Ceci Tuera Cela: The Fate of a Notion (1984)

Graham, Robert. (1984). Ceci tuera cela: The fate of a notion. Parachute, 36, pp. 12-15. Retrieved from https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3645266
© Roy Lichtenstein, Rouen Cathedral Set V, 1969

It occurs often enough that some notion, en­closed as a figure, brought forth for a specific occasion and bound to a particular moment, is plucked up by others, bent and stretched, accu­mulates and develops further meanings and ap­plications, and is eventually received so bat­tered and misshapen that we can only wonder what possible use it may have remaining for anyone.

Such a one is the division and opposition be­ tween architecture and the printing press as first described by Victor Hugo in the second chapter of Book V of the eighth and subsequent editions of his Notre-Dame de Paris (1832), more commonly known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In a complete digression from the narrative course, Hugo pauses in this chapter (entitled Ceci tuera cela, or This Will Kill That) to elabo­rate a thesis on the rise of publication over building as the major domain of signifying activity. “… we may sum the matter up as follows: that architecture, up to the fifteenth century, was the chief register of humanity; that during this interval, no thought of any complexity appeared in the world that was not built into an edifice; that every popular idea, as well as every re­ ligious commandment, had its monument; that human nature, in short, had no thought of im­portance that it did not write in stone.” 1 But in the fifteenth century, “To the stone letters of Or­ pheus are to succeed Gutenberg’s letters of lead.”2

Emboldened by the threat to the physical struc­ tures of medieval Paris, Hugo claimed that ar­ chitecture was not only devalued, but dead.3 For Hugo, what was lost was the building’s, and es­pecially the cathedral’s, capacity to evoke social oceanic feelings of continuity, connection and submission. In the transformation from an or­ganic society to an organized one, from the au­ thority of dogma to the authority of fact, the press replaced the edifice as the primary means of inculcating social allegiance and transmitting the messages and commands of power.

During this century, Hugo’s insight (which, as proposition: the building is a book; always risks triteness), has proved fertile ground for com­ment and extension. Frank Lloyd Wright ac­knowledged its strong influence and saw in Hugo’s declamation the triumph of the Machine over Craft.4 For Roland Barthes, “Hugo shows, in a rather modern way, that he understands the monument and the city truly as a kind of writing, as an inscription by man in space. Hugo’s chap­ter is dedicated to the rivalry between two writ­ings, the writing with stone and the writing on paper.”5 Ayn Rand held Hugo to be the supreme Romantic novelist and, in The Fountainhead, posited an heroic architect against a pandering populist press, thus, in a peculiar inversion, making architecture (the most communal of the arts), an emblem of personal expression. (I am told that some young architects now comport with Rand’s model of Howard Roark: we can ex­pect a few unspeakable practitioners).

It is in the work of the political economist and communications historian Harold Adams Innis that the antinomy seems drawn out most sug­ gestively. In both explicit citation of Hugo and in other references to the opposition, Innis por­ trays the turning and reversing variety, in cycles of both short and long duration, of the com­pound unity and binding tension between writ­ing and building. Innis displays the “conjugant variability” of the two modes as having three types of operational dynamic: first, as conflict, the success of one is at the direct expense of the other — a zero sum situation. Second, as collab­oration or collusion, the media overlap to repeat and reenforce a shared message.6 And third, as complement, each occupies the negative space of the other to compensate for the inadequacies of specialization.

Although Innis considered the ascendancy of the skyscraper to diminish the power of Hugo’s prophecy7, Hugo prefigures Innis in his concern for the modal hegemonies of knowledge and the imbalance, dislocation and destructive amnesia they provoke. While Hugo flourished a hundred and fifty years past and Innis died some thirty years ago, I believe that the binary opposition of writing/building retains some revelatory capac­ ity as a tool for analysis and criticism. Again, Hugo: “In the days of architecture it [thought] transformed itself into a mass of stone, and took forcible possession of an age and place. Now it is turned into a flook of birds, winging its way in all directions, and occupying at the same time every corner of air and space.”8 The present dis­embodying and vaporizing effect of dispersive, temporal media is mitigated by the physical ex­perience of urban sites of habitation, festival, refuge and congress. The textual nature of ar­ chitecture goes beyond its surface legibility, and encompasses the narratives which rest behind, beneath and pass through the built structures and which make buildings appear vital.

Mutual interpenetration and shifting co-ordi­nation apply to several conceptual aspects of the junction formed by writing and building. I would like to sketch briefly — offer a selection of vectors, really — the dynamics of three such conjuncts : at the law, memory and behaviour.


