WAI will take part of a roundtable discussion “City as Site” on Friday October 5, the closing day of the Manifesto Series organized by the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and supported by the Dutch Design Fashion Architecture, Beijing Design Week, and Caochangdi Community.
The WAIzine switches rhythm and pace, focus and aim, strategy and method. It goes from pure research, to retroactive manifesto, to speculative provocation. It is ambitious like architecture should be, especially these days of philosophical uncertainty, intellectual laissez faire, economic restraints, and social deterioration.
Rejecting the role of mere spectators of the global spectacle that has been set up by previous generations, the new generation of thinkers should be eager to embrace and confront the world with a passion that burns and assume the risk that comes with being intellectual and being avant-garde; the risks that come with asking “What About It?”
An Introduction to the Second WAIzine
The responsibility of the intellectual is not as much to answer questions but to ask them. The role of the avant-garde is not only to interpret these questions but to challenge the way in which the questions are asked.
WAI is born out of the dialectic between the role of the intellectual and the mission, tools, and strategies of the avant-garde. As a Workshop for Architecture Intelligentsia, WAI questions the state of architecture looking for ways to contribute to its collective intelligence, while to simultaneously explore, dissect, and analyze the avant-garde in order to reveal the validity of its intentions, its limitations, and potential.
If the first issue of the WAIzine ignited a dialogue on architecture that fueled a global series of exhibitions (Archizines World Tour, Magazine Library 10, What About It? Solo Exhibition), Lectures (Central Academy of Fine Arts and Tsinghua University in Beijing, and the Univeristy of Puerto Rico), and publications that presented an evolution of the research and projects of WAI Architecture Think Tank, the second issue not only expands the repertoire of provocative imagery and critical texts, but it juxtaposes essays, manifestoes, projects, photomontages, poetry, chronological timelines, drawings, and photography.
“What About It? Part 2” also integrates as a form of collectivization of architectural intelligence conversations that explore the visual, critical, and intellectual power of architecture, the built and the imagined environment. This conversation series oscillate from Madrid, to Rotterdam, to Beijing, to Michigan to discuss the seductive photographs of post-communist monuments and desolated European landscapes with Simona Rota (The Architecture of Photography); the intellectual ambition of a contemporary Magazine on Urbanism with Bernd Upmeyer, (The Ideology of Publication); the challenges of creating a critical independent practice in a previously state-owned architectural landscape with Zhang Ke (Challenging the Standard); and the value and potential of drawing and architectural representation today with Perry Kulper (Drawing Architecture).
With a quixotic blend of graphic and typographic adventure, ambitious content, and original research, the WAIzine assumes the critical role of the intellectual enterprise and revisits the potential of the tools, and strategies of the avant-garde, all while simultaneously asking “What About It?”
Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia
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Subject: WAIzine copy
What About the Possibility of a Kynical Architecture?
For an architect, in the instant that he has undivided attention of a patron with the power to realize his designs, literally nothing else matters; not a fire alarm, not even an earthquake; there is nothing else to talk about but architecture.
-Dejan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex
The fully developed ability to say No is also the only valid background for Yes, and only through both does real freedom [begin] to take form.
-Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason
Four towers rise above the city like muscular trunks in a grass field. Their scale obliterates any possible question about the intentionality of their disproportionate size. The exaggerated disparity between them and the urban fabric could not have been accidental. The towers were unquestionably built to be the main focus, the sole objects of attention. They are by far the most important buildings in the city. The towers deliver an explicit message of datum and order. Visible from any point in the city, the towers exploit the potential of architecture as iconography. They are archetypes of power.
These identical concrete monoliths, three with facades perforated by square windows and the other one solid like a hermetic bastion, soar until reaching six hundred meters of height. Each tower represents one of the four governmental ministries: love, truth, peace, and plenty.
The towers did not always exist. For them to be completed an architect had to be selected. The ministries joined to hold an invited competition for one architect to design their four ministerial buildings. The contest called for a “series of monumental structures that through their form, and their use of image, outstandingly portray the values of society. Buildings capable of communicating the permanence and importance of the institutions they host.”
A group of the world’s most famous architects were invited to submit a proposal for the project. Without hesitation (how to resist the temptation of such an important competition?) each designer proposed a series of buildings. Although varying in form, the proposals recurred to a similar strategy: they were all architectural icons. Some projects were typical signature trademarks, buildings that responded more to a consistent development of the architect’s formal language rather than to the specificity of the competition’s program. Other proposals adopted a more generic approach presenting buildings with the predictable aesthetics of market-oriented architecture. One of the submissions stood out because of its obvious simplicity. Of all the projects it was the only one with four towers of identical shape, consolidating the competition subtext with a single form to make the ministries appear like omnipresent manifestations of power.
Following the submission deadline, all the projects were displayed through a series of exquisitely arranged public exhibitions containing conceptual plans, detailed specifications, explanatory diagrams and all the physical models. Newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and radio programs flooded the public with newsflashes and continuous updates about the projects and the architects who designed them.
Bursting the bubble of suspense, some weeks later the winner was announced. Following the award ceremony the Almanac of Contemporary Architecture, the most prestigious architectural publication, devoted twenty pages to the master architect under the title “Project 1984” featuring his watercolors, ink drawings, pencil sketches and some poetry verses from his sketchbook.
One of the pictures from the Almanac displayed a group of figures, between them members of the respective ministries, representatives of sponsor corporations, the architect, and some expert advisors looming perversely over an architectural model. The scaled model of the master plan included a reduced version of the city, and from four different points of the almost homogeneous composition of low rise buildings on the surface, stood four behemoth towers of slender pyramidal shape and truncated tops.
Strategically collocated at legible height, each one of the towers was engraved in the façade with the slogan of the ministries in bold, capital letters: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
Needless to offer the remaining plot of a story of already known resolution; it must be made clear that this story does not aim to defend the architect for either cultivating his political naiveté or his opportunistic ambitions.
A mixture between architectural fairytale and social nightmare, this story imagines a preceding scenario for George Orwell’s political masterpiece 1984 (1949). It explores that perversely “ideal” moment on an architect’s career when he finally has the opportunity to bridge the gap to fame and immortality and construct the most prominent buildings in the city. That paradoxical instant when the edifice of humanity comes crumbling down hammered by the same forces that make the architectural chef d’oeuvre rise in the first place.
As in 1984, architecture has been a fervent accomplice to some of the most atrocious political regimes in recent memory. In the 20th century alone, architecture shifted from Nazism to fascism to communism to capitalism piling up a staggering amount of icons that oscillate from extreme historicist kitsch to extreme refined modernism.
In fact, a closer inspection of the historical relationship between architecture and politics reveals that Iofan, Speer, and Terragni were not rare exceptions of a beautiful profession in search for tools for better quality of life, but the blunt symptoms of a discipline with the dangerous aim to achieve its grandiloquent delirium at all cost.
How can a profession whose education and practice –based on selling projects through visual manipulation and redundant, subjective, apolitical rhetoric— maintain a critical stance when the conditions in the real world are completely fueled by politics? Is architecture the ultimate ideological anesthetic?
In this fictional prelude to 1984 it is not coincidental that the architects were used as instruments for propaganda and political control. With cynicism becoming systematically embedded in the architect’s intellectual repertoire since his academic days, the mantra that claims “architecture is architecture, and therefore should be judged as architecture” has been rendering architecture as an apolitical tool to serve politically charged ends.
