Make it Real:
Architecture as Enactment

Sam Jacob

From ancient stone columns that evoked trees to modernism’s machine aesthetic, all architecture pretends to be something it is not.

With each successive style or movement, redundant forms and technologies are replaced and then re-enacted in the name of progress. Ideologies and fictions become forms. And then there is the stranger world still of actual replicas, such as Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, where history is brought to life for didactic purposes. It can’t help it, architecture’s deepest instinct is to repeat, whether it’s columns, ceiling tiles or twin towers. Ours is a landscape of cover versions, copy and paste, rinse and repeat. In this polemical essay, Sam Jacob probes the architectural condition and wonders whether it’s all just an attempt to make what’s not real look real.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Jacob is a director of London-based architecture practice FAT, where he has been responsible for award-winning projects spanning architecture, design and masterplanning. Sam is a contributing editor at Icon, a columnist for Art Review and a contributor to many other publications.

Make It Real: Architecture as Enactment

‘The Great Roe’, Woody Allen tells us, ‘is a mythological beast with the head of a lion and the body of a lion, though not the same lion.’ In the Great Roe, the fictional and the real combine into a seamless composite. Though radically spliced, the line between myth and biology is invisible – there’s no way to tell where one begins and the other ends, which part is myth and which is real. Do its front paws walk on real ground and its rear on mythic landscapes? Or are both front and hindquarters real, with the myth being located in the splice? Other mythological creatures – the half-human, half-animal satyrs, fauns, centaurs and the like – distort reality into crypto-biological arrangements of pure fiction. The Great Roe, though, embodies a strange and absurd condition where the opposite conditions of fiction and reality are contained within the same physical entity. One does not undo the other. Instead, its idea (its mythic fiction) and its form (a real lion) coincide exactly.

In constructing this comedic absurdity, Allen has accidently provided us with a fitting description of the way architecture occupies the world. Because architecture, like the Great Roe, is simultaneously mythical and real. Mythical, in the sense that it is the invention of the society that creates it – the ‘will of an epoch made into space’, as Mies put it. Real, in the sense that it is the landscape that we inhabit. The perfect registration between these two states provides architecture with its own supernatural power: its prosaic appearance cloaks its mythic, imaginative origins entirely. To begin to understand architecture’s Great Roe-ish state we must first think of how architecture mythologises and fictionalises itself, and then examine how it transmutes these fictions into reality.

Like a mythical beast, architecture emerges from the psycho-cultural landscape of its social, political and economic circumstances. Its body may be an exquisite corpse of (biologically impossible) architectural limbs, torsos, heads and tails, yet it is animated, active and alive – like Frankenstein’s monster. At any given moment it projects its historical situation – the great teeming mass of narratives that prefigured its existence – into the contemporary world. And in doing so it fundamentally rewrites that history, splicing and sewing the narratives together to make a radical new proposition for the future.

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