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. What one can do is recognize and describe syntaxes and “codes” that are historically defined, useful as “ideal types” in historiographical analysis. Already criticism can derive a few specific tasks from what we have just said. If, having been forced to admit that, in the course of history, it is the roles attributed to planning that change radically, one then, in order to simplify, wants to keep alive a unitary concept of architecture, this can only be defined empirically, being very careful not to take this convenient simplification as a “category.” Strictly speaking, between a Roman Triumphal Arch and a project for urban renewal, the gap is so great as to make one doubt the functionality of a history that would embrace both in the same linear series of phenomena. Nor can one project onto the past the parameters and interpretative codes typical of the Modern Movement. One can always read the Domus Augustana as an element of landscape planning or the Via Sacra as a series of architectural objets trouvés: but then one has to keep in mind what makes these readings possible (that is, the lack of adequate architectural studies on Antiquity and the “semi­-natural” state proper to the ruin) and their limited functionality (didactic, operative, etc.).

Beyond all this, the task of history is the recovery, as far as possible, of the original functions and ideologies that, in the course of time, define and delimit the role and meaning of architecture. That this recovery is always subjective does not constitute a real problem. We have quoted on this point Weber’s propositions on the problem of objectivity in historical evaluation, and, anyway, contemporary criticism has long since worked out parameters able to set up a productive dialectic between the work and its analyst. One could say, in fact, that the critic, in making historical the meaning of an architecture or a cycle of works, finds an operative field in the activity of composition, description, comparison, and recomposition of the “materials” that make up architecture itself in a new order, in all the bundles of relationships that join it together. By showing the “pieces” of that organic whole which is architecture, the historian can reveal the multiple meanings and contradictions hidden ­by definition, we are tempted to say — behind the apparent organicity with which architecture presents itself.

Finding the source of the crisis of Humanist naturalism in, on the one hand, Brunelleschi’s spatial tensions and, on the other, in the early Giuliano da Sangallo’s orthodoxy; seeing in the misunderstanding of Classicism in the Middle-European countries a “historical” revenge carried out by “popular,” empirical, and “anti-Roman” cultures; identifying in the manifold ways followed by the avant-gardes of our century the contradictions that today shake architectural culture in a macroscopic way and expose the origins of the shortcomings of modern urbanistics; these are all examples of how, by recovering philologically the events of the past, it is possible to propose new questions to the present. New questions, we repeat, not new solutions. History cannot offer solutions (or, if you prefer, can no longer offer solutions).

It is not from the historical context that the present tasks are born. (It is not up to the historian to take on the job of sanctifying the historical continuity of the discipline.) Rather the dissection carried out on the body of history must precisely “place” the problems debated at present, recognize their ambiguity, values and mystifications, offer the architect an endless vista of new and unsolved problems, available for conscious choice and freed from the weight of myth. In other words the historian accentuates the contradictions of history and offers them crudely, in their reality, to those whose responsibility it is to create new formal worlds. But at the same time history and criticism set a limit to ambiguity in architecture. By leading the works back into more general contexts, and in the very moment that it hypothesizes an historical role for them, criticism delimits a field of values within which it is possible to attribute unequivocal meanings to architecture. In this way architecture’s availability to a completely “open” reading and use is reduced, restricted, circumscribed within the limits of recognizable meanings. But in this activity criticism must be aware of the artificiality of its own operations: it must be prepared to reveal the instrumentality of its own attributions of meaning.

Paul Citroen's Metropolis 1923

Paul Citroen’s Metropolis (1923)

From this point of view the “truth” of criticism is in its functionality. One can accept or reject a certain chain of historical facts only after having put the questions: what does it tell us about the hidden reasons determining architectural choices, and what present contradiction does it bring to light? Does that historiographic hypothesis manage to pose new positive doubts or is it not rather superfluous, consolatory or taken for granted? And in its probing into the structures of the phenomena does it take into account from the beginning the subjective deformations of the critic? Identifying criticism with history means, in fact, accepting the continuous co-presence of the unsolved problems of history.