In the real world, unless we are ready to challenge the way we teach, think and practice architecture, and consciously discover what tempts us to contribute to whatever awfully detrimental projects are being planned by technocrats, CEOs and politicians, and finally become prepared to substitute the prevalent unconscious cynicism of the profession with a Sloterdijkean kynicism (the one that resists, provokes and subverts), we may not only continue being faithful contributors to some of the most dangerous regimes in the world, but we may even become the master architects of Project 1984.
This text is part of Zawia #00, Cairo
and the WAIzine 2
WAI’s Project 1984 has been featured in the first edition of Cairo-based Zawia. On the topic of Change contributors dissect and explore the attitude of the architects in front of a world with changing paradigms.
If “action painting” is produced by the dynamics of dripping, smearing, and sweeping brushstrokes of paint to reveal the complex character of abstract art, then “action drawing” would be something like juxtaposing lines, planes, volumes, typographical elements, photographs, and paper cutouts on a drawing that aims to uncover the intricate universe of architectural ideas.
Each of Perry Kulper’s architectural drawings is a cosmos of information and possibilities that resist the banal and simplistic reductionism so typical of contemporary architectural representation. Series after series, his drawings display objects as background, and background as object in a constant visual journey of an architecture that doesn’t settle and always evolves: an architecture of ideas.
WAI discussed with Perry Kulper the concept, intention, and potential of drawing architecture.
There was a moment in our academic experience in which we became very interested in the potential of representation strategy. This was at the same time as one of us was researching about the potential of the representation tools of the avant-garde in the 20th century, starting with Le Corbusier and ending in the late 1960’s with projects by Archizoom and Superstudio.
Following our studies we discovered in Europe, in the midst of the debacle of Wall Street, that the architectural crisis had started a long time before the crash of Lehman Brothers. We felt that architectural representation and its dialectical relationship with architectural thinking was being overlooked, as representation was becoming a mere sales exercise in which renderings and cartoonesque diagrams served as smoke screens that tried to disguise a lack of intellectual depth.
In order to continue our interests and answering a strong urge to challenge the situation we created WAI.
We would like to know about the origins of your fascination for solving the puzzle of architectural representation? Could you share with us how your interest in this realm of architecture started?
While I had a latent interest in architectural drawings in my time in grad school at Columbia (Archigram, Graves, Stirling, Abraham, etc) and in the offices where I worked, my active interests in architectural representation evolved through: a self reflection on my own limitations as a designer through a realization that I lacked the formal, material and representational skills to work on a fruitful range of ideas; an interest in trying to find ways to visualize and materialize thought; trying to find a way into unexplored disciplinary conversations; exposure to a range of architecture and art practices in Los Angeles that opened questions about what architectural representation might discuss.
My interests in architectural representation were motivated specifically by my early years of teaching at SCI-Arc where I was around a number of provocative people who were thinking and working on the potential of the architectural drawing including Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi of Morphosis, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian of Studio Works, Andy Zago, Neil Denari, Coy Howard and so on. I was also beginning to think about the preferences of various kinds of architectural drawings and I was formulating thoughts about the ‘crisis of reduction’ and how the architectural representation might help avoid the reduction of things too quickly in the design of a project. I was also wondering how I might account for things that couldn’t be metrically, or instrumentally visualized and was moving from my more dominant formal predilections in design to relational thinking and how to structure various interests in spatial settings. This suggested to me that alternative forms of visualization, imaging and drawing might be more effective in relation to an increased range of ideational and architectural possibilities.
During that period of time have you seen architectural representation in general undergo substantial changes or has the essence remained the same although with a different set of tools?
Digital culture has and will continue to have significant impact on the roles that visualizations have played for the architect over the last 15- 20 years. What can be worked on, who can work on it and the translation of what’s being worked on have changed in contemporary life. Collaborative logics, forms of spatial generation, construction logics (linked to digital fabrication, in particular) have changed the roles, questions and operational positions for architectural representation. Arguably, the latent capacities and tacit knowledge gained through the making of a drawing have been changed through the instrumental techniques linked to various digital protocols. The changes are less dramatic in practice and perhaps more vivid with un-built projects and speculative research. Architectural representation has changed to include other forms of imaging and visualization ‘outside’ the conventions of drawing practices, opening alternative potential for what’s in play and what’s not in a project. In some influential discussions there has been a shift from what architecture looks like to how it behaves –a movement from the configuration and image dominance to parametric and performance logics. We’ve also witnessed an increase in the roles of the meditating visualizations, particularly the use of diagramming. There are certain questions that remain the same and others that will change. Key disciplinary discussions linked to a multitude of cultural shifts will be of increased importance as they become integrated in spatial production, particularly in relation to shifts in the augmented or changing roles of architectural representation.
Has your perception and understanding of architectural representation changed during your years of experience as a thinker, educator and practitioner? Have you seen an evolution or any dramatic change in your approach towards architectural representation?
Yes, my sense about the potential of architectural representation has both changed and been enlarged astronomically. Several key things come to mind including: an increasing interest on my part to augment the picturing of architecture (as the dominant mode of recognizing the potential of a project), to the generative roles of mediating drawings and their capacities to consider a wide range of ideas simultaneously, I have augmented imaging form or its abstraction through visualizations connected to relational thinking. In addition to what things look like I am particularly interested in: how they are structured; the roles that representation have played in expanding what I think is possible ideationally, conceptually and materially; a clearer understanding of the capacities of various approaches to architectural representation and when to deploy them relative to the different phases of a projects development; the value of moving between certainties explored in the space of representation and hunches, guesses and flat out shots in the dark; the latent potential of the drawing in relation to its explicit intent; an ability to work on and through temporally active conditions rather than static appearances; and an expanded sense of what might be considered as fodder for the architectural mill.
When you mention that the approximations, hunches, and shots in the darks have hugely increased, does that imply that the process has become more artistic in the sense of a programmatic freedom that allows you to explore representation “as” an end in itself, instead of representation as a possible building in the future?
Partially, as a result of allowing uncertainties to enter drawings I have enjoyed freedom of many kinds. A more relaxed and accommodating approach has allowed me to work ‘creatively’ (always a dangerous word) in broadened ways by supporting expanded relational capacities in the drawings to discuss things that might not otherwise be in play. I try to visualize and support ideas long enough to see if they might be relevant to a project in the long run. Increasingly, I am less judgmental about possible ideas for a project, especially in the early phases of a project –about whether everything in play is suitable for the piece of work. Depending on what I am working on I often make drawings, or parts of drawings that are not targeted at a synthetic building proposal, but are specific in their intent –studying erasure as a possible representational and spatial activity, for example.
With the liberations I’ve granted myself come different kinds of possibilities including an ability to make connections where I hadn’t seen them, to open the range of ideas that might belong to a project and to work on things that might not initially, or ever, make sense. Eventually, I tend to look for a fitness between the situation in which I am working (the situation might include a site, or sites and their respective histories, physicality, futures, etc, the cultural and disciplinary questions at stake, considerations of like projects in the world, my ambitions for the work, etc) and whatever I might propose –a kind of measure of what is relevant, or appropriate to discuss in a project.
