Liam Ross MA MArch ARB

Architect & Lecturer in Architectural Design, Theory and Professional Studies


Book Review: The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, Pier Vittorio Aureli

ArchiNed 2012

The concept of the Political – Pier Vittorio Aureli tells us, echoing Carl Schmidt – depends upon the declaration of the enemy; we decide what to be part of by deciding upon and declaring our counter-part.  In his most recent book, (‘The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture’, Writing Architecture series, MIT press), Aureli offers an account of the architecture of Andrea Palladio, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Etienne-Louis Boullee, and Oswald Mathias Ungers, that wastes no time in declaring its partisan nature.  Aureli re-visits the work of these four architects as a means oppose architecture and urbanization, and his declared enemies are those dominant tropes of contemporary architecture – parametric design, iconic buildings, and a preoccupation with flows of capital – that ameliorate the relation between architecture and its context, theorizing the discipline through economic and managerial paradigms.

These are not new foes.  In ‘The Project of Autonomy’ Aureli traced the influence of the Italian Marxist movement Autonomia Operaia (‘worker autonomy’) on architectural theory, specifically the writing and projects or Manfredo Tafuri, Aldo Rossi and Archizoom.  In Archizoom’s No-Stop City he saw a speculative and exaggerated conclusion to the processes of urbanization; a fully integrated and isotropic built field, purged of any distinction between public and private, interior and exterior, production and consumption.  Aureli argued that Archizoom’s project elaborates the possibility of an architectural-political programme ‘within and against’ capitalist urbanization. No-Stop City depicts a historical zero-point at which the limits and contradictions of capitalist accumulation and growth are made manifest.  From this vantage point, of ‘equality’ and stagnation, a revolutionary possibility – workers autonomy – is made both more legible and more powerful.

‘Absolute Architecture’ defines an alternative architectural-political programme, which operates not within and against, but rather in its separation from, capitalist urbanization (we should understand ‘Absolute’ here in the sense of ‘set free’ and ‘made separate’).  Aureli presents this programme through a historical accounts of a series of built or speculative projects, including Palladio’s Venetian churches, Piranesi’s Vedute of the ancient ruins of Rome, Boulee’s series of monumental designs published in Architecture, Essay on Art, and Unger’s project for Berlin as a Green Archipelago.  What unites the projects he describes (and distinguishes them from Archizoom’s) is that while each is concerned with the design of the city, none offers a totalizing urban plan.  In each case, discreet architectural elements are conceived of, proposed, or mapped, in relation to a literal or metaphorical ‘sea’; the Laguna Veneta, the evacuated intra muros of medieval Rome, the numerous Place of Pierre Patte’s Partie du plan general de Paris, and the empty tracts of a war-torn and de-populated West Berlin.

However, while each of these architectural projects is described as a series of isolated figures located in a literal or metaphorical void, Aureli is not inviting us to understand architecture in abstraction from its context.  Indeed, what distinguishes Aureli’s account of Palladio’s Villas from that of Wittkower and Rowe, for instance, is that while Aureli recognizes that Palladio’s architecture is concerned with the development of its own internal logic, he does not suggest that we understand the significance of that logic through a concern for proportion, mathematics, or the ‘ideal’.  Rather, Aureli pays close attention to the historical and geopolitical circumstance of the projects he describes, and suggests that the development of consistent internal logical systems is, paradoxically, the pre-requisite for architectural site-specificity.  Separation, we are reminded, is a mode of (dialectical) relation; the ‘Absolute’ character of architectures that Aureli describes is not a formal ‘purity’, but rather a capacity of architecture to distinguish itself from, to declare itself counter to, its surrounding urbanity.

The novel thesis offered by Aureli’s history, then, is a re-thinking of architectural form.  In Aureli’s terms, the formal should not be understood simply as an internal logic, but rather as the definition of a limit that separates an ‘inside’ from an ‘outside’, the locus of an acting subject from the datum of its situation.  Aureli suggests, then, that there is a coincidence between the political and the formal; both are concerned with the decision upon and declaration of opposing parts, and their composition.  Architectural form might therefore be thought of as political in itself; it always brings into relation and composes opposing forces – internal/external, public/private, production/consumption.

The introductory text to the book, which articulates this thesis, draws upon another series of projects, to define a historical zero-point for this political programme, in some ways comparable to that offered by Archizoom’s No-Stop City.  In Mies’s late projects for governmental and corporate clients – the Seagram Building, the Federal Centre in Chicago, the Toronto-Dominion Centre – there is no discernible difference between the logic of interior and exterior, between the economic distribution of office accommodation and the economic distribution of building plots.  Nonetheless, through the use of a plinth that formally separates Mies’s building from their context – a feature that Aureli identifies as common to all his projects from the early European domestic work to his late work in America – Mies introduces a minimal caesura between inside and out, building and city, architecture and urbanism.  Stepping into this gap, stepping onto this plinth, the building occupant is momentarily set free and separated from the organizational logic of either.  Unlike No-Stop City, this architectural gesture does not seem to make manifest any particular political ambition, but rather demonstrates a political potentiality of architecture per se.  The political possibility of (an ‘Absolute’) architecture is its ability to clearly separate and make legible the parts and limits that define the city, “to understand them, formalize them, and thus reinforce them so that they can be clearly confronted and judged.”