The objective tendency of the Enlightenment, to wipe out the power of images over man…9
Theodor Adorno

We concede too much to any force if we pre­sume its total competence and omnivorous effi­ciency. Directions and tendencies are only that: they may carry along in their flow quite differing elements; contain counter currents and residual matter. As post-Enlightenment creations, West­ern societies are assumed to be governed by laws set in books. Legislative documents are considered to determine the rules and pro­cedures for the exercise of power and, as such, are the recognized medium of power. It would be futile and bloody to storm Parliament in an attempted coup d’état : possession of the Parlia­ment Buildings is not sufficient definition of au­thority. It is necessary to steal the Constitution (as, some suggest, is precisely what happened in Canada). Governments are clearly more sus­ceptible to forcible insurrection when their writ­ ten constitutions are weak, and power is identi­fied as occupying a specific, hallowed or strategic seat, which must then be physically guarded.

If, as Hobbes remarked, it is in the silence of the law that the liberty of the citizen is found, it is in that same silence that extra-constitutional pow­ ers and influences are exerted. The sanctuary of silence is also the arena for unregulated forces to struggle and emerge. The negative space of the law (that region defined by the law’s bound­aries but unoccupied by it), provides a free zone for rising, competing capacity. Large architec­tural projects are a manifestation of the concen­tration of administrative and economic power required to build, and the desire (or felt neces­sity) to display that same power.

The development of the skyscraper is concomi­ tant with the transformation of the contemporary corporation. As Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means pointed out in their classic 1932 study The Mod­ ern Corporation and Private Property, the tradi­ tional logic of personal property could no longer encompass the new concept of the corporation where ownership and control had become sepa­ rated. “The rise of the modern corporation has brought a concentration of economic power which can compete on equal terms with the modern state.”10 Like Cardinal Wolsey and his Hampton Court, the new corporation and sky­ scraper were sure to attract sovereign attention.

Massive government building programs, such as those of the New Deal or of the Trudeau era, are attempts to increase state presence by col­onizing the nation with structures with which the government will be associated. Peppering the countryside with new construction is a response to the limitations of centralized administration. While governments monopolize book-law, they neglect the competing strategy of building at their peril. It becomes necessary for political ad­ministrations to be represented among the com­peting powers and to reenforce their abstract authority with local influence and focus. The ad­ministrations of corporations and governments come increasingly to resemble each other, and can exchange personnel with facility. In terms of the writing/building figure, this is a collusive stage, and is redeemed only by the increasing phenomenon of active public discussion in the planning of both private and government projects. Increased exposure and visibility have also increased scrutiny and participation.

Responding to an appeal from the editor of an architecture magazine for artists’ comments on architecture, Les Levine offered the suggestion that architects and urban planners should be­ come skilled in bribery — that the various gov­ernment regulations administered by officials contribute to the fabric of building as much as metal, stone and glass do, and that designers should learn to manipulate that aspect, too.

Robert Moses knew this lesson intuitively. He began his career working in the New York State legislature and became known as the best bill drafter in Albany, eventually writing and getting passed a law establishing the office of Park Commissioner, which included the power of ap­ propriation defined in what was then an ob­ scurant way.11 He saw that he was appointed to this position, and spent the next several de­ cades exercising an authority he himself had de­ signed and realizing the massive building pro­ grams that that power permitted.

Levine’s poetic cynicism and Moses’ lived one underline the penetration of law within building. In an attempt to overcome the restraints by short-circuiting the dichotomy, Levine skirts the law and Moses becomes it. These are not so much solutions as illuminating strategies of avoidance.

Claude Monet, Cathédrale de Rouen, le portail et la tour d’Albane, plein soleil, 1893


Effect of writing and printing on other arts — ten­dency to destroy them — to preserve them but not to encourage active interest. Energies drained off in writing about art and architecture. Sculpture, painting, architecture flourished when existing as distinct interests absorbing energies of those concerned and not checked by writing and printing. 12
H.A. Innis

Current cults of preservation appear to be en­tirely unaware of their own destructiveness. At best, the retention of certain past scales, vol­umes and spaces provides some intimation of earlier haptic perceptions. At worst, renovational vandalism fraudulently strips structures of their auratic power and, like representative reproduction, displaces the folk experience of architecture with mediated studiedness.

Objects and buildings offer a temporal dimen­ sion in the manner in which they absorb and radiate memories. As carrier vehicles of the past, buildings display the layers and mixtures of a variegated history. As palimpsests, archi­ tectural records are unstable and unreliable — the data of accumulation is subject to uneven erasure and addition. While the drawings, plans and documents of architecture maintain con­ stant and accurate information, buildings present a continuity which more closely resem­ bles the durability of an oft-repeated story.

Buildings are the natural companions of an oral tradition. For just as architectural phenomena served as mnemonic devices in classical rhetoric,13 cities serve to remind and provoke the re­calling of events and figures of communal memory. 14

That which writing and printing preserve of ar­ chitecture entirely lacks the experience of sub­ sequent history. Renovation erases that experi­ ence by making everything “as good as new.” Like collectors who shine their old bronzes, they remove all of the patina and much of the worth.


