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More and More About Less and Less: Notes Toward a History of Nonfigurative Architecture

“It’s just the simple thing that’s hard, so hard to do.” – Bertold Brecht

Pier Vittorio Aureli

In recent years, structural complexity, formal redundancy, and image seem to have become the new Vitruvian triad embraced by the majority of contemporary architects. The result of this has been a figural excess in architecture, of which the city as res publica – the public and thus common thing par excellence – is the victim. Given this figural excess, it is possible – even necessary – to propose a nonfigurative architectural language; that is, an architecture essentially reduced to a public grammar for inhabitable space. This proposal is not advocated in the ideological terms of another style for architecture. Quite the contrary. The idea of the nonfigurative proposed here is defined through the reconsideration of a possible archaeology of modern architecture. With a series of archetypal examples from the past, one can demonstrate how the possibility of a nonfigurative architecture is not new but is already latent within a reading of architectural history – a reading in which the unfolding of such a history is understood not as the change of styles or accumulation of more and more complexities and contradictions, but rather as a series of constructive denials. These denials can be interpreted within the evolution of modernity in terms of the rise of the “generic” condition of urban space. The term generic defines the common character associated with a number of persons or


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things. Since modernity has always stressed, as the core of its project, the possibility of an uprooted and reified subjectivity, it has held up the generic attributes of life as the common political character of society.1 It is possible to argue that, by denying formal redundancy, the latent project of nonfigurative architecture was parallel to the reduction of inhabitable space to the common forms of the generic city. As much the idea of a nonfigurative architecture implies the process of reification2 that has invested the city since the beginning of modernity, for this precise reason nonfigurative architecture may also point toward an understanding of what public architecture is within modern civilization.3

The modern definition of nonfigurative architecture is derived from a drawing made by Archizoom in 1968 as a scheme for a homogenous habitat condition, which, a few years 1

This is what is defined today as “Biopolitics,” a constitution of political subjectivity where what is at stake is the management of life and its forms of reproduction. In this sense it is possible to say that fundamental urban categories that shape the political economy of the contemporary city such as labour force reproduction and sustainability can be seen as the ultimate source of the “generic” attributes of the urban condition. 2 It is important to remember that beyond its traditional meaning of expropriation of subjectivity, the term reification come from the Latin word res, which means thing in the sense of something that is graspable as a public thing (res-pubblica). As such the word reification means the necessary dynamic process that constitute a public sphere, that is the movement from the interiority of being, to the externality relationships, the thingness of the world. A fundamental re-evaluation of reification as territory for a new political form of public sphere, has been advanced by the Philosopher Paolo Virno. See: Paolo Virno, Quando Il verbo si fa carne. Linguaggio e natura umana (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri), 111-142. 3 This text is an attempt to rethink the idea of the “generic” in architecture but in different terms than those in which this category has been theorized in recent years, especially after Rem Koolhaas’s canonical text “Generic City.” Seen within the perspective of the historical unfolding of modernity and capitalism, the “Generic City” that is the condition of the permanent cultural and social uprooting that affects urban space is not the collateral effect of modernity, but modernity’s fundamental political project. This political project started with the secularization of politics, the beginning of modern forms of sovereignty in the 17TH century, and the rise of liberalism in economics and politics. In this sense, the generic certainly embodies what Bertold Brecht would have defined as the “Bad New.” Yet it is the task of a critical theory to discern within the characters of the generic the possibilities of political and cultural emancipation without a return to something like “authenticity,” and “originality,” which in today’s extremely reified means of production can only exist as caricatures of a lost aura. As such, the generic must be addressed without useless enthusiasm or hopeless despair, but with the awareness that any conception of the public sphere that wants to address what is truly common today has to be formulated from within the reified nature of the modern and contemporary (generic) city.


