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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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)

Upcoming: The blunting of discrimination

April 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

The next chapter of my research on Commonplaces

The blunting of discrimination:  Producers and consumers between the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan.

During the 1950s, in a world polarized by the ideological divide between Capitalism and Socialism, the reconstruction of war-stricken (East) Berlin and Rotterdam was more than a mere matter of social utility. It was under this pressure that Europe produced its last significant street paradigms: the Stalinallee and the Lijnbaan. Standing on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, these street spaces epitomized two radically contrasting takes on architecture, the city, society, and ultimately human nature itself.

In Rotterdam, van den Broek and Bakema rethought the centre as a place for intense consumption, shelving away the rising class of tertiary workers in tall residential slabs perpendicular to the first-ever pedestrian commercial spine in the world. In Berlin, Herman Henselmann planned a new expansion spearheaded by a monumental axis lined by neoclassicist apartment buildings. The choice of urban setting, function, and language is so diametrically opposed as to become almost a caricature of the effort to construct two different political subjects: the consumer, and the producer.

As far as architecture was concerned, blessed were the times such a choice still seemed possible – for, as this reading of these paradigms will uncover, the two conditions shared more than we would like to admit. In a macroeconomical framework where money and wage labour could not be eradicated even by a socialist regime, Simmel’s “blunting of discrimination” is the sine-qua-non of contemporary urbanity merely because consuming and producing are actually one and the same. The Lijnbaan and the Stalinallee were the manifestos of a wonderful world that almost was – one in which boundaries were still clear, zoning still made sense, labels still held their power.

In both cases these streets spell out an ambition to create a believable narrative, a narrative that would be able to hold together the splinters of an urban context that was irredeemably leading towards extreme fragmentation – and extreme genericity as well. If the consumer paradise borrowed the rationale of modernism, the monument to the producers leaned on an attempt at reviving a Schinkelian classicism of sorts. This search for a forced identity produced results that verge on the tragically ridiculous, or the ironically heroic – and it is anybody’s guess whether still today we can reject the Stalinallee as ridiculous and hail the Lijnbaan as heroic, or rather see the matter the other way around.

The story of these two streets is also a bittersweet parable on the power (and occasional weakness) of architectural language. In ten years, the Stalinallee paradigm withered and was quickly abandoned between harsh criticism, while the Lijnbaan model thrived and influenced not only the western world, but also key spaces of East-German cities such as Dresden and Chemnitz. While it is obvious that consumption has risen to the foreground of an increasingly rarefied production cycle, this fact alone does not suffice to explain the dynamic that saw the Lijnbaan model proliferate, and the Stalinallee paradigm die. Was it the demise of Stalinism that decreed the end of a turgid yet readable monumentality, or was it rather the strength of Modernism that endorsed a new model of urban centre based on shopping as a quasi-pedagogical activity? Is it politics that trumps architecture, or isn’t it rather form that, at times, influences function?

Boring, boring, boring

March 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

So, the shortlist for the Mies van der Rohe award 2011 is out. Those who were enjoying the current moralistic stretch of rants against archistars will be sorely disappointed. It’s good old archistars all over, with household names such as Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Jean Nouvel heading the list.

I was considering writing something about this Mies award, but frankly, the shortlist is simply nothing to write home about. So let’s quit this incredibly boring and unproductive discussion on archistars. Anyway, as the Mies shortlist has underlined, we will never get rid of them. They’re out there, they build, they are wonderfully understandable for the general public. If a pretty prestigious award resorted to nominating the “same old, same old” of architecture, this only means two things.

First, it’s the market. Meaning: wake up, architecture is always an offspring of power. The Pritzker awarded to Glenn Murcutt was a casual deviation into politically correctness – and such deviations never really last, as power is hardly politically correct by nature.

And second, those who think they are outside the market, they’re even more boring in their puritanism than iconmakers are. And yes, the reference to the 2010 Venice Biennale is totally intended.

PS: I have visited both the MAXXI in Rome and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and much as I would like to say that they are monstrosities, these two buildings are neither better nor worse than many others. They have flaws – some of which are the result of choices that predated even the respective competition briefs. They have some positive aspects – some of which maybe are unintentional. They do not exactly live up to the expectations of the two capitals of the classical world, but, let’s be frank, they are not really that disgusting.