As part of ‘The Persistence of Questioning. Critical reflections for the future: Design Is Ethics?’ Marina Otero Verzier explains how the work and theories of mathematician and philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) have deeply influenced architecture. Rationality is not neutral but designed. A reality that is not inevitable. How can we free ourselves from this?
In the last months, I have been increasingly focused on breathing, on the act of breathing and its medium, air. Partially, this interest is the result of the work that, since 2015, I have conducted around labour and exhaustion that manifested in projects such as Work, Body, Leisure (the 2018 Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale) and BURN-OUT. Exhaustion on a Planetary Scale (instigating care for multispecies bodies). Yet, my research on breathing and air is possibly also influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic and the experiences I’ve had while working in increasingly suffocating environments.
I came to identify my quest for more air with my growing resistance to the omnipresent Cartesian grid. Breathing, after all, is contrary to the compartmentalized world asserted by Cartesians. Breathing is based on interdependence to others and the atmosphere. It implies porosity and indeterminacy. When we breathe, we inhale the life forms that exist in the air, and in doing so, we connect to and become part of other bodies across time and space. However, as its possibility and quality is unevenly distributed, breathing is also at the centre of contemporary struggles on toxicity and pollution, police brutality and racially motivated violence.
Entrenched in these thoughts I wonder: would a seemingly banal gesture such as breathing – and its conceptualization – help resist the Cartesian logic now materialized in territories, architectures, daily activities and mindsets?
Cartesianism, its imperative of rationalization and theory of the animal-machine, drove the mechanical age and the formation of Western capitalism. Influenced by the technical creations of the early seventeenth century, its founder René Descartes (1596-1650) referred to machines as models to explain the functioning of organisms in what came to be known as the Cartesian theory of the animal-machine. Departing from the observation of the parallels between animal movements and automatic mechanical movements (early machines were necessarily ran by humans or animals), Cartesians attempted to explain physical and biological phenomena solely by technical models. By equating them to machines, Descartes refused to attribute a soul – reason – to animals, and in doing so, he also rendered the human as a unique being, separated from the rest of nature and occupying a superior position in relation to others.
If this was not enough, Descartes also defined the Cartesian grid. This coordinate system, which became one of Descartes’s most important legacies, was introduced in Discourse on Method and more precisely in one of its three appendices titled La Géométrie, published in 1637. The system makes it possible to specify the position of any point or object on a surface using two intersecting axes as measuring guides, and to exactly duplicate geometric figures. An apparently neutral method for categorization based on X, Y, and Z axes, the Cartesian grid enabled the rationalization of space in order to visualize, calculate, draw, optimize, replicate, standardize and, ultimately, control it.
Descartes’s work and theories had vast consequences. His prerogative of mind over matter legitimized the Western man as entitled to landscape, resources and other beings’ domination. In its objectivation of identity and categorization, Cartesian science supported the discrimination of entities, bodies and identities (the ‘other’) for the benefit and privileged of the human (the ‘normative one’ against whom the ‘other’ is measured and valued). These theories influenced and shaped architecture, a discipline founded on the paradigm of Cartesian space, one that praises materiality, functionality and abstraction; one that is largely developed around normative constructions of the human – and particularly the notion of man as a universal, rational subject. Entangled in the space we inhabit, Cartesian dualisms sustain the compartmentalization and instrumentalization of relations, which in turn served to marginalize populations based on their ethnicity, gender and race. They instigate the economic efficacy rationale, too often at the expense of ethical and ecological awareness.
The Dutch landscape, a fully controlled and designed land, organized according to regular lines, clear borders, and an equivalent perspective, is, I would argue, one of the most paradigmatic examples of Cartesianism.