Once in East End London I witnessed an ageless episode : a mother calling from a window for her daughter to come in for tea and the daughter re­plying that she would come in, in a few more minutes please. What interested me in the ex­change was that the mother was on about the fif­teenth floor of a development highrise and the daughter was playing at least a hundred metres from the base of the tower. Both were shouting, of course, at the top of their lungs. They had brought to the development certain habits of house/street proxemics, which they maintained to the best of their energies, but it seemed clear that the effort to overcome the distances of their new situation would probably force them to abandon the old ways. It remains one of the principal criticisms of modern architecture, that it suppresses certain traditional behaviours.

Architecture is a system of means which en­ courage or discourage possible functions. As such, behaviour is the content-meaning of ar­chitecture. “A building is never primarily a work of art. Its purpose, through which it belongs in the context of life, cannot be separated from it­ self without its losing some of its reality.” 15

If meaningful action can be considered as a text,16 then our behaviour and the functions we bring to architecture are the narrative-content of buildings. Narrative constitutes not only the chronological, diachronic coordinate of our lives (time inhabited), but also the synchronic, config­urational aspect of our meeting in places. 17 Nar­rative significance is both temporal process and the gathering together of elements from across space.

Narrators (fiction, non-fiction, film or book) present the observable activity and submerged interiority of behaviour-in-place. The late Erving Goffmann, phenomenologist of the gregarious body, would as soon cite a novel as a research study. Artists employ the environment, specific sites, ritual and taboo spaces or perform ex­plorations of rooms with their bodies, in drawing from the potential of meaning found in locales.

Meanwhile, the last two decades have seen built public spaces overwhelmed by the construction of vast, commercial, quasi-public areas. Yet, it is the bane of developers that the loitering and il­ licit activity which was formerly found principally in parks and railway stations, is now occurring in their shopping centres and arcades. The pri­vatization of public space results in the sponta­neous and unorganized appropriation of those spaces by people seeking haven, satisfaction or a friend.

The conflict between writing and building is not essentially between media forms. The historically ormed characters of the press and of ar­ chitecture represent divisions of consciousness. Vaulting the partitions between disciplines im­ plies the devaluation of such parochial, pro­fessional concerns as stylistics and art historical categorizations. The separate histories fold into general histories which then re-form analytical antinomies. While resolution is perpetually de­ ferred, recognition of the basic, though shifting, unity of the opposition should discourage any zealous partisanship.


1. Hugo, Victor, Notre-Dame de Paris, (London : Dent, Every­ man’s Library, Ed. by Ernest Rhys, 1927), p. 171.

2. Ibid, p. 171.

3. For an excellent exposition on Hugo’s thesis, for which I relied, see Levine, Neil, “The book and the building: Hugo’s theory of architecture and Labrouste’s Biblio­ thèque Ste-Geneviève,” in Middleton, Robin, ed. The Beaux Arts and 19th century French Architecture, (Lon­ don: Thames & Hudson, 1982), pp. 138-173.

4. Ibid, pp. 140-41.

5. Barthes, Roland, “Semiology and Urbanism,” in Bryan, J. and Sauer, R., eds., VIA, Structures Implicit and Explicit, (Philadelphia: Publications of the Graduate School of Fine Arts, Univ. of Pennsylvania, 1973), p. 155.

6. Innis, Harold Adams, The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 110-11.

7. Innis, p. 199.

8. Hugo, p. 171.

9. Adorno, Theodor, Minima Moralia, (London: Verso, 1978), p. 140.

10. Berle, Adolf A. and Means, Gardiner C., The Modern Cor­poration and Private Property, (New York: Macmillan, 1932), p. 357.

11. Caro, Robert A., The Power Broker, (New York: Vintage, 1975).

12. Innis, p. 199.

13. See Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966).

14. “Aunt Julia, my father’s aunt, lived to be eighty-eight, born and died here, never married, saw the fire on beacon hill for the battle of Trafalgar, always called it ‘the New House’ ; that was the name they had for it in the nursery and in the fields when unlettered men had long memories… the house that was a century old when Aunt Julia was born.” Waugh, Evelyn, Brideshead Revisited, (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1962), pp. 316-7.

15. Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method, (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p. 139.

16. A paraphrase of the title of an important essay by Paul Ricoeur, see his Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 197-221.

17. Ibid, pp. 278-279.

L’opposition entre l’écrit et le construit a, depuis l’analyse qu’en a donnée Victor Hugo, souvent trouvé des applications dans divers champs de la critique culturelle. Cet essai voudrait montrer comment cette opposition reproduit, par analo­gie, les oppositions loi/coutume, mémoire/con­servation et narration/espace. En dernière analyse, une chose au moins deviendra évi­dente, ces oppositions opèrent toutes comme unités complexes, indivisibles, mais irréconciliables.

Robert Graham is an art critic living in Montreal.