Character and the Character

September 14, 2020


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Tchotchkes, Los Angeles, California, 2016. © Andrew Holder.

There’s character and there’s the character. Both are concerned with a retrospective view of architecture, where the glut of buildings and objects that comprise our physical environment are encountered long after the time and place of their production. Cut off from the reasoning that motivated each construction, and with no creator standing helpfully at the ready to explain it all, the city is a “pile of debris”1 that begs a theory to rationalize its absurd adjacencies. What hidden logic can explain the accumulation of chronologies, styles, techniques, and ideologies that are now present, simultaneously and unremittingly, in an endless, centerless field?

Character supplies this “hidden logic” by means of a table that accounts for appearance. It begins with a declaration of faith: every building is both unique and related to all others. Character is the visible evidence of this. It is the visible mark of an individuality that belongs: an ever-so-specific thing occupying a single cell in a vast table that has been neatly sorted to expose the similarities between adjacent cells. This table does not exist in a literal sense as a record of all things ever built (the best efforts of catalogists and specimen collectors notwithstanding), but the power of character depends on the belief that such a compendium is possible.

This was the faith of furniture connoisseurship in the late nineteenth century, a faith that became the basis for a way of seeing that was also an act of sorting and organizing. When confronted with a formal high-backed chair, for instance, first observe its marks of individuality: cabriole legs touching floor with the daintiest possible contact (hesitantly curled above a tiny point), sweeping curves indistinguishable from the rails of the seat, carved wreaths slipping through the wood band-work. Then name: Louis XV Regence. To disambiguate one formal high-backed chair from another, observe the same attributes again and discern the differences between the second chair and the first: more firmly planted foot with foliated acanthus ornament at the knee, ornament not so much weaving through the band-work as emerging from it, almost total distinction between chair leg and seat rails, Gothic cusps between curves. Then name again: Chippendale. In this procedure, the look-up table of attributes and names remains unseen, or is viewable only in part. Books like the Illustrated History of Furniture or The Practical Book of Period Furniture,2 for instance, arrange the best-known pieces of furniture in lists, providing descriptions of each in anatomical language to help the connoisseur identify and name specimens. But even if these books are incomplete, the descriptive system they use—provided it is a “well-constructed language”3—promises to be extensible, applicable to any newly manufactured specimens or newly “surfaced” historical artifacts recovered by archaeology.

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Louis XV. carved and gilt “Fauteul” [Fauteuil]]. Upholstered with Beauvais tapestry, accotoirs à manchette terminés en volute. Subject from La Fontaine’s Fables. Illustration from Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time — from 1893 by Litchfield, Frederick, (1850-1930). Illustration in the public domain.

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Parlour Chairs by Chippendale. Illustration from Illustrated History of Furniture, From the Earliest to the Present Time — from 1893 by Litchfield, Frederick, (1850-1930). Illustration in the public domain.

No matter how well-made this language, though, there is an aporia in character that architecture has hidden away in the person of the connoisseur. As the connoisseur reads, they must rely on conventional terms that cannot support the total rigor of identification the language of character purports to offer. In the reading of a high-backed chair, for instance, why leg? Why is it leg in particular that disambiguates the character of one chair from another? In The Order of Things, Foucault asks the question “why leg?” in a more general and damning formulation. How, he asks, can the “proper noun” of any individual specimen be converted into a sufficiently general yet specific semantic structure so that each specimen can be put in relation to the others around it?4 How does this balancing act between precise individual description and completely generic, common quality arrive at “leg” as the discriminating anatomical factor? If at one extreme the “proper noun” treats the individual as an inviolable whole, and at the other a completely generic quality common to many things is likely so perfectly diffused throughout an object that it cannot be distinguished as an identifiable part—how is it that the leg comes be isolated and named—independently of adjacent material—on the basis of visual, exterior inspection? In order to prevent a total degeneration of the anatomical categories that underpin character, architecture has turned a problem of linguistics into one of sociology. The correct use of the language that establishes character is left to people who know. Figures like John Claudius Loudon, a prolific nineteenth-century author of books of architectural advice and cottage patterns, simply declare character and tell others what to do with it: the Gothic character, he said, is suitable for a building in a grove of alders. As long as the advice is trusted, or at least repeated with enough frequency to acquire the mien of inevitability, the language of character retains its integrity and Foucault’s questions are forestalled.

