L'Architecture dans le Boudoir:
To work with leftover materials, with the garbage and throwaways of our daily and commonplace existence, is an integral aspect of the tradition of modern art, as if it were a magic reversal of the informal into things of quality through which the artist comes to terms with the world of objects. No wonder then that if the most heartfelt condition today is that of wishing to salvage values pertinent to architecture, the only means is to employ "war surplus" materials, that is, to employ what has been discarded on the battlefield after the
defeat of the Modern movement. Thus, the new "knights of purity" advance into the realm of the present debate waving as flags the fragments of a utopia which they themselves cannot see.
We must, however, keep in mind that any analysis which attempts to grasp the structural relationship between the specific forms of the architectural language and the world of production of which they are a part must do so by violating the object of the analysis itself. Criticism, in other words, sees itself constrained to adopt a "repressive" character if it wishes to free that which is beyond language; if it desires to bring upon itself the cruel autonomy of architectural writing, and if, after all, it wishes the "mortal silence of the sign" to
speak. As has been acutely pointed out, to Nietzsche's question "Who speaks?" Mallarmé has answered, "The word itself." 1 This would apparently exclude any attempt to question the language as a system of meanings whose discourse it is necessary to reveal. And where contemporary architecture poses, ostentatiously, the problems of its meaning, we must look for the signs of a regressive utopia, even if these signs mime a struggle against the role of language. This struggle is apparent if we see how, in recent works, the compositional
strictness oscillates precariously between the forms of "comment" and those of "criticism." The best example of this is seen in the work of James Stirling. Kenneth Frampton, Marc Girouard, Joseph Rykwert, and Charles Jencks' have distinguished themselves in their attempts to give meaning to the enigmatic and ironic usage of "quotation" in Stirling's work.2
Unlike Paul Rudolph, for whom every formal gesture is a hedonistic wink at the spectator, Stirling has revealed the possibilities of an endless manipulation of the grammar and syntax of the architectural sign. He employs with extreme coherence the formalistic laws of contrast and opposition of his language's elements: the rotation of the axes, the use of antithetic materials, and technological distortions.4 The result of such controlled bricolage is a metaphorical reference to something very dear to the English architect: the architecture of ships. "A dream with marine references"5 is the way Kenneth Frampton has accurately labeled the Leicester University Engineering Laboratory (fig. 3), a true iceberg sailing in the sea of the park into which it is casually set down,
following an enigmatic course. Yet insofar as Stirling does not appreciate such "fishing for references," the porthole, which ironically comes up from the base of the laboratories at Leicester (next to the jutting Melnikovian halls), seems to confirm that constructivist poetics are a primary source--an almost too obvious reference to the design for the Palace of the Soviets (1923) by the Vesnin brothers (fig. 4). Yet the theme of the ship comes back, this time with proper literary references, in the terracing, the general organization and the common access ways of the Andrew Melville Hall at St. Andrews University (fig. 7). Again, it is Frampton who notes that here the marine metaphor takes on a more precise meaning: the ship, like the phalanstery, symbolizes an unattainable community will.6 The ship, the monastery and the phalanstery are thereby equivalent. From a desire to achieve perfect communal integration, they isolate themselves from the world. Le Corbusier and Stirling themselves appear, at La Tourette and St. Andrews, to pronounce a painful discovery: social utopianism can only be discussed as a literary document and can only come into architecture as a linguistic element, or better, as a pretext for the use of language.
As we have said regarding comment and criticism: the form of comment is a repetition in the desperate search for the genesis of the signs; the form of criticism is the analysis of the function of the signs themselves, a task possible only after one has renounced the search for the hallowed meaning of the language. The operations carried out by Stirling are exemplary; they point out the utopia intrinsic in the full realization of architecture as a discourse. In this light, the functional criticisms which are constantly leveled at Stirling are at once
correct and unjust;8 once having artificially reconstructed an independent structure of language, the criticisms are inevitably resolved into a surreal play of tensions between the universe of signs and the domain of the real.
The research by Aldo Rossi provides an excellent example to illustrate a theme which inexorably divides the entire course of modern art.11 Rossi answers the poetics of ambiguity of a John Johansen or a Robert Venturi with the liberation of architecture from any embrace with reality, from any interruption by chance or by any empiricism in its totally structured sign system. The "scandal" of Stirling's architecture is man, held as he is in an ambiguous suspension between architecture as a pure object and a redundancy of hermetic communications. The architecture of Rossi suppresses such a scandal. The invocation of form that it calls forth excludes all external justifications. The specific qualities of architecture are set down into a universe of carefully selected signs, within which the law of exclusion dominates, and in fact is the controlling expression. Beginning with the monument of Segrate (1965) to the designs for the City Hall of Muggio (1972) (fig. 13) and the cemetary of Modena (1971) (fig. 11), Rossi declaims an alphabet that rejects all articulation. As the
abstract representation of its own arbitrary laws, it makes artifice its own realm. By this means such an architecture falls back to the structural nature of language itself. Exhibiting a syntax of empty signs, programmed exclusions, rigorous limitations, it reveals the inflexible nature of the arbitrary and the false dialectic between freedom and norms that are characteristic of the linguistic order. "Pure Art," the object of a famous discussion between Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, sets forth in such works its own principle of legitimacy.
