A recent escape from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, in which two convicted murderers cut through steel jail-cell walls to reach a mechanical system catwalk and a large drainage pipe leading to a manhole cover outside, brings to mind a 1988 text by Beatriz Colomina that was fashionable when I was student:
Greek legend insists that Daedalus was the first architect, but this is hardly the case: although he built the Cretan labyrinth, he never understood its structure. He could only escape, in fact, by flying out of its vortex. Instead it may be argued that Ariadne achieved the first work of architecture, since it was she who gave Theseus the ball of thread by means of which he found his way out of the labyrinth after having killed the Minotaur. Thus while Ariadne did not build the labyrinth, she was the one who interpreted it; and this is architecture in the modern sense of the term. (Beatriz Colomina, Architectureproduction, p.7)
By Colomina’s analogy, the Clinton Correctional Facility’s “architects” would not be the professionals who designed and supervised the construction of the building in its day, but rather the two convicts who recently managed to escape from it, since it is they who successfully “interpreted it” and figured out the labyrinthine architecture of its mechanical systems. Obviously, the “builders” of the facility did not ever truly “understand its structure”, as the breaching of its security has clearly made evident.
With all due respect, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Colomina privileging interpretation over technical knowledge and experience when it comes to architecture. If the architect is the one who intellectually unravels a building rather than the one who designs and builds it, then that makes a critical reviewer of buildings (such as myself on occasion) somehow more qualified to call themselves an architect than those who actually do all the grunt work and bear all the liability for a good part of the rest of their lives. Flattering, but somewhat unfair.
But let’s go back to our escapee-architects, wherever they may lurk. In their case, Ariadne’s ball of thread alone would not have served them sufficiently. This being a modern structure made of steel and concrete, it was also necessary for the escapees to know how to actually cut through walls and pipes using the appropriate tools and techniques. In other words, not only were these ‘modernists’ able to intellectually interpret the metaphysics of the building, but they were also able to overcome its physics. Talk about architectural heroics.
There are some other words –these ones written by Bernard Tschumi some years before Colomina wrote hers– that were also very fashionable when I was a student, but that never made any sense at all to me. Until now, that is: “To really appreciate architecture, you may even need to commit a murder.”