Is all architecture truly political?

A response to Quilian Riano

Quilian Riano has written up a brief piece, “Design as a Political Act,” over at Quaderns in which he responds in passing to some critical remarks I made about his comments in a recent event review and further contextualizes what he meant by his contention that “all architecture is political.”

Riano explains that this remark is not only intended as a statement of fact (though he goes on to maintain its factuality, with a few minor qualifications) but also as a corrective to the formalistic (mis)education most architects receive in the course of their training. He lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the architect Peter Eisenman, whose post-functionalist perspective disavows any possible political role for design. In this, Riano is doubtless on the right track in his skepticism toward Eisenman’s views. The oldest ideology on the books, after all, is that which most adamantly insists on its apolitical or non-ideological character.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that Riano overcompensates in issuing this corrective. To claim that all design is political is no more accurate than to claim that design isn’t political at all. In either case, the counterclaim expresses an abstract, contentless universality — almost in the same manner that, for Hegel in his Science of Logic, an ontological plenum (where everything’s filled in) and an ontological void (where nothing’s filled in) are conceptually identical. Žižek, whose interview with Vice magazine Riano cites, would probably appreciate this analogy. Seemingly opposite claims, by remaining at this level of abstraction, are equidistant from reality. Clearly, Riano has “bent the stick too far in the other direction,” as the saying goes.

Model, Tribune for a Leninist (the podium-balcony is empty, the placard reads "Glasnost")

Model, Tribune for a Leninist (the podium
sits empty, the placard reads “Glasnost”)

It’s an odd position to be in, coming to the defense of a figure one generally finds unsympathetic, but whose work is being criticized unjustly. So it is with someone like Eisenman. Here I’m reminded of something Douglas Murphy said to me a couple months back. Murphy, who was unsparingly critical of Eisenman in his debut, The Architecture of Failure, told me he’d recently “found [him]self…defending Peter Eisenman, reactionary old windbag though he is, against charges that he (and he alone!) ruined architectural education in the last 30 years.” Eisenman is not so much the cause as the effect of the depoliticization of architecture. Continue reading

Through iron and glass, darkly

A review of Douglas Murphy’s
Architecture of Failure

Image: Cover to Douglas Murphy’s
Architecture of Failure (2012)

The following review was published in shortened form several weeks ago in Radical Philosophy 181. Included here are some passages that were excised from the final printed version, as well as some footnotes.

Douglas Murphy’s debut, The Architecture of Failure (2012), is an odd and unsettling monograph. The book begins with a description of our present moment as heralding “a new period of Ruinenlust,” in which there exists a preponderant passion for the ruins of modernity, as opposed to Romanticism’s earlier infatuation with the ruins of antiquity. Like his peer, the British architecture critic Owen Hatherley, Murphy sets out to recover through his study the image of “a potential future that only existed in the past.”1 Whereas Hatherley approaches this theme head-on, however — directly confronting the avant-garde legacy in his 2009 manifesto, Militant Modernism — Murphy prefers to address it more obliquely.2 The Architecture of Failure looks at the spans of time that bracket the modern movement on either side. Murphy opens with an examination of the “ferro-vitreous” age, from Paxton’s Crystal Palace of 1851 to Dutert’s 1889 Galerie des Machines. The second half of the book covers the drift from exhausted postwar modernism toward the renewal of architectural transparency following the turbulence and upheaval of 1968.3

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (1997)

Certain peculiarities complicate what is otherwise a solid and convincing, if perhaps a bit oversubtle, thesis. One of The Architecture of Failure’s more confusing features is the structural asymmetry of its two sections. While the first part of the book is devoted to an interpretation of three specific buildings of the iron and glass age — the glamorous Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, its decidedly less spectacular reincarnation at Sydenham two years later, and the ill-fated Albert Palace off the River Thames — the second part instead deals with three general trends within post-’68 architecture — trends that Murphy christens Solutionism, Iconism, and Virtualism.7 This imbalance can be slightly disconcerting for readers who anticipate a continuation of detailed analyses of individual structures beyond the earlier chapters. To be sure, the chapters on Solutionism (postmodernism/“high-tech,” roughly) and Iconism (post-structuralism/“decon,” again roughly) include passing treatments of Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Center in Paris and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.8 But Virtualism, a kind of Deleuzean neo-baroque, finds no built equivalent. Its reality is instead displaced onto the unconstrained imaginary space of digital “diagrams,” allowing for infinitesimally intricate, schizoid patterns of design.9