Explored through certain kinds of drawing techniques, the hunches and approximations allow me to see other possibilities- the drawings and my understanding of the work frequently gets richer and talks about an expanded set of constituencies, or possible participants, real, conceptualized and as yet unimaginable. To be honest, I also simply need to support some considerations through drawing in the only ways I can at the moment because in the early phases of a project, in particular, I often don’t know how to resolve the geometric and material articulation for ideas. By allowing the co-existence of fairly certain ideas and hunches I relax a need to get it all right and enable conversations to emerge through the visualizations, discovering the project rather than attempting to prove it. If I had the skills to ‘convert’ the intellectual project into a geometric and material one immediately, I might not make mediating visualizations. On the other hand, the potential that emerges as a result of making drawings that try and move ideas to formations enables a multitude of unforeseen and sometimes profitable trajectories to enter a project. Ultimately, some of the drawing efforts have been testing grounds to examine the appropriateness of ideas and where ideas might come from.
On that same line, do you think that architectural representation can or should be appreciated as an art in itself, or should it always remain judged as a purely architectural exercise?
A great question- I’ve had a range of conversations with friends, colleagues and students over the years about your question. I think that architectural representation has a range of things it can discuss, both internal and external to the discipline. I think we should position and support a broad range of ways in which architectural representation works including its capacity to work as a design accomplice, to enabling musings without known outcomes, to speculating on alternative agendas for architecture (the roles of so-called paper architecture, for example) to, as you’ve suggested, being objects in the world with their own potential. I don’t think architectural representation should always be judged solely as an architectural exercise, absolutely not. From my perspective it’s useful to expose the roles architectural representations play, when and how they might be deployed, how they relate to other forms of architectural representation and how, if appropriate, they might find their spatial translation. For my work, I’m interested in finding appropriate modes of representation given the tasks at hand- the situational fitness of things again. I also value decisions I make in the drawings that are not linked to the situation in which I am working, but are linked to the agency of the drawing with its own potential.
Has any specific strategy or tool helped you to have a better understanding of the potential of architectural representation or of architecture as a discipline?
Amongst a range of things that have happened relative to your question a handful of key things occur to me. These include: the potential of composite architectural drawings, or visualizations- using multiple representation languages simultaneously in the same drawing; strategic plotting —plotting relations of agents, actions and settings, over and through time; analogical thinking —thinking and working through likenesses with things, events, conceptual structures, etc; and an expanded sense of the potential of architecture through the use of diverse design methods. I’ve indentified 14 of them and those means for producing work have allowed me to work on a highly varied range of ideas in different situations.
Referring to something you wrote in the piece “The Labor of Architectural Drawing” when discussing the risk of drawing as a confrontation with the “conceptual daylight of the blank drawing surface”, we can’t help but see an allegory with one of Jose Saramago’s literary masterpieces about a city in which a mysterious outbreak makes people go blind. The blindness in the story is not portrayed as the typical visual blackout, but on the contrary, it is manifested as an incessant light that drowns the sight of those affected in an ocean of milk in which any discernible contrast between the sky and the water has become imperceptible.
In the story, the hero is portrayed as somebody whose sense of duty and hope keeps her from going blind. In her struggle between her feeling of impotence in front of the overwhelming amount of problems of a blind society she has to carry the unbearable weight of responsibility and somehow guilt of being the only one able to see.
When you affirm that architectural drawing’s “potential for creative engagement with diverse ideas in a project are on the wane,” do you feel as if architecture has lost its sight, and that there are just a few architects able to see and understand the potential of architectural representation as a tool to think architecture?
The Saramago (‘Blindness’, if my thin memory serves) reference is interesting and useful, but I don’t think I am in a parallel world to the hero. I think I’m looking for potential in architectural representation that maybe others aren’t, but I also don’t expect them to —the cultural and disciplinary questions and interests are just different. I do see the world of architectural representation as amazingly well poised to act as cultural and spatial agents, especially in the midst of significant change –as a generative realm, not simply a descriptive medium, or a technique motivated position.
I think there are multiple sights, or sites for the discipline to work on. I don’t think architecture has lost its sight, it’s just seeing other potentially interesting things at the moment. To be honest (this is pure conjecture) I’m not sure there’s a broad interest in architectural representation, or more specifically the roles of the architectural drawing at the moment. In the early 21 Century architectural representation seems often to be used instrumentally, often bypassing the expansive potential of representation as a way to think through spatial problems and to enlarge what it is that architecture might discuss.
Parenthetically, related to my interests in situational thinking, in diversifying my skills as a designer and in trying to come to terms with what kinds of issues are relevant to work on in a project (its ‘scope’ towards a cultural and disciplinary ‘fitness’) and how to work on them (using particular design methods and representation techniques, strategically), I am often interested in sustaining multiple families of ideas, or interests in a project. Given my predilections the potential of architectural representation is huge on this front.
Do you see your architectural approach as a mode of intellectual resistance?
No. The approach, ethically, structurally and operationally that I champion might be entirely different from project to project, or from speculation to speculation. I think some people see what I do as a mode of resistance, but that’s not my intent. I consider my interests more a form of augmentation and challenging default positions rather than a mode of resistance. If there is intellectual resistance it has more to do with challenging the mono-project, while avoiding the crisis of reduction and in not taking the means and techniques we deploy in architectural production for granted. I have a desire to develop spatial scenarios that participate at several levels with multiple constituencies in a spatial proposition- culturally, disciplinarily and situationally.
And finally, referring to what you call the crisis of reduction, do you think that the current architectural scenario (disciplinary, academic, professional) offers a fertile soil for the development of new representation strategies, or is a radical change needed?
From my point of view, and very generally, I think the use of representational strategies is sometimes deployed instrumentally and that anything outside that usage is seen as peripheral, or outside what the discussion might be. Because of my frequent interest in trying to support and develop multiple families of ideas in a project, single, or mono- drawing approaches tend to be inadequate to the questions I ask. Said differently, I don’t always have the skills to figure out how to sustain ideas I’m working on in a project through conventional drawings like plan, section, perspective and so on. Given my predilections these drawing types, while historically extraordinary in their own right, implicate synthetic understandings of the ideas of a project at the time of their use. Sadly, my understanding and ability to make synthetic decisions is often not ‘in sync’ with the preferences or allowances of traditional drawing types.
And while I rely a lot on the conventions of architectural representation, in fact I grew up in architecture education and in practice through them; I have tried to understand their biases and preferences, so that I can deploy representation strategies more tactically, given what I’m working on. Again, I generally look for an appropriate set of relationships between what’s being worked on and how those things are being worked on. Said differently, drawing types ask the ‘lions to jump to the same platforms at the same time’ and my design skills and interests simply don’t work that way.
I think there is a reasonable range of representational strategies available disciplinarily, professionally and academically. I do think we might address the question about contextualizing the representational strategies available, what they’ve led to and when they are more effectively deployed as a way. I also think that it’s possible to innovate within what’s known, by shifting the relational assemblies, or relational contours within a representational approach. To be honest I do think that radical changes might be necessary.
Perry Kulperis an architect and associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning. Prior to his arrival at the University of Michigan he was a SCI-Arc faculty member for 16 years as well as in visiting positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State University. Subsequent to his studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (BS Arch) and Columbia University (M Arch) he worked in the offices of Eisenman/ Robertson, Robert A.M. Stern and Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown before moving to Los Angeles. His interests include the roles of representation and design methods in the production of architecture and in broadening the conceptual range by which architecture contributes to our cultural imagination.
When one speaks of revolutionary art, two kinds of artistic phenomena are meant: the works whose themes reflect the Revolution, and the works which are not connected with the Revolution in theme, but are thoroughly imbued with it, and are Colored by the new consciousness arising out of the Revolution.
October 1917 opened an architectural Pandora’s Box.