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later, would become the plan of their famous theoretical project “No-Stop City.”4 Archizoom subtitled this scheme “Proposal for a Non-Figurative Architectural Language.” The drawing was executed with a typewriter and depicts an abstract field of dots and X’s. The geometry that orders the disposition of the dots and X’s is provocatively simple: the orthogonal spacing of the typewriter itself. The dots and X’s represent the architecture of a city. Or better yet, they represent the basic condition required for a city to exist: the minimum infrastructure for living, according to which the city reproduces itself. Read in this way, X’s are columns occurring every 50 meters. The remaining infrastructure fits within the grid of plug-ins occurring every five meters. According to this logic, Archizoom defined other elements in a nonfigurative architectural language: a wall occurs every 10 meters, a bed every 20 meters, an elevator every 25 meters, etc. The overall layout illustrated an urban field governed by the minimum welfare necessary to guarantee the reproduction of those living and working in it. The drawing stripped the city of any architectural attribute, such as figures, and mercilessly rendered it in all its infrastructural and biopolitical objectivity. Archizoom sarcastically defined this type of city as “a bathroom every 50 square meters.”

The drawing itself, and the way it was made, presents an interesting and provocative paradox. On the one hand, it declares the end of architecture and the futility of making formal and spatial figures on an infrastructural order that is irreducible to any figure. On the other, by conveying this message through the quintessentially architectural organization of the grid, Archizoom exaggerates ad absurdum the strict orthogonal logic 4

For a complete illustration of Archizoom No-Stop City see: Andrea Branzi, No-Stop City: Archizoom Associati (Orleans: Editions HXY, 2006). For an in-depth critical study of the project see: Roberto Gargiani, Archizoom. Dall’onda Pop alla Superficie Neutra (Milan: Electa, 2007).


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underlying classical archetypes of modern architecture from Filippo Brunelleschi’s Santo Spirito to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. In these latter examples, orthogonality, defined by the logic of the grid, is the treatment of space in terms of the perception of physical space. This orthogonality defines a sphere in which the experience of the subject is subsumed and reproduced by means of a measurable, modular, and thus objective order of things. The extreme evolution seen in Archizoom’s project can be interpreted as an act of transferring the process of subsumption from the realm of physical space perception to the realm of bio-political management in which the grid is not simply rows of columns that define the concept of physical space but the rational and isotropic distribution of infrastructure that defines all reproduction.

This drawing therefore forces us to reconsider the idea of the generic and its rational attributes as something different from the stylish minimalist architecture with which it has often been associated. The notes that follow address the possibility of a nonfigurative architecture that extends far beyond the Archizoom project and set it within the evolution of publicness, which can be understood as the progressive reificiation of human subjectivity in the historical development of modernity.

Grid The grid and its derivative formal orders are the most important nonfigurative attributes of the city. Throughout history, the grid has proved to be a powerful form of spatial indexing. It evolved from a simple geometrical organization of the aesthetic field, to the


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complex urban layout of ancient and modern cities, to geographical surveys, to financial ledgers, to visual displays, to housing prefabrication, to computational systems, etc.5

In her canonical essay on the grid, the art historian Rosalind Krauss emphasizes that the nonfigurative form became a central theme of modern art precisely because its conventional geometric order was best suited for manifesting the nonrepresentational and antinarrative ethos of modernity.6 For Krauss, the grid constitutes a realm that can be understood only in terms of aesthetic decisions because its coordinates define a realm that is antithetical to the way things appear in “real” space. She claims, for example, that the grid used by Renaissance painters as a mathematical frame for constructing perspectival views cannot be considered a modern grid because perspective was intended to reproduce the real. Yet it is possible to counter that the science of perspective was not only intended to reproduce the real as it appeared in primary perception, but also to abstract primary perception in the measurable space of mathematical management. In turn, such mathematical management generated a new type of real space Historically, the grid is assumed to represent the least “complex” formal order. The grid has no directionality, no expressivity, and supposedly no symbolic content: it is what it does, and in that sense, it claims for itself a formal logic of neutrality. Because of its approximation of an isotropic distributive order, the grid has often been used to convey the ultimate essence of neutrality, yet this neutrality – as its historical development in the arts, in architecture, and in urbanism makes clear – is far from being

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For a comprehensive history of the grid see: Hanna B. Higgins, The Grid Book (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009). 6 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids” first published in October n. 16 (1979); reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other Modernists Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 9–22.


