Architecture of Analogy

Notes on Architecture and Cultural Production

Posted in Discourse by Cameron McEwan on May 18, 2014
Montage of Rossi (1976) La città analoga; and Serlio (1545) Scena Tragica. On the left, Rossi places a standing figure into the city making clear that the city is the result of human labour, both manual and mental. On the right, Serlio emphasises the street as a public space defined by a wall of buildings.

Montage of Rossi (1976) La città analoga; and Serlio (1545) Scena Tragica.
On the left, Rossi places a standing figure into the city making clear that the city is the result of human labour, both manual and mental. On the right, Serlio emphasises the street as a public space defined by a wall of buildings.


While it is clear that architecture is not autonomous from culture, it is possible to understand architecture as autonomous in relation to culture because architecture is a discipline with its own rules, values, formal and conceptual principles which are put forward in theories, drawings, built and unbuilt examples. Yet architecture gives concrete form to culture and came into being with the first traces of the city. Architecture is rooted in the formation of culture and civilisation so that the history of architecture, which is the city, is also the history of culture. Architecture, culture and the city are therefore relational and co-determinate. The purpose of the following notes will be to briefly reflect on these points.
“Mind takes form in the city;” said Lewis Mumford in The Culture of Cities “and in turn, urban forms condition mind.” Mumford’s words remind us of architecture’s formal condition and that the city embodies the sensibility, attitude, and dominant worldview of any given culture. Then, urban forms – architecture as such – condition the sensibility of any given culture because the architecture of the city is both a human creation of manual as well as mental labour and the willed expression of power, whether in the name of the state, religion, corporate patronage or some other authority such as a single figure. The city thus embodies private passions and desires, shared beliefs and needs, as well as the conflicts of a people, which always results in both the construction and destruction of the city. Think of the construction of great arches during the Roman Empire to celebrate war victories; or infrastructural projects like Haussmann’s Paris boulevards that destroyed vast areas of the city to represent an affluent Paris as a crucial centre of Europe; or the production of “iconic” buildings in the 1990s and 2000s that attempted to turn relatively unimpressive cities into global tourist attractions. By understanding architecture and the city as the embodiment of culture – of shared beliefs and needs as well as common sensibilities and attitudes – we can ask what is the culture of our current condition and how is this formalised in architecture?
There has been considerable recent discussion by commentators who describe culture today as a “crisis of social imagination.” [1] Let us note two examples. According to Paul Virilio, “Progress has become excess.” In the past, progress was the shared improvement of living, working, and education conditions. As Virilio states in The Administration of Fear progress is now excess. For Virilio, excess means the proliferation of unnecessary objects so that we are saturated with images, sounds and words. These are produced at an excessive speed with the purpose of feeding our desire for immediate satisfaction. The excessive speed of contemporary culture and the constant speed of post-industrial society has caused the fragmentation of rhythm, whether daily and habitual, seasonal, or something other. Virilio extrapolates this to various scales including human, city, and military. He comments that society accelerates at all times and without pause for reflecting on our desire for new things. The planned obsolescence of technologies such as phones and computers (as well as cars and new homes) is an example. We dispose of them at a quicker rate because they are produced at a quicker rate so we endlessly consume. Virilio reminds us that the need to constantly update our Facebook and our Email is another example of the acceleration of reality. The implication of the desire to “update” is that we are always behind where we need to be: behind on work, family, and friends. Because of its banality the sense of “being behind” goes unnoticed as a way of controlling our sensibility that results in deep feelings of anxiety. Lastly, Virilio reminds us that modern culture equates progress with economic expansion and the excessive proliferation of facts, figures, percentages, profits, and statistics, which is what Virilio calls the “mathematicisation of reality.”
Let us recall another example. In Factories of Knowledge, Industries of Creativity Gerald Raunig says the following: “Knowledge economy, knowledge age, knowledge-based economy, knowledge management, cognitive capitalism – these terms for the current social situation speak volumes. Knowledge becomes commodity, which is manufactured, fabricated and traded like material commodities.” Here, contradictory keywords are conjoined: knowledge and economy, knowledge and management, cognition and capitalism. Knowledge is understood as collectively produced shared thinking and is founded on human cognition which is immeasurable and cannot be controlled nor quantified. By contrast economy, management, and capitalism represent mass-individualisation, extreme competition, and hierarchical control. In Raunig’s reflections, we can read the struggle between the human value of knowledge versus its gradual commodification by dominant power.
The points made by Virilio and Raunig on the quantification of life and knowledge help frame the following architectural examples which can be read as symptomatic of a deeper cultural pathology that increasingly rejects the human sensibility for critical and creative imagination. Koolhaas’ (et al) Mutations, although now a dated text, is worthwhile recalling because it is the model of numerous recent texts. It surveys contemporary global urbanisation from cities and city-regions in Europe, America, and Asia. The text measures cities through statistics and indexes, and is illustrated by countless charts. Significantly, Mutations opens with a series of page spreads that comment on global population trends. The first reads: “At the outset of the twentieth century, 10% of the population lived in cities. In 2000, around 50% of the world population lives in cities.” This is a tiring statistic which is constantly repeated.
Another text, Content, is a history of OMA/AMO since S,M,L,XL of 1995 and situates Koolhaas’ practice within the scope of global culture. In the chapter entitled “An Autopsy” global culture between 1989 to 2003 is charted in relation to the production of “iconic” buildings and the Dow Jones Financial index. It makes clear the link between architecture and its commodification within the framework of economic markets. In the photomontage that illustrates the chapter, we see buildings by Zumthor, Gehry, Foster, and SOM amongst many others. We also see photographs of Kofi Annan, Princess Diana, Bill Clinton, and images of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, as well as art exhibitions such as Damien Hirst’s in MOMA, New York. Comment should also be made on the objecthood of the book: a small, thick, glossy paperback magazine, saturated with images, photomontages, ideograms, advertisements, essays, interviews and statistics about global culture. It is an analogical reflection of the loud consumerist ethos of our age. Yet, to qualify this, Content still asserts the role of culture and understanding the city as a prerequisite for the production of architecture. While these are only two examples, we can cite many others to indicate the recent emphasis on quantifying the city, architecture and culture via technological-scientific language. For brevity, a few book titles should suffice: Weak and Diffuse Modernity, Recombinant Urbanism, The Endless City, A New Urban Metabolism.
The preceding examples – from the critical reflections by Virilio and Raunig on the implications of “mathematicisation of reality” and social imagination, to the quantitative analyses of Koolhaas and others – serve as illustrations of our current cultural condition and its interplay with architecture in general. To end, here is the crucial point: instead of constructing complex mathematical models to “measure” architecture or endlessly analysing the city through “data,” we should remember that architecture is a form of cultural production and based on human sensibility, which is of immeasurable importance. Let us remember that architecture is an intellectual inquiry that questions urban life as such by putting forward alternative ways of living and critical interpretations of existing conditions.


