José Quetglas, “Loss of Synthesis: Mies’s Pavilion,” 1980.
Quetglas’s essay was solicited for the journal Carrer de la Ciutat on the occasion of the 1929 German Pavilion’s reconstruction. In terms of an historical review, Hays gives us a brief but specific summary of the individuals behind Carrer, but in the way of historical short notes there is little to go on. The intro concludes with a short blurb about the “theoretical problematic,” instigated by the pavilions reconstruction, between architect-audience-building-reproducibility. This ‘problematic’ manages to bring Quetglas’s rhetoric into manageable context, which I’ll discuss further down.
For José Quetglas, architectural analysis is obviously a literary project more prone to poetic liberties and turns of phrase than theoretical rigors. While this makes for interesting reading—ridiculous one moment, compelling the next—it is a break from the intellectual work of, say, Diana Agrest, Jorge Silvetti, or Manfredo Tafuri. Quetglas turns this ‘method’ to Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion—treated as synecdoche for his oeuvre—as a critique of the establishment’s treatment of the icon as a sacred relic of modernism, overlooking what Quetglass sees as its brutal, elitist populist reality.
Quetglas’s actual reading of Miesian architecture is fascinating, regardless of its political eschatology, and is easily summarized. In response to the traditional fascination with Mies’s ability to enclose space with glass walls and suggestion, Quetglas explains Miesian architecture cannot be bothered with enclosure; the power of its planar projection between two horizontal layers precludes the necessity for privacy by excluding the outside world from the architectural object. Mies’s compositions are, first and foremost, two horizontal planes—a plinth and a roof—that create a horizontal layer, an flat “stage” on which the rest of its elements plays out. This projection of this layer is so strong that it completely isolates the architectural object, excluding viewers and the populous, as well as landscape or an urban fabric. From outside, the plinth determines the removal of the architectural plane from any context. From the inside, the planes dominate awareness of any exterior and reduce it to something outside of the architectural object. There need not be literal enclosure when there is already profound isolation.
Everything else plays out on the horizontal stage, inhabitants as well as walls and furniture: “In Mies, we would find always repeated that obsessive volition to build a segregated and enclosed space [between two planes] where every inhabitant will be excluded.” Furniture feels foreign, and can be anything. Even the walls are secondary, restricted only to the realm between two planes but otherwise dynamic, motile, unfolding.
Queglas also provides a telling juxtaposition between North American and European architecture, exemplified by Wright and Mies. Firstly, while modern European architecture exists “on a ground” (landscape or plinth), North American architecture exists “toward one or many, precise or ambiguous, directions.” Then, while Wright produces compositions of space, in which space unfolds as its own form-generating entity, Mies is actually the opposite. In the pavilion, walls unfold, not space; the only active entity is the dynamic yet inaccessible space of the walls, which contain rather than generate space. This argument is most compelling in plan, obviously, but weakens when we consider Quetglas’s own argument that Miesian compositions don’t necessarily take place in plan. (In a digression about Neo Plasticism, Quetglas almost realizes this, but ultimately evades it.)
As a side note, Quetglas’s essay is pregnant with influence and full of interesting tidbits. There is an weak but interesting argument about Miesian architecture turning even the landscape into a 2D plane used like Mies’s characteristic sheets of marble. This is, presumably, based on Wittkower and Rowe’s work on Renaissance interiors, and on a weak reading of the Tugendhat House, but is cursorily interesting. There is also a truly affective contextual reading of Mies’s pavilion compared to Taut’s Glass House (1914), situated on either sides of the First World War.
In Quetglas, as we’ve come to expect, the most valuable observations are made in the intellectual ellipsis of context and architecture politics. Behind Quetglas—in addition to what Hays explains about the politics of Carrer de la Ciutat in opposition to Arquitectura bis—we can see at least two significant causal vectors at play, one of which is the direct material relationship between a piece of architecture and its ideology. This interpretational method believes that, regardless of an architect’s conscious intentions and architectural method, a piece of architecture can be seen as possessing or embodying a political ideology. Quetglas’s style of writing keeps the specifics of this delicate interpretation at a distance, but it is undoubtedly one reason behind his better, petulant tone.