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politically neutral. The disarming simplicity of the grid belies the ineffable multiplicity it attempts to frame and tame. An example of this is the Spanish engineer Ildefonso Cerdà’s plan for the reform and extension of Barcelona, and his subsequent treatise, The General Theory of Urbanization (1867). Cerdà proposes the organizational principle of the grid not only as a morphological ordering but also as a means of rationally managing the even distribution of social welfare and thus the reproduction (and control) of labor.7

The nature of the grid and the forms that derive from its use as a structuring principle signal the essential consideration at the core of the project of modernity. Modernity’s promise of a “public truth” based on universal values such as individual freedom and equality could only be conceived with the reification of the subject and its space of inhabitation. At first this reification was the result of the formalization of universal reason, which made it possible to understand the process of human cognition as a concrete thing. But as Cornelius Castoriadis has pointed out, the same formalization of reason was redefined in terms of the idea of administrative logic, or the presumed rationality of capitalism itself.8 The development of the Western city since the 15TH century was a fundamental factor in this process of subjectification. Not only physical objects, but also treatises, drawings, representations, maps, and texts were deployed to produce a new, universal, rational human subject in terms of urban space and form. 7

Cerdà’s project manifests the biopolitical terms of the urban project in which the political is radically absorbed by the governance of space in terms of its management. See: Pier Vittorio Aureli, “Toward the Archipelago: Defining the Formal and the Political in Architecture,” Log 11 (2008). See also: Ildefonso Cerdà, The Five Bases of the General Theory of Urbanization, ed. Arturo Soria y Puig, trans. Bernard Miller and Mary Fons i Fleming (Madrid: Electa Espana, 1999), 81. This book is a partial translation of Ildefonso Cerdà, Teoría General de la Urbanización (Barcelona: 1867). 8 Cornelius Castoriadis, The World in Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). The Frankfurt School made a similar conclusion about the fate of rationality. See: Theodor W. Adorno, with Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).


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Because this process was seen as irreducible to infallible and stable configurations, the use of simple forms such as those derived from the paratactic logic of the grid gained relevance. In spite of architecture’s periodic immersion in the culture of complexity (from the complex geometries of the Baroque, to the decorative patterns of Art Nouveau, to the current fetishism for parametric formalism and its resulting iconic buildings), at crucial moments the grid always emerges as the substratum that prevents a freefall into chaos. For this reason, in architecture the grid is not merely what something looks like. The grid should be understood as an idea of formal reduction that can structure or simply help to map the complexity of the modern city.

A history of the development of this concept can be made by looking at five radical “architectural” interpretations of nonfigurative architecture, each of which introduces an architectural proposition that has made neutrality and the orthogonal not a style but a strategy for coming to terms with the development of the modern city.

Orders Following examples of the stacked orders in ancient Roman architecture such as the Coliseum, Leon Battista Alberti was the first architect in modern times to claim that the column must only support the architrave and that the arch is an opening in a wall. For Alberti, the planar condition of the wall is the absolute element of architecture, and the system of orders developed by the column is ornament.9 In this way, the even geometry of a grid made of vertically stacked orders is independent from the structure of the

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Leon Battista Alberti, De re Aedificatoria, ed. Giovanni Orlandi and Paolo Portoghesi (Milan: Edizioni del Polifilo, 1966), 520–521.


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building itself. This is visible in Alberti’s most famous building, the Palazzo Rucellai (1446–51), which he conceived in dialogue with Michelozzo’s design for the Palazzo Medici in Via Larga (1445–60).10 At that time, the Medicis were consolidating their power over Florence, destabilizing the republican politics of the city and extending their control over civic institutions. The building of a new palazzo in the city center materialized this political development. The heavy stone masonry of the Palazzo Medici facade consciously mirrored that of the medieval Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine communal power. Moreover, the imposing geometry of the square palazzo block with its internal courtyard required the demolition of an entire neighborhood, which emphasized the confrontational stance of the new building toward the intricate structure of the city. Opposing such a naked display of power politics, Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai offered a simple facade that unites several preexisting houses, all belonging to a single family. Alberti used stone masonry in a polemical fashion: unlike the Palazzo Medici, Palazzo Rucellai is flat and framed by the addition of stacked orders. The extreme flatness of the masonry overlaid by the grid of columns creates an impression of the building as a modular plane rather than a massive block. Alberti transforms the archetype of the Roman Coliseum into a wrapper with a civic orientation: rather than design an isolated block, he rationalized the interface between street and building, wrapping the latter in a repetitive and simple surface that seems infinitely extendable despite the uneven geometry of the block itself. The function of the façade’s explicit flatness, which insists on its role as mere ornament, is to mediate between private property and public space through a rational, measurable order and not through the overall figure of the building

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On the politics of Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai see: Massimo Bulgarelli, Leon Battista Alberti, 1404–1472. Architettura e Storia (Milan: Electa, 2008), 34–72.


