Jorge Silvetti, “The Beauty of Shadows,” 1977.
Silvetti’s 1977 essay reads as a pragmatic effort at finding a middle ground between ideological and theoretical criticism, while protecting the autonomy of the architectural process. Specifically, Silvetti is searching for a type of architectural thought between the cultural and disciplinary ideologies of Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas, and the “implacable silence of Tafuri’s historical closure.” Consequently, the essay is a deductive examination of both in order to loosely define “criticism from within,” a means of architecture connected to the act of making—somewhere between theory and ideology, and exclusively related to architecture itself—and therefore grounded within the architectural object. Though he declines to mention it, this grounding in the object brings Silvetti’s criticism from within into proximity with Eisenman’s theoretical object, which thoroughly haunts “The Beauty of Shadows”—a helpful juxtaposition to keep in mind.
On a meta- scale, Silvetti ‘mobilizes’ both Roland Barthes and Louis Althusser—as our guide Hays points out—as a means of engaging Tafuri and Agrest and guiding his search for criticism from within. To further clarify criticism from within we are also introduced to Foucault’s distinction between commentary and criticism, and the role of mythification in architectural history. Though we are left with more questions than answers about the specific functioning of such a method, we become aware that it is a process that produces temporary, “qualified” knowledge about contemporary architecture, architecture’s relationship with its own history, and what Silvetti sees as the indisputably linguistic elements of architecture.
Silvetti wastes no time in approaching Tafuri as an architectural problem. From the first, he uses Barthes’s linguistic studies as a critical tool against Tafuri’s reductivist claim that architecture has “returned to language” in its death throws, a way of finding meaning. Therefore all linguistic architecture can be thrown aside. (Tafuri, “L’Architecture dans le Boudoire,” 1974.) Starting with Barthes, Silvetti calmly determines that rhetoric can be used as an index of long-established architectural operations, and that linguistic studies are not only appropriate but are deeply varied in how they execute architecture.
Appropriately, criticism is used as a way to deal with these operations, architecture’s history, and the slew of theory growing out of the 60s and 70s. This is because criticism deals with the core of language. Using Foucault’s distinction between criticism and commentary, Silvetti clarifies that, while commentary “halts before the original text” and therefore repeats implicit ideologies of a language, criticism speaks of the language itself, it profanes and judges it. Criticism disturbs language where its ideological process takes place.
Traditionally, Silvetti tells us, there are two types of criticism. The first is “evaluative,” determining a problem and a piece of architecture’s capacity as a solution. This type is “trapped within its own ideology” and obstructs the production of valuable theory. The other type is, more or less, ‘historically evaluative,’ in which both the problem and solution are historically situated within a theoretical framework. As the essay continues in an effort to gain clarity on “criticism from within,” Silvetti is absolute that criticism from within is neither ideological nor theoretical but is between these two types, more associated with the realm of making than with ideology or theory.
By interrogating its own language, criticism from within is operating on the meta-linguistic scale—when a language deals with itself. Though apparently complicated, this an easy problem: it is essential to remember that in Structuralist or Post-Structuralist theory, architecture is a kind of language. And, like a language, architecture is a product of culture, equally charged with ideological meaning. The fundamental idea of criticism from within is to use the process (“making”) and product (building, model) of architecture to criticize architecture itself, to challenge what it knows (its conventions, styles, and tropes), and to disrupt the ideological process of the architectural language—just as criticism disrupts the ideological process of language. To complete the analogue, we might see architecture that is non-self-critical as being architectural commentary—in Foucault’s terminology—merely repeating already established ideas about architecture.
Cultural ideology—whether architectural or linguistic—is maintained and transformed over time through the process of mythification. While primarily the enabler of ideology, mythification operates in two historical phases. The first is the avant-garde phase, where the ideological work of a movement is to naturalize its cause within a new ideological framework that is historically inevitable. The second phase is the period of ‘crisis and disbelief,’ where the beliefs of the avant-garde are broken down and retold in a larger, more inclusive narrative. So now we see that, at its most simplified, mythification is the reorganizing of historical pieces in order to justify or “naturalize” a certain ideology—where “history” means anything built, historically or contemporary.
The reason this is important is, first, because it explains the survival of various ideologies through the history of language and architecture. It explains the manifestoes of the early avant-garde movements in the 20th century, as well as the disillusioned work of the International Style. But, if the process of mythification is perpetual—that is, if prevailing ideology is constantly evolving to incorporate language and architecture—then it clarifies the specific window of criticism from within. Criticism from within is an attempt to decipher the mythification process, to create a fissure in the “ideological mass of architecture” in order to reveal some brief epistemology about architecture right now. Because the mythification process is perpetual, whatever criticism from within may teach us about architecture or architectural making, it will soon be naturalized in to the cultural-ideological process. It is, at best, temporary knowledge, or temporarily available knowledge.
Something equally important to note is that this temporary epistemology is a qualified one. We aren’t going to gain some deep truth about the universe through criticism from within. Its goal is architectural knowledge. And so the act of criticism—disrupting the ideological function of the architectural language to reveal new knowledge—reveals things only to those who understand it, i.e. architects. Our experience with arch-critical object is a “deciphering act,” where whatever revelations we may gain are hidden within the sometimes ironic, meta-language of architecture talking about itself, for a brief period of time. This “qualified knowledge” is important to distinguish from Althusser’s theoretical-scientific knowledge dichotomy, which drives Agrest and Gandelsonas, whom Silvetti places on the ideological side against Tafuri’s historical theory.
Hence we are reminded of Eisenman and the theoretical object, which isn’t for everyone but is for architects because architects can “read” it. But while Eisenman’s work is almost isolationist, pushing architecture’s theoretical autonomy into elitism, Silvetti simply says ‘of course it’s elite, but only to the extent that non-architects won’t understand it.’ As for the field itself, the workings of criticism from within are debatably populist—a subtle argument that Silvetti intentionally deploys in order to address both Eisenman and the Realists.