Design Book Review
No. 9: Spring 1986
Manfredo Tafuri is a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects ranging from 16th-century Venice (L’armonia e I conflitti, coauthored with Antonio Foscari) to more alien topics such as The American City (coauthored with Giorgio Ciucci and Francesco Dal Co). Each of his works serves as a platform for questioning the methods of architectural history, which, as he so emphatically states below, is not to be distinguished from criticism. In Theories and History of Architecture, he identified a major problem of “operative criticism,” endemic to architects who write about architecture. His suggestion to counteract this tendency to impose contemporary standards on the past was to shift the discourse away from the protagonists and individual monuments and consider architecture as an institution. His most widely read book in America, Architecture and Utopia, advanced this position, proposing an ideological analysis of architecture. His disconcerting message for those who had hopes of a “progressive” architecture was that there can be no class architecture which can revolutionize society, but only a class analysis of architecture. In his most recent theoretical work, La sfera e il labirinto, he has outlined a method of history called the progetto storico. This historical project, which is deeply indebted to Michel Foucault’s “archeologies of knowledge” and Carlo Ginzburg’s “micro-histories,” seeks to study the “totality” of a work, disassembling it in terms of iconology, political economy, philosophy, science, and folklore. His goal is to penetrate the language of architecture through non-linguistic means. At the core he still finds the problem of “the historic role of ideology.” The job of the Tafurian critic-historian is to “reconstruct lucidly the course followed by intellectual labor through modern history and in so doing to recognize the contingent tasks that call for a new organization of labor.” In November, 1985, we interviewed Professor Tafuri on the subject of criticism.
— Richard Ingersoll
There is no such thing as criticism; there is only history. What usually is passed off as criticism, the things you find in architecture magazines, is produced by architects, who frankly are bad historians. As for your concern for what should be the subject of criticism, let me propose that history is not about objects, but instead is about men, about human civilization. What should interest the historian are the cycles of architectural activity and the problem of how a work of architecture fits in its own time. To do otherwise is to impose one’s own way of seeing on architectural history.
What is essential to understanding architecture is the mentality, the mental structure of any given period. The historian’s task is to recreate the cultural context of a work. Take for example a sanctuary dedicated to the cult of the Madonna, built sometimes in the Renaissance. What amazes us is how consistently these buildings have a central plan and an octagonal shape. The form cannot be explained without a knowledge of the religious attitudes of the period and a familiarity with the inheritance from antiquity — a reproposal of the temple form devoted to female divinities. Or take the case of Pope Alexander VII, whose interest in Gothic architecture at the cathedral of Siena [mid-17th century] compared to his patronage of Bernini in Rome can only be explained through a knowledge of the Sienese environment and traditions. The historian must evaluate all the elements that surround a work, all of its margins of involvement; only then can he start to discover the margins of freedom, or creativity, that were possible for either the architect or the sponsor.
The problem is the same for comprehending current work. You ask how the historian might gain the distance from a new work to apply historical methods. Distance is fundamental to history: the historian examining current work must create artificial distance. This cannot be done without a profound knowledge of the times — through the differences we can better understand the present. I’ll give you a simple example: you can tell me with precision the day and year of your birth, and probably the hour. A man of the 16th century would only be able to tell you that he was born about 53 years ago. There is a fundamental difference in the conception of time in our own era: we have the products of mass media that give us instantaneous access to all the information surrounding our lives. Four centuries ago it took a month to learn of the outcome of a battle. An artist in the 15th century had a completely different reference to space-time; every time he moved to a new city (which was very rarely) he would make out his will. In earlier centuries, time was not calculated but was considered to be a gift from God. Knowledge was also considered to be God-given and thus teachers in the Middle Ages could not be paid; only later was their payment justified as a compensation for time. These factors belong to the mental web of another era. The way for us to gain distance from our own times, and thus perspective, is to confront its differences from the past.
One of the greatest problems of our day is dealing with the uncontrollable acceleration of time, a process that began with 19th-century industrializations; it keeps continually disposing of things in expectation of the future, of the next thing. All avant-garde movements were in fact based on the continual destruction of preceding works in order to go on to something new. Implicit in this is the murder of the future. The program of the “modern” artist was always to anticipate the next thing. It’s just like when you see a “coming attraction” ad for a film, essentially you have already consumed the film and the event of going to see the film is predictably disappointing and makes you anxious for something new.
This anxiety for the future represents a secularization of the Book of the Apocalypse — things only have meaning in relation to the eschatology of their final goal. This is the basic parameter. This continual destruction of the present contributes to the nihilism of our times.
What you would call an “architectural critic” serves as a truffle dog looking for the new to get rid of the old. Scully is a good example, when he first discovers Louis Kahn and then dumps him to go on to Venturi. For this sort of critic, truly profound work, such as that of Mies, remains “unread” because it does not fit into the scheme of continual destruction.
As to how to select buildings that are worthy of history, it is the problem and not the object that concerns the historian. The works selected are irrelevant on their own and only have meaning in the way they relate to the problem. If you look back to the fifties, you’d see that two of the most published architects were Oscar Niemeyer and Kenzo Tange, architects who have not enjoyed continued prominence in successive histories. They were swept up in the news in an ephemeral notoriety, but this exposure did not assure them a place in history.
