The tasks of criticism

Manfredo Tafuri on
architecture criticism

Image: Still from Marcel L’Herbier’s
silent film classic L’Inhumaine (1924)


This post follows up on the recent series that gave advice to critics and sketched out criticism after utopian politics. Since these were more or less confined to art criticism, and did not cover the peculiar situation of architecture critics and historians, I’m posting Manfredo Tafuri’s excellent 1967 essay “The Tasks of Criticism.”

The tasks of criticism

Manfredo Tafuri

In trying to clarify the function of some instruments of critical and historiographical analysis, we have intentionally avoided the problem of outlining a theory of architectural syntax and grammar. In defining the architectural codes as a bundle of relationships linking a complex series of “systems,” we were attempting to stress something that seems to us typical of architecture as compared with other means of visual communication: the fact, that is, that the typologies, the techniques, the production relations, the relations with nature and with the city, can in the architectural context, assume symbolic dimensions, charge themselves with meaning and force the limits within which every one of these components plays its own role in the historical context.

Clearly, then, architectural language is polysemic: and not only as an analogy with painting, but in the specific sense. When EI Lissitzky on the one hand and Van Doesburg on the other theorized the experimental function of the new linguistic systems within the field of art, and established the constructive use in industrial production as the specific task of visual art, they had very much in mind the close link between artistic communications, the new methods of production, and the new systems of reception of the communications themselves.

The only way to describe the structures of architectural language seems to be through historical synthesis. All the naïve attempts to single out a component from the complex heap of architecture and elect it as a parameter of architectural language, are bound to fail before the impossibility of outlining a complete history of architecture in this way. Neither the functions nor the space of the tectonic elements can beat the base of a semiological analysis of planning. In the very moment in which we stress the term project in order to designate architecture, it becomes clear that, each time, we should evaluate which new materials have become part of the universe of discourse of architecture itself, what are the new relations between the traditional materials, and which of these materials has a prominent role.

A younger Manfredo Tafuri, before the beard

A younger Manfredo Tafuri, early 1960s, before the beard

One cannot evaluate Laon Cathedral, the Pazzi Chapel, and Berlin’s Siemensstadt within the same linguistic parameters: if one chose purely formal criteria, the symbolic dimension of the first two works would escape completely, while one would miss the intimate contradiction of the third; if one chose the traditional iconological method, one would have to remain mute before Berlin’s Siedlungen; and if one were to trust the analysis of space, one would find no terms of comparison between the spatial narrative of the first, the anti-narrative rigor of the second and the leaving behind of the concept of “space” itself on the part of the third.

The language of architecture is formed, defined and left behind in history, together with the very idea of architecture. In this sense the establishment of a “general grammar” of architecture is a utopia. Continue reading

The Lenin All-Union Electro-technical Institute in Moscow, 1927-1929

Lenin All-Union Electro-technical Institute
A. Kuznetsov, V. Movchan, G. Movchan, and L. Meil’man
Moscow, USSR (1927-1929)

Всесоюзный электротехнический институт им. В. И. Ленина
А. Кузнецов, В. Мовчан, Г. Мовчан, Л. Мейльман
Москва, СССР (1927-1929)