introduced to an empirical interpretation of Phenomenology, short version of Klein’s history of mathematics and finally history of science as nothing but the an argument which celebrate the inevitability, rationality and complexity of NOX modes of production. The devotees of shape inspired by biomorphic figures and above all by computations are many. But the choice of a project is not an involuntary act. On the contrary it is, inscribed in cultural, economic and symbolic discourse, a project will often embody a desire of a long duration.

As Mayakovsky wrote in his poem Pro Eto (About That), ‘we have solved the problem of bread, we have solved the problem of peace, yet this most cardinal problem of love we have not solved.’

The logic of genetic engineering is a fascinating advance in working out the mechanisms of biological production and reproduction. The development of L system provides, no doubt, exciting new instrument for the generation of forms shapes and structures. But, what is it that is imitated, and for what end? It remains to be decided independantly of any scientific claims. For those who are working in the field of biology not even the making of a singular cell is entirely clear let alone multiplication of cells. Or, as Einstein has once remarked, ‘as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality’ (‘Geometry & Experience’ an expanded form of an address to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on Janaury 27 1921). The epistemological difference is just as fundamental in the exact sciences as they are in the humanities. Those who are committed to Convention, Construction, Intuition, or Concept as the principal source of certainty in their field, are bound to act differently. The imagination deforms; it colors our reality. Concerning technology, the need to apply technology to overcome technology is ever more present in our life, if the external life is to remain in equilibrium with the inner life. We have created the possibility of an artificial world to an extent that our human capacity to remain relatively free and deliberate in our choice of action has out striped itself.

Lars Spuybroek (NOX) followed the idea of biotech. The fusion of the body with the synthetic infrastructure. The body as a fluid system of differences. In the context of an exhibition of Frederick Kiesler, we met nearly nine years ago in a conference organized by Witte de With, center for contemporary art, Rotterdam. Lars Spuybroek and Greg Lynn were invited because of certain physiognomic resemblances, biomorphic, between certain projects of theirs and Kiesler’s and they spoke eloquently about their affinities and distance. Above all we felt the motivation was different and the technical limitations on the part of Kiesler to realize his new morphology with compatible typology.

Curiously Kiesler made his reputation with an innovative stage set for Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Kurfurstendamm Theatre, Berlin, 1923) in which the term ‘ Robot’ was introduced. Not only was it linguistically close to the Czech word for ‘work’ but it was also an echo of the ancient myth of the Golem of Prague and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Kiesler was inspired by Norman Bell Geddes designs as much as by Patrick Geddes who was a student of Huxley who was able to apply the insights of biology to urban planning. Kiesler modeled some of his charts on Geddes’s ‘thinking machines’ and acknowledged the fundamental concept for him of ‘biotechnique’. By now we are all marked by the specter of the machine. Goethe’s Elective Affinities was inspired by a chemical process, which he applied to the relationship of two couple. Just as theoretical physics and the physicists, Copenhagen Interpretation, inspired Michel Houellebecq, in particular Niels Bohr, the brilliant Danish physicist who developed the quantum theory followed by the principle of ‘correspondence’ and ‘complementarities’ in which the wave and the particle are different aspect of the same reality, have served as a model for his novel: Les Particules Elementaires. In fact OLIPO a group of writers have come to consider numerical systems and Cabalistic Gemetria, the correspondence of letters to numbers, as a profound insight into the nature and character of the literary language. It is inscribed in the Modern and Romantic tradition to imagine a world tragically unknowable in itself and therefore accessible only in terms of our own projections.

The device of taking a natural process as a point of departure is by now a common practice, but the transmutations are subject to the desires and thought processes of the designer. In fact natural mutation is extremely rare; you have to cultivate millions of flies to arrive at a mutation.

Unlike the architecture of the ancient, contemporary architecture ever since the French Revolution have been given to mimetic tendencies hitherto unknown.

The picturesque, the neogothic made constant appeal to existing models, the tree like hut, the ruin etc. In the absence of internal criteria it is inevitable that exterior considerations will become dominant in the conception of a project. Above all there is the desire to respond in visual terms, mimetically, in a very different cultural context, so much more so when the need to bridge the gap between the cultural origin of the work and its destination is larger than usual.

Le Corbusier’s Chandigarth (1958) could not have been conceived in the terms in which it was finely cast without being profoundly inspired by the Mogul and earlier cultural monuments of India. Even the Himalaya range in the background must have played its part in the scale and massing of this project. Just as Louis Khan’s Dhaka Parliament has much in common with other projects, such as the Exeter library, but it takes its shape and scale in view of the environment in which it was built. At its best, architecture is relatively free of mimetic and metaphoric tendencies. Even when such metaphors may offer an initial impetus and play an important roll in the early stages of inception. The classical orders have become themselves elements in the grammar of architecture not before they where free of their mimetic ‘origin’, as Semper so beautifully demonstrated.

Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV in Beijing and Steven Holl’s Architecture Museum in Nanjing (3000 times smaller) do have in common a strategy of assimilation. Koolhaas has adopted sculptural shape, which echo Noguchi efforts. Holl has opted for a study of Chinese spatial effects, in particular, the constantly shifting point of view which determines depth and relationships in space. The search for an image that may correspond with the host culture is guided by a phantasm concerning the ‘other’. Peter Eisenman adopted the I Ching as a principal device in designing his Chinese project.

Soon after the XVII Century, the age of the scientific revolution, the Scottish Philosophers, Addison, Shaftsbury, Hume, the French philosophers: Voltaire and Diderot,

paradoxically, have made it impossible to believe in a rational canon of proportions and timeless aesthetic laws. Aesthetic judgment has become problematic. As an a priori synthetic judgment it resists theory, comprehensive understanding, and it is almost impossible to apply. Yet, we do feel some how that symmetrical arrangement is conducive to a desire for a just world, but it appears to have such an effect only on rare individuals.

Following the French Revolution the appeal to ‘Nature’ has become paramount. Not only in the English gardens and parks but also in searching naturalistic equivalents to architectural elements in the construction of the Neogothic style etc. From then on, thank to mechanical reproduction, the spread of vegetal mimesis to Art Nouveu, Jugendstil and Liberty style, was relatively a short step. Floral, vegetal motifs have inundated all branches of design. In the beginning of last century machine production made it relatively inexpensive and therefore marketable. Industrial design was the new discipline; it demanded the exact opposite of this tendency, the norms and the ideal of the machine inspired P. Behrens and others to come up with the new sobriety of design. Are this generation, thank to new mechanical devices will reintroduce vegetal, floral patterns, in the disguise of ‘technical details’?

NOX has produced an admirable body of work, which did make use of certain analogies and similarities between the body movements, the events of perception and the environment. They have been inspired by a new complexity, technical complexity far beyond and ahead of Robert Venturi, which was based on Empson’s Seven types of Ambiguity. Lars Spuybroek encourages us to expect a greater determination in exercising his freedom with respect to a given project. Poetics and Physis are interchangeable ever since Aristotle, but it requires imaginative leap in moving from the one to the other. Projects are bound to be futuristic, poised as they are between the realm of nature and the realm of grace, being in the realm of the machine. The science of the machine is capable of fabricating a new power. The technical equipment of the industrial world, our capacity for projecting an artificial environment is vast. Therefore the promise of machine like architecture is so ambiguous and problematic. In their highest form machines are no more than a protocol, the promise of boundless capacity of computation, does have a mechanical dimension but it does not settle any contradictions and inconsistency in our mathematics.