This bargain, though, engenders a second set of problems. There is an uneasy coexistence of, on the one hand, a system of character that purports to describe its objects rigorously in the language of anatomy, and, on the other, an almost personal intimacy between the connoisseur and the those same objects. In the practice of connoisseurship, character as the visible sign of a natural or latent order is always getting mixed up with stories of artifacts as the residue of a history populated by actual subjects. Character is not the revelation of a divine or natural order but the visible residue of a history replete with actual subjects. Everywhere character is employed retrospectively by the connoisseur, this history and its peoples lurk like ghosts, present but not expressible via the anatomical language that character requires. Frederick Litchfield, author of the aforementioned Illustrated History of Furniture, says that Louis XV decorative screens “were painted with love scenes and representations of ladies and gentlemen who look as if they passed their entire existence in the elaboration of their toilettes or the exchange of compliments,”5 but in the language of character they are read as “three-fold . . . with each leaf a different height, and with shaped top.”6 The second half of his observation comes at the expense of the first: as the language of character grows more precise, it strips away the ladies and gentlemen elaborating their toilettes. In a sense the screen cannot survive conversion into the language of character without help from the connoisseur, who is responsible for reattaching and revivifying the lives of these subjects.

The more perfect and consistent the system of character, the more complete the eradication of the subjects who inhabit its history and the greater the obligation of connoisseur to testify on behalf of the peoples “hiding” beyond its surface.7 At the same time, the more perfect and consistent the system of character, the more perfect its alignment with systems of architectural production. Although character emerges as a mode of divining rationale and order in retrospect, the language of anatomical description is also a blueprint for how to make more things. By combining, modifying, and gradating between its forms, architects can use the language of character to create an almost exhaustible stream of new artifacts. There are infinitely many Chippendale chairs possible with “gadroon carving at the lower edge of the seat rail and an acanthus carved knee,” and another infinity of chairs possible if the characteristics of Chippendale are hybridized with those of Louis XV. The products of these infinities, unlike other methods that aim to produce inexhaustible supplies of novelty, come into the world with the appearance of being fully naturalized. They are already legible relatives of other artifacts, fitting neatly into the tabular system from which they are derived, and they attract audiences who, with the help of the architect, read back into them the history of their coming into being—albeit a history populated by subjects that may have never existed: people who are just phantoms of production by character.

There is a cost, then, to playing on both sides of character—its power as both a mode of retrospection and of production. Its products will always conjure the sense of a history sequestered away inside the object, but these will be increasingly fictitious and will engender passive modes of consumption. The architect will be required to serve as docent, supplying the testimony for counter-factual and alternate histories impossible for an audience to recover on its own. For a while the pleasures outweigh the costs of doing business: pleasures in the vein of Connecticut-Yankee-in-King-Arthur’s-Court what-ifs like a hybrid of chair legs that suggests Chippendale spent time at Versailles in the service of Louis XV. But eventually the architect will have to choose between world-building in the present tense and perpetually servicing nostalgia for a world that never was.

The character organizes the world too, but does it now. It has all the specificities of character—all the little tells that make one thing different than another—but it exists in the present. The entire laundry list of character’s idiosyncrasies arrives in the flesh as a “rigidified personality pattern impervious to life experience.”8 The character must be navigated, dealt with, or responded to, such as in the self-portraits of Jean-Jacques Lequeu. L’homme à la lippe—sausage-fat lip, wrinkled brow, bloated jowls—pouts miserably and requires a decision: comfort him? Il tire la langue—eye contact without apology, tongue completely out, slight gum recession on lateral incisor—stares without apology and requires another kind of decision: stare back? There are attempts to make tables of characters (Da Vinci’s grotesque caricatures and Franz Messerschmidt’s heads, for instance), but the more urgent question is what to do when you encounter one.

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L’homme à la lippe, Jean Jacques Lequeu (1757-1826). Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, EST RESERVE HA-80 (B, 7).

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Il tire la langue, Jean Jacques Lequeu (1757-1826). Source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, EST RESERVE HA-80 (B, 7).

By requesting a response to its presence, the character also furnishes equipment for rationalizing the chaos of the world. The audience is referred back to itself: how should I handle this thing that is in some way like me? And for this question the audience is always equipped. Unlike character, there is no tabular system of hidden order to be discovered. Order and rationality emerge by testing and readjustment of action, not encyclopedic tallying-up.