During the Russian revolution, the avant-garde exercises of the Cubo-Futurists, Rayonnists, Suprematists, and Constructivists, paralleled to the unmovable inflexibility of the Stalinist “establishment” to reveal the difference between architecture of the revolution and revolutionary architecture.
While architecture of the revolution responds to the iconoclastic demands of the moment and creates a profusion of icons that portray a specific historical period, revolutionary architecture strives to break with the current paradigms, establishing a new architectural language that detaches itself from “the image” of the revolution. When the revolt is over, architecture of the revolution works as a rear view-mirror that only offers longing looks to the past. Stubbornly indifferent to the effects of the uprisings, revolutionary architecture always looks towards the future, remaining refreshingly contemporary.
Still, as architecture of the revolution has been stealing all of the attention due to its muscular monumentality, revolutionary architecture has remained largely ignored because of its lack of political symbolism. Contrary to general knowledge, Constructivism is a form of architecture of the revolution, not of revolutionary architecture. El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbügel and Vladimir Tatlin’s spiraling monument to the Third International are windows that look to a nostalgic past of Bolshevik paraphernalia. Like built propaganda, these buildings cannot be detached from the ideological fuel that ignited their conception in the first place.
But if Constructivism –the avant-garde branch of the revolution—was a tool to the service of a specific moment of the 20th century, then what is left that can be considered a timeless form of revolutionary architecture from that volatile period?
Have we been ignoring a form of architecture that although born out of the spirit of the revolution, went beyond its visual implications?
What about the last—and only—Suprematist Architect?
In 1932 the Russian revolution reached the climax in the developing plot of both architecture of the revolution and revolutionary architecture. The first was incarnated in a building that embodies the cartoonesque summit of sheer kitsch; the second was represented in the ultimate manifestation of architectural abstraction.
Product of a competition held by Stalin’s collaborator Vyacheslav Molotov, Boris Iofan beat a star-studded field of international architects that included Gropius, Poelzig, Mendelson, Perret, and Le Corbusier with what later became a neoclassical concrete ziggurat 1440 feet tall. A grotesque contemporary Babel, the “winning” proposal of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets was topped with a monstrous 333 feet inhabitable Lenin pointing Kremlinwards with an extended arm that together with its 20 feet-long fingers would have been the world’s longest cantilever.
That very same year far from the flash of the cameras and the coverage of the media, a disciple of Kazimir Malevich was envisioning an ensemble of even longer cantilevers completely stripped out of the historicist pastiche and archetypical political imagery of Iofan’s project. While Malevich Suprematist interest in architecture was not more than a volumetric flirt, his previous student and collaborator at the Unovis in Vitebsk, Lazar Khidekel was working on the antithesis of Iofan’s Palace through the exploration of the spatial virtues of the radical art philosophy. What was started by Malevich as abstract explorations of mass and form in his site-less architectons—with the exception of the one pasted on New York’s skyline—was later reincarnated by Khidekel as a series of horizontal volumes that were rhythmically deployed throughout naked landscapes like white, Cartesian clouds.
These abstract megaliths were the complete opposite of the propaganda fueled aesthetics, the banners and slogans, and the images of the metal and concrete behemoths that both the Constructivists and Iofan were sticking on the urban fabric of the Old Russian Cities. In these images nothing is left of the visual symptoms of the revolution. With each brushstroke of watercolor the Bolshevik utopia of utilitarian icons was painted obsolete. With the elongated appearance of each monochromatic volume a new form of revolution was achieved.
Khidekel architectural visions transcended the rhetorical games of the revolution by developing complete cities out of sublime architecture. Long before Friedman’s Architecture Mobile, Constant’s New Babylon, and Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air, Khidekel imagined a world of horizontal skyscrapers that through their Suprematist weightless dynamism seemed to float ad infinitum across the surface of earth.
Like a Nietzschean prophet clearly ahead of his time, Khidekel not only announced the advent of the suspended cities that would later become the tour de force of the avant-garde in the sixties but he, like Malevich in art, reached a level of abstraction that goes beyond a specific historical period, developing on its way a regenerating form of architectural avant-garde that always looks to the future and that even today—eighty years later—remains revolutionary.
Hard-Core: characterized by or being the purest or most basic form of something. 
In the kingdom of architecture the shapes reign supreme. Centuries of the continuous search for a transcendental architecture serve as evidence that a pure shape is the ultimate aesthetic utopia. Hardcorism is the theory of architecture as pure geometric shapes. The first endless architectural manifesto, it announces the advent of an architecture of already known looks. Hardcorism is form as ideology. Ideology as form.
Architects have been searching for the pure shapes ever since they started registering icons on a monumental scale. The pure shapes have become an endless obsession. A Platonic fetish. A recurrent topic. The pure shapes represent the ultimate aspiration of mankind. A direct connection to the gods. Form as temple. Religion as geometry.
Hardcorism is pure form unconcealed. It is blunt, straightforward, explicit, up front. It presents itself as it is, and represents what it presents. No decoration. No crime. No ornament. No structure. No distractions. No program. No excuses. No dialectics. No post-occupancy. No hat-tricks. No diagrams. Archetypes of Jungesque proportions, Hardcorism is pure imagery embedded in the Collective Unconscious. Hardcorism is architecture made for photography, for engraving, for model making. Hardcorism is emphatic; final. Hardcorism is reductionist. It is architecture as architecture.
Kazimir Malevich was the first Hardcorist artist. Through his Black Square, Black Circle, and Black Cross (one last ideological obstacle?) he revealed the ultimate metaphysical paradox: the more abstract the journey of the artist, the more concrete its depictions, the closer to Hardcorism. Suprematism was the consummation of the immaterial as the sublime. The undescribable as graphic representation. Its forms of action were the ultimate artistic plateau. Suprematism is Art as Hardcorism.
Previous failures to understand entire generations of architectural formalists have impeded the recognition of Hardcorism as a design theory. A wrongly attached label that reads ‘sporadic coincidences’ have blurred the omnipresence of an ongoing manifesto. In the place of Hardcorism, dishonest sociological explanations of colorful diagrams and pseudo scientific charts distort the silhouettes of timelessness.
Hardcorism is a call for the objectification of the shapes. It asks for the recognition of the oldest architectural “tradition”. The vernacular of nowhere. Criticism without critic. Hardcorism represents the most basic possibility of architectural existence: architecture as form. It defies utilization and style. It is colorless and egalitarian. It is retrospective, contemporary and projective. It represents the ultimate architectural hardliner: form as essence, essence as form.
Hardcorism is the perfect design strategy. It is an epiphany between initial idea and frictionless achievement. Hardcorism is the Rigor Mortis of conceptual architecture; stiff, unmovable, rigid, inflexible. It is both pure concept and the abolishment of concepts. Hardcorism as a concept renders all other concepts obsolete.
The theory of Hardcorism dismantles Koolhaas’ theory of Bigness. Independently of scale, architecture can always be controlled by a singular architectural gesture. If Bigness is ultimate architecture, then Hardcorism is ultimate Bigness. Hardcorism is Bigness on every scale.
Hardcorism is like an architectural black hole: an ever expanding array of programs that are swallowed by the overall body that contains them. Tombs, palaces, cenotaphs, ruins, amusement parks, religious icons, shopping malls, military bases, ecological shelters, political monuments, communal enterprises, houses, cities; Hardcorism gets automatic updates from the programs of modernization. In the form of a sphere, a pyramid, and a cube, Hardcorism is as rigid in its formal appearance as it is flexible in its use. Hardcorism is Disney meets Egypt, meets Etienne-Louis Boullée, meets Jean Nouvel, meets George Lucas.