Hays explains that the first issue of Carrer featured a picture of Walter Benjamin in the garden of Bertold Brecht, and that Benjamin must have been an impressive figure for the anti-establishment Barcelona group. We’ve come to associate Brecht with political populism in postmodern architecture theory, which reveals much about Quetglas’s reading. In short, one of the primary reasons Quetglas is so obviously upset about the establishment’s worship of Mies’s pavilion is that is fundamentally excludes the populous, and by extension is elitist,. This is clearer when you consider that the only objects ‘inside’ the pavilion were the Barcelona Chairs, thrones for the King and Queen of Spain, and that Quetglas’s reading of the pavilion’s horizontal universe irrevocably separates the populous outside from the rulers inside, even if those rulers are also foreign to the architectural object. Mies’s game of enclosure and dynamic vertical planes within a strong, thick horizontal plane is a profoundly architectural project; the products of this method are isolationist, exclusive, and by extension anti-populist. We’ve encountered the explicit politicizing of architectural material with Scolari, but here it is a method implicitly exploited by Quetglas.
The second cause for Quetglas tone must be the anti-establishment row. Quetglas gives this away himself, repeatedly slighting the ‘institutional’ cult around the Pavilion. Presumably, this institution-bucking iconoclasm is behind the group’s turn toward New Criticism, an intellectual tool used to challenge traditional evaluations of architecture. This tone of criticism to the contemporary establishment and its praxis reminds me of Charles Jencks’s essay on Postmodernism and his seemingly anachronistic call for new intellectual methods. Both seem out of place within the anthology, but were likely appropriate evaluations of contemporary institutional norms.
Returning, quickly, to New Criticism, both Hays and Quetglas neglect to name it specifically. Hays does tell us that “elaborate urban, theatrical, literary strategies… influenced by Manfredo Tafuri,” were this group’s frame for institutional criticism. This ‘theatrical’ slant is explicitly employed in the later part of Quetglas’s essay. But if I may point out some historical notes, Tafuri is a figure that functions on two levels: contemporary theory, and history. He produced 20th century we are already familiar with, as well as historical work on the Renaissance. I am tempted to understand his theatrical interests in the light of Renaissance stage architecture, especially in Venice where he taught, and its affect on the reading of architecture as ‘spectacle’ and ‘stage.’ Contemporary to (though not because of) this, New Criticism interpreted architecture within a literary framework—not unlike the way semiotics was used to interpret architecture through a linguistic framework, though intentionally less Structural. So we may read the developments of this Barcelona group as being informed by both historical theory and contemporary, Post-Structural intellectual methodologies.
(In conclusion, here is a hilarious paragraph from Quetglas comparing the Pavilion with Taut’s Glass House, illustrating his histrionic and fabulous style, serving as a reminder that architecture theory is full of eye-roll-worthy hilarity that is as funny as it is awesome:
“Mies’s Pavilion is, again, the Glass House, but this time the light will no longer tinge us and give us its confidence; rather we will never be able to touch it. The only source of light in the interior of the Pavilion is enclosed between four screens of translucent, pink onyx in the interior of a space that we will never enter. We know of its presence at the other side of the wall: prohibited. There still remains one more light that can only be seen by he who is in the corridor at the back of the Pavilion. From there, the sculpture by Kolbe can be seen flooded by an avalanche of terrible light, brighter and clearer because of its contrast with the semi-darkness of the corridor where the spectator stands. But the dancer does not irradiate it, but rather, crushed weight, tried to reject it with its arms. At its feet grows the dark pool where the inert, melted glass is gathered, without being able to summon god any more in the empty and pure house.“