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.
This point of view, then, is the true a-peiron surrounding the Roman project. Its context is that of the res publica. It lives in time, in the flux of its own consumption. Wittgenstein’s oikos is opposed to this Roman conception of the classical. Being inhabited, being seen is unimportant to the space of the oikos. It presents itself as apart from the existence of him who perceives it; for this reason, the movements of the subjects who benefit from it leave no trace. For it to present itself, all that is necessary is the postulation of its own limit and hence of the absolutely ineffable a-peiron that illuminates it. “The house thinks of the present,” says Loos; “the house is conservative,” and its interior functions only towards the gratification of its inhabitants: “the house must please everyone.”5
In stripping the house of all values, Wittgenstein by contrast abstracts it from all teleological considerations. His project is posited and resolved like a theorem. And a theorem is infinitely repeatable, infinitely extraneous to all value — but also infinitely unicum, not variable, not mobile, not subject to lived experience. The oikos is not there to please; the exterior is not supposed to allude to anyone “buried” there; it thinks neither of the present, nor of the future. It ex-sists in the present of the ineffable and its light. Its formal perfection is the sequentiality of the theorem; it is indifference towards style, material, ornament — it is the tragic perfection of its limit. This is classical dialectics. Nothing here could be farther from Loos’s late-Roman vision of the classical.
Hence, it is clear why, in the regressive atmosphere of the postwar period in which he was elaborating his argument, Loos might want to realign himself with the classical-Greek as he understood it. For Loos, Greekness is preeminently the order of the monument, the Denkmal, the order of an artistry distinct in terms of value from the production-circulation of use values, and opposed to the life of the Metropolis. His project for a new office building of the Chicago Tribune (1922) bears witness to this anything but ironic reversal:
As a paradoxical phantom of an ordering outside of time, Loos’s column assumes gigantic proportions in an ultimate effort to communicate an appeal to the timelessness of values: but, just like Kandinsky’s giants in Das gelbe Klange, the gigantic Loosian phantom succeeds in signifying only its own pathetic will to exist. Pathetic because declared in the face of the Metropolis, in the face of the very universe of change, of the eclipse of values, of the “decline of aura,” that negates the actuality of this column and this will, to communicate absolute significations.6
When he wants to exalt, in terms of value, his own difference from the Metropolis, Loos can only return to the pure Greek order — positing it as an overcoming, as a great end, as the architecture without qualities of the lower part, the base of the skyscraper. But this is precisely the opposite of the classical characteristic of Wittgenstein’s oikos, which is a negation of all “universal aura,” of all reactualization of values, of all declarations to the Metropolis. Which brings us back to its difference from Loos’ “Roman” notion.
Loos’s “Roman” can work, can exist in the concrete functions of architecture. Wittgenstein’s oikos, precisely in its singularity, manifests an infinite distance from the source, and a total refusal to reactualize it. Wittgenstein’s classical does not present itself as silence: it is totally uninhabited. The presence of the classical, the light of the a-peiron and the building that it encompasses and reveals, here reappear as silence, as absence. The Roman of Loos, on the other hand, functions as a possible direction that the project’s discourse can take. No such indication emerges from Wittgenstein’s oikos. Its radicality is totally negative — even with respect to the doctrine of the Tractatus, the semantic possibility described therein. What reappears here from this work, if anything, are the aporiae of its final pages. But this negative is the measure of the Loosian compromise, the real parameter of its “medianness,” and at the same time exposes its interior mechanism, its hidden and, in many ways, removed side. In a certain sense, in spite of the profound difference between the two attitudes and the two projects, the Wittgenstein house is the “truth” of Loosian research. Once grasped, this truth cannot be repeated — such would be ornament, confusion — just as in Webern a sound cannot be repeated before the full exposition of the series.
But as we have seen, the concrete method of Loos’s research remains in conflict, up to the end and in spite of everything, with the radicality of Wittgenstein’s solution. Never will the “Roman” be a complete synthesis, a real, universal technique of thought, a real society. In this sense, Loos’ utopia will always remain akin to the neo-positivistic utopia. And this utopia will always be expressed through its lacerating conflicts. Hence it is not the “Roman,” the idea of the Roman, but these conflicts that constitute the ever-present problem and the true sense of Loosian composition.