In fact, there is a way in which the second half of the book almost forms a microcosm of the original Crystal Palace at Hyde Park described in the first. Following a brief interlude near the middle where Murphy touches on the modernist moment, the architectonic of his argument opens up, beginning to resemble the format of a classic nineteenth-century Expo. Solutionism, Iconism, and Virtualism are itemized, stereotyped, and put on display, as if laid out in booths or pavilions that the reader-flâneur can wander spectrally to and from. If not an historicist inventory of styles, The Architecture of Failure at least in this respect showcases the various ideologemes, mannerisms, and rhetorical conceits that comprise contemporary architecture. Murphy recapitulates this Expo effect in miniature modules, outlining the characteristics that most exemplify each tendency.

Patrik Schumacher, architects' hotel in Belgrade

Patrik Schumacher, architects’ hotel in Belgrade

But Murphy’s sympathy for interdisciplinary usages of “Theory” only extends so far. His criticism of the role it has played in recent architecture is twofold. At one level, he objects to its superficiality. Murphy has little patience for building proposals that look to press “Theory” into service in order to fulfill arbitrary stylistic ends. He therefore faults some practitioners for “bringing theory into architecture as a purely aesthetic device.”13 Relatively speaking, however, this part of Murphy’s criticism is rather tame. Its other side is, by contrast, far more damning. For insofar as it supposedly constitutes a form of “radical critique,” he contends, “Theory” functions to exonerate architects in advance for whatever oversights or questionable design decisions they might make. It becomes a kind of ritualistic gesture, simply “a way of avoiding a wider self-criticism.”14 By citing the right authors and referencing the right texts, the book alleges, architects are able to set up an ideological smokescreen so as to disguise the actual content of their activity.

Murphy does not mince words condemning such methods, however. Those who rely on them are, to his mind, nothing more than “conservatives masquerading in ‘radical’ clothes.”15 Still, The Architecture of Failure wisely refrains from committing the opposite error of denying all legitimacy to theoretical explorations of architecture. Generally speaking, the stance Murphy adopts toward the predominance of “Theory” in the field of contemporary architecture is far more nuanced than those that either blithely celebrate its sophistication or sneeringly dismiss it out of hand. Ultimately, his appraisal of its effect is historical in the way it gauges the cumulative influence of “Theory” upon the discipline: “Difference is becoming standardized, the unique is becoming generic.”16

Exterior of Paxton's 1851 Crystal Palace, Hyde Park

Exterior of Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace, Hyde Park

“The Crystal Palace was certainly one of the most significant early moments of modern capitalism,” Murphy writes. “Indeed, it is widely described as the moment in which modern (or even postmodern) capitalist culture was born, the point at which the gaze of capitalism first turned back upon itself and the symbolic value of the products that it was consuming; the very beginnings of ‘the spectacle.’”18 This spectacular reflexivity, whereby men stand transfixed before the products of their labor, is part and parcel of the phenomenon of reification. Incidentally, this also allows Murphy to establish a homology between the Crystal Palace (1851) and the Pompidou Center (1971) in relation to their time. Whereas the former recalls liberal policies of laissez-faire and free trade promulgated by Cobden and the Manchester School, the latter conjures up associations with neoliberal policies of deregulation and financialization as formulated by Hayek and the Austrian School:

The Pompidou Center marks the largest attempt to elaborate the theoretical and practical concerns of the period in a single building; and we can compare it to the Crystal Palace in a number of interesting ways: both were commissioned by the state, both were conceived within the context of periods of social unrest, both called for an unprecedented program of display…Finally, both were “radical” designs by relative outsiders, won through public competition. Rogers and Piano’s winning design…hinged upon notions of flexibility; the building would be a massive shed with little or no internal division; massive moveable internal spaces serviced entirely from their periphery would be created; the designers would merely provide the space for “events,” with all the post-’68 connotations that the word brought up.

