Canonical vs. Non-Canonical
by Gabriel Fuentes in collaboration with Marrikka Trotter and Joseph Bedford
This syllabus sets canonical architectural histories and theories in dialog with non-canonical texts that challenge, renegotiate, and/or otherwise expand the ethical, ontological, and disciplinary perspectivity of the Western architectural canon. In doing so, it addresses critical global issues within architectural discourse and practice today. A central premise to the syllabus is that architecture’s autonomy—an autonomy that, if it exists at all, is often a product of colonial grand narratives that discipline architecture’s boundaries against its non-European “Others”—is itself multifaceted and contingent, and that its globality is a product of complex geopolitical forces, socio-political relations, and contradictory histories that require deep theoretical analysis to unpack. The “canon,” in other words, exists in relation to what it excludes, and what it excludes is rich theoretical territory to be explored. Navigating this territory, we acknowledge the right for a canon to exist while rejecting its exclusion of indigenous and non-western voices. Doing so will allow us to disrupt the distance between canonical and non-canonical architectural discourse, to open new possibilities for old ideas, and to rethink the scope and agencies that architecture encompasses in the twenty-first century.
Three separate yet overlapping registers of inquiry—the ethical, the ontological, and the disciplinary—structure what follows. To the extent that these registers are internal to architecture, they help us (re)define and (re)trace its boundaries: there can be no architecture without power, aesthetics, and disciplinary convention. To the extent that they are external to architecture, they open up those boundaries to a range of socio-political, environmental, and spatial/formal territories that are either recurring in architectural discourse or traditionally seen as operating discretely, on the periphery, or under the radar. But whether from within or without, this syllabus takes for granted that architecture—as a theory and a practice, as a way of negotiating the present and imagining the future, as a product and producer of history and contemporaneity—is motivated by ethical positions on what the world could and should be like, philosophical positions on how the world exists, and disciplinary positions on what architecture does to/in the world. In this sense, architectural theory draws history in its own image (for better or worse) and operates as a representational medium that brings the world into and out of view.
The syllabus thus progresses, albeit in many small loops as opposed to a single straight line, from the conditions that precede architectural design toward the question of architectural design itself. Along the ethical register, we ask: “what should or could the world be?” Implicit in this question is a critical position toward the status quo. In order for architecture to be a line of defense against neoliberalism and its global crusade of social, economic, and environmental injustices, we must learn to “see” the world differently and reimagine architecture’s agency beyond the building scale to include politics more broadly, ranging from the body to the planet. Along the ontological register, we ask “what is the world as we find it and how does it exist?” Burdened by the weight of its own history, architecture has long sought to define itself as a frontier practice that rationalizes “savage” wilderness along a clearly defined Nature/Culture axis that privileges Western anthropocentric conceptions of gender and nature (white human bodies, heterosexuality, masculinity, grids and ideal ratios, Christianity, clean air, green nature, etc.). But what happens to architecture when it confronts alternative, queer, and/or non-western ideas about nature? Might it be most ecological in its very artificiality? Along the disciplinary register, we ask, “what does architecture do in the world?” In what ways do its disciplinary boundaries expand and contract in relation to the ethical and ontological questions raised? For that matter, what tools, methods, and conventions does architecture offer to recast those very questions?
* This syllabus was written in collaboration with Marrikka Trotter and Joseph Bedford as part of a Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative (GAHTC) workshop in 2018. It is published in e-flux architecture as part of the Theory’s Curriculum series. See full syllabus here.