An Architecture of Lockers and Organigrams
A compact, orange locker room organized the 2018 Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, for which I was the curator. The room became the image of the project and an entertaining feature for visitors, who opened and closed doors. Yet the locker also held additional, non-explicitly revealed connotations. It was the image and metaphor of the Dutch landscape: an abstract, normalizing grid that, I thought, could still hold difference. For behind the architecture of orange cabinets, behind each enclosure and compartmentalized world, hid a choice of present and future.
The locker was the Dutch landscape as much as what it actually looked like: a locker. Populating factories, storage facilities, co-working spaces and changing rooms, the locker facilitates the temporal reinvention of space and that of the bodies that inhabit it. The locker is an interface between the labouring and the non-labouring self, if any distinction between the one and the other remains today.
First there were lockers, then came the office’s organigram. Grounded on notions of labour-force flexibility, rationalization and objectivity, the organigram allows managers to fit employees’ roles into abstract ‘seats’. Employees perform roles according to an established category drawn in an organigram instead of their abilities and possibilities. Having to relentlessly adapt to and fit in these categories, bodies come and go, seats – and lockers – nevertheless stay.
The grid permeates interiors and exteriors. Housing blocks and their deceitful image of equality occupy manicured plots of land that soon merge into a sea of data centres, distribution centres and automated greenhouses that cover the Westland. We all fit in there (or learn to pass as if we do fit): humans, orchids, tomatoes, which grow aided by fertilizers and antidepressants. This landscape is meticulously designed by managers, administrators and engineers, dictated by function and logistical models. Its abstract, data-driven aesthetic stimulates the crudest modernist ambitions, the dreams of mastery of space and time, territory, and resources.
An Architecture of Plantations and Balance Sheets
Attempting to raise our head above the grid to catch a breath, we find the cloud, one in which grids are broken into zeros and ones. A cloud run by data centres, where the ‘immaterial’ condition of the digital medium relevels itself in a myriad of cables, servers and large climatized enclosures. These are enclosures where almost no human is present except in the form of stored data; they are architectures that require enormous amounts of energy, physical space and resources, which has territorial and ecological consequences.
We are told that space is so limited that there will not be enough for all if we take more, hence the grids. We are told: ‘If you don’t like it, you should go.’ ‘Go’ where, one wonders? The grid has already grown inside, its powerful permeating illusion of order conveying an ontological version of the world, of society, of architecture so perfected that it seems inevitable. A vision not at the service of equality, but primarily of the white masculinist subject who takes the world as his possession.
Let me perhaps support this argument with an image. It is one that I borrow from Robin Hartanto Honggare’s scholarly work Architectures of the Colonial Plantations in the Dutch East Indies, 1830-1942. Dated around 1905, this image shows a Cartesian grid imposed by Dutch colonizers over a hilly terrain. The grid is there to enable the management of a tobacco plantation. It renders not only order but fear. The fear of the prospect of indeterminacy, the unknown, the other. There is a need to tame it, to impose the Cartesian logic on a territory that does not obey such logic.
This image takes me to many others. To other grids standing as testimonies of the violence unleashed against certain bodies in the name of capital accumulation. Grids that remind, once more, that the category of the human has never applied to the whole of humanity. Consider the bird’s-eye view of the Leeverpoel coffee plantation in Surinam. It was included in the Rijksmuseum Slavery exhibition’s catalogue Slavery: An Exhibition of Many Voices (2021) with the caption ‘View of the Leeverpoel plantation, 1772-1792. With such drawings, investors in the Netherlands could form a picture of their future property.’ The vast regular grid extended infinitely a la Superstudio until it merges with the horizon, until it imposes order on all scales, from the plantation’s ground to its balance sheets and cash books, where the owners meticulously register the crude reality of enslaved people.
