Anthony Vidler, “The Third Typology,” 1977
More history than theory, Vidler’s essay is a brilliantly accessible breakdown of architecture theory in three more or less distinct phases from 1800 to Aldo Rossi. He sketches these phases from the turn of the 19th century up to the 20th century avant-garde, then from the advent of the avant-garde up to the late modernist period, and lastly his own contemporary period. Though the titular topic is different typologies of architecture, the essay is equally about the three architectural epistemes that delineate the three periods and the typological systems built on them.
At least, that is its overt purpose. Covertly, it is a clever but effective attempt at situating the Rationalists’ obsession with the City as locus of architectural meaning within an historical context. Under these three typologies, Vidler explains, is the City acting as consistent theoretical catalyst, historically verifying the Rationalists’ dependency on the city’s form for their own “organic” typology, which affords them their ironic, layered architecture-as-social-commentary works. Above anything else, “The Third Typology” brings to mind Hays’s editorial alibi in the introduction to this anthology, when he explains that his goal was to illustrate the recurrence, permutation, and recombination of different themes over the course of the surveyed period.
Vidler’s tripartite history of architectural typology is accessible through its writing—a rare occurrence for Vidler—and for the impression that its basic structure is already familiar to us from previous readings. I find the presence of Tafuri’s own history of the 19th century, à la “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology”, particularly ironic since I seem to recollect that Aldo Rossi and the Rationalists are particularly set against Tafuri’s historical determinism. But here Vidler seems to co-opt Tafuri’s theoretical history of architectural production and commodification in a curious maneuver to validate the Rationalists’ central theoretical pillar: the City as source of architectural meaning and the method of typology.
Briefly, the three historical epistemes-typologies are as follows: the first is modeled on architecture as the primitive shelter, represented by Laugier’s primitive hut. This is predicated on the positivist belief in architecture and architectural elements having specific natures and possessing certain inalienable truths. For the primitive hut, the trees are naturally columns; the lean-to roof is essentially a pediment; &c. The next step from this is the accumulation of buildings: the City. If a building is a small stand of trees, then the city is a forest, a garden to be carefully tended. But this garden’s careful organization is only the expression of its truth: that nature is sublimely organized, its peaceful organization is its divinely true state.
More irritating that this is the subsequent evolution of typologies. If buildings represent their ‘natural origins,’ then a building represents a kind of species. In short, typology was an architectural version of Buffon and Linnaeus’s bestiaries, first based on a building’s ‘external affect,’ then on interior structures—the ‘skeleton’ of the building.
The second episteme is based on the validation of architecture as part of the world of machine production. While Vidler gives us Bentham’s Panopticon as a threshold example, he also supplies a quote from Corbusier: “The French language has provided the useful definition, thanks to the double sense of the word type. A deformation of meaning has led to the equivalence in popular language: a man = a type; (…) a man-type is a complex form of a unique physical type, to which can be applied a sufficient standardization. According to the same rules one will establish for this physical type an equipment of standard habitation: doors, windows, stairs, the heights of rooms, etc.” In short, as we already are aware, architecture was standardized for a user, which was in turn standardized for the assembling machine of architecture.
At this point old typologies and positivist structures were theoretically grafted onto the new ones in order to “stabilize, or ‘culturalize,’ the new machine world.” Therefore we get the circuitous and irritating positivist formal rationalizations of neoclassicism, which lasted until the end of WWI when the idea of architectural as literal machine assemblage overcame it in the guise of Henry Ford, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius.
With the advent of the 70s and post-modern theory, architecture and architectural elements became essentially architectural, instead of being about anything else. Architecture’s validation came from within; architecture became autonomous. This happened particularly through the medium of the city “as the site of the new typology.” That is, the city as a whole, with its past and present thoroughly intact in both a material and intellectual way, but without social ideology, without validation, without “function”—the city was embraced as a complete artifact.
The function of the city as ontological given is to preserve the historically accumulated meaning of forms, which enables the ironic, layered, and metaphorical operations of the post-modern movements. With Aldo Rossi, hero of the Italian Rationalists and apparent hero of Vidler’s third episteme, these accumulated meanings preserved/fostered by The City are geared toward a pseudo-content, social commentary kind of architecture. Vidler gives us the example of Rossi’s Trieste Admin Building, which looks both like a prison and a city hall. The “message” of the work: “the society that understands the reference to prison will still have need of the reminder, while at the very point the image finally loses al meaning, the society will either have become entirely prison, or, perhaps, its opposite.”
The irony of the Rationalists, to me, comes in their own positivism. (To refresh, Positivism, in the mid-century architecture theory context, is the belief that certain values are inherent in different styles or architectural decisions. This is apparent with, say, the work scientistic work of Price.) Vidler distinguishes his own contemporary period from the previous two by explaining that the first two are partially characterized by “positivist eschatology.” While the Rationalists may not present eschatological convictions, their deduction of typological meaning from the city’s pseudo-artifactual body of history strikes me as undeniably positivist. Explaining the Rationalists’ position, Hays’s says, “Architecture in its very autonomy thereby enables the conception of a world that may not have actually existed, but is nevertheless verifiable.” This kind of a priori bullshit is what gives theory a bad reputation, in my mind, and the ironic choreography of a movement that claims the right to make ironic use of architectural history while characterizing myself on the absence of something that is, in fact, present, is dizzying and silly. I can barely even follow that sentence.