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itself. For this reason, the Palazzo Rucellai is the archetype of a new, modern, bourgeoismercantilist way of dealing with public space: not through confrontation but through negotiation. The rational basis for this negotiation is the grid, which in the façade of Palazzo Rucella, ideally extends the even order of the private palazzo towards the city space.

Composition A radical evolution of Alberti’s approach was elaborated by Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand in his Precis des Lecons d’architecture (1802),11 where the French architect introduced for the first time the theme of composition. The Précis is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to “architectural elements,” the second to “composition in general,” and the third to “architectural genres.” In the first part, Durand isolates and presents each element of a building – walls, atriums, stairs, vestibules, and so on – subdividing these architectural elements into formally independent units. The isolation of each element leads to the second operation: composition. Durand proposed the idea of composition in order to overcome the methodological straightjacket of spatial distribution. For Durand distribution was the art of creating order according to predefined habits of dwelling. As such, it had a limited capacity to deal with the huge variety of possible architectural genres – what today we would call “programs.” Composition, on the other hand, proposes a combinatory principle whereby the positions of architectural elements can be changed according to the kind of program addressed, and can occur in both plan and section. In order to allow this formal flexibility, Durand proposed to subject the composition of all

11

Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, Précis des leçons d’architecture données à l’École royale polytechnique, 2 volumes (Paris: 1802-05).


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architectural elements to a radical, simple, and unequivocal method: the ordering of architectural elements through the use of the grid. Walls would be placed on the parallel axes of the grid, columns on the intersections of the axes, and openings such as doors or windows between the axes. Thousands of different combinations could be made, each ad hoc, to accomodate any program. For this reason, Durand’s method of design was not only a radical attack on the strict hierarchical distribution of Baroque architecture, in which formal complexity prevented programmatic and spatial flexibility, but also a radical secularization of architectural form: composition accommodated the increasing diversification of programmatic concerns that characterized the rise of the bourgeois city, a city whose subsequent evolution Durand anticipated with the intrinsic flexibility of his method.12 Composition allowed each element to have a potentially different position in each application; the only fixed law of architecture was the combinatory logic of the grid.

While in Alberti’s Palazzo Rucellai the grid made by stacking the orders was still a twodimensional surface mediating between public and private space, in Durand’s Precis, the grid became a spatial system that involved the three-dimensional totality of architectural composition. Durand’s plans are devoid of poché, for they are made only by simple walls and columns. Flexibility requires the extreme simplicity not only of the architectural elements themselves but also of their combinations. The nonfigurative character of Durand’s grid revealed the combinatory logic of composition: no element was fixed but rather each was made relative to a specific use and thus accommodated a myriad of “architectural genres.”

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See: Sergio Villari, J.N.L. Durand (1760–1834): Art and Science of Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).


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Durand’s idea of composition suggests that the reduction of form to a grammar of simple elements addresses the increasing proliferation of urban institutions such as markets, hospitals, museums, etc. – the increasing unpredictability of the city’s programmatic situations. Far from being just the outcome of aesthetic concerns, the “abstraction” produced by a building’s combinatory performance, made efficient by eliminating the figural infill of the poché, is the result of the reification of the city due to the “liberalization” of its functions and activities. Durand’s focus on the grid as a compositional template not only frames and thus tames the liberalization of city space, it is also the only element that could orchestrate the design of everything from a single room to an entire city without requiring the predefinition of all the stages between those two poles.

Plan The integration of the room and the entire city into the same compositional logic is further radicalized by Ludwig Hilberseimer in his famous theoretical project for the modern metropolis, the Hochhausstadt (1924).13 In this project for a vertical city Hilberseimer takes a polemical stand against not only the utopian images proposed by Expressionist architecture, but also Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants (1922). In his well-known proposal, Le Corbusier seems to arrange different building types according to the figures of classical architecture: the spatiality of the typical Parisian classicist square evoked by the space between the Cartesian skyscrapers; the layout of the Palace of Versailles evoked by the Redents; the communitarian form of the abbey cloister reinterpreted in the Immeuble Villas; and, finally, the outline of 13

See: Ludwig Hilberseimer, Grosstadt Architektur (Stuttgart: Hoffmann, 1927).