Plantations and colonial factories ooze Cartesianism. As philosopher Achille Mbembe argues, the enclosure was enacted in the categorization of race and the spaces where black bodies have been confined, prevented and exhausted to obtain maximum profit. In Critique of Black Reason (2017), Mbembe examines how the notion of race made it possible to represent non-European human groups as a poor reflection of the ideal white subject, and as trapped in a constructed form of belated temporality. These conditions of categorization and containment unleashed by Cartesianism, which allowed the subjugation of the enslaved, the land and ecologies as inhuman property, as we have seen, are still reproduced in contemporary spaces. As testing grounds for life management, surveillance, appropriation and accumulation, the plantations’ economies and systems of labour and production were later imported from the ‘New World’ and the colonies to the European continent and constituted the base for Western economic growth.
At this point, architects would wonder what their role is in all this. And indeed, while architecture – as a biopolitical and normalizing technique – participates in constructing distinctions and categories, architects might not always have a say in these processes. However, they have an ethical responsibility in perpetuating them through spatial, visual, economic and social orders, through their designs and their working methods, through the exploitative relations created in the architectural studio, through their submission to the market logics. Rationality, I would insist, is not neutral but designed. Enthralled by its hypnotic sublimity, we seem to forget that this legible image of the contemporary is our creation, a reality that we have contributed to shaping and that we might be embarrassed to assume as our own. And more importantly, a reality that is not inevitable.
The discipline can critically reinvent itself and venture beyond its Cartesian postulates. In coordination with other social and institutional techniques (institutional borders, legal constructions, property lines, official identification and traveling documents, social hierarchies, privileges and divisions, gender roles, to name a few), the work of architects produces differential social spaces that either facilitate or prevent their encounter of bodies and their movement. For the work of architects often involves drawing abstract, assertive lines that define insides, outsides, ups and downs. Lines that support historical forms of exclusion, and discrimination.
Yet, these capabilities, I would argue, could also be deployed to dismantle the boundaries that currently define, enclose and exploit the world and the common interest, to support ecological regeneration, to resist extractivist dynamics. This, in turn, requires imagining other architectures to come. A non-Cartesian architecture that might not be designed to quantify, control, categorize. It is not only wishful thinking. There are examples, even if imperfect.
Exceeding Categories, Leaving the Canon Aside
Today, we see how historical categories are increasingly contested by radical notions of ethics emerging from queer, decolonial, indigenous and Black feminism studies. While some architects, including indispensable figures like Rem Koolhaas, succumb to the fascination produced by ‘hypercartesianism’, thinkers such as Emanuele Coccia, Patricia MacCormack and Marisol de la Cadena, among others, keep on offering important avenues for venturing beyond the Cartesian divide.
Breathing, as Coccia argues in The Life of Plants (2018), precedes every distinction between soul and body, mind and object enacted by Cartesianism. What Stoic philosophers called breath (‘breath of life’ or pneuma) was a mutual overlap and mixing of elements that served as a generative principle organizing both the individual and the cosmos. This vision, widespread in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire, declined around the fourth century AD with the expansion of Christianity.
Equally not abided by binary, Cartesian logics, and in this case grounded in the Peruvian Andes, De la Cadena’s theories on indigenous political strategies question modernity and support worlds embodying immeasurability and mutual difference. As we have seen earlier, the categorization of organisms into human, nonhuman and inanimate, has been a tool of colonialism and xenophobic violence. It validated the exploitation and denial of life to others considered lesser beings (as previously explained in Mbembe’s work on the notion of race, and also in the work of feminist and human rights advocate Carol Adams, including ‘The War on Compassion’), as well as the extraction of ‘lifeless forms’ (as unpacked by scholar Katherine Yusoff in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2018). How then one could exceed these categories?