Understanding the theory of Hardcorism requires a revision of several sacred architectural assumptions, and the incorporation of a new set of values:
Because of its indifference to any kind of ideology, Hardcorism is the perfect bait for political iconography. Its honesty of form is the ultimate chameleonic property: because it can’t be anything else, it’s always said to be something else. Hardcorism has been fascist and democratic, tyrannical and populist, capitalist and communist, commercial and spiritual, ecological and destructive. It has been protagonist in history books and antagonist in science fiction films. It has represented all the good mankind has to offer and all the atrocities of man. Hardcorism is a form of endless modernity. A timeless classic. An ongoing tragedy. Hardcorism is where the novel of architecture reached its climax and has hung in suspense ever since.
Invulnerable to social, political, and economic influences, Hardcorism represents architecture as pure autonomy. The presence of Hardcorism obliterates the need of authorship. Hardcorism sequesters architecture from the architect. It announces the removal of the author. The disappearance of the visionary. It is architecture post-architect. Hardcorism is the immaculate conception of architecture. Creation without inspiration. Architecture as artifice. Hardcorism requires the rewriting of the sacred books. On the seventh day, Hardcorism was created.
Because it reduces architecture to its smallest possible form of being, Hardcorism represents the atomization of architecture. Its blatant existence paints the most sacred dogmas obsolete. Hardcorism is both the abolition of ‘isms’ and the ultimate ‘ism’. It strips architecture naked. It represents the purging of styles, the end of detail. Hardcorism is architecture post-Mies. God is in the shapes.
A cross section through the history of architecture would reveal that Hardcorism is like a train in a looping railway: it does not matter how much the surrounding landscape changes, in the end it has inevitably to return where it started. Hardcorism is what architecture has been always looking for. It represents both the birth of and the death of architectural history. An epistemological aftermath, the theory of Hardcorism implies architecture as perpetual reincarnation in a body that looks the same.
Hardcorism is architecture’s ultimate orthodoxy. Hardcorism means not needing to think. Hardcorism is architectural unconsciousness. Hardcorism is a post-human enterprise. No genius-loci. No phenomenology. Hardcorism is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It is the zeitgeist of forever. Hardcorism is architecture in its motionless state. It is an icon in the city, in the dessert, in the sea, in the sky. Like in a Suprematist painting, Hardcorism is all that remains after the world has been scrapped out of excess. Hardcorism is the slogan of the powerful, and the ethos of the subversive: “Under the pavement, the shapes”.
The Manifesto of Hardcorism.
 “Hard-Core”, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, < http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hard-core?show=0&t=1329373442>
 Orthodoxy concept from George Orwell, 1984, (Signet Classic: New York,1949).
What About ideal cities, and counter revolutionary master plans?
The avant-garde is a paradoxical state. In order to exist, it relies on its incongruous condition of being both fundamentally contemporary and ahead of its time. A conceptual palimpsest, the avant-garde requires writing its history over its own past keeping a vulnerable balance between present problems, and possible future solutions. All about contextualizing the perfect timing, what happens when the avant-garde goes out of sync; when its solutions are overlooked for being too premature, or ridiculed for being delayed?
In the past century alone, the avant-garde was victim of two untimely appearances. In the first one, its proposals arrived too early; the world was taken aback by the boldness of its ambitions, by the audacity of its delirium. In the second coming, the avant-garde was too late. Here its stratagems were on a futile mission of inventing a program that already existed.
These consecutive setbacks have concealed the potential of a parallel form of urban intelligence that not only is able to complete even the most ambitious truncated plans of the avant-garde in Europe, but that can also propose and achieve a set of alternative and original forms of urbanism. Can a genealogy of key events in the 20th century reveal the potential of this parallel non-European universe, and its relationship to the avant-garde as we know it?
Le Corbusier 1922
In 1922 Le Corbusier presented the first of his “ideal” cities. La ville contemporaine pour trois millions d’habitants was an urban layout of cruciform skyscrapers, housing slabs and a carpet of parks intersected by juxtaposed grids of car infrastructure. In this urban plan Le Corbusier was not only aspiring for a greener, denser, centralized, bureaucratic, car oriented city, but the plan suggested the ideal conditions for Modern Architecture to flourish.
The Ville Contemporaine was like an abstract diagram. When the modernist plans started to take shape on real cities, first in Paris with the Plan Voisin (1925), then in the rest of the world with the Ville Radieuse (1935), the image of Le Corbusier oscillated between a visionary and a madman. His preoccupations were clearly fundamental problems of his time, but the formalization of his ideas were not always welcomed. Even if the cities of his time had needed more hygienic and organized schemes, buildings that were more suitable to live in, collective housing that distanced itself from the Haussmanian family flat and an overall vision that complied better with the new technological advancements, the people were not ready for Le Corbusier.
Alongside with the criticsm generated by his ideal cities, the core urban values of travailler, habiter, circuler et cultiver le corps et l’esprit, adopted by the CIAM and integrated in the Athens Charter (1933), turned out to be the focus of attacks after the Second World War broke out in Europe and left the urban and social situation in a much worse and urgent condition than the one that Le Corbusier had rebelled against in the 1920’s.
After evidencing the destructive side of modernization (of warfare), the social and economic conditions at the end of the war put under harsh scrutiny the urban plans which aimed to bulldoze the old city centers away. The love for the old city was politically reinforced by the collective memory. With this situation in the background, a young generation of architects willing to continue to explore the possibilities of the modern plan (Team 10 being one of them) wished therefore to distance themselves from the highly criticized urban visions of Le Corbusier.
The war with its obliterating outcome not only represented the destruction of the old-European world, but marked the meltdown of the urban visions of Le Corbusier. After the war a halt was put to the avant-garde and its city, at least on European soil.
However, the year 1956 saw three distant although simultaneous events that marked the fate of the avant-garde for the remainder of the 20th century, not only giving new life to the plans of Le Corbusier, but creating new forms of urbanism. Unfairly overlooked, these events characterize key moments in the development of an international program for “the” city.
In 1956 Brasilia started construction. The Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek orchestrated the creation of the new capital with the construction of the first government building by Oscar Niemeyer, and with the “Plano Piloto de Brasília” competition which was won by Lucio Costa a year later.
Anchored on a virgin site, Brasilia was the apotheosis of the modernist city; a tabula rasa without the bulldozer. Was Kubitschek the client Le Corbusier always wanted?
At first sight Brasilia makes its aesthetics recognizable to the modernist lens. But, even if in the the Brazilian capital the spotlight tends to shift to the features of Niemeyer’s concrete monoliths and radically thin slabs, a closer inspection reveals an even deeper connection with the Le Corbusian city. The layout with its centralized government, its concrete housing slabs, its grid of streets and avenues, and with the years, the park within the city –all the vegetation and trees— not only appear so strikingly similar but reinforce the belief in the city of the four values. Modern Architecture in a Modern City. Brasilia was, after so many defeats, a victory for the modernist front.
Was Lucio Costa Le Corbusier’s Brazilian translator? Or was Le Corbusier’s avant-garde dream unintentionally designed for Brazil? Was his image of the city of today meant to find consecration someplace other than Europe? Was he imagining his cities somewhere where the collective memory wasn’t as infatuated by the past? Was his architecture giving him away all this time—the pilotis, the garden roof, the horizontal window, all so suspiciously tropical?
