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Narrative in Architecture: Possibilities for an Aesthetic of Reappearance

Part 2 Dissertation 2003
Mary Chew
National University of Singapore Singapore Singapore
A sense of loss pervades many writings on the current condition of cities and architecture. The public realm as a material space for social interaction and contention has been said to be emptied of the life that creates that activity. It has been suggested that the media and the image has taken over as the loci of the public realm, as the space of politics - in which the body politic debates in a democratic state. However, it is immediately questionable to state that this role has been adequately taken on by the incumbents.

Inevitably, less imageable ideals that were once valorized in architectural practice are now coupled with anxieties over presentation, form, and appearance. This, simply because the new condition resides in a virtual space with its own rules and art. Art, in that it requires craftiness, is a way of working and an aesthetic attitude. Paul Virilio gives this the moniker, “the aesthetics of disappearance”, where the media and the image are said to be the outcome of acceleration to a point that gives the appearance of being instantaneous.

This paper examines the aesthetics of speed that leads to “disappearance” in the writings of Paul Virilio counterpointed by Walter Benjamin. Their works are placed in comparison to that of the novelist, Milan Kundera to establish that there indeed has been a disappearance of the public realm as a material space, and to determine exactly how and why it has disappeared.

The discussion also postulates the existence of a desire for recapitulation of this loss in the works of Benjamin and Virilio, and examines the tools used for a potential recapitulation against the possibilities inherent in Milan Kundera’s novel, Slowness (1996).

Using the concepts of “speed” and “slowness” as keys to the discussion, the possibilities for an “aesthetic of reappearance” is then fleshed-out by looking at the art of the narrative as an alternative aesthetic. The paper proposes that this alternative aesthetic suggests a possible grounding for architecture to stand apart while within the regime of the scopic.

Mary Chew

Mary Chew’s dissertation Possibilities of an Aesthetics of Reappearance is to be supported for several reasons. Prof Alberto Perez-Gomez, our external examiner for this year’s dissertation also thought likewise. Besides the usual scholarship, the excellent writing found in the dissertation, the subject matter is rather a difficult one.

Mary has taken on a number of theoretical concepts, which seem different in more ways than one. Nonetheless, she manages to examine them in ways that they can be discussed with a certain degree of equivalences.

These concepts are speed, distraction and slowness. We know where each of these ideas is taken from and from which context, history and politics each has emerged from. We also know how each forms part of a larger theoretical exposition by some theorists or writers; that of Paul Virilio, Walter Benjamin and Milan Kundera respectively. Hence, there is no need for me to go into them in detail.

By itself, each concept is already sufficiently dense and complex. Bringing each of these together to be discussed is certainly not easy for each comes with its own limits and boundaries, and whose centers are not necessary always aligned. If not handled well, the work could have easily collapsed into a naïve collage.

This she overcome by finding a common hinge from where she can start stitching together some of the issues she has in mind. She does this by uncovering in each of the theorist’s discourse a “radical turn” in how each “reuse” and also “misuse” the very thing that is opposed. In doing this, she clarifies for us and re-objectify for architecture some of the ambitions that are notably absence in present day practice.

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