In our time of Virus pandemonium, Camile Paglia’s old book Sexual Personae has found its way back to my reading. Another virus, another naturally nasty part of our world.
Barcelona Pavillion, 1929 designed by Mies van der Rohe, photo by author.
Ever since my education at Mies van der Rohe’s architecture school, I have been looking for a sense of nature that matches the 21st-century world. The landscape architecture of the 20th century frequently pursued the idealization of nature. Furthermore, it persists in the marketing mantra of “sustainable-green” and “saving the planet.” Many green buildings are a technologically savvy continuation of this same domination and idealization of nature.
The Coronavirus seems to prove Paglia’s idea that nature can be brutally pagan. “Human beings are not nature’s favorites.” Thirty year old questions remain: Can civilized man expose, to himself, his subordination to nature? Is it true that without the illusion of dominance over nature, human culture would revert to fear and despair? Today fear is growing as the virus spreads, and we learn human societies are not artificial, not separate from nature. Societies are as natural as ant hills.
The 21st century is revealing that the ancients invented God to address the unknown. Today the unknown is of a different kind: it is a cosmological unknown, significantly beyond the old earthly God. The illusion of dominance over nature is imprudent relative to the many galaxies in the universe. Humans can’t blow up the universe. I’m doubtful we could destroy the planet — sure we can eliminate human life on the planet, but I’m not sure we could make the planet disappear.
It is reversed: the fear is generated by/from the illusion of control. The Western “nature vs. man illusion” fans the flames of fear. Greta Thunberg’s masculine anger to control and dominate politics has subsided. US Presidents have been caricatures designed to create the illusion of domination and control, thus concealing nature. Trump happened to have his “musical chair” pulled away by the virus: it is impossible now to create the illusion of dominance and control, as all countries are now exposed.
(Angela Merkel made a Daemonian video to the citizens of Germany saying we are all in this together. [Although ‘we’ did not include help to Italy]. She was recently joined with a video by The Queen.)
Back to landscape architecture and architecture itself. Paglia’s work describes how social forces prevent criminality, which, if/then modernism failed with its universality of space. The universality of space perpetuated this dominatrix illusion of nature, without a social context. However, the universality of space was perfectly suited to rapid advancements in science, and postwar American expansionism, both at home and abroad. In the early 1920s, when International Modernism was being formulated in Mies’ post-1918-virus consciousness, comprehending an evolutionary social context was not possible. The raw social material was still rapidly changing. Social evolution was obscured by advancing technologies, rapid city growth, global migrations, ethnic mutations, and then hidden by political fixity and 1919 post-viral human unity.
Nature’s coronavirus ended that 100-year project, not anthropogenic climate warming.
Today’s architectural challenge, taking a page from Slavoj Žižek, is to create space that provides universal conditions for kinds of social influences that remove illusions about nature and inspire new human relationships. Naturally, human cultures emerge based on the interactions of people and organizations, locally and globally. Architecture requires a new kind of governance/politics that iteratively adapts. Paglia’s ideas about the yin-yang of sexuality fueling interactions of creative conflict, preventing stasis naturally, are needed now more than ever.
A new architecture can accommodate graceful interventions in our habits; graceful conflicts that instigate new methodologies.
Can we eliminate the illusion and grow a new civilization? Can we maintain the flexibility of individual actions and support social behaviors that create new cultures? While not divinely hierarchical, a new architecture must incorporate distinct biological levels of social organization to accomplish scientific and artistic achievements.
The virus is daemonic, chthonian. Let’s expose a new culture. Let’s abandon the Man-Nature dichotomy, which is a post-Renaissance idea. It is not an ancient idea, the ancients were more divine with less data about the cosmos. We do not have to sacrifice the real for beauty. Nor do we need to sacrifice science for art.
Places designed for social interactions is how to make the real better than the illusion.
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It looks like Le Corbusier was also interested in people washing their hands after the 1918 pandemic, as they were creating the clean modern design aesthetic!
Handwashing sink in foyer of the Villa Savoye, 1928