Contemporaty Architecture and the Tradition of Modernism

Gareth Griffits 2008


Architecture is the most public and political of the arts, one generally encountered in a mood of digression and complicit in social control. It could even be argued that the success of the city may have less to do with its aesthetic accomplishments and more to do with the countless emergent factors taking place in such an interface as the street: thus one learns to see buildings as good when they make possible the good lives of their users, as if ethics and aesthetics have a common root. Having undergone self-reflection following the public hostility towards modernist architecture – the alienation of the early industrial city followed by the alienation of the Modernist zoned city – in recent decades (fuelled by the debates surrounding postmodernism) architects have generally taken a standpoint along a spectrum ranging from a continuation or return to the tried-and-tested ideas of classical or vernacular urbanism to those arguing that modernism remains an incomplete project. The incomplete project must push the boundaries of creativity, either guided by current human concerns, such as ecology, or for its own sake. The following article traces different current approaches to avant-gardism in architecture, but relating them to the questions of progress and estrangement so central to modernism.

Acclimatisation, indoctrination and estrangement

As virtually a precondition for enrolling on a course I have taught on contemporary theory of architecture, the prospective students are asked to write a short essay about one of their own building design projects. I give no specific instructions about the style of writing but the students invariably follow a style familiar to them from architectural journals, that is, describing first the typology of the building (housing, a school, etc.) and then moving from a description of the site to the building itself and particular details – i.e. from the general to the specific. The students come from various countries around the world, and all of them have studied architecture for at least four years. All their projects are what I would call modern or perhaps even postmodern architecture – the contested definition of which I will discuss shortly – but certainly not ‘de-professionalized’ vernacular or traditional architecture.

At the first session of the course I then confront the students with a few dilemmas. Through their studies and even job experiences they are becoming attuned with the world of architectural design – put more harshly, one might say they are being indoctrinated into architectural discourse. Along with learning how to use a building design computer programme and building regulations, etc., comes an understanding about design norms (e.g. ‘correct’ size) but also aesthetic norms (e.g. what clients require but, moreover, peer pressure). Like consciousness, the cogito, architecture does not begin with the individual thinking subject but rather in a society among others where buildings are common phenomena. And of course, like all people, even before entering their studies, the students already have had (and continue to have) experience of what different buildings are: those they use daily, and admire, feel indifferent towards, despise or simply not register. And the vast majority of these buildings they daily encounter are modern buildings; they “find themselves” in a modern world – often simply encapsulated as ‘the urban condition’ – characterised by questions of instrumental progress and environmental and social responsibility, what I would term the tradition of modernism.

But there’s more to it than the pluralism of the existing built environment, as if architecture was a matter of selecting an appropriate building design or some prevailing architectural style. There is also, on the one hand, the matter of creativity – what defines newness? – and, on the other hand, the question of whether architecture is a matter of arbitrariness or a conveyor of deeper truths, as in the belief, with the advent of Functionalism, that beauty, functionality, economy and truth are identical.

Thus I also confront the students with the question of the great divide,[2] between elitism and popularism, that is, the volatile relationship between high art and mass culture. However, historically there have been avant-gardes that attempted to destabilize the high art-low art division through links to the masses and political radicalism, as with Russian Constructivism and Dadism in Germany, and early French Surrealism, which could be termed legacies of the French Revolution, where a vanguard role was ascribed to the artist in the construction of the ideal state. Such movements were overcome by the conservativeness of state communism, fascism and a de-politicised entertainment industry. However, what did persist is an underlying optimism in technology in any future renewal.

But tied in within the great divide is also the question of whether there is a kernel of modernism that deliberately desires not to be fully understood – in the words of Russian formalist Victor Shklovskij, “habituation devours art works”.[3] Yet while art nowadays may often be defined as a practice concerned with the definition of art itself, architecture viz á viz building is still expected to stand up and offer shelter. Accordingly, I ask the students whether they desire in their work to make things strange, unfamiliar and discontinuous, to provoke, that the work alienates itself from its surroundings and architectural tradition, and even the ontology of architecture and the public at large. My intention is that the students should face some existentialist angst about the possible alienation of the comfortable tradition of modernism.

