Architecture and Nihilism:
On the Philosophy of
The limit of the space of this house 1 is constructed inexorably from within — from the very substance of its own language. The negative is not an other, but comprises the very othernesses that make up this language. There are no means of escape or “withdrawal” into the “values” of the interior. And the exterior is not designed in a utopian way, taking off from the value of Gestaltung — nor is it possible to save in the interior values that the metropolitan context negates. The work recalls neither Hoffmann, nor Wagner — nor even Loos and his “suspended dialectics” of interior-exterior. The idea of a hierarchically defined conflict between two levels of value is totally absent here. The conflict is with “all that remains,” which cannot be determined or transformed by the limits of this language; hence, it is a conflict with the Metropolis lying beyond this space, a conflict which in this space can only be silence. But, for this very reason, this space ultimately reveals a recognition of the Metropolis as now devoid of mystification or utopism, an acknowledgment of all its power.
In all this lies the truly classical dimension of the Wittgenstein house: the non-expressivity of the calculated space of the building is its essential substance.2 The building’s sole relation with what remains is the presence of the building itself. It cannot in any way determine or allude to the apeiron (infinite) surrounding it. Also classical is the calculation to which every passage is rigorously subjected, as well as the freezing of the linguistic media into radically anti-expressive orders, a phenomenon taken to the point of a manifest indifference toward the material (or rather, to the point of choosing indifference in the material, of choosing indifferent materials, materials without qualities) — but what is most classical here is the relation between the limited-whole of the house and the surrounding space.
The silence of the house, its impenetrability and anti-expressivity, is concretized in the ineffability of the surrounding space. So it is with the classical: classical architecture is a symbol (in the etymological sense) of the in-finite (a-peiron) that surrounds it. Its anti-expressivity is a symbol of the ineffability of the a-peiron. The abstract absoluteness of its order exalts the limit of the architectonic language; its non-power expresses the encompassing infinite. But at the same time, and as a result, this language constructs itself in the presence of this infinite, and cannot be understood except in light of this infinite. This presence of the classical in Wittgenstein represents one of the exceptional moments in which the development of modern ideology reassumed the true problematics of the classical. Webern would conclude his life’s work with this presence, linking himself with the first, lacerating modern perception of the classical — an anti-Weimarian, anti-historicist, tragic vision: that of Hölderlin.3 At this point the immeasurable distance separating Wittgenstein’s classical from Olbrich’s later works and from Hoffmann’s constant tendency is clear. Olbrich’s “classical” is a transformation of the Secession mask into that of a reacquired order, a recuperated wholeness. Hoffmann’s “classical” is an affirmation (or rather, an ever-contradicted, ever-disputed repetition) of the historicist dimension illuminated by a Weimarian nostalgia. But even Loos’s notion of the Roman, as we have seen, is completely averse to any simple idea of recuperation or neo-classical refoundation, or even mere Gemeinschaft. And yet, not even a trace of this Roman element can be found in Wittgenstein’s oikos.
The “Roman” is seen by Loos in terms of functionality and use. Its dimension is that of experience, of the temporal — and hence of social existence. Every project lives immersed in this general historical context: the light that brings it forth is that of time. In this way were the Romans able to adopt from the Greeks every order, every style: it was all the same to them. What was essential was the light that brought forth the building — and not just the building, but the life of the entire society. Their only problems were the great problems of planning. “Ever since humanity has understood the grandeur of classical antiquity, one single thought has united all great architects. They think: I shall build just as the ancient Romans would have built…every time architecture strays from its model to go with the minor figures, the decorativists, there reappears the great architect who leads the art back to antiquity.”4 From the Romans, says Loos, we have derived the technique of thought, our power to transform it into a process of rationalization. We conceive of the world technically and temporally, just as it unfolds in the ribbon of Trajan’s Column; we conceive of the Denkmal as a civil project — as architecture from the point of view of those who live it and reap its benefits. Continue reading