The question marks left pending by the late Antique architectural experimentalism, the paradoxical fragmentation of structural organicity by paleo-Christian architectural experiences, the dilution of Gothic Rationalism into an unreal assemblage of “things,” the failure of Classicism, the crisis of Illuminist ideologies, the ambiguous relation between art and revolution set by twentieth-century avant-gardes are not themes exhausted and resolved in their historical developments: they are, on the contrary, problems still open, urgently in need of a solution, that have to be considered by those who operate in the present as perennially open “questions.”

It may seem paradoxical to ask an architect to consider at one time, in his planning, Brunelleschi’s utopianism and Gaudí’s ambiguity. But the paradox presented today by history is just such a request, for an all­ embracing attitude as the only guarantee of relative validity.

It is of little importance that the architects of the seventies are far more willing to snobbishly “partialize” the sphere of their historical interests immediately frozen within the narrow rails of a perspective that claims to be “critical,” but is, in fact, only mystifying.

It is the historian who must kill the “instrumentality” of history. The independence of the “values” from any institutionalized historicism that was discovered by the historical avant-gardes, still applies today. Today, too, we are obliged to see history not as a great tank of codified values, but as an enormous collection of utopias, failures and betrayals. Today, too, hope for a new world rests on faith in violent fractures, the jump into the dark, the adventure accepted without reserves: if this were not the case we should resign ourselves to seeing our capacity for action and understanding slumber in the evasive celebration of the past.

But, and this is more important and serious, today we are also compelled to feel “betrayed” by history. The “betrayal” today is felt as a consequence of contradictions within the very tradition with which we cannot help but identify. The success of all the poetics of ambiguity, in architecture as well as in urban design, is due, in fact, to the following reason: those who propose ambiguity, complexity and contradiction as communicative and formative materials of architectural and urban experience, know they are employing real conditions, know that they are making explicit something felt, more or less confusedly, by everyone. In a certain sense, history has a tendency to become ambiguous. Offering no certainties, history seems to offer itself as a mere collection of facts and things that wait to be given a meaning, in their turn, by each successive planning choice. It is not history, any more, that offers the architect a horizon of stability and values. It is, rather, architecture that, in its making, in its changing, in its attempt to recreate from nothing its own purpose and values, gives a constant metamorphosis of meanings to history.

Georges Grosz's Grosstadt (1917)

Georges Grosz’s Grossstadt (1917)

The somewhat hidden — and perhaps not completely conscious — objective of Kahn, Rudolph, and, even, the later work of Wright, was to establish through planning the values of the past: to weed out from the shapeless heap of pure “signs” still called “history” everything that is not, somehow, related to the hic et nunc of every single work, and to include in it, as values, those other “signs” that can, somehow, justify its existence.

In this way to the relative availability of architecture one adds the absolute availability of history. Provided that, in the very moment in which the more divided architects decide to find some terms of super­historical relationship with the past, as a compensation for the fall of their ideal tensions, the to and fro play between the ambiguity of history and the ambiguity of architecture closes itself in a circle with rather fragile boundaries. The relationship turns into baby-talk, mysterious silences, a whirl of banalities à la Ionesco, into winks meant to be light-hearted but revealing tragedy in all their haunting emptiness. Given this situation, let us try to re-state our initial proposition: criticism sets limitations to the ambiguity of architecture.

This means that the historian has to oppose the “camouflaged anti­-historicism” of present architecture. By writing past events into a field of meanings, the historian gives sense to the ambiguity of history: from abstract and completely available the ambiguity is rendered concrete and instrumentalizable. He will refuse to read in late-Antique architecture the premises of Kahn or Wright, in Mannerism those of Expressionism or of the present moment, in the pre-historical remains the premises of organicism and of some abstract experiences. And this refusal is a precise contestation of the mythologies of the pseudo-avant-gardes. There is in fact only one way of uncovering the ideologies of renunciation hidden behind the rejection of history, the exaltation of the pure event and the illusory objective of the permanent revolution of language. Rejecting history means, today, giving oneself up to the most vulgar and, at the same time, the most subtle mystifications. It is myth that takes the place of history. One has to choose between being aware of one’s actions and capitulating before heterodirected stimuli.

