This doesn't mean that modern architecture cannot act within the choices dictated by the evolution of the urban structures, cannot clarify the meaning of the historical textures, make perceptible their internal valencies and re-establish their meanings. It might be a somehow violent operation; but its results will be conditioned by its capacity to bring out from the clash between old and new, the dialectical link between historicity and the permanence of the ancient textures and the values of the present, the changeable, the arbitrary, the energetic, typical of contemporary life and architecture.
The project for the new Parliament buildings by Giuseppe and Alberto Samonà is a particularly meaningful example of this concept. The transparency of the ancient behind the filigree of wiry iron structures--seemingly a reminder of Paul Klee's irony--and the upwards explosion of an unbalanced dynamism of geometrical forms: the dialogue is made possible by accepting the terms of the problem as they are, in sharp opposition with each other.
This means, also, that architecture helps to clarify a historical situation by charging itself with critical values.
While Samonà was able to carry on such an operation--unfortunately only at the level of proposal--on a small scale and in an exceptional case, the lesson from the project of the new Venice hospital by Le Corbusier insists on the same range of problems, showing, at the same time, the most suitable way to face them.
Le Corbusier creates a definite link between the structure of Venice and that of the new intervention: the dialogue between the structures is carried out at the level of their respective organisms, emphasizing, in the new hospital, the continuity and the seriality of the various nuclei. A specific environment, then, undergoes a reorganization imposed by the articulated hospital machine. While the urban structures take on a completely new character through the critical clarification of Le Corbusier's work and its definition of a still unrealized 'fringe'.
His relationship with a town like Venice, so particularly 'finished' and organic in its historicity, allows Le Corbusier to single out the articulation of the architectural organism as the mediating element between new intervention and consolidated history: as in the previous projects for Algiers and the South American towns, he was able to set up a new code of values and a new frame of reference, absorbing natural, geographical, historical elements into articulated organisms, as if they were ready-made objects open to the revolution of their semantic attributes.
Historical dialogue and revolution of the meanings: the binomial--Le Corbusier shows--is inseparable. It is the same operation tried by Quaroni in his competition project for CEP at the Barene of San Giuliano, by Kahn in his projects for Philadelphia, by Tange in the Yamanashi Building. These and some experiments of the younger generation have widened it to the point where it is seen as the pivot of the new urban framework. And it is the attempt to involve the entire urban system, as a dialectical group of meanings consolidated in their primary features, open to new semantic charges in their secondary features and in their territorial layout, that seems to be saving the historical towns from the fetishist museification predicted by Dorfles.117
117'If . . . we will realize that it is us, with our own hands, who mummify our past, then we may become qualified to do it. It would be, anyway, a kind of "operation Museum", not unlike the reconstruction, on the hill overlooking the Hudson estuary, of the complex of Romanesque Cloisters and Abbeys--the famous "Cloisters" on the Metropolitan Museum.' Gillo Dorfles Nuovi riti, nuoni miti, Einaudi, Turin 1965, p. 98. (But cf. the chapter: Mummificazione e feticizzazione dell' architecttura, pp. 97-100). Note that here Dorfles seems to contradict what he had previously stated: cf. G. Dorfles Il divenire delle arti, Einaudi, Turin 1967, pp. 148-9.
The division between clear perception and confused perception sees lined up on one side Boullée, Durand, Dubut, Schinkel and, later Garnier, Loos, Le Corbusier, Gropius, European Constructivism, Louis Kahn; on the other Lequeu, Romantic and Expressionist movements, and, then, Dada, Action-Painting, Pop Art and the architectural neo-eclectic and neo-expressionist movements.
Architecture like that of the Yamanashi Building in Tokyo, the Government Service Center in Boston, or the Capitol, Dacca, cannot possibly become part of an absent-minded observation of the town. The way in which they force, with the intensity and allusivity of the images, the usual rhythms of daily life; their emphatic reference to a space different from, if not opposed to, the one of common existence; their closing themselves within their own forms, all express the intention to protect themselves from any action of the outside world, by wrapping themselves in the hortus conclusis of a self-sufficient mechanic of forms. It is useless hiding the truth: one can hail these, and other similar works, as genuine masterpieces, but there is no doubt that at their base is the fear of taking part in a process directed towards use and consumption.