New Babylon 1956
In 1956 Constant was gestating the ideas of Brasilia’s antithesis: New Babylon. While the first urban avant-garde was evaporated from the post-War Europe and re-launched as poured concrete and asphalt in Brazil, it was in the old continent again where a “new” avant-garde was to set its second attack on the contemporary city.
Constant’s model for urbanization was comprised of an ever-expanding, ever-mutating series of sectors that were to hover above the old European city like a weightless cloud. New Babylon was one of the first Megastructures: colossal complexes that could mix programs and be developed ad infinitum. Architectural plankton accumulating in the urban ocean.
Using automation as the tour de force of the new city, New Babylon proposed to abolish the city from the core values of a Le Corbusier driven urbanism. If Brasilia was centralized, bureaucratic and predictably pre-programmed, New Babylon didn’t have a center, possessed no cars, and its people needed no recreation since there was no need to work. New Babylon was the apotheosis of the laissez-faire lifestyle, an Eden for drifters.
In New Babylon even environmental conditions like daylight were evaporated, giving the homo ludens that inhabited it total freedom to drift à la dérive. The first proposal of a perversely naïve post-war avant-garde, New Babylon was betting on the originality of a plot that like a form-less black hole was to absorb everything into designed disorder.
Southdale Center, 1956
Meanwhile in 1956 Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center, the first air conditioned, enclosed shopping mall, opened to the public in a Minneapolis suburb. Southdale Center was the first of a series of buildings that—like the Megastructures—were to create an artificial environment that would free the users from the complications of the city. A shelter from crime, dirt, and any kind of environmental problem, the shopping mall represented the ultimate achievement of commercial architecture; the apotheosis of consumer culture.
The Shopping mall offered a new type of facsimile reality enclosed in a cluster of walls and juxtaposed corridors. Soon these programs would mutate –like the promise of the Megastructures—to include all kinds of uses, from theme parks, to museums, to housing, working and recreation, in a kind of forced marriage between Le Corbusiean urbanism, and New Babylonian dreaminess.
Was Victor Gruen the architect New Babylon needed? Or was New Babylon the Shopping Mall of the avant-garde? How can the ultimate capitalist enterprise coincide with the ultimate Marxist project? Was the post-war avant-garde dreaming about what the most commercial of enterprises was already achieving? Or was the commercial architect revealing a parallel form of urban avant-garde far from the utopian orthodoxies of Europe?
This series of urban aspirations and confrontations—the Le Corbusiean city as the Modernist city, Brasilia as a Le Corbusiean city, New Babylon as the anti-Brasilia, Southdale Center as the anti-New Babylon—reveal at least two outcomes that are opposed to the general perception of the role, potential, and limitations of the urban European avant-garde, and highlights the existence of other simultaneous forms of non-European urban intelligentsia.
At first hand, while it can be argued that Le Corbusier didn’t accomplish on European soil the plans envisioned in his first three urban models, the fact that it was in Brasilia that the unavoidable triad—client, urbanist, architect—was finally summoned to concretize the modernist master plan, highlights if not a relay of the avant-garde in South America, a parallel version of it, and exposes the vindication of what at first seemed to be just a frustrated attempt by Le Corbusier to frame the contemporary city with his modernist values.
On the other hand, the struggle of New Babylon to break away from the values of the Le Corbusiean city displayed not just the incapability of the post-war avant-garde to draw a new urban program, but the failure to precede its commercial counterpart in America when trying to “invent” a new form of Megastructure or contained city. This reinforces the idea that a new form of urban intelligentsia that differs from the pre-established canon of the European avant-garde was not only a possibility, but already a fully fledged reality, creating what could be the first urban Après-Garde: a group of architects that not only managed to complete the unfulfilled dreams of the avant-garde, but that were able to “invent” the forms of urbanism that were not yet “created” by the avant-garde.
In this sense, these two “discoveries”, the afterlife of the modernist city, and the birth of the Après-Garde, not only highlight the vital possibilities of the avant-garde in a post-Pruitt-Igoe world full of post-modernist non-sense, it emphasizes other forms of urban innovation. And even if it might well be true that these new forms of urban intelligentsia have existed parallel to the avant-garde, the avant-garde’s inherent potential, even with misconceived or untimely proposals is that it is and will always be just a beginning.
Milan-based Studio Magazine has released its second issue on the topic of Originality. The magazine features Megastructures are the Shopping Malls of the Avant-Garde alongside essays, interviews and Manifestoes by Romolo Calabrese, Spatial Forces, Lorenzo Petrantoni, Luis Urculo, Demetrio Scapelleti, Jean-Cristophe Quinton, Microcities, Suzanne Mulder, Pedro Hernandez, Sara Fanelli, Vittorio Gregotti, Ma Yansong, DPR Barcelona, EME 3, Alvaro Urbano and Daniel Hernandez Pascual, RRC Studio, Nick Axel and Vahram Muratyan.
To order a printed copy go here.
To read the online version go here.
The issue 956 of the Italian Magazine Domus features an article by Ethel Baraona Pohl that discusses architectural representation today.
From line to Hyperreality dissects samples of the work of WAI,Aristide Antonas, Como crear historias, Perry Kupler, Equip Xavier Claramunt, Francois Roche , the School of Architecture (ESARQ) at UIC and Greg Tran to expose a “timeless dialogue between specific architects whose distinctive hallmark is the transmission of their ideas.”
Apart from doing a great job of bringing all these forces together by recognizing their contribution to contemporary architectural representation, the article’s innovative spark is reached through the enhancement of Augmented Reality. With the use of Aurasma (an application which combines image recognition technology with animated links on the net) several of the images in the article are brought to life.
In From line to Hyperreality, the collage “Cities of the Avant-Garde” sends the spectator through a journey into the subconscious of WAI with “Le Poème de WAI”.
Copies are in the newsstands and in your favorite bookshops now.
WAI Architecture Think Tank founders Nathalie Frankowski and Cruz Garcia were in the University of Puerto Rico for the opening of the solo exhibition “What About It?: WAI Architecture Think Tank en la UPR”.
As part of the event, Cruz presented to a full auditorium a lecture about the origins of WAI, its theoretical concerns, and its on-going projects and publications.
The Lecture that was the first that WAI presents outside of China was presented to a Spanish speaking audience.
Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus
San Juan, Puerto Rico
January 25, 2012
Introduction: Francisco Javier Rodriguez
Dean School of Architecture
In order to celebrate its third anniversary, WAI Architecture Think Tank has released “Le Poème de WAI”, a peepshow of the visual combustible that fuels WAI’s intellectual project.
A trait d’union between brainwash and brainstorm, Le Poème de WAI shows an abstract of the forces that shape the texts, narratives and experiments of WAI Architecture Think Tank.
Miles Davis, “Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud” (c.1958)
Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, “Chorus” (1984)
What About revisiting the hardcore shapes of the avant-garde?
It has been almost a century since the air was heavily saturated with the combustible gas of ideology. Almost a hundred years have passed since everything from film, through art and architecture, to urbanism was susceptible to the slightest friction in the atmosphere sparking endless manifestoes and multiple visions of the perennial “new beginning”. But what happens when the ideological fire that fuels urbanism is extinguished, and in its place just smoke remains? What is left after the idealistic energy of the avant-garde has vanished and we are left with necrophilic icons of dead ideologies? Why aren’t we able to see the striking similarities and contrasting disparities between the avatars of yesterday’s ideological urbanism and today’s pop-architectural icons?
