Critic & Theory
Architecture of Counterfluence
(Are today’s architects naïve or comfortably blindfolded?)
Modern architecture or architecture as an image of social utopia reached its climax some 50 years ago as it became actual – when local utopias were literally built all over the Globe. Therefore, having no reason to be called utopia anymore, architectural product lost its great narrative and ever since there is a sense of inner emptiness causing many architects to feel uncomfortable about their social role. Underlying this emptiness, there was in fact a huge gap between society as a modern project and its everyday reality because utopian architecture, however tangible, did not build utopian social conditions.
In the jurassic park of today’s seemingly new architectural practices, questions about the crisis is never really asked. What is at display through architectural exhibitions and press may seem full of new and exciting products but beneath the skin of new urban artefacts there is nothing socially or culturally innovative but more of a same old story. In relation to reality of global injustices, this exercise of formal or technological innovations is in fact only a blueprinted mask for economic and political hegemony. Surprisingly the architectural contemporaneity of the past decade is often stuffed with language of socially engaged sixties and seventies. As if the formal and linguistic quotations of all sorts of modernist pastiche is to make us uncritical to the real content of contemporary buildings. Since by doing so architects are in fact only postponing the answer to crisis of their own subjectivity, one is tempted to ask a question : Are today’s architects naïve or only comfortably blindfolded? It is true that erosion of political culture and „late capitalism, with its mass consumption ethic, weakened the capability of architecture for transmitting patterns of conscious ethical value” (4) but then architectural practice should in the first place react to that. It should find ways to counter act.
If one takes a look at Fluences exhibition from that perspective, then he or she will conclude that it isn’t much different from architectural fireworks that happen all over the place. However one should take a closer look and see that apart from those that boldly exercise details of stainless steel and marble cladding (maybe those are really the ‘naïve’) there are architectural practices from post communist eastern and southern Europe. Those are inevitably aware of precarious social and political circumstances of their work but still do not find the will and courage to articulate them through their material practice (maybe those are the ‘comfortably blindfolded’).
However there are architectural thinkers and practitioners in the Fluences selection that produce architectural effects by practices that in many ways dissent from the stream. Those architectures of dissent or architectural counterfluences are equally influenced by market tendencies or cultural cliches but seem to be more concerned with conditions of their production while still succeeding in articulating that conditions through their material and cultural practice as architects. To explain my argument I singled out two pieces.
To read the entire text please consult Fluencies catalog. Details about where it can be found, the price or delivery, you can obtain by contacting us at: arhitext_redactie[at]b[dot]astral[dot]ro
You can find more about the catalog, here.
Secondary Modernity in Eastern/Central-Eastern/South-Eastern Europe
What are the themes of architecture in our region? Is there “regional” coherence in the architecture of Eastern/Central-Eastern/South-Eastern Europe? Does “region” manifest itself in architecture? If we had problems and spatial habits different from others, if we had been special indeed, then we would also be able to produce special architecture. Can we identify such a reality?
1. The Region
The problem appears from the very beginning. How do we define region? Dan Perjovschi described things best in the field of art: he noticed that in the mid-’90s he was integrated in Center-Eastern European exhibitions, at the end of the ’90s in the Eastern European ones, and in the early 2000s in the South-Eastern European ones; and all this, while he hadn’t even moved out of Bucharest. The region slides all around us.
However, the cardinal points have connotations. The “East” has the clearest one: it is the post-communist area. But the neo-liberal chaos that we perceive as the most specific trait of everything that post-communism meant in our urban space, for instance, is not at all something original and unique in the world today. Real estate modernity is simply contemporaneous and global.
Undoubtedly, the number one theme of our architectural environment is modernity, and it is an important and explicit theme precisely because it is extremely problematic.
The biggest problem raised by architectural modernity in the East has been the fact that its main ingredient, i.e. technology, has never been completely mastered here. Even Russian constructivism, the most avant-gardist movement ever to occur in Eastern Europe, stood out thanks to the utopian impossibility of its superb technological fantasies. In architecture, it is technology that settles the distance between dream and real construction. Or, when it comes to architecture, the East has never quite traveled this whole distance on its own.
b. Functional or Post-colonial
Underlining the necessity of a new modernity in the East, Bogdan Ghiu recently proposed the abandonment of “historical modernity”, that of the scientific-technical metaphysics once denounced by Heidegger”. Indeed, in the field of architecture in particular, it is worth looking for a new modernity; it is probably the only way to produce something that counts. Moreover, we are beginning to understand more and more that it is not the metaphysics of essences that could ever offer us something remarkable. At the same time, to regard the “scientific-technical” as something negative would be a big mistake. It is not the “technical-scientific” attribute that stands in the way of a new modernity in our country, but the very lack of it. It should be understood, however, in a certain key: it does not refer so much to what modernity is as to the way modernity functions.
