Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture
The cold warriors of minimalia would do well to tip their streamlined caps to flâneur and poet Lisa Robertson in her latest incarnation as the Office for Soft Architecture. Her pocket-sized, minutely printed, two-hundred-seventy-four paged, pink Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture not only puts forth a clever, confounding, detailed, and resonant theory of sensing and being in the world, but her writing style, at once gorgeous, flexing, decorated, febrile, special, insistent, and indulgent, successfully dislodges contemporary prose poetry from its well-ironed surreal-ish topos by a return to Decadent audacity and lushness.
For those of us who have not been keeping up with the well-designed lifestyle journals or the catalogues accompanying Vancouver gallery shows of the last decade, this book may seem to have sprung fully formed from the head of the mysterious Office. In fact, the book is multiple, a collection in several senses of the word: a concatenation of pieces which have appeared in the above-mentioned artworld and design publications; a colloquy of subjects as diverse as fountains, suburbs, blackberries, scaffolds, second-hand chain stores, and the industrial ruins around Vancouver; a cross-section of genres such as manifestos, proposals, introductions, site studies, microhistories, and the sui generis ‘walks’; and even, conceptually speaking, a committee of authors, for while all the pieces appear to have been penned by Robertson, the speakers are plural, referred to by the title the Office for Soft Architecture as well as by the pronoun ‘we.’
This tactic recalls the strategically effaced speakers of the essays of Virginia Woolf (and, indeed, reference is made to the feminist dimension of the plural), yet also enacts a Modernist brio, with the ‘we’-syntax implying that the experiences of the Office are universal. In “Soft Architecture: A Manifesto,” an early childhood memory of falling asleep tangled in sheets is presented as the kernel of all subsequent aesthetic experience:
[ . . . ]That way we slowly wore through the thinning cloth. Our feet would get tangled in the fretted gap.
We walked through the soft arcade. We became an architect.
Here, Robertson-the-poet is working hand-in-glove with Robertson-the-theorist (and perhaps these multiple selves are the inseparable officemates). The concept of ‘soft architecture’ is introduced via an inextricability of literal and figurative meaning, revealed and concealed logic. The anecdote of the child falling asleep evokes a missing term, the ‘threshold’ of sleep, which is coincident with the holes worn in the sheets by the child’s feet. The child creates and moves through double thresholds, through the “soft arcade,” which metaphorically stands for consciousness only after it has literally referred to the sensation of the entanglement in the sheets. “We became an architect” elides both registers and moves the elision out of the anecdotal instance and into subsequence. When she declares, a few paragraphs later, that “Memory’s architecture is neither palatial nor theatrical but soft,” her meaning is parseable: Memory is soft because it is experienced as sensation, the membrane of consciousness. Grasping this requires a recollection of one’s readerly progress through the examples, through the idea-architecture of the essay. The reader has walked through the soft arcade, has become its architect.
Not only are all humans potential architects, but this role extends to all animate and inanimate organizers of space. In “The Fountain Transcript,” the fountains of corporate plazas refer to a pre-corporate rhetoric of simplicity and happiness and thus “flood the grid with its countertext.” In “Site Report: New Brighton Park,” a history of the uses of a former municipal pleasure garden, now an unclaimed industrial zone, concludes
The spatio-economic system of Lot 26 functions as a mutating lens: never a settlement, always already a zone of leisured flows and their minor intensifications, a zone of racialization and morphogenesis. On the calm surface of the swimming pool in winter, a village of geese[ . . . ]
Soft Architects believe that this site demonstrates the best possible use of an urban origin: Change its name repeatedly. Burn it down. From the rubble confect a prosthetic pleasureground; with fluent obliviousness, picnic there.
Here the geese seem to serve as the latest Soft Architects of the site, and it is unclear whether the final directive to “picnic” anthropomorphizes the geese—referring to their already anthropomorphized “village”—or calls upon us humans to copy the geese, animalizing us. The boundary is, suitably, blurry.
Transition from literal image to metaphorical figure and back again is a consistent tool of the Office. In a description of the suburbs, “The suburb is memory fattening to russet then paling to flush when it bursts before dropping as whiteness on parked cars.” Here the final image of bird shit is laced so subtly into the sentence that its literality emerges as unexpectedly as if it had graced the chagrined reader’s own windshield or shoulder. Equally beguiling is the conclusion of “The Fountain Transcript,” wherein the Office describes its intention to further its research into the fountains of Vancouver:
We have set out to sketch the terrain of a future analysis[ . . . ] We do expect that each of these economies will find its antithesis in a fountain somewhere, that inquiry will erupt from its own methodological grid like syllables from our teeth and lips. We expect to be deliriously misinterpreted. We fountain, always astonished by the political physiology of laughter.
