From Political Games to Absolute Architecture … and Back – The Architectural Avant-Garde Today


2006, Andere Sinema

Nothing. It was not my aim that he feels anything. I had only the aim to impose the grandeur of the building upon the people who are in it. If people who may have different minds are pressed together in such surroundings, they all get unified to one mind. That is really all.

(Albert Speer when asked for the effect of architecture on the user. [1])

1. I will not apologize for what I am! Respect the cock!

In the last decade, a real exodus has taken place among the architectural avant-garde, not only to ‘allied’ disciplines such as design or urbanism, but also to geography, philosophy, art, photography. Avant-garde architects started to occupy themselves with everything except architecture in the strict, traditional sense. In an obscure, self-destructive mood, architects themselves shifted the focus away from their own discipline and turned to what they called ‘architecture without architects’, ‘do-it-yourself architecture’ or even ‘architecture against architecture’ [2]. Whether it concerned the endless megalopolises in China, shrinking cities in Eastern-Europe or illegal buildings in post-war Balkan, everywhere architects were eager to map these fascinating processes, to photograph the unplanned urban developments with a wide-angle lens from a helicopter, to simulate the built reality in 3D-models and so on. Based on these registrations thick books were produced that reported from a world where, so they stressed, architecture with a big A played absolutely no role whatsoever, and where the traditional role of the architect is being taken over by a heterogeneous group of engineers, developers, marketers, hobbyists and what not. Every time the discussion focused too much on architecture with a big A, architects hurried to stress that 99,9% of the population is not ‘into that’, that most part of the crust of the earth is covered with what the architectural profession would label as ‘pulp’: suburbs, slums, generic shopping malls and so on. In short, in cutting edge architectural circles it had become the norm to affirm everything whatsoever as architecture except… architecture itself! To summarize my point, we can say that the last ten years the seemingly liberating affirmation that ‘everything is architecture’ was paradoxically accompanied by the constant warning that ‘architecture is not everything’.

Of late there has been a growing resistance against this ‘evacuation of the discipline’. This is already obvious from the fact that after the years of aggression and self-hatred against the Master-Signifier ‘Architecture’, today it has been restored to its former glory. Either it is ‘elevated’ – think, for example, of the recent plea of architecture theoretician, Pier Vittorio Aurelio for an ‘absolute’ or ‘pure’ architecture [3]. Or, it is caught in tautological constructions such as ‘architecture is architecture’, ‘architecture is itself’, ‘architecture should have the guts to be architecture’, etc. [4] In the latter case, the same tactics are used as in the advertising world where one repeats the brand name over and over again in order to win over the consumer through pure repetition. Both reinvestments in architecture with a big A are definitely therapeutic. Tired of the knots in which one had to tie oneself to legitimize the fact that one just wanted to build or found enjoyment in the architectural text, a growing group of architects started to behave like guru, Frank T.J. Mackey (played by Tom Cruise) in the film Magnolia. [5] As a form of therapy for insecure men that have problems in taking up their phallic funtions, the guru organises sessions in which the men chant slogans together like: “I will not apologize for what I am… Respect the cock… and tame the cunt. Tame it!”. A similar acting-out is now at the order of the day in the architectural world. After the seemingly limitless expansion of the profession in the past decade, a re-territorialization is taking place. Now it is said that the architect should no longer lay down his mandate and flee from his responsibilities, but should learn to accept his socio-symbolic role. It is clear that this is a case of identity politics. Against the year-long imperative of interdisciplinarity, the architect is now charged with doing ‘what he has always done’: design and build. This is seen as the only way out of the years of promiscuous cross-breeding, the only way for architecture to regain its agency.

This retro movement seems refreshing especially when seen against the backdrop of the year-long self-bashing among avant-garde architects. In the latter case one could even speak of a ‘suicide of the profession’ since it is assumed that the architect cannot do more than passively gaze on in fascination as spatial processes spontaneously unfold. It is clear that in this case architecture is deprived of its capacity to actively intervene in society, bereft of its political role to contest and change the existing ideological coordinates. The presumed radical nature of the architectural phenomena that are mapped or charted – such as third world metropolises, illegal markets or shrinking cities – function thus as a mere fetish that hides the fact that on a deeper level the architect qua political subject is thought of as impotent. While this renewed interest in pure architecture may be encouraging, we nonetheless wonder whether this new orthodoxy is the only way to give back architecture its socio-political function. As the tautological construction already suggests, there is a danger that this radical re-birthing of architecture, this search for an architecture that is committed to society, will end up in its opposite: the architect seeking its salvation in a retreat behind the safe and well-tried limits of the profession, countering every criticism as a sign of disrespect towards his professional integrity. In short, the burning question is whether the much needed new commitment to architecture necessarily lies in a new conservatism.