Still, there are a number of architectural projects being designed today where the author/s are less concerned with architecture as the production of a singular building object and more as “event spaces” within a non-differentiated whole, and as architectonic materialisations of theories originating from other fields and which challenge architecture to address its representational concepts – I will discuss some of these shortly. This is a story about architecture seen as fighting arbitrariness. “Truth” in architecture becomes validated not only by function or history or social responsibility, but also by models drawn from questions about the nature of physical reality itself.

My provocative questions for the students initially tend to alarm them. They respond by talking of ‘improving the existing urban environment’, of ‘giving aesthetic pleasure through a dynamic built environment’ (my emphasis), ‘providing much needed public services’, though strangely enough never ‘simply fulfilling a client’s wishes’. They admit, of course, to a certain idealism in their schemes: if only a large bookstore (public building/housing/park, etc.) could be built at that precise black spot in the city! But that is generally the nature of student schemes, anyway. Such statements betray architecture’s – and city planning’s – belief in social responsibility, but moreover their deluded belief in their own power (or the power of architecture) to put things right beyond the confines of the project brief. Thus, for instance, early Functionalism’s belief in the convergence of function, beauty and economy is evident still today in an approach that gives priority to the technical aspects of ecology, as if the technical infrastructure will provide a justified aesthetic (Pic. 1: Eco-terraced housing prototype with solar-panelled roof, by AIX Architects, Sweden, 2007).

Pic. 1.

Actually, such “technological domesticity” has been evident for some time in house design, balanced between the desire for the symbols of domesticity (vernacular) and the modernism of automaticity, the house that more and more anticipates the owners’ wishes; bringing to mind Le Corbusier’s much maligned maxim from the 1920s about a house being a machine for living in.[4] The flip-side is to acknowledge the autonomy of architecture as an art removed from social questions and even a project room programme: to concentrate on “architectonic” preoccupations such as experimentations in geometry, composition, typology and tectonics or even the notion of representation itself. So my questioning of the students was also ultimately concerned with the degree of autonomy of their architecture.

Architecture versus building

Differentiating between architecture and mere building is famously problematic. The historian Nikolaus Pevsner thought he had settled the matter in the 1950s with the observation “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture”.[5] For him architecture has something more than mere building; it is “designed with a view to aesthetic appeal”. Perhaps not inadvertently, Pevsner had compared a distinct example of revered Gothic architecture with something born in recent times from primarily economic imperatives. And nowadays we are faced more and more with bicycle sheds (i.e. utilitarian buildings) designed with aesthetic pretensions. The Finnish work ‘rakennustaide’, like the German word ‘Baukunst’, clearly tries to establish the aesthetic premises. Early 20th century Austrian architect and polemicist Adolf Loos clearly thought he understood when architecture disturbs, as in the case of an architect-designed villa introduced into an Austrian lakeside village. The new building, irrespective of whether it is designed by a good architect or not, so Loos argued, presents itself among the peasants’ houses “like an unnecessary screech”. For him the village is as if built by nature itself; the architect in turn breaks such a harmony precisely because the architect insists on being more than a mere builder, and insists on being also an ‘artist’, to create an aesthetic object. Loos went even further in his limited definition of architecture as art:

“The house has to please everybody, contrary to the work of art which does not. The work of art is a private matter for the artist. The house is not. … The work of art wants to draw people out of their state of comfort. The house has to serve comfort. The work of art is revolutionary, the house is conservative. … Does it follow that the house has nothing in common with art and is architecture not to be included amongst the arts? That is so. Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.”[6]

One could certainly build an argument here for an architecture based on building types; the familiar domesticity of housing, and the noble edifice of the monument. But what about new types for new functions? Having historically taken on the symbolism of prestige and power, the columned temple-front became a standard for schools, hospitals and public buildings generally. And in larger new typologies, such as railway stations, there would be a combination of the expressionism of engineering and frontages in a more eclectic style. For example, the engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge, New York, is cloaked in Egyptian stylistics. More recently there are the engineering-based representations of motion for the design of railway stations and airports. This gives us a lead into the question of the contemporary concern for avant-gardism; in the view of, for instance, influential architecture pedagogue Bill Hillier:

