To kiss or not to kiss

March 7, 2012

A friend once said: ”I would like to meet my future wife at the library”. There is a certain romantic notion embedded within the institution – or at least there used to be.

Although the ‘careful design of urban space to produce political response’ has always been the case with monumental architecture, the increasing diversity of available cues through a wide spectrum of technologies and an expanding ‘general archive of events’, further the ability to invoke affective response (Thrift, p.187).  As a supposedly non-commercial and democratic open public space, the library is indeed a political instrument.  In recent years a significant internal change has taken place in libraries, which reflects the technical and cultural changes taking place in the surrounding society.  The library is consequently battling two internal conflicts.  In the call for architecture to ‘expand its affective range’ by engaging with more cultural players (Lavin, p.22), there lies a risk of weakening its affective potential. Although mediatisation may very well give rise to a new performance of emotion (Thrift, p.185), it is in the embrace of new technologies and an expanding cultural programme that the library is loosing touch with its true emotions.

The institution suffers an inferiority complex.  As current discourse questions the role of the book, the library is submitting to new generations of knowledge and media technology, loading the building with supplementary programme and inscribing new value.  Meanwhile, it is as if we cling to the novel notion of the traditional library whilst prescribing to it a new motif, pushing our cultural agenda.  The library subscribes to an increasing ‘chain of peripherally perceived attractions’ (Lavin, p. 19).  It has become a culture capitalist venture.  Once a cathedral to the religion of knowledge, the library gradually took on the role of a storage facility, void of any ability to stimulate affect.  Today it is increasingly rendered as a cultural mall for human encounter and digital showcase with an approach akin to that of a fast food franchise.  One by one, in a string of merges and acquisitions, the institution claims new programme in fear of loosing its audience.  Saunas, communal cooking facilities, restaurants and cafes, bookshops, exhibition spaces and auditoria’s, recording studios, cinemas and experimental laboratories are now taking the scene and gradually stealing the spotlight of its original collection.  All in all providing a somewhat bipolar/schizophrenic profile analysis of the institution.  The codes of conduct of the library are being challenged.  Once a house of silence, the library now encourages loud interaction.  Equally, once devoted to the printed book, technology has presented a contemporary dimension.  As digital media is taking a predominant role in society and information is gradually decentralised, mediatisation put the library at risk of loosing its evocative potential.

As a potential solution to the library’s piteous embrace of cultural players (media or programme), Sylvia Lavin’s portrays a crossing of disciplinary boundaries as the ‘intense effect of new medium slip itself over the old medium of architecture and its even older sensibilities of authority and autonomous intellection’ (Lavin, p.4). Lavin’s discussion on the kissing of a ‘deeply superficial’ virtual media superimposed on the ‘superficial depth’ of architecture (Lavin, p.33) raises the question of the kiss between the digital, written and spoken word as housed by the future library.

In this marriage of the written, digital and spoken word, the library currently suffers the ‘seven year itch’.  In duress at a point of limbo, the library is undergoing couples therapy, as it juggles its past and future role, through a series of experimental architectural accounts.  Whilst the Future Systems library proposal in Prague as well as the Mansuetto Library in Chicago knowingly divorce the written from the spoken and digital word, the notorious Seattle Library by Koolhaas displays a lame attempt at its unification.  If kissing is the ‘theory of confounding mediums’ (Lavin, p.26), this is a confounding kiss indeed.  In what is intended as a lush kiss on the lips, the library still hesitates, and the meeting between the written and digital word eventuate in an awkward airborne French kiss on the cheek.

Why should kissing be a means to bid farewell to ‘an old architectural drama’ – is not this particular drama part of what evokes affect of the civic, domestic or religious architecture alike?  No doubt mixed media encourages visually interesting compositions, but it is questionable if this is a guaranteed ‘technique of producing new affects’ (Lavin, p.33) or a means of extending and intensifying architectural effect (Lavin, p.43).  The superimposition may equally dampen or amplify the affect of architecture.  Multiple sensors do indeed grant an increased number of stimuli, but questionably heightens the sensation of this kiss.  The over embellished attire of a ‘lady of the night’ (with superimposed and conflicting necklaces, rings, earrings and bracelets; short skirt, low cut top and high heels; blue eye shadow, red lipstick and elaborate hair) indeed does not lay down a promise for an attractive kiss.

Not all kisses are pleasant. The contemporary library is clearly suffering the aftermath of a garlic-infused kiss, left with an excessive surplus of saliva beyond the boundaries of its lips.  The question is: should we revert strategies or strive to perfect the kiss of the spoken, written and digital word, taking the library to a ‘second base’?

– Mimmi Frendin


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