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Michelangelo’s plan for St. Peter’s in the form of the main train and air terminal at the city center.14 Moreover, Le Corbusier clearly uses diverse building typologies, from the most monumental at the center to the more suburban at the periphery, and separates residential space from work space. Hilberseimer, on the other hand, uses only one building type: a hybrid of blocks and slabs in which all civic activities, such as production, living, and commerce, are superimposed rather than zoned in different locations. Thus the form of the city emerges from the repetition of a single element or type, and reflects the logic of the most conventional geometry possible – that of the grid. The circulation system of the Hochhausstadt is then uniformly extended in all directions by the superimposition of train lines, metro lines, trams, roads, and pedestrian streets in a tartan pattern. For Hilberseimer, typological diversification no longer seems to be an issue. Due to the extreme social mobility brought about by changing labor conditions in the modern metropolis, living standards are reduced to the hotel room, which is contained in an absolutely uniform slab superimposed atop a plinth comprising workshops and office space. Distributive zoning and diverse typologies disappear because the inhabitants of Hochhausstadt live, work, and move everywhere.

In Le Corbusier’s hierarchical City for Three Million, programmatic diversity is attained by means of formal alternatives. In Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt, programmatic diversity is addressed by assembling all of the elements of the city – domestic space, office space, roads, railway lines, etc. – into one gridded composition that can be repeated 14

Le Corbusier, “Une Ville Contemporaine,” in Oeuvre Complète, 1910-1929 (Zurich: Les Editions d’architecture, 1964), 34–43. Gabriele Mastrigli has proposed a close reading of the “classical” figures that it is possible to identify in Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants. See: Gabriele Mastrigli, In Praise of Discontinuity, or “La Leçon de Rome,” in Berlage Institute, Power: Producing the Contemporary City (Rotterdam: NAI Publisher, 2007), 113–124.


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ad infinitum. Form is no longer seen as representation but as process. In the Hochhausstadt, form is devoid of any figurative or individualistic feature, guaranteeing it will perform in the most rational, uniform way. The city is reduced to its reproductive conditions. Its image may seem frighteningly monolithic, but it also appears to be serene, because it has eliminated any formal anxiety through the radical deployment of a generic type.

Surface The continuous surface of Archizoom’s No-Stop City seems to have been developed as an exaggeration ad absurdum of Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt. In both plans, the city is envisioned as a stacking of technical elements without regard for their further formal articulation. But where Hilberseimer uses building blocks, Archizoom dissolves the built structure of the city into its constitutive infrastructural elements – column, elevator, wall, etc. – by envisioning the city as a vast, artificially lit, air-conditioned interior. Differences such as inside and outside, landscape and city, production and consumption, living and working, are collapsed into one equipped surface that is extendable in all directions along the grid, the most generic order possible. Here the grid is neither a visual element nor a functional one, nor even a circulation system. It is simply the most conventional ratio possible in order to distribute the necessary elements of the city without resorting to any architectural gesture. The city is what it does: it is a continuous ambiance made by repetitive conditions of light, communication, air-conditioning, mechanized transportation, and all of the social connections – material and immaterial – that are needed in order to make a city work and reproduce itself. Thus No-Stop City formalizes


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the conditions that make the city. Neither a proposal for a new city nor a utopian transformation of the existing city, No-Stop City is a conceptual X-ray of the existing capitalist metropolis, in which the conditions for reproduction are no longer localized in specific sectors, such as the factory, housing, and recreation spaces, but proliferate everywhere. With this scenario, the iconoclastic form of No-Stop City can be understood as a merciless memento mori for architecture as a shape-maker and producer of difference.

