Archetypes 2: the Cross

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

You can’t see the cross here, right?

Believe me, there is definitely a cross in this Black Painting by Ad Reinhardt (1960-1966). If you tilt your screen and squint a bit you will see it. Look around and you will notice that the cross, or the X, is one of the most pervasive spatial archetypes. Howard Hughes used it more than 30 times in Scarface (1932): x shaped shadows and visual compositions mark the movie echoing the scar of the protagonist and becoming the ominous sign of violence and death.

But crosses and Xs for me go well beyond symbolism: they are the most fundamental way to mark a territory, the root of the relationship between landscape and human presence – as in the Roman Cardo and Decumanus. The Cardo and the Decumanus formed a cross that projected on earth an imaginary heavenly order, as seen in this scheme that depicts the foundation ritual of Roman cities.

templum in terra
The Cross is a basic foundation element not only of the western city; most civilizations have produced cross-shaped configurations, and one of the most interesting for me is the city of Anjar (today in Lebanon), founded by Al-Walid I, an Umayyad caliph, in 714-15.

The plan features a central cross-shaped circulation space that we can imagine as an urban interior of sorts. This space manages the walled area by dividing it in four quarters, but it would have also have provided a shared, representative space for both commerce and rituals.

The idea of a space of passage that is both a connector and a symbolic element of sorts re-emerges also in Le Corbusier’s La Tourette Monastery (1956-1960). On the lowest level of the building, a cross of corridors links the four sides of the monastery. I stayed a while at La Tourette in 2003 and I remember ‘discovering’ this shortcut almost by mistake – it was a new way of experiencing the building and understanding the relationship between its parts, and while walking through it, I realized it was a cross and had a sort of ‘whoa’ moment. Cheesy, I know. And stupid, especially, as I should have known the plan of the building as every good architecture student… so, for those of you who have not seen it yet, here it goes.

Corbu of course just looooved his crosses… as his ville radieuse shows clearly (I won’t comment the obvious).

But there are less obvious aspects in this project – especially the monumentalization of car circulation that gave beautiful and scary results such as this one, where the cross becomes the ultimate embodiment of the very mechanical rationale of the city marrying again the symbolic with the prosaic:

Interestingly, Italian architect and critic Gabriele Mastrigli has suggested that Le Corbusier took inspiration for the layout of his City of one Million of Inhabitants from another paradigmatic cross-shaped project:

Bramante’s proposal for Saint Peter (a project on which he worked between 1500 and 1514). An interesting introverted cross, somewhat the opposite of the centrifugal Villa Capra by Palladio (ca. 1567), which becomes a fourfold viewing device open towards the surrounding landscape.

villa capraIf from the scale of the city we went down to the one of the building, we can take our catalogue of crosses even further down to the scale of the architectural element – with two of my all-time favourites: the very obvious miesian column of the Barcelona Pavilion (1929)

mies van der rohe barcelona pavilion column pillar
and the maybe not-so-obvious beam-pillar exposed cross of the House on a Curved Road by Kazuo Shinohara (1978).

This section for me is deeply moving – it seems like all the meaning of architecture is condensed in that one beam-pillar cross, the vertical loads and the horizontal ones, the thrust towards the sky and the need to bind all elements together. I always found this building a sort of existential statement on architecture that could belong equally to the Japanese tradition and to a classical genealogy: it is about weight, order, measure, and ultimately also about man – what else could the absurdity of the slanted roof cutting the structure be, if not the intervention of chance, hazard, and the twists and turns of human nature? Uhm, no, this is wrong, one should never write about architecture when architecture is that good. It simply speaks for itself and talking about it can only make it cheap. I feel like thrashing the last lines but I’ll leave them as a memento not to overanalyze again.

However, especially in the Christian West, the importance of the cross as a symbol cannot be overestimated. Even in the cases in which it is used simply as a formal device, as in this “Composition with Cross” by Suetin (1921-22)

the metaphorical charge is still very much present, inscribing even the most abstract canvas into the history of Crucifixion paintings to which this famous detail from Piero della Francesca’s Pala della Misericordia (1460) belongs.

But just to end, here is the cross-based painting that for me remains the most stunning. Naive at first – after all, it’s just a lamb – the canvas is probably one of the most thought-provoking ones I have personally ever seen. There is just no stopping the chain of associations that will burst in the mind of the viewer once the cross formed by the legs of the lamb has been noticed: crucifixion, Jesus, martyrdom, meaning and value of life, this image can start infinite reflections. Francisco Zurbarán takes us on a real tour de-force of formal and conceptual metaphors with his “Agnus Dei” (1635-1640) – see below.


Places you see in your dreams

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I chanced upon this drawing and I swear I could not believe this thing really existed:

Villa del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily – IV century.