This is an architecture that does not want to be consumed, that wants to prevent an absent-minded usage, and that, consequently, does not accept its disappearance as object: on the contrary, it means to reconstitute the 'aura' round itself. All the same, in spite of the intentions, it is not able to renew the condition of concentration in front of the complex dynamic of its images: it is not able to make the observer merge with its core (as Benjamin says). Kahn, Rudolph, Giurgola, Tange and Stirling remain half-way: like their followers and successors. On one side, then, the city as field of images, as a system of super-structures, as an a-logic sequence of surreal and casual forms to be recovered in an a-syntactic visual reorganization. On the other [hand], the city as structure, as container of 'values' connected by urban history, rather than by perceptive continuity, as permanence of 'places' in constant dialogue among themselves.
The availability of the town allows, however, some contradictions, allows the realization of utopias, criticism from within: this is what Kahn and Tange seemed to say, in spite of the different yardsticks of their propositions. We can of course judge their architecture as a renunciation designed to control the multiformity of processes in too rapid evolution: in this sense, we can speak of Action architecture, quoting from Kallmann's acute study of a few years ago.32 The fact remains though that in their desperate need to found new planning methods and to find new public symbols, these architects express two complementary values. Their work is charges with critical content, refusing to nullify in the absent-minded use the stimuli that are now ineffective for a critical behavior. At the same time they substantiate the fact that the maximum of aesthetical information does not coincide with the maximum of entropy, but that in a highly organized system, the reproposal of finite values causes destructive and contrary effects in all the critical senses.
The absurdity of the situation is that, having asked for a 'dilution of the attention' and for a 'relaxed participation' to the constitutive process of the city, architecture should, today, see a new value in withdrawing from the world that, for better or worse, it has helped to shape. (And do note that the Seagram Building does withdraw from the urban context, in the same way as the Guggenheim Museum).
Works like the Boston Government Service Center, the center of Cumbernauld and the Dacca Capitol Buildings have to fold in on themselves, have to become a critical discourse on architecture, have to inquire into what makes them architecture. The same work that reveals the unsolved relationship tying its anti-historicist origin to a present that no longer justifies that very anti-historicism, uses the metalanguage of criticism, announcing loudly the crisis of the tradition that allows it to exist as new symbolic object. As such, it has to remain a readable diagram of an intolerable situation.
The parallel between Picasso and Schwitters, between Schönberg and Stravinsky, between Gropius and Häring does not disappear, but closes itself in an elliptical presence of opposites. In such a mixture the role of the observer becomes ambiguous. Involved and rejected at the same time, he takes part in the drama performed by architecture: but he is simultaneously launched outside architecture, into a dimension that doesn't even touch the limbo of utopia. And as the critic, in the tradition of contemporary art, is nothing but a privileged observer, his position enjoys an even more accentuated ambiguity: from the position of committed collaborator he is pushed into the front row to witness, as a silent accomplice, the show offered by an architecture continuously splitting itself in an exhausting mirror game.
32Cf. George Kallmann, 'La Action Architecture di una generazione nuona', (Casabella continuità, 1964, no. 269) in Architecture Forum, Oct. 1962. Some observations by Boyd on these architectural groups dealt in depth with the historical aspect of the theme; cf. R. Boyd, The Puzzle of Architecture, op. cit. p. 133 ff.
We will deal with some instruments typical of architectural experimentalism, identifying five different types of experiments.
A. The emphasis of a given theme, exasperated to the point of the most radical contestation of the fundamental laws governing it, or disjointed in a sort of disassembly of its single parts: this is the case of many late-Antique architectures from Villa Adriana to Piazza Armerina, of many late-Gothic experiences, of the whole vast debate on the central plan from the fifteenth to the late eighteenth century, with the heresies of Peruzzi, Serlio, of Palladio's Venetian churches and the projects preserved at the RIBA, of French and Bohemian Rococo, of Piranesi's utopias, and, within the Modern Movement, of De Stijl's and Rudolph Schindler's studies, of the late production of Behrens and Van der Velde, of the New Brutalism and of Japanese Mannerism.
B. The insertion of a theme deeply rooted in a particular, totally different context: this is the case of the commixture of sacral emblems and civil functions in works like Sangallo's Villa di Poggio a Caiano, of Palladio's Villas, of the use of elements with a definite symbolic charge in a-symbolic contexts (like the nineteenth-century domed stations, libraries and stock exchanges), of the systematic introduction of quotations, in many eclectic works, first of all those of Gaudi (but, more to the point, those of Frank Furness and Victorian architecture).