Once again Murphy emphasizes the element of “social unrest” that lay behind the building of the structure, in this case the Pompidou Center. The passage is packed with a number of embedded references, which might be briefly borne out: “flexibility” suggests the well-known Marxian interpretation of neoliberalism as a regime of “flexible accumulation”;19 the description of Pompidou as a “massive shed” calls to mind Brown and Venturi’s populist ideal of the “decorated shed”;20 the word “event,” as Murphy mentions in passing, acquired unmistakable political overtones after the “events” of 1968 (particularly in French Theory).21 As before with the Crystal Palace, the Pompidou is understood as a spatial manifestation of broader historical forces. Murphy draws another parallel between the two buildings, this time in terms of their epochal significance. “[J]ust as the Great Exhibition can be analyzed as marking a fundamental shift, the birth of the modern consumer,” he writes, “the Pompidou Center can signify the shift into the postmodern world of consumption.”22

Figure 4: Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg under construction (1971)

Centre Pompidou in Beaubourg under construction (1971)

All this should raise some questions regarding the nature of the “failure” contained in the book’s title. What sort of failure is Murphy investigating in The Architecture of Failure? Though the author insists that the issues discussed in the text are “as much architectural issues as any other kind,” it is difficult not to feel that there is something more at stake.25 Murphy is engaging in a species of ideology critique — a “critique of architectural ideology” in the vein of Tafuri.26 Some of the failures portrayed in the book are strictly architectural in character, but more often than not these failures attest to deeper political failures that have taken place in society over the last sesquicentennial. Murphy’s The Architecture of Failure skillfully maneuvers over diverse historical terrain without ever losing sight of this central thematic, using architecture as a lens through which the political regression of recent times may be viewed with melancholic lucidity.


1 Murphy, Douglas. The Architecture of Failure. (Zero Books. Washington, DC: 2012). Pgs. 1-2.
2 Compare: “We have been cheated out of the future, yet the future’s ruins lie about us, hidden or ostentatiously rotting. So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” Hatherley, Owen. Militant Modernism. (Zero Books. Washington, D.C.: 2009). Pg. 3.
3 Murphy, The Architecture of Failure. Pg. 76.
4 Ibid., pg. 138.
5 Ibid., pg. 139.
6 Ibid., pg. 3.
7 The book’s structure runs as follows. Part I — the Crystal Palace at Hyde Park: ibid., pgs. 12-23; at Sydenham: ibid., pgs. 24-43; the Albert Palace: ibid., pgs. 44-60. Part II — Solutionism: ibid., pgs. 77-98; Iconism: ibid., pgs. 99-118; Virtualism: ibid., pgs. 119-137.
8 On Pompidou: ibid., pgs. 84-86, 97, 118; on Guggenheim Bilbao: ibid., pgs. 100, 113-116, 121.
9 On “diagramming”: ibid., pgs. 123-125, 127, 134; on “schizophrenic processes”: ibid., pg. 122.
10 On Schumacher: ibid., pg. 135; on Eisenman: ibid., pg. 105.
11 Ibid., pg. 103.
12 On Derrida: ibid., pgs. 20-21, 38-39, 59-60, 107, 109, 119; on Benjamin: ibid., pgs. 34-35, 59-60; on Deleuze and Guattari: ibid., pgs. 122-130, 134. On the irony: ibid., pgs. 100-101.
13 Ibid., pg. 107.
14 Ibid., pg. 104.
15 Ibid., pg. 111.
16 Ibid., pg. 136.
17 Ibid., pgs. 22-23.
18 Ibid., pg. 23.
19 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. (Blackwell Publishers. Cambridge, MA: 1990). Pgs. 141-172.
20 Brown, Denise Scott and Venturi, Robert. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. (MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1972). Pgs. 87-89.
21 Some prominent examples include Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. (Columbia University Press. New York, NY: 1994). Pgs. 89, 93,187-192. Original from 1968.
…….Barthes, Roland. “Writing the Event.” Translated by Richard Howard. The Rustle of Language. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1986). Pgs. 149-155. Original from 1968.
…….Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Translated by Alan Bass. The Margins of Philosophy. (The Harvester Press. Chicago, IL: 1982). Pgs. 307-330. Original from 1971.
22 Murphy, The Architecture of Failure. Pgs. 84-85.
23 Ibid., pg. 69.
24 Ibid., pg. 80.
25 Ibid., pg. 23.
26 Tafuri, Manfredo. “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” Translated by K. Michael Hays. Architectural Theory since 1968. (The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 1998). Pg. 29.

