Martin Steinmann, “Reality as History: Notes for a Discussion of Realism in Architecture,” 1976.
Martin Steinmann curated a show of Tendenza architecture from northern Italy and Switzerland at the end of 1975—evidently as important a show as the MoMA Beaux-Arts exhibit (1975-76) and the Architettura Razionale show at the Milan Triennale (1973). According to Hays, Steinmann’s essay in the show’s catalogue (and his work as editor of Archithese, 1980-86) developed a definition of architectural Realism both refreshingly pragmatic, formal, historical, and most importantly epistemological. First, it recognizes the simple contextual and systematic realities of architectural production with a calm pragmatism that sidelines Post-Modernist goals. Then it explains the reality of architecture’s formal history: a body of experiences and meaning to be continuously reworked in order to discover new truths in terms of architecture’s nature and formal significance. This Realism is formally autonomous, self-reflexive, and populist, hence distinguishing it from Post-Modernism’s contextual dependence and from Eisenman’s abstract theoretical object.
While Steinmann’s two-fold argument is surprisingly easy to grasp, the power of its subtleties should not be overlooked. With his pragmatism and his notion of “Tradition,” Steinmann carefully sidelines both extreme positions in contemporary architecture theory (Post-Modernism and Post-Functionalism, Gray and White). The first item to which Steinmann turns his pragmatism is architectural contextualism. His response: of course there is a context for architecture. That context is material production and socio-political hierarchies. “Architecture is subject to the realization of capital, to be sure (…),” but in terms of society, architecture “is conditioned by and conditions” its social context. Most importantly, this social context is not architecture’s subject.
Neither is program architecture’s subject. Extreme ideas that seek to derive formal decisions from function (scientism/functionalism) are “doomed to fail” because they have no grasp on architecture’s reality. The nature of that reality, of architecture’s subject, is architecture itself, its own history and Tradition, a history of meaning and form and experiences. “The meaning of architecture defines itself in relation to its own tradition;” “If architecture makes reference to itself in this way, then history is not merely a vast depository of experiences already made, but is rather the place where the meaning of architecture defines itself.”
But architecture’s history and tradition are not necessarily the same. For our purposes, “Tradition” has two subtly different meanings, one of which is practically synonymous with ‘history.’ This history is the repository of architectural knowledge, of forms, of relationships between form and people and meaning. The subject of architecture is the exploration of this history in order to find new truths about the nature of architecture.
Herein lies the epistemological function of architectural Realism. Meaning changes over time—cultural interpretation of form, formal and aesthetic values, traditional methods of building, &c.—and modern investigations of architecture’s history can both see past contemporary associations for new historical truths as well as reevaluate historical forms in terms of modern values. This is the epistemological function Hays describes as Steinmann’s primary contribution to architectural Realism. Through historical investigation we literally “discover” new truths, “as if veils that covered these structures were drawn away.” “Architecture that is autoreflexive in this way communicates its historicity”—an architecture dedicated to metabolizing historical investigations is itself historical, the architectural object is both a process of reflection and a piece in that history.
This is one consequences of defining architectural meaning through tradition, achieving an architecture that is at once historically reflective and historical. Another consequence has to do with how we, the beholder, understand such an architecture. If the “meaning of architecture defines itself in relation to its own tradition,” then it is through Tradition that “we understand works as well as our comprehension of them.” This means Tradition is not just history, but the level of familiarity we have with architectural form and meaning.
Tradition “is an epistemological category; it dictates that a new meaning can only be derived from a familiar one.” This idea is not completely dissimilar to one George Baird brought up in 1969: that legibility has a threshold, a delineated field in which it is effective and outside of which it is outside of understanding. Baird illustrates this concept with a confusing, poorly composed diagram, but the idea is at least analogous to Steinmann’s “familiarity” of Tradition. If the implication is that Realist architectural knowledge, its discoveries and historicity are to be communicated, then they must be communicated in a formal language that is at least somewhat familiar and recognizable.
This limitation of legibility seems like a simple enough idea. Curiously I feel like it is equally necessary to state this prospect as a reverse function. It may not be that ‘Realist architecture must communicate in a familiar language.’ Steinmann’s practicality leads me to instead interpret his proposal as ‘architecture simply communicates its historicity, and we already understand it through Tradition.’ I would certainly note that there is a dualism in the scale of “tradition” that defines regional-universal scales of the Tendenza exhibit and Steinmann’s essay: “Tradition” is both a regionalist tradition of form or building as well as the universal tradition of architecture at large. Steinmann’s Realism is talking both about regionalism and the project for the future of architecture as a discipline and practice in general.
On both scales the Tradition’s subtly nudges Eisenman’s theoretical object a little out of the main stream, another pragmatic and populist move on Steinmann’s part. Eisenman’s architecture is deeply steeped in esoteric exclusivity. The Post-Functionalist syntactic architectural-theoretical object is also one that finds new meaning through self-reflection, but we could argue that the meaning it possesses is only for those capable of reading its hidden theoretical language. Its process may be legible, but only to those with certain reading skills. Steinmann’s pragmatic tone encourages me to interpret “Tradition” as a populist, limited frame of legibility. It is the same pragmatic populism that blurs the duality between regional and universal readings of this essay and that reminds us of practical and real concrete architectural production.
Hays: “It should be noted that Steinmann’s sense of architecture’s epistemological endeavor is modulated by a well-nigh manual, Brechtian practicality...This ensures a principle of play and populism in architecture’s ‘reality’ and a theoretical way of appreciating the density of genuine aesthetic gratification.” Here let me note that by “density of genuine aesthetic gratification, an appreciation that would generally characterize architectural theories of realism.”
One quick summary note about Steinmann’s realism, for the sake of reference and mnemonic shorthand: in the 11 Weeks project we’ve already covered several different proposals for the ‘architectural object’—theoretical, functional, communicative, intertextual, allusive, &c. The subtleties of Steinmann’s realism may hide critical elements of what a realistic architectural object might be. It reflects its own history and is simultaneously historical; it is the process of historical investigation; it is an object that reveals new knowledge about that history; it is familiar.