“You can’t type letters in the Pantheon,” says Phillip Johnson in an archive interview recently posted to the Guggenheims website. It’s the last line in a comparison he is making between two big architectural spaces. First, the monumental, hyper-geometric space of the Pantheon and secondly, the beautiful, beaurocratic space of Frank Lloyd Wrights Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, WI – a place explicitly designed to type letters in. While officious guards might have a problem with you setting up a desk in the Pantheon, it’s not physically impossible to write letters there, only unlikely.
We can make a pretty good guess at the kind of letters written from the HQ of a global cleaning product company. But what might the content of letters from the Pantheon be?
We might imagine letters from the Pantheon to be something of another order, as the typist sits under the oculus of the most terrifyingly totalising space the history of architecture has produced. Despite what Johnson says (or even because of what Johnson says), the Pantheon is the perfect place to write letters – at least letters about architecture. These would be letters written from the deep heart of history and canon of architecture – but equally an act of transgression (at least in Johnsons eyes). Just like Tschumis ‘Adverts for Architecture’ (sample copy: “To experience architecture you may even need to commit murder: Murder in the street differs from murder in the cathedral in the same way love in the street differs from the Street of Love”), the act of typing in the Pantheon would be an architectural act itself. And the writing it might produce might be half overwhelmed by the sublime sci-fi singularity of the Pantheon. Or buried deep in another time. But most of all, these letters would be the result of some strange speculative architectural act.
Of course, this is an elaborate metaphor to underline the importance of writing from front line, of what we might call ‘embedded criticism’, or writing as an architectural act in and of itself. It is markedly different from detached, professional critics, whose duty is to explain, be topical, contextualise – essentially a form of writing whose form is prescribed within a received form: of journalism, of criticism or of the academy. These are positions in which the author is distanced from the subject. Distanced by time – writing before or after the architectural act; distant geographically; distant socially.
That’s why we can argue for the importance of architects writing their own histories, publishing their own agendas and documenting their own landscapes. By confusing (or fusing) production, reproduction and dissemination with the practice of architecture an expanded, speculative field opens up.