Equally, to think of being able to act solely on the plane of language, with the illusion of continuing, in this way, along the way opened by the historical avant-gardes, conceals new mythologies. The very character of complex structure that, we have seen, is typical of architecture, prevents a radical renewal derived from acting on only one of its component systems. The reality of production and technology in which we find ourselves has not left behind the great problems relating to the “technical reproducibility” of the work of art, to the crisis of the object and to the “fall of the aura.” What is new is the awareness of the links between instruments of communication and collective behaviors, that has come into being with the sophistication, rapid renewal and extension of the mass media.

The way, for architecture, is not then the retreat into the silent night of pure form, relating only to itself, nor that of charging itself with allusive representations and showing with guilty blindness an utter alienation mistaken for independence. Reference to the specificity of the basic problems of architectural discipline will be useful only if it is then able to invest the global nature of the planning process, precisely identifying the margins of meaning of the discourse on language.

At this point a history able to unearth the intrinsic possibilities of the instruments employed by the architect becomes indispensable. Much more so if we realize that, after the “great crisis” of the thirties all the “projected hopes” of the avant-gardes reveal only their ineffectuality. To ignore either the limitations of the possibilities of communication or the new horizons opened by the means available to architecture leads to a clearly evasive attitude. Walter Benjamin’s analyses of the semantic, operative, mental and behaviorist consequences of modern technology remain an isolated case in the history of contemporary criticism (and we suspect that it is not by chance). The misunderstandings that have dominated architectural culture from 1945 onwards derive in great part from the interruption of Benjamin’s analyses: analyses, we must stress, authentically structural, beyond any evasive or fashionable meaning of the term or of the concept [i.e., as in “structuralism”].

Louis Kahn at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (1972), photo © Robert Wharton

Louis Kahn at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth,
Texas (1972), photo © Robert Wharton

The historicization of structuralism has, therefore, the following meaning for us: the exact and objective identification of the mechanism, the communicative potential, the mystifications and values of the context in which the act of planning is placed.

This implies giving up the attempt to work out new solutions beforehand, in history and criticism. As instrument of planning history is sterile, it can only offer solutions and indications already taken for granted. A new solution implies, on the other hand, a jump, a radical re­shuffle of the data in the problem, a risky adventure.

History can only prepare the bases for this adventure and explain why it is not feasible today. By rigorously identifying the structures of the real conditions along the entire range of their problematic, it can throw light on the terms of the contradictions in which daily behavior is entangled. We need, then, to give up simplifying history, and to accept its internal contradictions and its plurality, stressing its dialectical sides, and exalting it for what it really is.

What is certain is that a history of this kind would reject any type of instrumentalization. Not because the instrumentalization of history is wrong, but because our goals are different, they aim at another type of “productivity,” they want to enter the architectural operation in a mediated and indirect way, suggesting a multiplication of the problems rather than solutions to the existing ones.

One could object that to try to act indirectly on such a wobbly and complex cultural world as the architectural world implies a desperate enterprise, whose productivity and incidence, furthermore, elude concrete examination. Of course the historian following this path will have to face the danger of the isolation of the praxis, but he will be comforted by many signs, first of all by the renewed interest of the younger generations for a historiographical method that is intimately dialectic and, at the same time, analytical.