Book Review: Radical Games, Lara Schrijvver

ArchiNed 2009

Last August Radical Games: Popping the Bubble of 60’s Architecture was published. In this study the heritage of different architectural movements in the sixties, that have since taken on mythical proportions, are put under a critical review. Liam Ross read the book and wonders whether the author, Lara Schrijver, is not also taking the sixties a bit too seriously.

The crumpled Kodacolor photos of our parents dating are fascinating. They offer us a glimpse of a past that is recent but impossible to recall, existing as it did, just before our time. Those images, which offer an impossible bridge across the generation-gap – out of our time, out of our agency – are the stuff of kitschy fantasy. Those clothes, that beard, those teeth! How did they get away with it? Shouldn’t we be trying, too? Trends tend to repeat themselves cyclically as a result of this generation gap, and the repeat-rate evident in any given field is a gauge of the age of its practitioners. For instance, Mike Myers was 34 when Austin Powers (32) awoke from 30 years of cryo-sleep in London (‘67- ’97) to fall for Miss Kensington (27), the daughter of his former lover (Mrs Kensington), both played by Liz Hurley, 32. On the other hand, British teens and teen-bands in the noughties recall a more recent past, opting to dress in ‘that-nineties-london-look’. They may have travelled through less time, but they’re still dressing-up like, and dating, their parents.

Architects lag behind on this curve. 40 is still young for us, and it wasn’t until recently that our curators and critics began to make timely-leaps back to the 1960’s. Lara Schrijver (almost 38) contributes to this retrospective turn with her new book Radical Games: Popping the Bubble of 1960’s Architecture. Like Myers, Schrijver has a kitschy fascination for the 60’s. She is drawn to the work of the decade because it appears to enjoy an agency that is impossible today. The projects she studies share a tendency – which she identifies as characteristic of their time – to make ambitious and idealistic proposals that remain unrealised. They are Utopian then, but not only in the direct sense. Through Schrijver’s gaze – and perhaps generational distance – the paper-projects of the 60’s accrue a reflexive sense of perfect-impossibility; the optimism, the social commitment, the bubblegum colours! How did they get away with it? Shouldn’t we be trying, too? Plagued by these questions, Schrijver hopes to ‘pop the bubble’ of the Années Pop. Her book is a critical assessment of the era, gauging the legacy left in its wake. She asks – with Oedipal overtones – is it time for another pop at Pop!, or does Pop wants popping?

There is an immediate knot in Schrijver’s question. Were the 60’s really that idealistic, or were they not already a critique of ideality? Are the 60’s not best understood, in fact, as a consistent critique of a prevailing ideology, the Modernist project? That is, is there really a bubble to be popped, or were the 60’s not already an era of de-flation? Schrijver exemplifies the work of the 60’s through three practices – Constant Nieuwenhuis, Archigram and Venturi, Scott Brown – that problematise three key concerns of Modernity; the City, Technology and the Image. Schrijver shows the Situationist International and Constant Nieuwenhuis to critique the Functionalist city, introducing a concern for individual, ‘trans-functional’ requirements.  Archigram’s pamplets are shown to critique the symbolic mechanisation of International Modernism, proposing an architecture that is open to a more expansive potential of technology; Venturi, Scott Brown’s documentation of decorative billboard symbolism is shown to critique the exclusive and sublime aesthetic of Modernism, proposing an architectural field contaminated by the communicativity of other disciplines.

It’s difficult to assess the success or failure of these critical projects. Archigram’s prosthetic technologies remain unrealised, but is that a sign of failure? Were they ever really a promise to build? On the other hand, we practice today in a discipline that has learned to measure the ‘trans-functional’, embraces an ever extending potential of technology, and enjoys disciplinary cross-contamination, but this success is itself problematic. Schrijver’s account recognises these ambiguities, and the double-edged work of criticism per-se; the critical practices of the 60’s identified contradictions and weaknesses in the Modernist project, but by working on these concerns secured them as tenets for a future generation. However, it’s no longer necessarily ‘critical’ to measure the whim of the Situationist’s flaneur, and propose an architecture that accommodates it; casino owners have beaten us to it, and as Schrijver notes, their recent building designs look suspiciously similar to New Babylon.

Retrospection veers into kitsch when, through the soft-focus of near-history, we project our own impossible ambitions onto the previous generation. In order to deliver the Pop! promised by her title, Schrijver relies upon a degree of such kitschy over-inflation; she sentimentalises the apparent agency of the era, and projects a wished-for idealism onto projects that were perhaps already ironic comments on ideality; Archigram’s pamphlet-proposals were never a promise to build, and the built-in obsolescence of their own designs were just part of their ironic enjoyment of a newly affluent circumstance. Nonetheless, the book is also full of sharp, intelligent pricks. Schrijver concludes, via Bruno Latour, by advocating a ‘stubbornly realist attitude’; “history changes quickly, and there is no greater intellectual crime than to address with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one”. Critiquing the universal values of Modernism, the architects of the 60’s raised Critique to a universal value. The task facing the current generation is to assess the role of criticality itself.