“Innovation can only be within the realm of the humanly possible on the basis of theoretically analytic knowledge because only this can guide the predictive aspects of design where no guarantees of cultural or ideological conformity are available through the vernacular or solution types. Theory is fundamental knowledge of possibility and therefore of limitation.”[7]

Here theory, in the sense of vision (cf. Greek theorein, ‘to look at’), proactively sees and composes reality, giving it the form of a conscious intentionality. Postmodernism, it will be recalled, certainly presented a theory but it remains a question of whether it was truly innovative.

Historical consciousness

In any discussion of contemporary architecture it should always be kept in mind that the percentage of buildings world-wide actually designed by architects is easily in the minority, though as the number of city dwellers compared to rural dwellers continues to increase, the machinations of rational urban planning take greater control. Since the Second World War the vast majority of architecture schools throughout the world (including developing countries) have followed a path set by a Modernism seeking universal and rational goals for architecture and town planning, and yet from the early days of Modernism there were always local adaptations, well-known in Finland with the work of Alvar Aalto. And even the later career of the arch-modernist Le Corbusier took on more vernacular and organic influences. However, even prior to the advent of postmodernism, there were citizen-based movements to protect the existing historic city centres in the wake of wholesale modernist urban re-development. The later advent of postmodernism tilted the scales more in favour of tradition. One of the most visible protagonists was Prince Charles in the UK, who championed an array of classical theoreticians and architects, prime among them being Léon Krier. The former commissioned the latter to design a new town plan (later substantially modified) for the development of the existing village of Poundsbury, UK (Pic. 2).


Krier, in turn, has been a prime influence behind what is nowadays termed New Urbanism; town planning schemes with a return to traditional notions about streets, and public squares, vernacular architecture and with a concern for “community policing”, and resident influence on design decisions. In Finland the notion of public consultation has even been integrated into building law.

Post-modernism (with a hyphen)

Beyond the discussions of ‘postmodernism’ and literary trends in the 1950s, one of the key early theoreticians of the ‘second wave’ of postmodernism applied to a wider cultural field, writing on the topic in the early 1970s, was architecture critic Charles Jencks. Later keen both to position his own thinking within a nascent history of postmodernism and, moreover, to define the term for his own specific purposes, he would dismiss most other accounts of Postmodernism as what he termed ‘Late-Modernism’, that is, a continued interest in experimentation and avant-gardism. He then reserved the term Post-Modernism (with a hyphen) for what he termed “that paradoxical dualism, or double coding which its hybrid name entails: the continuation of Modernism and its transcendence.”[8] Double-coding in architecture meant “the combination of Modern techniques with something else (usually traditional building) in order for architecture to communicate with the public and a concerned minority, usually other architects.” Hence this was a different attempt to bridge the divide between high art and mass culture through linguistic means: architecture was supposed to have ‘meaning’, as a language that could speak to different types of people in different ways: to the mass culture as traditional or historicist architecture with a twist and to the intellectual through quotation and irony. Jencks’ favourite examples were the works of Robert Venturi, Michael Graves and James Stirling. Venturi himself had already posited the theoretical underpinnings of an ironic modernism in his ground-breaking book from 1966 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and later in his 1972 study of Las Vegas, Learning from Las Vegas.[9] Thus, for instance, in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London (Pic. 3) (1991), Venturi, together with Scott-Brown, played ironically with the neo-classical language of the existing main building as well as inserting plate-glass sections for the rear, presenting a play of imitation and interpretation, reality and mask.

Pic.3.Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London, 1991.

Jencks had seen the advent of Post-Modernism in the rise of Kitsch, Pop Art and the “literal failure” of Modernist architecture, even dating the precise death of Modernist architecture, July 15th 1972, when the vandalised and ghettoized modernist Pruitt-Igoe Housing Estate in St. Louis, USA, was blown up. Such a polemicising totalisation on Jencks’ part in marking Modernism’s supposed failure would later be taken much further by others, even backed up by the ‘science’ of evolutionary psychology.