In this manner such research loses itself in its extreme attempt to save the institution of architecture. The thread of Ariadne with which Rossi weaves his work does not reestablish the discourse, but rather dissolves it, thereby making true the tragic acknowledgement of Georg Simmel, "a for which is open to life, serves it, cannot give itself."16
The position taken by Kraus and Loos is not negated; it is, however, made more ambiguous. Because facts have words, form may be silent. The simultaneous presence of objects constructivistically aggregated, obstinately forced to communicate messages or modes of behavior, and a mute object closed in its equally obstinate timidity, "narrate" in an exemplary fashion the drama of modern architecture. Architecture, once again, has made a discourse on itself. But this time, in an unusual way: as a colloquy, that is, between two languages which approach the same result. The complexity of Aymonino and the silence of Rossi: two ways to declaim the guttural sounds of the yellow giants-we recall here the expressionist drama Der gelbe Klaug in which Wassily Kandinsky had personified the "new angels" of mass society.19
To what point then is this attitude comparable to that of the "Five Architects" who, in the panorama of international architecture, appear closest to conceiving of architecture as a reflection upon itself and upon its internal articulations? Is it indeed possible to speak of their work as "mannerism among the ruins"?22 Mario Gandelsonas has correctly singled out the specific areas of interest in the work of Michael Graves-the interest in the classicist code, cubist painting, the traditions of the Modern movement, and nature.23 Yet we should be wary. We are again dealing with "closed systems," within which the themes of polysemy and pluralism are formed and controlled, and within which the possession of the aleatory is resolved in an institutional, or at best "monumental," format. (The only source which appears to defy such an interpretation is that which refers to the Modern movement; nevertheless, this is read by Graves as only signifying "metaphysical" and "twentieth century," thus permitting our schema to remain valid.) Having established a system of limitations and exclusions, Graves is able to manipulate his materials in a finite series of operations; at the same time this system allows him to show how a clarification or an explication of linguistic processes permits an indirect control over the design, always within the predeiermined system of exclusions. In other words, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman and Richard Meier give new life to a method which springs from the classification of the syntactic processes. It is the sort of formalism, in its original guise, which is perpetuated through their work (figs. 32-34). "Semantic distortion," the pivotal point of the Russian formalists, is thus brought to life again in an obvious manner at the Benacerraf House by Graves. Within this work, as well as in the more hieratic and timeless syntactic decompositions of Eisenman, we may see a sort of analytic laboratory devoted to experimentation upon highly select forms, rather than just a mere penchant for Terragni or a taste for the abstract.
To dissect and rebuild the geometric metaphors of the "compositional rigorists" may prove to be an endless game which may eventually become useless when, as in Eisenman's work, the process of assemblage is altogether explicit and presented in a highly didactic manner. In the face of such products, the task of criticism is to begin from within the work only to escape from it as soon as possible so as not to be caught in the vicious circle of a language that speaks only of itself. Obviously the problems of criticism lie elsewhere. We do not believe in the artificial "New Trends" within contemporary architecture.25 Yet there is little doubt that there exists a widespread attitude that is intent on repossessing the unique character of the object by removing it from its economic and functional contexts and highlighting it as an exceptional event--and hence a surrealistic one-by placing it in parentheses with the flux of objects generated by the production system. It is possible to speak of these acts as an "architecture dan le boudoir." And not only because we find ourselves faced with an "architecture of cruelty," as the works of Stirling and Rossi have demonstrated with their cruelty of language-as-a-system-of-exclusions, but also because the magic cicle drawn around linguistic experimentation reveals a pregnant affinity with the structural rigor of the literature of the Marquis de Sade. "There, where the stake is sex, everything must speak of sex." That is, the utopia of Eros in Sade--resolved within
the discovery that maximum freedom springs forth from maximum terror--where the whole is inscribed with the supreme constraint of a geometric structure in the narrative. To regain an "order of discourse" may today prove to be safeguard for certain subjective liberties--particularly after its destruction by the avant-garde through questioning the techniques of mass information and with the disappearance of the work of art into the assembly line. There are two contradictions, however. On the one hand, as with the Enlightement utopia, such attempts are destined to reveal that liberty serves only to make a silence speak; that is, one cannot bring voluntary action to oppose a structure. On the
other hand, the "orders of discourse" are an attempt to go beyond this impasse and propose a foundation for a new statute of architecture. Such contradictions are actually theorized in the work of Kahn since the mid-fifties. Yet we have not escaped the hermetic play of language.
