behind the scenes

two departments combined

  1   b   c   d   e   f   g   h   i   j   k   l   m   n   o   p   q   r   s   t   u   v   w   x   y   z

L'Architecture dans le Boudoir:
The language of criticism and the criticusm of language

Manfredo Tafuri
Translation by Victor Caliandro

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.

Today, he who is willing to make architecture speak is forced to rely on materials empty of any and all meaning: he is forced to reduce to degree zero all architectonic ideology, all dreams of social function and any utopian residues. In his hands, the elements of the modern architectural tradition come suddenly to be reduced to enigmatic fragments, to mute signals of a language whose code has been lost, stuffed away casually in the desert of history. In their own way, those architects who from the late fifties until today have tried to reconstruct a common discourse for their discipline, have felt the need to make a new morality of content. Their purism or their rigorism is that of someone driven to a desperate action that 'cannot be justified except from within itself. The words of their vocabulary, gathered from the desolate lunar landscape remaining after the sudden conflagration of their grand illusions, lie perilously on that sloping plane which separates the world of reality from the magic circle of language. It is precisely with a sense for a certain salvage operation that we wish to confront the language of criticism: after all, to historicize deliberately such antihistorical attempts only means to reconstruct single-mindedly the system of metaphoric ambiguities which are too openly problematic to be left isolated as disquieting beings.

We must immediately warn the reader that we have no intention of reviewing recent architectural trends. Instead, we would like to focus attention on 'U set of particularly important attitudes, asking ourselves which role criticism must take. We will therefore examine: (1) those trends which respond to language as a purely technical neutrality, which set themselves against the destruction of language as it is generated by a bureaucraticized architecture; this will allow us to reveal the answers offered by the profession and on that research which tries to renew an awareness of linguistic processes and to link up with the experiments of the avant-garde which have been influenced by formalist methodologies (2) research based on the dissolution of language itself, on the systematic destruction of form that is aimed at the total control of the technological environment; (3) research which interprets architecture as criticism and irony, as well as that which deliberately denies the possibility of an architectonic communication in favor of a neutral system of "information"; and (4) the emergence of an architecture which aims to redistribute the capitalistic division of labor, which moves towards an understanding of the technician's role in building--that is, as a responsible partner in the economic dynamics and as an organizer directly involved in the production cycle. All this we will do to locate with precision, yet without an easy optimism, the role of the difficult exchange between intellectuals and class movements.

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

In his more recent works, including the Siemens AG Headquarters in Munich, the Olivetti training school at Haslemere and the housing for Runcorn New Town, we have wished to see a change of direction, a break with the disquieting composition of Constructivist, Futurist, Paxtonian, Victorian memories of his university buildings at Leicester, Cambridge, and Oxford, and of the Civic Center (fig. 1) designed with Leon Krier for Derby,3 The parabola which Stirling has followed has a high degree of internal consistency. It indeed reveals the consequence of a reduction of the architectural object to pure language, yet it wishes to be compared to the tradition of the Modern movement, to be measured against a body of work strongly compromised in an antiliguistic sense. Stirling has "rewritten" the "words" of modern architecture, building a true "archeology of the present."

Let us look at the design for the Civic Center at Derby. An ambiguous and amused reference to history is spelled out by the facade of the old Assembly Room, inclined by 45° and serving as a proscenium to the theater which is defined by the U-shaped gallery. The entire work of Stirling possesses this "oblique" character. The shopping arcade recalls the Burlington Arcade in London. It also brings to mind the bridge of Pyrex tubes at the Johnson Wax building (fig. 2) by Frank Lloyd Wright, and perhaps even more strongly recalls an unbuilt as well as undesigned architecture--the shopping arcade modeled on a sort of circular Crystal Palace which, following the description by Ebenezer Howard, was to have surrounded the central area of the ideal Garden City. The Civic Center in Derby is in fact an urban "heart." It is, however, part of a real city and not a utopian model, and consequently the memory of Joseph Paxton takes on a flavor of a disenchanted but timely repêchage.

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.