Rather than turning to the past as a sort of fertile ground, rich in abandoned mines to be successively rediscovered finding in them anticipations of modern problems, or as a slightly hermetic maze good for amusing trips leading to a more or less miraculous catch, we must get used to seeing history as a continuous contestation of the present, even as a threat, if you like, to the tranquilizing myths wherein the anxieties and doubts of modern architects find peace. A contestation of the present: but also a contestation of the values accrued by the “tradition of the new” [Harold Rosenberg].

In fact it is no longer possible to make history by posing as the Vestal of the Modern Movement. Those who, realizing the waste of the values accumulated by the heroes of our century’s artistic revolution root themselves in neo-Constructivist, neo-De Stijl, neo-organic and neo­-avant-gardist positions, have all our admiration for the generosity and courage they have shown by disdainfully withdrawing from the chaos of frustrated intentions and false prophecies crowding the present landscape, but must also agree — as bravely — to take on, their choice whole­ heartedly. This is no longer the choice of the revolutionary, but that of the conservative even if it is a conservative who wishes to recreate the ethical and subversive élan of the heroic age of the Modern Movement.

As the main dangers are skepticism, lack of confidence, tiredness, evasion into passive or playful activity, we would always value the position of the Vestal more highly than that of the many mystifiers and smugglers of false innovations who daily exhibit a verbal libido that verges on the pathological. And it is for this very reason that, having discarded the way of uncontrolled prophecies and of end-in-itself coherence of the conservatives of the Modern Movement, our renewed appeal to history may, perhaps, help to reconnect the threads of such a discourse as the one on modern architecture, that is too complex to be artificially simplified.

In a certain sense this type of historiographical criticism is waiting to be contested and left behind by historical reality. Since it places present praxis before its objective responsibilities historical reality cannot help judging, after the systems of values have been identified, that the various contrasting tendencies refer to the concrete response of the adopted instruments to the intended goals. But it must also be ready to take as a real datum the contradiction of history and its sudden jumps towards the unforeseen.

Frederick Kiesler's City in Space (1925)

Frederick Kiesler’s City in Space (1925)

To be as historians and critics against indicating, prophesying, forecasting these jumps towards the future, does not imply a disbelief in them. On the contrary, it is just because one has faith in the positiveness and possibility of revolutions, that one can and must prepare a solid platform for those who intend to oppose the stability of values. But the distinction between the activity of demystification and the activity of planning must be kept at all costs, even if the price may seem too heavy for those critics that persuade themselves they are able to plan with the pen rather than with the drawing board.

At the same time the de-mythicization carried out by criticism has two, complementary, effects: (a) by breaking the link between architectural language and the ideologies underlying it, it appeals to the responsibility of the planner, asking him to make conscious, analytical, and verifiable choices; taking him away, in fact, from the automatism into which the architect inevitably slides when he tries to shorten his approach to the form; (b) it stresses, exasperates, takes to an extreme, the consumption of the thematics, methods, and languages: and, as consumption as such is one of the emblems of contemporary art (nor does architecture seem to escape its laws), this exasperation introduced by criticism reveals, at the same time, both the transience and the tragic quality of the present condition. In other words, criticism, by pushing away the temptation to become an explanatory note, a literary translation, a disinterested analysis or the depositary of prophetic perspectives, takes on the role of litmus paper checking architecture’s historical validity. Today, solely because of the objective absurdity of the architect’s present condition this check may seem to imply a continuous and often cruel inquiry.

Bound to “build” — because by definition the architect cannot just give voice to his protest, dissent, or nausea — but with no trust in the structures that condition their planning, in the society that will use their architecture, in the independence of their specific instruments, those architects who are more aware find themselves in an ambiguous, contorted, almost ridiculous situation. If they try to follow their (rare) eversive impulses through to the end they are shocked at having to decree, as the only possibilities, either the death of architecture or refuge in utopia. If they take the road to self-critical experimentalism, they are bound, in the best of cases, to produce pathetic “monuments,” isolated and extraneous to the dynamic of urban reality. More often they accumulate blueprints and plastic models in their ineffectual studios. In this situation, criticism continually risks becoming an instrument of falsity, opium guiltily supplied, superfluous and ornamental rhetoric.