On several occasions we have tried to show that, in the vicissitudes of the historical avant-garde, the alternatives
that appear as opposites-order and disorder, laws and change, structure and chaos-are in reality entirely complementary.26 We have seen this exemplified in the Gallaratese neighborhood in Milan, within which the dialectic between purism and construction is made entirely obvious. But the historic import of such a complementary system goes beyond the specific example. To degrade the materials out of which
communication is made by compromising them with the commonplace and forcing them to be mirrored in the anxious swamp of merchandising, thus reducing them to astonished and emptied signs, is the process which leads from the tragic clownings of the Cabaret Voltaire, to the Merzbau of Kurt Schwitters (fig. 35), to the pictures composed by telephone of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Yet there is a surprising result. This desecrating immersion into chaos .becomes the premise for the existence of a new means, which having absorbed the logic of that chaos is now ready to dominate it from within.
There is, however, a result to this which emerges in projects such as that by Venturi and Rauch for the American Bicentennial Celebration (fig. 36) in Philadelphia.31 Here, there is no longer a desire to communicate; the architecture is dissolved into an unstructured system of ephemeral signals. Instead of communication, there is a flux of information; instead of an architecture as language, there is an attempt to reduce it to a mass-medium, without any ideological residue; instead of an anxious effort to restructure the urban system,
there is a disenchanted acceptance of reality, becoming an excess of purest cynicism. (Excess, after all, always carries a critical connotation.) In this fashion, Venturi, placing himself within an exclusively linguistic framework, has reached a radical devaluation of the language itself. The meaning of the Ptakatwelt, of the world of publicity, is closed in on itself. He thereby achieves the symmetrically opposed result of that reached by the compositional rigorists. For the latter it is the metaphysical retrieval of a "being" of architecture, extracted from the flux of existence. For Venturi, it is the non-utilization of language itself, having discovered that its intrinsic ambiguity, once having made contact with reality, makes illusory any and all pretexts of autonomy.
By no chance are we dealing with an approach upon which converge those whom Jencks has called the "Supersensualists"36--that is, Hans Hollein, Walter Pichler or Riccardo Bofill--preceded as they were (and this Jencks does not bring out) by much of the late work of Lloyd Wright and the impotent prefigurations of the technological avant-gardists. The elimination of the displacement between those discussions
"which are spoken" and those "which are said" cannot be realistically accomplished at the level of the language itself. The explosion of architecture out towards reality has within it a comprehensive goal which becomes evident if we understand the areas of research upon which the work of such men as Raymond Unwin, Barry Parker, Clarence Stein, Charles Harris Whitaker, Henry Wright, Fritz Schumacher, Ernst May and Hannes Meyer, is based.
To think of the architect as a producer is to renounce almost entirely the traditional baggage of values and judgments. As an entire production cycle rather than a single work is desired, critical analysis must be directed towards the material constraints which determine the production cycle itself. Yet this is not enough. The specific analysis must be made compatible with the dynamics of the entire economic
cycle, not to generate those misunderstandings brought about by an economic vision subordinated to the needs of architecture. In other words, to change the scope of what architecture wishes to be, or wishes to say, towards that which building construction is in reality, means that we must find suitable parameters which will allow us to understand the role of construction within the entire capitalistic system. It may be objected such an economic reading of building production is other then the reading of architecture as a system of communications. We can only answer that, wishing to discover the tricks of a magician, it is often better to observe him from behind the scenes rather than to continue to stare at him from a seat in the audience.
Our concluding evaluations concerning the present research aimed at bringing architecture back to its original "purity" are therefore valid. These studies, whose sincerity is not to be faulted, are seen as "parallel actions," that is, as proposals intended to build an uncontaminated layer floating above (or below) the truly determining forces. Art for art has been in
its own fashion a form of upper class protest against the universe of Zivilisation In defending Kultur against
Zivilisation, Thomas Mann was formulating " ...the thoughts of an impolitic man," which, if followed to their conclusions, would but reaffirm the identification between art and playas set forth by Schiller--the "courage to talk of roses" may then be appreciated only as a confession of a radical anachronism.
These questions cannot be readily answered without seriously challenging the present-day crystallization of intellectual work and therefore without challenging our capitalistic division of labor. Yet these questions give us a precise sense of direction in action, a field of encounter and confrontation directed towards a greater knowledge of reality. The criticism of ideology--an ever useful weapon in overcoming the rearmost positions and in chasing away the danger of following as "revolutionary" those false paths laid out by the enemy that lead into the desert--may at this point be translated into an analysis of concrete techniques which will favor capitalistic development. And it may become a premise to further select topics to be used as weapons of an all encompassing struggle. In this context, the General Strike, which in 1969 marked a new phase in the Italian workers' claims centered on the city and the house, becomes a fundamental chapter in the historical method we are proposing. It becomes so much more than the ideological contortions of the technicians who, "curved over the drawing boards continue to extract the wrong sums," as Brecht would say.
Quondam © 2020.03.06