The argument was that modern architecture is a ‘cancerous replicator’: a modernist minimalist style possesses an unbeatable advantage over more complex styles because of its low information content, and just like modern commercial advertising focuses on seduction by rhetorical imagery.[10]If Modernism’s purpose, so argued cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, was to diagnose and cure the sickness of humankind, that human nature could thus be changed and that the transformed humans would thus construct a better society, evolutionary psychology’s counter examples are to be found in the normative view that art should reflect the perennial and universal qualities of the human species, and looking to the sciences (just as indeed the Bauhaus had studied Gestalt Psychology) for the universality of basic artistic taste.[11]

But the claims since the 1970s for the end of modernism can be seen to have been premature and misplaced, despite the claims that postmodernism’s inherent classicism meant it was something more than a fashionable style. In his famous 1980 lecture ”Die Moderne: Ein unvollendetes Projekt” Jürgen Habermas characterised postmodern architecture as an “Avant-garde of retreat”, sacrificing the tradition of modernity for historicism.[12]Elsewhere Habermas even argued that the prefix ‘post’ indicates a need to be separated from the past but without any answers for the future.[13]Habermas’s solution behind Modernism as an incomplete project was to link modern culture with everyday praxis, a praxis that depends on vital heritages without being impoverished by traditionalism or neo-conservativism.

Deconstructionism (or Deconstructivism), the “tail end” of postmodernism, has been seen as modelled on the thinking of philosopher Jacques Derrida. Just as Derrida showed that the writings of various philosophers contain within themselves challenges to the very concepts on which they are based, thus somewhat undermining them, deconstruction in architecture entailed an attempt to deconstruct the most conspicuously spatial of the arts by understanding how it is not spatial and derives its force from its capacity to conceal that which exceeds space and makes pace possible.

Pic.4.Daniel Libeskind, Jewish Museum, Berlin,1999.

In the works of self-avowed Deconstructivist architects such as Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind (e.g. Jewish Museum Berlin, 1999, Pic. 4), or Bernard Tschumi, architecture is a text which could be interrogated through combining it with other arts, or through typological displacement, combining programmes regardless of their incompatibility (a museum inside a car-park, a running track through a hotel), nihilistic typological displacement (a stairs leading nowhere,truncated columns,pealing walls)or by destabilising the architect-as-subject-author by generating random designs (something already familiar from the Surrealists). Deconstructivism as a term petered out as the theory substantiating it seemed increasingly formalistic, and because it became increasingly seen as yet one more style that would run its course. Moreover, there was a move away from the theoretical idea of architecture as text towards the question of virtuality, underpinned by insights from the natural sciences.

A new paradigm

Jencks himself ended up taking a stance against the ‘conservative’ stance of a conservative postmodernism he had once defended (as well as the evolutionary psychology defence of traditionalism) by arguing that a new paradigm – or more tritely, merely a new style – had emerged, a new form of organic architecture epitomised by such innovators as Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, UN Studio, Asymptote, Foreign Office Architects and others. The Post-Modern style, so Jencks argued, had been stripped of any critical causality and corrupted by commerce and consumption. The new paradigm for him was informed by cutting-edge physics, mathematics, and a concern for nature and sustainable development. Such a vision tying architecture to wider knowledge is nothing new, of course: the further back in time the culture, the closer the relationship between the architectural forms and the elements of knowledge of the culture, the ideas of its philosophies and theologies. And such a view was given a new interpretation in the paradigmatic book Space, Time and Architecture by Sigfried Giedion (1941), in which he implicitly suggested the correlation between the new aesthetic experimentations in modernism, such as Cubism, free from Cartesian space, and the new scientific theories about relativity postulated by Einstein – but not that Einstein himself accepted a universe governed by chaos or chance.
Still, in the mind of Jencks (and others attempting to justify a new avant-gardism), the challenge of architecture is to produce mechanisms of action that respond to the stimuli of a global order in a constant state of excitation. For example, following a path concerned with the autonomy of architecture as a formal discipline, architect Peter Eisenman has employed in his architectural designs fractals (Wexner Center, Ohio), the DNA chain (Frankfurt Biozentrum), Boolean algebra (Carnegie Mellon University, New York), Butterfly Catastrophe (Frankfurt Rebstock), the Moebius Strip (Max Reinhardt Haus), and solitions (Jörg Immendorff Haus).

