Environmental & Architectural
Reviewed by Patrick M. Condon
Robert Mugerauer has written a book clarifying what other writers often intentionally obscure: deconstructivist theory. Also known as "deconstruction" and "post-structuralism," this conceptual approach has been discussed in design circles for over twenty years‑-and still the fog thickens.
In an evenhanded and remarkably clear way, Mugerauer explains what key proponents Jaques Derrida and Michael Foucault had in mind when they spoke of "opening up ruptures" and "revealing power relations." He also explains why the ideas of Derrida and Foucault are often set in opposition to the more "traditionalist" ideas of thinkers Mircea Eliade and Martin Heidegger.
Finally, and with characteristic grace and equanimity, Mugerauer shows how these two opposed positions are not really an irresolvable dichotomy but, rather, a dialectical "dance of gathering and disassembling" where design participates in the millennial rhythm of tradition and change‑-of innovation and retrieval.
DERRIDA AND FOUCAULT
Mugerauer begins the book with the hardest topics: Derrida and Foucault. They are hard because they both say that all meaning is illusory‑-a fiction maintained by established power elites. These thinkers want to tear down regnant paradigms, leaving the wreckage strewn about, making no attempt to reassemble the broken pieces into a new edifice.
The argument is that distortion, destruction, and transgression of accepted codes (what a "house" should be, for example) free us from the tyranny of the power elites. When all our comfortable assumptions are wrecked, do not dismay! Our reward is a clear view into the empty void of existence and a true freedom from capitalist hegemony. Marxist and existentialist at the same time. A radical view.
Mugerauer makes the hard, if not easy, at least easier. He carefully points out the value of such a radical challenge to our complacent "taken for granted" view of the world. He explains how these challenges can reveal the way culture controls us. He explains how these challenges can provide a pathway to power for marginalized groups. He illustrates his point with a number of real-world examples, ranging from the familiar‑-Tschumi's Le Parc de la Villette in Paris‑-to the surprisingly obscure‑-the Acree Carlisle door-numbering system as used at the University of Texas.
ELIADE AND HEIDEGGER
Mugerauer continues the book with a more comforting topic: Eliade and Heidegger. Their work is more comforting because, for them, all human beings share meanings that are stable and "true." The intention of both thinkers is to rebuild the original structure of our shared human experience from the wreckage left by technology run amuck.
Clarifying, reinvigorating, and respecting common codes (what a place of worship should look like, for example) is, they argue, a worthwhile endeavor. These codes, they say, link us to what it means to be truly human on the earth. Our reward for sticking with these conventional codes is an environment that is, presumably, made to the measure of people.
This second view is liberal and romantic at the same time. It is a conservative, preservationist view, as opposed to the radical disassembling view of Derrida and Foucault.
POINTS OF COMMONALITY
But Mugerauer makes the easier more challenging. He stresses the points of commonality between Eliade/Heidegger and Foucault/Derrida. He explains that all four thinkers grow out of the "phenomenological" tradition that begins with philosopher Edmund Husserl at the beginning of this century.
Mugerauer points out that all four thinkers are deeply skeptical of science as a pathway to the "truth," and that all four fear that capitalism, science, and technology, whatever their interrelated benefits, severely restrict our human capacity to understand our own experience.
Mugeruaer is unique for his attempt to connect rather than to separate. He also examines the difficult question of how Heidegger and Eliade's conservative views can be incorporated into xenophobic and potentially racist "rules" for the design of place.
This question is made even harder by Heidegger's own ambiguous relationship with National Socialism prior to World War II, a relationship that Heidegger never explicitly renounced. Mugerauer includes a lengthy discussion on this topic‑-a discussion made all the more poignant when he recounts his own long struggle to resolve this question to his own satisfaction, a struggle that is still ongoing.
THE VOID IS NOT EMPTY
In the end, however, Mugerauer convincingly argues that Heidegger, in his later work, was able to "transcend metaphysics" and thus find a solid common ground for human meaning:
Heidegger advances the interpretation of truth as the disclosure of the dynamic granting of the natural, human, and sacred dimensions of the cosmos. Further, according to Heidegger, it is possible to establish a genuine belonging with what is given to us, rather than an ironic or disassembled relationship with it.
In short, says Mugerauer, Derrida and Foucault missed something. The void is not empty but is suffused with nature's immense light. Mugerauer also convincingly demonstrates that Heidegger was not a hopelessly romantic technophobe, as his detractors would have it. Rather, intensely aware of technology's power, he was merely seeking a way to preserve human authority over its demands.
But Mugerauer does agree with one important criticism of Heidegger. He was so attached to the notion of particular places that he could not understand how situations different from his own experience could involve a sense of integrity and dwelling.
For example, Heidegger appears not to have been able to see that a mobile, nomadic lifestyle may have authentic, genuine experiences of the world. In this, he fails to assimilate the obvious examples of the nomadic tribes of North Africa and Australia, whose members are firmly rooted to place, albeit a vast one. Heidegger also dismisses the characteristic nomadism of North Americans, seeing it as nothing more than a symptom of cultural sickness. Fortunately, Mugerauer fills in this gap in Heidegger's understanding by explaining how inhabitants of vast landscapes with mobile nomadic populations can still be deeply attached to their world.
STRATEGIES FOR THE FUTURE
So ends the theoretical first half of the book. What of the second half? With Derrida, Foucault, Eliade and, especially, Heidegger providing the theory, and with hermeneutics providing the method, Mugerauer gives the reader practical and philosophically defensible ways to make the world a better place.
More precisely, he suggests strategies for coping with the technological landscape, including "expressing," "retreating," "camouflaging," "wrapping," "displaying," "unifying," "attuning," "designing for well being," and "designing for homecoming." He presents over a score of built examples to illustrate these strategies, ranging from the expected, like the "high-tech" work of the Rogers Partnership, to the unexpected, like the lovely Atkinson and Associates project for Sierra Alta in Monterrey, Mexico.
Overall, Mugerauer's book provides clarity in a field noted for obscurity. I would, without hesitation, recommend it for students. My only frustration is with the second half of the book. It was here that I waited for the "answer," the rules for appropriate environmental design.
Instead, Mugerauer provides a set of possibly productive directions. Certainly this reluctance to formulate "absolute" rules for design is in keeping with Mugerauer's fair and evenhanded comparison of the many disparate points of view covered. It is hard to imagine this man, so capable of seeing all the different sides of an issue, ever attempting to impose a design or planning dogma.
And yet, I am still left with the feeling that a tighter taxonomy or framework of design responses, appropriate at different scales and in different contexts, could have made the book more useful. Such a tool could help designers and design students organize their thinking when confronted with complex design problems involving ethical and aesthetic difficulties.
Having made this criticism, however, I will conclude on the more important point. Mugerauer has successfully sorted out the various strands of place and anti-place theory into a consistent fabric. He explains how the deconstructivist vs. traditionalist debate is not really a war but an ongoing dance between a charged pair. He tells us that we don't have to choose sides in this debate, but we do have to think carefully, clearly, and without illusions or false concepts when carrying out our design or planning.
I thank him for the gift. I will treasure it.