C. The assemblage of elements from ideally and historically different and distant codes: like Notre-Dame at Le Puy or St-Front at Périgueux (where the Byzantine succession of the domes is inserted into Romanesque contexts), S. Giustina in Padua, much architecture of the late English seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (from Wren to Vanbrugh), Illuminist and Romantic periods, and part of the neo-eclectic production.
D. The compromising of architectural themes with figurative structures of a different nature (we are thinking of the Mannerist and baroque contaminations of architecture, painting and sculpture, or of many recent attempts at dissolving the semantic autonomy of the various visual arts), or through their sudden insertion into a series; and here we are thinking of the typological use made of the themes drawn from archaeology by architects like Quarenghi and Schinkel.
E. The exasperated articulation of a theme originally taken as absolute: it is still the case of the late-Gothic and Mannerist typological inventions, of Piranesi's Ichnographia Campi Martii, of many 'critical restorations' by Albini and Scarpa, of Kahn's last work.
The realization and the logical control of a strictly critical formal process must reject these limits: not objective limits, we must add, but relative to the specific task of any form of criticism.
The disarticulation of the spatial successions, in the Villa Adriana or in the Piazza Armerina, are so coherent with the premises that justify them--the test of the autonomy range of the single spatial fragment, modulated, contracted or made elastic, to emphasize its absoluteness and to increase its ambiguity within the entire context20--as to make these works a sort of anthology, not only for successive studies, but also as sources to draw from: not by chance was a whole number of Perspecta taken up by the Villa Adriana, and Kahn often showed his interest for this singular group of architectural objects.21
What is of value in those exceptional late-antique monuments is the series of differentiated spaces that join and clash with one another: Piranesi's Campo Marzio, that owes so much to the study of the Villa Adriana, takes to the limit its formal bricolage, moving its search for a semantic polyvalency to another scale and to another historical context.
20On Villa Adriana cf.: Heinz Kähler, Hadrian und seine Villa bei Tivoli, Gebr. Mann, Berlin 1950.
21'It is probably no accident that both [Wright and Kahn] turned to Hadrian, since that haunted Emperor was perhaps one of the first, certainly one of the most conspicuous, men of Western history for whom--all ways having opened, which more true than another?--conscious, selective memory was a major determinant of life. It is pervasive problem of the modern world--all possible, nothing wholly serving, no way the only way, memory all too free to choose?' Vincent Scully, Louis I. Kahn, Braziller, New York 1962, p. 38. The measure of Kahn's anti-pragmatism is given (as far as this is possible) by comparing Scully's interpretation with John Dewey's passage in Art as Experience, New York 1934, on the double meaning that can be assumed by the past as an oppressive weight invading the present with a sense of nostalgia and unfulfilled possibilities, and also as a 'store of resources' for those able 'to befriend even their own stupidities'.
Here is a further explanation why the rigorist American movements, with the related European movements, look for the recovery of Order and Form in the codes that are most eversive in respect to the old Order. The architecture of Kahn, Johansen, Franzen, Rudolph and of the 'Five' is, then, critical in a new sense. It does not deny the tradition of the Modern Movement but compromising it by comparing it directly with its origins: as if to find its certificate of historical legitimacy.
Are we then, dealing with pure irony? Only in part. It is the incompletedness that becomes a sort of symbolic message in Rudolph's disenchanted work: Yale, and the designs for Tuskegee Chapel in Alabama, for the Government Center in Boston, for Stafford Harbor.
Incompletedness can mean work in progress, open architecture, expressive restraint. But this is not the case with Rudolph. In themselves his images are always redundant because he ignores the restrained allusions reached by reducing the images to pure signs and to 'objects', typical of Kahn. Rudolph's truncated and contradictory phrases carry, rather, a sense of ambiguous contestation. Taken together--and it is particularly so in the Boston project--they tend toward a polemic summery of the history of modern architecture, brings out its tensions and dichotomies (Wright versus Corbu, the winks at a vaguely medieval historical source and the academic use of worn out compositional formulae, the figurative ransom of technology and its concealment in sculptural objects).