It is the plan of a late Roman villa that is very famous because of its amazing mosaic decoration (exceptional both in terms of quality, and of quantity). I knew very well the mosaics but I had never seen the plan of the complex. And maybe it’s just me (sue me, I’m an architect…), but I find the plan even more incredible than the decorations. The way the central courtyard becomes the hinge of a dazzling array of secondary spaces, each more flamboyantly shaped than the previous, is just stunning. It is a textbook Roman-villa-solution and at the same time it is interpreted in such an exuberant fashion that the whole thing looks made of the stuff of dreams: it seems a capriccio, a fantasy building, an analogical architecture à la Piranesi (see below).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ichnographia of the Campo Marzio, 1762

I am an ‘elevation-minimalist’: few materials, no colors, horror of surplus decorations. I’m a die-hard miesian with a dash of loosian angst, all shaken, not stirred, in the shaker of Swiss rationalism. But I totally love these plans. I love them because although they are complex, they also have a logic of their own, and altough they create messy spaces, there is always a hierarchy, and although they seem the epitome of camp, it does not take much to understand that in 3-d they could actually give rise both to crazy palaces and to spaces that are actually manageable for everyday use – as the villa of Piazza Armerina was.

And, however, I do like a dash of camp. As Susan Sontag wrote:

Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.

Talking in Parables: Superstudio’s Narratives

July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Abstract of my essay published in Le Journal Speciale’Z n.2. Image: Viaggio nelle regioni della ragione, storyboard).

In the twentieth century, novelists have often dwelt on the city as last conceivable protagonist of exemplary stories after the symbolic end of the Great Narratives; in a similar way, after the demise of modernism – possibly the last Great Narrative in terms of architecture – architects have turned to storytelling as a strategy to overcome a conceptual stalemate. In both cases, the lack of a reference framework triggered the use of a mechanism of estrangement: by shifting their focus,  disciplines threatened to sink in a babel of plural languages sought to reestablish their own basis. To write about the city meant, for authors from Joyce to Döblin, to address a collective subject, a subject that could raise narrative above a self-referential exercise of style. On the other hand, in the last fifty years some architects have attempted to redefine the root of their practice – indeed, the very necessity of architecture – by writing stories. For these architects, storytelling means to free architecture from its increasingly managerial character, as well as from the contemporary paradigm of ‘mere utility’ that far from being neutral is actually the apt offspring of an advanced capitalist society.

Between the examples of architecture by storytelling, one of the most interesting cases is the work of Italian radical collective Superstudio. Superstudio owe their fame to their Continuous Monument project (1969-70), a critical elaboration on the most narrative of architectural archetypes. Monuments stand for stories that need to be remembered, but the Continuous Monument addresses a condition where there are no more exemplary stories, to the point where the whole world becomes the mute signifier of some event that nobody can even recall anymore. In a way, the Continuous Monument embodies the end of history as we knew it, or at least the end of a belief in History as a coherent narrative.

If up to here Superstudio were still dealing with the endgame of the modern movement, in the work produced between 1971 and 1972 they ventured to imagine a future after this endgame – and they did it by writing and illustrating short stories. Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas (“AD”, December 1971),and  Fundamental Acts (“Casabella”, July 1972) are fictive inquiries into a future that might as well be a distant past, where extreme technological advancement is paralleled by a progressive reduction of human life to its biological essence. Discarding their previous utopian approach, in these stories Superstudio opt for a form of hyperbolic realism that takes the paradoxes of biopolitics to their most extreme consequences.

Superstudio’s stories architectural parables of sorts. By definition, parables are narratives through images, with static or non-existent plots, and they work as manifestation of the very ontology of the subjects they represent. By flattening the distance between récit and histoire, Superstudio’s parables expose the bare nature of architecture – its profoundly political character, its struggle to produce beauty within management, its essential cruelty.  As much as they are disquieting warnings on the destiny of the city, they can also be read as full-fledged projects for an architecture that finds once again its raison d’être in giving back to the most basic human needs the dignity of rituality beyond the reified genericity of the contemporary society.

Essay on Superstudio’s narratives out now

July 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

My essay on the writings of Superstudio is out now in Le Journal Speciale’Z n.2. Details will follow!

order at:

AHRA symposium at AA London

May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Just a quick post to link a video of the AHRA symposium that took place Saturday, May 14 at the Architectural Association. It’s the video of the panel about City and Politics I took part in.

