TERRIBLE BEAUTY 2: the ineffable

When was the last time you heard the word ‘ineffable’ in a discussion about architecture? Never? Well, I’m not surprised. Ineffable means ‘unspeakable’—that which cannot be said—so I can understand why people do not speak of it. And yet, the ineffable is an important concept and even more so a momentous and profoundly disturbing experience when we encounter it, which most of us will, at one time or another, in the unfolding of our lives.

The ineffable is sometimes called ‘the beauty beyond expression,’ having to do with the apprehension of the divine, or with some essence of existence hidden from us in normal situations. The ineffable is revealed only when the curtain of normalcy around us is pulled away and we are confronted with a very different world than we imagined we inhabit. This is often a frightening experience, even terrifying because we’re not sure what to do next, or what to think. A car accident, a tornado, the loss of someone we love and need—traumatic experiences that shake us out of our accustomed, taken-for-granted reality and we are left to struggle for understanding. Only thrill-seekers who enjoy the adrenalin-rush of fear seek out such experiences. The rest of us try to keep things as they are, paying the price of boredom, if necessary, to keep ourselves in the comfort range of the familiar. The ineffable is well out of our comfort range.

For this reason, the ineffable is not a topic, let alone a goal, of architectural design. We can say that in fact design is the enemy of and a defense against the ineffable. As soon as we design, we start to control, to set up the defining boundaries and limits and we squeeze out the ineffable, which is something that emerges when systems fail, when the limits are transgressed, and when things fall apart. We like to set up things so we feel we are in control. Our environment is designed to reassure us that everything is OK. That is what politicians do, telling us “Everything is OK, don’t worry about Iraq, it’s going to be OK—don’t worry about pollution, we are going to take care of it.” Architects are a big part of this game of reassurance. We design endless variations of the normal and the familiar, sometimes dressing it up to look different, but inside—when we inhabit it—we find that we can behave and think normally. Our perception of the world is not affected or changed.

I grow weary when I hear the optimistic talk of architects proclaiming, like salespersons, that architecture will make living easier, more pleasurable, safer, more secure. Our habits—the optimistic talk being one of them—only serve to reassure us that everything is OK, even if it is not. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable; we don’t want to have to move in a way that we are not habitually used to moving. But it is only when we are shaken out of our habits that we are able to change and to grow. What if to make things better, to enable people to cope creatively with the traumas of change, we have to make things more difficult, more risky, less secure? How often have architects dared to do that?

A strong sense of the ineffable is seen in the photograph of a group of people obviously in distress. The photograph itself is not a self-conscious artwork, concerned with the limits of photography and the like, but a work of journalism, showing us a piece of a particular event.

What they are looking at is a moment of the destruction of the city where they live, Sarajevo in Bosnia in 1992. They are looking at the places where they have lived that have just been destroyed, by artillery and mortar fire. They are looking at their friends and neighbors shot dead by snipers, lying in the streets. Their sense of reality, their sense of the normality of life has been shattered. Intentional violence has destroyed the familiar for them, what they relied on, how they identified themselves, who they were, what they did every day. Theirs are the faces of the ineffable.

A wounded woman is being rescued in a street under attack. There is an urgent sense of panic, of terror. In such moments, the ineffable fully breaks out and it is unspeakable. The photograph only makes us aware of its existence, being second-hand. You had to be there as Paul Lowe, a very courageous photographer, whom I met there in ’93, was—to know the ineffable’s full dimensions. “Is this the end? What is life worth, if everything that matters is destroyed?” Blind instinct takes over, and we are far beyond the realm of the habitual and any forms of comfort.

War is an extreme of destructive violence, but so are the ‘natural’ disasters. In New Orleans, the violence of Katrina’s extreme wind and flood destroyed people’s worlds as effectively as war. Normal rooms are absurdly rearranged, becoming parodies of the everyday. Compared with a wholesale destruction of buildings the damage seems small, but the fabric of the everyday is more subtle and fragile than we think. The sofa is still there, but no one can any longer sit or lie on it. The ‘sanctity of the home’ has been violated, and it matters little that it was by accident and not by intention. Some terrible event has occurred and the ineffable has broken through into reality, leaving us with the dread that our existence is really very tenuous and not at all assured.

Painful ironies abound. The new buildings tipped-over by an earthquake in Taiwan fell because architects and engineers left the ground floors as open as possible for shopping malls, weakening them in disregard for the threat from powerful lateral earth forces active in a seismic zone. Who is to blame here—nature, or the architects and engineers? From the viewpoint of the inhabitants caught in this catastrophe, it hardly matters. The ineffable cannot be designed, but design can unintentionally invite it in.

The list goes on. The ‘urban clearance’ of German and Japanese cities designed during World War II by British and American war planners unleashed hell on earth, and also an entire world of ineffability where ‘the shock of the new’ was at once a sound of doom and the prelude to the construction of a post-war world. People affected simply had to ‘adjust’ and ‘adapt.’ Is it necessary to bomb cities flat in order to build them anew? Obviously not. But some form of destruction of the old is necessary, and that produces for many the trauma of change. Is, then, the ineffable also the inevitable?

Before answering, I’ll extend my list of sources of the ineffable by one more: the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Until then, America had prided itself on its major cities never having been violently attacked by a foreign enemy. We had never suffered the sort of destruction experienced by Europeans and Asians in World War II, save for some home-grown exceptions like the Civil War (called by historians the first modern war, in part because cities became targets) and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But now, major American cities were attacked, and our whole idea of reality was twisted. The destruction was limited, but the fact that it was caused by foreigners, using American airliners as weapons, qualified the attack as a national calamity. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Loss of so many lives, loss of physical symbols of American power, loss of the sense of invulnerability, loss of innocence, however misplaced it had been, loss of America’s privileged place in the world. A profound sense of loss is the main effect of our experience of the ineffable.

Coming back to the faces photographed in Sarajevo, we might be able to see that they don’t belong to some people somewhere else. They are our faces. These faces portray unspeakable loss, as do the photos of the collapsing towers, and their ruins.

But there is also something else.

Loss is inevitable in the story of each person. Losing your wallet, losing your job, losing your home, your family, your city—the degree of loss escalates from the inconvenient to the inconceivable, and with it the experience of the ineffable. Loss, however, is necessary in order for us to change, not only in our habits, but also in our understandings and beliefs. As long as we cling comfortably to what we are and know, we cannot learn, or create. If design is to be a creative act, it must take on the most difficult situations in our lives. It must offer more than comfort and reassurance. It must confront the unspeakable—the ineffable—and become a means by which we can transcend it. This means that we—as individuals and as architects—must, as the Existentialist poet Nikos Kazantzakis once put it, “build the affirmative structure of our lives over an abyss of nothingness.” A heroic—probably too heroic—task, it is true. Except for those who have no choice.


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