Event review: Le Corbusier/New York

Sammy Medina and Ross Wolfe

Saturday, June 8th, 2013
Center for Architecture
Museum of Modern Art
New York, NY

Originally published at Former People:
A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers

“Le Corbusier/New York” was billed as a two-day international symposium focusing on the architect’s relationship to the city, and featured such luminaries within the field as Jean-Louis Cohen, Kenneth Frampton, Peter Eisenman, Stanislaus von Moos, and Mary McLeod, along with a host of other lesser-known critics and historians. Jointly organized by the Center for Architecture together with the Museum of Modern Art, the event was held at the former’s downtown headquarters on the occasion of the latter’s upcoming exhibit, Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes. Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, was on hand to preside over several rounds of the discussion. With headlining acts like these, the space was predictably packed to the gills. Somewhere around two hundred people attended the symposium.

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Le Corbusier in New York, 1946

Beneath this general rubric of Corbusier’s relationship to New York City, the quality of the presentations varied widely. The first batch was composed of papers decidedly more academic, even scholastic, in character. Of these first few twenty-minute talks (though they frequently ran over time), the one by Mardges Bacon “On the Streets of the Vertical City: Le Corbusier in New York, 1935” was perhaps the most compelling. In all likelihood, this owed  its fidelity to the historical record of Corbusier’s actual visit to the city in that year, rather than to speculation about the impact the city might have had in concept — in the abstract. Bacon carefully traced his ambivalent impressions of New York as he encountered it in person for the first time, no longer forced to make do with the visual descriptions or the photographic documentation of others. She explained the great modernist’s awe before the sheer verticality of Manhattan, and his profound admiration for skyscrapers’ use of the latest building materials and techniques. In Corbusier’s view, the real tragedy was that such modern methods were forced to fit the framework of such antiquated zoning laws. Continue reading

Photo by Sammy Medina

Corbu conference

Here are some photos I took from the international Le Corbusier symposium that took place on Saturday at the Center for Architecture, organized primarily by the architectural historian (and curator of the new MoMA exhibition on Corbu’s lifework) Jean-Louis Cohen. Also presenting at the conference were Kenneth Frampton, Mary McLeod, Stanislaus von Moos, and Peter Eisenman, to name a few. I’ll be posting a review of the event in a couple days. Enjoy!

Images from the conference

Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe's monument to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)

Architecture: A social and political history since 1848

Ross Wolfe & Sammy Medina

Image: Reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s monument
to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebkneckt (1925-1926)


What follows is an extended write-up of the Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century event submitted to the German magazine Phase II for possible translation and publication.

Victor Hugo once proclaimed the death of architecture at the hands of the printing press. “Make no mistake about it,” he wrote in his Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, dead beyond recall; killed by the printed book.”[1] In drawing this analogy, Hugo was trying to make a broader point about the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism in European history — traditions symbolized by the grandeur of the Gothic cathedral (“architecture”) and the vernacular of the delatinized Bible (“the printed book”), respectively. But Gutenberg’s invention carried a still-greater significance vis-à-vis architecture. It granted an almost infinite technical reproducibility to texts that had hitherto been manuscripts, copied out by hand. With the advent of lithography — and, shortly thereafter, photography — a similar process was set in motion in the proliferation of images. Music was conveyed through the grooves of the phonograph record, mediated and assembled from a hundred separate studio takes, and unmarred by the immediacy and accidence of live performances. Toward the fin-de-siècle, the Lumière brothers’ cinema reels captured the moving image, beaming light across the hushed theaters of Europe. More generally, the nineteenth century saw an across-the-board increase in the automation of industrial production, and a corresponding standardization and typification of the commercial articles (commodities) thereby produced. The arts, following the articles, were duly transformed along with them.

