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The Adolescent Discipline

A Review of “Agencies of Frame: Techtronic Strategies in Cinema and Architectureby Michael Tawa

What is Architecture? How does one define the discipline and its boundaries? What is intrinsic to it? These are the questions addressed by Michael Tawa in his book Agencies of Frame: Tectonic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture. At its most fundamental it is a book that confronts the ontological crisis that has historically haunted the ‘discipline’ of architecture; an identity crisis that has become more pronounced in the postmodern age.

Tawa observes that the discipline of architecture and its education has progressively become removed from traditional practice, which at its core concerns the act of building and the idea of place making for human habitation. The formalization of the architectural discipline as an intellectual pursuit demanded the need for theory and a definite demarcation of disciplinary boundaries. For Tawa the resulting effect is the further abstraction of architecture from its foundational roots.

Due to the increasing irreconcilability between architectural theory and practice, an identity crisis ensured, manifesting in the discipline’s search for meaning and justification in other fields. Architecture therefore becomes a container for meaning, and is often reduced to a representation of something – a mimesis, according to Tawa. Furthermore, at the most extreme Architecture is prone to hijacked by external agendas, be it political, economic etc. An analogous case is that of the adolescent, uncertain of its own character seeks affirmation from others. The consequence is a relationship of dependence, a subjugation of its personality, values and even its fate.

Where once upon a time Architecture could refer to the notion of absoluteness for its legitimacy, the collapse of all universalities in the postmodern age makes Architecture’s improprietous nature even more ambiguous and precarious. In response, Architecture embraced relativity and uncertainty as tropes. This is evidently witnessed in the discipline’s current fascination with non-Euclidean forms and digital design. What appears to be innovative, Tawa laments, is in fact the continual of mimesis in architectural design – an Architecture that now simply and literally reflects a relativistic reality instead of an absolute.

If Architecture is at the hostage of other disciplines to articulate its position, it would seem paradoxical to assert that there is something intrinsic to Architecture. Architecture (or more accurately its practitioners) therefore must gain a self-awareness to end its subjugation – this is the central claim Tawa makes. To move architectural production beyond mere mimesis or as a communication vehicle, the discipline, specifically its theory, must re-position itself to acknowledge what it fundamentally concerns and what is unique to it- that is technical construction and the conceptualization of place and its experience. It must first recognize the conditions and limits of its own production before subsequently challenging them through encounters with other fields – in an act called deterriortisation – a concept first introduced by Gilles Deleuze and promoted by the text. Referring to the analogy of the adolescent once more, one must become self-aware before profound engagement with others, culminating in unexpected insights, can result.

A self-aware Architecture can be engaged with any combination of disciplines, but for Tawa his choice to parallel cinema with architecture in the text is due to the tectonic or thematic similarities between the two fields. Tawa identities five parallel themes of cinema and architecture in which the chapters of the book are structured accordingly, these are 1) Place and Setting 2) Spatiality 3) Temporality 4) Materiality and 5) Agency, Crisis, Disestablishment.

Each thematic chapter follows an identical narrative structure. First a philosophical reading of the theme, built on semantic foundations, is constructed, sourced from material quoting, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Martin Heidegger, Gilbert Simondon, amongst others. This philosophical framework, is subsequently applied in the analysis of specific scenes in films as well as architectural detailing and spaces. The films analysed include the cannons of cinematography those directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni Alfred Hitchcock and Elia Kazan, while lesser known independent and experimental film makers are also cited. The architectural works evaluated are syncretic, transcending any specific historical, stylistic or philosophical classification ranging from ancient structures, the vernacular, to modernist and postmodern examples.

Despite the book’s position on architecture’s disciplinary boundaries as framed in the introduction, to describe the main body as a philosophical treatise, an exercise in critical theory or manuscript in persuasion would be a mistake, as Tawa himself warns. It must be regarded instead as handbook that attempts to broadens one intellectual horizons to ultimately advance the depth and quality of architectural conceptualization in a practical setting. What Agencies of Frame presents is a phenomenological approach in understanding architecture. It explores the ambiguous, abstract and deeply personal experiential quality of place, assisted by the diversity of precedents, rather than offering definable meaning through systematic analytical methods or in making a persuasive argument based on a certain logic or stance.

The influence of continental philosophical and Tawa’s personal interest in linguistics is evident throughout the text especially in its compositional quality. His ability to articulate abstract concepts in such an erudite manner and precision in his use of language is worthy of mention. In stating this however, it is an intellectually dense text that requires great patience and an even greater level of perseverance to finish.  Several close readings are required to fully register its content and develop a deep appreciation.

The experience of reading the text is likened to a combination of mental exertion and exercise in reflection. Instead of drawing discernible conclusions or forcing an authorial intentionality, the reader is invited to interpret the text uniquely. Therefore, one would also be forgiven if a feeling of inconclusiveness and vagueness is felt towards the book initially, especially due to its lack of a postlude.

For all the praise that must be given, a criticism would be regarding the lack of discussion into what sense is, which is the central consideration of the text. Is it a feeling or an intuition? Can one learn to become attuned to it, to develop a heightened awareness towards it? Is it a form of posteriori knowledge? Perhaps it is something deeply personal that is beyond logocentric articulation?

Notwithstanding, Agencies of Frame is of immense value not only for those within the architectural discipline but to practitioners and students alike in all arts. The intellectual reflection it promotes can be extended to other fields.

For the architectural student in particular, the book addresses their scepticism regarding the relevancy of contemporary architectural theory to their studio practice. Many of the cannons that comprise university architecture course reading lists can be perceived as simply transpositions of foreign concepts onto the architectural domain. Fredric Jameson’s infamous Marxist critic of post modernism, using the architecture of Westin Bonaventure Hotel, is a poignant example. Can Jameson’s text be considered part of architectural theory?  Or to reframe the question, how can Marxist criticism aid in the design of buildings?

Applying the intellectual framework offered by Tawa, the relationship between Jameson’s theory, and architecture can be reversed, placing agency on the latter, for example. Instead of being used for the purpose of postmodern criticism, the architecture of Westin Bonaventure Hotel can be analyzed through the architectural tectonics identified in the book to understand a Jamesonian postmodern spatiality. The success in which the book reframes how one considers architecture is what makes it so intrinsic to the discipline.

For an Architecture that is undergoing an identity crisis, Michael Tawa’s Agencies of Frame: Techtronic Strategies in Cinema and Architecture certainty offers some worthy suggestions to ease its anxieties.