Superordinary: On the Problematique of the Ordinary

Essay by Antonio Petrov

 

No question about it, the obsession of the age is for the original version. Only the original possesses an aura, this mysterious and mystical quality that no second hand version will ever get. But paradoxically, this obsession for pinpointing originality increases proportionally with the availability and accessibility of more and more copies of better and better quality. [1]
Bruno Latour

 

How do we articulate architecture as an expanded definition that infinitely varies in forms and aesthetic conventions, evolved, changed, and disintegrated beyond politically charged (canonical) constructions? And how do we move past the exhaustion of theories and speculations that have acquired an aura of something akin to intelligence to confront a continually contested subject?

Needless to say, to find answers is complex. Any attempt to capture the multifarious territory of theory and practice seem implausible; no single definition or spatial determination can include its multivalent readings, cultivations, and mappings; we call for broader and more nuanced definitions and continue to question the role, or rather, if architecture is the answer. For more than half a millennium, or at least since the days when Leone Battista Alberti or Andrea Palladio designed “extraordinary” villas for their patrons in Italy, architecture has lost the ability to critically mediate between ethical positions and aesthetic formulations. Stereotyping, idiosyncratic characterizations, and the oxymoronic problematization of the larger subject only indicate how bounded, or genuinely unbounded, architecture and its discourses are. It seems as if there is no capacity to extend the means of its own determination beyond the own self. The grand western narratives not only continue to yield this fruitful picture—of the previously dismissed particulars that belie any canonical view—but also the uses to which such interpretations were in fact put.

My account will not assume or attempt to clarify the contested relationships between history, theory, and practice; or architecture and the city, in which architecture is subsumed in the ordinary and extends itself through it. Rather, the relationships I attempt to associate with are relations to a “third” condition, the “superordinary,” [2] and how it recovers new dialogues and new lines of critical inquiry. In contention is not the question, “what is ordinary?” but “how is ordinary?”—in all of its compelling forms—appropriated, adopted, or adapted in the social, cultural, and political realms beyond the presumed qualities of the “extraordinary.”

Against this backdrop, notions of superordinary conceptualize nuances and appropriations of contemporary design culture and its underlying theoretical underpinnings, with the objective to recover productive links at a deeper thematic and methodological level. I argue that the epistemological framework of the “superordinary” contributes to a clearer logic toward a shift in focus from aesthetic conventions to critical dialogues between culture and design, meaning and form, knowing and knower, creation and dissemination, extending the discussions beyond the autonomous project and singularity, and thus a deeper exploration of its own possibilities.

While the extraordinary is formulated through aesthetic discourses, the superordinary turns to the absence, or the matter-of-fact presence, of the unnoticeable in an attempt to clarify its paradoxical relationship to architecture and the city. For architecture, this means that we generally don’t think to design something that would be considered ordinary. If anything, we fear of critics saying our designs are not special. As architects, we believe our work is (always) extraordinary or “super,” meaning excellent, very good, or at least pleasant. Something ordinary would be considered mundane—that implies a lack of specialness or distinct features, and could be regarded as not worthy of “design.” However, the routine and all other aspects that determine the ordinary make up a reality that seems unnoticed, or at best is absent in design discourses.

This brief characterization may help to make a distinction between “extraordinary” and “superordinary.” However, in a reading of coincidentia oppositorum (unity of opposites), the Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggests how opposing forces are necessary for the existence of things in the material world. The unity of opposites is derived from the thesis of an object and its antithesis, which provide the reference point from which to describe each and quantify them as objects. In this context, the term “extraordinary” does not necessarily help to further define the ordinary other than being “hyperordinary” or “veryordinary.” In fact, it is the amplification of ordinary with no need for specific reference to the “ordinary” subject. Thus, the definition of “superordinary” may provide an antithesis of ordinary that helps to define each, as the ordinary can only clearly exist in in the presence of the “superordinary.” In his theory of dialectics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel presupposes the factual basis for the existence of contradictions and clarifies how opposites are essential to the process of learning. [3] Everything can be understood by its opposite, and if we only understand something through its own meaning we gain no new evidence. In this sense, the superordinary can best be defined as a certain type of presence, not absence, and it is this abstract, intangible, and perhaps habitual presence what distinguishes the superordinary from ordinary. It is also a moment in which the extraordinary breaks from the ordinary; this paradoxical relationship may only materialize its temporal nature in the superordinary ex post facto.

So then what exactly is superordinary? Is it something that takes time to understand? Does its history, and relationship to society, culture, environment, ecology, and material and cultural aesthetics require time, or knowledge to be noticed? Or is it unnoticeable because it contains elements we find neutral, the traits of life we don’t think about that surpass our consciousness with aesthetics that have become something we, everybody, can refer to through everyday use? Who wants to have the ordinary if they can have something extraordinary? Can the superordinary be defined as the absence of something, or as something without identity, style, or originality? Or is the superordinary just the opposite of extraordinary, only on a super-scale?

