Manfredo Tafuri, "Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology", 1969.
This post is a little longer than the average 11 Weeks post will be, but Tafuri’s narrative-as-argument is long and nuanced and I’ve tried to break it down to the barest bones so bear with me—Hays believes that architecture was “never more radically theorized than by Manfredo Tafuri”, so I figure a slightly longer review is justifiable. Essentially, this essay is the story of how architecture escaped its Romantic crises by identifying itself as a technological process and becoming synonymous with social causes, planning, building, production, and infrastructure, and how capitalism and the city were the underlying causes of this transition. The purpose of such a narrative was to explain why architecture was experiencing another crisis in the 1950s and ‘60s, and to justify Tafuri’s critique of the architectural option: to dissolve into capitalist-urban processes, or to become isolated and self-reflective.
Tafuri views all artistic and architectural evolution since the Enlightenment as a “unitary development” between bourgeois ideology (capitalism), technology, and “intellectual advances” (utopianism). He sees no distinction, in 1969, between Romantic eclecticism, turn of the century art and architectural movements, Euro modernism, international modernism, or early post-modernism, but all of them as one continuous reaction to capitalism and the city. Consequently, this is an historiographic endeavor to explain architecture’s crisis in the mid-20th century via the narrative-driven capitalistic interpretation of its history.
The primary struggles in this narrative are those between architecture and the city, utopianism (social and architectural) and capitalism, the individual (aka. the consumer, user) and technology, and between history and the present-future. There is also a recurrent diametric conflict that takes many forms—rationalism v. irrationalism, order v. chaos, Hillberseimer v. the Expressionists, Dada v. de Stijl—but is eventually and paradoxically consumed within the capitalist narrative and provides finer points in the theoretical apparatus.
Firstly, there is one single fundamental premise throughout Tafuri’s theory that cannot be avoided: the city is a “machine for producing new forms of economic accumulation.” This is an absolute truth, the quintessential urban reality for all of Tafuri’s reasoning, regardless of whatever nuances are accumulated throughout the narrative. It is also a “social machine”; the developing “institutional site of modern bourgeois society”; register of “the conflicts that witnessed the victory of technological progress”; “the specific site of technological production as a technological product itself”; and an “autonomous field of communicative experiences” (a definition included, it seems, purely for narratological fluidity on only two specific occasions). Hays explains the city as the “historical matrix” of architecture’s intellectual project, especially from the late 19th century until 1929, and as partially responsible for architecture’s multitudinous existential crises throughout the investigated time period (according to Tafuri).
Keeping in mind this framework of the city as technological and economic capitalist engine, the majority of Tafuri’s reasoning is very easy to access, even without recounting the beautiful and legion nuances and subtleties that make this essay a gorgeous reading experience. To start where Tafuri does, architecture and art suffered crises of identity, form and value specific to the rise of the industrial/technological city and theories of urban aesthetics. The practice of architecture had become focused on the organization of pre-made materials and, combined with the glorification of non-European styles, architecture suffered a “critical autopsy” of its elements and conventions. Formal thought languished and architecture continued the empty exploitation of stylistic conventions, dividing itself between scientific typologies and the ‘science of sensations” in the city, architecture parlante.” Concurrent with this split was a division over history that would recur in modern art and architecture: either to assimilate history for further developments, or to reject it and reclaim the ability to make new values.
Meanwhile social utopian ideology, a popular cause in 19th century Europe that was itself precipitated by the city’s capitalist process, was unable to overcome those same capitalist processes. (Money won out over welfare.) Curiously, the bourgeois adopted the social utopian project in a kind of sentimental way and entrusted it to Architecture in a complex transformation. Architectural ideology became the “reorganization of building production and the city as a productive organism;” its illusory project was to integrate the public into the city in a more utopian way. In 1927, the most radical proponent of this identity, Ludwig Hillberseimer, explicitly equated architectural ideology with technology. Architecture (or “architectural ideology”, from here on interchangeable) became synonymous with the technological production process; the architect became a technician, a tailor of that process. [Tafuri notes that not all architects were able to come to terms with this, and that some, like Mies, struggled between this role and the desire for a cognitive, intellectual architecture.]