Here the chain of likenesses blurs—fountains—into a delightful multiplicity of laughing countenances. Fountains, like ‘surprise’ architects, disturb the “methodological grid” of inquiry; disrupted inquiry becomes fountain-shaped, springing off in new directions. At the same time, the sprays of water from a fountain look like language springing from a mouth, and also like laughter; the Office’s body and mouth thus become the sites of both fountains and fountain inquiry—”We fountain.”
Robertson’s facility with metaphor and image, abstraction and literality, forms the ground of her theory, rewriting the perceived world as a plane of utter, and fantastic, plausibility. By selecting topics willingly overlooked by aestheticists, such as chain clothing stores and tract housing, and by awarding aesthetic agency to such non-human species as blackberries, she articulates the world along a new grammar. Yet the Office for Soft Architecture has many mansions, and Robertson’s strengths as a poet extend to description, catalogue, epigram, and lyric euphony itself. These techniques are used and simultaneously theorized. A rippingly bizarre example comes when the Office for Soft Architecture writes an “Introduction to the Weather” for Lisa Robertson’s own poetry collection, The Weather. Here is the Office on that most mundane and conventional of topics, weather (described elsewhere as “boredom utopic”):
[ . . . ]The day is our house. Words are fleshy ducts. Description decorates. As for us, we like a touch of kitsch in each room to juice up or pinken the clean lines of the possible. This décor receives futurity as its own ludic production; this weather is the vestibule to something fountaining newly and crucially and yet indiscernibly beyond. [ . . . ] The weather is a stretchy, elaborate, delicate trapeze, an abstract and intact conveyance to the genuine future, which is also now.
Passages like this—and the book is constructed almost entirely of them—dazzle us into perceiving the world by their lights. This description of weather’s qualities is both far-fetched and indisputable. Weather as a metonym of dailiness must be an idea about days, and thus about the future. With equal agility, but in list form, Roberston convinces us elsewhere that scaffolding—yes, the kind found at construction sites—is the definitive site of modern experience:
[ . . . ]All the ceremonies of transition take place on such a makeshift planking: judgements, executions, banquets and symposia, entertainments and recitals, markets and bazaars, funerals, births and weddings and illicit fuckings are rehearsed and performed to their witnesses on this transient stage, which is sometimes decorated with drapes or swags or flags or garlands, sometimes padded for the comfort of the performing body, sometimes left bare as if to state the plain facts of life. The scaffold is a pause, an inflection of passage. It accommodates us in a shivering.
Here Robertson makes use of a looping referent, in which the category of the catalogue twice shifts; the reader must race to keep up. Since our experience is one of speed, it surprises us to learn that the scaffold is “a pause.” Our cognitive motion is thus suddenly stopped up at this pause, and in coming to such a sudden stop we feel the scaffolding sway with our momentum—”It accommodates us in a shivering.” This passage puts its reader at risk of falling, while holding us in its conceptual crux.
When Robertson’s focus is large, it is thrilling, but when it is small, it is amazing. I admire her swashbuckling mode, but also the quiet recombinant energies that end a two-page list in her “Manifesto.” This passage apparently refers to subterranean, and thus subliminal, Vancouver:
[ . . . ]softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica’s black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. [ . . . ]
It is delightful to watch all these consonants leap back and forth in the stream of vowels. The initial overtness of “echoes, spores, tropes, fonts” goes underground to resurface in surprising moments, as when the nymph “Helvetica” is seemingly born from the syllabic orgy of “history,” “escalators,” “manifest,” and “brindled.”
That “All doctrine is foreign to us” is a confounding assertion to discover in the context of a manifesto. Anti-doctrinal doctrines are at least as old as Dada, and Robertson is careful to undercut many of her boldest assertions with a nod to marginality or ultimate failure or impermanence. Given her interest in the marginal, the decayed, the effaced, the ignored, the underground, the overlooked, the discarded, and the ruined, this merely seems all the more perversely orthodox, and makes the largeness of her statements all the more thrilling: “The work of the S[oft]A[rchitects], simultaneously strong and weak, makes new descriptions on the warp of former events.” “From random documents of uncertain provenance, unstable value, and unraveling morphology,” she writes, “we produce new time.” Robertson’s finely stitched poetry and poetics mount to an addictive maximalism.