- April 18, 2019
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of architectural modernity was the shift of the discipline from its avant-garde ideology to a mechanism of mass production. Le Corbusier, a conservative in a time of revolutions, understood the mechanisms of both and transited between the world of mass production and the world of artistic autonomy. He developed an artistic agenda with a reformist ambition. In fact, architecture has always been an instrument of reform rather than of revolution.
Architecture cannot be pure abstraction. Utopia is abstraction—it is transcendental because it requires a denial of any engagement with the real in order to be imposed upon a tabula rasa. Architecture is made by human beings, inhabiting and being in the world. Being in the world of praxis, it is by definition constituted by the impossibility of perfection. Utopia has no room for imperfection, therefore it remains locked up in the surreal. Eduardo Galeano, the renowned Uruguayan writer, has described Utopia as a place located far on the horizon. Every time you walk ten steps towards it, Utopia gets ten steps farther from you. For him, the ultimate role of Utopia is to make us walk.¹
On that he and I agree. But as a skeptic of the Utopian concept, I believe that rather than a project of Utopia, architects must be committed to a project of critical reform. Critical reform happens from within the realm of architecture, with a deep understanding of the structures that came to form it. Despite Utopia’s delirious will to become real, it must remain intangible. There can be no single solution to all the world’s problems. However, the world is aching for reform.
In his writings, Manfredo Tafuri argued for the necessity of abstraction in architecture. In this sense the very need of architecture to become real makes the discipline also the least “pure” of the arts. Today there seems to be a desire to expand the discipline, but many forget about the necessities Tafuri mentioned. We can neither become bound to illusory needs, nor become overwhelmed and begin to undermine the discipline’s need to become real. Architecture is not ephemeral. It is attached to the perennial yet ever-changing structures of culture.
It is not a problem to drink from other fountains—architects who enrich the field often do so. This is what architects who want to push boundaries should be concerned with. But we have to give meaning to exterior vectors and to translate them into an architectural language, not the opposite. Architecture is a language, one of complexity, which for a large audience unfortunately has no resonance.
What resonates well in large audiences? Populism. Once more, populism seems to have taken over the world, coming and going in time, but reminding us of the non-linear nature of history. In architecture, traditionally the most refractory of the arts, the absorption of populism is becoming increasingly substantial. The result is an architecture made for the masses, commodified, easily digestible and disposable. Populist architecture is doomed to be distractedly disposed, unassimilated, like much of our daily digital media feed. The rise of this phenomenon in the architectural realm is perhaps intrinsic to the discipline. Our willingness to enter a dialog with reality should not lead to a tacit acceptance of populism.
There has been a constant reduction of architectural debate, even amongst ourselves. Unsurprisingly, the established media have begun to completely ignore architecture. If we do not start talking again about architecture, no one will. And what is known as “architecture” will be reduced to a series of iconic shape-making operations or a bureaucratic and alienating resolution of function, both detached from any critical system. For critical reform to happen, there has to be a re-reading of historical architectural production by the coming generation and a re-engagement with our disciplinary past in order for a disruption grounded in substance to emerge. Architecture must remain reformist, never revolutionary.
It seems to me that most of all, architecture needs to be engaged with as an autonomous, cognitive project. We have to read from architecture and we have to read from the world—their pasts and presents. Autonomy does not imply isolation, it implies criticality. In the making of an autonomous architectural project, we have to engage with our cultural past and with what our eyes still do not see. Perhaps this is the still-to-be-resolved dialectic of our time.