[1] See for example the following: Franco Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012); David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (London: Profile Books, 2014); Eric Hobsbawm, Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century (London: Abacus, 2014); Antonio Negri, Art and Multitude: Nine letters on art, followed by Metamorphoses: Art and immaterial labour, trans. by Ed Emery (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity, 2011); Paul Virilio and Bertrand Richard, The Administration of Fear (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012).


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Notes on the Autonomy of Architecture

Posted in PhD by Cameron McEwan on June 22, 2013
C McEwan 2013 School-Cemetery [montage] Left: Fagnano Olona School, Right San Cataldo Cemetery, Both drawings by Rossi.

C McEwan 2013 School-Cemetery [montage] Left: Fagnano Olona School, Right San Cataldo Cemetery, Both drawings by Rossi.

One place to situate the theme of autonomy in architecture is in Emil Kaufmann’s discussion in the 1930s on the work of Enlightenment architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Kaufmann emphasised formal aspects such as: cubic masses, bare walls, frameless apertures, and flat roofs. For Kaufmann, the isolation of parts, their dialogue as either repetitive or oppositional elements, represented a formal autonomy. Autonomy re-emerged in the 1970s when architects challenged pseudo-scientific and technologically-driven projects, such as: Kenzo Tange’s 1960 project for Tokyo Bay with its raised roadways from which residential units could endlessly aggregate, Buckminster Fuller’s 1962 domed geodesic smog shield over midtown Manhattan, Archigram’s pop-image megastructures like the 1964 Plug-in City, Paolo Soleri’s anamorphic urbanism, and in Italy, Archizoom’s anarchic No-stop City, a continuous urban structure “without architecture.” In projects like these, formal issues are replaced by statistical analyses, technological optimism, and the potentially infinitely extendable, “open-form.” This path of development is opposed by those architects who follow the theme of autonomy in architecture. In recent years, autonomy has been discussed once again in texts by Pier Vittorio Aureli, Michael Hays, Reinhold Martin, and Anthony Vidler. [1]

