Detournement (Experimental Diversion)

In recent decades, the global economy, with its complexity and diversity, seemed poised to fulfill the promise of consumer culture. The “pluralistic” society appeared well-suited to confront the complexity of the emerging global economy, especially when compared to the “dialectic” notions which prevailed during the Cold War. The paradigm of “Consumer Culture” promised to support a diversity of individuals and interests without sacrificing collective cohesion. However, the reality of a consumer society has proved antithetical to the interests of the individual. Diversity has been suppressed in a systematic and pervasive manner.

Consumerism may excel at creating and gratifying transitory desires, but it has failed in embracing diversity. For all the rhetoric about consumer power, its path is really decided by capital. Advertising is the vehicle through which capital exerts its control, reducing reality into streams of images, products and activities sanctioned by business and bureaucracy. Its effect is to glamorize state and corporate power, providing the illusion of choice while directing and managing production and consumption. The pursuit of financial profit has superseded all other values and criteria, and far from accommodating individual idiosyncrasies and needs, consumerism controls and dictates individual desires and aspirations.

This can be seen from the way in which products such as automobiles, radio and television progress from luxury to necessity to requirement. The barrage of television-, frigidaire-type technologies does little to express individual idiosyncrasy or creativity. The addiction to technological progress does manage to efface the individual in an endless round of consumption, driven by the need to establish and maintain one’s social status. This type of “hyper-consumption” is excessive in its nature, causing a severe drain on both natural and human resources.

The cultural and spiritual impasse created by technology would have been shocking to the first exponents of modern, innovative rationalism, inspired as they were by the faith that the problems of the real world could all be resolved by reason.

The meticulous, rational, control over every aspect of industrial production has indeed enabled man to function at an extremely high level of efficiency, with a concomitant increase in material wealth. Functionalism and mass production, once embraced as ways of delivering “good design” to the masses, proved more compatible with the productivist values of capitalism.

Guy Debord expresses the link between rationalism and totalitarianism as follows: “but on the whole this introduction of technology into everyday life--ultimately taking place within the framework of modern bureaucratized capitalism, certainly tends rather to reduce people’s independence and creativity. The new prefabricated cities clearly exemplify the totalitarian tendency of modern capitalism’s organization of life: the isolated inhabitants...see their lives reduced to the pure triviality of the repetitive combined with the obligatory absorption of an equally repetitive spectacle.

Rationalistic determinism is an inherently exclusionary doctrine, dehumanizing in its resistance to change. In reducing man to a functional part of a collective, rationalism has produced an environment hostile to the individual. When taken to their logical extreme, reason and functionality reinforce society’s relentless assault on Man’s individuality. It was perhaps inevitable that rationalism’s insistence on favoring the collective interest result in suppressing that of the individual. True social progress, however, does not subsume the individual, instead maximizing his freedom and potential.

Architecture is inevitably implicated in these issues, becoming another tool for rationalizing the environment. Myopic in its externalized focus, it is all too often reduced to a tool of fashion, blindly imposing its will on the environment. Once reduced to the concept of the functional “machine for living in,” architecture inters Man as a component of the functionalist society, rather than liberating him.

The individual must be embraced as an integral part of the composition, for architecture becomes meaning-ful to the extent that it supports diversity. Architecture can evoke associations, rather than dictating how space is experienced. It also requires individual initiative, through a fluid and undetermined selection of objects, services, and technologies, rather than blindly submitting to social and economic pressures. In this way, each occupant would acquire meaning through individual negotiation with circumstances and the accumulation of experience. Gunther Feuerstein’s proposals for “impractical flats” was an early expression of this concept--an attempt to engage the sensations of the own body, and to imbue the construction with traces of the audience/resident’s own ideas and history.

The liberation of architecture will require the architect to aspire to a much larger humanist agenda, addressing the culture at large as well as architecture as a field. This demands that architecture counter the reductive, stultifying effects of rationalism by embracing the qualities of contradiction, paradox and ambiguity. Cleanth Brooks argues for the value of poetics, stating: “if the poet...must perforce dramatize the oneness of the experience, even though paying tribute to its diversity, then his use of paradox and ambiguity is seen as necessary...[Paradox provides] an insight which preserves the unity of experience, and...triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern.” This insight involves struggles and hesitations for the observer, and renders his perception more concrete and vivid. Wielding the full poetic arsenal of ambiguity, paradox, irony, and indeterminacy allows the architect to nurture individual idiosyncrasy, instead of excluding it.
Experiment is architecture’s tool for diverting the reductive, monolithic tendencies of hyper-consumerism and rational determinism. Experiment is non-judgmental, open-ended, allowing it to maintain the tension between complex, contradictory and oscillating relationships that is at the heart of architecture. By nurturing its innate complexity and ambiguity, architecture can shelter idiosyncrasy from the perils of determinism run rampant. It can even reconcile the dichotomies that lie at the heart of the human condition: individual freedom vs. collective responsibility, content vs. container, idealism vs. pragmatism, interior vs. exterior, man vs. nature.

1. Barrett, William. Irrational Man. A Study in Existential Philosophy.
2. Sadler, Simon. The Situationist City. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998.
3. Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. 2nd edition. New York: Abrams, Harry N., Inc., 1990. (1966)