Michel Seuphor’s “In Defense of an Architecture” (1930)

Translated from the French by Stephen Bann.

From The Tradition of Constructivism.

(Da Capo Press.  New York, NY: 1974).

• • •

1.  The different and comparative types of sensory experience form within us, when transmitted to the brain, the inestimable certainty of being alive.  Of existing in time and space, moved by a dynamic force that is nourished by the external world: of being a determinate wave [180-182] formation projected upon the screen of the infinite.  In analytic terms a wave in perpetual transformation, a repetition of continuity (the branch function); synthetically, at one remove: simply rhythm in progression, growth (the trunk function).  2.  We are a part of nature, but we are also the summit of nature, the ultimate consequence of its evolution up to this point, and we sum it up in its entirety within ourselves.  Man can therefore do no other than rely on nature, and the prerequisite of his vital equilibrium is that there always should be constant harmony between the two of them.  3.  Nature gives birth to man; and this man is a male, he will keep straight to his path.  Man, the constructor, buttresses himself in order to ward off the rigors of his stern educator.  Often his pride causes him to forget his origins, but inevitably he returns to the source from which he came, as one returns to a firm base, to the one and only verifiable reality, in which we find the springs of our greatness.  4.  Our greatness? It does not consist in gesticulating at the stars, or in being close to the gods.  It lies in the simple desire to have clear knowledge, in the ability to make exact measurements of things, to compare them methodically, and to draw from them general conclusions that the mind has the faculty of retaining in the form of abstractions, so that it may reproduce them at will and make good use of them in every circumstance.  Our greatness: our awareness of the exact work of our hands.  And this awareness holds within it the secret of our constant growth, our becoming.  It enables us to intensify within ourselves the instinctive, the intuitive, the emotive, and the pathetic, and to subordinate these precious gifts of being to the trained mind, canalizing them into a superior order, into a constructive, supernatural conception of fife.  5.  A fairly swift development of mechanics, and great progress in the realm of science, turned the heads of some avant-garde figures of the beginning of the century.  When last heard from, they decreed that the machine would occupy the same rank as the divinities of the past, and they announced that man would soon make short shrift of nature.  A mistake due to excess of enthusiasm! We have certainly been forced to take account once again of the fact that we exist only in terms of the atmosphere that surrounds us, and that nature is a combination lock without a code, and of intermittent benevolence, which preserves us in a state of well-being through pure compassion.  Its primal decisions remain and will continue to remain irrevocable, whatever man in [183] vents or is destined to invent.  6.  In future ages the ultimate conclusions will be no happier than they are today and man will continue to seek, as he has always done, a mystical release for his mind, which is so susceptible to emotion.  But a progressive evolution, which guides us in spite of ourselves, will by that stage have brought us nearer to the understanding of nature in its essential aspects; the awareness of being, which is already taking root within us, will substitute the work of pure humanity (that is to say, a work that is united to nature in its principle while being opposed to nature in its expression) for those intellectual shock tactics and wordy declarations that today serve us so well in our development.  7.  God’s Misery. Yes, he tells us a fine tale, a beautiful (pious) lie, to make us live in the hope of his heavenly magnificence.  But we can no longer be duped by these fine and pointless legends, we are slowly ceasing to be children (whether spoiled or not) any longer.  We see clearly, we now wish to have the courage to see clearly.  This clarity involves us in great disappointment, but we can rejoice in attaining that degree of frankness, without which man will never be born of us, we can be glad at this new clarity, which at last enables us to measure the true and to draw up plans for the future of a human race that is solidly constructed with the aid of Laws in accordance with a desire for peace and order.  What a void opens up at once before God’s misery in all its evidence.  What a sadness.  But it is in this solitude that His awareness of Being is born.  8.  Let us take life seriously.  Not through a pride — which is anyhow misplaced — in living and being capable of thought, but because we have the ability to conceive of life on a larger scale, going far beyond that of our own existence and our own death.  If it is certain that our past, even the part that is forever wiped from our memory, has made of us what we are today and continues to have a hidden influence on all our actions — it is also certain that our efforts today contribute, together with all the activities of the past, to constituting the human race of tomorrow, and that our work, even though its memory may be lost in the mists of time, will nonetheless play its part in the spiritual development of man.  9.  What I mean by awareness of being. It is the slow and regular movement toward our deep and innermost truth, it is the knowledge that circumscribes the immutable self, tightens around it to mark its limits and to define its essence most minutely.  