Based on the terminology, it is very hard to fathom if the superordinary is an oxymoron in which the super opposes the ordinary, if it is “super” beyond “extra,” or if it is the absolute opposite in which the superordinary determines the superlative of ordinary to its greatest degree in its ontological form. Although the etymology of what is considered “ordinary” relates to something “normal” with no special features, in the context of what we determine as superordinary, they are anything but ordinary. Is it something that already exists and is so ordinary that it is familiar, but seeks to go beyond “normality,” which is relative, by “concentrating all quality of normality?” [4]

Merriam Webster defines “super” as something “of high grade or quality.” But it is not until the third category of definition that we actually gain any insight: “exhibiting the characteristic of its type to an excessive degree.” [5] This “type” is the “ordinary.” Surprisingly, the dictionary only explains the most common usage of “ordinary” in its third definition: “the regular or customary condition or course of things.” If we were to attempt to, without specific reference, define the term “superordinary” it may go thusly: “characteristics of a customary condition to an excessive degree.” This definition, of course, is not satisfactory as it only mirrors the description of “extraordinary,” which in the context of this text is ironic, if not counterproductive. We must find where superordinary has specific meaning—if it is to have any meaning at all. There are many factors to consider: ideas about aesthetics, community, usage, and what we define as ordinary become very important in the epiphany that the superordinary is all around us. Why have the ordinary when we could have the superordinary? What happens when the super and the ordinary come together—are we throwing out our perceived notions of the two (words) as singular objects? Are we beginning to fantasize about something more, something utopian, and possibly impossible to achieve but wonderful to strive for?

The familiarity and simultaneous ambiguity of the superordinary evokes images that possibly transcend cultural meanings, architectural aesthetics, and materialities that already exist. These associations, and our expectations of it, leave us indifferent and characterize the superordinary as an absence of something, perhaps something that has no real meaning. For example, the “low” was the product of local knowledge, of the craft tradition. So while this aesthetic attitude condescended to the low, it also gave it a new visibility in the landscape. Rather than dismissing the low as the simple negation or absence of the “high,” this aesthetic conceded legitimacy to the low as a foil for the high. However, who determines what is high or low? For urban sociologist Richard Sennett this is a question of wholeness. In his book, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities, he argues,

 

The Ancient Greek could use his or her eyes to see the complexities of life. The temples, markets, playing fields, meeting places, public sanctuaries, and paintings of the ancient city represented the culture’s values in religion, politics, and family life. . . . One difference between the Greek past and the present is that whereas the ancients could use their eyes in the city to think about political, religious, and erotic experiences, modern culture suffers from a divide between the inside and outside. It is a divide between subjective experience and worldly experience, self and city. [6]

 

In each of these instances, the superordinary (as well as the extraordinary) is evident in its determinacy of the time and setting in which it is addressed; the superordinary recovers the true potential of the whole, and transfers consciousness from the individual to the larger collective.

It is not only a framework of a consciously built environment, but also one of collective perception and engagement with it. This environment, as architectural historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford puts it, “is the point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community.” [7] In his view the city is not only a product of time, a place that represents maximum possibility of “humanizing the natural environment and naturalizing the human heritage, but it gives a cultural shape to the first, and it externalizes, in permanent collective forms, the second.” Moreover, it is also a place “where the diffuse rays of many separate beams of life fall into focus, with gains in both social effectiveness and significance.” Therefore, I understand the superordinary in Mumford’s terms as a “fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art.”

It can be felt and observed in locations from the most obscure and trivial to the most high and sacred, but everything is derived from the ordinary perception of a space and how one understands it through their own experience. To read the superordinary is to always chase something that has just ceased to be. Its temporal nature seems to disrupt the study of static buildings, but if we are to understand the production of space as a social construction, the superordinary seems to agree with the philosophy of the inhabitant as the subject who engenders the space with meaning. Correspondingly, the concept of superordinary defies canonical orders, and allows opportunities to explore a broader more nuanced picture of new social, cultural, and politically complexities in which diverse readings of architecture sanction the problematization of complex relationships between form, function, meaning, the knower, and the known. It constructs a more distinct, a broader, more interdisciplinary, and perhaps an even more twenty-first century perspective of architecture dismantling its paradoxical relationship to itself and the city.

 

Endnotes

1. Bruno Latour, “The Migration of the aura, or how to explore the original through its facsimiles,” in Switching Codes, ed. T. Bartscherer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

2. The “superordinary” was first presented as my doctoral dissertation in 2010 at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design. Titled, Superordinary! Aesthetic and Material Transformations of Megachurch Architecture in the United States, the superordinary aimed to establish a critical framework for evaluating the architectural, cultural, and historical significance of the Protestant megachurch phenomenon in the United States. Part of the findings presented here were also taught in graduate seminars at Wentworth Institute of Technology, ARCH 976 Advanced Topics Graduate History and Theory Seminar, Spring 2012, and at University of Texas San Antonio, ARC 5163 Graduate Seminar, Topics in Contemporary Architecture Superordinary: New Paradigms in Sacred Architecture, Spring 2014.

3. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel, the Essential Writings (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

4. Naoto Fukasawa, Jasper Morrison, and Fondazione La Triennale di Milano, Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2007), 101.

5. Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, s.v. “super,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/super (accessed 07/27, 2014).

6. Richard Sennett, The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities (New York: Knopf, 1990).

7. Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities (New York,: Harcourt, 1938).

 

Antonio Petrov is presently Assistant Professor at the University of Texas San Antonio, and Caudill Visiting Critic at Rice University. He also serves as co-program director of the Expander at Archeworks, director at WAS, a think-tank in Chicago, and as editor-in-chief of DOMA. His research emphasizes on processes of urban and regional restructuring in relation to questions of how architecture as an expanded and geographically inspired idea structures, shapes and produces complex territories.

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