The introduction of historical critique into the discipline of architecture is a characteristic the theme of autonomy. However, it is complicated by two general positions that refer to the argument about what kind of historical critique is appropriate. One kind of critique proposes an ideological critique of the history of architecture. An examination of all the contributing factors around architectural form, such as the social, cultural, economic and political, in order to understand how architecture is produced through power. The other kind of critique proposes a typological critique of the history of architecture and its formation as the city. An examination of typological-form in order to understand the processes, principles and formal operations that underline the production of form. In particular, the relationship between the form of the individual building as it relates to the wider collective realm of the city, and the history of architecture. It is important to say that both attitudes are independent of one another, but share a commitment to the repositioning of the “I” of architecture to the “us” of the city. Whether through understanding the form and role of architecture within the city as a product of social, cultural, economic and political concern. Or as much for architecture as a product of the historical, urban and typological structure of the city itself. Again, both positions prioritise the collective mind over the individual.

There is a problematic overlap in these positions because architecture supports social, cultural, economic and political aspects and is their concrete manifestation. Thus, architectural form cannot be considered as a single, isolated event because it is bounded by both the material and immaterial reality in which it exists. However, what the theme of autonomy can do, is open a discussion on what it means to view architecture as autonomous. Thus autonomy refers to notions of separation, resistance, opposition, confrontation, and critical distance, which can be instrumentalised by the architect through the production of images, and texts, aswell as buildings. It is worthwhile to note a few specific examples in the recent history of architecture.

Manfredo Tafuri, in Architecture and Utopia bleakly surmised architecture to be an instrument of capitalist development used by regimes of power, thinking it useless to propose purely architectural alternatives. However, he said that it is the conflict of things that is important, insisting on the productivity inherent in separation. In Critical Architecture Michael Hays writes that architecture is an instrument of culture, and also is autonomous form. The former view emphasises culture as the content of built form, and depends on social, economic, political and technological processes. The latter concerns the formal operations of architecture, how buildings are composed, and how architectural form is viewed as part of a continuing historical project. Aureli develops an autonomy thesis in The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, in which he articulates an engagement with the city through confrontation. Aureli writes that it is the condition of architectural form to separate and be separated. In this act of separation, architecture reveals the essence of the city, and the essence of itself as political form. For Aureli, it is the process of separation inherent to architectural form that the political is manifest.

In the work of Aldo Rossi the autonomy of form produced critical distance between the legacy of modern functionalist architecture and its critique, of which Rossi was a key proponent. To outline an example, we can refer to two projects undertaken in the early 1970s. A school at Fagnano Olona, and a cemetery outside Modena. Both projects share a precisely defined bi-lateral plan-form. Extending perpendicular from this axis are wings which arrange classrooms in the school, and graves in the cemetery. Either end of this central axis is marked by a circular and a square element. At the school, the circular element is a library which enters into the courtyard, and the square element is a gym hall. At the cemetery, the former is a conical grave and the latter, a monument to the war dead. Both plans refers to the axially arranged institutions of prisons, hospitals and asylums. In so doing, function is superseded by autonomous form, and the history of architecture is collapsed into a single building.

By way of conclusion it is illuminating to recall the political category of agonism posited by Chantal Mouffe in her book On the Political. We can think once again of the I/us relationship of the opening paragraphs, and more particularly the interrelated, we/they relationship. For Mouffe, the agonist principle develops from the idea of the political as a space of permanent conflict and antagonism, and hence a constancy of the we/they opposition. In antagonism there is no shared ground in the we/they opposition, so opponents are enemies. While in agonism, there is recognition of the legitimacy of the opponent, so enemy becomes adversary. Remembering that autonomy refers to notions of separation, resistance, opposition, confrontation, and critical distance, we could say that a crucial meaning of autonomy in architecture is to constantly produce a form of agonism through the production of images, texts, and buildings.

[1] See for example: Aureli, Pier V. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture (MIT Press, 2011), Aureli, Pier V. The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture Within and Against Capitalism, Reprint 2012 (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008), Hays, K. Michael. Architecture’s Desire (MIT Press, 2009),
Martin, Reinhold. Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (University of Minnesota Press, 2010),
Vidler, Anthony, Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism (MIT Press, 2008).


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