It would be useless and wrong to judge the uneasy contortions and sophisticated balancing tricks of present-day architecture as if we faced a “normal” situation. It would be useless and even more wrong to take into consideration (and, moreover, in abstract and obscure language) the absurdities that appear in relentless succession on the pages of magazines and in the production of architectural “academies,” ignoring the tragic quality of this evidence of anxiety and unease. For since this anxiety and unease can only be partially justified through the specific analysis of architecture, and is linked to the embarrassment felt by the intellectual, impotent but conscious clown before the dynamic of capitalist development, criticism has a duty to increase the unease, to make precise and operative the “dissent” of the architect, to exasperate his objective situation.

So by contesting present-day architecture, taking it back to a historicity that would increase rather than reduce the problematics, continually forcing into crisis the apparently advanced objectives on which research and debate seem about to die down, the critic must present — with a rigor made necessary by the historical events with which he is involved — the exact picture of an absurd but real situation, more and more stimulating conscious doubts, constructive dissent, and general uneasiness.

If structural analysis can manage to carry out such a task, the demystification operated by criticism will have formidable theoretical and technical support. But if it were to resolve itself in an ahistorical exercise, we could no longer go on speaking of “criticism.”

Nor can one say that the aims outlined above reduce criticism to terrorist and nihilist activity. Sartre stated that the task of literature is to “call to freedom by exhibiting one’s own freedom.” If, today, architecture is not able to call anyone to freedom, if its own freedom is illusory, if all its petitions sink in a quagmire of “images” at best amusing, there is no reason why one should not take up a position of determined contestation towards architecture itself, as well as towards the general context that conditions its existence.

Scene from Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade (1966)

Scene from Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade (1966)

In that case historical activity, totally indifferent to positive action, becomes “criticism of architectural ideologies” and, as such, “political” activity — even if indirectly political. It must then be recognized, by those who intend to force the institutional role given to intellectuals from Illuminism onwards, that to find out what architecture is, as a discipline historically conditioned and institutionally functional to, first, the “progress” of the precapitalist bourgeoisie and, later, to the new perspectives of capitalist “Zivilisation,” is the only purpose with any historical sense.

It is not at all certain that, by placing historical demythicization in opposition to the myth of anti-history, criticism can solve this fundamental aporia of our century: on the contrary, it can be demonstrated that an abstract historicization of planning leads directly to sudden stops and contradictions that are, to say the least, dispersive. Once again we must be able to accept reality and debate in dialectical terms. On the other hand, it is really illusory and completely unjustifiable to pretend somehow to “dominate” such a transient and fragmented cultural situation as the present one. Just as contradictions now have their own autonomous reality, criticism must be able to recognize its particular and limited (but indispensable) role within their context.

In this sense we can borrow the statement that [Peter] Weiss puts in the mouth of the “divine marquis” at the end of Marat-Sade:

in these dialogues we had the intention
to put a few antitheses in question
and make them clash
so that
the doubts might clear;

nor does it matter that the critic must then — like Weiss’ Sade — declare that in the present situation he is obliged to “despair of finding the solution.”

Solutions are not to be found in history. But one can always diagnose that the only possible way is the exasperation of the antitheses, the frontal clash of the positions, and the accentuation of contradictions. And this not for a particular form of sado-masochism, but in the hypothesis of a radical change that will leave behind both the anguished present situation and the temporary tasks we have tried to make clear to ourselves in this volume [Theories and History of Architecture].

5 thoughts on “The tasks of criticism

  1. Paul Citroen’s name is not spelled like the French car brand.
    He was of Dutch decent and his name means ‘lemon’ in Dutch, it’s just “Paul Citroen”. This knowledge in turn makes the name of the car brand a funny multilingual joke, I guess.

  2. Pingback: Criticalifragilistic* | misfits' architecture

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