The immutable self (the human truth) is the [184] substructure of our lives and the direct reflection of the universal truth, which is the substructure of nature.  10.  Two generalized notions cover between them the entire range of nature: the beautiful and the true.  The beautiful is nature properly so-called, as it appears to our senses; the true is the law that regulates nature, its principle.  However it should be added that the one may be contained within the other, by assimilation, with the result that the true contained within the beautiful becomes an expression of beauty and the beautiful contained within the true becomes a quality of truth.  11.  Every man is equally attracted by each of these two notions of the world: on the one hand, principle, the strongly willed, the vertical, on the other the natural, the feminine, the horizontal.  Our judgment is constituted in such a way that two opposite poles make an equal impression on it.  Natural beauty takes us kindly by the hand and leads us into the bosom of matter, while the attraction of the true incites us to thought and elevates us to abstraction.  The path of beauty is that of expansion, of life in its physical sense; the path of truth is that of structure and evolution.  12.  The desire to realize beauty directly in art or life would therefore appear to be indefensible and, moreover, impossible.  Beauty is alive around us and upon us, let us love it, admire it, live on good terms with it.  Art is another matter.  It is incapable, without debasing itself and debasing beauty, of setting up an image of beauty.  It is incapable, without flagrant cheating, that is to say, without condemning itself, of representing life, movement, the natural, and the subconscious.  Art will either be true or it will not be art at all.  13.  In parentheses: how we arrive at knowledge of the true. We arrive at knowledge of the true by observing the life within and around us in its multifarious aspects.  This amounts to a restatement of the experience of reality that was brought upon us by our first certainty of being alive, but this time it is raised to a superior plane by our capacity to compare, measure, reason, and conclude.  Let us therefore permit nature to work freely within us and around us, but let us keep watch on it and observe it ceaselessly so that we let slip no opportunity of catching it in the performance of its reflexes, of unexpectedly discovering the secret of its force.  14.  In defense of methodical objectivity. The subjective present everywhere, but everywhere reduced to a minimum of authority.  Never again will it have the largest say in art.  The subjective reigns only in epochs of amorous [185] inaction, of incubation, childishness, and folly (revolution).  15.  One must belong to one’s own epoch all along the line, and of course life obliges us to do so.  But it is always necessary to have the courage to carry to its final consequences at all times the immutable truth of which we have gained awareness.  It is in this way that each new and specific manifestation of our age must undergo our rigorous inquiry, so that we may know what is developing within it and decide upon the attitude to take in the face of this manifestation, whether we are to place it upon the line of progress, or class it among the forces of reaction.  So it is important, for example, for us to be sworn enemies of the ‘modernisms’ of contemporary taste, which is very much the bad taste of any age, that is to say, the taste of this public which acquires more and more freedom but — through a lack of serious culture — does not know how to use this freedom, and so becomes increasingly snobbish, or is taken in by scribblers and money-makers, and becomes more and more enfeebled, in accordance with its cowardly and brutish reactions.  There is in fact no possibility of seeing in this class a positive value that has the capacity to endow our age with its own distinctive mentality and the male confidence that should be thrusting it into the future.  16.  In place of the romanticism of speed, which is already neutralized by habit and comfort, we put the slow pace of human awareness.  In place of revolution, we put order and the will to perfection.  17.  A sequel to 12.  The secret harmony of nature, once it expresses itself, can result only in beauty.  Given that the living beauty of nature exists only through the immutable truth of laws, and that the immutable truth exists only for the sake of the living beauty, it is impossible to attain the true by means of the beautiful that is its product, but it is inevitable that we attain the beautiful by the mere fact of expressing the true.  And there is an unexpected conclusion.  It is that beauty, which was not the desired goal and was indeed at first no more than an unexpected source of gratification, protects man’s work and little by little becomes its principal substance.  For, where knowledge and expression of the truth — I mean its vocabulary and its conventional techniques — change according to the new acquisitions of every age, surpassing and discrediting previous ones, beauty, the unwilled aesthetic of this truth, reveals itself in the work as a raw element that adapts itself to every circumstance, since it speaks directly to the senses.  18.  But this last conclusion comes [186] about irrespective of our wishes.  What is dependent on our wishes, on the other hand, is the first condition of every work: structure. 19.  