Within the objective conditions of the metropolis, formal complexity becomes ideological, becomes a false consciousness that pretends to explain the functioning of the city with futile formal gestures. The form of No-Stop City does not pretend to erase these formal gestures; on the contrary, it cynically maintains them, integrating them into the system, albeit as helpless arbitrary elements. Any formal difference is subsumed within the sameness of the city.15 With No-Stop City, the history of nonfigurative architecture appears to have arrived at its logical conclusion. But it is precisely the Hegelian act of coming to the awareness of this unavoidable conclusion that offers the possibility of a new beginning. In the aftermath of the history of nonfigurative architecture, a nonfigurative form is no longer the demiurgical design of everything, but the limit that attempts to release everything from its design. A possible postscript to the history of nonfigurative architecture is to think of nonfigural form no longer as a vehicle for its own extension but as a frame, as a limit of itself. Form as limit.

15

An example of this subsumption of difference is Rem Koolhaas’s theoretical project, “City of the Captive Globe,” 1972. Conceived as a parody of Manhattan, the project is an allegory of the lobotomy that the city’s infrastructural order – the grid – imposes on iconic architectural expression. See: Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995), 294–95.


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Limit If the idea of form as limit means the diachronic sequence followed so far must be slightly altered, it would be useful to conclude this brief history of the nonfigurative by considering the work of Mies van der Rohe, who made “silence” his dogma. Unlike many architects of his generation, Mies had little to do with political activism. Apart from some experimental design at the beginning of his career and some sporadic and strategic social proclamations, Mies focused on architecture as a “distanced” accomplishment of its purpose: to frame space. Yet, as several critics have pointed out, the silent forms through which Mies pursued this goal are far from idealistic. Especially in his American corporate projects, Mies allowed the attributes of industrial technology – the famous I beams used in the Seagram Building facade, for example – to enter and envelop his architecture. The reification that emerges in Hilberseimer’s method of allowing the objective forces of capital to redefine the city and the cynical detachment with which Archizoom addresses the generic form of the postindustrial city are both apparent in Mies’s work. Again, the neutrality of the grid seems to be the most effective ordering system for resisting the semantic cacophony of the city while analogically and literally reflecting in the glass facade the constitutive elements of that urban context. Neither an architecture of hope nor of celebration, Mies’s buildings remain stubborn yet docile and simple orthogonal forms within the complex space of the modern metropolis. As has been noted, their apparent indifference to context is paradoxically their true contextual quality, which reflects, in the most literal and objective terms, precisely what one cannot see: the generic space of


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exchange and reproduction behind the appearance of figural diversity.16 The “silence” of Mies’s architecture has often been interpreted by historians and critics as reflecting and incorporating the uprooting nature of modernity while defining a critical distance from it.17 These interpretations range from the aesthetic of renunciation proposed by Manfredo Tafuri, who saw in Mies’s American projects the explicit interiorization of the abstraction of social life itself in the form of a paradoxical formal autonomy per via negativa, to Massimo Cacciari’s reading of Mies’s abstraction (and of modern architecture) as a conscious image of fulfilled nihilism; to Michael Hays’s use of Mies as an act of critical architecture posited as both a radical detachment from all that is outside architecture and reflecting the conditions that permit such distance; to Detlef Mertins’ rendering of Mies’s redeeming use of technology.18 Yet, with the notable exceptions of the German critic Fritz Neumeyer19 and Oswald Mathias Ungers,20 these canonical readings seem mostly to have focused on the Miesian motif of the building envelope, while giving less importance to the element that defined all of Mies’s projects: the careful placement of buildings through the use of the plinth. From his early suburban houses in Germany to his corporate office complexes in the US, the simple, bounded form of the plinth is the precondition for

16

See: Manfredo Tafuri, Proggetto e Utopia (Bari: Laterza, 1973), 64. See: Sven-Olov Wallenstein, The Silences of Mies (Stockholm: AXL Books, 2008). 18 See: Tafuri, Progetto e Utopia; Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co, Modern Architecture, trans. Erich Robert Wolf (New York: Rizzoli, 1980); Massimo Cacciari, Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Michael Hays, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Norm,” Perspecta 21 (984); Detlef Mertins, “Mies’s skyscraper ‘project’: towards the redemption of technical structure,” in Detlef Mertins ed. The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), 49–67. 19 Fritz Neumeyer, “Space for Reflection: Block versus Pavillion,” in Franze Schulze, Mies van der Rohe, Critical Essays (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 148–71. 20 Oswald Mathias Ungers, “Mies van der Rohe and Toronto,” in Lotus, 112 (2002 March), 108–31. Ungers has read Mies’s use of the plinth in his North American complexes, such as the Toronto Dominion Center, as an attempt to design a city form from within the limited boundaries of the architectural artifact. Addressed in this way, the plinth becomes the element that transforms the limits of the architectural artifact into its fundamental contribution to the city form. 17