Architecture was a relative latecomer to this tendency toward standardization and industrialization. Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. But even when such modernizing measures were finally instituted, many of the field’s most innovative and technically reproducible designs were cordoned off from the realm of architecture proper, dismissed as works of mere “engineering.” With the opening of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating greater geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. “Art as model for action: this was the great guiding principle of the artistic uprising of the modern bourgeoisie, but at the same time it was the absolute that gave rise to new, irrepressible contradictions,” recounted the Italian Marxist Manfredo Tafuri, in his landmark 1969 essay “Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology.” “Life and art having proved antithetical, one had to seek either instruments of mediation…or ways by which art might pass into life, even at the cost of realizing Hegel’s prophecy of the death of art.”[2] Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in the realm of aesthetics the historical dynamism that the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. Aleksei Gan and the Bolshevik Constructivists declared uncompromising war on art (1922),[3] and the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield enthusiastically announced in 1920: “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!”[4]

The modernists’ historic project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War all the way up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Many joined the camp of international communism — such as the second Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer, the French designer André Lurçat, and the Czech poet and architectural critic Karel Teige, as well as a whole host of Soviet architects and urbanists. Some fell into the more nondenominational Social-Democratic parties of Europe: planners like the Austrians Oskar Strnad, Josef Frank, and the anti-fascist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who oversaw the construction of Rotes Wien between 1918 and 1934, the famed German architects Ernst May (mastermind of the Neues Frankfurt settlement) and Ludwig Hilberseimer, and the Belgian socialist Victor Bourgeois, vice-president of CIAM (Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne). Others joined an anti-bourgeois ideological tendency of a rather more barbaric political bent, like the modernist and ardent Mussolini supporter Giuseppe Terragni.

With the rising tide of fascism throughout Europe — first Italy, then Germany, Austria, and Spain — radical members of the international avant-garde were faced with the question of how (and, perhaps more importantly still, where) their architectural legacy might be preserved. A stark choice confronted them: Russia or America? “In the Old World — Europe — the words ‘America’ and ‘American’ conjure up ideas of something ultraperfect, rational, utilitarian, universal,” observed the Soviet artist El Lissitzky, in a 1925 article on “‘Americanism’ in European Architecture.” Despite America’s technological and economic superiority, however, Lissitzky suggested it lacked the revolutionary social and political base to adequately realize the modernists’ aims. He continued: “Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness. They are surrounded by a chauvinistic, reactionary, individualistic society, to whom these men, with their international mental horizon, their revolutionary activity and their collective thinking, are alien and hostile…That is why they all follow the trend of events in [the Soviet Union] so attentively and all believe that the future belongs not to the USA but to the USSR.”[5] Indeed, not long thereafter, as if to confirm Lissitzky’s hunch, the celebrated German expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn recorded in a letter: “[The Bolsheviks] make a basic revolution but they are bogged down by even more basic administration. They look to America but…all the possibilities are here, as you know. But this new structure needs a broad base on which to rest, from which to summon up its strength. Everywhere there are those knowledgeable and active people who have always given the hungry mass a new understanding of their freedom, of the goal of all freedom and of man himself.” Many of the proponents of modern architecture thus believed that the future lay somewhere between the glass and steel skyscrapers of New York and the revolutionary vanguardism of the Soviet project. Two years later, Mendelsohn exclaimed that “from buildings I deduce history, transition, revolution, synthesis. Synthesis: Russia and America — the future of Utopia!”[6] The foremost representative of European modernism, Le Corbusier, concurred with this view: “Poets, artists, sociologists, young people, and above all, those who have remained young among those who have experienced life — all have admitted that somewhere — in the USSR — destiny has allowed [universal harmony] to be. One day, the USSR will make a name for itself materially — through the effectuality of the five-year Plan. Yet the USSR has already illuminated the entire world with a glimmer of dawn, of a rising aurora.”[7] Corbusier did not at all exaggerate in making this claim. At the invitation of the Soviet government, European and American architects were drawn en masse to assist in the building of socialism.[8] Continue reading

