Book Review: A Topology of Everyday Constellations

Topology of Everyday_cover imageGeorges Teyssot, A Topology of Everyday Constellations (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2013)

Table of Contents

  • A Topology of Everyday Constellations
  • Figuring the Invisible
  • Dream House
  • The Wave
  • The Story of an Idea
  • Toward a Cyborg Architecture
  • Prosthetics and Parasites
  • Windows and Screens

I am going to use my post this week to explore the writings of George Teyssot, Professor of Architecture at Laval, Quebec. Teyssot has written at least two essays on race and architecture that I know of; the first appeared as a chapter in Antoine Picone and Alessandra Ponte’s anthology Architecture and the Sciences: Exchanging Metaphors (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003), and the same material refined for a chapter in Teyssot’s recently published A Topology of Everyday Constellations (MIT Press, 2013). In both contributions, Teyssot examines the ‘confusion’ that emerged in nineteenth-century architecture theory between the terms ‘type’ and ‘typology’. According to Teyssot, modern architects tried to replace the former with the latter without completely being aware of the disciplinary sources (and baggage) of their interdisciplinary borrowing. While this claim may be true of many of the figures Teyssot cites from France and Germany, it is hard to consider this true for Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Gottfried Semper, two architects that are used to open his chapter. Viollet and Semper not only directly cited the work of anthropologists (and other race scientists) in their writings, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they had direct friendships with these men. Perhaps Teyssot’s claims were meant to be restricted to architects of the 1920s and 30s who continued using these terms without being aware of their origins, but alas I will have to reread to chapter to know for sure. As for now, let us get to the meat of my reading for this week.

Teyssot’s chapter, entitled “Figuring the Invisible” provides an intellectual history for the gradual transformation of ‘type’ theory into ‘typology’ thinking (31-82). He summarizes this historical shift in this way:

[Architects] did not clearly discuss the profound differences between the classical [notion of] type, an ur-genesis that repeated the antique form, and modern morphogenesis, which established the abolition of mimesis, the institution of the norm, the repetition of the same, and the prescription of the new. The classical and neoclassical notions of type were based on the embodiment of ideals that referred, through nature and time, to principles and rules that conferred authority to the building, while the modern typology led to disembodiment. The new abstract typology was formed by means of calculation, determined by the laws of evolution, and grafters onto the skin by thousands of inscriptions. Although type never informed architecture (except as revival), the idea of typology reorganized the environment in a thoroughly normative way (69).

In his analysis, Teyssot draws a clear line between ‘neoclassical’ and ‘modern’ conceptions of type theory by associating the latter with at least four steady principles:

  1. The abolition of the concept of mimesis
  2. The institutionalization of the concept of the norm (or statistical mean)
  3. The repetition of the norm, and
  4. The prescription of the new

I have no trouble following points 2, 3 and 4 of his analysis, and really appreciate the unintended implication that statistical conceptions of the body tended to devalue the specificity of the human body and ‘disembody’ human body metaphors in very interesting ways. However, the point on mimesis throws me a bit. Teyssot focuses on the disciplinary shift away from neoclassical depictions of type form toward modern notions of typology, which he sees as manifest in the complete replacement of mimesis (imitation) with the physical representation of a statistical mean. Given this definition of typology, it is no surprise that Teyssot uses Adolphe Quetelet to illustrate this historical transition as he was one of the first scientists to understand human variation through statistical analysis. (Quetelet routinely described entire groups of people with charts illustrating the statistical mean of national populations.) However, I wonder if the transition Teyssot identifies in architecture theory was actually as general and wholesale as he puts it. While an explicit emphasis on the historical transition from type to typology may suggest the complete elision of mimesis in modern architecture, an examination of this same time period through the lens of organicism suggests a continuity of mimesis, although along slightly different lines than those of classical and neoclassical theory.

The art historian Caroline van Eck has characterized nineteenth-century architectural organicism as a transformation of mimesis in her analysis of modern architecture (Van Eck, 1996). In her text, Organicism in Nineteenth Century Architecture she describes organicism as a long line of nature theories in architecture that became more scientific in character by the late nineteenth century. However, this attraction to the sciences resulted in a shift from a direct imitation of natural specimens as ornament in neoclassical mimesis to the imitation of the nature’s processes for creating variety in architectural design In van Eck’s description, the focus of modern theories of mimesis merely shifted away from the literal imitation of natural products to its means of production. This emphasis on process over image helps van Eck account for the similarities that existed between several rubrics of architectural organicism, some of which were associated with orthogonal geometries and others with curvilinear forms.

Perhaps the distance between Teyssot’s comparative analysis of type/typology and van Eck’s intellectual history on architectural organicism can be accounted for in terms of their different points of emphasis. For example, it seems important for van Eck to identify the points of continuity that existed between Platonic, classical/neoclassical, and nineteenth-century theories of nature in architecture. Teyssot, on the other hand, stays interested in the ways that type theory begins to express the ephemeral in nature. This ephemeral is not so much the root causes of difference in nature, as was at the root of scientific investigations in nineteenth century ethnography, but in the empirical means of measuring such differences. Of course, if one focused primarily no the concept of race instead of type, the geometrical lessons (for architects at least) might have remained more opaque in his analysis. These different lenses are bound to account for some of the divergent findings, but I’ll keep reading to see if there are any others. I invite anyone else who has read through Teyssot’s book to give me their own opinions. It might help me to relate these two works over the next couple of weeks…

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About cldavisii

Charles Davis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture History at SUNY Buffalo. He has a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.Arch from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His specialization is the role of racial discourses in modern architectural style debates, including the ways that organic concepts of form allowed designers to invest buildings with racial and ethnic characters. In addition to maintaining this blog, his academic research and books reviews can be found in journals such as Architecture Research Quarterly (arq), the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Append-x and VIA. He is co-editor of Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden consequences (Routledge: 2015), a volume of fifteen case studies examining the influence of diversity of contemporary design. His dissertation research will be published in an upcoming monograph entitled Building Character: the Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press).