The charged atmosphere of the young rebels of the 1950s and of the Independent Group, of which Stirling was a member between 1952 and 1956, has thus a coherent result. The affirmation of language, here understood as an interweaving of complex syntactic valences and ambiguous semantic references, also includes the "function," the existential dimensions of the work. Yet it only deals with a "virtual function" and not an effective function. The Andrew Melville Hall represents theatrically the space of communal integration which--from the time of the Spangen block (1921) of Michael Brinkman (fig. 6) to the housing commune (1927) of Moses Ginsburg (fig. 8), the postwar plans of Le Corbusier and Alison and Peter Smithson, and the building of Park Hill and Robin Hood Gardens7--the orthodoxy of the Modern movement had hoped to make operable as spaces of social precipitation

Suspending the public destined to use his buildings in a limbo of a space that ambiguously oscillates between the emptiness of form and a "discourse on function"--that is, architecture as an autonomous machine, as it is spelled out in the History building at Cambridge (fig. 5) and made explicit in the project for Siemens AG (fig. 9)--Stirling carries out the most cruel of acts by abandoning the sacred precinct in which the semantic universe of the modern tradition has been enclosed. Neither attracted nor repulsed by the independent articulation of Stirling's formal machines, the observer is forced in spite of himself to recognize that this architecture does indeed speak its own language, one that is perversely closed into itself. It is possible only to sink or swim, forced into a swinging course, itself just as oscillating as the perverse play of the architect with the elements of his own 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.

We are therefore led back to our initial problem; that is, in which manner may criticism become compromised in such a "perverse play" under whose ambiguous sign the entire thrust of modern architecture flickers? At the origins of the critical act are always found the acts of distinguishing, separating and disintegrating a given structure. Without the act of disintegrating the object under analysis, it is impossible to rewrite it. It is self-evident that there does not exist a criticism that does not follow the process which generated the work itself, one which does not redeploy the elements of the work into a different order, if only for the sake of constructing typological models. Yet it is here that there begins what might be called the doubling of the object under critical examination. The simple analysis of architecture, which obliges one to speak of it in terms of its language, would be description pure and simple. Such an analysis would be unable to break the magic circle that the work in question draws around itself, and it would therefore only be able to manipulate within set limits the selfsame process that generated the work, thereby repeating its axioms. The only external referent of such an "internalized" reading would be found in the gaps inherent in the linguistic object itself. Thus this "doubling" created by criticism must go beyond merely constructing a "second language" to float above the original text, as Roland Barthes speaks of it.9 The creation of typological models, which Emilio Garroni has correctly seen as the only possible way to single out systems and codes of reference for architecture,10 may therefore have meaning if the models prove capable of: (1) defining a series of structural constants to form a base upon which to measure the degree of innovation in each architectural experiment (the typology of the Palladian villa as developed by Rudolf Wittkower is a prime example); and (2) allowing a dynamic comparison between the series of constants and those structures which determine the possibility of the very existence of architecture. In the above method there is no ordinary subdivision between structure and superstructure. There is only insistence upon completion of the analysis of a test of the "function" of the communications system. Yet the discourse on language requires further clarification. Criticism must point out with precision its role in relation to involuted architectural proposals, if only because these are today the most apparent.

At the borderline, the linguistic residues--that is, those aspects of the real which have not been resolved in form, as in the architecture of a James Stirling, a Louis Kahn, or a Victor Lundy--are suddenly eliminated; it is there that the absolute presence of form makes "scandalous" the existence of the casual, even in that casual behavior par excellence, human presence.

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.

The emptied sign is also the instrument of the metaphysics of De Chirico, of the dream-like realism of the neue Sachlichkeit, and of the astounded enigma projected onto objects by the school ofthe Nouveau Regard.14 With these, Rossi shares only a sort of frustrated nostalgia for the structure of communication. But for him, it is a communication that has nothing to speak about except the finite quality of its closed system, wherein the cyclone of the "Angelus Novus" has passed, freezing words into salt pillars.13 Mies van der Rohe had already experimented with the language of emptiness and silence. Yet for Mies the translation of the sign still occurred within the presence of the real, that is to say, by contrast with the city itself. In Rossi, however, the categorical imperative lives as the absolute alienation of form, to the point of achieving an empied sacredness--an experience of the immovable and of the eternal return to geometric emblems reduced to being mere ghosts.14

There is a precise reason for this phenomenon. The result that Rossi approaches is that of demonstrating without any chance of further appeal, that by his removal of form from the domain of daily experiences, he is continually forced to circumnavigate the central point from which communication springs forth, yet is unable to draw from the source itself. This is not because of any inability of the architect, but rather because this "center" has been historically destroyed. If an attitude of neo-Enlightenment is found in rossi, it is to be understood as a recovered example of an irrevesible act of the eighteenth century--the fragmentation of the "order of discourse." Only the ghost of that lost order can today be waved about. Yet the accusations of fascism hurled at Rossi mean little, since his attempts at the recovery of an ahistoricizing form exclude verbalizations of its content and any compromise with the real. 15



Quondam © 2020.02.16