ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)
Author: Maria Bostenaru Dan
Translated into English by the author.

Review of:

Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvell: Les objets singuliers – Architecture et Philosophie, Calman-Lévy, 2000.

Obiectele singulare [arhitectură şi filosofie]. Ciprian Mihali (rumänisch) Paideia, Bucureşti, 2005.

Einzigartige Objekte: Architektur und Philosophie, Eva Werth (Übersetzer), Passagen Verlag, Wien, 2004.

Singular Objects Of Architecture – Architecture and Philosophy University Of Minnesota Press, 2002.

A singular object is an irreducible cultural creation, which cannot be replaced and which is transcendent. A singular object is not only a building. It can also be a colour (for example Richard Meier builds in white). It can also be an idea or a person. The singular objects are unique pieces they cannot be interpreted with the help of what we know about other objects. A singular object is not necessarily beautiful. Also the monsters, the bug objects without any relation to the context “catapulted” in a city are singular. At the same time, a beloved object is not necessarily singular. Sometimes an object “becomes”, and this is an essential concept about which the two discuss, singular through the historical and social conditions. A singular object is an event. Also the style does not lead necessarily to singularity, “only when the style is exactly a singular vision”. So the big architects of the 20th century, Wright, Le Corbusier, Aalto and Kahn are from a remarkable singularity in whole and in detail, which bears their signature. “The style should reflect the singular way of thinking the world”. Baudrillard and Nouvell agree that singular objects are of huge importance. Also when the concept singularity is only used sporadically in the whole book, the chapter which is dedicated to this can be found at the end of the book. The discussions are about modernity and post modernity, and the future of architecture. The future life of architecture, is a question to which the answer is searched for until the end. A key element is that of “becoming”. The danger is bigger for the city than for the architecture. The city, as it was till the 19th century, could disappear and no longer be defined through space but through time, the time to meet. Before coming to singularity, the idea of “secret” and “seduction” is developed. These are not the only difficult to define concepts which appear in the book. Both discussions start with a dialogue about “truth” and “radicality”. The truth is essential for the singularity. It is exactly the discussion about truth and radicality which introduces one of the few singular objects identified in the book: the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center identifies the verticality of New York, a city, which fascinates Baudrillard. But it is also an expression of our world, an expression of cloning, the twin towers. The truth is related to the architectural object as an event. Such an architectonic object cannot be explained in whole, it is a secret. Another basic concept is that of “identity”. Another discussed singular object is Beaubourg, known also as Centre Pompidou, of the architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. Beaubourg is an example of truth in the world of architecture, like the World Trade Center. The pyramid of Louvre is no singular object but La Défense is, although it was not clear from the beginning that it would be, it has created a seldom space, with the framed horizon.

Society today tries to aestheticize the nothing. A discussed example is the one which “opened the way” showing how Duchamp transformed a pissoir in an art object (fountain). In architecture there is something equivalent. The relation to the object is different, there is no distance, Baudrillard introduces a comparison: with photography. In photography Baudrillard re-finds the picture, the technique makes possible hundreds of images, but only some of them are pictures. Through the technique the subject is neutralized. The picture has a secret, is a wild. The picture and the text are two registers of singularity. A comparable danger for architecture is the ready-made houses. In this context another concept is introduced: “the void”. Kenzo Tange has designed a museum in Nice, which is not used, it is the museum of the void. He has designed nothing since. “He has reached the last point”. In connection with architectural history, the genesis of the significations of a place, “the void“ has another meaning – to make a void is the preamble of any authentic creation. If you make no void, you will never achieve singularity. You will produce remarkable things, but through the succession of sequences of a genesis of accumulation”.

An interesting part is the one which takes position vis a vis of the existing. Jean Nouvell gives the example of a conversion of an industrial derelict land in Marseille in a cultural space. It is a rare opportunity as spaces with large spans, such as those of industries, are no longer built since it is too expensive. This opens the discussion about the role of architectural history and the difference between mutation and rehabilitation. The rehabilitation is exemplified with postwar blocks of flats from the years 1960-70. In the interventions on them i.e. the thermal insulation or the painting improve the look, but not the social aspects and it remains at the much critiqued zoning. They are rehabilitated, but no mutation takes place. The interventions on the existing are called “modification”. It must be proceeded with attention, so as not to exclude the poorer layers. Jean Nouvell sees that the architects of today must work with the “raw material” in the cities, since “in the North” the growth has stopped. It is the position towards another existing, than those signs of the past, which have to be conserved. In such a creation process of the cities the “radical” can appear.  Industrial spaces can also be “dream” housing. An example of successful architecture through the “creation of layers” is that of Carlo Scarpa. This connects the question of the years 1960-70 “what do I destroy” with that of “Formol” namely “what do I conserve”. The change can be the excuse for everything, the becoming will be decided dependent on the “before” existing and from the planned future.

There are different concept antonyms. The singularity is put in antagonism with the mondialisation, a French expression, related, but not identical to that of globalization. The mondial is basically different from the universal; the universal supposes a system of values. The becoming is the antonym of change. A city can be changed, but it will not always become something. And the mutation is the antonym of the rehabilitation. The liberty is the antonym of liberation. The cloning of authenticity.

