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The Prearchitectonic Condition: Architecture Before Architecture

The Prearchitectonic Condition: Architecture Before Architecture

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

5:30 PM–6:30 PM
The Clark
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Spyros Papapetros, Princeton University, Beinecke Fellow (Fall 2015)
The Prearchitectonic Condition: Architecture Before Architecture
Originally presented on November 17, 2015


The lecture starts with an image of intermittent catastrophe. An ethnographic photograph from Indochina shares the screen with the imaginary diagram of an archaeological burial ground enumerating the human, animal, artifactual, and building remains of the previous scene following a sudden cataclysm invented by the author of this morbid pseudo-archaeological vision, the paleontologist Leroi-Gourhan in order to launch a discussion on his method. The lecture closes with another catastrophe, once again announced by Leroi-Gourhan in his contribution to the Noranda Lectures delivered in conjunction with Expo 67 and its unabashedly antropocentric theme, Man and his World. Seemingly unaffected by the euphoria of the celebratory occasion, the French paleontologist used his moment on the podium to remind his audience of the recurrent cataclysms that have periodically brought prehistory back to the world and the life of humans. Following a catastrophic event, every era invents its own prehistory, so that human history can start again from the beginning. Prehistory, in other words, and the concomitant condition of prearchitecture, do not commence at a single era thousands of years ago, nor are they the singular invention of the middle of the nineteenth-century that coined the terms Vorgeschichte or prehistoire. Like Semper’s “vorarchitektonischer Zustand” prehistory and prearchitecture are re-current “conditions” in which both architecture and history relapse following the unfolding of a cataclysm; they do not happen before but tend to follow after.

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An Update from Spyros Papapetros

Writing an update on a lecture on The Prearchitectonic Condition while in the midst of a global epidemic, I think of the new prehistories that will originate in its aftermath, and which may necessitate a more general update about anything all of us have previously said or written. I realize that this new update by (rather than simply on) the virus may render my own previous research obsolete and/or reconstitute it as prehistory. The global breakout of the epidemic this spring found me in Vienna finalizing the editing of an unpublished book manuscript by Frederick Kiesler titled Magic Architecture: The Story of Human Housing scheduled to appear next year with the MIT Press. Kiesler’s paleoanthropological references to the habitations of the first humans at the entrances of caves were also entry points for my own prehistorical research. Written over seventy years ago at the end of World War II and following the atomic disaster, Kiesler’s portrayal of architecture as a “defense mechanism” producing buildings that are whole body “suits“ against an all-embracing “Fear of the Unseen” reverberated, uncannily, with the defensive architectures inside hospitals and other hastily improvised structures installed around the globe in the last months. While parts of this previous prehistory I recounted at the Clark have been already published, including an online article on “pre/post/erous histories” available on the e-flux platform and an article in French included in the catalogue of the recent exhibition Préhistoire, une énigme moderne staged at the Pompidou last summer (2019), I am looking forward to revising the manuscript of a small book titled Prearchitecture, scheduled to appear in the spring of 2021 as part of the book series on Critical Spatial Practice edited by Nikolaus Hirsch for Sternberg Press, and which I hope will become the introduction to the larger book on The Prearchitectonic Condition that will follow.

My thank yous at the Clark extend to my former fellows Michael Brenson, Maureen Shanahan, and Kavita Singh, for the many conversations we had while all of us lived and worked in relative isolation at the Visiting Scholars' Residence (while the Manton Center was being renovated) and especially to Joanna Smith, the genuine prehistorian and proto-historian of our group, from whose expertise I learned so much. I also want to thank former RAP Director Darby English for inviting me to the Clark, Interim Director Michael Ann Holly, whose unrelenting dedication to historiography and art history as a theoretical discipline remain a constant source of inspiration long after that fall semester, Assistant Director Lauren Cannady, the guardian angel of all fellows Deborah Fehr, Chris Heuer for introducing my lecture four weeks after it was first cancelled, and current RAP Director, Caro Fowler, who invited me to reflect on this update.

Spyros Papapetros

Associate Professor, History and Theory 

Faculty, School of Architecture

Associated Faculty, Department of Art and Archaeology

Princeton University
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Next Up in the Archives

April 28: Shira Brisman, “The Provisionality of Sixteenth-Century Designs”
May 5: Martha Buskirk, “The Convenient Fiction of Authorship (On the Intertwined Fortunes of Art and Copyright)”
May 12: Andrew K. Scherer, “Baak: The Qualities and Craft of Ancient Maya Bone”

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