2. The new commitment: the architect should do what it has always done

A paradigmatic example of this re-territorialization is the project Fear of the city (2004) conducted within the framework of Group Portraits for Young Architects 2004 by a group of young architects working together under the name Untitled. [6] Group Portraits is a two-yearly Dutch initiative that offers young architects a chance to produce work on hot social issues. This edition’s theme was ‘Fear and space’ and was obviously chosen in response to the growing unrest and polarization in the large cities in the Netherlands. The first thing that is striking about Untitled’s project is the way in which it delimits its position within the current architectural scene. In the publication, they stress the following: “for too long we kept analysing the city by mapping it, looking for subversive structures, characteristic marginal phenomena, just so we could go on believing that there is still a significant public domain behind the scenes. Having desperately tried to rediscover that city, we started having doubts”. [7] Against this, they plead for a re-investment in architecture qua architecture: “Untitled wants to focus again on the ‘profession’. It wants to regain the ability of being critical within its own medium. It practices architecture as a discipline of space…” [8] This other approach was already obvious from the stark contrast with the other contributions to Group Portraits. While the latter included an alternative sociological model and a public performance, Untitledchoosed a straight architectural approach: their project consisted of clean and minimalist architectural models and technical drawings suggesting two alternative architectural typologies for high-rise buildings. Already the titles, Two Towers and one Square and One Tower and one Square, communicate the architectural rigidity of the project.

The second thing that was striking about the Untitled -project Fear of the citywas its positive attitude towards the existing context: it wanted to “shamelessly embrace Rotterdam’s dream of becoming ‘a city of towers’ and to bend this force and use it to reshape the public space”. [9] Through an analysis of the cityscape of Rotterdam, Untitled claimed to have uncovered the city’s hidden architectural desire but, as project watcher Bert de Muynck stated: “Not as a ludicrously composed mirror image or missed opportunity, but as a joint, as a possibility to start working with that which exists.” [10] Untitled located the unconscious desire of Rotterdam in its phantasmagoric skyline, and its visible ambition to become ‘the Manhattan of the Maas’. And indeed, Rotterdam is renowned for being the one city in the Netherlands that fully embraces high-rise buildings. This not only as part of the official policy, but also as part of the underground culture: there are for instance several specialized websites where ‘high-rise buffs’ exchange the latest data and discuss the most recent additions to Rotterdam’s ‘skyscape’. Although positive about Rotterdam’s towersUntitled was concerned mainly about the desolate spaces at their base, and their erosive effect on the public space. In these negative side effects, Untitled localised the cause for the popular fears associated with high-rise city blocks and claimed to offer a spatial fix.

Symptomatic for this – as De Muynck called it – ‘in situ therapy’ of Rotterdam [11] was a photograph of the secular towers of Italian Medieval cities such as San Gimignano, shown during Untitled’s project presentation. In view of their methodology, the reason behind the choice of this image is obvious. It suggests that just as these towers are the architectural expression of the desire of the Medieval city communities, so too is it the case for Rotterdam’s longing for high-rise buildings. However, the association with this historical precedent brings us directly to the problematic nature of Untitled ‘sproject. In the first place, it is clear that the Italian ‘cities of towers’ are not so much the expression of the unconscious of the community but of a small minority of merchants who use the towers as status symbols or, to use the current idiom, a public relations strategy. On top of that, the ‘condition of possibility’ of these towers has to be situated in the accumulation of wealth in the hands of this same elite at the expense of the city as a whole. In short, are these towers – hailed and praised in tourist brochures – not an early manifestation of corporate architecture? And does the same not apply to Rotterdam, that other ‘city of towers’ for which Untitled holds an impassionate plea? For instance, one merely has to check the logos on the towers to figure out that the same real estate groups and banks that develop the towers – and so realize Rotterdam’s unconscious desire according to Untitled’s interpretation – are the same power conglomerates, which, with their religion of efficiency and outsourcing, keep an industrial city as Rotterdam in a state of permanent socio-economic insecurity. This is what Slovene philosopher, Slavoj Zizek calls ‘self-colonization’: the mechanism through which multinational operating concerns consider and treat their own country as ‘something that has to be exploited’. [12] Is it not a slap in the face of the better part of Rotterdam’s community to affirm precisely the corporate high-rise as its unconscious desire and make of it the key inspiration for an architectural project that is meant to take away all fear?

From contradictions like this, the basic procedure of new conservatives like Untitled becomes apparent. More precisely, that one should threat buildings independently from their political, economic or, in general, non-architectural aspects such as power, prestige, ideology and so on. To put it bluntly, that one has to look at the city’s architecture as a pure architectural gesture, as a professional idiot. With this, Untitled follows in the footsteps of Rem Koolhaas and his psychoanalysis of Manhattan’s skyscrapers in Delirious New York.[13] Here too we encounter a pure architectural genealogy that lacks any serious consideration of socio-economic or political aspects of the built reality. In both cases the underlying assumption is that something exists like an architectural desire uncontaminated by political or economic motivations. This is clearly a massive reduction of the built reality: it subtracts the most crucial dimension from the city’s unconscious, namely the imprints of socio-economic struggle on its architecture. By focusing on its skyline the unconscious desire of Rotterdam is reduced to the architectural ‘wet dream’ of a small minority of its inhabitants and reinforces an urban history of the ruling upper-class.