In the twenties imaginary taut wires, steel trusses, and structural concrete gave form to the muscular monuments of a Potemkinesque avant-garde. Utopia had a shape. First, it looked like a steel tower spiraling hastily towards the sky, then like a leaning tribune for Lenin, then it took the shape of a sky hook fearlessly cantilevering above the debris of the old city, and of a flying city, soaring in circles weightlessly through the firmament. Not only had the avant-garde announced a victory over the sun, but it promised to use urbanism to melt into air all the solid problems of society.
But, at the point when all possible sorts of fantastic operations on the city were about to be orchestrated, the urban intelligentsia crashed headlong into an ideological wall.
If the dreams of the avant-garde were an improbable mission when their idealistic nostalgia was at its peak, it became almost impossible for them to succeed with a looming economic meltdown, asphyxiating ideological persecutions, and the authorities’ sudden aesthetic preference for neo-classical kitsch—who can forget Boris Iofan’s cake-shaped tower?
In the midst of the suffocating pessimism of the sociopolitical atmosphere of the post-war, the avant-garde managed to find an ideological plateau, and develop in it one last (desperate?) plan. With the catastrophic arrival of the Second World War, Utopia had to change shape. If before the war, urbanism was about tabula rasa, and the ideal new cities were to substitute the old urban fabric with ideological monuments, the new urbanism promised to leave the old cities untouched. The new avant-garde proposed to disguise its ideal cities as colossal buildings that could be developed ad infinitum; urbanism as endless architecture.
The second—and last— coming of ideological urbanism in the 20th century happened fifty years ago. Aroused by the promising future of the new communication, transportation and construction technologies, the new forms of urbanism were grafted around metabolic systems of urbanization, prefabricated instant cities, and Megastructures.
A new ontology of urban forms was created after a whole new cosmos of ideal cities took over the collective intelligence of urbanism. The image of urbanism suffered a dramatic transformation as ideological cities hovered like weightless blankets above the Champs-Élysées, mirror-coated monuments roamed endlessly through the streets of Graz, pixilated buildings, helix-shaped towers, and mushroom-cloud megaliths metabolically proliferated all over Tokyo, geodesic domes sequestered complete areas of Manhattan island, and entire cities were pictured strolling over the surface of the world’s oceans.
Yet again, so suspicious were the proposals of an avant-garde so detached from reality, so economically unfeasible, so ideologically naïve, that they never found (outside of Japan) any possible application or a client devout enough to believe in their projects.
Today’s generation of media-wise, economically proficient, politically correct architects have decided to resurrect the shapes of the most subversive and energetic forms of urbanism of the last century. In the form of an opportunistic architectural cadavre-exquis (started by one, finished by the other) contemporary urbanism has, under the slogan “the stronger the ideal, the sharper the icons” unearthed some of the most the striking proposals of the avant-garde and repurposed them as harmless and ready to consume coffee-table images.
Like when an archeological discovery loses its history-rich past to the frivolity of the museum walls, the icons of the ideological avant-garde have been sterilized, reupholstered and served up to an image-starving audience that devours them as visual gourmet while overlooking their original potential. Prosthetic appendixes of ideologies that expired decades ago, these architectures now captivate the flash of the cameras and win the praise of the critics due to their bold shapes, iconic presence, and their historical ideological references. Exhaustively photographed, printed, blogged, discussed, awarded, these urban forms have metamorphosed from being the icons of a revolution to being the pretty faces of architectural mass media; hardcore urban ideology as architectural soft porn.
Agitational provocations in the form of architectural post(cards), the following images have been structured to stimulate the critical understanding of ideological urbanism, to recognize the use of iconographic architecture as its deus ex machina and to identify the recycling of its most intense proposals by contemporary architecture.
By meticulously selecting two formally related buildings and grafting them together like pictures of an alternative reality, the images have the potential to expose two opposed instances in the evolution of urbanism; first as ideological enterprises, then as harmless architectural icons.
On the left side of the post(cards) stand the icons of the urban intelligentsia. Product of their zeitgeist, these buildings share an intense and turbulent history that saw them rise from the collective nostalgia of the ideological optimistic years of the avant-garde, only then to be crumbled away by the inexorable forces of modernity like sand castles in front of a tsunami. The images display symptomatic manifestations of hardcore ideological urbanism in the form of constructivist sky-hooks, non-objective architectons, and metabolist helicoids.
Standing at the opposite side of the image, a series of contemporary architectures strikingly resemble their ideological predecessors. Like organs without a body, these icons’ lack of any clear ideological manifesto, put into evidence how contemporary architecture not only borrows its shapes, but that through image overexposure, and over use, neutralizes the inherent potential of previous forms of ideological urbanism. The new icons offer no hidden subversive messages, state no unprecedented manifestoes, and represent no underground ideologies. The more they become infatuated with their own image, the more they become like Architectural postcards.
Megastructures are Shopping Malls of the Avant-Garde
Or what about understanding the last attempts of the cities of tomorrow?
The avant -garde is a paradoxical state. In order to exist, it relies on its incongruous condition of being both fundamentally contemporary and ahead of its time. The avant-garde is all about contextualizing perfect timing; a vulnerable balance of past references, present problems, and possible future solutions. But what happens when the avant-garde loses its synchronization; when its solutions are overlooked for being too early or ridiculed for being too late?
In the past century the avant-garde was victim of two untimely appearances. In the first one its proposals were too premature; the world was taken aback by the boldness of its ambition. In the second one, the avant-garde was delayed. Here its stratagems were on a futile mission of reinventing what already existed.
Do these two consecutive setbacks prevent us from recognizing the potential of the avant-garde as a tool to design for today while dreaming about tomorrow? Or could we be able to learn from those two episodes in order to rescue whatever the avant-garde has to offer us? Can we rescue their potential? Can making a genealogy of Foucaultian dimensions help us to find the answers?
Le Corbusier 1922
In 1922 Le Corbusier presented the first of his “ideal” cities. La ville contemporaine pour trois millions d’habitants was an urban layout of cruciform skyscrapers, housing slabs and parks intersected by two juxtaposed grids of car infrastructure. In his urban plan Le Corbusier was not only manifesting his ambition for a greener, denser, centralized, bureaucratic, car oriented city, but he was also making clear that Modern Architecture was better suited for these planning conditions.
The Ville Contemporaine was siteless; a power source without an outlet. When the modernist plans started to take shape on real cities, first in Paris with the Plan Voisin, then in the rest of the world with la Ville Radieuse, the image of Le Corbusier oscillated between a visionary and a madman. His preoccupations were clearly fundamental problems of his time, but the formalization of his ideas were not always welcomed. Even if the cities of his time could have needed more hygienic and organized schemes, buildings that were more suitable to live in, collective housing that distanced itself from the Haussmanian family flat and an overall vision that complied better with the new technological advancements, the people were not ready for Le Corbusier.
His cities were not the only ones to find an intense opposition as his ideological postures found fierce resistance as well. The core urban values of travailler, habiter, circuler et cultiver le corps et l’esprit, adopted by the CIAM and integrated in the Athens Charter (1933), turned out to be the focus of attacks after the Second World War broke out in Europe and left the urban and social situation in a much worst and urgent condition than the one that Le Corbusier had rebelled against in the 1920’s.
After evidencing the destructive side of modernization (of warfare), the social and economic conditions at the end of the war put under harsh scrutiny the urban plans which wished to bulldoze the old city centers away. The love for the old city was politically reinforced by the collective memory. With this situation in the background, a young generation of architects willing to continue to explore the possibilities of the modern plan (Team X being one of them) wished therefore to distance themselves from the highly criticized urban visions of Le Corbusier. The war with its obliterating outcome not only represented the destruction of the old-European world, but marked the meltdown of the urban visions of Le Corbusier. After the war a halt was put to the avant-garde and its city, at least on European soil.
