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.