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History for an Empty Future

The first and sometimes last thing an architect designs is himself. Andrea Palladio was born Andrea Di Petro della Gondola in 1508, and only became "Palladio" in 1538. The new name—concocted out of Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom and the name of a character in a play by Palladio’s patron, Gian Giorgio Trissino—designated Andrea as a master of languages, of both humanism and architecture. John Swan is the forgotten son of a mason, but also the moderately known architect John Soan, as well as the very well-known John Soane and the prodigiously known Sir John Soane. He is not Baron John Soane only because, despite the architect’s evident aristocratic ambitions, becoming a baron would have required John to leave his estate to his detested son, George. McKim, Mead & White might well have designed their firm name alphabetically, as did Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in reverse order. This corporate nomenclature was as mechanically generated and organizationally driven as the steel frames such offices worked in and on. Le Corbusier designed two names for himself, using one for his work as an architect and the other for his work as a painter, which is to say, he designed his names to affirm an essential distinction between mediums. Charles Moore was a serial renamer, going by Charles Moore at various times and at others by MLTW, Centerbrook Architect, Charles W. Moore Incorporated, Moore Ruble Yudell and Urban Innovations Group, to name just a few of his names, hidden identities and personae. And of course, the infinite array of acronyms, monikers and brand names designed by contemporary architects is just the most obvious symptom of the virtually universal desire to become a “signature architect,” a goal that requires a near total immersion of the self in the design of hyperbolic singularity and distinction.

The history of most things, or at least modern things, could be redesigned through an archaeology of proper and improper names, pseudonyms, alibis, forgeries and makers’ marks. This history would reveal misalignments between consciousnesses, individuals, persons, people and subjects, and in turn reflect a history of definitions of the human. The language games implicit in the design of “Palladio” belonged to a then-emerging association between the human and the capacity not just to use language but to design it, just as the humanists did when they refashioned Latin and reordered architecture. Soane’s modifications to his name were a central component to his continual effort to make the representation of his self and the self align, to produce a perfectly transparent cogito in accordance with the classical episteme that allowed no other possibility than the identification of “the human” with knowledge. Yet the rationalization of corporate name design in the late industrial age reflects the growing conflation of human and machine. Le Corbusier’s schizophrenic essentialism, for instance, grounded the human not in bedrock but in plastic; a twentieth century material infinitely powerful—and totally vulnerable—in its capacity to be endlessly remade. Plasticity became the ontological principal of the nuclear age, where matter became not a substance of essences and unities but the explosive potential to rive the human species to death. Only modern design could hold matter together until, perhaps exhausted by the effort, a new sort of human shifted his focus towards the design of death itself. Charles Moore performed his own death again and again, precisely in the period during which it was possible for people like Andy Warhol and Ronald Reagan not only to live life as a perpetual performance but to be shot, to die and to come back to life.

A history of architects’ names would be less a collection of biographies than an anthology of traces left by existences; traces that became more articulated in their design as those existences were shaped by an increasing number of increasingly denaturing systems of production, structures of power and abstract epistemologies. Palladio may have been widely known by a specially designed name, but architects did not commonly sign things until well into the eighteenth century. By then, a name alone was insufficient for the complex task of authentication required by a culture organized around the circulation, collection and exchange of images. Palladio’s name printed in a book was enough to spread Palladianism, but Piranesi needed both a name and an identifying signature to function as avatar and keep him attached to his drawings as they dispersed, image by image, across Europe. As industrial modernization further alienated the architect-as-person from his productions, compensatory architectural signatures proliferated until even buildings themselves were signed. From the mid-nineteenth century on, the quotidian architectural counterparts of often insignificant existences, like the innumerable apartment blocks that built the modern European city, sported signature plaques near their front doors. These signs of self-importance, bits of advertising for an often-anonymous architect, were small tokens of self-design offered in compensation for the increasing absorption of human presence in the metropolis as a layer of design. Auguste Perret scratched his name into a wet ceramic tile on his apartment building at 12 bis Rue Franklin in Paris, leaving behind a signature more like a child’s scrawl on a sandy beach than an exemplar of art nouveau design.

A name signed in wet sand that cannot be erased is evidence of the effects of the emergence of geological time and of history outside human experience as concepts during the nineteenth century on architectural design. If, in the wake of the invention of the Darwinian past, history was no longer to be recorded on paper, motivated by the acts of individuals and authenticated by signatures but rather buried within layers of rock, where, how and for whom were traces of individual existence to be deposited? For architects of the latter half of the nineteenth century, in other words, how to design history and the place of the human within it became a central preoccupation, one that can be read through the redesign of names, signatures and their division into two increasingly irreconcilable forms, each with a distinct mode of address. Growing separations between museums and archives, drawings and documents, and monuments and habitations produced cleavages between histories addressed to individual human experience and those addressed more abstractly to the human species. Charles Garnier, for example, became a designer both of architectural monuments and of human beings. On the one hand, the Paris Opera came to be so identified with the architect that it was known as the Palais Garnier. To reinforce the building’s function as a signature, Garnier had a monument to himself—an autograph, in effect—erected in front of the entrance bearing his bust, his name, his drawing of the Opera and the dates of his birth and death. As vertical and visible as the building’s grand façade seen at the end of the long perspective, the monument addressed itself to man, he who walked erect through the city on its new boulevards and who empirically understood his place in the present, as a reality derived from the conditions of his human experience. On the other hand, Garnier also styled himself as ethnographer, constructing at the 1889 Exposition Universelle a display of human habitation from the prehistoric to what he called the “contemporary primitive”: forty-four buildings concerned not with individual existences but with the “march of humanity through the ages.” This panorama of prehistory required the suppression of Garnier’s signature to produce its reality effects, and therefore more design than ever: to be perceived as prehistoric, each house had to be fully furnished, inhabited by living human specimens in costume, and visitors had to be distracted from their temporal incongruity with the present. In the book published as a scientific record of the spectacle, the extraction of the species from the present continued. Each house is presented as if drawn on a separate sheet of paper and the papers piled up on each other and strewn haphazardly across the page, deposited like so many strata in a geology of paperwork. The individual drawings aspire to the status of anonymous documents, lest evidence of their design lessen their capacity to appear as architectural fossils at the limit of human history. L’Habitation Humaine required nothing more than the printed identification of Garnier as co-producer.

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