Exceeding categories implies, De la Cadena argues in Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds (2015), slowing down our practice of knowing the world and the organisms that constitute it. It demands bringing the compartmentalization of the world to a halt and, instead, embracing the spaces and ways of being of the ‘between’, and the ‘be with’. In turn, these worlding practices instigate other notions of care, empathy, life-in-common and progress. Other forms of designing architecture would exceed the discipline itself, as an ahuman, non-oppressive architecture is surely a non-disciplined one. How buildings would be designed and built if they were not reliant on the relentless and exploitative work of office and construction workers – often a low-wage workforce, particularly raced and gendered bodies – and to favour the interest of the 1 per cent? How would architecture be conceived and built when mountains are not only treated as lifeless sources of building materials, but also as earth-beings? What would architecture for the many become when it is not subjected to the radical logic of the market epitomized in the spreadsheet – a contemporary version of the plantation’s cashbook?
Whereas De la Cadena proposes to exceed categories, Patricia MacCormack argues, in The Animal Catalyst: Towards Ahuman Theory (2014,) for the extinction of one of them – the human. Ahuman ethics, MacCormack claims, celebrate the death of the human as an act of generosity and affirmation of life. It brings the possibility of a future not forged on human referents and not made according to human thought, and in doing so it opens spaces of creativity never previously accessed. Humans could reimagine what being human might mean and address the purpose of our continuation on Earth ethically by being ‘the species to change the becomings to come’.
Without the human and without its categories, a non-Cartesian order finally emerges. By scarifying human subjectivity, all lives are of equal value. Resource consumption, private property, ecological damage, deforestation, economic growth, development and profit would no longer be justified for the sake of serving and preserving the human and human society. The architecture canon could be respectfully put aside. It doesn’t have to be erased or forgotten, but rather acknowledged as one that served interests that are no longer pertinent, constructed by means that are not only outdated, but no longer ethically and ecologically tolerable.
Breathing and Breathable Architectures
Within grids, I struggle to breath. I search for more air while listening to Coccia, de la Cadena, Mbembe, MacCormack and dwelling my thoughts in an architecture difficult to describe under dual categories. An architecture that grows unpredictable environments, structures and relations in the interaction and melting space, data and organisms. A dynamic interconnected world contrary to Cartesian models and fully aligned with the act and notion of breathing. I think I found the seeds of this architecture in one recent experiment, although I assume there are many out there if you look for them. What attracts me to this one is its capacity to challenge the cartesian enclosure, and in particular one of its maximum exponents and a fundamental component of today’s political, cultural, socioeconomic system: the data centre.
All starts by storing binary data within the DNA of plants and seeds. The information – be it an image, a song, a book, a drawing – is contained in every cell of the host organism. Billions of gigabytes of data could be archived for millennia, and possibly beyond and without the human, in this cloud that is actually an off-the-grid, living cloud. A cloud that transforms solar energy into living matter, into an ever-growing forest that captures CO2 and creates oxygen.
It could be argued that the relation between human and plants that this example proposes is uneven and extractive, and again serving only human needs. Yet, as plants germinate, grow, multiply and even repair their DNA without human aid, human data would not stay unchanged. Errors and mutations would alter the code over time, leaving room for unexpected developments and the production of new knowledges. Plants won’t only keep, but also rewrite human knowledge.
Even if unresolved, this experiment suggests that architecture could be conceived otherwise. It sparks imagination into what the architecture of a data centre, a library, an archive, a museum, a school could be beyond the Cartesian logic. It provides an image and metaphor of a non-Cartesian architectural space. That is, a place shared by all living beings and not defined by distinctions and categories. A space of inhabitation and knowledge-sharing not based on containment; non-dependent on organigrams, borders, fossil fuels, efficacy, or productivity; not defined by walls, or lockers; not propelled by the punitive work of ‘the other’.
This might not be the example that convinces you. That helps you resist the forces of nostalgia that pull architects backwards. My plea for dismantling the Cartesian grids, one after the other, is in fact an invitation to not be captive of the fear to the unknown. An invitation to imagine a spatial system that grows slowly and opens previously inconceivable futures. That is orchestrated to serve the many. That exists in continuity with the environment. That is both alive and gives life. That makes breath possible. An architecture that breathes and is breathed. One that provokes architects to rethink their practice.
I am emptying my locker.