It is at this point that the doubt expressed earlier by Untitled about the existence of subversive structures, marginal phenomena or a public space in Rotterdam, backfires on them. They fail to realize that this is the inverted, ‘negative’ manifestation of the same ‘city of towers’ they endorse in their project. To be more precise, the disappearance of public space in Western-European cities is the result of the tendency of the global players behind the city’s development to repress everything that threatens their hegemony outside the borders of ‘Fortress Europe’. It is clear that a substantial public space forms such a threat to the peaceful existence of today’s consumer city. In this sense, it is quite cynical of Untitled to believe that it needs the high-rise ideology to accomplish its own political ambition: the therapeutic cure of the city as a public space. Does it not herewith enter a pact with the devil, if one takes into account that for years now the players behind this ideology have been outsourcing every real public space to other parts of the world? And, should the political role of the architect then consist of providing this ideology with a human and architecturally correct face? To these new conservatives we have one thing to say: know your enemy! Know yourself!

During Untitled’s project presentation one of the commentators – political philosopher, Dieter Lesage – pointed towards the socio-economic processes behind high-rise architecture. [14] For instance, he mentioned the fact that it causes land and property value as well as rent to increase exponentially, which furthers the gap between rich and poor. Indeed, all attempts to domesticate or humanize high-rise architecture by embracing it, seem inevitably to lead to an increase in speculation practices. And thus to the acceleration of the destruction cycle of the building stock, to the erosion of the public space and so on. In this sense, it is not at all clear in what way high-rise architecture would counter the city’s fear as Untitled believes. On the contrary, while it might be liberating for architects to endorse the modernist image of a city of towers, the majority of city dwellers see in it a symbol of global outsourcing, the revision of companies, financial insecurity, job cuts, etc. In this light, Lesage suggested to opt for an alternative urban policy for Rotterdam. Building further on its working class character he proposed to make of Rotterdam a ‘city of poverty’ like Marseille successfully does. He considered this strategy to be more realistic for Rotterdam than trying at all costs to keep up the illusion of being a global city by fulfilling its obligatory skyline. Significantly, Untitled replied that architects should steer clear of political matters, that it is not for the architect to determine community policies. Instead, the architect should stick to what s/he does best: design high-quality, innovative buildings that can be realized within the existing political regime. The bottom-line was that the architect’s involvement in socio-political matters should remain within his/her natural, subservient role.

In this context, one might wonder whether this new conservatism will ever be able to fulfil its ambitions? Did it not desperately want to escape the pitfalls of what they call the mapping approach and to reinvest architecture with the capacity to change and model society through a concrete building project? However, to us it seems that this forced attempt to escape the practice of mapping finally ends up having an equally depoliticizing effect on architecture. To be sure, the year-long scepticism towards architecture with a big A and especially its complicity with the ruling order led to a hysteric and unproductive disengagement from architectural praxis and ultimately to the legitimization of impotence. However, we should not forget that this split discourse certainly had something that is worth fighting for: its heightened awareness of the political function of architecture in the reproduction of the existing power relations. In this sense, we can legitimately ask whether the new conservatives have not thrown out the baby with the bathwater. If so, we should further ask whether this new conservatism in architecture is not in its essence yet another attempt at generating a ‘market difference’ – the attempt of a new generation of architects to create a niche and keep the architectural consumer’s desire alive.

3. Anca Petrescu: spiritual mother of the new commitment in Dutch architecture

In the reasoning of the new conservatives, we encounter the age-old topos of the perverse nature of the architect or more precisely, the phantasm of an ‘other space’. This refers to a political, economic or civil space in which all decisions concerning the organization of society are taken without the architect’s interference. A space, moreover, where the architect qua architect has nothing to say and can only passively look on. According to this phantasmatic scenario, the architect has no choice but to execute the plans of the existing order since he is a mere instrument, a ‘spoke in the wheel’ of society. The only thing that is expected of him is to ensure the architectural surplus-value of the building. This indemnifies the architect against the criticism that, assignment or not, s/he is still responsible for the political or economic implications of her design. For sure, we cannot but admit that the role of jurisdiction and breathing space of the architect today is often very limited. But, is it really true that s/he cannot do anything more than cater to the wishes of the client? He can for instance sabotage the assignment or, in the worse-case scenario, refuse it. However, what the pervert fears more than anything is the loss of enjoyment inherently linked to taking such a firm stance against the employer. Or, in more general terms, what he fears the most is the risk related to acting as a political subject as opposed to a mere instrument of the Other. In short, what is at stake here is the ‘belly of the architect’: performing a radical political act could mean losing the job, being treated as a pariah, getting sanctioned by the board of architects and so on. ‘Self- instrumentalization’ is the only way in which the pervert can solve these risks and secure his enjoyment. However, it is clear that this is a paradoxicalenjoyment since it is obtained by voluntarily sacrificing one’s own desire in favour of the desire of the other. This perverse self-reduction can of course be repressed. Think of the typical complaint that architectural practices are mostly the outcome of pre-established demands and expectations with only a minimum of creative input. Still, even if architects generally occupy such a ‘Calimero position’, it still serves as way to legitimize the fact that they actually enjoy an Architecture uncontaminated by political issues as well as an architectural practice that is exempted from having to intervene in the Other Space of society.