Because of its problematic character-as well as its actual contents, which we have already examined — Loos’ “Roman” can be seen as closely connected to the research of the Viennese school of art history, and to that of Franz Wickhoff and Alois Riegl in particular.7 This research was directed at confirming that Roman art had little to do with the historicist-Weimarian conception of the classical as universal; this conclusion was based on the emphasis of the temporal dimension, of the lived experience, in such art. This emphasis directly posed the problem of the subject as producer, and that of the specific forms that this productivity assumed in overcoming the conception of the classical as a totality of archetypal forms, as pure art. The temporality of the “Roman” posed the problem of the specific Zeitgeist of the artistic act, its process and the forms of its production and circulation-communication. The “social character” of the Roman placed the focus on the artistic act’s forms of existence. And these are the same factors on which Loos based his own conception of the “Roman.”
But the fundamental feature of Roman artistic form — or rather, the reason for its modern-day re-emergence as a problematic — lies in the functional diversity of its constitutive elements and levels. This form is not the end-all and be-all of the Weimarian neo-classical tradition, but the comprehensive representation of this problem, as it first arises, as it develops, as one attempts to resolve it, and as it gives way to partial answers. The very temporal dimension to which this representation inevitably belongs leads to such a result: representation is process, becoming, event; an analysis of it should shed light on the plurality of aspects of which it is made up — as well as on the inevitable relativity of all possible results, since they too are subject to time, are themselves time. The relativity of the temporal process is itself the ephemerality of each result registered at each moment. This dialectic appears in the composition itself: indeed, it represents the meaning of composition. Nothing can work for the eternal.
However, this combination of relations — the temporality and relativity of the process, the ephemerality of the formal results, and the representation — is not simply “resigned” to this state of affairs, it is not at home in its immediate negative. It is conflictual, contradictory — and openly manifests these lacerations. The subject who lives and works in time wants nevertheless to achieve the perfect work, in spite of the fact that its representation must unfold through the temporality of the materials, the functions and the goals of the work. The subject shapes the materials in their becoming — but his will does not affect the immediate, a priori definable limits of the relativity and ephemerality of the result. From this basic perspective, the “Roman” represents not only the end of the classical utopia, the end of the nostalgia for the classical revelation of forms — but also the end of the very synthesis attainable between the subjective will and its various representations. The subject will never be “at home” in its representations — nor will it be so in its work, or in its art. This contemporary destiny of alienation was already present in the concept of the “Roman”: its importance for Loos, and for the avant-garde movements in figurative art in the first decades of the century, cannot be understood without this essential fact.
The “Roman” appears when all historicist continuity is shattered; the ensemble of Loos’s contradictions-functionality and art, relativity and value, the reaffirmation of value and the impossibility of representing it, the limit of representation and the will to surpass it — is “Roman.” All composition is time, is subjectivity in time, and as such is ephemeral — but at the same time, beyond such representation, it is infinite necessity-to-be. The composition is therefore determined on the basis of the contradiction between this in-finite will (based in temporality, experience, and uprootedness) and the materials of time — all of the elements constituting both time and the representation itself. This is no longer “expressivity” in the manner of the Secession — unresolved tension, nostalgia, utopia — but Expressionismus: the demonstration of a laceration as irreversible as it is unbearable. This Expressionism is founded in and derived from the “Roman,” as Riegl had synthesized it in the concept of Kunstwollen (artistic will). Art is the expression of a natural Wollen: this will is time, becoming. Its language is continually in an incomplete state; it is the ever-multiple language of the creature. Its products therefore cannot express any kind of all-inclusive understanding, nor any dominion over the process of becoming-instead, they represent the interior products and moments of this Wollen.8
