Daniel Sherer*, “The Architectural Project and the Historical Project: Tensions, Analogies, Discontinuities,” Log 31, Spring-Summer 2014, p115-138.
Sherer’s discussion of digital culture takes the form of an attempt to mitigate the Architectural / Historical problematic first set up by Manfredo Tafuri, specifically in terms of contemporary architectural production. Tafuri theorized that the Architectural and Historical projects were two irrevocably separate, autonomous entities that, at best, sometimes contributed to each other. At other times Architecture is shown to have exploited the Historical project in order to justify its own ends, as was the case with Operative Criticism and is again the case with the presentism of the “digital regime.” Digitalism’s teleological lie gives Sherer the imperative to resolve the original Architectural / Historical problematic, and since the problem of architectural production is where digital technology is most integrated, it is here that Sherer finds his way.
Sherer initializes this investigation by juxtaposing the “humanist idea of architecture’s ability to resist oblivion and the ‘creative destruction’ unleashed by the current economic and ideological order.” “Oblivion,” here, is ‘History’ or the passage of historical time, and the humanist reality of this idealism is driven home by its Albertian foundation; the “current economic and ideological order” is, of course, an item for historical analysis, the object of the ‘Historical Project.’ The distinction between History and the Historical Project is critical, albeit relatively semantic, and we must understand the affect their clarity has on the problematic: one project resists the history and the other understands it.
Naturally, Tafuri first theorized this problematic—in Theories and History of Architecture (1968)—and the projects’ reciprocating operations, which is summarized by Sherer, who wrote the preface to Tafuri’s Interpreting the Renaissance: “If architecture, in searching for the definitive solution to the challenges it confronts, realizes one possibility among the many, history places architecture before an open field both of possibilities and constraints, exposing the most stable plans to unforeseen forces that invariably disrupt them.” So not only does architecture attempt to resist and resolve problems against historical time, but the Historical Project reveals the futility of that operation, explaining the ‘inevitable competition’ Tafuri sees between these two projects.
In the case of Operative Criticism, however, we see Architecture exploiting History (the body of the past) in order to justify specific agendas. This exploitation is historiographic in nature and began with Tafuri’s rejection of the Hegelian construct of history as continuous progress, culminating in a present that is the inevitable and exultant product of the past. (The application of Hegel’s ideals to architecture occurred in the work of Benedetto Croce, and Tafuri’s criticism is analogous to the criticism of ‘narrative’ as idealized structure.) “This is the teleological construction of history, which presupposes the spurious claim that certain paths of historical development are inevitable and bound to happen;” otherwise called “presentism,” generally a construct also featuring the “zeitgeist” argument “that a particular tendency of form, program, or technology carries the key to the present and the future.”
As examples of Op-Crit, we are given Bruno Zevi and Peter Eisenman—the latter’s presentism being already familiar to us from his essays in the Hays anthology (1, 2), particularly the 1984 essay “The End of the Classical.” What is fundamentally critical to understand about presentism is that it is a strategy to dominate the present as much as the future—fully elucidating the phrase “teleological center,” which situates the now as progressive inevitability of the past, and the future as an inevitable or predetermined, eternal utopia proceeding from the now.
(For the sake of reference: Sherer acknowledges that the knowledge gained from an exclusively architectural analysis of history is certainly valuable, but because of its potential operativity is also questionable compared to purely historical “truth.”)
The problematic resurfaces in the “digital regime’s” exploitation of the same historiographic strategy: the presentation of digital technology as progressive culmination, thereby validating its dominion over architectural production and, more importantly, monopolizing the future of that production. This is an argument we are casually familiar with a this point in the 21st century, one vociferously advocated by avowed Hegelian Patrik Schumacher—who loves the zeitgeist model as much as he loves parametricism. However, the rise of the digital regime’s presentism risks the window for architecture’s viable evolution into the future.
