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!

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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.

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