Architecture - The Essay

— In Documents #2, May, 1929. Paris. (Reprinted in Denis Holier, Against Architecture: Writings of Georges Bataille. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London.1992.

Keywords: Architecture, Society, Control

Architecture is the ex­pres­sion of the very soul of so­ci­eties, just as hu­man phys­iog­nomy is the ex­pres­sion of the in­di­vid­u­als’ souls. It is, how­ever, par­tic­u­larly to the phys­iog­nomies of of­fi­cial per­son­ages (prelates, mag­is­trates, ad­mi­rals) that this com­par­i­son per­tains. In fact it is only the ideal soul of so­ci­ety, that which has au­thor­ity to com­mand and pro­hibit, that is ex­pressed in ar­chi­tec­tural com­po­si­tions prop­erly speak­ing. Thus great mon­u­ments are erected like dikes, op­pos­ing the logic and majesty of au­thor­ity against all dis­turb­ing el­e­ments: it is in the form of cathe­dral or palace that Church or State speaks to the mul­ti­tudes and im­poses si­lence upon them. It is, in fact ob­vi­ous that mon­u­ments in­spire so­cial pru­dence and of­ten even real fear. The tak­ing of the Bastille is sym­bolic of this state of things: it is hard to ex­plain this crowd move­ment other than by the an­i­mos­ity of the peo­ple against the mon­u­ments that are their real mas­ters.

Moreover, each time that ar­chi­tec­tural com­po­si­tion turns up some­where other than in mon­u­ments, whether it is in phys­iog­nomy, cos­tume, mu­sic, or paint­ing, one may in­fer a pre­vail­ing taste for di­vine or hu­man au­thor­ity. The great com­po­si­tions of cer­tain painters ex­press the de­sire to force the spirit into an of­fi­cial ideal. The dis­ap­pear­ance of aca­d­e­mic con­struc­tion in paint­ing is, on the con­trary, the open­ing of the gates to ex­pres­sion (hence even ex­al­ta­tion) of psy­cho­log­i­cal processes that are the most in­com­pat­i­ble with so­cial sta­bil­ity. This, to a large ex­tent, ex­plains the strong re­ac­tions pro­voked for more than half a cen­tury by the pro­gres­sive trans­for­ma­tion of paint­ing that, up un­til then, was char­ac­terised by a sort of hid­den ar­chi­tec­tural skele­ton.

It is ob­vi­ous, more­over that math­e­mat­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tion im­posed on stone is none other than the com­ple­tion of an evo­lu­tion of earthly forms, whose mean­ing is given, in the bi­o­log­i­cal or­der, by the pas­sage of the simian to the hu­man form. The lat­ter al­ready pre­sent­ing all the el­e­ments of ar­chi­tec­ture. In mor­pho­log­i­cal progress men ap­par­ently rep­re­sent only an in­ter­me­di­ate stage be­tween mon­keys and great ed­i­fices. Forms have be­come more and more sta­tic, more and more dom­i­nant. The hu­man or­der from the be­gin­ning is, just as eas­ily, bound up with ar­chi­tec­tural or­der, which is no more than its de­vel­op­ment. And if one at­tacks ar­chi­tec­ture, whose mon­u­men­tal pro­duc­tions are at pre­sent the real mas­ters of the world, group­ing servile mul­ti­tudes in their shad­ows, im­pos­ing ad­mi­ra­tion and as­ton­ish­ment, one is, as it were, at­tack­ing man. One whole earthly ac­tiv­ity at pre­sent, doubt­less the one that is most bril­liant in the in­tel­lec­tual or­der, demon­strates, more­over, just such a ten­dency, de­nounc­ing the in­ad­e­quacy of hu­man pre-dom­i­nance: thus, strange as it may seem when con­cern­ing a crea­ture as el­e­gant as the hu­man be­ing, a way opens up – in­di­cated by painters – in the di­rec­tion of bes­tial mon­stros­ity; as if there were no other pos­si­bil­ity of es­cap­ing the ar­chi­tec­tural chain gang.