It is through the concept of Kunstwollen — the aporiae of the will in the process of artistic composition — that Riegl’s “Roman” becomes profoundly connected with the crisis of the Secession ideology and the emergence of Expressionism. It is not philosophically possible to think of Expressionism outside of the context of Riegl’s Kunstwollen and Loos’s “Roman.” Expressionism is no longer the suspension but the breakdown of classical tonal relations beyond all possibility of return. Kunstwollen asserts the insuperable temporality of the work — but this temporality is consumption, flux, conflict. The “Roman” is the breakdown of the classical utopia — but its very form appears as lacerated. Expressionism has its origins in the “Roman”: on this foundation are based the “elective affinities” existing among the “great Viennese masters of language.” In this light, one can understand, at the source, the profound relation linking Loos to Kokoschka — as well as Loos’s break from all versions of Secessionist ideology, a break more analogous to the endeavors of Gerstl, Schiele, and Kokoschka, than to the “suspensions” and doubts of Klimt. And one can understand as well the connection between this research and that carried out contemporaneously by Schönberg-especially the need to paint that Schönberg felt in those decisive years.9
But the fundamental links tying Rieglian Kunstwollen to the very concept of Expressionism would not be fully elucidated until the appearance of Benjamin’s essay on Trauerspiel.10 And at this point our inquiry must come to a close. Benjamin’s essay, which is in reality a comprehensive interpretation of the radical avant-garde, begins with the name of Riegl and concludes with a general outline of the aesthetics of Expressionism. Benjamin makes another connection as well — one which takes us back to the Viennese linguistics of the period that we have analyzed: with the Hofmannsthal of the dramas of creatures, of life and language as sign.11 Hofmannsthal’s figures were able to assume an aesthetico-philosophical importance because they were creatures of the time, ephemeral representations of the Kunstwollen, personae of the “Roman” drama.
- .For an excellent documentation of the Wittgenstein house, which nevertheless does not even touch upon the problems dealt with here, see B. Leitner, The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein (Halifax-London, 1973).
I use the Greek term oikos to point out the values of the place (instead of the space) and the priority of the living in this place compared to the simple dwelling. (Oikos refers also to the demos, on the one hand, and to the Latin vicus [village], on the other). Similarly, Heidegger speaks of the priority of inhabiting compared to the building of a home.
- A “classical” dimension that is not ideal, but comprehensible and perceptible, one that can be “logicized.” An immanent “classical.” But also lived in all its contradictions: hence both Greek and Goethian.
- A. Webern, Letter to Willi Reich of February 23, 1944, in Toward a New Music, pp. 121-122.
- Loos, “Architecture,” p. 256.
- Ibid., p. 253. The most complete documentation of Loos can be found in L. Münz and G. Künstler, Der Architekt Adolf Loos (Vienna-Munich, 1964). This volume contains an invaluable memoir by Oskar Kokoschka about his friend: “He was a civil man,” a stranger to all “esprit,” to all external vivacity — he used to say, “the age of man has not yet begun.”
- M. Tafuri, “The Disenchanted Mountain,” in Ciucci et al., The American City: From the Civil War to the New Deal (Cambridge, Mass.: Bari, 1979). But Tafuri, immediately afterward, correctly perceives that Loos’s “phantom” could also have been interpreted as an attempt at “dimensional control” of the new object, the skyscraper, an attempt at a “total possession of the compositional elements.” Loos’s proposal can hence also be read as the proposal of a formal essence, an ordering essence, for the skyscraper-edifice.
- Die Wiener Genesis of Franz Wickhoff was published in Vienna in 1895; the Spätrömische Kunstindustrie of Alois Riegl was published in Vienna in 1901.
- It is therefore erroneous to interpret Kunstwollen in neo-Kantian terms, as a kind of a priori of the artistic act, as Erwin Panofsky tried to do in his essay, “The concept of Kunstwollen,” published in 1920.
- In Malerische Einflüsse, a manuscript of 1938, Schönberg writes at length about his relations with Gerstl and Kokoschka (for those with Gerstl, cf H.H. Stuckenschmidt, Arnold Schönberg, cited above). He insists on the uniqueness of his painting, especially with respect to Gerstl, whom he correctly sees as still influenced by the German school of Liebermann, but also with respect to Kokoschka. Schönberg insists on the so to speak spiritual-musical aspect of his work, as opposed to Expressionist representation. “I have never painted faces, but, since I have looked at men in the eyes, only their looks have I painted. The result is that I am able to paint the look in a man’s eyes. With one look, a painter grasps the whole man — I grasp only his soul.” (Gedenkausstellung, p. 202 and 207).
- W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), Italian trans. (Turin, 1971).
- On the close relationship that existed between Benjamin and Hofmannsthal for a period of time, see my Intransitibili utopie.