Book Review: Urban Politics Now, Bavo 

ArchiNed 2008

Psychoanalysis considers the Symptom – slips of the tongue, nervous ticks, dreams and suchlike – as a repressed form of speech; like a liar with sweaty palms, we’d rather keep something to ourselves, but just can’t help it. Symptoms are useful to the analyst, as an immediate surfacing of the Real, of the traumatic, uncontrollable issues that really motivate us – libido, the longing for recognition, fear of the Other, and so on. By carefully interpreting symptoms, the analyst can assess the pathology of a patient.

These days it’s a commonplace to consider the design of our built environment in such pathological terms: The content of our cities is increasingly determined by apparently traumatic, uncontrollable motivations (including profitability, consumer demand, security and ethnic identity) while the forms that they take (shopping malls, gated communities, ghettos and the like) are excused as being purely symptomatic.

If this is the case, what civic space remains for principled and positive action, either by the state or by autonomous collectives? This is the question asked by Urban Politics Now: Re-Imagining Democracy in the Neoliberal City, the latest NAI publication in the Reflect series. The book pulls together thirteen essays from academic contributors, predominantly Anglo-Dutch, in the fields of Politics, Philosophy, Geography and Urbanism, who all share an interest in applied psychoanalytic theory and a concern for democracy in the Neoliberal context.

The collection opens with Slavoj Zizek’s characteristically aphoristic offering, which describes the riots in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a symptom. The stranded – the poor and those excluded from support – were exclusively black; their image certainly appeared to the world as the repressed truth of America, a momentary visibility of its racial class dynamic.  But how should we interpret the violence that followed? Zizek asks the politically incorrect question – did the city descend into violence because those stranded were black? In other words, is violence the traumatic truth of black poverty, which only the violence of law can repress? The question is not answered, but rather identified as a fantasy that haunted the rescue operation; radically inflated reports of looting and raping hindered attempts to rescue those in need. The moral Zizek offers is that when confronting the Real – the apparently uncontrollable forces that determine our co-existence – we should take care to unmask the ‘ordering of the order’, the often obscene motivation that lurks behind expert reports. After Katrina, the reports of the supposed libido and greed of the (looting and raping) Other were easily unmasked as the simple racism of the authorities. Pressing further, he also suggests that this fantasy – our fascination with the sexual and financial enjoyment of the Other – is a constitutive part of the Capitalist order; it is the fantasy that advertising’s injunction to ‘enjoy’ constantly reinforces. Should we be surprised to see this enjoyment erupt – in both riots and racism – when cities find themselves momentarily without law?

The closing essay is by BAVO, the urban theory collective, who also introduce and edit the volume. Focusing on the Dutch experience, BAVO neatly pick apart the antinomies of Dutch Neoliberal Urbanism: The ‘I Amsterdam’ campaign, a branding exercise to draw ‘creatives’ to the city, is shown to be instrumental in quashing squatters rights, evicting practicing artists to use their studios as creatively themed ‘dining environments’; the ‘opening’ of public housing to the market is shown to coincide with a lowering of minimum accommodation standards to allow exorbitant ‘hot-bed’ hostels for migrant workers; systems of community consultation and art projects representing happy urban tension are shown to coincide with the organised exclusion of the poor from civic life. However, the essay also champions an example of democratic action, reporting on how the inhabitants of Nieuw Crooswijk in Rotterdam attempted to resist the ‘Big Fix Up’ of their neighbourhood.  Forming an inhabitant’s collective, they developed an alternative master plan for the area, based upon their own ambitions, and proposed it to the city.  What BAVO admires about the inhabitants’ tactics is that they refused to participate in the pseudo-democratic consultation process – they refused to be de-politicised as just another ‘experience expert’ – but rather posited themselves as the authority on the future of the district (their alternative master plan was called, charmingly, ‘The Even Newer Niew Crooswijk’). In doing so they created a moment of disensus, a genuinely political moment when all the old antagonisms – Neoliberalism’s home turf – are thrown into question.

The filling to this concerning sandwich offers an exhaustive and exhausting diagnosis of novel urban malaise ranging from Postmetropolitan Psychasthenia through Bar-Code Humanity to Perver-City. The contents page alone could give a Freudian-Leninist a sense of hypochondria. However, we might have our own concerns about this catalogue. Firstly, it’s worth reflecting on the clinical fate of Psychoanalysis. The luxury of time required to reach its ‘end’ has limited its role to legitimising the ennui of the rich. Doesn’t its application here run a similar risk? This book addresses an academic audience with time to know its Anal Libido from its Ego; how likely is it to provoke an intervention? Secondly, isn’t consensus in question? The camaraderie with which ‘Neo-Liberal’ is used as a pejorative undermines any momentary disensus; as Zizek seems to ask from within the collection, why were no dedicated Neoliberals included?

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September 26, 2012 at 9:42 am

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