But many would also be concerned with other factors such as how to convey motion in architecture, echoing the thoughts of Père Prosper Enfantin, leader of the Saint-Simonists at the beginning of the 19th century, who argued that architecture as a theory of construction is an incomplete art because the notion of movement is lacking in it. [14] This also would necessitate greater interest in high technology, but moreover, this also shows how architecture could veer away from its own classic architectonic ontology – a building – towards an engineered-machine quality, a machine, like a car, that ultimately can be dispensed with or recycled. The early iconic example is the Pompidou Centre, Paris by architects Piano and Rogers (1971-77)

Pic.5.Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, Pompidou Centre, Paris

(Picture 5), based partly on ideas about non-permanence in architecture from Cedric Price and Archigram: however, the moving machine analogy remained more aesthetic than actual. But as buildings resemble more machines, they withdraw from a perception concerned with longevity and permanence. Such a systems approach had been central to the machine aesthetic of Russian Constructivism, but it takes on another new justification when, as mentioned earlier, the machine takes on an ecological responsibility. But the principle of movement and change has taken on a new meaning with the design of virtual spaces, as in the design of a virtual New York Stock Exchange traders’ floor (2000) and a virtual Guggenheim Museum (2000) (Picture 6), both designed by architects firm Asymptote.

Pic.6.Asymptote,Virtual Guggenheim Museum,2000.

Computer-aided design methods and new mathematical models in the natural sciences have been making possible a new complex form of architectural production. Not only can complex forms and shapes be generated by computer, but that same computer can present the exact dimensions of each section of a complicated fractal form ready for production. Jencks reports, for instance, that in the construction of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (Pic. 7) (1997), the fractal curves added only 10-15 per cent to the basic costs.[15]

Pic.7.Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao,1997.

There are more and more of these kinds of spectacular organic buildings – commonly called ‘blobs’ – being built around the world (and Gehry himself has completed several, including the Los Angeles Concert Hall, 2006), and indeed the so-called Bilbao effect – where spectacular architecture is used as the starting point for the regeneration of an economically depressed area or city or simply for creating branding– has created a market for avant-garde architecture designed by brand name architects. The greatest recent growth in cities, reflecting its rapid economic growth, has been taking place in China, and this too has been reflected not only in prestige projects involving key Western architects designing prestige schemes but also in wholesale renewal of the historical urban fabric in the belief in newness representing progress.

Somewhat ironically, the popularity of the ‘star architect’ Rem Koolhaas has been in articulating and devising avant-gardist strategies for what he regards as the death of the traditional city, overturned by the ‘generic city’, which looks identical everywhere, a city that alienates yet is “liberated from the straightjacket of identity”.[16] Those cities with a history of identity, the ‘traditional city’ with city centres, streets and parks deny the existence of ‘generification’ (Koolhaas gives the example of Paris becoming a ‘hyper-Paris’, a polished caricature of itself), dismissing it as the suburbs. The generic city – and most of Koolhaas’s examples come from Asia and developing countries – is a mass of decks, bridges, tunnels, motorways interspersed with what Koolhaas regards as the definitive building typology, the skyscraper: “The skyscraper has swallowed everything else. It can exist anywhere… The generic city presents the final death of planning. Why? Not because it is not planned… but its most dangerous and most exhilarating discovery is that planning makes no difference whatsoever.” In the design for China Central Television Headquarters, Beijing (Pic. 8) (2008), by Koolhaas’s own office, OMA,

Pic.8.OMA,China Central Televison Headquarters,Beijing,2008.

the strategy has been to eschew the standard desire to build a very tall skyscraper by creating a series of tilting and looping towers that demand a creative structural solution and which symbolises the public route introduced by the architects as an ‘act of transparency’ in an otherwise closed-off government-controlled complex.


