THE THREE LANGUAGES OF DOM-INO

A discussion on the significance of Le Corbusier's Maison Dom-ino can be framed by three interpretations provided by Peter Eisenman, Antoine Picon, and Pier Aureli. Further, the discussion is best approached by positioning Eisenman's argument for self-referentiality as the stage for subsequent elaborations on the Dom-ino model by Picon and Aureli. It becomes clear that Picon and Aureli assume their own positions in relation to, but not necessarily dependent on, the failure of Eisenman's self-referentiality. While they don't explicitly disagree with Eisenman's case for a self-referential treatment of Dom-ino as a system, they present two divergent explanations for why Dom-ino cannot simply be viewed as an isolated set of architectural elements.

For Eisenman, Dom-ino is an architectonic language - an organized system essentially saying something either about itself or something else. Eisenman argues that Dom-ino, via self-referentiality, represents the true break from the anthropocentric, Renaissance lens of spatial organization, and therefore a truly Modernist statement, unlike as he claims Colin Rowe's reduction of the meaning of architecture to simply geometries. It is through a methodical structural analysis of the enigmatic two-point perspective Dom-ino illustration that he establishes a case for self-referentiality, or as he states "an architecture about architecture" as opposed to an architecture about external referents. An internal reference is achieved by what he terms the "integers" of building, i.e. the classically-associated architectural elements of columns, floor slab, stair, and support - which are reduced to merely parts of a whole and mean nothing in themselves - and their strategic placement in relation to each other from which is derived any significance in Dom-ino.

Through careful observation a pattern emerges that allows him to derive the methods that essentially constitute self-referentiality - redundancy through marking or signage of an element that is "designated in some way as different", and most of all overcoming function so as to distinguish it from sculpture. He demonstrates redundancy in Dom-ino by specifically relating the proportions of the horizontal datum to the (intentional) marking by column placement - the columns on the long side are set further inward from the edge of the datum so as to reiterate the long side length while the columns on the short side nearly engage the edge of the datum so as to reiterate the short side length. The columns effectively work as signs of the datum proportions rather than simply space indicators or structural units. This leads to his other conclusion regarding self-referentiality in that elements require a secondary "function" that allows them to overcome their original function - a sign, or "intentional act" - to be sufficiently deemed architecture. An element must go beyond sheltering, supporting, etc. but paradoxically must do the same. Ultimately, it is through the fact that all the incorporated architectural elements have no external referents that Dom-ino becomes a truly Modernist break - a digression from the Renaissance (or Palladian) anthropocentric point of view and towards a more late Enlightenment rationale. As he states, it becomes a "primitive though truly modernist phenomenon, one that speaks about its mere existence and its own condition of being."

Picon agrees with Eisenman on the model's dual character as both modernist in self-referentiality yet grounded in classical architectural tradition. Picon, however, takes the contradiction a step further and argues that Dom-ino operates on the border of fact and fiction. While he claims that its iconographic, or enigmatic, stature precedes its reputation as a system of structural principles, there is an overlooked disparity between what is presented in the perspective illustration and the reality of building. Simply, the drawing is fiction when it is trying to say otherwise and therefore issues arise in constructive interpretation through Dom-ino's graphic presentation. He thereby questions the role of Dom-ino (its iconographic language, as opposed to Eisenman's architectonic language) in light of the model's proposal for "matter-of-factness" through illusionistic rendering techniques.

Picon proposes that the Dom-ino, as a methodically staged image, situates itself "on the threshold that separates mere construction from architecture", comparing it to Marc-Antoine Laugier's Primitive Hut - an engraving that theorizes a precedent to Ancient Greek temples. Picon essentially states that, much like Laugier's Hut Dom-ino "is meant to exist before architecture", as an architectural primitive on the basis that, as an illusionistic graphic proposal for a physical construction, it places itself on the boundary between architecture and non-architecture. He therefore claims that it exists as an archetype - not a new typology but a type of architectural primitive that can inspire subsequent types, or a "threshold mixture" like the Sphinx which merges "incompatible" features. As an archetype, Dom-ino is not entirely fact yet it is not entirely fiction and he elaborates further on the narrative supporting the fictional dimension. There are discontinuities being concealed in graphic presentation in the Hut like how sticks are transposed into stone, or the primitive into the classical. In Dom-ino it is the conflict and cooperation between engineers and architects, or structure versus architecture - which is a necessary contradiction today.

These contradictions lend a type of transparency to Dom-ino as an icon. Dom-ino establishes its presence as a threshold blurring factual and fictional boundaries, thereby making itself clearer - perhaps suggesting it becomes self-referential as an enigma by reemphasizing its operation as, or on, a boundary even though Picon never necessarily implies such. The furthest he suggests self-referentiality is in his claim that in order "to provide architecture with a foundation, one needs architecture" - in other words, the building needs the drawing and the drawing needs a building. In any case, Picon posits the question of whether or not Dom-ino, in light of its boundary status, becomes more an architectural work or the work of an architect, or whether or not it is simply a blueprint for a building or a drawing by a man. Dom-ino effectively renders artistic authorship problematic in its juxtaposition of industrial, matter-of-fact, demand and artistic, graphic proposal. Does the reputation of the architect precede the drawing, or does the drawing make the architect? What is certain is that Dom-ino exists as its own identity, as an independent middle-ground icon, and neither explicitly suggests nor denies an internal or external reference - it is simply an enigma.

Aureli agrees with Eisenman that, in isolation, Dom-ino is self-referential, but as a whole cannot be detached from its socioeconomic context because it does in fact refer, through its material condition, austerity, economy and spatial arrangement to the socioeconomic paradigm of its time - the industrial progress and mass production or customization stemming from advanced capitalism. Dom-ino's reference to external conditions, in this case socioeconomics, precedes and thereby overpowers its own internal reference. Dom-ino then becomes a symbol or ideological language that describes "an economic process starting from the domestic", and subsequently an example of economic dominance over architecture. As Aureli says, "form became devoid of any reference outside itself at the moment it was fully conquered by the forces of industrialization." The fact that the economy at large is architecture's inescapable captor already denies the effect of self-referentiality or an isolated analysis in architecture. In support of this position, Aurei situates Dom-ino in the emergence of the space of reproduction, and therefore greater economic production, from domestic space.

Aureli essentially describes the home as a macrocosm of the greater economy - an archetype for social and political development. The origin of the national economy stems from the organization of the domestic economy or oikonomia - "house management". If the products of the economy were produced by the household, the problems of the city subsequently stem from the problems of the household, which ultimately leads to a concluding a paradox at the heart of Dom-ino - architecture is reduced to purely form indifferent to its content yet is also an outcome of the raw economic forces that produced its content. Through the lens of ideology Aureli argues that Dom-ino can't be explored through form alone as it's no longer a locus of the discipline. Rather, form must be used as a tool in figuring the world because it embodies the world's "most elusive and ubiquitous forces such as money, finance, globalization, and capital." For Aureli, the Dom-ino model, or perhaps buildings in general, merely becomes an "index" in a much larger frame of reference, a tiny but key player in a much greater game.

The reduction of the Dom-ino to system, icon and symbol by Eisenman, Picon and Aureli respectively is an attempt at deriving architectonic meaning from an otherwise cryptic image. Their analyses propose what may have been architectural intention had it been built. It not only represents a purely rational approach to architecture as described by Eisenman but also presents the possibilities of empirical, external derivation - two contradictory positions embodied in a central figure, a theme the Le Corbusier deployed liberally - and perhaps what phenomenological effects might have unfolded. This juxtaposition is only testament to the enigmatic genius of the Dom-ino model and by extension that of Le Corbusier.