Panel event, 2.7.2013 at NYU — Ruins of Modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the twentieth century



Peter Eisenman ︱ Reinhold Martin  .,
Joan Ockman ︱ Bernard Tschumi



NYU Kimmel Center
Room 802 Shorin Studio
60 Washington Square S.
New York, NY 10012

Visit the official event page.
Join the Facebook event page.
Download a stylized version of the event description.
A write-up of the event at ArchDaily.
A write-up of the event at the Center for Architecture in New York.
A write-up of the event at New York Architects in New York.
A write-up of the event in the English-language magazine Uncube in Germany.

“Let us not deceive ourselves,” Victor Hugo once advised, in his iconic Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Architecture is dead, and will never come to life again; it is destroyed by the power of the printed book.” Both as a discipline and a profession, architecture lagged behind the other applied arts. Even when measures toward modernization were finally instituted, many of the most innovative, technically reproducible designs were hived off from the realm of architecture proper as mere works of “engineering.” Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, however, fresh currents of thought arose within the field to lend architecture a new lease on life. Avant-garde architects emulated developments that had been taking place in both the visual arts (Cubism, Futurism) and scientific management of labor (Taylorism, psychotechnics), advocating geometric simplicity and ergonomic efficiency in order to tear down the rigid barrier dividing art from life. Most of the militant members of the architectural avant-garde sought to match in aesthetics the historical dynamism the Industrial Revolution had introduced into society. Machine-art was born the moment that art pour l’art died. “Art is dead! Long live the machine-art of Tatlin!” announced the Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield in 1920.

The modernists’ project consisted in giving shape to an inseparable duality, wherein the role of architecture was deduced as simultaneously a reflection of modern society as well as an attempt to transform it. Amidst the tumult and chaos that shook European society from the Great War up through the Great Depression, revolutionary architects of all countries united in opposition to the crumbling order of bourgeois civilization, attaching themselves to radical political movements. Forced out of Europe by fascism and subsequently out of the USSR by Stalinism, the architectural avant-garde fled to North America. Following a second global conflagration — transposed into the postwar boom context of America with the GI Bill, Europe under the Marshall Plan, and Japan under McArthur — the modernists now reneged on their prior commitment to spur on social change. Abandoning what Colin Rowe had called “that mishmash of millennialistic illusions, chiliastic excitements, and quasi-Marxist fantasies,” they instead accommodated themselves to the planning agencies and bureaucratic superstructures of Fordism. “European modern architecture came to infiltrate the United States, largely purged of its ideological or societal content; where it became available, not as an evident manifestation or cause of socialism,” he wrote, “but rather as décor de la vie for Greenwich, Connecticut or as a suitable veneer for the corporate activities of enlightened capitalism.” Indeed, the International Style that premiered in 1932 at MoMA under Johnson and Hitchcock’s highly selective curatorial oversight had already been stripped down to its barest formal elements. Looking to revitalize revolutionary modernism, Reyner Banham thus declared in 1962: “Even when modern architecture seemed plunged in its worst confusions it could still summon up a burst of creative energy that gave the lie to the premature reports of its demise. Modern architecture is dead; long live modern architecture!”