The rise of Postmodern theory and writings about the failure of Modernist planning principles as well as postmodernist architecture itself was parallel not only with the rise of semiotics but also phenomenology in architectural theory. This entailed appropriating Husserl’s slogan of “to the things themselves” and his recognition that modern science – which in architectural practice had meant a concern with rationalisation and geometric modes of space – did not manage to help in our understanding of the concrete Lebenswelt, the “life-world’. For phenomenology, the life-world does not consist of sensations but is immediately given as a world of characteristic, meaningful things which do not have to be constructed through individual experience. For some such a reflective action was to be interpreted in a way that brought it close to everyday experience in terms of the known, convention, conservativism and postmodern classicism. This was nothing new, if one considers the classicists and romanticists of the 18th century finding their way through a reflective appropriation of history. The postmodern reflectivity or historical consciousness was carried through by such influential theoreticians as Christian Norberg-Schulz, in arguing for a return to a “figurative” architecture with understandable concepts such as typology, convention and specific “linguistic givens” as columns and pediments.[17]

Pic.9.Steven Holl, Kiasma Museum of ContemporaryArt,Helsinki,1998.

In more recent times, however, phenomenology has broken the confines of language and figurativism to follow instead one’s bodily engagement with the life-world. A well-known example of this is the work of American architect Steven Holl (e.g. Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, 1998, Pic. 9) – who stresses the influence on his design process of the thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty through concepts such as wild being, the chiasmatic, and the fundamental intertwining of the flesh, that is, the inter-corporeal domain in which we live, move, reflect and create. Holl usually starts a design process through water-colour painting, fusing intuition with a concept that embodies hopes and desires before the self-conscious mind cuts off the eye to hand circuit, so one dare not think too much.[18] In rejecting the typological, and even history, this architecture by definition seeks to break with representation. But it is nevertheless a product of our engagement with the existing environment; an architecture of textures, movement and moods, as well as the (partial) circumvention of convention, as in the use of “experience-evocative” industrial, “cheap materials” for “representative” wall and floor finishes (e.g. exposed rough concrete and oxidised metal, chain-link fencing).

Autopoiesis, diagrams and datascapes

This reflective working with the ‘given’ of the existing environment producing by its very nature a modernist ‘responsive’ architecture also leads to an argument about architectural design as an autopoietic process – taken from the idea in biology, that life processes are the circular self-production of recursive processes that constitute a unity of interaction (the system) with a domain of interaction (the environment) – as if the necessary solution to a design problem could be generated automatically, without recourse to the architect-subject: Thus, might we say that the built environment designs itself? As architect Ben van Berkel of the Dutch-based firm UN Studio puts it, architecture should perhaps be seen as a service rather than an art: “We are confronted by the need to design hybrid environments that encompass space, place, time, and interaction.”[19] “Pervasive computing” monitors the whole world in real time, and consequently “design” becomes monitoring the system, and “literacy in design” is not to watch from the outside, but to enable action (e.g. is a bridge structure worryingly under stress? Can the ecological performance of the existing building stock be improved? What would be the appropriate design of a transport terminal as determined by current flows of passengers? For instance, in their design for the main traffic terminus in Arnheim, 2008 (Pic. 10), the cornerstone of the design was movement studies: diagrams to represent visually and in real time the variable phenomena for a specific location, such as climate, budget, construction processes, orientation and the numerous activities impinging around and within the plot.

Pic.10.UN Studio, Arnheim Traffic Terminus,2008.