To construct is to evaluate relationships, to calculate equivalences to coordinate positive forces with neutralizing realities (for example in music, sound and rhythm are positive forces; silence is the neutralizing reality), to organize all the data in such a way that unity perfect stability is obtained.  20.  It is, however, doubtful that people will ever make a work of art with figures alone.  But this can indeed take place with a sensibility that is placed under the control of figures, a sensibility at once fine and robust, which our measuring capacity may canalize in its impulse toward precision in reaching an infinitesimal approximation to the indivisible unity.  21.  Every work worthy of man must be verifiable, that is to say, it must carry within it its own clearly analyzable evidence.  Henceforth a so-called work of art that displays only the more or less complex annotation of free sensibility or emotion (something that is particularly open to criticism and hard to regulate) will be considered as forming part of sexuality or of an infantile-pathological domain that it would be easy to set limits to.  Sensual ardor, the rush of enthusiasm, the desire to shine, the blind onrush of mysticism are so many phenomena within us that form part of the animal-sexual domain.  They are surface expansion, propagation, they are to be found in the basic plan (nature before man), upon which art (man), which is progression in depth, must establish its perpendicularity.  22.  Well-governed sensibility, when it assumes an active part in us, becomes a form of right thinking or ‘pure reason,’ or again, if you wish, of our moral equilibrium.  By uniting it in the work with its structural principle, we achieve what I shall call here an architecture. And there we have laid our finger on the entire role of the artist: 23.  To establish upon the basis of a severe structure, simple and unadorned in all its parts, and according to a principle of close unity with this undisguised structure, an architecture that, by the technical and physical methods peculiar to the age, expresses in a clear language the immanent and immutable truth and reflects in its particular organization the magnificent order of the universe.  24.  Music: architecture of sound, silence, time; poetry: architecture of vocable sounds, vocable rhythms with or without schematic signs of thought; sculpture and architecture properly speaking: three dimensions in space; painting: architecture of lines [187-188] be a product of the unconscious, an adventure — no matter how modern — of our animal reflexes with the support of our vices, our uncertain stance, our vain searchings, delicate expressions of so-called nuance and lyricism, of our unhealthy worries, our taste for declamation, licentious behavior, fantasies springing from haphazard invention, obscene sensuality, and spasms of delirium.  Art will be subject to our desire for certitude and precision, to our strivings toward awareness of an order.  Like everything that issues from our brain or from our hands, it will be examined, it will pass through an intensive control.  The well-policed man will be able to dam up his low instincts, and thus make them obedient while at the same time nourishing them with a view to making wise use of their motor force.  And the wild forces of primal nature within us will no longer submerge reason.  Reason is in actuality the only one of our possessions not liable to depreciation, which may be fortified and safeguarded by a firm discipline.  30.  Relativities. The time is no longer right for small gatherings of devotees and closed artistic groups.  The age we are living through favors broad, productive (and generous) ideas; not stagnant ones, but ones that are capable of development and diversion into new areas.  The age requires germinal ideas that carry within them the various aspects of a new, highly simplified (and at the same time very fully realized) conception of the world.  That is, in daily life, just as in architecture properly so-called, we are proceeding toward a conception that is at once more supple and more solid.  But the idea is within the realm of the spiritual, that is to say, of the absolute, while the realization of the idea belongs within the realm of matter, that is, the realm of accident.  As a result, realization can come only more or less, or very relatively, close to the idea-thought.  The tragedy of the idea is that it cannot exist without its intrinsic will toward realization.  Just as the idea derives from the existence of the existing reality, and forms a spiritual quintessence of the real through the figures of thought, so every human realization exists in terms of the idea that has conceived it, but, in contradiction to the idea, it develops in a different milieu (the physical milieu) and is directed toward different ends.  In such a way that when the idea and its realization come face to face (the latter in its most immediate or most perfect phase), one might conclude with the man in the street, that memorable poet, that the one gives only a very poor idea of the other.  31.  We cannot decipher [189] the deep reasons in accordance with which an object is in certain respects different from another object.  The physical existence of every object and of each of the parts of the object is determined by an unpredictable infinity of events, concurrent influences, monopolizing forces, and accidents.  But while we cannot act efficaciously on what it is that separates things, we are at least able to determine, study, and subsequently make use of the forces of attraction that connect things among themselves, the primal truths that arrange them in order and unity within the same principle, the same law.  