Michael Spooner, A Clinic for the Exhausted: In Search of an Antipodean Vitality – Edmond & Corrigan and an Itinerant Architecture, AADR, SpurbuchVerlag, 2013.
With Introductory essay by Dr Michael Ostwald, (Professor of Architecture, Newcastle University)
A Clinic for the Exhausted commences from a vision of a landmark Australian architectural icon, RMIT University Building 8 by Edmond & Corrigan, apprehended as an ocean liner taking leave of its concrete moorings. Conceived as both a literary and an architectural project, A Clinic for the Exhausted ministers to an architecture of unforeseeable effect, and attempts to ascertain how one can architecturally act on behalf of the unknowable.
In A Clinic for the Exhausted we are asked to perform many labours and discharge them with the understanding that we will not enquire as to why. This evasive form, however, provides great propulsion forward – soon we realise we’re at sea, quite possibly rowing a lifeboat – it’s only later chat we realise the tiller was turned and we’ve completed a circular voyage. To what end you might ask? I am tempted to recall the afterword to Nabokov’s Lolita· …. [the author] when asked to explain its origin and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as interaction of Inspiration and Combination which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another.”
This erudite work seeks to take us on an immersive journey that begins on Melbourne’s Swanson St outside Edmond &Corrigan’s newly finished Building 8 with a drunken scrap of correspondence linking two architects flapping in the wind, to places and buildings hitherto unknown. The notional journey allows Spooner to propose his precocious yet cogent methodology of architectural invention and design as the scrap of paper flies away in the stiffening breeze and Building 8 sets sail.
The design research is at worst original, but at best ecstatic – proposing through writing, drawings and collected images an architecture that is highly fanciful yet palpably existent. The methodology buoyed upon literature, philosophy, architecture, a current of humour, an overwhelming visual sumptuousness, the corporeal and a myriad of hints and allegations to alight at a point outside one’s knowing, damp with deja vu. In Montaigne’s essay, That to philosophise is to learn to die, we contemplate the life outside the body, kept busy with thoughts and ideas. This time spent traversing the world unknown beyond the body is as death might be imagined. Practicing this, we no longer need fear death, a persistent question for which an answer is not forthcoming. Much like Nabokov, Spooner fends off the question by providing a sumptuous journey full of answers co other questions unasked but wholly necessary. A voyage worth the blisters.
Marie Lecef, renowned fly fishing enthusiast
A seminal Melbourne building escaping its moorings, an inebriated architect and a letter to his architect friend; the aforementioned scenarios may seem an unlikely provocation for an architectural project, yet they led to the creation of A Clinic for the Exhausted – an enigmatic design project and accompanying book by Melbourne architectural theorist and practitioner Dr Michael Spooner. One evening in 1993, the Melbourne architect Howard Raggatt experienced a recently completed Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) Building 8 as if it were a departing ocean liner. Raggatt’s subsequent letter to his friend and architect of Building 8, Peter Corrigan, provided the initial departure point for Spooner’s design project and, ultimately, the book being presently reviewed. According to Spooner, Raggatt’s inebriated state allowed him to experience the building as “pure sensations” in the Deleuzian sense; it also prompted Spooner to re-imagine Building 8 as a “densely scaffolded” and gilded architectural vessel during his doctoral studies, also completed at RMIT. The book, A Clinic for the Exhausted, could be variously positioned as a work of design-based research; as the architectural discourse associated with three interrelated hypothetical design projects; and as a beguiling creative, textual work in its own right. Certainly, the book title and idea of a clinic immediately appealed to this academic-reviewer, exhausted by the demands of a hectic university semester, yet the book offers less repose from architectural life than a unique and introspective engagement with it. Its foreword by Professor Michael J. Ostwald provides a fitting introduction to the pages that follow, through its invocations of utopia, seafaring and nautical navigation. Spooner’s own speculative writings are interwoven with image-only pages of three of his own, related design projects. The first of Spooner’s projects, also titled “A Clinic for The Exhausted” (the aforementioned creative response to Building 8), is followed by “The Swimming Pool Library” and “The Landscape Room”. All three projects are conveyed through a series of beautiful, black-and-white digitally rendered sections, plans, exploded detail drawings and three-dimensional perspectives.