The final form of the building, heavily relying on a Klein Bottle diagram, served as a reference for the spatial transformation of a surface into a whole.
But there is, of course, a world of difference between the ‘scientistic’ formalistic appropriation of physical models to architecture and the nature of social reality. Nevertheless, certain theorists apply these models to the larger scale. There is no claim to absolute truth, yet it’s no call to relativism, either. What they are concerned with is not the ‘truthfulness’ of the vision of architecture and planning but whether it makes sense, and is viable in the context of our own experiences. This draws us into the worldview of pragmatism. In other words, all this talk of autopoiesis may be a rhetorical strategy to accept avant-gardist experimentation as part of the natural or, more precisely, “progressivist” development of the city. This, indeed, has been suggested by architect Winy Maas of Dutch firm MVRDV with the notion of datascapes, somewhat similar to UN Studio’s use of diagrams, where almost everything is submitted to the cold logic of data, even to the point of absurdity. Datascapes present and represent contemporary metropolitan reality, which thereafter became a source of inspiration for the manipulation of that reality:

“Datascapes are buildings that make visible aspects and opportunities of the regulatory mix that were never intended. They merge out of an apparently arbitrary extension of its logic, point to the arbitrages [authoritative judgements] of the rules themselves and at the same time produce something unexpected. The result is both rational and irrational, normal and monstrous, controlled and free, critical and affirmative.”[20]

Pic.11.MVRDV,WoZoCo housing, Amsterdam, 1997.

Thus, for example, in the MVRDV WoZoCo’s housing scheme in Amsterdam (1994-97) (Pic. 11) only 87 of the 100 apartments designated for the site under a development planning decision could be fitted if there was a will to retain ground space as a communal space, and so the remaining 13 apartments were built cantilevered out a large distance from the facade. The avant-gardism of the scheme is seen to be a product of data interpretation taken to a level judged normally to be absurd.
The above references to diagrams has a second theoretical source, in the thinking of Gilles Deleuze (and in turn Henri Bergson who was attempting to deal with metaphysical questions parallel to ideas emerging from the natural sciences such as quantum theory). In one of their few references to architecture, Deleuze (and Guattari) mentioned how in modern times reinforced concrete has made it possible for architecture to free itself from “arborescent” models of architecture (i.e. “tree-pillars, branch-beams, foliage vaults”), that is: “It is no longer a question of imposing a form upon a matter but of elaborating an increasingly rich and consistent material, the better to tap increasingly intense forces.”[21]

As “Derridean deconstruction” dominated 1980s avant-gardism, so “Deleuzian folding” has dominated since the 1990s. Put briefly, the point of difference is that so-called deconstructive architecture operates with a logic of conflict and contradiction, whereas folding architecture foregrounds a more fluid logic of connectivity. While deconstructive architecture foregrounds formal rupture, folding architecture seeks material heterogeneity.

Pic.12.Greg Lynn, project for the National Opera House, Cardiff, 1995.

As architect Greg Lynn puts it “If there is a single effect produced in architecture by folding, it will be the ability to integrate unrelated elements within a new continuous mixture.”[22] This idea can be represented, on the one hand, by the work of Lynn, existing (at least for now; e.g. his competition scheme for Cardiff Opera, Wales, 1995, Pic. 12) virtually only in a computer, scale-less organic, mutating nebulous masses integrating topology, time and other parameters into the architecture as well as attempting to create the kind of movement that is prior to the representation of stable objects, and on the other hand by groups such as UN Studio and NL Architects who have attempted to make use of the Deleuzian abstract machine of the ‘diagram’, which doesn’t represent anything in itself but constructs a reality to come, a virtual architecture. Judging by the spectacular computer imagery created by the above architects – overflowing levels of transparency, not to mention evolving forms – creating such an architecture in real life would seem to depend greatly on developing the adequate technologies and materials. The question also remains of whether this ‘virtual architecture’, as seen in the work of Lynn and Asymptote, is not virtual in Deleuze’s sense, but simply phantasmatic projections of real space.[23]

The author is an architect and editor of the journal of architecture theory Datutop.