By this path, we approach closer to the universal, the absolute.  All forms of progress go under this sign.  32.  The progress of humanity — there is the idea that preoccupies those of us who have enough breath and enough health to welcome an ideal whose breadth reduces to almost nothing the level of our individual existence, while at the same time offering a new and nobler significance to our humble everyday reality.  For despite our vanity, our derisory egoism, and our pitiful hunger for glory, we do not live for ourselves.  An object exists only in relation to another object, and man is conceivable only as a social being.  33.  Let me sum up. Architecture = structure, solidity, precision, straight lines, clarity, discipline, repose, order, simplicity of elements, confidence in the real, actual knowledge of reality, awareness of human possibilities and limitations.  Architecture = distrust of distortion, fanciful invention, the vague and the mysterious, for lousy execution, for systematic ugliness, for snobbish styles, for lack of consciousness and lack of control.  Architecture is not limited to protest; it constructs with confidence, it establishes certainties.  We are readopting this idea, which is not new, in a gesture of faith and with a view to contributing toward its crystallization in the world of today.  34.  Either we are forced to conclude that for several years the straight line of evolution toward purity, wholesome strength, and simplification has been increasingly deserted in favor of a free-for-all and depravity of taste; that the public, having been led astray and remaining ignorant of the true subjects of today, of the positive essence of our age and its intrinsic value in relation to the dusty notions and so-called modern works that leave the hands of their ‘creators’ in an already rotten condition, or the public is coming to the point of believing in the whole range of mere histrionics, demagogy, and political imposture and of condemning as childish, lamentable, [190] decorative, insufficient, and out of date that which does in fact carry the imprint of an enlightened awareness, a work of integrity and a frank desire for good (by good I mean that which is open to the light and is found under the sign of peace)…a few of us have grouped ourselves around this basis, which remains unshakable, of structure, not to propagate this idea by revolutionary vociferation but simply to study its principle, to consolidate it within us, to bring it to a fine point, and finally to display it in full view for the benefit of all.  35.  For all that is rational.  Against disorder of whatever kind since disorder gives rise only to more disorder.  (It is perfectly easy to imagine a revolution without romantic gesticulation, without recourse to brute force: a superior order methodically and irresistibly supplanting an inferior order: a revolution that is not social war but a phase in the evolution of the world.) 36.  The safeguarding of peace through order is both a profession of faith and a final goal.  Order and peace represent the heaven that we wish for and may realize over and beyond the nervous tension of our everyday life, our useless anxieties, our passions, our irrational enthusiasms, our narrow egoism; it is the horizontal line of the sea that is not disturbed, even in bad weather, by the detail of waves and spray; it is the fundamental principle and the deep schema (I might say, the soul) of the universe, when we try to envisage it beyond time and space; 37.  and it is, with more immediate relevance to us, a will toward proportion, clarity, simplification, the abolition of the subject, the dismissal of the private and pretentious little idea in favor of a stability, a rhythm, a method, in a word, it is the attempt to achieve by awareness and reasoning — that is to say, in a scientifically verifiable manner — an infinitesimal approximation to the immanent and universal truth, quite independent of fortuitous circumstances and mere chance.  38.  Structure is the innermost truth of all that exists.  It has therefore always been indispensable in the work of art.  Before the motor, the horse symbolized speed and strength.  Order and rhythm are now no longer a substructure, no longer taken for granted: they have become the object itself, which realizes in itself, that is to say, synthetically, the speed and strength of the horse.  What was a means becomes the object itself.  What in other times was obscurely hidden beneath the graceful but mysterious forms of nature becomes for us a clear and everyday reality.  What in other great periods of art was an almost [191] magical contribution, whose benefits could be seen in the work but could not be grasped in its own entity, can now be found ready at hand.  We are becoming familiar with the true, we are penetrating it.  Alchemy and obscure science gives way to open awareness.  Abstraction of the real world, the world’s mathematical and architectonic secret, becomes the substantial nourishment of our cerebral world.  Yes indeed.  The clear liquid no longer lies at the bottom of secret cellars: it shines in our glasses and beckons to us.  39.  There are some who are announcing the new day, who can see the dawn rise before the others.  Have they not, these people, been awake the whole night questioning the stars?

[From Cercle et Carré (Paris), No. 1, March 15th, 1930.]


~ by Ross Wolfe on October 20, 2010.

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