The Architecture of Continuity is, for the most part, a real textbook. All but two of the essays and conversations were published previously. You have to have what it takes as a writer to pull that off, and Spuybroek deserves the benefit of the doubt. Certain lines of reasoning and citations are repeated often, but since he has reviewed and rewritten the pieces for this publication that doesn’t irritate. Instead, the reader is carried along on a chronological quest in which Spuybroek tries to get closer to the core of his work. What’s striking is that the first articles concentrate more on the techniques he deploys, while the second half of the volume is more theoretically tinged. As a result, some of his concepts and theories are mentioned early on, but it’s only later that they are more precisely elaborated and positioned. That does not make this an easy read. More pictures to illuminate the text would also have enabled the reader to better understand the references, many of which are historical.
But what does Spuybroek want to achieve with his work? In his introduction to the book – Spuybroek at his best! – he argues that architecture is in crisis. There is no tension; all difference is smoothened out professionally. Everything has become ‘cute’ and interchangeable. ‘Architecture is in its slumber phase: there are no thoughts, no styles, no debates, no stakes, nothing but vast global success. We live in a global era of cuteness. We have cute architecture, cute critics, cute magazines, cute books, cute colors, cute forms, cute materials.’ The only way to get out of this impasse, Spuybroek continues, is radical aesthetics. After all, aesthetics covers all aspects of the profession: how we design and build buildings, and also how we talk about them and convince other people. So all his work concentrates on the aesthetic experience. Or, more precisely, the physical experience.
Whereas normal architecture, says Spuybroek, approaches aesthetics from the perspective of the human ‘mind’, of contemplation, in accordance of the ideas of the philosopher Kant, he searches for an active experience – i.e. an experience that activates the body and arouses the senses. Mind and body must not be separated from each other but, rather, influence each other deeply. Spuybroek cites an experiment from the 1960s to show that human perception is a natural product of the ‘mind’, but that it cannot be separated from bodily action and movement. He then makes that immediately instrumental by negating the difference between the different architectural elements. In his vision, programme, plan and floor are based on movement each time, while perception only comes into play later, when walls and partitions are being designed. Human activities, the continuity of habits and routines, experience: these are what should influence the whole geometry of the building. Perception and movement are one; experience and programme must merge. And, likewise, structure and ornament must also become one. Everything becomes one entity. It’s not the edges between the elements that are important but rather ‘the middle’ of the elements, the most important principle of architectural order, he argues, in imitation of philosopher Gilles Deleuze. In his work the middle is therefore a powerful figure that becomes ‘softer’ towards the edges. In Spuybroek’s elaboration that means that the edges are no longer edges as such. Instead, the elements flow together with other elements so that there is continuity among them. Similarly, in Gothic design a column is never a column but a collection of ribs. These ribs seamlessly turn into ribs that support the vault and then become the ribs of another column. That is the essence of the architecture of continuity. For the first time it’s now possible – thanks to modern technology, particularly computer modelling and computer scripting – not only to allow elements to merge but also to allow them to be influenced by how we use them, whether that is simulated beforehand or ideally during their use.
Aesthetically, this architecture is not about ‘beauty’. After all, from time immemorial that has been the sense that everything fits together harmoniously and is arranged according to an established system of dimensions, a contemplative experience par excellence. Neither is it the experience of the ‘sublime’, for that surpasses the potential to comprehend and can therefore not make people move. Spuybroek positions his work with a new term – the ‘sensuous’ – precisely between both. It is not chaos, and neither is it languidness. Instead of contemplation there is action.
Spuybroek manoeuvres himself very adroitly into a position all his own on the architecture scene. Logically, he rails against what we should perhaps call ‘normal’ architecture, the opposite of ‘non-standard’ architecture. Here are just a few examples. Against Herzog & de Meuron: beautiful tectonic materials but dreadful volumes. Against Peter Eisenman: deserved criticism of supposed totalitarian aspects of typology and order, a criticism certainly holds true in his buildings and their form too, and he doesn’t take architecture further. And against Rem Koolhaas: too much language, too little architecture. And why does he talk so much but never about architecture? Spuybroek, for his part, publishes an ‘interview’ with Koolhaas in this book in which his questions and analyses are longer than Koolhaas’s answers. It’s notable, however, that Spuybroek doesn’t seek support from fellow practitioners of ‘non-standard-architecture’. That’s immediately apparent from his references. He refers to and relies on a particular reading of architectural historians from the 18th and 19th centuries – people like Gottfried Semper, Wilhelm Worringer, William Hogarth and John Ruskin – and 20th-century philosophers, in particular Deleuze. Contemporary architects apparently looking for the same thing aren’t even mentioned. Whereas these architects understand and present their ‘blobs’ with references to automobile design or computer games, Spuybroek resolutely argues that we ‘must use the new instruments to address old architectural problems; not to create new problems’. He, for that matter, has nightmares about the word ‘blob’, he writes. It is nothing more than uncontrolled variation, variation in all directions. And, he adds elsewhere, most of these buildings are just ‘rounded modernism and rounded deconstructivism’. In short, nothing more than form.
The Architecture of Continuity is – in contrast to Spuybroek’s aim – a book best read in contemplation. Readers who take the time will enjoy Spuybroek’s sharp pen and perceptive analyses. But don’t expect to be convinced, for Spuybroek deals too instrumentally with his often-fragmentary sources and he fails to address some obvious questions. That said, this is a wonderful introduction to this thinking, and that makes it one of the most interesting and intelligent books from and about ‘non-standard-architecture’ that I know.