Architecture and Defamiliarization

Copyright (c) 1988 by Ricardo L. Castro, all rights reserved. This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the author.

The principles advanced by the Russian Formalists in the 1920s to examine and differentiate art from non-art in general, and more particularly literature from non-literature [at a time in which a search for critical tools is more than warranted], assume an extraordinary significance today. I will dwell here only on one of those principles, the notion of defamiliarization or oastranenie (1) as defined by the critic Viktor Shklovsky and as recently interpreted by the critical theoritician Frederic Jameson.(2)

Shklovsky conceives art as defamiliarization, that is, the making strange of objects. Considered under this light any art object should function as a renewer of perception. Jameson in his critical account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism points out that art, in this context, is...."a way of restoring conscious experience, of breaking through deadening and mechanical habits of conduct, and allowing us to be reborn to the world in its existential freshness and horror."(3)

But Jameson, in his lucid analysis of Formalism's pitfalls and relevance, goes even further. First he points out that defamiliarization is a way of differentiating art manifestations from any other modes of expression. Second, he adds,defamiliarization "...permits the establishment of a hierarchy within the literary work itself. Inasmuch as the ultimate purpose of the work of art is now given in advance--namely the renewal of perception, the seeing of the world suddenly in a new light, in a new unforeseen way--the elementsand techniques or devices of the work are now all ordered towards this end." (4)Finally through the critical sift of defamiliarization, history, any history, whether art, architecture, or literature- history, acquires a new unorthodox presence and meaning. Thus for Jameson"...the notion of ostranenie has yet a third theoretical advantage in that it permits a new concept of... history: not that of some profound continuity of tradition characteristic of idealistic history, but one of history as a series of abrupt discontinuities, of ruptures with the past, where each new ...present is seen as a break with the dominant artistic canon of the generation immediately preceding..." (5)

It would be arguable that any work of architecture, more precisely of architecture consciously presented as art, could be read and interpreted using the reclaimed critical strategy of defamiliarization. I would like to suggest that this is not only possible but relevant as a plausible strategy of architectural criticism.

Confronting any project in light of this proposed strategy, one must arrive at defining the various traditions which constitute the project's antecedents, both at the level of local culture and at the level of universal civilization (6). Only then is it possible to understand how each one of the architectures breaks with its immediate predecessors.

At another level the question of how formal, representational, thematic, tectonic, social and cultural devices are organized and exploited in any project to present and re-present place and space in a new and unforeseen way, in a new light, is of fundamental importance.

As in literature--the expressive area mainly addressed by Formalists--the final questions are how the projects which we confront, and by extension any other project pre-tending to be art differs from any other spatial / formal / aedificatory system; to what degree the forms and concepts inherent in each of these architectures replace stale ones. Only when these questions begin to be addressed and answered by the artists themselves, by the critics and the informed viewers whether users or spectators, will we understand, borrowing one of Shklovsky's images, "how the inheritance is passed down, not from father to son but from uncle to nephew."(7) Ultimately what this means is that it is possible and desirable to break apart from the established dominant canons by canonizing something new which in turn will be eventually questioned and displaced. Art and architecture as art are in constant evolution and readjustment.

Ricardo L. Castro


1.For comprehensive analyses see: Peter Steiner, Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics, (Ithaca, N.Y.:Cornell University Press, 1984.) and Fredric Jameson, The Prison©House of Language, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

2..The Prison House of Language, pp. 50-54, 75-79.

3..Ibid., p. 52.



6.. Kenneth Frampton, "Towards a Critical Regionalism" in Hal Foster, editor,The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, (Port Towsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), pp. 16-30.

7..The Prison-House of Language, p. 53.