Not all beings are characters capable of invoking this pattern of interaction. The character must somehow demand to be engaged by its audience as a coequal, one that is active and unpredictable enough to require a response. Part of this is the accumulation of attributes that mirror the characteristics of the audience and provides convincing evidence of a shared machinery of expression: i.e. the wrinkles of furrowed eyebrows and the wrinkles of tongue creases. Additionally, though, the character must accomplish a severance of understanding: its motives must be remote, as though it is reading from a script or carrying out a directive received from elsewhere. Lequeu’s pouting man has no apparent reason to pout in his charcoal world. There is nothing evidently sad there, no obvious external stimulus. Nor does the man have any reason to stick out his tongue. The inscrutability of motive—the inability to understand a thing’s interior even as it presents a familiar exterior—is projected back on the character as evidence of having an inner, secret life.

With this severance comes a particular quality of interaction. The character is just doing its thing, disengaged “from contacts with the outside world” that might cause it to be more accommodating or plastic in behavior.9 It is mechanically inelastic,10 not sensitive to context, and this is exactly what gives the character its power. It doesn’t accommodate, it collides; it doesn’t conform, it endures; it doesn’t smooth, it abrades; the logic of its intentions is less interesting than its consequences. Contact with the world is a series of small accidents that open possibilities for response, and this unpredictability of the character’s encounters alters the role of the architect. Architects animate characters but they are not obligated to decode them. It is impossible to attend to the character, docent-like, and testify to the causes of its actions, “it did this because.” There is no fake history to look backward in search of—becoming a character requires to some extent obscuring motive—only a series of collisions that produce action.

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Tchotchkes, Los Angeles, California, 2016. © Andrew Holder.

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Tchotchkes, Los Angeles, California, 2016. © Andrew Holder.

The problem of introducing the character to architecture is how to maintain a rigorous analogy between animate beings and inanimate objects without sliding back into the problem of defining the architect as a purveyor of passive fictions. Go too far, create a perfect life-like simulacrum, and architecture strays into necromancy or monster manufacture, where all the interest and attention is on the magical techniques of how it came to be and on the contents of its interior being—its memory, its motives, and whether the thing has a soul. Don’t go far enough, and architecture is left with strange hybrid shapes that again require fictional histories to justify appearances. Instead, architecture needs to follow prescriptions that stress the immediacy of an encounter:

  1. Make solids. Sequester and enclose poché. Deny views that connect an interior animating principal (i.e. construction technique) with exterior appearance. Conceal machinery beneath the skin so that, in order to express, it must speak through a veil of material.
  2. Write into base material. Give posture to common things. Suggest the possibility of total animism—that dirt, bags, blocks, sticks, or sheets might without warning recline.
  3. Solicit names. Make things imminently nameable, but not yet known. Call on the audience to invent a new semantics rather than merely applying typology and other forms of gross generalization a priori: not just a building but this building.
  4. Stack eccentrically. Allow crevices and gaps between unlike things. Refuse brick-like matching that subordinates the character to an overall logic of assembly.
  5. Turn mind problems into body problems. Logos, language, symbols, geometry, and details should participate physically in acts of construction. Crosses, stars, perfect circles, cubes, and Miesian corners mean something at a serene remove from the physical action, but they mean more lodged in a stack, loaded with potential energy.
1 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 258.
2 Frederick Litchfield, Illustrated History of Furniture: From the Earliest to the Present Time, 5th ed. (New York: John Lane, 1903); Harold Eberlein and Abbot McClure, The Practical Book of Period Furniture (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1914).
3 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 138.
4 Foucault, 138–145.
5 Litchfield, Illustrated History of Furniture: From the Earliest to the Present Time, 154.
6 Harold Eberlein and Abbot McClure do this as well in their Practical Book of Period Furniture. According to them, Chippendale “saw everything with the eyes of a carver,” which is of course a fiction invented purely by the authors. They then go on to describe the wooden legs of his chairs in the language of character, which are identifiable because the “[the] lower edge of seat rail often had projecting edge of splayed gadroons . . . or a fine rope moulding.” Unlike the first statement, the second has no capacity to conjure up the qualities of Chippendale’s person from beyond the grave. Eberlein and McClure, The Practical Book of Period Furniture, 160.
7 In one of the more famous examples of this reverie, the eighteenth-century novelist Friedrich Schiller imagines the audience staring at the sculpture of Juno Ludovisi will engage in this kind of reverie, imagining the freer, purer “comportment of the community whence it issues.” Jacques Ranciere, Aesthetics and its Discontents (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 35.
8 Theodore Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays (London: Routledge, 1994), 78.
9 Adorno, 78.
10 Henri Bergson, Laughter (London: Macmillan and Co., 1911), 10.