The year 1956 saw three distant but simultaneous events that marked the fate of the avant-garde for the remaining of the 20th century. Unfairly overlooked, these events characterize a key moment in the development of the avant-garde that could be used as a tool to analyze the present, create a critique on the past, and dream about the future.
More than thirty years on from the creation of the Ville Contemporaine, the now officially defunct (who can forget Team 10′s practical joke on the CIAM?) “old” avant garde was being given its first full-scale urban experiment in Brazil. At that very same moment, in Europe a “new” avant-garde movement was preparing its (ultimate?) attack on the modernist city unaware of a phenomenon that was taking place in America and that was to signify not only the antithesis of their architectural agenda , but a devastating blow to their aspirations for a new city with a new society.
In 1956 Brasilia started construction. The then Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek orchestrated the creation of the new capital with the construction of the first government building by Oscar Niemeyer, and with the “Plano Piloto de Brasília” competition which was won by Lucio Costa a year later.
Anchored on a virgin site, Brasilia was the apotheosis of the modernist city; the ultimate opportunity to develop strategies of urbanization without needing to bulldoze old cities away; the new start that planners always dreamt about. Was Kubitschek the client Le Corbusier always wanted?
At first sight Brasilia was to make its aesthetics recognizable under the modernist inspection lens. When talking about the Brazilian capital the spotlight tended to shift to the features of Niemeyer’s concrete monoliths and radically thin slabs. But a closer inspection of Brasilia reveals an even deeper connection with the Le Corbusian city: the layout with its centralized government, its concrete housing slabs, its grid of streets and avenues, and with the years, the park within city –all the vegetation and trees— not only appear so strikingly similar but reinforce the belief in the city of the four values. Finally, Modern Architecture in a Modern City.
Was Lucio Costa Le Corbusier’s Brazilian translator? Or was Le Corbusier’s avant-garde dream unintentionally designed for Brazil? Was his image of the city of today meant to find consecration someplace other than Europe? Was he imagining his cities somewhere where the collective memory wasn’t as infatuated with the past? Was his architecture giving him away all this time—the pilotis, the garden roof, the horizontal window, all so suspiciously
New Babylon 1956
In 1956 Constant Nieuwenhuys was working on the antithesis of Brasilia: the New Babylon. While the first urban avant-garde was dispatched from the Post-War Europe, and re-launched as poured concrete, and asphalt in Brazil it was in Europe again where a “new” avant-garde was to set its second attack on the contemporary city; on this occasion with a different outcome.
This new model for urbanization was comprised of an ever-extending, ever-mutating series of sectors that were to hover above the old European cities. New Babylon was an urbanistic black hole; an ever expanding mass able to suck everything into designed disorder.
Using automation as the tour de force of the new city, New Babylon was to abolish the four points into which the Le Corbusian city was supported. If Brasilia was centralized, bureaucratic and pre-programmed, New Babylon didn’t have a center, possessed no cars, and its people needed no recreation since there was no need to work. New Babylon was the apotheosis of the laissez-faire lifestyle, an Eden for drifters.
In the New Babylon even environmental conditions like daylight were to be abolished, giving the new inhabitants of the new city total freedom to drift à la dérive. The first proposal of a naively energetic avant-garde, the New Babylon was putting all its energy on creating a structure (and a society) into which somebody could wander about without having anything to do. New Babylon was perhaps the first of the Megastructures; colossal complexes that could mix programs and be developed ad infinitum, architectural plankton accumulating in the urban ocean.
Like the New Babylon, several other Megastructures were about to dominate the architectural scenario with their conceptual strength reinforced by their representation strategies. The use of Xeroxing, photomontages, comic strips and short films were part of the visual repertoire of a group that looked to break away from the modernist dogma not just in conceptual terms but graphically as well. Hybrids of science fiction and cyber punk aesthetics, these new structures defied building physics, and sociological preconceptions. No wonder that these mastodons could float, walk and be suspended above the old cities of Europe.
The “new” avant-garde gambled on the narrative power of their new tools, as they went to create stories about their hovering superstructures and their ability to expand and mutate forever, their capacity to challenge the lifestyle of the modernist dogma and control the environment. But while the representation strategies of the “new” avant-garde raised eyebrows because of their innovative nature and because of their ability to integrate pop culture into it, their prophecies of a new architectural program and urbanistic ideal were to suffer a devastating blow coming partly from that same pop culture that they took their graphics from.
Southdale Center 1956
In 1956 Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center, the first air conditioned enclosed shopping mall, opened to the public in a Minneapolis suburb. The building was the first of a series of structures that—like the Megastructures—were to create an artificial environment that would free the users from the complications of the city. Free from bad weather, crime, dirt, problems, the shopping mall represented the ultimate achievement of commercial architecture; the apotheosis of consumer culture; a new type of facsimile reality enclosed in a cluster of walls and juxtaposed corridors. Soon these programs would mutate –like the Megastructures promised to do—and include all kind of uses, from theme parks, to museums, to housing, working, and recreation in a kind of forced marriage between Le Corbusian functionalism and New Babylonian dreaminess.
Was Victor Gruen the architect New Babylon needed? Or was New Babylon the Shopping Mall of the avant-garde? How can the ultimate capitalist enterprise coincide with the ultimate Marxist project? Was the “new” avant-garde dreaming about what the most commercial of enterprises was already achieving? Or, was the “new” avant-garde trying to use their flashy pop-graphics and cartoonesque diagrams as stealth —under the graphics, the mall?
If the proposals of the “new” avant-garde were not as radical as they suggested, would we still be able to learn something from them? Are their graphic representation tools the key to this enigma? If the architectural program isn’t what made them avant-garde, is it their graphics that set them apart from the pack? Were they really answering problems of their time and opening a new future? Or were they just leaving us the key for us to figure it out?
In this double clash of avant-gardes (the “old” versus the European city, and the “new” against its American antithesis) we come to identify at least two possible outcomes that could throw light over how to develop strategies for the unknown future. These episodes with their unique characteristics show both sides of very precise moments in the development of the strategies of the avant-garde and their potential outcome (some recognized, others ignored).
In the first conflict, a battle with the contemporary city that was won long after the fight was apparently over, gave validity to the avant-garde strategies of Le Corbusier even if its cities were never built. Le Corbusier’s designs for today provided the answers for the city of tomorrow.
However, in the second, the situation turned out to be more critical for the strategies of the new avant-garde after their architectural program turned out to be hoax. Because of the outcome of their ambitious architectural enterprise, the value of their strategies has been overlooked, even undermined.
Howeve, could we make an exception with the proposals of the “new” avant-garde and, in contrast to Le Corbusier, judge them not by the content but by the medium? Are we prepared to acknowledge that the potential behind the hangars, and sectors of the Megastructures was hidden in the graphics that displayed them?
Could we then, instead of condemning the “new” avant-garde to the sterility of museum walls and architecture publications, discard their programmatic naivety, and recognize their potential as powerful tools of representation?
Are we prepared to take the risk and assume the role of the avant-garde, and create proposals even if they are not going to be accepted from the beginning, and develop tools that may end up portraying recycled models of urbanization? Because at the end of the day, as these stories prove, the avant-garde was not always right, but it was, and it will remain just a beginning