To contextualise Spooner’s literary and design experimentation, we might turn to the French post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Deleuze, to whom Spooner also refers. In Chapter 3 of Spooner’s book, “For What It’s Worth”, there is reference to Deleuze’s self positioning of his work as a “sort of buggery” of other philosophical writings. Deleuze’s “buggery” is affirmative, because it produces new modes of thought and practice; it encourages conceptual and discursive transgressions, such as Spooner’s own reimagining of the seminal architectural project by Melbourne firm Edmond & Corrigan. Both Spooner’s design projects and the accompanying literary text challenge preconceptions of what constitutes scholarly research, design practice, architectural discourse and, most importantly, their interrelation. The design projects are alluded to in the text preceding the project imagery, but there is no straightforward explanatory text in the conventional sense. Spooner’s approach encourages independent speculation and, together with the images, generates affects rather than a finite project methodology: in Spooner’s words, “every chance has been taken whereby the text and the project have been unable to be fixed in their entirety to either abode that names the as such”. It could be argued that design based research requires more of its researcher, because of a coexistent position as project author and appraiser, designer and critic. Accordingly, it may be appropriate that Spooner also demands more of his readership, who must: “work beyond this text, and for the audience’s delight . . . to go on, further still, into the night on unsteady legs”. The reader who is more familiar with traditional historical treatises and architectural project descriptions may find Spooner’s approach challenging, if not exhausting, due to the loose correspondences between words and images and, indeed, between different sections of the written text. Yet for Deleuze, the term and notion of exhaustion is different to a tiredness or fatigue of life: it refers instead to exhausting and subsequently overcoming the limitations of existing realities. A Clinic for the Exhausted is invested with this productive Deleuzian sense of exhaustion and the attendant creative “potentiality of spaces yet to come” beyond conventional architectural discourse.
This brief review of A Clinic for the Exhausted cannot adequately capture the text’s character and depth; as such, it might be better to speak of the text’s operations and processes – and how to engage with the work – rather than provide a description or critique of its content alone. Spooner’s writing weaves between different philosophical notions, literary references, project and building descriptions and the imagery of the three aforementioned architectural projects. These different references are introduced without an explicit rationale and, as such, rely on either the reader’s pre-existing familiarity with these various sources and/or their openness to the poetic affects induced by this writing style. In one example of this rich, discursive melange, the text moves between invocations of Le Corbusier swimming in the Mediterranean sea to the Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, the English poet Lord Byron and Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe – all loosely connected through the shared themes of swimming, boats and bodies. The aforementioned conceptual approach has a scholarly precedent. The philosophical text A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Deleuze and his collaborator, psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, also moves fluidly between various literary, philosophical and historical sources, in order to challenge habitual modes of understanding. In the words of architectural theorist Andrew Ballantyne, A Thousand Plateaus prompts a creative encounter “with ideas that derail our usual habits of thought and allow us to come away energized, thinking our own thoughts that might be quite unlike any ideas that Deleuze and Guattari might have had on our behalf”. In a similar vein, A Clinic for the Exhausted requires the reader to discard conventional receptions of architectural form: “[h]ow much are you, the audience, willing to risk so that boat and building may share a life”. Upon accepting this challenge, readers may embark on a journey that simultaneously traverses disciplinary boundaries and discourses (architecture, art, philosophy, literature) and circumscribes an imaginative architectural world birthed during a night of architectural reverie – and one drink too many. To this exhausted academic, it seems as productive a place to begin as any.
Cathy Smith, Lecturer in Architecture, University of Newcastle
With the current flourishing of architectural design research, the time is ripe to consider the role of writing in defining a new relation to design, one not of opposition, negation, or subjugation, where writing documents, comments and critiques the inventiveness of design, but rather where writing is employed as a technique alongside drawing and other spatial and visual processes as a speculative design strategy. In confronting the limits of both architectural research and academic writing, words – fictive, poetic, philosophical – can play off images and in so doing reconfigure architectural design research … there is no finer an example of how exquisite such work can be than this project by Michael Spooner, which is witty, erudite, precise and highly imaginative
Professor Jane Rendell, Vice Dean of Research at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL London