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Burn-out after Burn-out

The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”
p. 4-10
Burn-out dopo Burn-out [it]

Note della redazione

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH08.01

Testo integrale

Technics and religion can coincide, not in the continuity of their content, but through a certain number of singular points belonging to both areas, and by establishing a third area through their coincidence, which is that of cultural reality.
(Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, 1958, p. 298)

1In the 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case, Graham Greene tells the story of Querry, a successful architect and designer of religious buildings, who retreats to a leper colony in the Belgian Congo in order to escape fame and women. In the colony, Querry initially goes incognito and devotes himself body and soul to caring for the lepers. As a servant, he is given Deo Gratias, a seriously ill man, irreversibly disabled by leprosy and in a state of persistent psychological prostration: indeed, an incurable and irretrievable burnt-out case. The physical condition of the unfortunate assistant embodies and reflects the inner state of the protagonist.

2Stijn Vanheule, in his text Slave Labor and Mastery: a Psychoanalytic Study of Professional Burnout (2003), argues that Greene’s novel contains the first occurrence of the term ‘burnout’ in the sense in which we currently understand it, even anticipating the first systematic studies by Herbert Freudenberger on the homonymous syndrome (“a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”), which date back to 1974. This literary genealogy, which we may or may not accept, certainly shows the coexistence of multiple dimensions of exhaustion in burn-out, which affects single individuals and groups both physically and materially, in their psychic and social dimensions alike. The architect Querry and his alter ego Deo Gratias, together, constitute the multiple conditions of burn-out understood as loss, consumption and bewilderment affecting subjects and their relationships. Although outlined in the course of 2019, the eighth issue of “Ardeth”came to light during the pandemic. The initial idea was to discuss burn-out with reference to the Anthropocene, but in spring 2020 the main theme of the call for papers was adapted to the changed context. Quite simply, we assumed that the global crisis, the sudden constraints, and the focus on widespread systemic weaknesses made it even more urgent to address the trajectories initially outlined with the collective of guest editors. Burn-out hosts a discussion that takes its cue from a specific extension of the combustion metaphor. Developed in psychoanalytic and clinical settings (after the fictional beginning outlined above), and then elaborated by social and work psychology mostly through quantitative studies, the notion of burn-out has come to describe increasingly articulated states of exhaustion: from the individual subject to bodies understood as a collective biopolitical problem, up to and including the earth considered in ecological and geopolitical terms. These semantic transitions piled up as the term slipped into more general areas of reference. Thus, the first metaphor of burnt matter depicting an exhausted mind gave way to a chain of metonymies: from the stress of caregivers and psychotherapists, studied as a phenomenology related to a professional category, to exhaustion as a collective and generalized evil in a society; from human groups to the biosphere; from living organisms to the planet and the cosmos. This has led to the dimension of ‘exhaustion’, introduced by Byung-Chul Han’s essay The Burn-out Society (2015) and shared in various ramifications of pop culture. In this sense, burn-out is due to the excessive positivity that reliance on optimization has produced in the way we relate to the world. The exhausted world that this issue of “Ardeth”aims to discuss is what led to Extinction Rebellion and Fridays4Future – a world that questions the incremental way of improving the conditions of the planet and one where, among other things, projects can unfold. The style and form of the contributions, both in response to the call and by invitation, do not necessarily tackle the pandemic condition or a ‘design’ reaction to it. We feel that this can be understood, more generically, as the expression of a ‘dislocated’ disciplinary fatigue. It is hard to formalize disciplinary reasoning with respect to scientific knowledge that presents us with uncertainty and unpredictability. The pragmatic protocols of applied sustainability, by promoting themselves to para-scientific paradigms, are likely to delude us that there is a safe solution “framed as a technical fix, overseen by the norms of the various environmental regulations (e.g. BREEAM in the UK, HQE in France, LEED in the US, CASBEE in Japan, Green Star in Australia and DGNB in Germany)”, to quote Jeremy Till (2020). There is an urgency to keep the rudder steady, even without knowing our destination – Till’s paper already emphasized this in 2020, by encouraging us to “displace our spatial intelligence”. In all this, we note the – perhaps – paradoxical dimension of the project, which exists in its “future” dimension even when the future might not be given the conditions to exist. Perhaps through this issue, in a form that is as complex as it is nonreassuring, we see the mirror image of our project-making as an exercise that is not too far from Schrödinger’s cat paradox: ‘spatial intelligence’ exists as a condition of elaboration, but contains the superposition of a state of existence in the world, of its opposite and of all the intermediate states. The coexistence of a designing self in crisis and an alternative (and at times ironic, paradoxical, tragic, amused, etc.) designing self has allowed us to welcome contributions that, more than in any past issue, explore or claim the pertinence of the uchronic dimension to architecture. Weariness and exhaustion consciously pursue digressions into a dislocated simulation, a safe space in which to think, immune from pressure to produce tangible effects. The articles in this issue follow very different directions, touching on topics such as ecological politics, racism, health issues, turbo-capitalism, or posthumous disaster management. These discussions seem to aggregate around an empty center (a ‘neutral point’, to use Gilbert Simondon’s expression) that brings out plural but converging concerns and interests. The visual map of articles, this time, spans across this heterogeneous bundle of discourses with a question: what is the role of material space, as a cue for ‘digressive’ thinking or in its potential transformation with regard to burn-out and architecture? From the perspective of Architectural Design Theory, which gives this journal its title, we feel urged to take up the theme of burn-out not only as a latent condition, widespread distress, or an implicitly valid category, but also as a call to explicate the functions of the architectural project in the texts published here, as well as the various ways in which burn-out is understood in it. Abandoning the ‘semiotized’ Cartesian plane, our visual map arranges the texts as trajectories caught in a vortex, whose attractive force is more crushing the closer the segments get to the empty centre of burn-out. In opposition to this totalizing core, on the outer edge of the diagram we find markers for particular times and places, which only occasionally emerge from the published texts. A first group of articles seems to propose the project as a compensation for or functional response to a problem (or burn-out) that can be generalized. Tarkhanian presents a Microbial Bathouse in the form of a typology, which therefore does not refer to any specific place because it takes on the global perspective of the pandemic. Negrello and Ingaramo, while providing numerous case studies, identify the ubiquitous issue of ‘housing stress’, leading to proposals of a normative nature. Snelting dwells on the development of the Big Blue Button platform, as an effective example of Infrastructure Solidarity, the use of which, once again, might become a universal response to the monopoly of proprietary platforms, within a completely virtualized space. A second group of texts considers project action (in a broad sense) as a form of resistance and opposition to problems emerging from social reality, approached as unifying rather than locally specific occurrences. Thus, for the UVW-SAW collective, major problems such as the “endemic exhaustion of human and earth resources, the reproduction of overwork, precarity and discrimination” justify joint action by design workers, unified according to categorical principles and not to situations or geographies. Doglio and Vassallo also refer to the ‘world’ as a unified entity: “The architect should be the first to be able to take care of the world in which we live through different and possible actions, aware of the potential and intrinsic responsibility of their work”. Schinkel even goes so far as to call for a “dismantling of racial capitalism” to combat pandemic crises. The prevalence of generalising approaches in these two groups of articles corresponds to depicting burn-out conditions in terms of a crisis in the relations between humans (labor exploitation, monopolies, racism), or between humans and non-humans (the virus and the pandemic). These crises, however, mostly seem to take place in space and not through the mediation of space and places. In some ways, the spatial dimension remains extraneous, or at best neutral, like a substitute player waiting to be called upon to address problems it had no part in creating. These forms of burn-out are therefore ubiquitous, and project action would respond to them with typified proposals that are valid everywhere, or with exclusively value-based positions (which therefore take the form of the categorical imperative).Some texts, on the contrary, use specific places and situations as the basis for observation in order to test new descriptions and draw new maps. Following an inductive mode, these articles have the merit of being concretely based on experiences and events, or on simulations measuring controlled environments. On the other hand, the focus on singularity is unlikely to provide general answers. We witness contingent cases that remain fragmentary, and at most could implicitly suggest strategies that could be replicated in other places and at other times. Thus Peñarroyo constructs transformation scenarios through the analysis of some spatial precipitations of the so-called ‘digital divide’ in the city of Detroit. Working at different scales of observation, the article intends to reveal and propose transformational trajectories with respect to Internet access in the physical city, made up of community spaces, private spaces, material objects and immaterial networks. Drawing a parallel between the Covid-19 pandemic emergency and the 2011 Tōhoku (Japan) earthquake and tsunami disaster, Gkoliomyti and Tsukamoto describe the work done in 45 small fishing villages on the Oshika and Ogatsu peninsulas to build a collective ‘pattern book’. The collaborative effort of architecture students and teachers, together with the inhabitants, has resulted in a participatory typological notebook containing drawings and models imagining the inhabited space after the disaster, with the aim of processing burn-out and contributing to a collective return to life.

3Only partially comparable to the latter group in its reference to a specific geography, Rot’s article looks at the controversial propaganda of ecological sustainability – of which Ruimte voor de Rivier is the best known case. Rot finds in it a series of paradoxes of Dutch society, suspended between the sacrifice culture introjected by Calvinism and the iniquity of the ‘sacrifice areas’, bearing the entire social cost of the preventive strategy of sea level rise adaptation and flood prevention. Finally, some of the articles use specific project experiences to illustrate an effective way of mapping material and social space, which in some cases takes on the character of a meta-project, but hardly goes beyond a descriptive experiment. Through a game-essay, the Resolve Collective explores the transformative potential of ‘institutional space’. Moving in an 8-bit and 8x8 pixel world, amidst spaces, characters and conversations, the authors encourage the protagonist-readers to make their way through a disorienting series of temporal and spatial folds to retrieve material, visual and verbal artefacts and stimulate action, observation and ‘topological’ thinking. Using a more conventional visual essay, Yafei depicts the various perspectives of an imaginary city under the attack of Covid-19, as a reworking of real situations experienced in the city of Wuhan and in the Hubei Province. The impact of quarantine policies and social distancing reveal the ‘cannibalistic’ nature of the city, denounced by the author as a condition that exists beyond the pandemic, rooted in social issues such as selfishness, racial discrimination, class conflict and political clashes. Longhin’s text offers a description of the ‘land-machine’ of the Piave river basin, which is also an articulated mapping project in which the discourse and the cartographic re-elaborations provide a complex picture of ecological, industrial and economic-political implications. This is a particular case of progressive exhaustion (of water reserves and glaciers, but more generally of ecological resources), whose characteristics are exemplary in the context of a planetary crisis and burn-out. “The Piave second-nature is exemplary of the capital use of landscape”: and it is precisely in this exemplary nature that lies the generalising character of Longhin’s discourse. This issue ventures into the space opened up by Till (2020) for a kind of architectural project that is neither weak nor pleonastic with respect to the great themes of ecological and planetary scope. Never has the tension between universal and particular, as different research methods leading to different results, been more apparent than in Burn-out: a tension that we feel is worth exploring further on both sides, to challenge ever-present simplified visions of the future, broadcasting a continuous present, disconnected from any institutional, procedural, and ultimately technological effectiveness. “Ardeth”, as a journal that deals with Architectural Design Theory, bets on the possibility of bridging the gap between totalising thought, which formulates generalized criticisms and wishes, and pluralist thought, which we derive from technics, and which proceeds in a fragmentary and exclusively inductive way, incapable of formulating a unifying vision and proposal. Trying to interpret for our own use the invitation that Simondon launched in 1958 with his On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (quoted here in the opening), we could strive to find forms of technological elaboration of our projects, forms which would allow us to hold together figures and backgrounds, the detailed substantiation of fragments and the need for a unified totality and vision. Perhaps precisely because architectural design necessarily has to reckon with its technical dimension, which forces it to treat issues as separate objects – even if architectural objects, by nature, always remain entangled in the whole, in the ‘key points’ of a network-world that demands to be considered as a background, and not only as a figure – this task seems difficult, but not impossible. Designing architecture means both thinking about something that is virtually possible and envisioning the steps to implement it. The project action proceeds through devices of many different kinds, which work both inductively and deductively, making use of technical schemes and scientific methods, as well as the discursiveness of politics and ethics. Designing means setting these bifurcations in motion and leading them to points of convergence, which produce a concrete effect and/or a way of transforming the space of the world in which we live. If architects today have a perspective of relevance, in the enormously expanded horizon that this issue of “Ardeth”looks out on, it is because they can contribute not only to prefiguring the material transformation of the ‘Critical Zone’ – point by point, place by place – but also to clarifying each time the “different modes of causality, conditioning, and command” (Simondon, 2017: 298) that allow these places to change, through that particular technic of technics that we call architectural project.

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Vanheule, S. (2003), Slave Labor and Mastery: a Psychoanalytic Study of Professional Burnout, Ph.D. thesis, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, University of Gent.

Greene, G. (1960), A Burnt-Out Case, Portsmouth, Heinemann [it. ed. (1962), Un caso bruciato, Milano, Mondadori].

Freudenberger, H. J. (1974), Staff Burn’out, “Journal of Social Issues”, vol. 30, n. 1, pp. 159-165.

Till, J. (2020), Architecture after Architecture, transcript of talk given online on 22nd April as part of the Architecture Foundation’s 100 Day Studio initiative [Online]. Available at:

Byung-Chul, H. (2015 - 2010¹), The Burnout Society, Redwood City (CA), Stanford University Press [it. ed. (2012), La società della stanchezza, Milano, Nottetempo].

Simondon, G. (2017-1958¹), On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, translated by C. Malaspina and J. Rogove, Minneapolis, Univocal Publishing [it. ed. (2021), Del modo di esistenza degli oggetti tecnici, Nocera Inferiore (SA), Orthotes].

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The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”, «Burn-out after Burn-out»Ardeth, 8 | 2021, 4-10.

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The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”, «Burn-out after Burn-out»Ardeth [Online], 8 | 2021, online dal 29 octobre 2021, consultato il 07 décembre 2023. URL:

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