There is no criticism, only history

Manfredo Tafuri
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

%22On Theory%22 conference with Manfredo Tafuri, as part of the %22Practice, Theory and Politics in Architecture%22 lecture series organized by Diana Agrest, Spring 1974. Courtesy of Princeton School of Architecture Archives Round table at ETSAB with Manfredo Tafuri, José Muntañola, Pep Bonet and Josep Quetglas, February 1983. Manfredo Tafuri lecturing at ETSAB, February 1983

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. Continue reading

“Gay errancy”: Hypermoderns (postmoderns)

by Manfredo Tafuri

Image: Manfredo Tafuri

Download the PDF of Manfredo Tafuri’s “‘Gay errancy’: Hypermoderns (postmoderns).”

It is well known that in Italy, Portoghesi launched a style that has been called “postmodern” with his Strada Novissima and a dense series of publications, and thus joined an international circuit that includes analogous “opinion-makers” such as Charles Jencks and Robert Stern. Portoghesi was different, though, in that he had a long theoretical and practical interest in the manipulation of historical signs: as we have seen, his first neobaroque experiments began in the late fifties. His more recent “manifestos” are linear. They contain an appeal for a “liberation from ideas” supposedly imposed upon architects and their beneficiaries by the “modern movement,” for a joyous rediscovery of the entire repertory of the I past, for expressive contaminations of the complexity of historical eras, and for a formal expressiveness linked to the recovery of the concepts of place and continuity. Portoghesi also engaged in a critique of the utopia of the “modern” and of its nihilistic character, which was spiritually grounded in the ideology of progress. “Liberation” is presented as overcoming avant-garde attempts to “reconstruct the universe,” and also as canceling incongruous duties, in order to recover the happiness of “rich languages” that have been lost. Echoes of the philosophical writings of [Martin] Heidegger, [Arnold] Gehlen, [Gilles] Deleuze, and [Emmanuel] Lévinas — listening, simulacrum, post-histoire, angel of history — possibly mediated by Mario Perniola and Gianni Vattimo, punctuate Portoghesi’s writings, as he travels the seas of contemporary thought, a voyage that, as we shall see, has its own particular significance.

A hedonistic urge and a taste for citation, as well as free association and pastiche, counterbalance each other in the proposals of Portoghesi, whose theoretical production has been accompanied by skillful professional and promotional activities. This man and the review Eupalino soon became the focal points of a composite school intent on using design and writing to breathe new life into a stringent critique of the “modern,” thereby hailing the advent of a new era.

Sketch by Paolo Portoghesi

Sketch by Paolo Portoghesi

Portoghesi gathers almost all the motifs that have been floating about in the international architectural and philosophical debate of recent decades. His theoretical system accommodates a broad spectrum of issues: a critique of the linear concept of history, a reflection upon memory, the need for a new nonmetaphysical statute for truth, the emergence of new demands for identity and what can be imagined, the demand for peripheral identities, the cult of roots, and the explosion of ephemeral hedonisms. In fact, his cultural project is to make debate a priority once again, focused upon passwords such as the “end of prohibitionism,” rediscovered architecture, historical roots, and listening to the site and to history. In this way, the factors characterizing Italian architecture at the present — the multiplication of ideas and the slow formation of parameters of comparison — are flattened in a synthetic attempt, launched with the explicit goal of cultural “management.” And that is not all. The reduction of pluralism to a formula includes a study of the true nature of kitsch: there is an answer for everything, and the need for solutions predominates. Continue reading