Massimo Scolari, “The New Architecture and the Avant-Garde”, 1973.
With the tenth essay in Michael Hays’s anthology we begin to gain clarity regarding the climate of architecture theory, its different movements, and how the immediate anxieties of the 1960s settles down. First Scolari gives us an interesting evaluation of the anti-avant-garde or avant-garde or utopian or otherwise generally cray architecture movements coming out of Italy in the 1960s and 70s (Superstudio, Archigram, Archizoom). Then we move on to the “Tendenza” and the proposal of a New Architecture that is more comfortably settling itself in the 1970s, as opposed to the crises and contentions anxieties of the 1960s. Scolari’s key contributions: the autonomy of architecture as a discipline and of architecture as a cognitive object; a unified and simplified process for that architecture; and newly identified principles of architecture and architectural history.
Before anything else, let me note that Scolari is, first and foremost, writing as an Italian discussing the state and politics of Italian architecture and architecture theory. Consequently, there are many distinct scales on which we can apply his essay. First, to a large degree he is specifically discussing Italian problems and the history of architecture movements and ideologies in Italy. Second, his observations about the relationship between Utopia and the Italian post-modern avant-garde are generally illuminating about the identity of an avant-garde as an historical operation. Third, he is offering invaluable clarity regarding contemporary architecture theory, practice, and history.
Regarding the specifically Italian nature of Scolari’s essay, quite a bit of clarity has been gained regarding the nature of the post-modern architectural-theoretical project: namely, that it was a bitchy process. Scolari observes three different concurrent movements in architecture, identified by different ideas but (more importantly) also represented by different journals and different schools. (NB If you know anything about Italian geography and regional identity I suspect that has a bit to add to Scolari’s attitudes as well.) These three groups are the anti-avant-garde (historical determinists), radical architecture (architettura radicale, Archizoom, Superstudio, Archigram, 9999), and rational architecture (architettura razionale, presumably the “Tendeza” or New Architecture advocated by Scolari and Aldo Rossi). We learn that Aldo Rossi is a kind of godfather to a wide range of scholars and architects in Italy, a kind of Rem Koolhaas. We also get a glimpse at a curious, though perhaps purely Italian condition: the politicization of academia. Scolari explains the development of certain ideas and schools in reaction to the Italian political landscape, as well as the interference in those schools by the political administration. This is a condition I also see in other realms of Italian academia (i.e. the work of Umberto Eco) that perhaps explains why Italian intellectualism is commonly discussed with great distancing or ‘kid gloves,’ if it is discussed at all.
In terms of the avant-garde, the thesis is not quite that immediately implied by the essay’s title—while the inference may be “a new architecture from the avant-garde,” the essay is undoubtedly structured as “a new architecture in spite of the avant-garde.” According to Scolari, avant-garde movements are part of “the formulation of new theoretical values and principles in a time of pause,” that is, when the field itself is not moving forward intellectually, but they are only one of two paths. (The other path is refounding the discipline, which is exactly what Scolari proposes the Tendenza does.) The avant-garde projects images of the future by negating the past. It is, therefore, not scientific but fantastic, and therefore not ‘useful.’ The specific radicale groups Scolari discusses—Superstudio, Archigram, Archizoom—refuse to be structured by real architectural concerns, instead opting for a stage “above reality.” They are less valuable for their contents and more for “the conditions they implicitly denounce.” So in addition to Rowe’s argument that avant-garde movements cannot articulate a real future because they cannot possibly intimate the conditions such a future will grow from, we have an alternative condition of certain mid-century movements: a disregard for any realism or acknowledgement even of contemporary architectural realities. They are driven by the image, not by architecture.
Most fascinating, though, is what Scolari gives to the architectural discourse as a whole (and I apologize but we are just now getting to the good part). As much as he is setting the Tendenza separate from the avant-garde, Scolari is setting it apart from the anti-avant-garde, the historicists. Hays explains Scolari “put the theoretical fine point on a contradiction that was paramount in the architecture theory of the 1970s: the contradiction between the universality of architecture’s historical contingency and the universality of its autonomy.” Against the historicists (Manfredo Tafuri) who believed formal and disciplinary autonomy was determined by historical trends (capitalism), Scolari gives us a discipline free of historical determinism.
As a means to that end, Scolari provides new refounding principles of architecture as a discipline and as a process: type and monumentalism (or new-monumentalism?). In short, a type is “something permanent and complex, a logical prepositions that is prior to form and comes to constitute it.” Types are analogous to Eisenman’s deep structures and the first discourse of Gandelsonas’s rhetoric. Type is the meme of a project—house, gov’t building, church, &c.—and each individual building of that meme is a model of the type. The value of this idea, as opposed to deep structures for example, is its historiographic capacity, a function capable of freeing architecture as a discipline from its historicist issues as well as from interdisciplinary structures (linguistics).
This is accomplished through the “genealogy of reference” by which type replaces historical and creative practice. If all buildings are different articulations of various types, then architecture becomes a conversational process between the history of that a type in all its iterations. In other words, each architectural object can be “read” as partaking in a genealogy, its references can be unpacked, and the practice of architectural form becomes a disciplinarily autonomous, cognitive process. From this we can make two observations: that architecture as a process and as a discipline is free from all other concerns, even that of formal anxieties, but especially of social, political, consumerist, and communicative concerns. (If architecture is referential only of its own typological genealogy, then those reading the architectural object are architects capable of interpreting its meaning. Thus Scolari is also freeing architecture of the communicative field delineated by George Baird, and presumably from the communicative mandate from structural linguistics.) Architecture may observe these concerns but does not partake in them. Secondly, I’d like to point out that this line is paralleled in other fields and reminds me of Harold Bloom’s own signature interpretation of literature as a genealogy of creative misreading, a similar maneuver for disciplinary autonomy. Summarily, through type we are settling into an autonomy free of Structuralist or even Post Structuralist nonsense.
Another quick comment about monumentalism: monumentality is reinterpreted by Scolari—presumably as an further articulation of an ongoing discourse in the field—as, above all else, unity and simplicity. As such, it is itself a metaphor for the process of a New Architecture: progress toward clarity and simplification. Appropriately there are two important consequences: monumentality’s role in the city (a primary concern for the Tendenza), and formal implications of unity and simplicity. Monumentality reinterprets the city as a work of art, a unity of parts, with monuments organically organizing the parts both psychologically (for citizens/commuters) and as regards planning. This, Scolari notes, is an alternative to both the determinism of consumerism (capitalistically contingent urban development) as well as the “deceptive” tools of zoning that guide “undifferentiated expansion of misery and quantity.” Interestingly, Colin Rowe also likens the Collage City to a piece of art—specifically Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie, which preserves the liberal formal heterogeneity that Rowe desires. In opposition to Rowe, though, is the formal implications of simplification and abstraction that go along with Monumentalism and the Tendenza, and Rowe rejected such in his own lecture on the publication of Collage City. His formal liberalism was not quite jazzed with the architettura razionale principles of abstraction (from simplification); he wanted freedom.