Misguided Radicalities

An assignment for an architectural history class at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Todd Gannon, 2013

For a great deal of time now, we have been fooled by an immense ruse. We pass through our lives day by day under a grand illusion, the philosophical residue of several centuries’ wasted thoughts. They tell us, “This will be new”. They say, “This is the future”. They are the radicals, and this, of course, is the surreal artifice that is “Progress”. Under it, we have been lead to valorize the radical, uphold the deviant and swoon the heretic. We are coaxed into a battle which, in fact, does not even exist, forced to conform within the narrow terms of those either for or against their own pasts. Who is the left the victim at the end of this rampage? Architecture, forever the slave to the cyclical nature of humanity! That is to indicate, when surveying the developments of architectural history since the Renaissance, one uncovers an omnipresent trickery, a steady disguise overlaying the perceived progressions which have by their own accounts driven the discipline forward. In the face of this supposedly linear evolution, we are lead to believe a false tale centered either about the phantom of progress or the shackles of tradition. In the most superficial of inventories done around each topic, those of both camps attempt to verify for us the validity of their arguments, but, given appropriately closer examination, we come to find the truth to be far more ambiguous. While the strict adherence to either subscripted canon of values proves often overbearingly limiting, an examination of the activities in the field seems to indicate the inherent benefits of a synthesized approach. In a way, this is a kind of blurred architecture, no longer chained to any binary but instead free to roam a continuum of possibilities. Such an architecture is neither a reiteration of the extant nor a naïve leap forth, rather a sophisticated interpolation between both which enables the acknowledgement appropriate to precedent as well as the will to innovate.

As far back as the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, we stumble against a question of progression and tradition inherently tied to the notions of radicalism and conformity. In dichotomies like those between Perrault and Blondel, one gazes upon differing interpretations around the manners by which we ought to appropriate the past which contemporaneity so inevitably inherits. This debate has become a lengthy, fruitless process, resulting in the mutual exclusivity thrust unnecessarily upon its terms. The illusion of this “progress” has throughout the field's history lured many towards an empty promise. It has for quite some time proven difficult to articulate with much verity to its own cause. In fact, what we find behind many of the revolutionary moments in architecture is an undoubtable debt to the past. Take, for example, Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence, lauded as the architectural commencement of the Italian Renaissance from ashes of the otherwise Northern Gothic (Margini). While the outward appearance of the dome itself seems to be of classical reference, in line with its conceptual heritage, closer examination reveals its indebtedness to the Gothic buttress, embedded below an otherwise structurally austere surface (Scaglia). In this genealogy of these mirages, we find as well Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, employing a brick-laid structure in the place of the architect’s lauded method of poured concrete, the effect of which is rendered nonetheless to fool us by plastering the façades of the building. Such examples are numerous, revelations against the blinding binary of past and future. This is not to underwrite the value of progressive thought, but rather to highlight the importance of the synthetic approach. Inasmuch as we so valiantly bespeak our successes to radically new thought, we too often fall into a cycle of reactions, wherein the truly profitless redundancy of radicalism and counteraction preemptively halt worthy progress.

Each era of thought eventually seems to perform two distinct roles. First, its filibustering supporters undercut the verifiable progress made in a prior movement. This problematic patricide rears its prominence in examples such as the dialectical opposition between Mies van der Rohe’s proscribed “Less is more” and Robert Venturi’s counter-reactionary “Less is a bore”. Although these are in the most obvious way playful mnemonics, they each underline the problematic tendency of these supposed radicals to enact scorched earth policies, scathing the very territory they inherit by preemptively limiting themselves within narrow conceptual programs. After having emptied the stage for their own performances, each group subsequently tends to ruin itself in the banal pity of stylization, accomplishing the second facet. We see this in moments such as the very opening lines of Henry-Russel Hitchcock’s and Philip Johnson’s pamphlet on the International Style which inscribed the investigations of their 1932 introductory exhibition on the topic at MoMA (Hitchcock). Rather than entailing philosophical outcroppings or fundamental goals, their text tends instead to stylize the presentation of the early Modernist works they sought to introduce to the American audience, its introduction going to great ends to impart onto the reader more so than anything else the aesthetic commonalities of the work. Thus, their own explorations culminated in the death of the movement, the rendering of its values as null at the hands of stylization. In these examples, we find the fertility of progressive and radical movements numbed by their own recessive wills and failures which encircle the process of their self-actualization and eventual stylization. Progression falls victim to its own boisterous insecurities.