3. The Secondary
Whether we like it or not, the European East comes second to the West. But this actually constitutes its “specific” resource. However, the secret is to see this secondary condition as a pure position, devoid of any negative connotation. We are not secondary, condemned by our original history to ranking (immediately) lower in the hierarchy, if we understand our condition as being situated somewhere, as a neutral spatial positioning nearby.
The shift of modernity from history to geography means, first of all, that we have finally overcome transition, this essential temporal intermezzo of paradoxical modernity, i.e. a modernity with a well-known future. It is only now that we have regained our open, unpredictable future. We can finally look for a new modernity, which can function for us as a current modernity, in the present continuous. This, for instance, could finally push Romanian architecture beyond neo-modernism – a fine and “competent” trend, no question about it, but which can never be “great” again. Modernity understood as repositioning would render obvious the fact that we cannot be relevant unless we avoid exploring those places that we already explored.
But “to change the world”, is, alas, the privilege of “power”. What can you do when you do not have much power?… In his book Art Power, Groys approached explicitly the topic of the methods employed by art nowadays in order to count, to make a difference. However, what he describes therein rather amounts to all sorts of lateral strategies, such as avoiding object production, remaining in the project, the construction of the multiple author or – in the specific case of Eastern European art – recognizing communism as part of its own modernity.
c. The Margin as Border/The Economic Margin
Finally, the secondary always tries to come out the winner one way or another. In order to count, it needs to be successful. Secondary positions, while nourishing on margins and alterity, keep close to establishments and canons. Undoubtedly, what they aim for is success, a widely-recognized one. Groys says it explicitly: “there is no such thing as looking for alternative success in marginality”. Secondary means at the margin, but not marginally. Secondary modernity functions as the economic margin: the margin of power.
The Arhitext exhibition already contains instances of architecture evolving towards this new modernity, which highlight several of its themes: improvisation with only a few means, working at the limit of the micro scale and minor aesthetic strategies.
1. In the open air
In rich Germany there are still cities like Magdeburg, strewn with deserted houses and affected by unemployment. Thus, the exclusive, luxurious, “air-conditioned comfort greenhouse” of Western capitalism, which leaves “in the open air” the rest, the poor of the world, has its own broken glass here and there, on the Eastern façade.
2. Micro-cohesions in Chaos
The world of architectural and “urban” composition has been completely abandoned and our subject functions today in a theoretical paradigm of fields and elementary particles. The post-communist East is indeed the ideal space for testing this theory. It is the space of privatization pushed to extreme, of micro-privatization. The aerial photograph of Ivan Galic’s house in Zagreb shows this at one glance. The agents of urban development have been reduced to the smallest elements possible, units of private habitation, small self-sufficient molecules totally indifferent to any coagulation of the city around them: the limit of entropy has been reached.
How can one renovate the city from now on, that is, reinvent the relations between these urban micro-agents? What is the first possible connecting step between them in a chaotic and atomized city? How can one define the minimum of a micro-collective? This is precisely what Galic’s house investigates: it achieves the smallest transition formula from the elementary unit to what already amounts to a connection between various units. It is a house in which there are already four houses, the first step from the molecule to any multicellular organism and points to an evolutionary direction. And the aerial photography demonstrates, with the unbeatable force of the image, that this is indeed a safe, secondary means of introducing order into chaos.
3. Minor aesthetics
In addition to being minimal and micro, minor aesthetics also evinces another necessary feature: it is always next to and in something existing already, on which it counts to demonstrate its little perfection. It necessarily works as an insertion in already established spatial systems, i.e. it is secondary. Counting on contrast, its minimism becomes sharper, because it demonstrates by means of an immediate comparison the limited performance of its radical modernity. The apparently discrete insertions of beautiful things that are small and circumstantial are in fact points of concentration of maximal aesthetic intension.
Overall, Eastern Europe architecture has nothing special about it. However, some themes are expressed therein with more intensity. They suggest a promising future, because they count on the practically unlimited and unpredictable resources of the connections which may be created in the ever-changing, ever-decomposing and recomposing space of today. Micro-relations afford functional cohesion amid the chaos. Minor beauty ensures the durability of the beautiful. Recycling, participation and public interest ensure an indirect access to power by means of “correctness”.
To read the entire text please consult Fluencies catalogue. Details about where it can be found, the price or delivery, you can obtain by contacting us at: arhitext_redactie[at]b[dot]astral[dot]ro
You can find more about the catalogue, here.