Review: Inscriptions: Architecture Before Speech edited by K. Michael Hays and Andrew Holder. Harvard GSD, 624 pp., $60
With its expository spine and laconic cover, Inscriptions: Architecture Before Speech, looks like just another compendium of recent architecture. (No surprise that Studio Lin is credited as designer.) But don’t be fooled: in my estimation, the book is the single most important document for making sense of architecture today. By taking a perspicacious view of three decades of development, from the late 1980s on, it situates the discipline on a new footing. This has been a beguiling period. It began in the wake of postmodernism, with its meandering search for a shared language of architecture, and it continues into the present without any sign of consensus forming around parametricism, the post-critical, the post-digital, or any other contender for theoretical hegemony. In short, it’s a time of soul-searching—and Inscriptions unexpectedly outlines why this religious analogy is more than an empty trope. More on that later.
To its great credit, Inscriptions seamlessly incorporates the supposed revolution of “the digital” into its narrative arc. In place of ruptures, the book presents an expanded field, complete with a Rosalind Krauss–inspired semiotic square mapping its cardinal directions. It is the depth and detail of this map that make Inscriptions such a rewarding read. Where else is architecture described as a negotiation between immanence, transcendence, encounter, and revelation on a terrain of “originals,” conjuring analytical categories like the creaturely, the primordial, and the informal? Inscription reveals not a discipline in thrall to big ideas; rather, it shows architects wrestling at a more visceral level with the deeply human urge to construct worlds by making marks.
The book began as an exhibition at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in 2018 that was driven by the idiosyncratic passions of its two curators. Holder is a partisan of a certain type of informal formalism, and many of the projects in Inscriptions resonate with the work of his own firm, the LADG. Hays is a protagonist of architectural theory, and he is keen to show the discipline of architecture and the discipline of theory moving forward in tandem. Together, Hays and Holder have collected (and my count might be slightly off) 301 projects by 120 mostly young-ish practitioners, with the oldest project dating back to 1992 and most from the last decade. The exhibition involved a phenomenal effort of gathering drawings, images, and models—worthy of a show at MoMA—and the book is a payoff for all of us. It offers hundreds of pages of images sorted in various ways, short and long comparative essays, and close readings of mostly recent projects, including hits by the LADG, MALL, MILLIØNS, PARA Projects, and T+E+A+M (to just list a few firms with all-cap names). Flipping through Inscriptions feels like zooming in and out of a vast archive—internet research reproduced in an analog format.
The readings of this expansive corpus put forward by the two editors are mostly convincing. Holder makes the case for inscription (that is, mark-making that precedes definite signification) as a technique of gathering multitudes around “stable forms” without surrendering to “unseeing belief.” It is a nuanced analysis that reflects the current state of architectural culture perfectly, although it’s difficult to gauge its distance from the postmodernist argument for pluralism. Nevertheless, Holder’s “prelude” lends depth and seriousness to the material that follows, which can sometimes appear excessively playful, even flippant.
The concluding essay by Hays is an astonishing coup of architectural theory. “Architecture’s Inscriptions: Reading Symptoms and Enjoyments” pulls together decades of philosophical work in the lineage of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. At nearly forty dense pages, it’s a tome unto itself. A central concept is the “signifier-in-isolation” that supports the Real and the Imaginary in contrast to how “signifiers-in-relation” (that is, normal signifiers in relational systems of meaning, aka languages) construct the Symbolic realm. Following Hays’s argument, I came to understand how the flip side of the postmodernist project of meaning-making has continued into the present; the materialist investigations and the search for primordial meaning that are evident in many of the projects in Inscriptions are a post-structuralist development from structuralist postmodernism. In other words, the answer to the question What becomes of postmodernism without its obsession with symbolic meaning? is what we see in the projects collected in the book. Some decades ago, Fredric Jameson called for an effort of “cognitive mapping” to make sense of our postmodern condition. Hays has finally completed the project.
The other essays in the book chart various paths through recent architecture, and they are uniformly insightful. In order of appearance: Catherine Ingraham discusses a type of “figural play that manipulates what is known… in search of architecture”; Stan Allen takes on the subtleties of pattern recognition in our current moment, in which “all histories… are equally distant yet also equally available”; Antoine Picon hints at how ornamental articulation raises the archetypal above a “crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration” (quoting Louis Sullivan); Lucia Allais diagnoses the fate of a “new, millennial generation of digital designers” left to produce “vestigial” form; Marrikka Trotter outlines a genealogy of “negative architecture” as a blank space for “another history to begin”; Sylvia Lavin discusses comparison as a technique by which to “manage our image world today”; Edward Eigen elucidates an epigraph to suss out different types of readers; and Phillip Denny comes to terms with “architecture’s thing power” through a typology of “the creaturely.” It’s an intellectual feast. Inscriptions feels comprehensive—it presents a representative slice of contemporary “progressive” architecture. (That’s Holder’s preferred term, replacing “avant-garde.”) But why this architecture now? Architecture has experienced a serious mood shift in the past decades, and I’m not sure that Hays or Holder adequately explain where recent obsessions with the ineffable and the primordial (for instance) are coming from. Why all these piles of rocks to leave us dumbstruck?
Here’s my attempt at an explanation. There’s been an exodus from the high church of Theory that has resulted in an intellectual paganism in architecture. The reigning discourse of architecture circa 1990 was steeped in a post-structuralist canon; it bordered on scholasticism. Now architects are skeptical of the power of the Word, and they are content to do their own thing without its backing. I don’t mean this as a mere analogy. The waning of Christianity in the West has not led to widespread atheism, but rather to a situation in which religious themes play out locally and without universalist pretentions. This is called “paganism,” a term which refers to the various religious practices of the deep countryside in contrast to, say, the unification offered by the Holy Roman Empire. Architecture nowadays generally sidesteps overt religiosity—this was part of the bargain for architecture to become an academic discipline—but consider the many functions of religion: community, rituals marking stages of life, frameworks for understanding profound experiences, and ways of pondering what life is all about. These have taken on a new importance with the climate crisis, Covid, and the many issues of social justice. The writers in Inscriptions have noticed. Hays addresses the psychological mechanics through which architects grapple with traumatic histories of racism, for instance, and Denny’s reading of architecture that emulates the “monsters lurking in the dark thicket beyond the rustic hut” analogizes the dread that’s accompanied a natural world turned malevolent upon human provocation. With Inscriptions, I see architecture prefiguring a disciplinary incorporation of these existential questions.
But hey, that’s just what’s on my mind. Inscriptions gathers enough contemporary projects and divergent readings for dozens of different understandings of the state of architecture today.
MATTHEW ALLEN is learning to meditate while awaiting the return of spring.
This piece appeared in our March 2022 Issue, #27. To purchase #27 click here. Click here to subscribe and receive the current and future issues.