This step is absolutely critical in Tafuri’s narrative between capitalism and architecture. Because of this sequence, the utopian “project to recuperate humanity” became the ‘project to integrate the public into the technological process of the city.’ Architecture as form (aka object) dissolved into architecture as process, guided by an architectural ideology that was realistically a technical and capitalist ideology masking itself as a social project. In short, architecture escaped its Romantic crises by transforming its entire identity of form and composition into a process-project that was both urban and social, thereby accepting its condition as a commodity and selling itself to the bourgeoisie.
The essence of the process was the ideology of the Plan based on the basic unit of technological production: the single unit of living. By equating architecture with the technological process, Hillberseimer unified that process with the city as a whole, now envisioned as a singular machine of continuous assembly of living unit, building, city, and infrastructure. Hays summarizes this was the “universal, systematic planification of capitalism, [concealed] behind the rhetoric of its manifestos.”
But ideology of the Plan could not overcome the European material reality of dense, preexisting urban fabrics—the very embodiment of irrationality or chaos, of the history that was to be crushed while new values were created. Instead of trying to completely rebuild cities, the ideology of the Plan channeled its goal of a unified machine into the Siedlungen—effectively isolated settlements within European cities that embodied the ordered, rational vision for an economic-technological-social utopia. But the contradiction inherent between the closed economic and social cycles of the Siedlungen and the surrounding city’s chaotic fabric was an undefeatable paradox. The Siedlungen’s inability to function on the large urban scale was hidden by its small scale and isolation. Eventually they revealed the project for architecture as urban model as assembly line was also a fundamentally utopian endeavor. The ideology of the Plan became the reality of the Plan.
[Enter the curiously placed Corbusian myth, in which Le Corbusier is the apex of the capitalist process and finally proposes the most comprehensively integrated single urban system in the city proposals he pedaled around the world (i.e. the Obus Plan, Algier, 1932-1942). Brace yourself: Tafuri claims Corb’s method was “the most realistic” of his peers, and therefore most unsuccessful. Corb’s city plans unified all urban systems into literal superblocks that are almost too unbelievable to take seriously, though there is no denying that they were at least the most literal and committed to the process of technological production. In Tafuri’s narrative, Corbusier was finally able to integrate the public, transformed into the consumer-based “User”, into the process of the city by making them capable of tailoring their own living unit and therefore partaking in the city/superblock’s assembly on a micro level, thereby resolving the “project to recuperate humanity.”]
(Now hold on, we’re wrapping this narrative up.)
However, by the time the socio-architectural ideology of the Plan became its demoralized reality, the process of architecture (simultaneously the process of technological production) was consumed by capitalism. The systems of integration between architecture, tech., assembly, urban development, commodity-consumer, production-consumption, and capitalism—all sublimated by the bourgeois social project—had become completely assumed by the capitalist process of the city. This was concurrent with the “international reorganization of capital” after the crash of 1929, and “evolving production-consumption cycles in the modern bourgeois city.” Architectural ideology was no longer needed to solve problems or take care of shit. The solution-process was naturally recurring within the capitalist system.
Consequently architecture entered a new crisis characterized by its trying to critique the processes it had put into place, by social commentary, by odd projects at communicating on the urban level. (Here I assume Tafuri is critiquing early post-modern efforts.) But these were hollow responses, unable to propose a way forward for architecture. Their inability was due to the rearguard placement of this form of architecture ideology; architecture needed to give up ideology all together. His proposal for the future of architecture was this: “to collapse into the very system that assured its demise” (Hays), or “to see architecture obliged to return to the pure architecture, to form without utopia” (Tafuri).
Tafuri’s own essay is rich with important, recurring architectural topics and a thorough discussion of modern art’s role in this narrative, which I’ve left out. For that discussion, or others—subject-object, consumerism, the psychological “shock” of the urban experience, sublimation of fiendish motives/realities by art and picturesque aesthetics, 18-19th century urbanism, de Stijl and Dada, &c.—please read the essay. It is fascinating.