Inconsiderate Hardness: Paris – Barcelona 1853-1870

May 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

My PhD presentation at the Berlage Institute, on thursday April 28

Nous en a-t-on assez parlé du « personnage » !(…)Il est certain que l’époque actuelle est plutôt celle du numéro matricule. Le destin du monde a cessé, pour nous, de s’identifier à l’ascension ou à la chute de quelques hommes, de quelques familles. Le monde lui-même n’est plus cette propriété privée, héréditaire et monnayable, cette sorte de proie, qu’il s’agissait moins de connaître que de conquérir.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pour un Nouveau Roman, 1963


For French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet the twentieth century is the “époque du numéro matricule” – an era that has discarded the humanist paradigm to rather embrace a post-humanist point on view – one in which “objects are seen as ideas independent of man”.[1] Contemporary criticism has traced the demise of the humanist paradigm[2] back to the modernist artistic and literary experiments of the 1910s and 1920s; and yet, a process of reification of human existence had already started since the mid-1800.

This process is a hallmark of a mature capitalist system, as Georg Simmel had pointed out in 1903 with his seminal essay “The Metropolis and Mental life”[3]; money economy becomes the lens through which society – and the city – is understood and projected. The transformation of Paris led by Georges-Eugène Haussmann and the expansion of Barcelona planned by Ildefonso Cerdà can be seen as exemplary projects of a rising managerial attitude towards the city. In their works, Haussmann and Cerdà treated the city for the first time as object of rational inquiry rather than the locus of transcendental values.

As such, they can be seen as the peak of a humanist urban culture, but also as the beginning of a post-humanist genealogy. It is the objective of this paper to discuss how the process of reification inherent to modernity has been dealt with, used by, and resisted to in these two paradigmatic cases.

Haussmann’s Paris and Cerdà’s Barcelona have been criticized at length as instances of top-down, repressive design. Their bourgeois ethos, their spatial genericness, and their ambitions at social engineering are all well-known commonplaces. But the present inquiry does not aim at giving an assessment of their effectiveness in social, or even spatial, terms: it is rather an attempt at uncovering the archetypical precedents of Haussmann’s and Cerdà’s choices, as well as their working method, through a rereading of their written texts. Haussmann’s Mémoires and Cerdà’s Teoría General de la Urbanización can be seen as projects in themselves, through which we can reconstruct the authors’ epistemological approach to city-making.

The essay will then try to lay out the key categories articulated by Haussmann’s and Cerdà’s works: urbanization, subjectivity, spectacle, tactics, pedagogy, and, lastly, the idea of city as heuristic device. To discuss these terms means to reconstruct the political aspirations that shaped the metropolis of the XIX century, but also to problematize the cliché of the ‘human’ city that has become an obsession in recent architectural discourse[4].

Simmel believed that the modern metropolis – such as Paris or Barcelona – breeds a political subject that is marked by the ‘blunting of discrimination’[5], that is to say, the incapacity of value judgment. Fifty years afterwards, artists and writers such as Robbe-Grillet will look for new emancipatory possibilities within this supposedly alienating condition. Looking back at where the blunting of discrimination had begun ultimately means to ask ourselves whether only the humanist city can truly be a human city.

[1] Peter Eisenman, “Post-Functionalism”, in Oppositions 6 (Fall 1976): unpaginated.

[2] Eisenman, op. cit., and K. Michael Hays, Modernism and the Posthumanist Subject (Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1992).

[3] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950),

[4] The debate between acceptance and refusal of post-humanism has had an interesting output in the vicissitudes of the magazine Oppositions, with Kenneth Frampton heading a group of critics that still believed in direct, ‘humanist’ political agency, and Peter Eisenman attempting to reconstruct, on the contrary, architecture as an autonomous field.

[5] Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York: Free Press, 1950), 415.

Hejduk the Haiduc

April 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

I am reading an essay by Bob Somol (“One or several masters”, in Hejduk’s Cronotope) – he says that the surname Hejduk can be related to the word “hajdu/hajduk” which means Balkan outlaw. Somol refers to a Hungarian root, but I just realized now that Hejduk totally sounds like the Romanian “haiduc”, which, again, stands for outlaw. A very specific kind of outlaw – the kind that lives a rough life in the wilderness and fights the established power (Ottoman rule, bloodthirsty feudal lords, etc).

And Somol is right, it is a perfect description of Hejduk’s brilliant work. Uncompromising, poetic, it flirts with the absurd and the uncanny. Metaphoric architecture is naive, but Hejduk dares to be symbolic tout court, outrageously so, and in this daring game he comes out the winner. He restores to architecture all the existential, experiential content that functionalism had stripped it bare of. But in Somol’s interpretation, Hejduk also uses irony to displace the accepted role of architecture – something I had not quite realized before, awed by the dramatic quality of his texts. So, I can only encourage you all to go back to Hejduk the Haiduc and open again his books with a fresh mind and to look for the Haiduc within Hejduk – something I’m eager to do as soon as I’ll get back from work later today. I’ll keep you posted on what I’ll find.

(Image: John Hejduk, Berlin Masque)

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