Between Knowledge and Desire

09Feb15

Knowledge and Desire

Architectural drawing’s ability to evoke the body associates knowledge and desire in a complex web whose threads are difficult to untangle. Because a drawing has a degree of autonomy with respect to the intentions at its origin, it is possible that an architectural project drawn from a longing for a specific person also contributes to circulating and reinforcing suppositions about the human body in general. Conversely, an apparently staid architectural drawing that evokes nobody in particular may also be marked with very human desire.

Loos himself offers a case to consider, this time as architect rather than cultural critic. When he designed a never-built (and probably never- commissioned) house for Josephine Baker (1928), his drawings mobilized and transmitted knowledge of the human body in general. The slope of a stairway, the width of passage, and the height of a window all refer to accepted corporal dimensions and abilities. These are encoded in the drawings, available for retrieval by anyone with a means to measure. Despite all the difference Loos would place between himself and his fictional architect, they both mobilize knowledge about how people perceive their surroundings, about the extent of their reach, about the way they occupy a chair. And this knowledge precedes, is refined or generated, and is retrieved in their drawings, with the difference that, in the fictional case, it is simply more dressed up.

At the same time, Loos deployed architecture to express his desire for the dancer’s body. The sections and plans suggest that the Viennese archi- tect imagined Baker swimming in a pool whose submerged walls include large windows looking into the watery stage, enveloping the dancer’s body while putting it on display for guests – a group in which Loos probably hoped to count. In this design, Loos both reproduces disciplinary knowledge about what a body is and should be able to do, and, as Farès el-Dahdah argues, ‘instrumentalizes a building as a tactile extension of his senses in order to covet the exoticized body of an absent Josephine Baker’.

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