Le parole e le case (words and houses)*
April 22, 2010
In 1986 Manfredo Tafuri released an interview to Richard Ingersoll, published in the spring of the same year by Design Book Review, which is a very interesting document in order to understand the period it refers to. In response to very plain questions about the role of criticism in architecture development, the Italian historian gave a caustic and decisive distinction between the figure of the architecture criticist and the historian, giving only the second valid hermeneutical skills while considering the first as slave to an obsessive mechanism of search for the new after a subsequent, necessary and continue sacrifice of something to be determined “old” from time to time.
Dismissing then Jencks and Portoghesi’s postmodern historicism with a severe judgment, Tafuri laconically accused his contemporaries of a nostalgic use of memory rather than an enlightening one: it is thus in this precise direction that the interview with Ingersoll should be interpreted. However, a passage should probably be read more carefully and deserves further consideration. It says:
The study of history has indirect ways of influencing action. If an architect needs to read to understand where he is, he is without a doubt a bad architect! I frankly don’t see the importance of pushing theory into practice; instead, to me, it is the conflict of things that is important, that is productive. […] This is why I insist on the later work of Le Corbusier, which had no longer any message to impose on humanity. And as I have been trying to make clear in talking about historical context: no one can determine the future.
Apart from the slightly hyperbolic tone that pervades the passage, it seems at least appropriate to ask whether this statement is still agreeable today, nearly twenty-five years after the first publication of the interview. Where did the critical debate about architecture get at the moment?
Let’s try to build up an analytic profile of the question.
It is not a secret that grandmasters are not writing anymore. We can easily say that after Delirious New York, which is now not less than thirty-two years old, no capital treatise or manifesto has seen the light on the international scene. The proof, if not the triumphant celebration, is in the curious theoretical mess by Aaron Betsky Biennale 2008, which much has been said about, but maybe not all.
Starting from probably correct intentions and from an at least interesting approach (though more than eight years old, because traced entirely on what the same director said in his Architecture Must Burn, 2000), Betsky managed to generate an almost complete failure, and especially to make that result evident with the uneven attempt to force each of the studies hosted in the exhibition to produce a manifesto on commission. Clearly, such a fruitful production of intent declarations, which was visibly prompted a character of high experimentalism, could only result in a verbal jumble of mediocre quality, with peaks of considerable pretension in some cases, but in any case with almost no useful outcome.
Among the various observations that is possible to do about the affair, the most direct leads to the conclusion that many large architectural firms have lost the habit of planning on the basis of interpreting visions of the reality of their time. The substantial inability in producing theoretical material of any utility denotes, in fact, a clear lack of definitory activity about the specific features required to contemporary architecture just for its being contemporary. What’s the reason this deficiency?
A necessary digression, and then the necessary apologies for its the didacticism: among historians, there are two methods of study. Basically, one considers history as a succession of specific events that make it progress by leaps, while the other considers the unfolding of events continuous and fluid and tends to see fuzzier causal links between them. If the latter is certainly more complex and often more intelligent and more multifaceted, the schematization of the first sometimes allows the construction of more interesting exegetical scenarios. One of these interpretation methods is due the opposition between avant-garde and mannerism, which is undoubtedly brutal, but that we’ll adopt for a while. We can then ask whether we are in a stage or in the other, but the answer is exceptionally difficult in the early ’10s, which are still hanged over by the very vivid shade of deconstructionism, which in turn is the other side of the complex postmodern coin. Although, in fact, some doubts about the philosophical jumble mounted around the definition of postmodernism itself is legitimate, it is otherwise indubitable that a specter has actually been haunting America and Europe between 1967 and 1988 (the years between the two well known MoMA exhibitions, respectively entitled Five Architects and Architecture Deconstructivist) and that it has brought no cutting-edge issues. In this sense, it is possible to imagine Tafuri’s hassle in observing those breed of architects’ habit to justify the historicist pastiche with the theoretical commitment, and its subsequent advise directed them to give up with their study. In the article mentioned above, there is also an illuminating observation by the historian, who states that architects of his time, heirs of the modern liberation effort, would have preferred that this effort had not yet been made, to have their chance to do it.
Essentially, therefore, an Oedipal relationship with the modernity that had not been solved. But, did the deconstructionism work it out indeed? Some way probably yes, that way which we could not imagine Derrida sitting at the same table with Wright, as instead it happened with Eisenman and Tschumi; the same way, as said, Koolhaas could write his capital text and Madelon Vriesendorp could illustrate it in Flagrant Délit (or Dream of Liberty).
But, as we said, these experiences are at least a quarter century away, an their traces are lost – and in this case too, there is no fear of denials – in the showcase practices leading with increasing frequency to formalism, that not only cannot be called avant-garde, but that may not even be considered manneirist because of the lack of any declarative inspiration, even the most uncertain.
Here is the vicious circle: in a formalist scene, there is little interest in theoretical research; a scene that is lacking in speculative depth does not produce avant-gardes and falls into formalism.
In general, but especially in Italy, it is to observe that what has been lost in recent decades is the memory of the architect as a full intellectual. The sector-based fragmentation is driven by the creation of degree programs increasingly (futilely) varied around a question that rather should be bunched to restore the conditions of constant suspicion which the planets of architecture, engineering and urban planning are looking at each other with. The same university tends to discourage critical analysis in the planning stages and to relegate it to the historic area. Error of gargantuan gravity.
And that is why, despite in the period that separates us from Delirious New York one of the most radical innovations in human history (Internet) has come to light, it happens that in magazines and sector channels, this gigantic cultural revolution still has small spaces and rare debates, anyway affected by a crucial misunderstanding. A misunderstanding that is based on the philosophical laziness of the architects, who must be convinced that their task is to distinguish intellectual suggestions from formal suggestion and to base its work on the first, and use, at most, the second as a complement.
Not only that: even by the formal side, a decidedly anti-analogical design is to be achieved, supported by a deep multidisciplinary background for the designer, without which the design is not only wrong (ethically), but also impossible (historically), because too many and too important questions have emerged in recent years.
Possession of a cultural apparatus sufficient to draw broad spectrum interpretations of contemporary age must become (or revert to be) the essential basis for the design, knowing that the production of objects requires preparatory skills which allow the production of concepts.
In conclusion, to avoid the theoretical discussion – particularly in Italy – from deteriorating around low profile texts, obsessively devoted to the attack of a star system that for the rest is no way fought by the designers class, we must hope that universities are pushing the goal of creating designers with great talents in compositional together with wide speculative and summarizing skills. From this, an instance could be to start with the recovery of an author who, no doubt at least for the second of the two aspects, is a perfect example of a synthesis between philosophy and craftsmanship: John Johansen.
We close with a quotation of his:
I believe that no architect can produce buildings which are valid unless he is sensitive to the prevailing conditions and experiences of his time, and all but a few today, regardless of their talent, are out of touch.
 From There is no criticism, only history, in Design Book Review, spring 1986. Also in Casabella n. 619/620, January/February 1995.
 Da AA.VV., John Johansen – A Life in the Continuum of Modern Architecture, L’Arca Edizioni, Bergamo, 1995.
* The original Italian title, Le parole e le case, comes from a verbal pun on Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, that is Le parole e le cose in the Italian translation.