In opposition to these approaches, a more synthetic engagement of architecture seems to be nuanced in its comprehension of context and precedent, avoiding the pitfalls of strict isolationism or overwrought individuality. The Radical seldom appears able to productively engage the systematic development of the field alone, often mistakenly displacing the work relevantly around his in order to establish a territory of investigation. That is to say, when we falter in taking account of our historical liabilities, the risks of insensitivity and abrasiveness become flagrant. We encounter this derailment of architectural intentions in Le Corbusier’s monstrously unapologetic proposals for urban planning in both Manhattan and Paris. Seemingly radical, each fails before inquisition, gradually appearing to be little more than situationally overbearing in nature. In Paris, the Plan Voisin purports to level a sizable chunk of the vital core to the city. At first glance a Cartesian masterpiece of overwrought Modernism, one must take into account the effective state of the area in question within Paris as an unsanitized slum during the architect’s time (Lubin). Thus, what so valiantly advertises itself as progressive is in truth much more a slingshot solution of oversimplification pasted above a problem of contextual complexities. In a similar scheme for Manhattan, Le Corbusier blatantly ignores both the densities and conceptual frameworks of the city’s abstractly gridded layout (Keats). The fact that both projects effectively resemble one another, thus conferring their status as ubiquitous solutions on the part of the architect, is of additional concern. These manifestations of architecture reject too much on their path to progression, forgoing tradition and societal relevance in a will towards ignorant singularity.

Far more successful in their possession of context and engagement are works like Gehry’s eponymous home in Santa Monica, which offers implications of locality through both its materiality and well fit integration atop the site’s existing architecture. Avid uses of chain-linked fencing and corrugated metal, alongside a myriad of formal cues, bridge the gap between the radicalism of the scheme and many of its surroundings, offering passersby the physical connection necessary to engage it in a proper manner. By referencing something so inherent to his setting, Gehry effectively allows the work to abstract from its sourcebook. One could levy this as akin to Kenneth Frampton’s guides on Critical Regionalism, although Frampton’s arguments disproportionately valorize material and referential approaches. Forgoing these presumptions, we might find work such as that of OMA and her kin to be highly successful in their relationship with context and history not for the aforementioned qualities, but rather in rich understandings of context through nearly fetishistic levels of data analysis and political self-awareness in respective localities. Therefore, OMA seems able to compile pertinent information on context and still offer radical solutions to issues at hand, in so doing aligning its architecture to both radically progressivism and more site-sensitive agendas. Such is the case in the interplay with the respective urban fabrics in both the Jissieu Library and Seattle Central Library, each of which achieves a novel formal experience engaged with yet not in subservience to context. A folly of both-and-ness, as we might coin it, emerges from such an overlap, allotting uniquely experimental benefits from its architectural endeavors into theoretical hybridization.

Thus, Architecture has arrived at a moment of boundless possibility whereby the confining characteristics of both blind-eyed radicalism and mindless tradition are annulled in the promise of a synthetic approach. Architecture in this new comprehension is of a plastic nature, well adept to both assimilation and differentiation in a manner of highly simultaneous efficiency. To betray ourselves by aligning against these lucrative abilities is to stifle architecture itself. Therefore, it is only by the productive investigation into a synthesis of prerogatives that can we interpolate the blurred space of an absolute yet integrated architecture. 

Works Cited

Hitchcock, Henry-Russel and Philip Johnson. The International Style: Architecture since 1922. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1932. Print.

Keats, Jonathon. “Le Corbusier vs. Manhattan: MoMA Exhibit Shows Why the Original Starchitect Never Quite Conquered New York. Forbes. Forbes Publishing, 12 August 2013. Web. 10 December 2012.

Lubin, Gus. “Why Architect Le Corbusier Wanted to Demolish Downtown Paris.” Business Insider Online. Business Insider, 20 August 2013. Web. 10 December 2013.

Margini, Graziano and Catherina Frost. “The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore”. Scientific Itineraries in Tuscany 15 May 2008. Museo Galileo, Institute and Museum of the History of Science. Web. 8 December 2013.

Scaglia, Gustina. “Building the Cathedral in Florence”. Scientific American 264.1 (1991): 66-72. Print.