Beautiful Bastards

November 19, 2013


In her text, „A cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century“, Donna Haraway uses the image of the cyborg to depict both, her identity as a feminist and writer and the state of the human being at the end of the last century, thereby opposing ideological holism in favour of a postmodern heteroglossia.

I was curious about Haraway‘s description of these hybrid beings, those couplings of  machine and organism. Impure and completely without innocence, as she points out. What could be their architectural counterparts? For a lack of personal interest, I will not discuss the hypothetical impact of digital technologies on architectural design, but focus on the aspect of the imperfect breeding symbolised by the cyborg versus the seeking for purity of holistic thinking as a key-conflict described in the text, taking a look at the analogue cyborgs of architecture.

Classical theory of architecture reduces its history to a sequence of architectural styles, their rise and decline, with a terrible neglect or even despise for the in-between. In doing so, one might argue, one finds a similar search for purity and wholeness as the pre-postmodernist ideologies described in the text. Now, as we all turned into cyborgs as Haraway explains, it should be easy for us to cherish these dismissed works, full of invention and play.

One of those curious breedings which happened to stumble into my life recently is Ragnar Östberg‘s 1918 Carl Eldh‘s Atelier in Stockholm‘s Bellevueparken. A true bricolage full of skilful awkwardness. Combining classicist motifs, such as a colonnade entrance, a tympanum and a rotunda with aspects of rural swedish homes and two extensively glazed atelier spaces, forecasting modernism, into a small wooden house. Truly, a beautiful bastard.*

So, if minimalism, an aesthetic ideology contrary to the cyborg concept, is seeking the pure form to which nothing can be added or subtracted, what are the promises of the both-and approach of cyborg-maximalism then?

Possibly, a luring ambiguity and the joy of playful inconsequence. But more than that, the creation of singular objects with distinct character, defined by awkward genius and imperfection. Making each of them a true individual. Thus, while Haraway‘s digital cyborgs are a hybrid of machine and organism, the analogue cyborgs of architecture might appear as a quirky mixture between a house and a being.

But, as the machine-organism cyborg confronts us with much more ambiguous feelings than pure euphoria, should we also be unsettled by the architectural cyborg? Maybe, for it smashes all our hope for a valid form, confronting the architect guideless with an ocean of possibilities. The dilemma that, as Harraway puts it, „one is too few, but two is just one possibility.“

/ Christoph


referring to: Donna Haraway, ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Books, 1991, pp. 149-181

* For further examples of beautiful bastards, one might consider the red buildings by James Stirling, which are really showing the finger to white modernity, or his Camberwell School Assembly Hall, a true little beast, as well as Sigurd Lewerentz Flower Kiosk in Malmö or the absurd creatures of John Hejduk.


One Response to “Beautiful Bastards”

  1. JA. Perez DC Says:

    ME likey! Though i am unfamiliar with most of the architecture vocabulary you used I understand the main point. And also i thank thee for a short and concise framing of what arch history can be: a sort of stylistic eugenics.

    Do those mongrel forms lack originality simply because they are the combination of two disparate styles
    people tend to despise. Like Nu-metal? or acid jazz?

    Positing that as we become less human then we will learn to love them? Reminds of the european concept of miscegenation.
    The purity of style and history, the purity of design: the colonial aspects of gorgeous classical architecture.

    The impurity of ugly things, mixed things.
    Its an old idea and the post human wants to surpass that by repositioning humanity: Fundamentally it asks what is beauty in a post-human world? When we are no longer human? Makes me wonder where the post-humanity concept originated from?
    What under lying events have triggered this love of the interbreeding of styles and the discarding of the concept of the pure form. I think of the fad in fashion models to have
    men look like women. So that they become indistinguishable. My friend is one of these models and in pictures i have a hard time distinguishing him from a female. Does this trend establish a new mode of beauty or highlights the rising dominance of the female aesthetic in the consumerist society?

    Kind of the inverse of how classical greek statues of women are anatomically more related to a male?

    It asks us how can we find comfort in a world of new beauty? So unlike the old traditions of the constant and stable essence of the male gaze?

    Flood of thoughts now:
    Style and eugenics, chemical and ethical forces, symbolics and designs, unflattering dresses and hair cuts that come back into fashion for a younger generation.
    Retroactive fashion as a sort of beautiful antidote to the purity of progress? Since progress seems to lead to nothing but terrorisms and wars.
    (Though Maybe not in Sweden._
    – EL invandrade

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