Political aspects are not lacking from the book, it is talked about a “complicity” between the architect and the investor. The architect is no “free” artist as the painter and the writer. It is a point where Baudrillard contradicts Novell: the writer is dependent on the publisher, but still, a work of architecture exists only in built form, comes the answer, while a writing exists as work also unpublished, and can be discovered later. “The liberty” becomes another basic discussed concept. The discussion about the liberty closes the second discussion and the volume. Under the conditions of the liberty the individual “does not know any longer, who he is ”, and he is “constrained, to find a new identity”. The liberty is a dictate of modernity. But modernity, as it is stated elsewhere in book, has ended. In some moments the discussion takes place in parallel as, for example, when it is about transparence. Nouvell talks about the transparence of the material, about the glass, the light as material, while Baudrillard sees transparence in political sense. It is about the “secrets of transparence” against the “dictatorship of transparence”. The transparence and the screening can generate secrets, the singularity of an architectural object. Relation is taken on the virtuality: seduction space, space, sequence from a chain of spaces. Not the virtual space of the computer. Actually the computer aided design is criticised, as it opens the possibility of cloning, of an automatic architecture. It is only through the change of some parameters that another house can be created. There are also positive aspects of the computer aided design, as in case of Frank Gehry. Both discuss the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Here computer science was employed in the service of architecture. Computer science also covers other dangers, the danger of exclusion of those who are not computer literate, a majority. “The real space is shared, the virtual not, it is the privilege of those who have access to it.”

This putting face to face of philosophers and architects is the result of an initiative of the House of Writers and the Architecture School Paris-La Villette. In the frame of the project “Passarels in the City” event, meetings between the known Jean Baudrillard (philosopher) and Jean Nouvell (architect) took place. The book reproduces two of these discussions. Singularity in mathematics is a break point of a function, called singularity point: up to the singularity point the function develops normally, from the singularity point, but there is also a break point. The virtual, the transparence, the seduction are some of the determinative concepts of the architecture of Nouvell. Baudrillard was himself a photographer, his position, which was also expressed in the book, was followed in this way in frame of the GK (Research Training Network) 658, Picture – Body – Medium“ at the University of Art and Design Karlsruhe (2000-2009). We followed the significance of the space from the relationship picture-image: “The difference between the space and the material part of a building is similar to what – in the anthropology of the image – constitutes a difference between image and picture, between the mental and the physical aspects of a visual experience”. But it is not the virtual space. The virtual space can be also that of memory, if something doesn’t exist anymore, except in the archives, or as hidden substance. The process of layer building in the work of Carlo Scarpa was thoroughly investigated in the same years in which the book was written.

Even if in the book it is differentiated between the “North” and the rest of the world, the actual topics of the West arrived later in Eastern Europe, due to a time lag given by the communist dictatorship. It is not only the case of the “autonomous architecture”, which can be singular objects in our opinion, but also of the participative construction. Since the discussion methods were developed to make it possible that the disadvantaged layers take part in urban developments through computer supported participation (PPGIS). The orientation towards architecture of the existing as resource was the topic of the World Congress of Architecture in Berlin in 2002 and of the architecture Biennale in Romania in 2010. In Romania still in the years before the crisis new buildings were the majority – even now it is, as the catalogue shows. The topics of the book started to be actual also here in the last time – at the Romanian Architecture Biennale 2010 the main medal was given for the conversion of a brewery into housing, whilst the rehabilitation of the blocks of flats from the time 1960-80 has started.

The book presents a dialogue between architecture and philosophy, which is in the meantime research direction at the Ion Mincu University for Architecture and Urbanism, at the doctoral school. Different directions of philosophy can be extracted from methods for architectural research. Among these, phenomenology  is best known, to which topic there are conferences (2007 Haifa, 2009 Kyoto), but also the semiotics, to which Baudrillard contributed, and other directions, which may not be assigned to deconstruction, like Deleuze  or which may be assigned  — like Derrida . Ten years after publication the book remains an essential component in the Baudrillardian literature in Romania and elsewhere.

About the Author
Maria Bostenaru Dan is from Ion Mincu University of Architecture and Urbanism, Bucharst, Romania


Maria Bostenaru Dan (2010). “The flat and the knurled space in the reconstruction of cities”. In Thomas Panagopoulos et. al., Advances in Urban Rehabilitation and Sustainability, WSEAS Press: 80-85.

Gerry Coulter (2008). “Baudrillardian Photography In the Contemporary“. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 5, Number 1

Gerry Coulter and Kelly Reid. “The Baudrillardian Photograph As Theory: Making The World A Little More Unintelligible and EnigmaticInternational Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 4, Number 1.

Richard Coyne (2011). Derrida for Architects, Routledge.

Kim Diorio (2003). Architecture’s Omnipresence: (link no longer active 2018)

Julian Haladyn (2006). “Baudrillard’s Photography: A Hyperreal Disappearance Into The Object?“. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 3, Number 2

Bohning Ingo (1981). Autonome Architektur und Partizipatorisches Bauen, Birkhäuser Verlag, Zürich.

Alexandru Matei (2005). Nimic în exces. In Observatorul cultural, Number 283:*articleID_13797-articles_details.html (no longer active 2018)

Catrin-Anne Schultz (1999). Der Schichtungsprozess im Werk von Carlo Scarpa, Dissertation, Universität Stuttgart, 1999:

Norberg-Schulz, Christian: Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, Rizzoli, New York, 1980.