By limiting architectural agency in the same, perverse way, the new conservatives join the ranks of architects such as Nazi architect Albert Speer or the Rumanian architect Anca Petrescu. Significantly, the latter recently came to occupy centre stage in Dutch architectural discourse. As is well-known, Petrescu was appointed at a young age by the then-dictator of Rumania, Nicolae Ceausescu to design his so-called House of the People that had to replace the old ‘bourgeois’ centre of the country’s capital, Bucharest. For most, complicity with this project would provide enough reason to whither away in silence afterwards – think of philosopher Martin Heidegger’s retreat after his romance with Nazism in the thirties. Not Petrescu however. After the collapse of the regime, she became the proud defender of the conservation and completion of the building. Up until this day, she still enthusiastically tours the building with interested parties. She is honestly convinced that Ceausescu’s palace is a blessing and a gift to the Rumanian people and the city of Bucharest in particular. Moreover, she is convinced she deserves the gratitude of the Rumanians since they now have a fabulous palace at their disposal thanks to her life-long sacrifice. After all, she managed to keep up with Ceausescu’s whims, to bracket her personal moral principles, and to concentrate on the ‘architectural aspect’ regardless of the rogue character of the regime. And indeed, apart from the parliament the architectural monster now houses one of the biggest conference centres in Eastern Europe as well as a museum for contemporary art. The fact that half of Bucharest had to be demolished first, and that for decades all the country’s resources were sucked into this project, is probably seen by Petrescu as a necessary evil, an inevitable sacrifice for architecture’s sake. In short, Petrescu’s motto seems to be that there is no architectural greatness without bloodshed, no Architecture without dirty hands![15]

As if this is not bad enough in itself, Petrescu’s legitimization was recently enthusiastically endorsed by Dutch architecture historian, Wouter Vanstiphout. [16] This is all the more surprising since the latter is known in Dutch architectural circles as a progressive force. In 2001, for instance, Vanstiphout was awarded the Rotterdam Maaskant Prize for his engagement in the restructuring of the Rotterdam problem neighbourhood Hoogvliet, amongst other things. This sympathy of liberal-progressivist Dutch architects with their colleagues from the totalitarian tradition is, however, not completely incomprehensible. For years now Dutch architects have warded off every criticism related to the un-kosher character of the employers of their projects or their hidden agendas with the trite retort that architecture is not a profession for beautiful souls or noble principles but comes at a price. In this sense, we can see Vanstiphout’s defence of Petrescu as an ‘answer from the future’. It anticipates the possibility that on a certain day our prosperous liberal-democratic times will be unmasked as a dictatorship of the capitalist market economy. It anticipates moreover the unhappy moment when it will become clear that our Western civilization – including the celebrated Dutch architectural production – is paid for by the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ of the Southern hemisphere’s pauper population. In short, this identification with Petrescu by a prominent Dutch architecture historian, which not only normalizes but ‘hero-izes’ the perverse position of the architect, is meant to neutralize prospective criticisms. It is meant to create a conceptual climate in which it is completely acceptable to turn a blind eye to the prevailing regime’s political or economic corruption while catering to its architectural needs.

Herewith architecture depoliticizes itself even as it presents itself as the only way for architecture to contribute to the ‘good’ of society. The above makes clear that the new wave of commitment ultimately rests on the conservative belief that architecture is unable to really subvert the existing power relations. It has made its peace with the idea that architecture is inextricably bound to the status-quo because the latter determines its content – its programme, function and symbolism. Put bluntly, it argues that if a client asks an architect to build a gambling palace in Las Vegas, the architect can not not build it. He is free to refuse the job of course, but there are hundreds of architects that will gladly fill his shoes. In a ‘deconstructivist’ fashion, one can summarize this commonplace by saying that programme or function (and its ideological source) forms both the condition of possibility and impossibility of architecture. Today, many avant-garde architects heroically embrace this structurally decentred condition of architecture and shift their