Sherer uses a different historiographic model to explain the evolution of Architecture, one he calls the “Horizon of the Exception,” in which truly exceptional works are departures from the expected in terms of architectural production and therefore function as heuristic departures that pique formal evolution. Digital computation, however, is characteristically good at formal prediction, and its posturing as teleological center risks the reduction of the horizon of the exception by falsifying the realm of the unexpected. Thus digitalism, in an effort to monopolize the future of architectural production, risks viable evolutionary instigators by excluding them from the narrative of (digital) progress.
Ultimately, this is why Sherer returns to Tafuri’s original Architectural / Historical problematic. In Tafuri’s characteristic “dialectical historiography,” the “now” is usually in crisis at an irresolvable impasse between a dialectic. Consequently, there is a constant feeling of both pessimism and (panicked) urgency. Sherer recognizes the resurrection of the problematic in digital culture’s presentism, but he also sees the need to resolve the problematic made imperative by the “teleological reduction” of the “Horizon of the Exception,” and therefore the risk posed to architecture’s future. In a future where the problematic is not resolved—if I may project—architecture, dominated by the digital regime, would continue to produce weak, empty, identical, and predictable objects, elbowing out of the mainstream other means of architectural production, and ultimately precipitate a significant crisis in the future not wholly unlike the crisis faced by late modernism/the international style.
Sherer uses this opportunity to reinvestigate his own definition of the “Exception” by a means other than computational magic. In the work of Preston Scott Cohen, Sherer finds exceptional pieces break from the expected through Cohen’s mastery of technology as a technique. Once the “Exception” is defined by skill rather than a specific tool—as it has been in the last, say, 15 years in the case of digital computation—then technology joins drawing and model making in the toolbox of architectural production. Likewise, Sherer places the history of architecture—the body of architectural work, types, schemes, &c.—on the same level, presenting various works where historical schemata are joined with model making, sketches, and digital computation to produce exceptional pieces of architecture.
From this, Sherer is finally able to mitigate the original problematic, finding the operations of this brand of architecture as complementary to the historical project. By nullifying the presentism of the digital regime, the history of architecture is returned to a status of valuable, rich, heuristic examples—no longer rejected as less-evolved objects within the history of progress. If the historical project’s goal is to further awareness and understanding of the various intersections of the past and present, then that goal is shared by the post-presentist, technique-defined method of architectural production outlined by Sherer and championed by Cohen. This mentality is necessarily accompanied by an understanding of architecture not as ideal humanist object made to resist historical time by perfectly resolving the problems of the present, but as a working commentary on a variety of historical and present intersections.
In the way of personal commentary on Sherer’s essay, there are only two additional specific notes. Firstly, I think it significant to briefly comment on certain implications about the discipline that follow from Sherer’s investigation. For Sherer, digital technology is a specific dimension of architecture, but one that routinely forgets it is not Architecture as a whole. This is the fundamental reality behind the definition of the digital “regime”—that Architecture (not the Architectural Project but Architecture itself, proper) is an allographic thing beyond any single means. “[Digital technology] is by no means an integral aspect of architecture’s aesthetic specificity, its definition as an art. Only formal, spatial, structural and tectonic ideas and their interrelations are integral aspects of that specificity: the medium, whether digital or analog, is not…[One] cannot plausibly maintain that digital codes of representation…are essential to architecture or inherent to its internal logic.” (p126)
Secondly, I wonder if it is possible to engage the zeitgeist mentality without the teleological baggage explained as intrinsic by both Sherer and Eisenman. Is there a margin to use the idea of zeitgeist as one particular element of many contributing to disciplinary evolution, one that is not necessarily deterministic but that is instead reactive, a kind of localized historical inevitability? Sherer himself evokes Foucault’s historical structures of long and short time frames, and I wonder if the zeitgeist might not be usefully deployed to explain transitions between “histoire évenémentielle.”
*Sherer teaches arch. history and theory at Yale and Columbia.