1. I have discussed the theory behind recent avant-gardism in “Indikatiivista imperatiiviin. Arkkitehtuuri, filosofia ja avantgarden käytäntö”, Niin & Näin, 3/2003.
2. Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide. Modernism, Mass Culture and Postmodernism (Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1986).
3. Victor Shklovskij, “Art as technique” (1917), in Russian Formalist Criticism: 4 Essays (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1965), p. 12.
4. Le Corbusier, Vers une architecture (Paris: G. Grés , 1923).
5. Nikolas Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), p.23.
6. Adolf Loos, “Architektur,” Sämtliche Schriften. Ins Leere Gesprochen. Trotzdem (Wien: Verlag Herold, 1962), p. 317.
7. See Bill Hillier, Space is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 339.
8. Charles Jencks, “What is Post-Modernism?”, Art and Design, 1986. See also Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1977).
9. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966); Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas. The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, revised edition, 1977).
10. Nikos A. Salingaros, Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction (Solingen, Umbau Verlag, 2004).
11. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate. The Modern Denial of Human Nature (London, Penguin, 2002), pp. 400-420.
12. Jürgen Habermas, ”Modernity – An Incomplete Project”, in Hal Foster (Ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983), p. 3.
13. Jürgen Habermas, ”Modern and Postmodern Architecture”, in The New Conservativism. Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1989), p. 3.
14. Kari Jormakka, “Moving on”, Datutop 22, p. 91.
15. Charles Jencks, “The new paradigm in architecture”, Datutop 22, 2002, p. 13.
16. Rem Koolhaas, “The Generic City”, in O.M.A., Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL (Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 1995), 1248-1264.
17. Christian Norberg-Schulz, “The Language of Architecture”, Datutop 14, 1991, pp. 102-103.
18. See G. Griffiths, “Steven Holl and his critics”, ptah, 1:2006, pp. 29-33.
19. Ben van Berkel, “Deep Planning”, Domus, 852, October 2002.
20. Winy Maas, Five Minutes City (Episode Publishers, Rotterdam, 2003).
21. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 329.
22. Greg Lynn, Folding in Architecture, (New York: John Wiley & Son, 2004),
23. And yet Paul A. Harris gives the example of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers (1921-55) in Los Angeles as a literal example of Deleuzian folding in the sense that it is defined by a fluid logic of connectivity that integrates elements within a continuous mixture, and furthermore, produces a new material relation between architecture and site. Paul A. Harris, “To see the mind and think through the eye”, in Deleuze and Space, edited by Ian Buchanan and Gregg Lambert (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 52.


Arkkitehtuuri on julkisin ja poliittisin taiteista; se on taidemuoto joka yleensä kohdataan ei-keskittyneessä mielentilassa. Arkkitehtuuri on myös osallisena sosiaalisessa kontrollissa. Voidaan jopa väittää, että kaupungin menestymisellä on vähemmän tekemistä sen esteettisten saavutusten kanssa ja enemmän niiden lukemattomien tekijöiden kanssa, jotka ilmaantuvat esimerkiksi katujen kohtaamisalueilla. Me opimme näkemään rakennukset hyvinä jos ne muuttavat käyttäjänsä elämän hyväksi, aivan kuin etiikalla ja estetiikalla olisi yhteiset juuret. Viime vuosikymmeninä arkkitehdit ovat läpikäyneet itsetutkiskelua, seurauksena yleisen mielipiteen vihamielisyydestä modernia arkkitehtuuria kohtaan – varhaisen teollistuneen kaupungin vieraantumista on seurannut modernistisen kaupungin vyöhykejaon vieraantuminen.

Postmodernismi –debatin innoittamina arkkitehdit ovat yleisesti omaksuneet kantoja, jotka ulottuvat aina klassisen tai paikallisen urbanismin hyviksi koetuista ideoista väitteisiin siitä, että modernismi pysyy keskeneräisenä projektina. Keskeneräisen projektin on koeteltava luovuuden rajoja, joko niin että prosessia ohjaavat päivän polttavat ongelmat kuten ekologia, tai pelkästään oman itsensä vuoksi. Tämä artikkeli hahmottelee erilaisia ajankohtaisia lähestymistapoja arkkitehtuurin avantgardismiin, suhteuttaen ne kysymyksiin edistyksestä and vieraantumisesta, jotka ovat niin keskeisiä modernismille.