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nearly all of Mies’s designs. If, as Neumeyer has argued, the pavilion-like quality of Mies’s buildings seems to have followed Schinkel’s attempt to elevate the freestanding architectural object as an analogous form encompassing the bourgeois occupation of space (as opposed to the imperial claims of Baroque architecture) then the plinth seems to give to this appropriation a self-defined limit. This is evident in projects such as the Riehl House (1907), the Barcelona Pavilion (1929), the Seagram Building (1954–58), and the New National Gallery in Berlin (1962–68). By putting emphasis on the building site, the plinth inevitably makes the site a limit for what it contains. The isotropic order of industrialization evoked by the building envelopes is contrasted by their siting, framed by the plinth. Moreover, the way the plinth reorganizes the connection between a building and its site not only affects one’s experience of what is placed on the plinth, but also – and especially – one’s experience of the city that is left outside the plinth. One of the most remarkable things felt by anyone climbing a Mies plinth, whether in New York or in Berlin, is the experience of turning one’s back to the building in order to look at the city. Suddenly, and for a brief moment, one is estranged from the flows and organizational patterns that animate the city yet still confronting them. In this way Mies’s plinths reinvent urban space as an archipelago of limited artefacts. While the materiality and composition of Mies’s envelopes reproduce the attributes of the generic city, their placement on the plinth presents these attributes no longer as ubiquitous, but as sensual and finite objects. While Mies’s buildings assume the generic attributes of production, his insistence on framing and limiting proposes these attributes not as norms, but as architectural states of exception that force the generic to conform to the finite form of location.


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One can ask whether in the age of “biopolitics” and “geopolitics,” where political subjectivity is constantly reformulated in ever more complex and impalpable terms, the bodily experience of form and location can make sense at all. But this is precisely the point. Today a possible and radical counteraction to the ubiquity of the management of space in all its forms can only be proposed by reaffirming in the most radical terms the most graspable junctures through which space must be made. The nonfigurative gesture of the plinth seems to open an analogical crack in urban space even as it has been totalized by the managerial forces of the modern city. The plinth introduces a stoppage into the smoothness of urban space, thus evoking the possibility of understanding urban space not as ubiquitous, pervasive, and tyrannical, but as something that can be framed, limited, and thus situated as a thing among other things. While buildings assume the ineffable attributes of production, the plinth limits these attributes to a finite location.

Moreover, unlike the wall, a form like the plinth is a frame that does not simply separate or isolate; it recuperates in subtle ways the difference that the modern city has subsumed within its generic space: the symbolic possibility of confrontation.

Unlike Alberti, Durand, Hilberseimer, and Archizoom, Mies is concerned not only with the universality and repeatability of this form but also with its limit, with the finitude of its location. The possibility of a nonfigurative architecture is thus reinvented by absorbing the compulsion to repeat which is the essential trait of capitalist civilization while increasing architecture’s function as a frame, as a limit both to itself and to the


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forces and interests it represents. Mies not only developed a particular model of architecture, he also introduced a particular attitude toward the city.

Today, against the ubiquity of design, this attitude toward framing and limiting needs to be developed both as literal material form of architecture, but also as a political principle of design. Not open-ended growth, but limiting should be conceived as the fundamental meta-project of that gives form to architecture’s responsibility towards the city. There is no question that the idea of limit implies issues that go far beyond the scope of architecture and its project, and involves the complex ecology of political and economic space. Yet like the archetypes we have seen before, the task of architecture is to reify, that is to transform into public generic, and thus graspable common things, the political organization of space of which architectural form is not simply the consequence, but also one of the most powerful and influential political example. In this way the absoluteness of architecture, its being a finite form, is not simply the tautological claim of its literality as object, but it is also the example for a city no longer driven by the ethos of expansion and inclusion but by the positive idea of limits.


Pier Vittorio Aureli