|CCTV, OMA, 2012 (source)
||From Exiles, Josef Koudelka (source)
Impossible is not what it used to be. Once, the possible in architecture was largely defined by technical limits. Designers who challenged the physical world risked catastrophic failure. When the vaults of Beauvais Cathedral collapsed in 1284, the entire Gothic enterprise lost its nerve to build higher, thinner, and lighter – though the Church’s drive to assert its power through smaller structures continued.
Today, the idea of architecture constrained by material limits seems quaint. The world’s great architects follow their vision, confident that with the right engineers in their corner, there’s nothing they can’t do.
Consider the CCTV headquarters in Beijing: two canted towers joined with an L-shaped cantilever. Deliberately and flamboyantly massive, each of the cantilever’s arms is a thirteen-story rebuttal of the laws of gravity. To build it, every step of the construction process was analyzed and monitored, down to the incremental movements between the towers on the morning they were linked.
One might credit advanced technology with making the impossible possible in Beijing. But that is only part of the story. Equal credit goes to the perfect storm of circumstances that brought the project into being: an authoritarian client out to prove itself to the world. An architect with a penchant for iconic shapes. And the Olympics, providing the showcase and the deadline.
Described this way, the twelfth-century Catholic church and twenty-first century Chinese broadcaster have a lot in common. Perhaps the real limit of architecture, then and now, is not technical but social, even emotional: the desire that focuses political will, financial means, and technical skill on realizing the impossible.
‘Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actually here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation’
—Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual
Cant refers to one of any number of secret languages used by Bulgarian masons (Meshterski), Bosnian bricklayers (Banjački), Russian or Yugoslavian criminals (Fenya, Šatrovački), or Galician knife-sharpeners and umbrella-repairers (Barallete). Its etymological parents are disputed (either from the Latin cantare, ‘to sing’, or from Celtic variants, chainnt or caint, ‘speech talk’), which seems consistent with a cant’s capacity as an orphanage of words, since most cases of argot bypass the normal etymological process by simply supplanting common-usage words with more or less arbitrary alternatives, within the original grammatical structure. In very simple terms, it’s slang. One letter away from slant.
Cant trades in the business of withholding, protecting. Also, sheltering the strange within the familiar. The arrangement of these four letters in a single syllable feels common enough, a word with the qualities of a turnip (hardy and bland) or a grayish brown bird. There is an ordinariness that recedes from one’s attention. Recedes, in order to hide in plain sight. In order to create a secret, safe harbor of neglect where thought, or power, can grow.
In architecture, it is a face that looks back, catching the eye of the viewer, while already turning away. Cant in three dimensions. But I want to return to Said’s ‘double perspective’ and Josef Koudelka’s imagery of exile: cant in two dimensions. The recurrent lilt of Koudelka’s compositions feels like the result of a hardwired penchant for the oblique. It is never gratuitously ‘interesting’ because that angle is not merely an aesthetic choice; it is an acknowledgement of a dual citizenship between the countries of ‘what has been left behind and what is actually here and now’.