The historian has to abandon his prejudices about the quality of the work in order to deal with the problem behind it. The work of Eisenman and Hejduk was much more interesting 10 years ago than it is today because it showed a curious problem of Americans looking to Europe, and what they chose to look at was an “Americanized” Europe — Eisenman’s Terragni is an architecture without human history. Using the theoretical precepts of Chomsky and Lévi-Strauss (rather than the more characteristic American pragmatism), they succeeded in emptying their historic sources of the human subject.
As to the problems of architecture, it is more interesting to note cycles — series of things — rather than individual works of architects. The historic cycle tells us more than stylistic taxonomies. In the US, for instance, the attitudes toward public housing that emerged during the Progressive era under Theodore Roosevelt were regenerated during the New Deal and present a significant cycle for the historian to analyze.
The greatest confusion in the “criticism” of architecture is in fact due to the magazines attached to the profession: architects should do architecture and historians should do history. Can you imagine what would happen if I built a house? Or do you think that Reagan took a copy of Machiavelli (or even something contemporary like Schlesinger) to Geneva — impossible, he just acts, and this is also what the architect should do. The study of history has indirect ways of influencing action. If an architect needs to read to understand where he is, he is without a doubt a bad architect! I frankly don’t see the importance of pushing theory into practice; instead, to me, it is the conflict of things that is important, that is productive. I don’t see it as being prophetic, but what I was saying 15 years ago in Architecture and Utopia has become a fairly standard analysis: there are no more utopias, the architecture of commitment, which tried to engage us politically and socially, is finished, and what is left to pursue is empty architecture. Thus an architect today is forced to either be great or be a nonentity. I really don’t see this as the “failure of Modern architecture”; we must look instead at what an architect could do when certain things were not possible, and what he could do when they were possible. This is why I insist on the late work of Le Corbusier, which had no longer any message to impose on humanity. And as I have been trying to make clear in talking about historical context: no one can determine the future.
Until recently history has been conceived of as Universal History, which had a finite sequence from beginning to end. There was always a goal to history, inherited from millenarian thought, and this remained with historians as they moved from hermeneutic history based on the interpretation of sacred texts to a history based on human action. The desire to understand life according to a final outcome necessarily led to a causal way of thinking, evident even in someone as modern as Benedetto Croce, who considered history as the history of freedom. If we look at it, however, as the continual exposure to the unexpected instead of seeking causes, we get a different history, one that presents concatenations rather than causes. Instead of a linear history, we get a history with a hole in the middle.
To live in the world today is to live in a state of constant anxiety. Look at the minor architects, the unfamous ones who a decade ago would have been content putting up curtain-walled boxes. They now feel obliged to inject symbolism into their work: a pseudo-temple on top and an Italian piazza below — thanks to Jencks’ and Portoghesi’s “recovery of history.” All of this is being done from the point of view of publicity and exercised just like advertising. History has been reduced to fashion and understood in the way Walt Disney understands it — Venturi, who thinks he is being ironic, actually ends up more like Mickey Mouse.
But let’s step outside these judgments on matters of taste to examine the problem underneath, the sense of insecurity so common in our world. Gone are the certitudes. Just as a child discovers the truth about Santa Claus, we find ourselves confronting the great “truths” about the world. Phillipe Ariès in his excellent history of death (The Hour of Our Death) shows the change in attitude toward death during the late Middle Ages after the invention of Purgatory. The certainty of leaving one life for a better one was suddenly thrown into crisis, and from that time on we can observe humanity’s hopeless struggle to eliminate death. Along with this uncertainty comes a nostalgic search for a center, thus in our times we see the return of the pope in Italy and the triumph of Reagan in America. In architecture, we might see Graves like Vignola in the 16th century, not having the talent or the courage to really design. But even the work of a good architect, such as Stirling, shows this problem of the search for the center.
The mass of architects shouldn’t worry, they should just do architecture. If we take two theorists who are currently enjoying a revival, Loos and Tessenow, the latter especially advised never to insist on invention but rather on production. One should refine a few elements to perfection as a good craftsman. In our times, Richard Meier does this, he is a good craftsman. The avant-garde oriented architects are infused with some sort of mysticism awaiting an ultimate epiphany, a final word — but the word already exists, they just are unable to hear it. Contemporary architects are heirs to an enormous effort of liberation, yet is often appears that they would prefer that the liberation had not yet occurred so that they might repeat the process.
The time of connections [collegamenti] is over. Knowledge seen as analogy is no longer valid. The correspondences that were considered capable of linking microcosm to macrocosm (i.e., treating the headache as a storm in the head), this system of concordia-discors gave way because it could no longer alleviate man’s anxiety. Even our great 19th-century minds — Nietzsche, Marx, Freud — retained some millennial thinking when they proposed the possibility of a better time by bringing us to the limits of our own existence. Building on their knowledge, we can only try to live more completely — if we really are resolved to eliminate anxiety, then we would realize that history serves to dispel nostalgia, not inspire it.
“There is no criticism, only history,” an interview with Manfredo Tafuri conducted in Italian by Richard Ingersoll and translated by him into English, appeared in Design Book Review, no. 9, spring 1986, pages 8-11.