Only a decade later, however, Charles Jencks calculated in his book on Post-Modern Architecture that it was possible “to date the death of Modern Architecture to a precise moment in time” (July 15, 1972 at 3:32 pm, with the detonation of Yamasaki’s much-maligned Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis). Today it is postmodernism that appears to be aging badly. But if postmodernism, which stood for “the end of the end” (Eisenman), is itself at an end, does this mean the end of “the end of the end”? Just another stop along the way in an endless cycle of endings? — Or might it portend the beginning of a modernist renaissance? This prospect could prove bleaker yet. “In architecture,” writes Owen Hatherley, addressing the issue of “post-postmodernism,” “typically postmodernist devices seem to have entered a terminal decline, as historical eclecticism and glib ironies have been replaced by rediscoveries of modernist forms — albeit emptied of political or theoretical content. But does this trend represent a break with postmodernism — or does it merely mark the arrival of the pseudomodernism of contemporary architecture?”

In light of these considerations, Platypus thus asks:

  1. Where does architecture stand at present, in terms of its history? Are we still — were we ever — postmodern?
  2. What social and political tasks yet remain unfulfilled, carried over from the twentieth century, in a world scattered with the ruins of modernity? Does “utopia’s ghost” (Martin), the specter of modernism, still haunt contemporary building?
  3. How can architecture be responsibly practiced today? Is revolutionary architecture even possible?

This event is free and open to the public.

“Ruins of modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century” is part of a larger series of panels and events centered around the theme of the death of art that will take place during the month of February 2013 in NYC.  The headlining event, focusing on visual arts and the Left, “Aging in the Afterlife: The Many Deaths of Art,” will take place February 23rd at the New School.  For info on other events in this series, please consult the website for further updates.



Peter Eisenman is design principal of Eisenman Architects in New York. His current projects include the City of Culture of Galicia in Spain; a master plan for Pozzuoli, Italy, and a residential condominium in Milan.  His award-winning projects include the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Ohio. In 2010, he received the international Wolf Prize in Architecture, and in 2004 the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Architecture Biennale. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his many books are Written Into the Void: Selected Writings, 1990-2004 and Ten Canonical Buildings, 1950-2000, on the work of ten architects. He is also the Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at the Yale School of Architecture.


Reinhold Martin is Associate Professor of Architecture in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he directs the PhD program in architecture and the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is also a member of Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society and the Committee on Global Thought. Martin is a founding co-editor of the journal Grey Room and has published widely on the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. He is the author of The Organizational Complex: Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space (MIT Press, 2003), and Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again (Minnesota, 2010), as well as the co-author, with Kadambari Baxi, of Multi-National City: Architectural Itineraries (Actar, 2007). Currently, he is working on two books: a history of the nineteenth century American university as a media complex, and a study of the contemporary city at the intersection of aesthetics and politics.


Joan Ockman is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.  Before this, she served as Director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University from 1994 to 2008 and was a member of the faculty of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation for over two decades. In addition to Columbia and Penn, she has also taught at Yale, Cornell, Graduate Center of City University of New York, and the Berlage Institute in Rotterdam. She began her career at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, where she was an editor of the legendary Oppositions journal and was responsible for the Oppositions Books series.  Her most recent book is Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America. A twentieth-anniversary edition of her book Architecture Culture 1943-1968: A Documentary Anthology will appear in 2013.


Bernard Tschumi is widely recognized as one of today’s foremost architects. In 1983, he won the prestigious competition for the Parc de La Villette. Since then, he has designed buildings such as the new Acropolis Museum; Le Fresnoy National Studio for the Contemporary Arts; the Vacheron-Constantin Headquarters; The Richard E. Lindner Athletics Center at the University of Cincinnati; and architecture schools in Marne-la-Vallée, France and Miami, Florida. Tschumi’s many books include the three-part Event-Cities series; The Manhattan Transcripts; and Architecture and Disjunction.  Tschumi was awarded France’s Grand Prix National d’Architecture in 1996 as well as numerous awards from the American Institute of Architects and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is an international fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in England and a member of the Collège International de Philosophie and the Académie d’Architecture in France.

Ruins of modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century, w/ Eisenman, Ockman, Martin, and Tschumi

Poster designed by Ross Wolfe

Ruins of modernity: The failure of revolutionary architecture in the 20th century, w/ Eisenman, Ockman, Martin, and Tschumi

Poster designed by Ross Wolfe.


Poster designed by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan.